By Emanuel Bergmann.
Sept. 2017. 384p. Atria, $26 (9781501155826).
Two narratives entwine in this debut novel, wherein family, love, and magic share a
stage—though not always willingly. One
story is of Moshe, the son of a rabbi in 1934
Prague, who finds refuge in the circus, performing magic as the Great Zabbatini. The
other features Max, a modern-day 10-year-
old struggling with his parents’ impending
divorce. One day Max finds an old LP by
the Great Zabbatini among his father’s things
and becomes obsessed with the notion that
the recording’s love spell can save his parents’
marriage. When the track won’t play, he sets
out to find Zabbatini himself. Largely a character study, this warm and at times bawdy
story spans decades and reminds readers of
history’s relevance. Like so many, Moshe’s
life was molded by WWII; yet his character
retains a scrappy vitality that endears him to
Max, and their entertaining dynamic unfolds
with heart and humor. Bergmann’s novel, a
pleasing blend of Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants (2006) and Jonathan Safran Foer’s
Everything Is Illuminated (2002), puts magic
back into everyday life. —Julia Smith
The Twelve-Mile Straight.
By Eleanor Henderson.
Sept. 2017. 560p. Ecco, $27.99 (9780062422088).
Henderson follows her acclaimed debut,
Ten Thousand Saints (2011), with this totally
immersing, provocative historical novel—a
multigenerational saga set in 1930s rural Georgia and framed by the Depression, Prohibition,
and Jim Crow racism. When Elma, a sharecropper’s daughter, gives birth to twins—one
light like her, and one dark—she claims the
dark baby is due to her “
great-great-grand-daddy’s Indian blood.” But her father, Juke,
thinks otherwise, as does the probable father,
the son of Juke’s boss. The violence that follows, fueled by the racism always lurking just
under the surface in this isolated town, haunts
the family for years. Henderson injects enlightening side plots involving polio, which
has left Elma’s future husband crippled; sickle-cell anemia, carried by several of Henderson’s
black characters; and the nascent research into
DNA testing, which at least partially solves the
deepest of the novel’s many secrets. The world
of Twelve Mile Straight—the rural back road
of this engrossing novel’s title, with its illegal
distillery, chain gangs, and lynchings—will
continue to haunt readers long after they finish
the final page. —Deborah Donovan
Under a Pole Star.
By Stef Penney.
Sept. 2017. 608p. Quercus, $26.99 (9781681441177).
Exhilarating in its scope and imagery, Penney’s third novel, after The Invisible Ones
(2012), conjures the adventurous spirit of the
late nineteenth century, when the remote frozen North compelled the daring and ambitious.
Flora Mackie, a Dundee whaling-captain’s
daughter, spends much of her adolescence
above the Arctic Circle, via her father’s ship,
and feels most comfortable there. Her tale un-
folds alongside that of Jakob
de Beyn, who comes of age
in fin de siècle New York.
When they first meet, in
northwestern Greenland in
1892, she’s a serious-minded
meteorologist leading a Brit-
ish expedition, while he has
joined a rival American party
as a geologist. Their unspoken attraction later
blooms into a complicated love affair, relayed
with candid intimacy. Competition for new
discoveries leads to heightened tensions, and a
mystery emerges after a tragedy occurs and sus-
picions of deceit arise. Serious issues like gender
bias and exploitation are adeptly handled, and
the icy Arctic setting comes alive in passages
of shimmering beauty. Penney conveys both
the elation and fear evoked when crossing into
unfamiliar territory, be it geographical or emo-
tional. She also delves into the customs and
beliefs of the Inuit, whose generous hospitality
to the Westerners is indispensable. An excep-
tional epic about an unconventional woman’s
life and loves. —Sarah Johnson
By Sophfronia Scott.
Sept. 2017. 544p. Morrow, paper, $15.99
The classic French novel, Les liaisons dangere-uses, is the inspiration for Scott’s (All I Need to
Get By, 2004) latest. She transposes the story
from eighteenth-century Versailles to Harlem
in 1947 and centers it around Mae Malveaux,
scheming heiress to a hair-pomade fortune,
and Val Jackson, a baseball-mad nightclub
owner. Their wealth and physical beauty give
them power, which they use for conquest and
control. Mae enlists Val to deflower her innocent cousin Cecily, the intended bride of a
former lover. Val, meanwhile, schemes to bed
Elizabeth, the virtuous wife of a lawyer who
is away doing civil rights work in the South.
Both seductions occur at the Westchester estate
of Val’s Aunt Rose, but nothing turns out quite
as planned. To Val’s consternation, he finds
himself falling in love, and the burgeoning
attraction between Cecily and Sam, a young
musician, threatens to undermine Mae’s determination to keep Sam for herself. Scott’s heady
blend of sumptuous description, rarefied setting, sensuality, revenge, and redemption will
keep readers engaged. —Mary Ellen Quinn
The Vengeance of Mothers: The
Journals of Margaret Kelly & Molly
By Jim Fergus.
Sept. 2017. 352p. St. Martin’s, $26.99
Twenty years on, Fergus’ best-selling novel,
One Thousand White Women (1998), remains
vivid in readers’ memories and continues to
be discovered by historical-fiction fans. He
now continues the intriguing tale of the U.S.
government’s controversial, little-publicized,
assimilation-oriented Brides for Indians pro-
gram. The story begins in March 1876 with
the diary of Margaret Kelly, an Irish lass who,
along with her sister, Susie,
married Cheyenne warriors
and became immersed in
the tribe’s culture. Their vil-
lage has just been attacked
by the U.S. army. They both
lost their husbands and, on
the long, frigid trek to a
nearby Lakota village, baby
daughters. When a fresh contingent of white
women arrives, Maggie and Susie are enlisted
to help integrate them into native life. The
newcomers include Molly McGill, who had
been imprisoned at Sing Sing for murdering
the man who killed her daughter. She starts
her own diary, and in chapters alternating
between her voice and Maggie’s, Fergus re-
creates all that happens leading up to the
Battle of the Little Bighorn that June, includ-
ing how the Kelly sisters finally get revenge for
the loss of their babies. It’s a gripping tale, a
history lesson infused with both sadness at the
violence perpetuated against the Cheyenne
and awe at the endurance of this remarkable
group of women. —Deborah Donovan
HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: With a
twentieth-anniversary edition of Fergus’
million-copy hit, One Thousand White Women,
and a major publicity campaign for the long-
awaited sequel, requests will be legion.
When It’s Over.
By Barbara Ridley.
Sept. 2017. 356p. She Writes, paper, $16.95
(9781631522963); e-book, $9.95 (9781631522970).
In extraordinary times, a single decision can
mean the difference between life and death.
At the outbreak of WWII, Lena Kulkova, a
young Jewish woman, is waiting for her sister
to join her in Paris from their home in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia. But she waits so
long that she finds it nearly impossible to get a
visa to leave. Only a special intervention from
Otto, an outspoken socialist, allows her to
join him in England. But the young couple’s
difficulties are far from over, as this meticulously drawn novel unfolds over the course of
the war. Ridley, who based the book on details
from her mother’s life and her father’s letters,
highlights the growing distance between Otto
and Lena as he becomes more withdrawn and
contentious and she finds herself unavoidably
attracted to a dashing young soldier. Meanwhile, there is only disquieting silence from
those left behind in Prague. Laden with detail,
When It’s Over brings the forces of history to a
very human level. —Bridget Thoreson
All That Makes Life Bright.
By Josi S. Kilpack.
Sept. 2017. 336p. Shadow Mountain, paper, $15.99
(9781629723419); e-book (9781629735351).
Am I doing the right thing? Harriet Beecher