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School of Velocity

By Eric Beck Rubin, Doubleday, 208 pages, $29.95

Jan de Vries hallucinates discord: circular saws, speaker feedback, low moans, clashing music – an uproar that isn't there. This is personally troubling but also professionally calamitous for concert pianist Jan, which is why the opening to Eric Beck Rubin's novel is so striking, because Jan's reaction isn't what you might expect. Standing in the wings at a concert hall, he's detached, almost willing his own ruin; when it comes, he experiences it as a kind of ecstasy. Days after his downfall, he drives home to the small town in the south Netherlands where he grew up. Why he goes there has to do with his relationship with his best friend 30 years before. For much of School of Velocity, Rubin eschews the obvious; Jan's relationship with Dirk defies easy categorization. Rubin loses that restraint in the end, giving over to more romantic extremes, but this debut shows he's a talent to watch.

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Beautiful Country

By J.R. Thornton, Harper Perennial, 320 pages, $19.99

If you haven't had enough high-performance sport this month, J.R. Thornton's debut novel, set in China five years before the Beijing Olympics, might be for you. Chase, a 14-year-old New England tennis star with aspirations to the pro circuit, is pulled out of school after the death of his older brother, and sent to Beijing to train with the city's elite boys' team. His father's reasons for sending Chase to Beijing are initially unclear, but it becomes increasingly obvious that Chase is a pawn in a larger game. Chase's predicament offers a unique window for an American perspective on China. Thornton is careful to highlight the limits of that perspective, and for the most part it works, though Chase's narration sometimes strains credibility, coming off as more mature than his years. Still, this is a thoughtful, often touching tale about modern China and American interest in the country that does not look away from some of its harsh realities.

Here Comes the Sun

By Nicole Dennis-Benn, Liveright, 336 pages, $35.95

Don't let George Harrison (or Nina Simone or Peter Tosh) fool you: The sun might be coming, but all's not right. Nicole Dennis-Benn's debut, set on Jamaica's northern coast, 1994, is about the shadows – dispossession, exploitation, bigotry, neglect – an ironic juxtaposition with the cheerful melody playing in the title. River Bank has a beach but "This is no paradise," Margot, a manager at a Montego Bay resort, tells a friend. Margot would know: at an early age she learned to trade sex for survival, a sacrifice she continues to make after-hours at the resort to put her teenage sister, Thandi, through school. For Margot and her mother, Delores, Thandi – a gifted student – is their ticket out of poverty (they expect her to become a doctor) but at her prestigious school Thandi sees other barriers (colour, class) to making it. A complex, realist depiction of sexuality and desperation in Jamaica that leaves readers no easy resolution.

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