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book review

Love May Fail
By Matthew Quick, Harper, 416 pages, $19.99

The latest from Matthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, has already been optioned for film, and it's easy to see why: The popular and critical success of Silver Linings aside, Quick knows how to write with a cinematic fervour. The novel opens with a vivid scene: Jilted wife Portia Kane is hiding in her closet waiting for the right moment to burst through the door and catch her sleazy, mustachioed husband in the act of infidelity, her gun blazing. Ultimately she decides he isn't worth the bullets, and instead embarks on a quest – inspired by a nun she meets while drunk on a plane; indeed, it's all a bit absurd, but it makes for great summer reading – to try to become the person she thought she was going to be when she was in high school and under the tutelage of the doting Mr. Vernon, who encouraged her to be "extraordinary." (The Dead Poets Society references are on purpose, but do sometimes feel derivative.) Yearly, Mr. Vernon makes Official Members of the Human Race cards for his graduates: "This card entitles you to the ugliness and beauty, heartache and joy – the great highs and lows of existence – and everything in between," the card begins. Unfortunately, Mr. Vernon, now in his twilight years, has fallen into a deep existential pit brought on by a brutal turn of events. He's hiding in the wilds of Vermont with only a dog named Albert Camus for company – a dog he appears to have made a suicide pact with. As Portia tries to drag her teacher away from the brink, it becomes clear that her motives aren't selfless: She's trying to save herself by saving her hero, and Mr. Vernon, now hopelessly jaded, would rather be left for dead than save anyone ever again. Her journey towards= the realization of what being extraordinary really means is played out alongside a cast of sad, charming and recognizable small-town characters, and documented through Quick's eccentrically delightful lens.

Things You Won't Say
By Sarah Pekkanen, Washington Square Press, 352 pages, $21

Sarah Pekkanen's sixth novel, Things You Won't Say, begins when Jamie Anderson, the wife of a police officer named Mike, receives the call family members of police offers live in fear of: There's been a shooting at headquarters. Mike's partner has been badly wounded, but the scars that remain for Mike have tragic implications: Not long after Mike's partner is shot, Jamie receives another call. This time, it's Mike who has pulled the trigger, and the fact that the youth he shot and killed is Hispanic turns the case into a media-fuelled drama. Pekkanen's writing is always thoughtful; she is kind to her characters, and reveals their inner truths with care. And here, she handles the narrative in a unique way, telling the story through the perspectives of Jamie, and Mike's ex-girlfriend, Christie Simmons. The novel was already in the copy-editing stage of publication when Michael Brown was shot to death by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., and I found myself wondering as I read how that event may have informed the arc of this story, had it been given the chance. The timing is not the fault of the author, and this is fiction meant to entertain, not delve too deeply into the political and sociological implications of race, police brutality and PTSD. But the problem is that these real, timely issues – and the death of the teen that sets the plot in motion – feel in the end as if they matter less than the romantic happiness of the characters, and that's a little hard to swallow at this moment in history.

Against a Darkening Sky
By Lauren B. Davis, Harper Avenue, 365 pages, $22.99

Montreal-born author Lauren B. Davis charts new territory with each book she writes, but Against a Darkening Sky, her fifth novel, is the biggest departure yet. Rather than the literary fiction she's known for – Our Daily Bread was long-listed for the Giller Prize in 2012 – it's a historical epic set in 7th-century England, just as Christianity is making its way into a land once ruled by gods and superstition. What Davis has proven with Against a Darkening Sky is that she's a very capable historical writer. The novel tells the story of Wilona, a young girl orphaned after a brutal plague. After months of wandering the moors, she is saved by Touilt, a respected healer in the village of Ad Gefrin. In Wilona, Touilt sees a protégé – but the life of a healer is a lonely one, and Wilona grapples with the power that lives within. Soon, her story merges with that of a young monk named Egan, whose spiritual struggles turn out to be uniquely parallel to hers. Because it's written by an author with a such a solid literary background, this novel is richly layered. It's not just a compelling story, but also a treatise on the idea of fighting back when one's beliefs are challenged from every direction. The way one's ideals might survive in an ever-changing world, as imperative now as it was thousands of years ago, is at the crux of this expertly rendered parable, and Davis's colourful – if at times uncharacteristically overblown – prose keeps the tale flowing nicely towards provocative revelations about love, religion and the human instinct to survive.

How to Start a Fire
By Lisa Lutz, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 337 pages, $33

How To Start a Fire follows the friendship of college friends Kate Smirnoff, who was raised by her diner-running grandfather after her parents died when she was a child; Anna Fury, who does everything in her power to turn away from her privileged background and nearly ruins herself and her friends in the process; and beautiful Georgiana (George) Leoni, who runs aground on too many men but still manages to face her life with remarkable aplomb. A tragedy in their 20s casts a mysterious shadow over the narrative that makes it impossible to put down, and difficult to forget once it's over. But the narrative travels back and forth in time too often, with what feels like little rhyme or reason, making it a little too easy to get lost. Don't put the book down, though: With this novel, Lutz joins the ranks of authors who write deeply and sensitively about the shadowy yet life-affirming terrain of female friendship. The characters are perfect because they are flawed and real and kind and cruel. And the story delivers staggering insights into the consequences of choice, no matter how insignificant a moment may seem at the time, as well as the meaning of forgiveness and the ways in which friends can become more like family than our own blood relations – for better or for worse.

The Truth According to Us
By Annie Barrows,The Dial Press, 512 pages, $34

Remember The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society? It was one of the most charming books I've ever read, and I was saddened to learn that Mary Ann Shaffer had died before it could be published. But Annie Barrows, Shaffer's niece, co-wrote the book with her aunt so she could help see it through to completion. And now, with The Truth According to Us, Barrows has proven she is a talented author in her own right, capable of spinning a tale just as enchanting as Guernsey. The novel begins in 1938, when plucky but pampered Layla Beck is sent from her home in Washington, to a little town in West Virginia; her exile is her penance for not marrying the rich boy her father chose for her. Tasked by the Federal Writers Project to document the history of the sleepy town, Layla presumes the next few months of her life will be lacklustre at best. Instead, through interviews with town founders and residents, scandals and secrets are revealed and Layla even learns some important facts about her own family, and herself. This novel is nicely paced and populated with irresistible characters; it also provides striking moments of meditation on the power of history to change the present and the strength of the human spirit.

Re Jane
By Patricia Park, Pamela Dorman Books, 352 pages, $32.95

Debut novelist Patricia Park pays homage to Jane Eyre with her novel Re Jane, and her approach is fresh and wise. Jane Re is a half-Korean, half-American orphan who is raised by a strict uncle. She toils away at his grocery store while he focuses on fostering good manners and adherence to outmoded ways of thinking, rather than giving her any sort of affection. She's desperate to get out of Flushing, Queens, and so she's thrilled to accept a job as an au pair for two Brooklyn English professors and their adopted Chinese daughter. Jane quickly falls in love with the family – quite literally; she begins an affair with the father, Ed Farley. But their forbidden love is interrupted by a death in the family and Jane is required to travel to Seoul, where her heritage – and some key life lessons about love and New York, lessons that can only be learned from a distance – await. The Bronte references help paint an important portrait of a struggle with cultural identity juxtaposed against the struggle that all young people face as they come of age, fall in love and make mistakes that are necessary to personal growth but still incredibly painful.

Editor's note: Against a Darkening Sky takes place in the 7th century. Incorrect information appeared in the original version of this article.