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Book Reviews Review: New novels from Stephanie Gangi, Karen Swan and John Pipkin

In The Next, Joanna DeAngelis comes back as a ghost after dying from cancer to enact revenge on her ex-lover.

The Next

By Stephanie Gangi

St. Martin's Press, 320 pages, $37.99

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Joanna DeAngelis is dying of breast cancer in a very different way than most fictional women do. "Where was the cancer-movie version, selfless and dying in a way that made everything okay for her kids?" her daughter, Elena, muses. "The three of them had watched Beaches enough times to know there was protocol, there was supposed to be a good ending, with cozy sweaters and cups of tea and looking out to sea, the three of them, their best loving selves." But that isn't the ending Joanna is giving her daughters. Instead, she's racked by an obsession with her ex-lover, a man who scorned her when she needed him most. Even as she nears death, she's unable to stop herself from staring at pictures of his glittering life with his dermatologist-to-the-stars girlfriend. What happens next – and this is no spoiler – is that Joanna becomes a ghost. What remains of her is focused not on making amends with her now-motherless daughters but on getting revenge on her ex. I found Joanna and her bodiless plight disconcerting at first, but I suspended judgment and eventually discovered a woman who hid nothing about her true self because she couldn't – but also because she wouldn't. Here was a middle-aged woman – mother, caregiver, selfless, sexless vessel, right? – who had been reduced to a shimmering ball of lust, envy and fury. It was a beautiful, refreshing thing to behold. So if you, like me, have the urge to put this book down – don't. Not all books provide the kind of closure you think they're going to. And truly, not all who wander are lost.

Christmas Under the Stars

By Karen Swan

Pan Books, 487 pages, $23.99

I wished for snow as I read this novel in a state of languorous bliss, cocooned beneath blankets, toes warmed by my woolly reading socks. Because, finally. A romance that takes place in exquisite, snowy Banff, a destination Canadians have always known to be the ideal setting for all kinds of stories, but perhaps especially the kind that involve weather-inspired intrigue and passionate moments in remote, snowbound cabins. Offering escapism at its finest, but without any tropes that have already grown as stale as that Christmas cake you're eventually going to toss, Christmas Under the Stars is the novel you want to tuck into your bag when you head off on your next ski vacation or to hibernate at your northern cottage. Meg and Mitch live and work in the Canadian Rockies. But when tragedy strikes, Meg soon realizes that nothing is as it seems. As she grieves, she is brought back to life by a most unexpected person: On the night her husband went missing, she used his radio to call for help, but the only person who heard her was a Norwegian astronaut orbiting the Earth. The two can only communicate once every several weeks, when his spaceship hurtles high above the Rockies for a few hours and their signals can connect. Honestly, how romantic is that? A small-town ensemble of family and friends, as well as a trip to Toronto where things get a little naughty, add further enjoyment. Part love story and part tale of human resilience, this is a tale as unpredictable as mountain weather itself and as enjoyable as an après-ski session in a fire-lit pub.

The Blind Astronomer's Daughter

By John Pipkin

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Bloomsbury, 451 pages, $37

This story takes place in late 18th-century Ireland, during a period of history fraught with upheaval and violence. Caroline Ainsworth's life becomes even more complicated after her father, Arthur – who blinded himself during a lifetime of staring into the sun in a desperate and obsessive search for an undiscovered planet he believed to exist near Mercury – throws himself from the rooftop of his observatory. Caroline's sheltered existence is cracked open and she emerges from her cocoon of grief only because of the pull of the stars and planets above her. This is a complicated storyline that every once in a while feels too much , and there are also times when the writing feels a little distant. But ultimately, The Blind Astronomer's Daughter is a tale as mesmeric as gazing at the stars on a warm summer night and wondering just how many comets there are, how many planets, how many other worlds. The novel was inspired by the lives of a real-life sibling duo named William and Caroline Herschel – both were accomplished astronomers, but Caroline is credited as the first female astronomer to discover a comet – as well as by Pipkin's research into poet Mary Tighe. The plaiting of the author-imagined lives of Herschel and Tighe, two brilliant and influential women, makes for one captivating character in Caroline. And the story of how our perception of the vast and unknowable sky above was developed, played out against the backdrop of a country in political and existential turmoil, makes for a dazzling read.

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