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From Expats to Fortunetelling Accountants, a Pile of Character-Rich Debut Novels

THE RELUCTANT FORTUNE TELLER
By Keziah Frost
317 pp. Park Row. Paper, $15.99.

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Norbert Zelenka, the soothsayer of Frost’s title, could be a character out of one of those old Ealing Studios comedies in which Alec Guinness played all of the parts: a milquetoast who transforms himself into a player, prodded by a band of dotty but well-meaning elderly ladies. At 73, Norbert is squeaking by on Social Security checks, having rashly given away the millions he had saved as an accountant of 40 years. Enter a trio of do-gooder doyennes from the town’s Art League, who school Norbert into a second career reading fortunes. In no time flat, the retiring number-cruncher becomes a local celebrity, helped by an untapped gift for soft-soap, survival wisdom culled from his Reader’s Digest subscription and six positive reviews on Yelp.

For much of the way, Frost’s determinedly feel-good story coasts on the back of its gentle humor (“Who is Hugh Bris?” Norbert asks when warned about falling victim to pride). The phlegmatic protagonist also gets a needed antagonist in the Art League’s fiercely micromanaging leader, Carlotta, who is categorized in the book’s pixilated New Age parlance as “a bossy negative energy field” but could be more bluntly described as a piece of work. A little precious goes a long way, and this tale of late-life growth soon tailspins with an overworked subplot involving Carlotta’s guilt-ridden granddaughter. In its repetition and pileup of whimsy, Frost’s novel makes a case for the Reader’s Digest condensations that have served its hero so well.

PANORAMA
By Steve Kistulentz
390 pp. Little, Brown. $27.

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When a character in a plane-crash novel insists on making a flight change at the last minute, one can’t help feeling that things aren’t going to end well for her. Portents of doom notwithstanding, matters are already going south for Mary Beth, a middle-aged office manager and single mom who feels stuck in her insurance company drudgery and noncommittal affair with her boss. And so it goes for her brother Richard, a disenchanted television pundit and hired gun for special-interest groups who has a recently failed relationship and a few bespoke suits to show for his fame.

Kistulentz calculatedly positions his pivotal plane disaster midway into this pensive novel, drawing a dividing line between the life choices made by Richard’s stagnating siblings and their subsequent fallout. The author inventories his ill-fated passengers with a queasily clinical efficiency, delivering such a doozy of a crash that he unintentionally hamstrings everything that follows: Once 77 passengers and six crew members are fatally dispatched, why should we care about Richard’s laboriously etched pursuit of a news anchor job or his ex’s sullen parlays with a rebound boyfriend? Kistulentz is most persuasive with the nuts and bolts of the crisis machine: TV news editors who trim offending material from disaster footage and emergency teams deployed to inform surviving family members. The author’s state-of-the-art detailing of protocol stands in dismaying contrast with his retro characterization of guys who crave steak and the women who desperately hunger for them.

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