This week, a spine-tingling horror novel, what life was really like in Dickens's London, and the new James Lee Burke novel.
Half a King by Joe Abercrombie (Del Rey) - In this superb fantasy trilogy kickoff, Abercrombie (the First Law trilogy) regales readers with the tale of a young man who is thrust onto the throne by unexpected betrayal. Yarvi, the king’s second son, is not destined for the Black Chair or kingship of Gettland: he has a withered left hand, and is bound to become a minister. But everything changes when his brother and father are murdered. Yarvi is clever and knowledgeable, thanks to the years he spent studying for the ministry, but none of that will amount to much unless he can survive the sheer cruelty of being raised to the crown, nearly murdered, and traded into slavery in the span of days.
Life Drawing by Robin Black (Random) - A middle-aged married couple, their new friend, and her daughter interact, sometimes stormily, in this emotionally complex novel from Black. Beginning with the information that one of these characters is now dead, the book draws the reader in from the first page and builds narrative tension almost ceaselessly to the bitter end. Owen and Augusta, a writer and a painter, respectively, have retreated from their former cosmopolitan life in Philadelphia to a rural idyll in a farmhouse, hoping to devote themselves to their work. Soon, however, a neighbor, Alison Hemmings, moves into a nearby rental. At first, Augusta and Alison get along famously, but then Alison’s early-20s daughter, Nora, arrives for a visit and becomes infatuated with Owen.
Wayfaring Stranger by James Lee Burke (Simon & Schuster) - Early in this epic American saga from MWA Grand Master Burke, Weldon Holland, the grandson of lawman and series character Hackberry Holland, has a chance run-in with Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow in Texas, shortly before the notorious bank robbers are gunned down in Louisiana. Weldon has another, more significant coming-of-age experience toward the end of WWII. As an Army second lieutenant, he rescues Sgt. Hershel Pine when both are trapped behind German lines. Weldon later saves Rosita Lowenstein, a concentration camp prisoner, who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War. After the war ends in Europe, Weldon marries Rosita. Back in Texas, Weldon and Hershel build an innovative oil pipeline business, but their success creates an enemy, oil tycoon Lloyd Fincher.
The Bone Orchard by Paul Doiron (Minotaur) - Having quit the Maine Warden Service for various personal reasons, Mike Bowditch barely ekes out a living as a fishing guide, showing off Maine’s North Woods to tourists, in Edgar finalist Doiron’s excellent fifth series installment (after 2013’s Massacre Pond). Though he still spends most of his time outdoors, Mike is acutely aware that he no longer has the authority to arrest lawbreakers, nor does he have the respect of his former colleagues. Mike realizes just how much of an outsider he is when his mentor and former boss, Sgt. Kathy Frost, kills Jimmy Gammon, a distraught Afghan war veteran and former military policeman, in self-defense. Later, a gunman seriously wounds Kathy outside her farmhouse. Despite his lack of authority, Mike joins the investigation into Kathy’s shooting, sorting through the list of suspects, who include members of Gammon’s politically connected family, his former platoon mates, and Kathy’s vengeful neighbor.
Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring by Peter Duffy (Scribner) - Journalist Duffy recounts the first U.S. counterespionage success of WWII: the breaking of a German spy ring centered in New York. It combined “ideologues, opportunists, dupes, adventurers” and a core of agents who initially had a virtual free hand despite F.D.R.’s commitment to sustaining civil liberties. Under Republican pressure, the FBI was made responsible for internal security, and J. Edgar Hoover’s organization demonstrated a high learning curve—thanks in good part to double agent William Sebold. In 1939, Sebold, a German-born naturalized American, was approached by German intelligence, which provided him with elementary training in photography and coding. Returning to the U.S., Sebold contacted the FBI, who in turn offered observation and recording facilities. Sebold proved himself “an actor of consummate skill” in high-risk situations, and when the snare was sprung, 33 spies were arrested, 19 convicted, and the spine of Nazi espionage in the U.S. permanently broken.
The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens' London by Judith Flanders (St. Martin's) - Charles Dickens grimly portrayed Londoners as people resigned to hardscrabble living, ubiquitous filth, and prevalent violence, and Flanders (The Invention of Murder) successfully recreates the feel of London at Dickens’s peak as she delves deep into the rhythms and architecture of particular neighborhoods. This information-packed profile of Victorian London offers renewed insight into Dickens’s youth as an imprisoned debtor’s working child; his love of walking the city’s winding streets; and finally, the reality behind the traumatic adventures of such well-known characters as Oliver Twist. The book is divided into four comprehensive sections, covering topics like urban water and road transportation systems, affordable entertainment, and the wide range of linguistic dialects. This well-researched sociological overview provides highly detailed context for cultural touchstones, while shattering the popular yet inauthentic image of a pristine Victorian age that never existed.
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley (Ballantine) - The bestselling author of the Scott Pilgrim series returns with another hit. Twenty-nine-year-old chef Katie runs a restaurant called Seconds; it’s successful, but she dreams of starting a restaurant of which she can be part-owner. Katie is frustrated in her love life, having lost her boyfriend, Max, and construction of the new restaurant is moving slowly, with many setbacks and added expenses. In a desperate state, Katie discovers the house spirit of Seconds—a crouching sprite who lives off scraps—who unwillingly gives her a chance to reverse a recent error that led to a grisly accident in the kitchen. Katie soon becomes addicted to this magical method of fixing mistakes, but as she changes more and more about her world, reality itself starts to deteriorate.
Marina by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, trans. from the Spanish by Lucia Graves (Little, Brown) - In a novel first published in Spain in 1999, Zafón (The Midnight Palace) transports readers to 1979 Barcelona, where 15-year-old Oscar Drai lives a dreary boarding school life. That’s until he meets a girl named Marina, who takes him to an old cemetery where a cloaked woman conducts an odd ritual over a nameless grave. Soon they uncover a twisted tale of hereditary disease, murder, and horrible experiments, all of which took place years ago and whose central figures are dead. Or are they? Unlikely discoveries in mysterious, half- ruined mansions alternate with spine- tingling action sequences to create a grotesquerie that will delight horror fans.