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Less Than a Treason: A Kate Shugak Mystery

Dana Stabenow. Poisoned Pen, $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-7866-9569-7

Edgar-winner Stabenow’s richly nuanced, highly entertaining 21st Kate Shugak mystery (after 2013’s Bad Blood) finds the Alaskan PI, who’s recovering from a gunshot wound she suffered months before, enjoying her solitude at her isolated cabin at the foot of the Quilak Mountains when some unwelcome visitors, who call themselves “orienteers,” pass by. One of them, a woman whose looks remind Kate of Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, seeks Kate’s aid after she tumbles off a ridge—and falls on a heap of human bones. The intrepid Kate packs up the scanty remains, which a variety of animals have picked clean, and heads for the nearest town. Soon a woman hires Kate to find her missing husband, and the plot goes off in some surprising directions from there. The book is sprinkled with wit, studded with exquisite descriptions of the rugged landscape, and filled with opinionated and endearing characters, including reality TV show producers, park rangers, geologists, and barkeeps. The dialogue is smart, authentic, and reminiscent of Elmore Leonard, had he trained his shrewdly ironic eye on the wilds of Alaska rather than the seamier side of Detroit. A line from a Robert Frost poem provided the title. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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I Am the Brother of XX

Fleur Jaeggy, trans. from the Italian by Gini Alhadeff. New Directions, $14.95 trade paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2598-4

The stories in Jaeggy’s (Sweet Days of Discipline) collection are masterpieces of fury and restraint. Most are only a few pages, and the short, declarative sentences burrow into the deepest corners of the characters’ psyches, only to suddenly subvert expectations. In the title story, a brother feels his life is dominated by his sister’s influence: “When I talk my sister pays too much attention. She watches me. Maybe she is writing my story, as long as I am not dead yet like my parents. I’ve always wondered whether one of them might have died because of her.” In “Agnes,” a man reflects on his past relationship with a woman who has left him: “At that time I was still using words. Small gifts. Flowers. I courted her. She threw away the flowers. Laughed at the words. Had no use for the gifts.” The man offers the woman’s new husband “the wedding dress, the ring. And something I can’t say.” This trademark combination of directness and elusiveness is also apparent in “F.K.,” in which a woman searches for her friend who has deserted a psychiatric clinic. The woman meets her friend’s guardian, a “woman of the law” who “took care of her,” which dredges up the narrator’s guilt and fears about the worst outcome of the situation. These chilling, beguiling stories dig up reflections on solitude, regret, and sometimes even on love. It is thrilling to live in Jaeggy’s worlds, which are so intense they threaten to boil over, yet pull back just enough to keep their secrets. (July)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Feels like the First Time

Marina Adair. Forever, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-4555-6229-9

Adair fails to convince with her second Destiny Bay contemporary (after Last Kiss of Summer), set in tiny Destiny Bay, Wash., which can’t decide whether its central couple are friends becoming lovers or have always been meant for each other. Ali Marshal, an artist working with salvaged metal, is on the cusp of her big break, with a piece featured in Architectural Digest, when her social-climbing, limelight-stealing sister Bridget comes back home and announces her engagement to a wealthy Seattle developer. Ali sets out to comfort Bridget’s ex-husband, former pro hockey player Bradley Hawk, and they impulsively start a fake romance. But both Ali and Hawk, whose career-ending injury also ended his marriage, quickly start to feel like the romance might be real. Readers will struggle to believe in the speed with which Ali’s family, including Bridget, and the gossipy townspeople come to accept and cheer on the ex-sibling-in-law couple. Adair is better at capturing the competing demands on Ali (of career, childhood divorce issues, and caring for her diabetic father) than she is at making Ali and Bradley’s confession of long-held crushes match their earlier behavior. Agent: Jill Marsal, Marsal Lyon Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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And It Came to Pass

Laura Stone. Interlude, $15.99 trade paper (220p) ISBN 978-1-945053-15-3

Stone (Bitter Springs) tackles forbidden love between Mormon missionaries in this moving and hopeful romance. Adam Young, a former college football player turned missionary who’s just arrived in Barcelona, thinks his companion, Brandon Christensen, is perfect. Brandon is the only Mormon elder to have successfully baptized anyone in the very Catholic city, and he exudes genuine concern and a friendly nature. But timid and reserved Adam starts to realize his feelings for his fellow missionary are not entirely spiritual in nature. When his desire boils over and Brandon catches him masturbating, he discovers that the attraction is mutual. Adam’s confusion about his spirituality and sexuality ring very true, and the descriptions of his harsh upbringing by cold, demanding parents (unlike Brandon’s delightful, supportive ones) help explain his turmoil. As the two young men grow increasingly attached and intimate, they’re set on a collision course with Mormon leaders. Stone has an unfortunate tendency toward didactic passages and occasional lapses of accuracy around Mormon life that distract from her lovely prose and well-defined characters. Despite these hiccups, her vital and tender story will deeply engage both Mormon and non-Mormon readers. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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From Duke Till Dawn

Eva Leigh. Avon, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-249941-7

Leigh’s magnificent Regency-era erotic romantic thriller, the first installment in the London Underground series (which has nothing to do with present-day London’s mass transit system), crosses class boundaries with abandon. Alexander Lewis, Duke of Greyland, believes he’s finally found love, but after one unforgettable night, the object of his affections vanishes without a word. Two years later, he learns that the affair was nothing but the end of a well-practiced ruse by beautiful Cassandra Blair, who’s been forced into a life of crime. When Cassandra is abandoned by her mentor and left to fend off angry investors and jilted employees, she turns to Alex for help. He reluctantly agrees, but insists they work together to retrieve the funds she’s owed. As they brave the unsavory areas of London, Alex’s wild side emerges and he gets to experience life outside of wealthy enclaves, while Cassandra learns that not all “aristos” are selfish and uncaring. With her dedication and loyalty to Alex, Cassandra challenges the old adage of “no honor among thieves,” and Alex breaks free of his ducal shackles to claim his beloved despite her bloodline. A variety of weapons, plenty of riffraff, a couple of wanton and witty friends, and a hint of kink make this a fast-paced and seductive treasure. Agent: Kevan Lyon, Marsal Lyon Literary. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Bad Luck Bride

Janna MacGregor. St. Martin’s, $7.99 mass market (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-11612-3

Debut author MacGregor brings England’s Regency era to life in this sparkling launch for the Cavensham Heiresses romance series. Lady Claire, the daughter of a duke, was orphaned at a young age when a carriage accident claimed the lives of her parents. When her fourth attempt at an engagement, this time with unlikable Lord Paul, ends in disaster like the previous three, London’s gossips compound her survivor’s guilt by declaring her cursed. She’s saved from the worst of them by the timely intervention of Alexander Hallworth, Marquess of Pembrooke, one of Lord Paul’s childhood friends. The pair seems to get on well, despite their inauspicious beginning, but they are both struggling with secrets: Alex’s thirst for revenge against Paul, who mistreated his sister, and Claire’s nightmares of her parents’ deaths. This charming tale features a refreshing array of happy families, solid relationships, and candid portrayals of realistic reactions to adverse events. The lack of trust and communication between the principal characters sometimes feels contrived, but the book’s promise of a delicious story is well realized, building anticipation for future installments. Agent: Pam Ahearn, Ahearn Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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To Me I Wed

K.M. Jackson. Dafina, $7.99 mass market (368p) ISBN 978-1-4967-0570-9

The second in Jackson’s Unconventional Brides series (after Insert Groom Here) is a charmingly sketched contemporary romp set on Long Island, N.Y. In-demand event planner Lily Perry is concerned with everyone else’s happily-ever-after—and never her own—until she reads about another single woman throwing a wedding for herself and decides that marrying herself sounds like a life-affirming choice. Vincent Caro is still captivated by the erotic interlude he had with Lily at a friend’s wedding. He’s terrified of commitment; he’s busy trying to get his fledgling restaurant off the ground; and when he hears Lily’s marry-herself idea, he thinks it’s ridiculous. But none of that stops him from pursuing a romance with her. Feisty Lily and her even feistier grandmother, Mama Dee, endear themselves to readers from page one, and Vin’s fear and the reasons behind it are achingly real. The author keeps things lively and fresh until the surprising, satisfying conclusion. This engaging (no pun intended) romance will leave readers clamoring for more. Agent: Rachel Brooks, L. Perkins Agency. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Summer Stock

Vanessa North. Riptide, $17.99 trade paper (239p) ISBN 978-1-62649-569-2

This novel is lightened by its hometown theater festival setting and grounded by the difficult issues in the protagonists’ backgrounds, but marred by a stereotyped superficiality around their ways of coping. Actor Ryan Hertzog, seeking an escape after too much bad press for Hollywood wildness, goes to North Carolina to perform in his cousin’s summer stock troupe under an assumed name. Show tech Trey Donovan can’t believe his luck in maintaining Ryan’s interest after the margaritas wear off. But Trey behaves erratically as he processes the trauma and guilt that come up in his first attempt to date after being abused by a partner, and Ryan has some career decisions to make about coming out, as the paparazzi have a field day after catching the men together. Sweet sex scenes communicate desire and connection, and North (Roller Girl) does well by the community with her portrayal of Ryan, a bisexual man who has a deep nonsexual friendship with a woman and an unapologetic romantic connection to a man. That said, her storytelling style feels targeted to female readers rather than to bi and gay men hoping to see themselves in a romance. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Kissing Hollywood

Monica Collier. Red Press, $28.95 (220p) ISBN 978-0-9793869-2-3

In this inspirational and inspiring romance, North Carolina writer and caterer Alex Casey falls for British actor Parker Grey, who’s visiting her town to celebrate a friend’s engagement. Collier infuses a sweet innocence and old-fashioned values into this contemporary, which has two flawed protagonists trying to move past a boatload of issues: media gossip, past mistakes, and Alex’s minor preoccupation with being 35 to Parker’s 28. Both Alex and Parker have their share of issues, but they’re also both refreshingly positive and appealing. Their attraction to each other is gradually developed and based on common values, such as their mutual interest in improving their relationships with God. The few displays of physical affection are modest. The plot, like the characters, never gets too weighed down with drama or religious jargon. The natural evolution of the protagonists reinforces the theme of faith and destiny and also the power of personal choice, making this an uplifting read. Agent: Carolyn Martin. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hero Lost: Mysteries of Death and Life

The Insecure Writer’s Support Group. Freedom Fox, $14.95 trade paper (226p) ISBN 978-1-939844-36-1

This uneven fantasy anthology collects 12 mostly YA-flavored short stories by authors whose common denominator seems to be a fascination with traditional myth and legend. Each story includes sketchy notes about its author’s interests (and online presence). The most moving of the entries carry resonances of rural American folk tales, including Jen Chandler’s Appalachia-inspired “The Mysteries of Death and Life” and Erika Bebee’s “The Wheat Witch,” which evokes the healing mystique of Kansas agriculture. Most of the other works are derivative. A gruesome dragon slaying is the centerpiece of Tyrean Martinson’s “Of Words and Swords.” Renee Cheung’s “Memoirs of a Forgotten Knight” is an unsuccessful attempt to merge technology with magic. Elizabeth Seckman’s “Mind Body Soul” is a sweet little love story. Roland D. Yeomans’s “Sometimes They Come Back” is an ambitious but lackluster Poe-esque excursion into the grotesque; it’s larded with references to humanity’s graven images, some familiar and some perhaps better left forgotten. Few new insights stir the imagination here. (May)

Reviewed on 03/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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