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An Unseen Attraction

K.J. Charles. Loveswept, $4.99 e-book (209p) ISBN 978-0-399-59396-3

A particular pleasure of Charles’s work is spending time with her articulate (and often scathing) protagonists, who skewer their interlocutors and make agonizing admissions with fluency that is a joy to behold. Now, in contrast, comes Clem Talleyfer: neuroatypical, mixed race, and dependent on the begrudged help of others to maintain his painstakingly crafted niche as a boardinghouse keeper in 19th-century Clerkenwell, England. For eight months he has wordlessly courted one of his lodgers, Rowley Green, who has a taxidermy shop next door. Rowley has no problem with words; he simply chooses not to reveal his well-armored heart. What they see in each other is a generosity of spirit revealed in everyday gestures—more often than not, considerate silence. But they are not immune to silence’s corrosive effects, and when a fellow lodger is murdered, toxic secrets spill. Charles (A Gentleman’s Position) indulges in a plot that’s unabashed pulp, made poignant by its effects on the two bruised souls at its center. Agent: Courtney Miller-Callihan, Handspun Literary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Beneath the Stars

Lynn Charles. Interlude, $17.99 trade paper (308p) ISBN 978-1-945053-17-7

Charles delivers a slightly cloying contemporary about finding love in the wake of tragedy. Fireman Eddie Garner moves to Connelly, Pa., after his platonic best friend, who’s also the mother of his child, dies of cancer. In his new home, he meets up-and-coming fashion designer Sidney Marneaux, who is splitting his time between his life in Chicago and helping his sister take care of their deteriorating father in Connelly. Both men find an instant and sweetly rendered connection, and their early courtship is a delight to read. When Eddie’s son, artistic and talkative five-year-old Adrian, arrives on the scene, the story bogs down in a series of overly saccharine moments that undermine the delicate sentimentality of the earlier novel. All three characters work through their grief and responses to loss by pulling together and learning to form a family, but their interactions lack the charm necessary to justify the number of pages devoted to their straightforward struggle. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Firebrand

Kristen Britain. DAW, $29 (816p) ISBN 978-0-7564-0880-0

Britain packs her exciting sixth Green Rider epic fantasy (after Mirror Sight) with new perils for her heroine, Karigan G’ladheon. Karigan has returned from a future in which her beloved Sacordia has been overrun by the forces of evil. She’s wounded and longing for Cade Harlowe, the love that she found in the future. As she recuperates in the castle of Sacor City, winter there does not keep events from unfolding. Her old friend Estral Andovian arrives unexpectedly, looking for help to find her missing father, the Golden Guardian, official keeper of the kingdom’s lore and culture. Before the weather breaks, the castle is attacked by a powerful ice elemental sent by Grandmother, the necromancer leader of the Second Empire, foe of both Sacordia and Eletia. A party of the mysterious Eletians invites Karigan to join a mission to find the p’ehdrose, ancient allies who have disappeared from the world. Estral comes along so that she may search for her father as they travel. Old enemies and unexpected comrades in arms await Karigan and her companions as they journey north. Despite its heft, the pages fly by in this dramatic tale. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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In the Direction of the Sun

Lucy J. Madison. Sapphire, $9.99 e-book (256p) ISBN 978-1-943353-66-8

Madison’s second romance (after 2016’s Personal Foul) showcases her imaginative strengths and betrays her technical weaknesses. Massachusetts-based protagonists Alex McKenzie and Cate Conrad are 30-somethings united in their distance: Cate lied to Alex and ran away to an artist’s shack in Provincetown, and Alex gave up her much-loved teaching job in Stockbridge to hike the Appalachian Trail. Amid every enticement to distraction, they remain focused on writing unsent letters to one another and agonizing over what happened between them and what went wrong. For readers who love a deep character dive, this is the jam. But Madison has chosen a difficult prose form comprising time hops, flashbacks, and dreams, and she struggles to guide readers through the shifts; there is a constant need to disentangle when the various parts of the story take place, because nearly every sentence is cast in simple past tense. Most of the characters are female and talk about other women; Madison does her best to juggle pronouns, but it can be impossible to discern who is saying what about whom. With so much static in the technique, full immersion in Madison’s often-beautiful descriptions remains out of reach. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Pekoe Most Poison: Tea Shop Mystery #18

Laura Childs. Berkley Prime Crime, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-425-28168-0

At the start of Childs’s lively, entertaining 18th Tea Shop mystery (after 2016’s Devonshire Scream), Theodosia Browning, owner of the Indigo Tea Shop in Charleston, S.C., and her friend and tea sommelier, debonair Drayton Conneley, arrive at an extravagant tea party hosted by philanthropist Doreen Briggs and her entrepreneurial husband, Beau, whose most recent venture is a swanky spa. Shortly after an elaborately costumed waiter knocks over a candle, causing a centerpiece to go up in flames, Theodosia saves the day by dousing the fire with a pot of tea, but, seconds later, Beau drops dead. Theodosia recognizes the symptoms of poison. Impressed by her quick thinking, Doreen asks Theodosia to investigate. Who would want to kill good old Beau? As Theodosia digs deeper into the man’s life, possible answers to that question start popping up thick and fast. An attempt is made on Drayton’s life and a second death occurs, leaving Theodosia to fear that she’ll be the next victim. The delightful narrative is chock-full of tea lore and tea tips, plus a wide selection of recipes for cakes, sandwiches, cookies, scones, and muffins. Agent: Sam Pinkus, Keystone Literary Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Black Wings of Cthulhu 4: Seventeen New Tales of Lovecraftian Horror

Edited by S.T. Joshi. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-783295-73-9

Joshi’s follow-up to 2015’s Black Wings of Cthulhu 3, like many such recent anthologies, offers little for Lovecraft fans who are seeking original stories that emulate his imagination and gift at conveying cosmic horror, despite the many distinguished contributors, who include Lois H. Gresh and Caitlín R. Kiernan. Familiar plots weaken even the better entries, such as Fred Chappell’s “Artifact,” which centers on a Babylonian ritual object. Ponderous language mars others, such as Richard Gavin’s “The Rasping Absence” (“The last mottles of daylight appeared as coins, freshly burnished and carelessly tossed from above, as the hatchback approached the tiny hamlet, like some mechanized scarab racing to inter the ailing sun”). One bright spot is Ann K. Schwader’s “Night of the Piper,” in which evil lurks behind the ostensibly beneficent facade of a charity workshop project, Piper with a Purpose, which bills itself as providing “Authentic Ancient Designs for a Stronger Community.” John Pelan and Stephen Mark Rainey’s “Contact,” about a doomed expedition to Pluto, also stands out. Fans of individual contributors, such as W.H. Pugmire, Melanie Tem, and Donald Tyson, may find this volume of interest. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Nocturne for Madness

Robb White. New Pulp, $14.95 trade paper (376p) ISBN 978-0-692-60902-6

White’s third novel featuring Cleveland-based former homicide detective Thomas Haftmann (after 2013’s Saraband for a Runaway) is a clichéd cat-and-mouse hunt for a serial killer. Haftmann, “a self-styled existentialist” who’s now a PI, no longer finds being his own boss a novelty and resists continuing the psychiatric treatment that was a condition of his departure from the police force. Haftmann is afraid that his schizophrenia will claim his life before he can apprehend a sadistic murderer—dubbed the Jack-in-the-Box Killer by the press—who cut off the head of one victim and concealed it in a hatbox. Sections from the perspective of the killer add little except graphic depictions of the abuse he suffered as a child and the horrific harm that he inflicts on others as an adult. Predictably, the fiend can’t help taunting Haftmann by sending him clues, including a cellphone that displays an image of an erect penis. White doesn’t stint on explicit sex scenes or stomach-churning violence, which seem intended to shock rather than advance the plot or make the obviously high stakes higher. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Desolate Splendor

John Jantunen. ECW (Legato, U.S. dist.; Jaguar, Canadian dist.), $16.95 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-77041-204-0

Following his debut novel, Cipher, Jantunen ambitiously tells the tale of a future in which only the last vestiges of humankind remain, but the book falls short of its aspirations. The reason for the devastation of the world is briefly alluded to but never clearly revealed, leaving readers with the eerie question about who or what is to blame. On the surface, the small groups of survivors may not seem so different from the kinds of people readers might recognize in their own society, but depravities that have taken hold in the wake of destruction are slowly revealed. Narration, heavy with dialects, switches among characters. A boy, who survives on a farm with his mother and father, forms an unusually strong bond with his dog. One of the nomadic goods collectors yearns for a young girl; two brothers leave their home, telling their father they are out for vengeance, not glory; and several starving women are intent on protecting their children and their sisters, no matter the cost. The plot entwines the characters’ lives together, but the story doesn’t progress quickly enough, nor are individual characters developed sufficiently for readers to become emotionally involved in their fates. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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American War

Omar El Akkad. Knopf, $26.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-49358-3

El Akkad’s debut novel transports us to a terrifyingly plausible future in which the clash between red states and blue has become deadly and the president has been murdered over a contentious fossil fuels bill. In 2074, Sarah T. Chestnut—called Sarat—comes of age in the neutral state of Louisiana, where she is slowly drawn into the conflict after the death of her father, performing guerrilla operations for the South. Soon she is enmeshed in a resistance movement masterminded by the Dixie militants operating along the Tennessee River, venturing into quarantined South Carolina battlegrounds and Georgia shantytowns alongside spies, assassins, and revolutionaries, like the commanding Adam Bragg and his Salt Lake Boys. Sarat finds brief happiness with Layla, a displaced bar owner from Valdosta, Georgia, but this is only the beginning of Sarat’s war, as she is interred in the nightmarish Camp Saturday before being exiled in the wake of a devastating plague. Now an old and broken woman, Sarat must seek redemption in the wreckage of the New World. Part family chronicle, part apocalyptic fable, American War is a vivid narrative of a country collapsing in on itself, where political loyalties hardly matter given the ferocity of both sides and the unrelenting violence that swallows whole bloodlines and erodes any capacity for mercy or reason. This is a very dark read; El Akkad creates a world all too familiar in its grisly realism. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Argus Deceit

Chuck Grossart. 47North, $14.95 trade paper (317p) ISBN 978-1-4778-1964-7

Grossart’s accomplished nonlinear novel is equally entertaining and suspenseful. The tale follows Brody Quail, whose existence is extraordinarily fractured. Slices of his memory have been lost or altered, and portions of his life are on endless repeat. He soon learns there is something sinister behind these gaps in his consciousness. As a man lurking in the shadows begins to hunt him, Brody is guided through his mental hell by Constance, a woman who has been in the background of all of his memories. Grossart’s narrative keeps the reader guessing; he draws back layers of mystery tantalizingly slowly, leaving the reader to piece together the grand puzzle, with an immensely rewarding payoff. His precise attention to detail stabilizes the disjointed narrative. Recalling Rod Serling’s setups in The Twilight Zone, Grossart plays with time and memory in a highly inventive way. He combines thought-provoking questions about memory with nail-biting suspense, creating a unique novel that shows what can be achieved when one pushes the boundaries of speculative fiction. Agent: Mark Gottlieb, Trident Media Group. (May)

Reviewed on 02/17/2017 | Details & Permalink

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