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Ever After

Rachel Lacey. Grand Central/Forever, $5.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-4555-8215-0

Lacey’s Love to the Rescue contemporary series keeps getting better and better. This delectable third installment (after For Keeps) starts with the most unlikely of meet cutes. Olivia Bennett, an animal activist, blogger, and waitress, gets slightly tipsy at a birthday celebration and decides to vandalize a chicken processing plant in Dogwood, N.C. She’s caught red-handed, and sheriff’s deputy Pete Sampson books her. Once she’s released, he keeps an eye on her, wondering whether she might also be behind several similar recent crimes. But as he gets to know Olivia, he realizes that she’s become the unwitting scapegoat of powerful people trying to influence the future of Dogwood. As he shifts from suspecting her to protecting her, he finds it harder and harder to keep a professional distance. Olivia isn’t shy in pursuing Pete, and he gradually comes to enjoy her fondness for taming wild kittens and meditating. The book explores the plight of animals in shelters and factory farms without ever veering into preachiness, and Olivia’s foster dogs, her fluffy kitten, and Pete’s dog provide delightful diversions while the humans build their own forever home. Agent: Sarah Younger, Nancy Yost Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The End of All Things

John Scalzi. Tor, $24.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7607-7

Hugo-winner Scalzi integrates the best aspects of war stories into the polished and powerful sixth volume—which consists of four connected novellas—in the Old Man’s War space opera series. The inevitable and parallel downward spirals of the two corrupt space empires, the human Colonial Union and the alien Conclave, are finally coming to a head. All four protagonists work for one of the two entities, and Scalzi shifts among their perspectives to thread a fine needle, recognizing that good people can be entrenched in terrible systems and sometimes can’t (or won’t) change them. Added tension comes in the form of a group called the Equilibrium, which is intent on destroying both the Colonial Union and the Conclave and killing billions in the process. Human Harry Wilson and alien Hafte Sorvalh will be familiar to returning readers, while CU pilot Rafe Daquin and CU Lt. Heather Lee are welcome new voices. New readers will certainly enjoy the work, but the real payoff comes for longtime fans, who will especially appreciate a powerful moment featuring the alien General Gau. Scalzi knows just how to satisfy his fans, providing tense, thrilling action scenes while turning a critical eye on the interstellar equivalents of the military-industrial complex. Agent: Ethan Ellenberg, Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Suicide of Claire Bishop

Carmiel Banasky. Dzanc (Consortium, dist.), $26.95 (400p) ISBN 978-1-938103-08-7

Banasky’s memorable, intricate, and inventive debut novel uses vulnerable characters to probe themes of time, identity, perception, and love. In 1959 Manhattan, Freddie Bishop commissions an artist known only as Nicolette to paint a portrait of his wife, Claire. Unexpectedly, the finished work depicts fragmentary moments in Claire’s life, ending with a leap off the Brooklyn Bridge. Despite Nicolette’s reassurance that the painting will protect her from the fate it depicts, Claire—fearful of her family’s history of mental instability—attempts unsuccessfully to destroy it. When schizophrenic West Butler sees the painting in a gallery in 2004, he becomes convinced that it is the work of his artist ex-girlfriend, also named Nicolette. Spiraling into a delusion of conspiracy and time travel that explains her disappearance from his life and the contradiction in dates, West concludes that the canvas can change reality as well as help him find Nicolette. In the course of stealing it, he meets a man with knowledge of the painting’s past, setting up an encounter between him and Claire that will have transformative effects on both. With its dancing time frames, recurring motifs, glimpses of history, and shifting realities, all united by striking prose, the novel is both an intellectual tour de force and a moving reflection on the ways we try to save ourselves and others. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Memory Theater

Simon Critchley. Other Press, $15.95 (112p) ISBN 978-1-59051-740-6

From philosopher Critchley (The Book of Dead Philosophers) comes this debut novel, a not-quite-nonfiction story that fuses its author’s long-standing engagement with critical theory and a narrative inquiry into mortality and remembrance that is original, observant, and unexpectedly moving. In 2004, aging professor Simon Critchley discovers a stack of boxes belonging to his deceased friend and mentor, Michel Haar. Organized according to the signs of the zodiac, the boxes contain unpublished papers on Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and Thomas Carlyle; Haar’s primary interest seems to have been in the Renaissance concept of the memory theater. Haar’s commentaries have particular relevance for Critchley, whose own memory was seemingly damaged in an accident years earlier; increasingly beguiled by the eerily accurate horoscopes that Haar left behind, Critchley resolves to build his own full-scale memory theater, populated with manifestations of his life and learning, to be completed at the hour of his death—which has been foretold by Haar in his papers. As anyone familiar with the works of Critchley (or his frequent collaborator Tom McCarthy) might expect, this speculative narrative is peppered with copious references like Medieval heresy, the avant-garde, and Mark E. Smith of the English punk group the Fall. These essayistic reveries hang together so beautifully with the unfolding mystery that the book becomes, in essence, a theater of its own. The novel is short enough to be absorbed in a single sitting, but the questions posed by author/character Simon regarding the full ramifications of the soul’s saturation in history will linger indefinitely. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Killing Lessons

Saul Black. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-05734-1

At the start of this exceptional police thriller from Black, the pseudonym of British author Glen Duncan (Hope), two armed men show up at an isolated farmhouse outside Ellinson, Colo., with fatal results for the Cooper family. Soon afterward, a San Francisco woman is found dead, raped and mutilated with a piece of a crystal unicorn inserted in her body. SFPD homicide detective Valerie Hart links this crime and another Bay Area slaying to a string of murders of women in several states across the western U.S., in each of which the killers—DNA evidence suggests there are two of them—embedded a strange object in the corpse. Meanwhile, Valerie is drinking too much and has a rotten love life while Carla York, the FBI special agent brought in as liaison, dislikes Valerie for unknown reasons and works to discredit her. The appearance of an old boyfriend, fellow cop Nick Blaskovich, whom Valerie dumped three years earlier, complicates matters further. Despite these distractions, persistent Valerie displays a real gift for uncovering and interpreting clues. Readers will hope she returns soon in another nail-biter. Agent: Jane Gelfman, Gelfman Schneider Literary Agents. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Bathsheba: Reluctant Beauty

Angela Hunt. Bethany House, $14.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7642-1696-1

Prolific novelist Hunt (Esther) adds the biblical story of Bathsheba to her Dangerous Beauty series. Bathsheba is happily married to Uriah, who is off on a military campaign when her rooftop bath catches the eye of the virile and determined King David. Those familiar with the story know that David arranges to have Uriah, his loyal soldier, killed, so David can escape the stain of adultery and quickly marry the pregnant widow. Hunt brings all this to life in a tale that alternates between the viewpoints of Bathsheba and Nathan the prophet, who acts as the king’s conscience. Hunt sticks to the biblical narrative and doesn’t attempt to resolve all the contradictions in David’s character; she is tethered to a proto-Gothic story of one mightily dysfunctional royal family. The target female audience may be troubled by Bathsheba’s tendency to blame herself for David’s predation. On the whole, Bathsheba is more fully realized than the storied hero-king of Israel, and to Hunt’s credit she makes a familiar story a page-turner. Agent: Danielle Egan-Miller, Browne & Miller Literary Associates. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl from the Train

Irma Joubert, trans. from the Afrikaans by Elsa Silke. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 ISBN 978-0-529-10237-9

South African native Joubert brings her country to life in this tale that begins in Poland at the twilight of World War II and ends deep in the South African bushveld. Jakób Kowalski is a member of the Polish Home Army, tasked with blowing up a Nazi troop train. But a train carrying Jews to a death camp crosses the tracks first, and all aboard are killed except for Gretl and Elza Schmidt, sisters who escape the train just before the explosion. Gretl ends up under Jakób’s care in his family home, but with German and Russian troops patrolling Poland, Jakób sends Gretl to South Africa for adoption. After being adopted, she becomes Grietjie Neethling, the beloved daughter of Oom Bernard and Tannie Kate Neethling. Grietjie begins to learn Afrikaans and English and studies scripture at Sunday school, all the while dreaming of one day leaving for college and reconnecting with Jakób. Jakób finds her years later, their bond still strong despite years of separation. Readers will adore intrepid Gretl and strong Jakób in this story of war, redemption, and love. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Forbidden Man

Elle Wright. Grand Central/Forever, $6 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-4555-6032-5

Wright’s debut contemporary relies on emotional drama that’s diluted by pedestrian prose. When Sydney Williams discovers that her fiancé, Caden “Den” Smith, has been sleeping with another woman, the wedding is called off. Den’s brother, Morgan, had long felt “his life wouldn’t be complete” without Syd, but he has no intention of starting something they “may never be able to come back from,” because of the potential for complications in their close circle of friends and family. As Morgan and Syd erratically veer from angry screaming fights to tearing off each other’s clothes, the two find there’s no point in fighting their attraction, even as they fear revealing the truth. Given that Den is almost cartoonishly wrong for Syd and Morgan is transparently right for her, the lovers’ refusal to tell their friends the truth about their relationship, or admit it to themselves even as they become more deeply involved, soon becomes tiresome. Agent: Sara Camilli, Sara Camilli Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Escort

Laura Marie Altom. Loveswept, $2.99 e-book (266p) ISBN 978-1-101-88341-9

Altom’s third Shamed erotic contemporary (after Possess) is hamstrung by a weak, unappealing hero who’s mired in insecurity over being unable to support his girlfriend financially. The splendid wedding of previous protagonists Ella and Liam is an unhappy occasion for Nathan, Ella’s best friend, who still has a crush on her, and Carol, Liam’s ex-wife and current employee. Nathan and Carol soothe their pain by sneaking off for a quickie, and soon their connection grows. Nathan feels inadequate with his meager salary, so he becomes a high-end companion to wealthy women at charity events in the hopes of making some quick cash and getting out. But when Carol discovers his side job and demands that he abandon it, he realizes he can’t escape so easily. Despite a title that hints at a variety of erotic adventures, the sex scenes are strictly between the main couple. Carol and Nathan never take control over their own lives and their emotions never run deeper than lust, protectiveness, or culturally approved jealousy. Altom fails to show how their connection progresses beyond a second-choice rebound. Agent: Michelle Grajkowski, 3 Seas Literary Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Autumn Spring

Shelley Thrasher. Bold Strokes (boldstrokesbooks.com), $16.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-62639-365-3

After a somewhat choppy opening, Thrasher’s unique and exquisite take on romance in a small town offers a new and welcome perspective on mature relationships. Bree Principal fled a failed relationship with Ann White, her East Texas hometown’s golden girl, and never looked back. Little did she know that Ann’s little sister, Linda Morton, had been harboring some tender feelings of her own. Fifty years later, Bree’s world changes when her mother’s injury pulls her back to the place where she grew up—and back under Ann’s spell. Only now, Linda’s out, proud, and willing to fight for the woman she wants. The focus on the empowerment of older women serves to underscore both the charm of life at a slower pace and the sweetness of new relationships. Readers will find it deeply refreshing to see female characters who are defined as much by their kindness and grace as by their chosen roles in life. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/03/2015 | Details & Permalink

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