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The Fifth Element

Jørgen Brekke, trans. from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray. Minotaur, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-07391-4

Set in northern Norway around Trondheim, Brekke’s stellar third installment in his Odd Singsaker homicide detective series (after 2015’s Dreamless) is divided into four sections. Each part centers on one of the lead characters, and each is named for one of the Aristotelian elements—phlegm, black bile, blood, and yellow bile—once thought to ensure good health when in balance in the body. This narrative device is initially perplexing, but it all makes perfect sense in the end. Police inspector Singsaker, who’s on medical leave after being wounded in a previous case, is suffering from the postsurgical effects of a brain tumor that will eventually recur and kill him. His American wife, Felicia, vanished weeks earlier, and readers must assemble the puzzle of her fate piece by often gruesome piece, up to a shockingly ironic close. Violence seems to be rapidly getting worse in today’s relatively peaceful Norway, Singsaker concludes. For him, the horrors of this case—which involves drugs, extortion, and spousal abuse—outdo even the murderous exploits of the ancient Viking period. Agent: Nicole K. James, Chalberg & Sussman. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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White Tears

Hari Kunzru. Knopf, $26.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-451-49369-9

The excellent new novel from Kunzru (Gods Without Men) opens as a coming-of-age yarn and ends as a ghost story, but its real subject is a vital piece of American history: the persistence of cultural appropriation in popular music. Twenty-something white roommates Carter and Seth are audiophiles, record collectors, and budding producers living in New York. They’re obsessed with black music, whether it’s reggae, jazz, funk, or hip-hop. When Seth records an old chess player in the park, Carter remixes it into a counterfeit blues song and markets the record as the work of an obscure black singer named Charlie Shaw. Almost immediately, they are approached by a mysterious collector who insists that Shaw is real—and after Carter is savagely beaten and left in a coma, Seth begins to discover just how real. With Carter’s sister, Leonie, for whom Seth nurses an unrequited crush, Seth undertakes a perilous journey from New York to Mississippi to unravel a mystery that weaves together the blues, obsessive collectors, and the American South. What he finds is murder and the unquiet ghost of Shaw. White Tears is a fast-paced, hallucinatory book written in extraordinary prose, but it’s also perhaps the ultimate literary treatment of the so-called hipster, tracing the roots of the urban bedroom deejay to the mythic blues troubadours of the antebellum South. In his most accessible book to date, Kunzru takes on the vinyl-digging gentrification culture with a historical conscience. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Ill Will

Dan Chaon. Ballantine, $28 (480p) ISBN 978-0-345-47604-3

For this exceptional and emotionally wrenching novel, Chaon (Await Your Reply) plants the seeds of new manias into the hard, unforgiving ground that will be familiar to his readers. In 1983, when psychologist Dustin Tillman was 13, his mother, father, aunt, and uncle were murdered. Dustin accused his adopted older brother, Rusty, a sadistic kid attracted to Satanism, of the crime, and Rusty was incarcerated. The murders shaped Dustin’s life as much as they did Rusty’s; his Ph.D. dissertation was on Satanic ritual abuse, and he practices hypnotherapy despite its detractors. Now in his early 40s, he’s an ineffectual father of two boys and an oblivious husband to a dying wife in suburban Ohio. Having convinced himself of his vision of the past and clinging only to “memories of happiness,” he’s unnerved to learn that Rusty has been exonerated and released. What he doesn’t know is that Rusty has reached out to Dustin’s youngest, Aaron, a teenage junky sliding into Cleveland’s dangerous underground, urging the boy to talk to Wave, Dustin’s estranged cousin, who may know the truth of the murders. The paths of several characters converge as one of Dustin’s patients convinces him to investigate a spate of drownings and Aaron’s best friend Rabbit is pulled from the river, dead. With impressive skill, across multiple narratives that twine, fracture, and reset, Chaon expertly realizes his singular vision of American dread. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl from Old Nichol

Betty Annand. Amberjack, $15.95 trade paper (377p) ISBN 978-0-9972377-9-5

Historical-nonfiction author Annand (Growing Up in the White House) makes an awkward switch to historical fiction with this unsatisfying story. Gladys Tunner is born in the rough East End of London in 1829. Her parents are alcoholics, and when she’s a teen they try to sell her to their landlord. Gladys runs, leaving behind her only protectors: Toughie, an orphan, and Sally, a kind midwife. She lands in the countryside town of Dover, where she earns a living as a maid and a barmaid and dreams of being a governess. She also has the unlikely fortune to be romantically pursued by an aristocrat, only to experience the frustrating limitations of her class status. A lot happens in Annand’s plot, but the reader feels the sensation of only skimming the surface of a life. Most of the characters are emotionless, and the omniscient narrator never fades into the background, instead interrupting with historical information: “London was the most populated city in the world and had run out of jobs and room for the mass migration of people who came to the city from rural areas hoping to find employment during the Industrial Revolution.” The dynamism of 19th-century England and Gladys’s ambition are overshadowed by a repetitive plot and clunky dialogue. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Thirst

Jacquelyn Frank. Loveswept, $4.99 e-book (240p) ISBN 978-0-425-28624-1

Frank (A Kiss of Magic) grafts a sketch of an urban police procedural onto a vague setting of treaty negotiations, vampires hiding from humans, and a facile, obvious line between the good vamps and the bad, creating a sparse story that lacks bite. Energy vampire and lead negotiator Rafe DaSilva seduces cop Renee Holden primarily to probe her mind about her investigation of a murder he believes was committed by sycophants—vampires who feed on drug addicts and sick people until they die instead of feeding lightly on the organic-minded, clean-living humans that the good vampires target. But the draw Rafe feels toward Renee’s attractiveness and energy purity makes her a target for the sycophants and forces him to share secrets about vampire culture just to keep her safe. Renee’s skittishness and her lackadaisical investigative style are incongruous for a seasoned N.Y.C. homicide detective, and there’s too little crackle of the paranormal in either the fights or the sex scenes. A final info dump about vampire origins and high-ranking sycophants at large sets the stage for the next volume. Agent: Robin Rue, Writers House. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Accidentally on Purpose

Jill Shalvis. Avon, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-244806-4

Shalvis’s San Francisco–based Heartbreaker Bay contemporary romance series started out strong, but this time around, property manager Elle Wheaton and romantic foil Archer Hunt have neither the quirky charm of Pru Harris and Finn O’Riley (Sweet Little Lies) nor the warm glow of Willa Davis and Keane Winters (The Trouble with Mistletoe). Elle and Archer do fulfill the overarching theme of the series: two people connected by complicated past issues who fight their mutual attraction against the backdrop of the city’s Cow Hollow District. Archer, an ex-cop, operates a security business that’s responsible for the safety of the building that Elle manages. He knew that the two of them working together was a bad idea—old baggage and all—yet he recommended her for the building manager job anyway. The daily torture of their close professional proximity is too slender a thread on which to hang the story, so Shalvis adds a subplot involving Elle’s black-sheep sister that lacks sufficient depth to be credible. Shalvis’s fans will still read this installment, but they know she can do better. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Any Time, Any Place

Jennifer Probst. Gallery, $16 trade paper (400p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2426-6

Probst charms with the second in her Billionaire Builders series (after Everywhere and Every Way), the sweetly sexy tale of a sensitive man in a construction company and a gutsy and fiercely independent bar owner with a big secret. After Raven Hawthorne’s beloved father is killed in a car crash with Diane Pierce, a married woman, at his side, Raven swears to exact revenge on Diane’s sons, whom she blames for spreading the rumor that her father seduced an unwilling Diane away from her family. Dalton Pierce was forced to return to his Connecticut home town by the terms of his father’s will, which required him and his brothers to take over the family construction business. When he meets Raven, who’s in her element as the owner and chief mixologist of local hangout My Place, he realizes she may be the one woman who can interest him in romantic commitment. Both Raven and Dalton carry deep wounds from the past, inflicted after her father and his mother ran off together. When Dalton finds out the secret Raven’s hiding, it could spell doom for their relationship. Probst creates a realistic, incredibly relatable couple whose mistakes might be anyone’s, surrounding them with a stellar cast of characters, including a setup of the relationship that will likely feature in the sequel to this well-plotted, endearing story. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Kill Without Shame

Alexandra Ivy. Zebra, $7.99 mass market (352p) ISBN 978-1-4201-3757-6

Ivy’s second Ares Security romantic thriller (after Kill Without Mercy) hits the sweet spot for readers who like their alpha males extremely but not preternaturally competent and driven to protect the women they love, and their heroines strong and independent but willing to accept that protection when it comes in a caring, sexy package. Lucas St. Claire is appalled when an old acquaintance from his hometown of Shreveport, La., is discovered shot a few blocks from Lucas’s Houston apartment. The dead man is clutching a photo of Mia Ramon, the girlfriend Lucas dumped for family reasons but never quite got over; the photo is marked “Kill her or else.” Lucas rushes to Mia’s side to investigate, watch over her, and try to restart the relationship he rejected. Mia and Lucas’s renewed and mutually desired connection provides an appealing mix of emotional warmth and erotic heat. The involvement of the men of Ares Security is key in moving the investigation forward, but their brotherly camaraderie feels blander and less essential than in the first book, and the mystery’s solution is ultimately presented as a monologue by the villain. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Lord of the Privateers

Stephanie Laurens. Mira, $7.99 mass market (512p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1973-3

In this enthralling Regency romance (the satisfying finale to the Adventurers’ Quartet, after The Daredevil Snared), Capt. Royd Frobisher balances intrigue and adventure on the high seas with his newly rediscovered feelings for his former love, Isobel Carmody Carmichael, who divulges a secret she has kept from him for eight years. Royd, the fourth of the seafaring Frobisher brothers, must leave Aberdeen, Scotland, to play his part in the quest to free the captured slaves—including Isobel’s cousin—in West Africa’s Freetown. Laurens’s deft interweaving of backstory through characters’ thoughts and dialogue makes this series installment work as a standalone novel. (New readers will also appreciate the maps and dramatis personae at the front of the book.) Royd and Isobel’s early relationship is immediately introduced in a prologue that gets the story off to a fast start. The alluring characters are fully actualized through actions that convey nuances of their personalities, such as the bonds among the four brothers. Isobel and Royd both love and respect the sea, and their headstrong natures are contrasted well with their growing affection. The fast-moving narrative, emotionally weighty plot, and appealing cast make for a dynamic and heartwarming read. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Lunch with the Do Nothings at the Tammy Dinette

Killian B. Brewer. Interlude, $16.99 trade paper (232p) ISBN 978-1-945053-13-9

Brewer’s second novel, “dedicated to Southern women of a certain age,” is all about these ladies, or at least as much about them as one jaded young man can perceive. Marcus Sumter is rootless and cynical, and getting into a car crash in the tiny town of Marathon, Ga., does nothing to improve his outlook. Though vaguely aware that his father hailed from the area, Marcus is in no way prepared to discover that his grandmother there has died and left him her house. He’s even more nonplussed by the parade of postmenopausal ladies this brings into his life: Delores, the menace who drove her car head-on into his; Helen, who sweeps him out of the hospital and into his inheritance; Inez, who thirsts for the gossip a gay neighbor will inspire; and a small host of other Do Nothings of the title. Though billed as romance, this is a classic comedy skit show, a series of set pieces strung along the simplest of plot lines. Hank, the town mechanic, does eventually wander into Marcus’s life, but the point of the story is laughter, and Brewer shows a wicked facility with the pratfalls and plain speaking of the steel magnolias at the book’s heart. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/02/2016 | Details & Permalink

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