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Autumn

Ali Smith. Pantheon, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-1-101-87073-0

This splendid free-form novel—the first in a seasonally themed tetralogy—chronicles the last days of a lifelong friendship between Elisabeth, a British university lecturer in London, and her former neighbor, a centenarian named Daniel. Opening with an oblique, dreamy prologue about mortality, the novel proper sets itself against this past summer's historic Brexit vote, intermittently flashing back to the early years of Elisabeth and Daniel's relationship. Though there are a few relevant subplots, including Elisabeth's nightmarish attempt to procure a new passport, as well as her fascination with the painter Pauline Boty, the general plot is appropriately shapeless, reflecting the character's discombobulated psyche. Smith (How to Be Both) deftly juxtaposes her protagonists' physical and emotional states in the past and present, tracking Elisabeth's path from precocity to disillusionment. Eschewing traditional structure and punctuation, the novel charts a wild course through uncertain terrain, an approach that excites and surprises in equal turn. Seen through Elisabeth's eyes, Daniel's deterioration is particularly affecting. Smith, always one to take risks, sees all of them pay off yet again. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The White City

Karolina Ramqvist, trans. from the Swedish by Saskia Vogel.. Black Cat, $16 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2595-8

In Ramqvist's exciting English-language debut, Karin spends the winter inside her mansion, taking naps and breast-feeding her infant daughter, Dream, a child she never wanted. Her criminal lover, John, left the two of them when the authorities began tracking him, and now Karin has to deal with his actions. She manages to get by until the Swedish Economic Crime Authority pays her a visit to inform her that all of her assets will be seized in nine days in order to cover John's tax debt. Karin finds herself with nowhere to turn. She and Dream go to visit her former friends to ask for help but get turned down. This short novel, full of suspense and beautifully written dreamlike sequences, places readers directly in Karin's situation and allows them to feel her isolation and desperation. Though Ramqvist withholds a great deal of information, especially regarding John, Karin's emotional journey will have a lasting impact on readers. Agent: Astri von Arbin Ahlander, Ahlander Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Facials Can Be Fatal: A Bad Hair Day Mystery

Nancy J. Cohen. Five Star, $25.95 (286p) ISBN 978-1-4328-3282-7

At the start of Cohen's lame 13th Bad Hair Day mystery (after 2015's Peril by Ponytail), Valerie Weston, a major source of support for Friends of Old Florida, a historical building–preservation society, expires while getting a facial at Marla Vail's hair salon, the Cut 'N Dye, in Palm Haven, Fla. Marla's husband, homicide detective Dalton Vail, lends a hand in the process of investigating Weston's demise. Since Marla's staff members were hired to prep the models at FOFL's big fashion show/fund-raiser event, Marla has the chance to interview Weston's associates, including designer Yolanda Whipp. When photographer Jason Faulks is murdered at the show and Yolanda's jeweled headpiece is stolen, the investigation widens. Marla gets help from photos that Faulks sent to her right before his death and from an old journal given to her by a friend of Weston's as she pushes and prods her way to a dangerous but unexciting climax. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Lonely Hearts Hotel

Heather O'Neill. Riverhead, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-7352-1373-9

In a love story of epic proportions, O'Neill's (Daydreams of Angels) excellent historical novel plumbs the depths of happiness and despair for two orphans determined not to let the world get them down. Stepping into the minds of children, circus performers, prostitutes, gangsters, and into the dismal days of the Great Depression, the world on these pages is unforgettable and larger than the moon. Pierrot and Rose are abandoned to an orphanage in 1914 Montreal, where they grow up together and discover their talent for absurdist, Vaudevillian-style performances in front of the other orphan children, then later in front of rich patrons in the city. Pierrot, with his mesmerizing piano, and Rose, with her invisible dancing bear, make lavish plans for their artistic career, fall in love with each other, and are inseparable—until they are forced apart as teens. Through the ensuing years, each holds on to their dreams of extravagant circus shows and of finding each other again, while entering a dark world of drugs, sex, starvation, and survival. At the very end of the tunnel are floodlights to the stage, sad clowns, gigantic moon props, chorus girls, and the one thing that time and distance cannot diminish—true love grander than any circus act. This novel will cast a spell on readers from page one. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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My Darling Detective

Howard Norman. . Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-544-23610-3

Norman's (Next Life Might Be Kind) latest novel opens with Canadian Jacob Rigolet witnessing his mother, Nora, vandalize a famous World War II photograph at a Halifax art auction in 1977. Nora, having escaped from the Nova Scotia Rest Hospital, is subsequently arrested and interviewed by Jacob's fiancée, Halifax police detective Martha Crauchet. Martha's investigation reveals that Jacob's father is in the photo taken by Robert Capa on Apr. 20, 1945, in Leipzig, Germany—and was killed the next day. The investigation's real surprise, however, is the link it uncovers between Nora and Robert Emil, a Jew-hating Halifax cop and the prime suspect in two unsolved 1945 murders. Martha and her two detective partners reopen the cold cases, never suspecting how the connections will affect Jacob. Emil is still alive, as arrogant and shifty as ever, and after a tense police interrogation, arrest, and subsequent escape from custody, he vows to kill everyone involved in the case. The result is a scary stand-off in the Halifax public library. Jacob and Martha are delightful characters, young lovers unraveling a complex and very personal mystery. This is a crowd-pleasing old school mystery novel. Agent: Melanie Jackson, Melanie Jackson Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Kingdom of the Young

Edie Meidav. Sarabande (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-941411-41-4

With her first collection of stories, Meidav (Lola, California) offers an uneven but charged series of character portraits. The most remarkable are of an aging "educational consultant" who ogles a young woman in a hot tub in "The King of Bubbles," and, in "Beef," a veteran who works as a shady door-to-door meat salesman and insists that his tactics aren't evil: "if it were evil, I'd be a liar or someone would've stopped me already." These eccentric highlights are unfortunately surrounded by stories in which Meidav's arresting prose is applied to more forgettable subjects. In "Dog's Journey," a Cuban boxing prodigy becomes "a shame to the nation" after escaping to Florida, and in "Koi," an interracial childhood friendship proves to be impossible to sustain. A more startling revelation is that the woman in "The King of Bubbles" has two glass eyes; when she removes them to swim, she exposes "two gouged slits no monster could envy." It's an effect akin to what's imagined in "Modern Parables #1: Theft," about a young man who has turned kleptomania into performance art in which "you enter the show as a viewer and don't notice when or how your pocket is picked." This is an experience based on shock and surprise, not a slow procession to an obvious conclusion. "A person," Meidav's narrator observes, "could be freed by such magic." (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/03/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Too Deep for Words

Andrea Boeshaar. Kregel, $14.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-8254-4419-7

Readers interested in the Civil War will find much to delight in Boeshaar’s (A Thousand Shall Fall) writing, but would be wise to read the series in order. In this second installment in the Shenandoah Valley Saga, the Civil War has changed newlywed Carrie Ann Collier’s life in many ways. Her husband, a Union soldier, is missing in battle. Carrie learns her husband entrusted her care to his best friend, Eli, a Confederate soldier, and when she tries to find out why Eli, and what exactly happened, she finds herself in dangerous territory. She and Eli must come to terms with the new realities war has thrust upon them. Readers who have not read the first book may find themselves abruptly dropped into the story, creating a sense of displacement that is only increased by the frequent point-of-view changes. The plot meanders and characters spend many scenes reacting to more interesting events, slowing the pace dramatically. As a second book in a series, some unresolved plotlines are expected, but the ending creates more frustration than anticipation. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Chapel Car Bride

Judith Miller. Bethany House, $15.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7642-1905-4

This book is inspired by 19th-century itinerant preachers and chapel cars, specially built houses of worship in train cars used to spread the Gospel throughout sparsely populated parts of the U.S. Hope Irvine, a preacher’s daughter, is always thrilled to join her father on his adventures as a chapel car preacher and can’t wait to set off on his new assignment to Finch, W.Va. Although she and her father want to help, the coal mining community is reluctant to accept them. Luke Hughes, a local miner, finds his faith refreshed with the arrival of Hope and her father. Luke offers to help them navigate Finch’s closed culture, but quickly they discover the town’s many challenges come from both inside and out. The story becomes murky, however. The book is categorized as a romance, but scenes of authentic romance between Luke and Hope are few. Also disappointing is the prominence of a third character, from whose point of view Miller frequently writes scenes,who lacks a character arc and abruptly exits with little resolution. Miller’s (The Artisan’s Wife) fans will enjoy this romp following the traveling chapels of yesteryear. Agent: Wendy Lawton, Books & Such (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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A Fare to Remember

Opal Carew. St. Martin’s Griffin, $15.99 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-11668-0

In this laughably puerile chain of sex scenes disguised as a novel, a cab driver named Stevie, who happens to come from a moneyed family but cut ties to live a more down-to-earth life, picks up an astonishingly good-looking businessman fare. She decides to go against what she says is her normal behavior and initiates unprotected sex with him against an alley wall before even learning his name, which turns out to be Reid. A similarly absurd string of decisions leads to inviting Reid’s best friend, Dylan, to join them in the bedroom, where the three of them engage in a number of also-unprotected sex acts that Carew (Tempting the Boss) has clearly never bothered to research. The hilariously cheesy porno-flick dialogue and farcical descriptions (including a “meaty popsicle”) make this ostensibly erotic tale an easy miss. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Hard Justice: Body Armor, Book 2

Lori Foster. HQN, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-373-79932-9

Everything that made Under Pressure such a winner is missing from Foster’s second Body Armor romantic thriller, in which a tensionless plot is built upon an improbable premise. Former MMA fighter Justice Wallington accepts an assignment as personal bodyguard for 24-year-old Fallon Wade. Fallon’s controlling, overprotective father has kept her under constant guard for only the last five years, but the extent of her naïveté implies she lived on another planet for the first 19. She has no friends, few life experiences, and no depth. What suspense there is ensues as Fallon’s ex and some duplicitous associates from Justice’s former life threaten their blossoming romance and their lives. Forgettable characters caught in an unremarkable story make this a rare lapse in Foster’s otherwise superlative oeuvre. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/24/2017 | Details & Permalink

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