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The Story People

Heather Kaufmann. Concordia, $12.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7586-5625-4

In an otherworldly space, two children have a secret room where they bond over their love of stories and interact with their imaginary friends, the Story People, who eat the tales they recite in order to stay alive. Outside of this magical setup but somehow nearby is Palermo’s bookstore in New Holden, Ind., owned by single and lonely Ben Palermo. In the small town, Ben is a hot commodity, and Mrs. Baumgartner, Mrs. Gardner, and Mrs. Frank have elaborate plans to fix Ben up with someone. Ben goes along with their schemes but never has his heart captured by the many suitors they present. Enter Rosemary Berg, in town to care for her grandmother. Rosemary is a children’s book illustrator who loved Palermo’s as a child and runs into Ben during a sale at the local church. As the story progresses, chapters end with italicized sections returning to the secret room and the Story People. Kaufmann’s winsome main narrative following Ben is full of misunderstandings, high jinks, and lonely people who find one another despite the many obstacles that stand in the way. The sections about the Story People, however brief, bring a nice undercurrent concerning the state of reading and the power of the imagination. Readers will enjoy this sweet tale of a unique bookstore and the patrons that love it, but some might wish for less of the formidable Mrs. Gardner and the quest to get Ben hitched. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Death in the Shadows

Paul McCusker. Lion, $14.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-78264-122-3

Wearing the priestly white collar hasn’t ended Father Gilbert’s sleuthing tendencies. The former detective stumbles into a murder mystery while visiting the seaside town Engelsea on the English Channel for a pastors’ convention, and he can’t help but investigate after he experiences several supernatural visions of a murdered girl. As events bring him to the local massage parlors, which he suspects are a front for a thriving sex trade, he encounters an old Scotland Yard buddy. Tensions climb when the local monastery is vandalized and a young monk dies suspiciously—with signs pointing back to the massage parlors. Father Gilbert proves to be persistent, insightful, and wry in his quest for answers. McCusker (The Body Under the Bridge) uses a well-written whodunit plot line and sympathetic, flawed characters to invite the reader into the very real horror of modern slavery and sex trafficking. And since it’s starring Father Gilbert, spiritual forces play a key role in the story—the apparitions can get a bit sensational, but the author’s message of grace and truth addresses morality without sounding preachy. This second installment of the Father Gilbert Mystery series will engage readers and attract new fans. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Going Deep

Anne Calhoun. St. Martin’s, $7.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-08462-0

Calhoun’s fifth Alpha Ops novel (after Under the Surface) doesn’t break new ground, but its fast pace and solid supporting cast are entertaining. Pop musician Cady Ward is nearing superstardom based on the success of her latest album and nonstop tour. Spending the holidays in her hometown of Lancaster, Pa., seems the right prescription for making important decisions about her next album. But before she can relax in her new home, aggressive attention from a too-eager fan combined with sinister attacks on social media force Cady to hire Conn McCormick, a local cop who’s lying low during an Internal Affairs investigation of shady business within the police department. Conn and Cady are wildly attracted to each other, and their vows to keep things professional don’t last long. In protecting Cady, Conn realizes that he can be more than a beat cop: he can unravel who’s going after Cady and clean up the department, too. Readers will enjoy watching both characters grow as their romance deepens. Agent: Laura Bradford, Bradford Literary. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Heated Pursuit

April Hunt. Forever, $5.99 mass market (304p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3945-1

Hunt’s romantic suspense debut, which launches the Alpha Security Series, smartly balances slow-burning passion and explosive high-stakes danger. In present-day Honduras, sassy American Penny Kline is bent on rescuing her kidnapped niece from a ruthless drug kingpin, Diego Fuentes, when she crosses paths with Alpha Security operative Rafe Ortega and his covert operation to destroy Fuentes. Despite the Alpha motto, “The mission comes first,” tantalizing banter, titillating moves, and past demons all keep sexual tension burning between Penny and Rafe until Fuentes forces a desperate move. The couple pose as a self-made millionaire and his “American arm candy” girlfriend and visit Fuentes’s off-the-grid fortress home, hoping to gain his trust. Dodging Fuentes’s intense scrutiny, Rafe and Penny discover distressing information and find pleasure in their sizzling sexual relationship. But time is running out for stopping the drug distribution, finding Penny’s niece, and cementing their relationship. Rafe’s skills and Penny’s gritty attitude make survival possible, but any misstep may prove fatal. This book satisfactorily kicks off an adventure-packed romance series, and readers will eagerly anticipate the next installment. Agent: Sarah Younger, Nancy Yost Literary. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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How to Impress a Marquess

Susanna Ives. Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-4022-8363-5

Ives’s third Wicked Little Secrets Victorian romance (after Wicked, My Love), in which an oil-and-water couple take a circuitous path to love, is a diverting comedy of errors. Just by being herself, free spirit Lilith Dahlgren rankles the very core of George, Marquess of Marylewick. He’s the keeper of her funds, and the tightfisted “fusty frog” spares no effort when it comes to trying to rein her in. Yet at every turn she persists in defying his authority: taking freeloading relations into her London home; entertaining unsavory artists, poets, and other ne’er-do-wells; and being wholly irresponsible with money. The comedy ratchets up when Lilith decides to earn some extra cash by anonymously writing and publishing a serialized romantic story about a handsome sultan (who resembles George) and his lover (who resembles Lilith). Of course George secretly follows the story and privately lusts after the heroine all while insisting that Lilith must abandon her undisciplined lifestyle and become a proper lady. This is a jolly good read with plenty of conflict and banter. Agent: Paige Wheeler, Creative Media Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Simon’s Cat

Lotus Oakes. Less Than Three, $3.99 e-book (121p) ISBN 978-1-62004-864-1

Oakes adds a dash of science fiction to her inventive retelling of “Puss in Boots,” set somewhere in the intersection of the present, the future, and the lands of myth. When Simon’s father dies, he leaves the house and mill to his oldest two sons, Harold and George. All “sweet, simple, stupid” Simon inherits is his father’s Pet, named Cat, a human-cat hybrid sworn to serve its master. As tensions mount among the brothers, Simon promises Cat his freedom if he can make Simon a lord of the realm and end his family’s money worries. Cat manages to bluff and charm his way into the good graces of the king, but he still has to find Simon an estate to rule. Conquering that challenge tests not only Cat’s skills but his growing romantic feelings for Simon. Oakes’s worldbuilding is sparse but deft, making it easy to believe that kings, chimera Pets (which seem to have some cyborg components as well), and subways comfortably coexist. Some questions, including why a lower-class mill owner had an expensive Pet, go frustratingly unanswered, and readers may frown at the notion of romance in the context of literal ownership. Fortunately, the fairy tale ending swerves just enough from the expected to ease those concerns, making this revamped fable all the more delightful. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Only You

Denise Grover Swank. Forever, $6.99 mass market (368p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3976-5

Contemporary romance fans who love bridal trappings and don’t mind well-meant social manipulations as long as they lead to a happy ending will delight in the opener of Swank’s Bachelor Brotherhood trilogy (spun off from the Wedding Pact series), a sentimental, endearingly goofy story that packs a surprising amount of impulsive heat. Construction foreman Kevin Vandemeer, who’s recently returned to Blue Springs, Mo., after a stint in the Marines, has sworn off women and resigned himself to living in the disaster of a fixer-upper his sister has purchased for him. He even agrees to keep the kitten she finds under the steps. Then next door neighbor Holly Greenwood awkwardly brings him part of a homemade lasagna, and they inevitably hit it off. But the demanding wedding planner for whom Holly works is actually Kevin’s mother, and the family meddling in their lives runs deep on both sides. Keeping the relationship secret until Holly’s big assignment is done will be both necessary and challenging. Swank’s fluffy, feel-good storytelling proclaims the primacy of love as a force to which everyone should surrender—the bachelors destined to star in future installments haven’t got a chance. Agent: Jim McCarthy, Dystel & Goderich. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Shadowed Souls

Edited by Jim Butcher and Kerrie L. Hughes. Roc, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-451-47499-5

The morally gray heroes of this urban fantasy anthology refute the idea that all magic users are either good or evil. Butcher opens with his own “Cold Case,” the heart-wrenching story of a young woman trying to reconcile her new and terrible power with the duty she must perform. Seanan McGuire’s “Sleepover” follows nicely, revealing a world where magical people are reviled and unwelcome. Tanya Huff’s “If Wishes Were,” the grim story of a vampire holding desperately to her humanity through the man she loves, rounds out a powerful opening, but from here the anthology begins to lose momentum. Several stories are amusing but not exceptional. Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Sales. Force.” revives the flagging collection, but the final story, “Impossible Monsters” by Rob Thurman, falls flat, adding an incidental magical element to the tired trope of a serial killer who goes after evildoers. Not every story will appeal to every reader, but the best of them truly shine. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Splinterlands

John Feffer. Haymarket, $13.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-60846-724-2

In a chilling, thoughtful, and intuitive warning, foreign policy analyst Feffer (Crusade 2.0) takes today’s woes of a politically fragmented, warming Earth and amplifies them into future catastrophe. Looking back from his hospital bed in 2050, octogenarian geo-paleontologist Julian West contemplates his fractured world and estranged family. West is writing the follow-up to his bestselling 2020 monograph, Splinterlands, in which he analyzes the disintegrated international community. By 2050, the refugee-saturated European Union has collapsed; the countries of Brazil, Russia, India, and China have splintered; and Washington, D.C., is gone, destroyed by Hurricane Donald in 2022. There are water wars, imitation foods made from seaweed, inequality, disease, and sleeper terrorists. On a virtual reality trip to make amends, West visits his children—professor Aurora in a deteriorating Brussels rampant with kidnappings; wealthy opportunist Gordon in Xinjiang, no longer part of China; and freedom fighter Benjamin in prosperous Botswana. His ex-wife, Rachel, lives in a commune in a snowless Vermont, now a farming paradise. Lending credibility to his predictions, Feffer includes footnotes from West’s editor written around 2058. This novel is not for the emotionally squeamish or optimistic; Feffer’s confident recitation of world collapse is terrifyingly plausible, a short but encompassing look at world tragedy. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Outcast Spirit

Lady Dilke. Snuggly, $14.95 trade paper (174p) ISBN 978-1-943813-13-1

Emily Francis Strong (1840–1904) became an eminent art historian during her first marriage (to the rector of Oxford, Mark Pattinson), despite the contested status of women in Victorian British academia. After Pattinson’s death, she married Lord Charles Dilke and, writing as Emilia, Lady Dilke, published two books of short weird tales, The Shrine of Death and Other Stories (1886) and The Shrine of Love and Other Stories (1891). This collection contains all but two of the stories from both earlier books, and two additional stories published by Lord Dilke after her death. Both Dilke’s language and the scenes she depicts are pre-Raphaelite in the intense vividness of her imagery and her concentration on heroism and chivalric subjects, and she was, in fact, part of the pre-Raphaelite social circle, but her morality bears little resemblance to that movement’s intense Christianity. Dilke’s dark fables are heavily allegorical, strongly gothic, and deeply melancholy. “The Shrine of Death” depicts the horrific pseudo-marriage of a foolish woman; in “The Hangman’s Daughter,” a knight ensnared by witchcraft undergoes a complicated downfall. Her plots and characterization are elliptical, and her prose is intentionally archaic (“Hast thou done my bidding twice, and, at thrice, shalt thou say me, ‘Nay’?”), but her stories offer plentiful beauty and uncanniness. A new generation of literary scholars will be delighted that this collection makes Dilke’s work more easily available. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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