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Trying It All

Christi Barth. Loveswept, $4.99 e-book (296p) ISBN 978-0-425-28625-8

In Barth’s fourth Naked Men contemporary (after Giving It All), a woman who doesn’t believe in commitment meets a man who has backup plans for his backup plans. Buttoned-up National Transportation Safety Board agent Riley Ness is one of five men who have formed a solid brotherhood born out of past tragedy. That tragedy shaped Riley into the controlling man he is today. His careful attention to detail is what keeps him anchored in reality. It’s no wonder that seemingly flighty clothing store owner Summer Sheridan, the best friend of his buddy’s girlfriend, drives him crazy: her zest for life comes with a devil-may-care attitude. Yet Summer’s larger-than-life personality developed out of her own trauma after a mass shooting during college. Neither can deny their combustible attraction, and when they look beneath each other’s surfaces, they both begin to understand themselves. The novel is filled with moments of humor (much based on previously established events) and searing sexual tension, and its lighthearted approach to life-altering events adds depth and breadth to the passion. Agent: Jessica Alvarez, BookEnds. (May)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Touching Strangers

Stacey Madden. Now or Never (LitDistCo, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (198p) ISBN 978-1-988098-24-1

Madden (Poison Shy) offers a rousing, weird, and darkly comic tale with a beating pulp fiction heart. Virtually seeping bodily fluids, it evokes films such as David Cronenberg’s Rabid and Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, in which dense urban populations become fertile disease incubators and hell really is other people. The novel begins in a low-rent Toronto apartment building that houses motley renters in close quarters. Aaron and Samantha, a couple since adolescence, share a germ phobia that has resulted in an anxious existence defined by manic hygiene and self-diagnosis. When wildlife start dying, followed by the couple’s neighbors, they and their already unhinged relationship spin out of control. Toronto is soon in crisis; the “buzzard flu” is quick-acting and deadly. Madden’s story remains close to the couple, but its scope steadily widens to include a drug dealer, his dealer, the second dealer’s brother, a sex worker, her clients, and other viral hosts. Using short, film-style jump cuts, Madden expertly covers his expanding cast and their territory, from dirty alleys and retail shops to hospital wards. He offers intriguing thoughts on intimacies, the human need for and fear of them, and their sometimes steep price. He dwells on “the unsettling bizarreness of the situation,” but the story has an appealing B-movie merit: sometimes gory, sometimes crude, sometimes funny, sometimes violent, and altogether engrossing. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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His Brother’s Bride

Nancy M. Bell. Books We Love (Ingram, U.S. dist.; Red Tuque, Canadian dist.), $15.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-77299-302-8

For the Canada’s Historical Brides series, published to coincide with the 150th anniversary of Canadian confederation, Bell (Arabella’s Secret) competently takes readers to rural Ontario in the years leading up to World War I. Annie Baldwin is the youngest daughter of a large homesteading family from Ireland. She has much in common with her brothers and the orphan boys, George and Peter, who sometimes work on their farm, and little connection with her prim and proper mother and sisters or her father, a preacher and doctor. As the war encroaches on life even in rural Canada, with young men returning missing limbs or seriously shell-shocked, George decides he must enlist. He asks Annie to marry him when he returns. But George does not return, and Annie, now dangerously close to spinsterhood, must decide whether she and Peter can base a life together on their shared grief over George’s death. Plotting is strong enough to sustain interest, and there are good descriptions of the hard slog of farm life. The book is somewhat unpolished and populated with rather unoriginal characters, but (despite the spoiler title) it moves along nicely to its fitting conclusion. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Fierce Kingdom

Gin Phillips. Viking, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2427-8

In this harrowing thriller from Phillips (Come in and Cover Me), set at a zoo in an unnamed city, one second Joan is pressing her four-year-old son, Lincoln, to pack his action figures so that they can get out by closing time, and the next gunshots ring out—turning their pleasurable afternoon routine into a parent's worst nightmare. Over the next three hours, Joan struggles to keep her tired, cranky preschooler quiet as she attempts to find a safe hiding place or escape route. She discovers that others are similarly trapped, and that there are apparently multiple shooters, who regard their prey—both human and animal—with no more compassion than if they were targeting Lincoln's plastic heroes and villains. In passages of unexpected beauty, Joan flashes back to earlier moments in her relationship with her son. In one poignant scene, a colobus monkey seemingly mourns its slain comrade ("standing so close that its long white fur mixes with the fur of the dead one, and Joan cannot tell where one stops and the other starts"). A searing exploration of motherhood at its most basic, this all-too-plausible horror story may haunt even readers with steely nerves and strong stomachs. Author tour. Agent: Kimberly Witherspoon, InkWell Management. (July)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Let the Dead Speak

Jane Casey. Minotaur, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-10083-2

In Casey’s compelling, high-tension seventh mystery featuring London’s Det. Constable Maeve Kerrigan (following 2016’s After the Fire), Kerrigan’s homicide team wonder whether their approach has provoked additional crimes from suspects terrified into trying to protect their own secrets. One rainy day, 18-year-old Chloe Emery returns sooner than expected to her mother Kate’s house in Putney after a visit to her father and stepmother. Inside, Chloe finds an angry cat, blood streaks on the walls, and no sign of her mother. The evangelical neighbors next door, Mr. and Mrs. Norris—whose 15-year-old daughter, Bethany, is extremely close to Chloe—take her in, but they disapprove of single mother Kate, who often had men visitors, and are strangely unhelpful when Kerrigan and her crew investigate what appears to be a murder case. The intricate plot unfolds naturally, as Casey never lets readers stray from Kerrigan’s point of view, so that they feel as if they are figuring it all out with her in this increasingly dark and tragic story. Agent: Arielle Feiner, United Agents (U.K.). (July)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Last Good Man

Linda Nagata. Mythic Island, $18 trade paper (466p) ISBN 978-1-937197-22-3

Nebula-winner Nagata (Going Dark) explores incredible AI weaponry in a thrilling novel that lays bare the imminent future of warfare. Seattle-based Requisite Operations, a private military company, agrees to rescue captive doctor Fatima Atwan from the gangster El-Hashem. ReqOp’s director of operations, True Brighton, is stunned when the mission unexpectedly uncovers connections to her soldier son Diego’s death by torture eight years before. True is soon at odds with ReqOp’s owner, Lincoln Han, over how to bring the culprits to justice, but both want the truth. Meanwhile, True’s husband struggles to believe that anything they learn from further investigation will ease the pain of Diego’s death. Autonomous helicopters, animal-shaped biomimetic robots, and True’s insectile “origami army” are integral to her quest and provide a mesmerizing glimpse of the probable forthcoming roles—or obsolescence—of human soldiers. Readers will be left questioning the possibility of achieving a peaceful future. Agent: Howard Morhaim, Howard Morhaim Literary Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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In The Valley of the Sun

Andy Davidson. Skyhorse, $24.99 (384p) ISBN 978-1-5107-2110-4

In this bold, confident debut, Davidson takes the vampire myth to 1980s West Texas, perfectly capturing the feel of the era and place. Travis Stillwell is hardly a good man; he’s strangled multiple women with his belt. But when a vampire named Rue turns him and strands him in a motel parking lot, he resists killing the model’s widowed owner, Annabelle, or her young son, Sandy. This frustrates Rue, who has wandered for decades before finding someone as violent as Travis and needs him to embrace his inner beast. Meanwhile, a Texas Ranger named Reader is hunting Travis down, unaware of the change he’s undergone. Davidson lets his story play out slowly, using multiple points of view and long flashbacks to explore the perspectives and histories of his various protagonists. The obligatory violence becomes an organic, inevitable result of the needs of the characters coming into conflict. Davidson successfully makes the lines between genre and literary fiction bleed together in a complex novel of horror, human nature, and the American South. Agent: Elizabeth Copps, Maria Carvainis Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Lady Travelers Guide to Scoundrels and Other Gentlemen

Victoria Alexander. HQN, $7.99 mass market (416p) ISBN 978-0-373-80398-9

Prolific historical romance author Alexander (The Daring Exploits of a Runaway Heiress) spins pure fun in the first full-length installment of her Victorian-era Lady Travelers Guide series. Stuffy, demanding spinster India Prendergast wants to stay at her secretarial position in England, but her beloved cousin Lady Heloise Snuggs has vanished in Paris, and India is determined to find her. The fraudulent Lady Travelers Society—run by the widow Lady Guinevere Blodgett and two of her friends—arranged Heloise’s trip, and they respond to her disappearance by sending Lady Blodgett’s grandnephew Derek Saunders, heir to the Earl of Danby, to help India search. Naturally, sparks fly between Derek and India as they solve the mystery. Alexander’s protagonists remain sharp while changing for the better by beginning to trust each other and admit their own fallibility. Her secondary characters, including the city of Paris at the turn of the 20th century, provide support and delightful eccentricity. Alexander celebrates the spirit of adventure, elevates dubious scheming with good intentions, and advocates for the yielding of judgment and practicality to hedonism and happiness. Readers will savor every page. (June)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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My Heart Hemmed In

Marie NDiaye, trans. from the French by Jordan Stump. Two Lines (PGW, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (296p) ISBN 978-1-931883-62-7

In this claustrophobic, slow-burning, surreal novel in the existentialist tradition, NDiaye (Ladivine) explores a contemporary French social problem. Two teachers, Nadia and her husband, Ange, find themselves suddenly and bizarrely being treated “like wretched dogs” in the streets of their small French community. Nadia has no idea why, but it keeps getting worse: a strange wound develops on Ange’s stomach, and an elderly neighbor inexplicably forces Nadia to let him into their apartment to take care of him. Nadia becomes convinced he is attempting “something like our enslavement.” To find out what’s happening, she feels she must abandon Ange on a trip to visit her ex-husband and estranged son. Clues about the reason for their mistreatment accumulate—from Nadia’s belief that her granddaughter’s name, Souhar, is “perpetuating the indignity of our bloodline,” to an imagined conversation in a language “I tried hard to forget.” The subtly executed reveal of Nadia’s heritage allows NDiaye to artfully transform Nadia’s despair, which early on reads as purely philosophical, into an acknowledgment that she is a victim of French xenophobia. Nadia’s trip provokes a startling reunion, and only afterwards does she admit that despite having “inwardly snuffed out every visible trace of my upbringing,” the best she can hope for are comments like “It’s so hard for people like you.” NDiaye proves with this revelatory and devastating book how perilous such understatement can be. (July)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Forest Dark

Nicole Krauss. Harper, $27.99 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-243099-1

Krauss’s elegant, provocative, and mesmerizing novel is her best yet. Rich in profound insights and emotional resonance, it follows two characters on their paths to self-realization. In present-day Israel, two visiting Americans—one a young wife, mother, and novelist, the other an elderly philanthropist—experience transcendence. In alternating chapters, Krauss (The History of Love) first presents Jules Epstein, a high-powered retired Manhattan lawyer whose relentless energy has dimmed with his recent divorce, the death of his parents, and an inchoate desire to divest himself of the chattels of his existence. A change of POV introduces a narrator—a Brooklyn resident named Nicole who has a failing marriage, two young children, and writer’s block. Both Jules and Nicole are vulnerable to despair and loss of faith, and trust in conventional beliefs. Although they never meet, similar existential crises bring them to Tel Aviv, where each is guided by a mysterious Israeli and experiences glimpses of a surreal world where they feel their true identities lie. A charismatic rabbi, Menachem Klausner, claims that Jules is a descendant of King David. Meanwhile, Nicole is lured into meeting Eliezer Friedman, a retired literature professor and perhaps an ex-Mossad agent who attempts to convince Nicole of a preposterous but increasingly alluring idea: that Franz Kafka didn’t die in Prague but secretly was smuggled into Israel. He wants Nicole to write about the hidden life of this famous literary figure. Nicole’s conversations with Friedman and Epstein’s with Klausner about God and the creation of the world are bracingly intellectual and metaphysical. Vivid, intelligent, and often humorous, this novel is a fascinating tour de force. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 04/28/2017 | Details & Permalink

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