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An Untimely Frost

Penny Richards. Kensington, $15 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-4967-0602-7

Set in Illinois in 1881, this riveting series launch from Richards (Wolf Creek Father) introduces plucky 22-year-old actress Lilly Long. One evening, Lilly returns to her Chicago boarding house to discover her husband of four months stealing her life's savings and roughing up her best friend. Lilly is forced to examine the reality of her times: it's a man's world. Women are undeservedly denied jobs, married women lose control of their money, and divorce leaves a lasting stain on a woman's good name. Lilly decides to change the direction of her life by applying for a job at the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Her first assignment—to trace the owner of an abandoned house—takes her to the small town of Vandalia, Ill. Strange undercurrents of sorrow and menace swirl around our intrepid heroine, drawing her into a vortex of cruelty and long-buried evil. Richards provides just the right amount of melodrama in this lively tale. Agent: Jim Hart, Hartline Literary. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Unholyland: The Trilogy

Aidan Andrew Dun. Interlink, $20 trade paper (264p) ISBN 978-1-56656-062-7

The well-worn ground of cross-conflict love is given the sonnet treatment in this story of an Israeli DJ and a Palestinian rapper who struggle to make their burgeoning relationship work despite a history of war. Moss is a DJ with a deep love for Palestinian hip-hop and deep guilt over the ongoing Israel-Palestine Conflict. On a trip to a secret underground club in Nazareth, he is wowed and wooed by an up-and-coming Palestinian rapper named Jalilah, a teenager who lives in the Shatila refugee camp near Beirut. The two immediately fall for each other, but these lovers are intensely star-crossed: Moss is due to serve his mandatory military service in the Israeli Defense Forces, and Jalilah's parents want her to marry someone they approve of. Despite the many obstacles in their way, the two are determined to be together, although their countries and people have other ideas. Told in a series of sonnets, the story draws on a litany of influences, including the political slingshot hip-hop of Palestine, Rastafarian reggae, religious myth, and slang. The result is an engaging and remarkable story that moves from past to present to provide a comprehensive (if decidedly anti-Israel) view of decades of conflict between two peoples and different generations. With so much going on, it is easy to lose the thread of the narrative among the rhymes and time-jumps. Even so, it is an innovative work that draws the reader in with a real sense of danger and urgency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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I'm Still Here (Je Suis La)

Clilie Avit. Grand Central, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4555-3762-4

A woman in a coma and a man in despair change each other's lives in this romantic debut novel. Elsa Bilier has been in a coma for 20 weeks, but recently regained her sense of hearing. Thibault Gramont drives his mother to the hospital to visit his injured brother, but is himself too disgusted with his brother—who killed two teenagers while driving drunk—to join the visits. When Thibault enters a random room, seeking escape, he finds Elsa. By the end of this odd encounter, Elsa hopes her friendly stranger will return, and he does. Thibault's visits bolster Elsa's determination to emerge from her coma, and her predicament inspires Thibault to start living his life differently, in hopes that they can someday share their lives. Both Elsa and Thibault display a refreshing combination of traits—Elsa's adventurous streak as a glacier climber mixed with her humorous romantic nature; Thibault's adoration of his goddaughter mixed with genuine rage at his brother—and each possesses a limpid, compulsive voice. However, the development of the romance is slightly lopsided. It is understandable that Elsa's attachment to this kind newcomer develops into love, but Thibault's emotional journey is less relatable. Though the reader knows that Elsa enjoys his company, Thibault himself cannot know this, and is thus in the unattractive role of a man entranced by a woman who can voice neither her opinions nor her consent. Nevertheless, Avit's novel succeeds thanks to the sheer charm of its narrators. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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All True Not a Lie in It

Alix Hawley. Ecco Press, $15.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-247009-6

This historical fiction debut is a quiet, sweeping story about the life of mythic frontiersman Daniel Boone. Told entirely from the perspective of Boone himself, the book meanders through his early childhood, sharing formative moments such as his joy for the first gun he owned and his brother Isaiah teaching him to hunt, and his family's exile from their religious community in Exeter, N.H. From there, the reader follows Boone on his peripatetic adventures as he pushes westward, searching for paradise. Though Boone does marry and start a family, he can't be tied down and has a constant itch to carry on his search for heaven on earth. Adventure is both wondrous and tragic for Boone, who sees his first herd of buffalo and traverses the beautiful, untouched land of Kentucky but also has multiple run-ins with the Shawnee and grieves the deaths of loved ones. The narrative is carried by the strong, poetic voice, which at times is as hard to pin down as the man himself. Boone's ghosts—of both people and places—follow and haunt him despite his attempts to shake them off through almost constant exploration into the unknown. Hawley's marvelous book shines light on a figure that has become more legend than man, sharing an intimate and raw portrayal of Boone that rings true. Agent: Denise Bukowski, Bukowski Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Virginity of Famous Men

Christine Sneed. Bloomsbury, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-62040-695-3

Sneed's impressive and expansive story collection (following Portraits of a Few of the People I've Made Cry) exposes the vulnerabilities of life's many relationships: parents and children, friends, siblings, and lovers. "Beach Vacation" sets the tone for the collection, opening with the strained bond between a mother and her teenage son as she expresses her disappointment over the man he has grown to be. The tension switches from parental failure to comic satire with tales of Hollywood: "The First Wife," about the first wife of a famous movie star and his inevitable infidelity; a middle-aged producer falling for a starstruck wannabe in "The Prettiest Girls"; and, in the title story, an American who flees to Paris to escape his famous father's shadow. Each character's point of view reflects the myriad anxieties of modern life and love, the pressure to make moral choices, the failure of decisions, and the fear of what comes next. When a recently divorced woman finds work at a call center in "Words That Once Shocked Us," she befriends a colleague seeking attention outside her new marriage; she would rather have a friend than no one to share her love with. From the rich and famous to the down and out, Sneed's characters are exposed by life's twists and turns, their inner struggles laid bare as they seek connection to the people they love most . (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Cage in Search of a Bird

Florence Noiville, trans. from the French by Teresa Lavender Fagan. Seagull, $21 (144p) ISBN 978-0-85742-375-7

Anyone observing Laura and C would think they're best friends. They've known each other since high school, they work together, and they even dress alike. Only Laura knows the truth: C is stalking her. She takes over Laura's projects at work, follows her outside the office, and pretends to be Laura on Facebook. Laura believes these are signs of De Clérambault syndrome, a disease causing those affected to irrationally pursue the object of their desire, even when that person is not in love with them. She researches historical cases of the disease and arrives at a startling conclusion: the obsession will only end if one of them dies. Noiville's (Attachment) Hitchcock-style psychological thriller will satisfy even the most ardent suspense fan. Readers' only complaint will be the brevity of the story: the plot jumps headlong into C's obsession with little backstory and continues at a breakneck speed until the abrupt conclusion. But those looking for a gripping read will not be disappointed. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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White Nights in Split Town City

Annie DeWitt. Tyrant, $15 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-9913608-4-0

In DeWitt's debut, 12-year-old Jean comes of age in the summer of 1990. Jean is a voraciously observant young woman. She can't help but stare. "You don't look at people like that," her mother scolds her, but how else is she to understand the world she lives in? When her mother suddenly vanishes without explanation, the town's horses begin dying from disease, and the Gulf War gets underway, Jean finds herself on the crumbling edge of her childhood. She discovers that people are not as they seem, that there is danger in innocence and innocence in what appears to be most dangerous. Jean comes to know herself by watching her neighbors, her town, and her family, learning what they reveal and what they keep hidden. Along with an abandoned boy whom she befriends, Jean builds a surreptitious fort and begins to discover the hidden secrets and desires of her neighbors in the Bottom Feeder, her ominously named New England town. Jean also learns that secrets can also be things we keep from ourselves. DeWitt's novel is a powerful and haunting debut from an author who has an ear for lyricism and an eye on what is hidden just beneath the surface. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Clothed, Female Figure

Kirstin Allio. Dzanc (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-941088-09-8

The debut short story collection by National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 honoree Allio (Garner) presents eloquent and sophisticated investigations into the complex relationships between mothers and daughters. Allio's characters often suffer great losses, as in "Millennium," in which a young woman makes an abrupt move to New York City after the death of her mother, and "Still Life," a portrait of a wife and mother who is left reeling after the mysterious suicide of a close friend. Another story, the lovely "Quetzal," examines the inner life of an alcoholic academic whose mother abandoned her at age 11. Many of the stories hinge on the revelation of a secret, such as when the narrator of "The Other Woman" learns about a long-ago deception on behalf of her mother, or when the Russian émigré narrator of the beautiful and exceptionally moving title story, having worked a lifetime as a nanny, finally faces painful truths about her familial past after receiving a series of letters from a former charge. The women populating this collection are often confined to small, domestic spaces, which Allio describes with great intimacy and perfectly chosen details. These stories are sometimes deceptively slow to reveal their true subjects, as in "Charm Circle," when the perspective shifts from mother to daughter halfway through the story to surprising effect. Taken as a whole, the collection paints a panoramic portrait of the bonds between mothers and daughters, the complicated fierceness of their love, and the anguish and confusion that accompanies loss. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Castle of Kings

Oliver Potzsch. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28 (672p) ISBN 978-0-544-31951-6

It's 1524 in what is now Germany, and 16-year-old countess Lady Agnes, daughter of the castellan of Trifels Castle, loves nothing more than eschewing dresses and spending time with her falcon, Percival. Meanwhile, her dear friend, 17-year-old Mathis Weilenbach, is fascinated by the possibilities presented by gunpowder, and he's not afraid to experiment. When Agnes finds a ring attached to Percival's foot, she's mystified and determined to find out where it came from. Her confidant, Father Tristan, seems to know something relevant but is hesitant to share it. Soon, Mathis is caught up in a rebellion that's fueled by peasants tired of struggling when nobles and the clergy drape themselves in finery. He's horrified by the bloodshed and, along with Agnes, goes on the run. Pötzsch (The Hangman's Daughter) packs a dizzying amount into this hefty novel, which spans two years: battles, romance, rebellion, jailbreaks, robber knights, treasure hunts, and above all, a heroine who is not afraid to defy her station or the constraints of her gender. Historical fans will find much to love in the immersive worldbuilding and fully realized characters. (July)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Romeo and/or Juliet

Ryan North. Riverhead, $20 (400p) ISBN 978-1-101-98330-0

North follows up on his previous choose-your-own-adventure Shakespeare, To Be or Not to Be, with another zany tale. North begins by explaining that this is the original work that Shakespeare plagiarized; it was "lost until recently" but that the author found it "just over there... Someone had put a coat over it." The reader can choose to follow Shakespeare's story, which is told in modern teen-speak sprinkled with more classical phrases and occasional extended passages of amazing iambic pentameter. Choosing this path, of course, leads to the untimely death of both protagonists in a crypt in Verona, but other paths lead to "happily ever after in Mantua," patrolling the streets of Verona in giant mechanical suits, or dying at the hands of ninjas and punks. The possibilities are certainly vast and there are great illustrations by a panoply of talented artists to tempt readers down other plot lines. There are even chances to play as other characters, and to choose your own sex scene. This book will provide readers with hours of somewhat twisted Shakespearean fun. (June)

Reviewed on 07/22/2016 | Details & Permalink

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