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Bounty

Michael Byrnes. Ballantine, $28 (432p) ISBN 978-0-8041-7834-1

Byrnes (The Genesis Plague) fuses science fiction and espionage in this smart, near-future dystopic thriller. When a website begins putting lucrative bounties on the heads of global criminals who have evaded justice—including Wall Street power brokers, politicians, and unethical businesspeople—a group of elite U.S. government operatives, led by FBI special agent Roman Novak, seeks to shut down the site. But its creators remain elusive as the body count rises and many people start to embrace the site’s simple credo (“If the law should fail, let justice prevail”). Novak and the government’s most talented cryptanalysts struggle to find a way to access and bring down the site before it irrevocably changes the world. The overall character development is superficial, but the action-packed story line is full of plot twists and explores such topical matters as cyberterrorism and hacktivism. Byrnes raises some serious questions about humankind’s increasing dependence on—and assimilation with—the digital world. Agent: Doug Grad, Doug Grad Literary Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Someone Always Knows

Marcia Muller. Grand Central, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-1-455-52795-3

The return of the presumed dead Gage Renshaw, the treacherous former business partner of Hy Ripinksy, Sharon McCone’s husband, kicks off MWA Grand Master Muller’s diverting but lightweight 33rd outing for veteran San Francisco PI McCone (after 2014’s The Night Searchers). Initially playing his cards close to the vest, Renshaw begins tailing and harassing McCone, Ripinsky, and their operatives as they pursue a full plate of cases, including a new assignment from deep-pocketed Chad Kenyon to secure a derelict and squatter-overrun but potentially valuable Victorian house that he has just purchased. By the time it becomes apparent Renshaw has a very particular interest of his own in the property, there’s already one dead body—and very real peril to McCone. Aided by her protagonist’s pilot’s license, Muller keeps the action literally flying, moving from vividly detailed Bay Area neighborhoods down to a Baja fishing village and up to Ripinsky and McCone’s high desert ranch, but she proves less sure-handed when it comes to providing a satisfying denouement. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Breaking Cover: A Liz Carlyle Novel

Stella Rimington. Bloomsbury, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-1-63286-526-7

At the start of Rimington’s intermittently compelling ninth novel featuring British MI5 agent Liz Carlyle (after 2014’s Close Call), Jasminder Kapoor, a thoughtful advocate for greater transparency by security services, is mugged in London. She’s saved from serious injury by Laurenz Hansen, a charming but secretive private banker who becomes her lover. Meanwhile, MI6 wants to hire someone to handle communications and Kapoor ultimately gets the job, but her new position makes her a target for the book’s villains. Over at MI5, Carlyle and her colleagues are trying to prevent another Litvinenko-style assassination by Russian agents. In particular, they’re worried about the safety of anti-Putin oligarchs living in England, such as Sergei Patricov. Sources lead them to a plot to infiltrate both of the key British intelligence services. Rimington, who spent decades at MI5, does a fine job of depicting the up-to-the-minute tradecraft, but the plot could have benefited from a greater sense of urgency. Agent: Georgina Capel, Capel & Land (U.K.). (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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White Bone

Ridley Pearson. Putnam, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-0-399-16375-3

In Pearson’s stirring fourth thriller featuring Rutherford Risk agents Grace Chu and John Knox (after 2014’s The Red Room), Graham Winston, a British client of Rutherford Risk, sends Chu to Kenya to investigate the theft of a large quantity of measles vaccine that he donated to a clinic. When Knox receives a coded text from Chu indicating that she’s in trouble, he heads to Kenya, where he encounters rampant corruption among local officials and police, ruthless gangs of poachers (smuggling elephant ivory and rhino horn), and vigilante game protectors. Meanwhile, someone attacks Chu, drugs her, and dumps her in bush country, where her presumed death will appear accidental. In his search for Chu, to whom he’s grown increasingly close, Knox has only questionable allies such as Bishoppe, an irrepressible youth who latched on to him upon his arrival at the Nairobi airport. Amid all the turmoil, Pearson highlights the very real threat of extinction faced by Kenya’s magnificent wildlife. Agent: Amy Berkower, Writers House. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Trap

Melanie Raabe, trans. from the German by Imogen Taylor. Grand Central, $26 (384p) ISBN 978-1-4555-9292-0

Linda Conrads, the narrator of German author Raabe’s suspenseful if flawed first novel, hasn’t left her home near Munich in the 11 years since the stabbing murder of her sister, Anna. She actually caught a glimpse of a man leaving the crime scene, and when she sees journalist Victor Lenzen on TV, she’s certain that he’s the man who killed Anna. Linda, who’s a celebrity author, begins to plan a trap that involves a new novel based on the murder. Interviews with her are in high demand, so she arranges for Victor to interview her, but as Linda and Victor engage in cat-and-mouse exchanges, she often second-guesses herself. Victor seems to be exactly who he claims to be: a successful journalist who’s certainly no killer. Excerpts from Linda’s novel give insight into the events leading up to the crime. The tension rises, but the final revelation is a letdown that diminishes the otherwise taut storytelling. Agent: David Forrer, Inkwell Management. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Matter

Blake Crouch. Crown, $26.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-101-90422-0

Excellent characterization and well-crafted tension do much to redeem the outlandish plot of this SF thriller from Crouch (the Wayward Pines trilogy). Jason Dessen, a quantum physicist, once had a brilliant research career ahead of him. But after a girlfriend’s unexpected pregnancy and the birth of a son, this future was derailed. Now Jason is a professor at a small Chicago college, content with his warm and loving family life until he’s abducted into a world in which his quantum many-worlds theory has become a fully realized technology for inter-dimensional transfer. In this world, Jason didn’t marry his girlfriend and never had a son. Jason is determined to get back to his family and his own world, but nefarious powers in the alternate reality conspire to stop him from revealing the criminal lengths they have gone to create the world-hopping technology. Crouch makes little attempt to justify the underlying science fiction MacGuffin, but a rousing and heartfelt ending will leave readers cheering. Agent: David Hale Smith, Inkwell Management. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Underground Airlines

Ben H. Winters. LB/Mulholland, $26 (336p) ISBN 978-0-316-26124-1

Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man meets Blade Runner in this outstanding alternate history thriller from Edgar-winner Winters (The Last Policeman). Victor, an African-American bounty hunter for the U.S. Marshals Service, possesses a supreme talent for tracking down runaway slaves in a world in which there was no Civil War and slavery still exists in four Southern states. He’s a master of disguise and dissembling. Victor tracks a runaway slave code-named Jackdaw to Indianapolis, Ind., where he ingratiates himself with Father Barton, a purported leader of an abolitionist organization called Underground Airlines, and succeeds in penetrating the group. But soon thereafter Victor impulsively befriends Martha Flowers, a down-on-her-luck white woman traveling with her young biracial son, Lionel, a kindness that soon jeopardizes Victor’s carefully constructed cover identity. The novel’s closing section contains several breathtaking reversals, a genuinely disturbing revelation, and an exhilarating final course of action for Victor. Agent: Joelle Delbourgo, Joelle Delbourgo Associates. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Girl Before

Rena Olsen. Putnam, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-1-101-98235-8

The FBI agents raiding Clara Lawson’s rural homestead in the shadow of the Rockies shatter not only the door but almost every aspect of life as the 23-year-old knows it in therapist Olsen’s suspenseful but disturbing debut about a human trafficking operation. Initially, the only reality Clara can remember is with forbidding Papa G, stern Mama Mae, and their son, Glen. She’s one of an endless stream of girls to be trained for supposedly bright futures with wealthy “clients.” But as her confinement in a psychiatric facility continues, with FBI interrogation, individual therapy sessions, and, eventually, participation in a support group, Clara starts to face some of the darker aspects of her past—and the gut-wrenching choices that will define her future. Olsen does her best to make Clara sympathetic, but Clara’s rosy naïveté about the horrific reality of her situation can be difficult to take. Readers will struggle to relate to a character who may be at once a victim and a victimizer. Agent: Sharon Pelletier, Dystel & Goderich. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Johanne, Johanne

Lars Sidenius, trans. from the Danish by Paul Larkin. Dalkey Archive, $15 ISBN 978-1-62897-132-3

Told entirely through a woman’s text messages, Sidenius’s debut never lives up to the novelty of its intriguing conceit. The texts sent from Johanne, a literary agent with a young daughter and a sham marriage, to a man named Jonah track their affair from inception to inevitable end. A few points of drama cut through the mostly banal conversation: Johanne’s unplanned pregnancy with Jonah’s child and subsequent abortion, Jonah’s triple bypass surgery. The book skims over the sensual and fraught nature of an affair, instead relying on repetitive sexting. Johanne’s texts fail to reveal much about womanhood, sexuality, literature, or relationships. Many entries can be read as slice-of-life realism, but often the meaning is lost in the lingo: “u really hammered me right thru this time man.” “Its so magic being with u! both with and without bathrobes. :) kisses.” “I want u up my splashy hole.” Readers will wonder what Jonah sees in Johanne, but no answers are forthcoming, as Jonah’s replies are omitted from the novel. Sidenius’s formal constraint closes off a nuanced portrait of Johanne, and the book accomplishes a paradoxical feat for a story ostensibly about a woman: simultaneously removing and centering a man. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Amour Provence

Constance Leisure. Simon & Schuster, $16 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-5011-2228-6

In the small farm town of Serret, France, everyone shares a history. No matter how far their respective paths may diverge, the residents of Serret—most of whom have lived there all their lives—are wrapped together by family feuds, torrid affairs, and gossip. Didier and Gilberte are two young friends who learn this the hard way, coming back together after years apart and reckoning with the consequences of their past as they try to carve out a future in a town that never forgets. Debut author Leisure strikes a smart balance between the private and the public, ruminating at length on the ways the two spheres bleed together. Each chapter allows the reader to straddle the public/private line, witnessing an affair that must be kept secret or domestic tension in an immigrant family. But the central narrative is difficult to keep track of as the focus jumps from family to family. The book is structured as a series of stories that illustrate the interconnectedness of Serret, and the plot gets lost in colorful language that, although evocative of place, often obscures characterization and stifles momentum. At times this is a fascinating exploration of rural dynamics—particularly given the class, race, and cultural divisions in the story—but in the end, the novel, much like its characters, falters under the weight of such a picturesque town. (July)

Reviewed on 04/29/2016 | Details & Permalink

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