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The Abduction of Smith and Smith

Rashad Harrison. Atria, $25 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4516-2578-3

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Set in 1868, Harrison’s second novel, after Our Man in the Dark, is an overly ambitious and complex tale of high adventure as characters lurch from one perilous situation to another. Jupiter Smith, a former slave and Union soldier, now works as a crimper for saloon owner Maggie O’Connell, shanghaiing drunken sailors for unscrupulous sea captains on San Francisco’s waterfront. Archer Smith, a former slaveholder and Confederate soldier, is now an opium addict seeking vengeance for Jupiter’s murder of his father, a plantation owner. The two men share a last name, a too-obvious tip-off as to their real relationship. Betrayal and bad luck find them both on a ship captained by Barrett, a ruthless smuggler, and bound for China with an illicit cargo of guns. Jupiter longs to find his wife, Sonya, separated from him seven years earlier, and Archer aches for revenge, but their forced voyage together only leads to mutinies, pirate attacks, shipwreck, murders, and miraculous escapes. Harrison provides vivid portrayals of San Francisco’s dangerous waterfront and the insidious trafficking of guns and Chinese slaves, but even these historical realities cannot carry this choppy and confusing novel, whose characters never fully elicit the reader’s sympathy or interest. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home

Dave Housley. Dzanc (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (172p) ISBN 978-1-936873-66-1

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Accents of hair metal, glam rock, and boy-band pop punctuate the 12 engaging stories in this collection, most of them set in rural backwater towns in the author’s native Pennsylvania. In “Rock Out, Mate,” a teenager being groomed for a lip-syncing boy band asks “What Would Elvis Do?”—and the same question for six other rock star idols—as he attempts to meet the challenges of his job by emulating career choices that his heroes made. “Free Will” applies the rhetoric of Geddy Lee’s lyrics for the Rush song of the same name to the performance of a second-string high basketball team as they desperately strive to win the last game of the season. “Paul Stanley Summarizes the Tragedies of William Shakespeare During Between-Song Banter from the 1977–78 Kiss Alive II Tour,” the book’s funniest story, offers six vignettes in which the KISS frontman attempts to stoke emotions by regaling the audience with references to Shakespeare’s dramas. Housley (Commercial Fiction) populates his stories with adult losers trapped in dead-end lives and teenagers struggling to escape a similar fate, but he treats the pathos of their predicaments gently and with humor, as in “So Fucking Metal,” which follows the antics of two generations of metalheads—an aging former roadie and his teenage daughter—at a memorial concert for deceased Black Sabbath vocalist Ronnie James Dio. Readers will find these stories light, amusing, and warmly wrapped (as Housely writes in “How to Listen to Your Old Hair Metal Tapes,” one of three essays that conclude the book) in “that gauze of nostalgia, the soft edge that comes from growing up with something.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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See How Small

Scott Blackwood. Little, Brown, $25 (224p) ISBN 978-0-316-37380-7

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Whiting Writers’ Award–winner Blackwood (We Agreed to Meet Just Here) has produced a genre-defying novel of powerful emotion, intrigue, and truth. From the opening pages, which artfully skirt from past to present, it’s clear that an atrocity has befallen Elizabeth, Zadie, and Meredith, the three teenage girls staffing the front counter at Sandra’s ice cream shop. Killers assault the girls, bind them, and set the building on fire. The merciless crime’s aftermath, affecting everyone in the Texas town—including devastated, revenge-consumed mother Kate, town firefighter Jack, and the arsonists themselves—forms the core of the story as each character’s life is detailed through the 60 brief, vividly realized chapters. As anniversaries of the murders pass, Blackwood resurrects the three young women on a ghostly plane. They populate Kate’s dreams, hang around town, and appear to the eccentric Hollis Finger, who may hold the key to solving the crime. Reminiscent of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and based on a similar, still-unsolved 1991 case in Austin, Tex., Blackwood explores the effects of senseless crime on an innocent, tightly knit community, using deft prose to mine the essence of human grief and compassion. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Everlasting Lane

Andrew Lovett. Melville House (Random, dist.), $25.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-61219-380-9

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British author Lovett’s engrossing debut, partly based on events from his own childhood, follows 10-year-old Peter Lambert, who is uprooted by his mother to go live in a “dusty and undisturbed” cottage in the Amberley countryside in the mid-1970s after his WWII veteran father’s untimely death. Even more confounding than his new environment are his mother’s decision to change her name to Kat; her reference to the fact that he’d lived in the town before; and the plucky, dominating behavior of Anna-Marie, the girl next door. Peter befriends Anna-Marie along with Tommie Winslow, a schoolmate who eventually competes with Peter for the girl’s attentions. The unexpected trio bring Everlasting Lane to vibrant life along with a host of peripheral characters, including harsh grade school teacher Mr. Gale and a few local eccentrics such as reclusive Mr. Merridew, a hermit living in a wooded cabin, and Dr. Todd, a secretive physician who becomes Kat’s special friend. While Peter narrates the story with the naive, goofy curiosity of a young boy, there are also thin swaths of the bitterness and angst more befitting his aggrieved mother. She’s hiding a secret behind one of their cottage’s locked doors, and it becomes one of Peter’s burdensome obsessions. Familial melodrama and confusion are resolved and explained as Lovett’s creative tale broadens into an exploratory, discovery-filled journey for three zany outcasts—“a fluttering rabble of butterflies,” each taking in the world one revelation at a time. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Welcome to Braggsville

T. Geronimo Johnson. Morrow, $25.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-230212-0

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In his second novel, Johnson (Hold It ’Til It Hurts) delivers a funny and tragic coming-of-age story that spares no one its satirical eye. D’aron Little May Davenport, a misfit in his small Georgia town, enrolls at UC Berkeley to get as far away from home as he can. His new roommate, Louis Chang, is an irrepressible fellow completely at home in California, whose fearless determination to be a stand-up comedian offers a “refreshing antidote to the somber, tense mood sweeping campus.” Soon they meet Candice, a pretty white Iowan with hair that “glowed like butter on burned toast,” and Charlie, a black prep school kid, while they are all being scolded for supposed insensitivity at a dorm party. They quickly become close and call themselves the “4 Little Indians.” When D’aron mentions that Braggsville has an annual Civil War reenactment in their American history class, Candice and Louis persuade the group to stage a “performative intervention” over spring break. This is D’aron’s story, told from his perspective, but there’s a secondary voice, an impish interloper, challenging D’aron and the reader to delve deeper, asking again and again, “Por qué?” Johnson’s prose has a sketched-out and dreamlike quality, a private shorthand that adds to the feeling of intimacy, an apt trick when dealing with subject matter like race and class. This ambitious novel stumbles when it departs from its central story, which should be enough: young people clumsily wielding their new tools of critical theory to impress themselves and each other, without fully understanding the effects of their actions. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Outline

Rachel Cusk. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-374-22834-7

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On an airplane to Athens, Greece, where she plans to teach a summer school course, English writer Faye strikes up a conversation with the passenger sitting next to her, a verbose elderly gentleman. The two chat for the entire flight, and days later, Faye allows the man to take her swimming aboard his boat, where she learns about his multiple marriages and troubled children. Thus begins this brilliant novel from Cusk (The Bradshaw Variations),who shuns fictional convention and frills in favor of a solid structure around a series of dialogues between Faye and those she encounters on her travels. While dining with old friends on two separate occasions, she hears tales of literary stalkers and near-death experiences. And within her classroom, students recount their own histories: from family pets to daily routines. Though Faye often functions as the sounding board, the reader nevertheless comes to know her—divorcée, mother—through her interjections and inquiries. These 10 remarkable conversations, told with immense control, focus a sharp eye on how we discuss family and our lives. As Faye bounces from one happenstance to the next, the words of one of her students echo on the page: “[A] story might merely be a series of events we believe ourselves to be involved in, but on which we have absolutely no influence at all.” (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover: The Fourth Rule of Scoundrels

Sarah MacLean. Avon, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-206851-4

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MacLean's fourth and final Scoundrels historical (after No Good Duke Goes Unpunished) proves that romance can happen in the most unusual circumstances. In 1830s England, Lady Georgiana Pearson, a duke's sister, has been forced to reinvent herself after being ruined by a stable boy. She is respectable Georgiana by day, but by night, she has not one but two secret identities: Anna, the most powerful madam in London, and Chase, Anna's crafty business partner, who's widely believed to be a man. Georgiana is determined to marry a titled gentleman, and newspaper magnate Duncan West agrees to help her seal the deal. But Duncan is drawn to Georgiana himself, and she to him. Soon they form an intimate connection, with many deep emotional developments that propel the story. Though they eventually decide to act on their attraction, they struggle with the knowledge that they can never wed; Duncan fears the revelation of buried secrets that could destroy him, and Georgiana believes that only a title can help her daughter escape the stain of bastardy. Series readers will be blown away by the revelation of Chase's identity, and will cheer on Duncan and Georgiana as they bring their complex relationship to a riveting conclusion. Agent: Steve Axelrod, Axelrod Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Cowboy for Christmas

Lacy Williams. Harlequin/Love Inspired Historical, $5.99 mass market (288p) ISBN 978-0-373-28292-0

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In Williams's tepid and tedious fourth Wyoming Legacy romance (after The Wrangler's Inconvenient Wife), Daisy Richards has slowly learned how to compensate for the loss of her arm following an injury. Ricky White is a new ranch hand on her father's property, and responsible for the accident that harmed Daisy. What follows is purported to be a historical romance with a Christian theme, but while characters occasionally pay lip service to the Christian ideals supposedly guiding their actions, these ideals rarely influence their behavior. Daisy is neither modest nor decorous, even in church. Ricky professes that he is a changed man due to salvation, yet he perpetrates a campaign of dishonesty against Daisy. Williams relies on calamity rather than plot. The ending is baffling, with the facts of the conflict suddenly changed at the last moment, rather than resolved. And despite the title, there are no cows and no cowboys to be seen. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Penguin's Song

Hassan Daoud, trans. from the Arabic by Marilyn Booth. City Lights, $14.95 trade paper (228p) ISBN 978-0-87286-623-2

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A young man, treated as an invalid because of his physical deformities, sits at home every day reading and listening to his parents bicker. Daoud's (The House of Mathilde) novel is an elegiac account of loneliness and separation. Set in post-Civil War Beirut, it captures not the immediate horrors of war, but the long emptiness of ruin that follows it. It has been 13 years since the nameless young man and his parents have been pushed out of Beirut's city center, leaving his father's shop and their home behind. Others have acclimated quickly to their new homes, reopening stores and restaurants in entryways and underneath stairwells outside the old city, but this family remains frozen in their apartment at the edge of the desert, mourning the life they have lost. The son is left to study his books and keep his father company while his mother visits with the woman downstairs. The young man fixates on the beautiful young girl who lives in the apartment beneath them. He listens as she walks through the rooms below and watches from his window, but held back by his timidity and the contagious inertia of his parents, he cannot approach her. Daoud captures the essence of the isolation of a broken city without getting weighed down in politics or specific historical events. This is a haunting story inhabited by the ghosts of past lives and demolished buildings, where desires are left unfulfilled and loneliness sweeps through every soul. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Young Woman in a Garden: Stories

Delia Sherman. Small Beer, $16 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-61873-091-6

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Lightly flecked with fantasy and anchored in vividly detailed settings, the 14 stories in Sherman's first collection are distinguished by their depictions of determined women who challenge gender roles in order to make their way in the world. In "The Ghost of Cwmlech Manor," a servant girl parlays her acquaintance with an ancestral ghost into a professional relationship with the descendant whose house it haunts. The title story toggles between present and past as an art history student researching the life of an Impressionist painter unravels the hitherto unknown role his model played in the creation of his art. Although Sherman (The Porcelain Dove) grapples with serious themes, she leavens a number of her tales with gentle humor, notably "Walpurgis Afternoon," in which a pair of lesbian witches comically discompose an ordinary suburban neighborhood when their Victorian estate springs up in a vacant lot overnight. Readers who enjoy sophisticated modern fantasy fiction, both light and dark, will greatly admire Sherman's skill with a variety of narrative forms and the gentle touch of her magic wand. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 10/24/2014 | Details & Permalink

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