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Dreamless

Jørgen Brekke, trans. from the Norwegian by Steven T. Murray. Minotaur, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-01699-7

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The discovery of the body of an unidentified young woman with her larynx removed propels Brekke’s outstanding second novel featuring Chief Insp. Odd Singsaker of the Trondheim police department (after 2014’s Where Monsters Dwell). The one clue at the crime scene is an antique music box that plays a haunting lullaby, “The Golden Peace,” which was written by Jon Blund, a 17th-century troubadour about whom little is known. The inventive plot seamlessly moves from the contemporary case to a 1767 police investigation into Blund’s disappearance. While searching for the elusive culprit, the insightful Singsaker worries that recovery from brain surgery has compromised his acumen—and that his marriage to American detective Felicia Stone, whom he met while pursuing a serial killer in the previous book, was too hasty. Fans of bleak Nordic crime fiction will find plenty to like. Agent: Nicole K. James, Aaron M. Priest Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Night Life

David C. Taylor. Forge, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7483-7

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On New Year’s Eve 1953, police detective Michael Cassidy, the hero of Taylor’s strong debut (and the first in a new historical crime series), has a run-in on a Manhattan street with Roy Cohn, Joseph McCarthy’s lawyer in the Wisconsin senator’s Communist-hunting subcommittee. “You’re going to hear from me,” Cohn says after getting Cassidy’s name. “Always a pleasure to hear from a citizen, Mr. Cohen,” Cassidy replies. Meanwhile, a Broadway dancer is found tortured to death in his Hell’s Kitchen apartment. The killer was apparently searching for something that, as Cassidy soon discovers, the FBI, the CIA, and mob boss Frank Costello all want. Cassidy concludes that it must be evidence that would incriminate a very powerful person. The suspense mounts with the body count. Readers will want to see more of the distinctive Cassidy, whose wealthy background as the son of a Broadway producer puts him at odds with his fellow cops. Agent: Lisa Gallagher, Sanford J. Greenburger Associates. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Two Performance Artists Kidnap Their Boss and Do Things with Him

Scotch Wichmann. Freakshow Books, $17.99 trade paper (482p) ISBN 978-0-9910257-0-1

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Computer programmers by day, performance artists by night, Larry and Hank live out an alt-com dream in Wichmann’s bright and capacious fiction debut. They meet at a seedy club in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district and immediately become pals; Hank has a passionate “Performance Art Manifesto” and Larry buys in. The only obstacles to bromantic adventure are Hank’s nagging wife, Sherry, and real life, which demands that the duo make a living. They get mind-numbingly boring jobs at a multinational company called Redsoft, run by software mogul Bill Kuntsler. Performance art falls short as the tonic to their boredom, and they begin acting out at work, where Larry finds something like love with a quirky girl called Mouse. The same craving that fuels the duo’s performance art pieces seems to drive their madcap plan to kidnap Kuntsler. Captivity, however, brings its own set of problems, as the chaos, danger, absurdity, and insanity keep ratcheting up. The book’s most entertaining episodes are on trivia, Larry’s family, their performance art, etc. Wichmann’s shaggy novel may be too much of a good thing, but it’s still a good thing. Cheeky and refreshing. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Half Brother

Holly LeCraw. Doubleday, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-53195-5

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In LeCraw’s wildly melodramatic sophomore novel (after The Swimming Pool), Charlie Garrett is a Southern boy who graduates from Harvard and finds a teaching position at the Abbott School in north-central Massachusetts. There, he meets Preston Bankhead, the school’s commanding chaplain, and his 12-year-old daughter, May, who is a student. Over the course of the next several years, May grows up and she and Charlie fall in love. But when May’s father is diagnosed with cancer, Charlie abruptly breaks things off. Ten years later, Charlie is still teaching at Abbott with May and his younger half-brother, Nicky. Charlie tries to bring Nicky and May together, but is unprepared for the consequences that follow. Then Charlie and Nicky’s widowed mother arrives at the school for Christmas. She winds up in the hospital, setting the stage for a series of events that will throw the past into clear relief. LeCraw has fashioned a contemporary novel that feels positively Victorian with its overuse of coincidence and deathbed confessions. The story takes place over the course of two decades, but Charlie, who narrates, never seems to age mentally, making it difficult for readers to get a fix on where they are in the story. Add a school scandal to the mix and this overstuffed, awkwardly plotted novel completely strains belief. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Amherst

William Nicholson. Simon & Schuster, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4767-4040-9

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Nicholson (The Trial of True Love) offers up a cinema-ready exploration of love and lust in New England past and present. Present-day heroine Alice, an aspiring screenwriter, travels from England to Amherst, Mass., to conduct research for her screenplay about Emily Dickinson’s affair. Alice’s own story—which includes a passionate affair with a much older man—alternates with the story of her historical subjects: Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, and his younger lover, Mabel, the married wife of an Amherst College professor. Their story suggests that Emily, who permitted the couple to liaise in her house, was herself obsessed with Mabel, who eventually championed the poet’s work after Emily’s death. The historical segments—in many ways more vivid and lively than the somewhat melodramatic contemporary ones—are well researched, although passages from the subjects’ letters and diaries are injected awkwardly into the text. Both Austin and Mabel are complicated characters, and though there’s nice balance between the dual narratives, one senses that Nicholson struggled with the dilemma of how to impose a fictional story onto real-life events. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Love by the Book

Melissa Pimentel. Penguin, $16 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-14-312728-4

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Lauren Cunningham leaves her family, relationship, and career in Maine for a new adventure in London—and the promise of meeting hot British men. Although she lands a great job, makes friends, and does plenty of partying, none of the men she meets seem to stick around for more than a few dates, despite her insistence that she isn’t looking for a serious relationship. So Lauren changes paths and attempts a more scientific approach: over the course of 12 months, she tries the tactics outlined in 12 different dating manuals, from modern guides to a tome on Victorian etiquette, noting her successes and failures along the way. As she’s employing her mixed bag of dating strategies on would-be suitors with nicknames like “Sleepy Eyes” and “Bike Guy,” Lauren actually does learn a thing or two from each book. Naturally, though, the man who’s going to give her the happy ending is the one guy who knows what she’s up to, and the only one who’s never been one of her experimental subjects. In Pimentel’s debut, her portrayal of a variety of relationship dynamics—some traditional, some not—and her diverse cast of characters is a refreshing twist on a well-worn formula. Unfortunately, the overall trajectory is still one that any chick-lit reader will have seen before, right down to the passionate kiss in the final chapter. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Tutor

Andrea Chapin. Riverhead, $27.95 (368p) ISBN 978-1-59463-254-9

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Chapin’s debut novel imagines the shaky romance between a widow and her nephews’ tutor, a budding actor and poet named William Shakespeare, against the background of family strife and religious persecution in 16th-century England. After losing her husband and babies, Katharine de L’Isle throws herself into reading and devotes herself to her kindly uncle Sir Edward, who wishes her to be happy and to marry again. When their priest is killed, Sir Edward decides to make his way to France (having already once been imprisoned by the Protestant queen); Katharine, who is feeling vulnerable among her other nutty relatives, initially finds Will irritating, but quickly succumbs to his charms. The sexual tension between them increases when he asks for her help in creating a long poem about Venus and Adonis. Meanwhile, there are signs that Will might be a heartless social climber and not the loving, trustworthy sort that Katharine imagines him to be. Though the beginning is rife with obvious meet-cute and will-they-or-won’t-they tropes, Chapin manages to construct a moving account of Katharine’s plight. The backdrop of family in-fighting and petty power-seizing also underscores how Sir Edward’s departure put Katharine, a single woman of modest means, in a true predicament among her unbalanced relatives. Unfortunately, the heroine makes some head-scratching choices as her family plummets into further mayhem and melodrama—moves that pull the story into territory that’s more silly than tragic. Despite this, Chapin’s inaugural work offers a fun portrait of Shakespeare as a cad. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Girl Runner

Carrie Snyder. Harper, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-233604-0

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In 1928, Canada’s “matchless six” won gold at the first Olympics in which women competed in track, serving as the inspiration for this novel about a fictional female runner who races in those historic games. Aganetha Smart, youngest daughter of an Ontario farmer and his second wife, shows natural speed and agility as a child running between her parents’ house and that of her married half-sister. At 16, Aggie leaves the farm for Toronto, where her athletic ability lands her a job at a confectionery whose owner subsidizes women racers. With a coach and training companion, Aggie learns the meaning of competition, then goes on to experience victory, celebrity, love, betrayal, and sacrifice. Her story is revealed through layers of time: 104-year-old Aganetha introduces herself in the prologue, the first chapter begins with adolescent Aggie tending family graves, and the next scene shows two visitors to the 104-year-old’s nursing home—a girl training for the Olympics and her brother, who have a surprising connection to Aggie. Infused with striking imagery and pearls of wisdom, Snyder’s novel attempts to capture how it feels to be a female athlete, an independent woman, and above all a runner. Like the pioneers of 1928, the characters in this novel win gold or get disqualified in the process, go on to modest modeling and acting careers, and disappear from the spotlight, while Snyder focuses on the feelings behind their public triumphs, the emotions beneath their personal turmoil. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Hunger of the Wolf

Stephen Marche. Simon & Schuster, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-4767-3081-3

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The nature of family bonds and wealth are at the heart of this spellbinding tale from Marche (Love and the Mess We’re In). Jamie Cabot grew up in isolated northern Alberta, Canada, where his parents work for the elusive and enigmatic Wylie family, one of the richest business dynasties in the world. When Ben Wylie, an extremely wealthy man, is found naked and dead in the frigid Alberta snow, Jamie’s curiosity spikes, and he becomes determined to uncover the secret behind the Wylie family. From the Canadian hinterlands to New York City society life, Jamie seeks contact with the Wylies. Despite the novel’s account of their dramatic accumulation of a peerless fortune, the Wylies remain mysterious—not only to Jamie and to the public, but also to one another. No word is out of place in this taut multigenerational tale, which takes some enjoyable supernatural turns—readers will be just as driven as Jamie to discover the mystery at the heart of the Wylie’s legacy. Agent: P.J. Mark, Janklow & Nesbit. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told

Tom Phelan. Skyhorse/Arcade (Perseus, dist.), $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62872-428-8

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This witty novel from Phelan (The Canal Bridge) features Patrick Bracken, a 64-year-old special correspondent for the Irish Times, who returns to his agricultural hometown of Gohen. Patrick is investigating two suspicious deaths that occurred there 55 years ago, in 1951; he suspects a village cover-up took place. He visits the retired octogenarian coroner, Sam Howard, and his spunky wife, Elsie. Sam’s official ruling determined that the deaths of Father Jarlath Coughlin and Lawrence “Doul Yank” Gorman were both accidental, but Patrick insists on discussing the two cases with Sam. Before the deaths, both men came under attention in the close-knit farm community: the conniving Doul Yank double-crossed his nephew Mattie on the inheritance of the family farm, and the haughty Father Coughlin lobbied the dirt-poor locals for charitable donations to operate his missionary school in India. Additionally, Patrick has vivid memories from his own boyhood that still trouble him and complicate his search into the deceptions of the village. The bawdy humor and the plentiful details of the farming lifestyle do much to enrich Phelan’s entertaining murder mystery. Agent: Tracy Brennan, Trace Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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