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The Patriot Threat

Steve Berry. Minotaur, $27 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-05623-8

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Bestseller Berry comes up with a highly unusual premise for his 10th Cotton Malone thriller (after 2014’s The Lincoln Myth): a historical flaw in the U.S. income tax code has the potential to destroy the country’s economy. In Berry’s timely what-if scenario, North Korean leader Kim Yong Jin has been dropped from the line of dynastic succession because of a disgraceful abortive trip to Tokyo Disneyland. Kim, now known as a playboy, sees an opportunity to regain his former glory when he stumbles on a 1936 mystery involving then secretary of the treasury Andrew Mellon and president Franklin Roosevelt. Kim’s accidental but fortuitous reading of a book about the American tax code, The Patriot Threat, written by tax resister Anan Wayne Howell, puts him on the path of the mystery, which he, along with his warrior daughter, Hana, are determined to solve, no matter how many people they have to kill to do so. Fans of political conspiracy fiction will find plenty to like. Agent: Simon Lipskar, Writers House. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Pocket Wife

Susan Crawford. Morrow, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-236285-8

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Dana Catrell, the heroine of Crawford’s quirkily endearing debut, desperately needs to figure out what happened in those boozy, woozy hours between her argument with neighbor Celia Steinhauser and the discovery of the woman’s body—ideally before Paterson, N.J., Det. Jack Moss gets to the bottom of it. Though suburban homemaker Dana doesn’t believe herself capable of murder, she can’t be sure since she stopped taking meds for her bipolar disorder. Fortunately for Dana, Jack, who reminds her of her first love, is also somewhat off his game in the wake of his wife’s departure and the discovery that his estranged son, Kyle, seems to have been suspiciously close to Celia, Kyle’s GED teacher. As Dana continues to spiral out of control, her accelerating mania clouding her perceptions, Crawford manages for the most part to sidestep cliché and preserve her leading lady’s spunk, humor, and dignity. Although she’s less successful resolving the mystery, both Dana and Jack deserve an encore. Agent: Jenny Bent, Bent Agency. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Someone Is Watching

Joy Fielding. Ballantine, $27 (384p) ISBN 978-0-553-39063-6

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This engrossing standalone from bestseller Fielding (Shadow Creek) makes you care about Bailey Carpenter, a Miami-based investigator who’s raped while on surveillance. Previously, the biggest problems in Bailey’s life had been her mother’s death, her affair with a married colleague, and her five half-siblings’ attempt to overturn their father’s will, which left millions to Bailey and her often-stoned brother, Heath. Now Claire, a nurse as well as the half-sister Bailey barely knows, becomes her guardian angel as she starts on her slow path to recovery. Not sleeping and afraid to leave her high-rise apartment, Bailey suspects every man of evil intent, and she has a number of encounters, both frightening and embarrassing, in her quest to re-establish some control over her life. The characters pulsate with life, and there are a few shocks in store—for Bailey and the reader—before the denouement. And the presence of Jade, Claire’s outspoken teen daughter, blows everyone else off the page. Agent: Tracy Fisher, WME Entertainment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Falling in Love

Donna Leon. Atlantic Monthly, $26 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2353-4

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In bestseller Leon’s pleasurable 24th mystery to feature Commissario Guido Brunetti (after 2014’s By Its Cover), Brunetti reunites with opera diva Flavia Petrelli, whom he exonerated of murder in his first outing, Death at La Fenice. Flavia, performing in a production of Tosca, confides that an unknown admirer has followed her from London to St. Petersburg to Venice, showering her with increasingly extravagant displays of yellow roses. As the fan intrudes into her personal space—placing flowers in her apartment building, leaving a priceless necklace in her dressing room, and writing possessive notes—Brunetti educates himself about stalking. When two people connected to Flavia are seriously injured, he realizes the singer herself is in danger. Leon’s Venice is peopled with urbane, sophisticated characters, and she flavors the novel with insights into stagecraft, Tosca, and the storied La Fenice opera house. Series aficionados as well as those who appreciate elegant settings and cultured conversation should find this a deeply satisfying escape. Agent: Susanna Bauknecht, Diogenes Verlag (Switzerland). (Apr.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Retail

Joshua Danker-Dake. CreateSpace, $11.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-5002-2695-4

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Danker-Dake incorporates humor, emotion, and social commentary into his debut novel, which reads like the script for a smart comedy film. Self-deprecating narrator Penn Reynard is a young, aspiring writer making ends meet by working behind the returns desk at the House Station, a fictional big-box store in Leetown, Mo., modeled after Home Depot and Lowe’s. He’s also a virgin, saving himself for marriage. In the Paint department, he meets Chloe van Caneghem, a sweet girl with like-minded morals, and their evolving relationship is at the heart of this dialogue-rich story. The couple’s sidekick is service-desk commander Angry Pete—a shrill-voiced young man whose mind and mouth are constantly moving. Danker-Dake’s blunt and brief portrayals of clueless customers add to the book’s charm, as do the outrageous names he assigns to characters: Promilla, Kord, Osric, Thoth, and Fielding. At times, the book satirizes the retail world, portraying high-level personnel at the House Station as despicable automatons who refuse to acknowledge the toll employees pay for working for a soulless corporation. With many scenes occurring inside the store, in a booth at the local IHOP, or at Penn’s apartment, the plot doesn’t take many significant turns. That readers won’t care speaks volumes about Danker-Dake’s ability to propel a character-driven narrative. Here’s to a sequel. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Knowledge

Andrew Crumey. Dedalus, $15.99 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-909232-45-7

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Crumey (Mobius Dick) takes on the complex and thorny subjects of parallel universes, Schrödinger’s cat, and the plight of philosopher Walter Benjamin in this intelligent work of speculative fiction. The narrative pivots back and forth among various times and locales, including the present day; Paris in 1913, home of rising composer Pierre Klauer and his fiancé, Yvette; Scotland in 1919; and Spain in 1940. When Pierre is shot and apparently killed, Yvette honors his last wish and, with the help of a stranger, Louis Carreau, reclaims his unpublished score from his parents’ house. Pierre then appears to resurface in Scotland several years later as a factory worker. Whether he lived or died—or both—is the question, as modern-day pianist David Conroy, his career on the wane, ponders if a rediscovered Klauer score might be the answer to all his problems. Though the chapters featuring Pierre and his milieu read like heavy-handed melodrama, the philosophical questions the book raises are clever and insightful. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Poser

Jacob Rubin. Viking, $26.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-670-01676-1

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Rubin’s debut novel is a witty, inventive character study about a man without a personality. Giovanni Bernini is eerily skilled at imitating those around him, able to select “which parts of a person to take and which to leave alone.” The teenager’s talent is also a compulsion, as at various times he is unable to resist mimicking his teacher, a mourner at a funeral, and even a lover in the throes of ecstasy. Giovanni is convinced to take his act to the stage by the immensely entertaining (and immense) Maximilian Horatio, a Falstaffian talent manager. Bernini soon achieves fame in a New York City club by imitating audience members, who are delighted to be instantly exposed, “as if [he] had introduced them to their own flesh.” The theater is run by the sinister Bernard Apache, who steers his star to Hollywood, and finally into politics, a logical trajectory for a cipher such as Giovanni. This dashed-off political episode at the end, in which Giovanni runs for office as an anti-communist demagogue, is the only real flaw in Rubin’s well-sculpted portrait of a man working through a beguiling problem: how to find his voice when he is most himself while aping others. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Bookseller

Cynthia Swanson. Harper, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-0-06-233300-1

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In 1962, Kitty wakes in Katharyn’s bed next to Katharyn’s husband, Lars. Down the hall are Katharyn’s children: Missy, Mitch, and Michael. In the mirror, Katharyn’s reflection looks exactly like Kitty’s, and Kitty is able to recall specific memories and behaviors of Katharyn’s with disturbing accuracy. But Kitty and Katharyn are not the same—Katharyn is just the woman Kitty becomes in her dreams. In reality, Kitty is single, childless, and owns a floundering bookstore with her best friend, Frieda. She has pursuits and interests that Katharyn’s life has no room for. Initially believing that Katharyn is a figment of her imagination, a pleasant dream showing what married life could have been like, Kitty identifies the one moment that prevented her life from becoming Katharyn’s. Kitty’s uncertainty about which woman’s reality is real consumes her. Swanson masterfully crafts both Kitty’s and Katharyn’s worlds, leaving open the question of which of them is real until the final pages. Swanson’s evocative novel freshly considers the timeless question, “What if?” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The World Before Us

Aislinn Hunter. Random/Hogarth, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-553-41852-1

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In Hunter’s (Stay) haunting new novel, Jane Standen was a babysitter in her teens when five-year-old Lily Eliot disappeared on her watch. Now, 20 years later, Jane is an archivist at London’s Chester Museum, which is due to close. While doing research on Victorian-era rural asylums, Jane comes across a reference to the Whitmore Hospital for Convalescent Lunatics and a young woman called N, who, back in 1877, disappeared in the same woods where Lily vanished. After a confrontation at the museum with Lily’s father, William Eliot, a botanist who has written a book on Victorian plant hunters, Jane flees to the north of England to find out what happened to N. Her research shows that N’s fate was inextricably linked to that of George Farrington, a botanist whose estate was located near the asylum. Farrington also had links to the Chesters, who founded the museum where Jane works. Jane goes into the woods, hoping to make sense of things. Narrated by a chorus of ghosts and featuring a romance with a hunky young gardener at the estate, Jane’s story is an emotionally and intellectually satisfying journey in the manner of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. And like those two works’ juxtaposition of past and present, this one movingly dramatizes how unknowable the past can be. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Shadow of the Crescent Moon

Fatima Bhutto. Penguin Press, $25.95 (240p) ISBN 978-1-59420-560-6

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Bhutto’s promising debut novel is set in the town of Mir Ali, in Pakistan’s tribal areas bordering Afghanistan. The story begins and ends one tragic Friday morning. Aman Erun, the eldest of three brothers, has returned to his native Mir Ali from America an educated, ambitious businessman. The middle brother, Sikandar, a doctor who lost a son to Taliban violence, has chosen to stay in his war-torn birthplace, accepting the unending conflict while watching his wife, Mina, succumb to madness. The youngest, Hayat, is a quiet member of a Shia separatist group and has become involved with Samarra, the headstrong girlfriend Aman Erun left behind when he went to America. In flashbacks we learn of Aman Erun’s escape to America, and of Sikandar’s crippling cowardice when he and Mina are confronted by Taliban rebels. In the end, Mina and Samarra prove to be stronger and more courageous than all three brothers put together. Bhutto was 14 when her father was murdered, and she’s the young niece of Benazir Bhutto (a Pakistani politician and two-term prime minister who herself was assassinated in 2007). There are large swaths of political rumination: these passages are enlightening but ultimately unnecessary. Though the book is marred by an ending that strains belief, Bhutto’s characters and story are compelling and richly drawn. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 01/23/2015 | Details & Permalink

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