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After the Fall

Patricia Gussin. Oceanview (Midpoint, dist.), $26.95 (378p) ISBN 978-1-60809-127-0

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Dr. Laura Nelson, chief of surgery at Tampa City Hospital (Fla.), reluctantly seeks a new career after suffering a serious hand injury in Gussin’s superior fourth and final series thriller (after 2012’s Weapons of Choice), set a year after the Gulf War. Laura agrees to become an executive at Keystone Pharma, a company about to release a wonderful new drug, Immunone, for which she helped organize the clinical trials. Meanwhile, FDA project manager Jake Harter is desperate to keep Immunone from being approved, for his own nefarious reasons. Jake is also willing to hide vital data and commit murder to keep his lover, Iraqi researcher Adawia Abdul, from leaving the U.S. Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein’s minions are pressuring Adawia to return home so that she can create bioweapons. Gussin deftly resolves the various plotlines at the climax. Along the way, she vividly depicts her characters’ interior lives, especially Jake’s slide into monomania as he collides with the determined, clear-headed Laura. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Alphabet House

Jussi Adler-Olsen, trans. from the Danish by Steve Schein. Dutton, $27.95 (480p) ISBN 978-0-525-95489-7

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First published in Denmark in 1997, Adler-Olsen’s debut is a very different sort of thriller from his Department Q series (The Marco Effect, etc.): it recounts the harrowing odyssey of two British airmen shot down behind enemy lines during WWII and subsequently held captive, under assumed German identities, in a hellish mental hospital for SS officers. Only one of the two can actually speak German, and their struggle to survive electroshock therapy, experimental drugs, and brutal treatment from staff and fellow inmates makes the first half of the book punishing reading. A long-deferred day of reckoning arrives for several characters some 30 years later during the ill-fated 1972 Munich Olympics. Although the daring (if far-fetched) plot, sustained suspense, and caustic view of society all hint at the author’s later work, this meticulously researched historical journey won’t be to every taste. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Carpe Diem, Illinois

Kristin A. Oakley. Little Creek Press, $16.95 paper (284p) ISBN 978-0-9899780-3-3

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In Oakley’s novel, Leo Townsend is a Pulitzer Prize–nominated reporter battling a series of personal demons that have put him on probation at his newspaper. He’s given an assignment that seems innocuous at first glance: investigate the town of Carpe Diem, an enclave in Illinois with no schools (the families all “unschool” their children). As Townsend begins his research, he stumbles upon a conspiracy to destroy Carpe Diem and its education system, or lack thereof. Oakley’s concept is interesting, but the residents of Carpe Diem tend to be one-dimensional. The teenagers come off as Stepford children, perfectly well-behaved, intelligent, and educated in everything from auto mechanics to nursing. The adults, meanwhile, are mired in alcohol, adultery, blackmail, corruption, and murder. Oakley’s heavy promotion of unschooling tends to slow the pace at times. Still, the amateur sleuthing and clever deceptions should delight fans of cozy mysteries. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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First Frost

Sarah Addison Allen. St. Martin’s, $25.99 (304p) ISBN 978-1-250-01983-7

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Allen (Lost Lake) takes the reader on a journey to the small town of Bascom, N.C., where the Waverley women are known for their unusual gifts: Claire has recently given up her catering business to market her Waverley candies, a booming business using natural ingredients such as lavender and honey. Sydney is a local hairdresser with a magic touch, luring women from all over town to book appointments. Sydney’s daughter, Bay, is a young teenager comfortable with her status as a social outcast—except as it affects her ability to befriend Josh Matteson, a popular boy at her high school. When a strange, elderly man comes to town and threatens to disrupt the peaceful Waverley existence, the family must pull together and rely on each woman’s unique talents. Allen has written a beautiful, lyrical story, complete with genuine characters whose depth reflects Allen’s skill as a writer. Allen’s fans will be eagerly awaiting her next. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Migratory Animals

Mary Helen Specht. Harper Perennial, $14.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-234603-2

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Specht’s vivid debut probes the nature of family, the notion of home, and the tender burdens of both. After her mother dies of Huntington’s disease, Flannery evades the suffocating pain of her family in Texas for work as a climate scientist in Nigeria. When funding issues force her to return to the U.S., she leaves behind her Nigerian fiancé, Kunle, and the only place she ever felt at home. Back in Texas, her sister Molly is showing early symptoms of the disease that claimed their mother. The sisters’ close-knit group of friends struggle to accept the reality of Molly’s diagnosis amid their own challenges: Flannery’s best friend Alyce ponders suicide, and Flannery’s ex-boyfriend Santiago, still in love with her, teeters on the verge of financial collapse. Unable to cope with her pain and guilt, Flannery avoids her sister. As the months pass and her funding issues remain unresolved, she begins to question returning to West Africa at all. Only after looking at her late mother’s journal, and facing a few other surprises, can Flannery decide where she truly belongs. Though the narrative momentum falters mid-book, Specht’s distinctive prose—rich with sharp observations, nimble language, and lyrical imagery—makes the novel a quirky and memorable read. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe

Romain Puértolas, trans. from the French by Sam Taylor. Knopf, $22 (176p) ISBN 978-1-84655-840-5

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French author Puértolas’s first novel to be translated stateside is a farcical tale with a dark underbelly. Indian fakir Ajatashatru Oghash Rathod gets into trouble when he travels to France to buy a new bed of nails (named hertsyörbåk, in a pun) at a Parisian Ikea. Rathod decides to spend the night at the furniture store, trying out beds like Goldilocks and dining on leftover Swedish food. His idyll is soon interrupted by a group of employees; seeking refuge in a wardrobe, Rathod is bubble-wrapped and shipped out, entering not Narnia but a claustrophobic world of illegal immigrants. Puértolas delights in wordplay and gets plenty of mileage out of (mis-)pronunciations of the fakir’s name (“A-jar-of-rat-stew-oh-gosh!” morphs into “A-jackal-that-ate-you”), as well as the ridiculous lexicon of Ikea furniture. This wordplay runs alongside the stark reality of the refugees, people whose “only mistake was to have been born on the wrong side of the Mediterranean.” Grumpy border agents shunt them from one place to another, seeing only problems, not humanity, crammed into the world’s tiniest spaces. A manic yet incisive satire. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sacrifice

Joyce Carol Oates. Ecco, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-233297-4

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In this disjointed tale of race, community, and pride, a teenage black girl named Sybilla Frye is raped and left for dead in the basement of an abandoned New Jersey factory. Inspired by the 1988 Tawana Brawley case, this supposed whodunit becomes clouded by race and politics after Sybilla accuses white police officers of the crime. Her mother, Ednetta Frye, refuses to cooperate with police as outrage boils over in their community of Red Rock, part of the fictional city of Pascayne, N.J. After the spotlight-seeking Rev. Marus Mudrick starts the “Crusade for Justice for Sybilla Frye,” the crime devolves into a nationwide spectacle. Pascayne begins to splinter, and once-certain facts turn to doubts and intrigue until the true reason for the attack becomes clear. New Jersey has been familiar territory for Oates, most recently in her gothic novel The Accursed. In The Sacrifice, however, each chapter jumps to a new, unpredictable perspective, making the story fragmented and often repetitive. Oates’s heavy and overt focus on race leaves little room for nuance, despite the complex and multifaceted events of her book. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Door

Magda Szabó, trans. from the Hungarian by Len Rix. New York Review Books, $16.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-59017-771-6

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In this poignant but long-winded novel by the late Hungarian author Szabó, a writer recounts her decades-long relationship with—and eventual betrayal of—her enigmatic and emotionally volatile housekeeper. The story opens in postwar Hungary, narrated from old age by the protagonist, who remains unnamed for much of the novel. After having their careers “politically frozen,” the narrator and her husband (also a writer) begin to work again and seek out domestic help for their new home in Budapest. They hire Emerence Szeredás, a local peasant with an air of authority and “strength like a Valkyrie.” Though Emerence initially proves an antagonistic worker—attacking the narrator’s belief in God, for instance—she eventually develops a deep affection for, and reliance upon, her employers. Over the years, she reveals secrets about her childhood and her peripheral involvement in Hungary’s troubled political past, ultimately inviting the narrator into her apartment, which she notoriously—and suspiciously—protects. Szabó is a master tension builder, and Emerence’s demise (foretold in the novel’s opening pages) is heartbreakingly rendered. But an abundance of unnecessary detail weighs down what is otherwise a lucid and politically intriguing character study. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Amnesia

Peter Carey. Knopf, $25.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-385-35277-2

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From two-time Booker winner Carey comes this complex new novel, focusing on the author’s native Australia, but exploring themes of journalistic freedom and Internet ethics. At the center of the book is the young Australian Gabrielle Baillieux, who releases a virus called the Angel Worm in the computer system that controls the Australian prison system, releasing thousands of prisoners throughout Australia and, inadvertently, in the U.S. The move could be construed as an act of terrorism, a bold stroke in the fight for human rights, or just a geeky plan gone awry. Journalist Felix Moore is hired to write Gabrielle’s story sympathetically, to avoid her extradition. In the process, he spends time with her mother, the actress Celine Baillieux, whom he had previously known in college. Looking back through the two women’s lives, Felix also explores Australia’s history since WWII, confusing himself but also educating readers about the Land Down Under. Throughout the book, Carey’s cartwheeling prose and dazzling intellect can be challenging to keep up with, but the book is worth the effort. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Secret Wisdom of the Earth

Christopher Scotton. Grand Central, $26 (466p) ISBN 978-1-4555-5192-7

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Scotton’s accomplished debut is the story of Kevin Gillooly, a 14-year-old boy who moves to coal country and learns about courage and violence, beauty and danger, from his wise, weathered grandfather and a best friend well versed in backwoods survival. Kevin’s mother brings him to her hometown of Medgar, Ky., after the death of Kevin’s three-year-old brother. Kevin’s grandfather Pops is a large-animal veterinarian and hires Kevin as an assistant. Pops also introduces him to books like Treasure Island and gives him time off to explore the surrounding mountains with his friend and confidant Buzzy Fink, who teaches Kevin how to use slugs to treat spider bites and other survival skills. Kevin sees land destroyed by mining, hears exploding mountaintops, and feels the fly-rock, while Buzzy witnesses the beating of gay hairdresser and anti-mining activist Paul Pierce. Both Kevin and Buzzy are tested during a camping trip with Pops, when an unknown assailant tracks them down and opens fire in the wilderness. Scotton’s cast of classic Appalachian characters also includes housekeeper Audy Rae, Cleo the high school football hero, the violent and inbred Budget family, and an array of old men shooting the breeze at Hivey’s. The coming-of-age story is enriched by depictions of the earth’s healing and redemptive power. Neither the first portrait of mining country nor the most original, Scotton’s novel nonetheless makes for compelling reading when the action grows intense—managing, like the landscape it describes, to be simultaneously frightening and beautiful. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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