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Crossing the Horizon

Laurie Notaro. Gallery, $26 (464p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5940-5

Notaro (The Idiot Girls’ Action-Adventure Club) leverages her humor and keen eye for human foibles in an ambitious fictionalized account of three real-life aviatrixes whose daring exploits catapulted them into global headlines prior to Amelia Earhart’s record-setting flights. This action-packed, character-rich romp through the 1920s’ transatlantic race captures the era’s excitement and sense of possibility. With cash prizes and fame glittering on the horizon, men and women on each side of the Atlantic rushed to be the first to successfully complete the treacherous, storm-ridden flight across it. Notaro shines a spotlight on the now largely forgotten stories of the three women: Elsie Mackay, a courageous and kind-hearted English heiress who braved her family’s disapproval to follow her dreams; Mabel Boll, the scandalously renowned “Queen of Diamonds” and aspiring “Queen of the Air,” who used her wealth and influence to buy herself the fame she craved; and Ruth Elder, a young Southern beauty queen who lifted herself from poverty and obscurity through the strength of her own convictions. Initially slow to get off the ground, the story lumbers through ponderous backstories and hits rough patches of stilted dialogue before soaring into a page-turning, stomach-churning, hilarious, and heartbreaking adventure. Elsie, Mabel, and Ruth defied the odds stacked against them, and their indomitable spirits and vibrant, larger-than-life personalities provide much inspiration. Agent: Jenny Bent, Bent Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Can’t Help Falling

Kara Isaac. Howard, $14.99 trade paper (374p) ISBN 978-1-5011-1734-3

In her well-received debut, Close to You, Isaac tapped into the worlds created by J.R.R. Tolkien and a contemporary New Zealand tour of the sites associated with the Lord of the Rings film trilogy. This enchanting follow-up portrays an unlikely love story between a man and a woman who have much more in common than their shared interest in C.S. Lewis’s land of Narnia. Peter Carlisle is an injured Olympic-level rower struggling to get his life back. While looking for a birthday present for his mother, he opens a wardrobe in an Oxford antique store and discovers Emilia Mason, who is joining her mother’s search for Lewis’s fictional land. She came to Oxford in hopes of reinventing herself and atoning for a past mistake. While romantic sparks fly between Peter and Emilia every time they meet, the list of reasons that they should not be together is long; among other things, Peter is the board member overseeing Emilia’s work at SpringBoard, a charity devoted to getting books into the hands of poor children. The story’s faith elements are not overwhelming, but they underpin the burgeoning relationship between Peter and Emilia. Fans of Isaac’s debut will be thrilled that previous protagonists Allie and Jackson return as supporting characters. One need not be a Narnia fan to settle in and enjoy Isaac’s story, which romance readers will easily fall in love with. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Velvet Hours

Alyson Richman. Berkley, $16 trade paper (370p) ISBN 978-0-425-26626-7

In this exploration of sensuality, beauty, and the lives of heirlooms, two women narrate a rich tale set in Paris during the 19th and 20th centuries. In 2010, a time capsule of sorts was uncovered in Paris’s ninth arrondissement: an apartment untouched since WWII and filled with treasures of a bygone age. Richman (The Garden of Letters), in her fifth novel, fills in the details of this intriguing mystery by imagining the life and loves of the apartment’s real-life inhabitant, courtesan Marthe de Florian. On the eve of WWII, Marthe recites her adventures in the half-world of belle epoque Paris, where she began as an impoverished seamstress and ended up a demimondaine, to her granddaughter Solange, a budding writer. Solange has her own story to tell; the world she thought she knew is unraveling, and Solange’s mother recently revealed her Jewish heritage before dying. Hoping to understand her past, Solange takes a precious book from her mother’s collection to a rare book dealer. There she meets Alec, the son of the book dealer, and slowly begins to fall in love. Meanwhile, Hitler’s troops draw closer to Paris, her father is conscripted, and Marthe’s health begins to fail. Richman fills her novel with vibrant details (including some of the more juicy bits from Marthe’s real life), much as Marthe decorated her apartment: always with care, craft, and a sharp eye. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Priceless: She’s Worth Fighting For

oel and Luke Smallbone, with Nancy Rue. Worthy, $15.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-617-95730-7

This is an entertaining, though cursory, novelization timed to release alongside the motion picture of the same title. James Stevens has it all—a good job, a beautiful wife, and a four-year-old daughter—but when his wife dies in an accident, James spirals into despondency. Numerous errors in judgment result in significant consequences, including losing custody of his daughter. His mother and the job market seemingly determined to make his road back as difficult as possible. When a friend of a friend asks him to convey undisclosed cargo from Houston to Reno for a large amount of cash, James agrees, but he is appalled to learn that the padlocked truck holds two sisters who are being exchanged for a debt their father owed. Once the realization hits, guilt takes over. Forming a quick partnership with a local who seems to know how this trafficking works, James sets out to rescue the women. While giving a slightly sanitized view of sex trafficking, the Smallbones (also known as the Christian band For King & Country) provide a glimpse into a murky world where women are dehumanized and treated as commodities. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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My Sister’s Prayer

Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould. Harvest House, $14.99 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7369-6290-2

Clark and Gould continue their Cousins of the Dove series (My Brother’s Crown) with this tale of forgiveness, betrayal, and love. In one narrative thread set in contemporary Virginia, Maddee Talbot has agreed to care for her sister, Nicole, after a serious car accident, and soon realizes Nicole needs more than physical healing. Then, jumping back to 18th-century Virginia, Celeste Talbot is considered her parents’ responsible daughter until a promise of love puts her in a difficult position and leaves her younger sister, Berta, in danger. These two relatives, separated by centuries, discover startling truths about their sisters, and also about themselves. Reaching beyond its romance elements, the novel deftly highlights the loving but sometimes difficult relationships between unique pairs of sisters. Maddee and Celeste’s plots mirror each other well without overlapping. Clark and Gould handle the parallel time frames with aplomb, providing a solid sense of setting to keep the reader grounded and expertly intertwining the historical and modern story lines. Maddee’s character arc drags occasionally, and she seems slow to grow, but Nicole’s growth proves an interesting counterbalance. This novel is a satisfying tale for those who enjoy both contemporary and historical fiction. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Slender Reeds: Jochabed’s Hope

Texie Susan Gregory. Shiloh Run, $14.99 trade paper (320) ISBN 978-1-63409-960-8

Gregory vividly paints a picture of the many perspectives that surround the story of Moses being drawn from the bulrushes. Jochabed is a Hebrew in ancient Egypt, suffering daily from Pharaoh’s oppression. Marked among her own people for her father’s actions, she feels the need to prove her worth as a woman. She finds a friend in Shiphrah, who bears the secrets and scars of her former Egyptian life. Shiphrah adopts the Hebrew ways, making them her people—but she’s unaware she has a deeper connection to Hebrew heritage. Her job as a midwife keeps her established among the women. However, her faith is shaken when the evil Pharaoh, Ramses, starts to fear the Hebrews’ growing numbers and orders Shiphrah to oversee the deaths of the newborn baby boys. She is horrified by the command to destroy a life she brought into the world just moments before. Now she must weigh the values of two lives—hers and a helpless baby’s. When Jochabed’s baby is born, their worst fears are realized when they discover the child is a boy. Knowing she cannot keep him hidden for long, Jochabed forms a basket and sets him afloat the Nile, trusting her God with her baby’s life. Gregory’s novel is a fine introduction to two lesser known, though extremely important, female characters in the Hebrew Bible. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Orphans of the Carnival

Carol Birch. Doubleday, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-54152-7

Birch’s vivid novel is about the life of an infamous Mexican orphan named Julia Pastrana. The performer (based on a real person who lived from 1834 to 1860) first appeared on the carnival stage in New Orleans in the mid-1800s. She was a slight girl with delicate feet who sang, danced, and spoke several languages. She’s also described as having the face of an ape, her body covered with hair (“ ‘It’s not fur,’ she always scolded, ‘it’s hair.’ ”). As in her previous novel, the Booker-nominated Jamrach’s Menagerie, Birch follows a forgotten historical figure living in an age when Darwin was the rage and the boundaries of society were strict. Julia seemed an ordinary girl who worked hard to perfect her act as she traveled the world, from New York to London, Berlin to St. Petersburg. Though it’s arguable that she’s not being exploited by the minders, rubes, and carnival folk with whom she travels, Julia accepts the dastardly marriage proposal of Theo Lent, her manager. Along the road, Julia and Theo meet many colorful people, some grand and some who cannot come to terms with what Julia is. Woven into this historical narrative is the story of a 21st-century girl called Rose, an endearing hoarder who has found a doll in a rubbish bin in London that was once a beloved possession of Julia’s. Rose is a memorable character, and the rest of the cast of misfits, dolls, and bad guys are just as full of nuance. Among the novel’s many pleasures are Birch’s compelling turns of phrase, and an immersive, melancholy milieu. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Lesson in Manners

Misty Urban. Snake Nation Press, $20 (126p) ISBN 978-0-9863589-3-7

Urban takes readers on an amazing journey in this exceptional collection of short stories. She travels from a nameless hospital in the title story, where a young woman is trying to understand how her once perfectly healthy younger sister could be slowly dying of a tumor, to a Tennessee bar, where an up-and-coming country western singer yearns to make a baby with her unsuspecting boyfriend (“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson”), to an Evanston, Ill., center for healing, where an emotionally damaged employee is on the cusp of recovering from the death of her beloved adopted sister (“Planet Joy”). The author has an uncanny ability to explore relationships, love, and loss in a fresh and original way. In “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County,” an Arkansas woman, pregnant with her first child, contemplates fleeing the husband who raped her in order to claim the future she was meant to have. In “Welcome to the Holy Land,” an exotic dancer seeks redemption in a Tampa religious theme park, having fallen in love with the actor who plays Jesus in one of the exhibits. These are powerful stories told by a strong voice and written with vivid precision, leaving readers wondering what happens to the characters after their stories end. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae

Graeme Macrae Burnet. Skyhorse, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5107-1921-7

Burnet’s fascinating second novel (after The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau), which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, purports to be an account of the celebrated case of Roderick Macrae, a 17-year-old crofter who was indicted for three brutal murders carried out in his native village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. The documents mentioned in the subtitle include statements from his neighbors; an account written by Roderick while awaiting trial; extracts from the delightfully titled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy by J. Bruce Thomson, “a man of science” in the field of criminal anthropology; and coverage of the trial gleaned from newspaper accounts and transcripts. The Rashomon-like shifting of perspectives adds depth to the characters and gives readers the pleasure of repeatedly reinterpreting events. Although Burnet paints a disturbing picture of the hopelessness and hardships of tenant farmers, as well as providing an eye-opening introduction to the fallibility of so-called expert witnesses, this is not a bleak book. Rather, it is sly, poignant, gritty, thought-provoking, and sprinkled with wit. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Winter’s Child

Margaret Coel. Berkley, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-28032-4

Bestseller Coel deftly melds Native American history with a fairly-clued whodunit in her 20th Wind River mystery (after 2015’s The Man Who Fell from the Sky). At a meeting of the Fremont County (Wyo.) Bar Association, Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney, talks to fellow lawyer Clint Hopkins, who’s white, about an adoption case he’s handling. Myra and Eldon Little Shield, an Arapaho couple, have been raising a white girl as their own since the night she was abandoned on their doorstep as an infant, and now, five years later, they want to formalize the relationship. Just after Clint and Vicky say goodbye, a truck runs Clint down as he’s crossing the street and speeds off. She’s the only witness who believes that the fatality was intentional, and her own efforts to investigate are stymied when she finds that Clint’s records on the Little Shield case are minimal. Meanwhile, series regular Fr. John O’Malley helps her try to persuade Vince White Hawk, a client of hers who has been charged with armed robbery, to surrender to the authorities. This is an excellent entry point for new readers, many of whom will be motivated to seek out earlier books. Agent: Rick Henshaw, Richard Henshaw Group. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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