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A Fantastic Holiday Season: The Gift of Stories

Edited by Kevin J. Anderson and Keith J. Olexa. Wordfire (www.wordfire.com), $16.99 trade paper (306p) ISBN 978-1-61475-202-8

This often amusing and frequently compelling collection features Christmas-themed short stories from some of fantasy and science fiction’s brightest stars. In “Naughty & Nice,” editor (and Wordfire co-owner) Anderson’s popular zombie detective, Dan Shamble, gets things rolling when he helps Santa Claus recover his stolen list in the Unnatural Quarter of New Orleans. Other familiar characters include Heather Graham’s Krewe of Hunters in “Santa’s Mortuary” and Patricia Briggs popular werewolves in “Unappreciated Gifts.” In completely different futures, both Sam Knight’s “Yes, Virginia2097c, There Is a Santa Claus” and Brad R. Torgersen’s “Astronaut Nick” suggest Santa might retrofit his sled with an interstellar rocket to reach children who want to believe but are afraid to try. Eric James Stone’s “A Sufficiently Advanced Christmas,” in which computers communicating with a child learn their own Christmas moral, is particularly touching. And what holiday collection would be complete without zombies and possessed pigs attacking as the innocent sit down to their Christmas feasts? This is the perfect escape for weary holiday shoppers. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Genesis Code

Jamie Metzl. Skyhorse/Arcade, $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62872-423-3

Metzl (The Depths of the Sea), a former member of the U.S. National Security Council, offers up a tense vision of the near future with this science fiction thriller. When Kansas City Star reporter Dikran “Rich” Azadian tries to figure out who killed a college student, he finds a multilayered conspiracy involving genetic engineering, a powerful religious figure, shadowy government organizations, international espionage, and a trail of dead bodies. Only by recruiting some unlikely allies can Rich put the pieces together for the story of a lifetime. Metzl conjures up an America only a decade in the future; it remains familiar on the surface despite the technological and social changes that make the plot possible. Newspapers are viable though government-sponsored, religion is even more of a cultural lightning rod, and genetic selection allows for designer babies, while China has become America’s greatest competitor on several fronts. While the plot itself is standard, Metzl enhances it with a philosophical protagonist, scientific plausibility, and a keen sense of mood. Agent: Will Lippincott, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Three-Body Problem

Cixin Liu, trans. from the Chinese by Ken Liu. Tor, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7706-7

Fans of hard SF will revel in this intricate and imaginative novel by one of China’s most celebrated genre writers. In 1967, physics professor Ye Zhetai is killed after he refuses to denounce the theory of relativity. His daughter, Ye Wenjie, witnesses his gruesome death. Shortly after, she’s falsely charged with sedition for promoting the works of environmentalist Rachel Carson, and told she can avoid punishment by working at a defense research facility involved with the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. More than 40 years later, Ye’s work becomes linked to a string of physicist suicides and a complex role-playing game involving the classic physics problem of the title. Liu impressively succeeds in integrating complex topics—such as the field of frontier science, which attempts to define the limits of science’s ability to know nature—without slowing down the action or sacrificing characterization. His smooth handling of the disparate plot elements cleverly sets up the second volume of the trilogy. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Lady

K.V. Johansen. Pyr, $18 trade paper (445p) ISBN 978-1-61614-980-2

The action continues unabated in this dashing, magic-filled sequel to The Leopard. Outside the crossroads city of Marakand, Red Masks have fallen in a skirmish with caravaneers aided by an outland wizard and magical creatures in the form of a bear and a black dog. The Red Masks, once thought to be invulnerable servants of the goddess called the Lady of Marakand, are revealed to be animated corpses and she a necromancer. Away to the east, the enslaved Leopard, an assassin possessed by a dead demigod, leads the Lady’s army against the hill folk of the Praitannec kingdoms. Deities, demons, devils, and wizards stalk the pages alongside human heroes and others not so easily defined. Some of the magic is as quick as thought, while other magic requires lengthy rituals that border on poetry. Johansen has found a winning combination: the modern epic fantasy penchant for a cast of thousands and the golden age feeling of a tale of Conan or Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser dueling with gods gone mad. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Snow White Red-Handed

Maia Chance. Berkley Prime Crime, $7.99 mass market (336p) ISBN 978-0-425-27162-9

Set in 1867, Maia’s lively debut, the first in a new cozy series, introduces actresses Ophelia Flax and Prudence Bright. The pair, finding themselves unemployed aboard a ship bound for Europe from New York, use their guile to persuade a fellow passenger, wealthy Mrs. Pearl Coop, to hire them as maids. Ophelia and Prue wind up working at the castle Mr. and Mrs. Coop own in Germany’s Black Forest. On the estate is a cottage that may have been the home of the original Snow White, the object of interest of two professors, Winkler and Penrose. Winkler dismisses all things fairy tale, while Penrose secretly hopes to demonstrate that such stories are rooted in fact. When Mr. Coop takes a fatal bite out of a poisoned apple, Prue is accused of murder. Determined to prove Prue innocent, Ophelia joins forces with Penrose, and each agrees to aid the other’s mission. The conclusion will whet the reader’s appetite for Ophelia and Prue’s next misadventure. Agent: Stephany Evans, FinePrint Literary Management. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Baghdad Fixer

Ilene Prusher. Halban (IPG, dist.), $17.95 trade paper (688p) ISBN 978-1-905559-47-3

Prusher draws on her experiences as a reporter who covered the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for her first novel, an uneven thriller set in 2003 in Iraq after the American invasion. Nabil al-Amari, the middle-class English teacher son of a Sunni father and Shiite mother, is at loose ends when American bombs damage his Baghdad school. Then Nabil becomes the translator for American journalist Samara “Sam” Katchens, for whom he also serves as travel guide, arranger of interviews, and general representative among the local population. Nabil finds his power as societal go-between enjoyable, and begins to fall in love with the spirited Sam. After Sam’s newspaper asks her to verify a fellow journalist’s explosive story claiming an American politician took bribes from Saddam Hussein, Nabil and Sam descend into the criminal, religious, and political underworld of Baghdad. A limpid plot revolving around a potpourri of actual journalistic tempests weakens Prusher’s otherwise immensely engaging portrait of Baghdad society as seen through Nabil’s eyes. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Knot Guilty

Betty Hechtman. Berkley Prime Crime, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-25297-0

Hechtman’s solid ninth crochet mystery (after 2013’s Better or Worsted) finds Molly Pink and the Tarzana Hookers tangled in a crisis at the SoCal Knit Style Show, where for the first time the Shedd & Royal store is invited to exhibit. Adding crochet to the popular annual knitting show increases tension between crocheters and knitters until the simmering anger leads to the murder of the show’s organizer. Molly’s ex-boyfriend, homicide detective Barry Greenberg, presses her to keep out of the ensuing investigation, but when suspicions falls on one of her hookers, Adele Abrams, she feels she must clear Adele and uphold the hookers’ reputation. Meanwhile, Molly’s list of potential suspects expands until no one feels safe and there may not be a next year for the crochet contingent. Crochet fans will love the patterns in the back, and others will enjoy unraveling the knots leading to the killer. Agent: Jessica Faust, BookEnds Literary Agency. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Justice Postponed

Anthea Fraser. Severn, $27.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8418-3

Those who are content to meander through an English country town full of characters mostly irrelevant to the central plot will best appreciate Fraser’s leisurely ninth Rona Parish mystery (after 2012’s A Question of Identity). Rona has just completed her latest biography and is starting to write a series for a magazine about people who have lived in unusual places or through unusual events when she meets her father’s old friend Frank Hathaway, who was in Kuwait at the time of the Iraqi invasion. While interviewing him, she learns that Frank has been having flashbacks involving a car crash and a failed rescue that he was involved in the previous year. As Frank recovers more of his memory of the accident—and of being in Kuwait when war was declared—Rona turns sleuth. Series fans will be glad to see her troubled house next door occupied by the owners at last, and to find most of Rona’s family settling down. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dark Road, Dead End

Philip Cioffari. Univ. of West Alabama/Livingston, $31 (224p) ISBN 978-1-60489-141-6

At the start of this suspenseful cautionary eco-thriller from Cioffari (Catholic Boys), U.S. Customs Service agent Walter Morrison is dismayed to learn that his boss is terminating his investigation in Mangrove Bay, Fla., a major station on the underground route of monkeys, pythons, and other exotics poached in South America and bound for roadside zoos or hunt clubs. Instead, the boss wants Morrison to raid a suspect fishery in just a few days. A loner with few friends in the Customs Service, Morrison worries that he’s being set up. Colorful characters include two sexy women and their sleazebag boyfriends, but for a novel about wildlife set in the Everglades, there’s a disappointing lack of either. And where are all the swamp creatures? It’s a tale that could have taken a cue from Carl Hiaasen’s Everglades, so rich in quirky species of both animal and humankind, and just as concerned about the fragility of the natural world. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Scratched: An Algy Temple Mystery

J.J. Partridge. Koehler (www.koehlerbooks.com), $17.95 trade paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-940192-72-7

In Partridge’s excellent third Algy Temple mystery (after 2008’s Straight Pool), the Providence, R.I., attorney, who’s in-house counsel for Carter University on College Hill, has too much on his plate. Academics opposed to Christopher Columbus are agitating to change the name of the holiday honoring him, a sure-fire recipe for conflict in the heavily Italian-American city. Providence’s reform-minded mayor has just named Temple to a commission overseeing a pool tournament. A Madoff-like scam artist’s Ponzi scheme has jeopardized the investment account of the trust that helps fund the university’s Institute for Italian Studies—whose director emeritus, Italo Palagi, has just been found dead of an accidental overdose of oxycodone. Temple, who suspects Palagi’s death and the institute’s financial troubles are related, sets out to unravel the truth. Partridge adroitly weaves together the different plot points of this witty and well-written whodunit. Agent: Paula Munier, Talcott Notch Literary Services. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/26/2014 | Details & Permalink

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