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This Is the Life

Alex Shearer. Washington Square, $16 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-4767-6440-5

This poignant and compassionate novel from British children’s author Shearer (The Speed of the Dark) concerns one brother serving as the primary caregiver for another brother battling a life-threatening disease. Louis, who lives in a Brisbane suburb, is diagnosed with a brain tumor “the size of a billiard ball” and asks his younger (unnamed) brother, living with his family in the U.K., to travel to Australia and assist him. The introspective younger brother narrates their stories through nonlinear anecdotes, about their early years growing up together in a blue collar British family and about Louis’s grueling present regimen of chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Louis has university degrees in chemistry and engineering, but he’s too restless and unfocused to hold down a good job. His nomadic lifestyle, which led him to Australia, and his broken relationships with women contribute to his frequent bouts of “black dog” depression, especially during the difficult medical treatments for his illness. The earthy humor that often peeks through provides much-needed comic relief from the downbeat sections about Louis’s deteriorating health, and the brothers’ dialogue stands out as authentic and spot-on. The small life rituals, such as the younger brother’s hassles when trying to return Louis’s broken TV under warranty, take on profound significance as the pair comes to grips with saying their final good-byes. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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All My Puny Sorrows

Miriam Toews. McSweeney’s, $24 (330p) ISBN 978-1-940450-27-8

Elfrieda’s a concert pianist. When we were kids she would occasionally let me be her page-tuner for the fast pieces that she hadn’t memorized.” This sentence, in the voice of the younger Yolandi, crystallizes the dynamic of the two sisters in Toews’s (Summer of My Amazing Luck) latest novel. While Elfrieda is the genius and the perfectionist, it is the practical, capable Yolandi on whom she depends. Over the course of this tender and bittersweet novel, Elf tours the world while Yoli stays put, has two kids with two different men but stays with neither of the fathers. It is Elf’s debilitating depression and suicidal tendencies that keep the two urgently close as Yoli, for decades, does everything she can to help Elf ward off her psychological problems. The prose throughout the book is lively and original and moves along at a steady clip. Though there are some underdeveloped aspects (their upbringing in a Mennonite household, Yoli’s experience of motherhood), the novel is a triumph in its depiction of the love the sisters share, as Yoli tries, just as when she was a page turner, to stay a few beats ahead. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Magician’s Lie

Greer Macallister. Sourcebooks Landmark, $23.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9868-4

This well-paced, evocative, and adventurous historical novel from Macallister, a poet and short story writer, chronicles the career of America’s preeminent female stage illusionist at the turn of the 20th century, who, as the Amazing Arden, created the lurid, controversial stage act known as the Halved Man. When Arden’s husband is found murdered following her performance in Waterloo, Iowa, she falls under suspicion, particularly after she goes on the lam. Later the same night, officer Virgil Holt, en route to his home in the nearby town of Janesville, nabs Arden and charges her with her husband’s murder. Holt escorts her to his office where she maintains her innocence and urges him to release her. The skeptical Holt compels Arden to relate her life’s story, from her birth as Ada Bates in Philadelphia to her growing up on a Tennessee farm. And so the tale begins, as Arden describes learning to dance and fearing her older cousin Ray, who self-mutilates and fancies himself a magical healer. Arden hires on as a laundress at the Vanderbilts’ Biltmore estate in North Carolina, where she befriends the gardener, Clyde Garber, and they run away to New York City. She begins work as a chorine before entering the magic business under the tutelage of the crusty, colorful Adelaide Herrmann. After Adelaide retires, Arden takes over the traveling magic show. She again crosses paths with Ray to set in motion the violent conclusion, bringing Arden’s rollicking life full circle and satisfyingly capping off this top-notch novel. Agent: Elizabeth Weed, Weed Literary. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Life We Bury

Allen Eskens. Prometheus Books/Seventh Street, $15.95 trade paper (300p) ISBN 978-1-61614-998-7

Joe Talbert, the hero of Eskens's masterful debut, has worked hard to earn the money to leave home and pursue an education at the University of Minnesota, but his alcoholic mother, who's unable to provide proper care for his autistic brother, keeps demanding his money and time. Joe's life takes a harrowing turn when he visits a nursing home in Richfield, Minn., in search of a subject for a class assignment—to write a person's biography. Joe chooses one of the only patients not affected with dementia, Carl Iverson, who, he soon discovers, was convicted decades earlier of the murder and rape of a 14-year-old girl. Recently paroled after serving 30 years of a life sentence because he's dying of pancreatic cancer, Carl agrees to tell Joe his story. Prodded by Lila Nash, his attractive college student neighbor, Joe immerses himself in the crime and Carl's trial. As Joe learns more about the events of the murder, he is faced with several threats to his own safety, yet refuses to give up his pursuit of the truth. More complications ensue, until the novel's satisfying resolution. Agent: Amy Cloughley, Kimberley Cameron Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Spectrum: A Karen Vail Novel

Alan Jacobson. Open Road, $17.99 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-62467-271-2

Jacobson's intriguing sixth Karen Vail novel (after 2013's No Way Out) chronicles the first case that his heroine handled as a rookie NYPD patrol officer. In 1995, Vail views her first murder victim, a woman savagely attacked in a Manhattan brownstone. Sgt. Carmine Russo, a seasoned homicide detective, acts as Vail's mentor in what develops into a serial killer case. The killings continue over the years, always with the same telltale MO and lack of meaningful evidence. Meanwhile, in a tragic story that parallels Vail's rise to successful FBI profiler, a fight at an Astoria, Queens, bowling alley in 1973 starts a downward spiral that eventually crushes two immigrant Greek families and colors the childhoods of brother and sister Cassandra and Dimitri and their friend Niklaus. Readers will have little trouble figuring out the killer's identity, but series fans will appreciate the extensive background information that details Vail's growth as an investigator. Agent: Joel Gotler, IPG Literary Agency. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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To Dwell in Darkness

Deborah Crombie. Morrow, $17.99 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-232526-6

Early in bestseller Crombie's exciting 16th Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James mystery, a white phosphorous grenade—initially mistaken for a harmless smoke bomb—fatally hits a street protester at London's St. Pancras International railway station. Others in the station crowd suffer injury, including some of Duncan and Gemma's police colleagues. The search for the victim's identity leads to the mysterious Ryan Marsh, an ex-cop gone underground for reasons that are never made clear. As usual, Crombie thoroughly immerses the reader in the crime solving, as well as the home lives of those trying to solve the crime, including friends, children, dogs, and a litter of stray kittens. As the protest at St. Pancras was against the destruction of London's architectural heritage, the city's tube and train stations, as well as various other landmarks, figure prominently in the story. Best of all, the eerily open ending sets the stage for the next installment. Author tour. Agent: Nancy Yost, Nancy Yost Literary Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Back of the Turtle

Thomas King. HarperCollins Canada , $33.99 (518p) ISBN 978-1-44343-162-0

King, whose non-fiction book The Inconvenient Indian won both the RBC Taylor Prize and the B.C. National Award this year, returns to literary fiction with this timely and thought-provoking novel. In the small town of Samaritan Bay, scientist Gabriel Quinn is preparing to kill himself after committing an unthinkable crime. He encounters the few remaining residents of this veritable ghost town, mysterious and unsettling characters who seem to occupy a space between reality and fantasy. Far away, amongst the towers of Toronto's Bay Street, CEO Dorian Asher scrambles to preserve his company's image in the face of several environmental disasters. King deftly juxtaposes the varieties of Canadian experience, contrasting the shining city with diminishing coastal town, the lives of the uber-wealthy with those of aboriginal Canadians, whose lives seem to count for very little when there is a profit to be made. King uses his trademark blending of traditional aboriginal beliefs and stories with the Western literary canon to create a haunting narrative of life, death and the destruction of nature. Allusions abound, incorporated into the story with King's often absurdist wit, walking a fine line between humor and heartbreak. The result is both an intimate story of grief in the face of loved ones lost and a searing criticism of current apathy toward looming environmental disasters. Agent: Jackie Kaiser, Westwood Creative Artists. (Sept.)


Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Moor's Account

Laila Lalami. Pantheon, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-0-307-91166-7

Lalami's second novel (after Secret Son) is historical fiction of the first-order, a gripping tale of Spanish exploration in the New World set in the years 1527 to 1536, as told by a Muslim slave. Meticulously researched, the novel is told in the first-person by a Moor, Mustafa al-Zamori, called Estebanico by his Spanish master, Andres Dorantes, recounting the disastrous Narvaez expedition into Florida, the Land of the Indians. Estebanico is an educated man, sold into slavery years before, now struggling to survive in an inhospitable land, beset by hostile Indians, disease, and starvation. Greed and the lust for gold leads to unwise leadership decisions on the part of the Spanish, resulting in the deaths of most of the expedition members. Four survivors, Estebanico and three Spaniards, wander for eight years, from Florida and Texas to New Mexico and Arizona, under the constant threat of death and living on the scant generosity of various Indian tribes. Eventually, Estebanico and the Spaniards develop skills as healers, earning respect and powerful reputations, even marrying Indian women and embracing Indian culture and lifestyle. As Estebanico dreams of his freedom from slavery, he clearly understands that explorers Cortes and Coronado are only interested in conquest and empire. This is a colorful but grim tale of Spanish exploration and conquest, marked by brutality, violence, and indifference to the suffering of native peoples. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Reasons She Goes to the Woods

Deborah Kay Davies. Oneworld (PGW, dist.), $21.99 (256 pages) ISBN 978-1-78074-376-9

Davies's (True Things About Me) second novel chronicles the pre-teen and teen-age years of a troubled and often cruel girl named Pearl. Seen through her imaginative (hallucinatory?) eyes, the story takes the form of single-page episodes appearing only on the right hand page of the book, the left remaining virtually blank. Is Davies suggesting the need to take a breather between vignettes? Considering Pearl's gasp-inducing, hurtful acts and her own frequent heartbreak, this would be understandable. Pearl alternates between abandoning her baby brother, whom she calls The Blob, and being his supporter; between physically torturing her friends and craving them. Her negligent parents are helpless—the mother hobbled by demons and the loving father exhausted by Mom's madness. Raw, lyrical, sad, this haunting story packs a deceivingly strong punch. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Perfect Witness

Iris Johansen. St. Martin's, $27.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-02005-5

At the start of this thrilling novel of paranormal suspense from bestseller Johansen (Shadow Zone), 16-year-old Teresa Casali, the daughter of the head of the New Jersey Mafia, who was gunned down three weeks earlier, is running for her life through a forest after being shot. A mysterious man, Andre Mandak, comes to her rescue. Teresa reluctantly agrees to let Mandak provide her with a new life and identity as Allie Girard. While Allie realizes that Mandak wants something in return for saving her, she also knows that he understands her ability to read people's memories, a skill that her late father often exploited. Fast forward seven years when Allie is living with a new family and enjoying a relatively normal life as a college student. When disaster strikes and her cover is blown, Allie must once again rely on Mandak, who reveals the task for which he needs her special talents. This page-turner builds to a breathless conclusion. Agent: Andrea Cirillo, Jane Rotrosen Agency. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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