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The Hollow Land

Jane Gardam. Europa (Penguin, dist.), $15 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-60945-246-9

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Fans of Gardam’s Old Filth trilogy will be pleased to discover this book of linked stories, first published in 1981. The collection follows the friendship of Harry Bateman and Bell Teasdale and their mischievous adventures in the Cumbrian countryside—or what Bell’s grandfather calls “the hollow land.” Harry, the son of a writer, is a Londoner who spends summers in a farmhouse that belongs to Bell’s family. The duo gets trapped in an abandoned silver mine, nearly freeze to death chasing icicles in a blinding snowstorm, and encounter characters such as Granny Crank, aka the Egg Witch and, later, a long-absent uncle who returns to claim the house Harry rents. Gardam has created an engaging rural landscape with its own dialect, ghosts, and legends. “The evening,” she writes, “gentle with warmth of the long day, smelled of gorse and wild thyme and a hundred miles of clean turf.” Yet it is not so much the sense of place but rather the shared experiences of one country boy and one city chap that connect the stories. Like Mark Twain’s depictions of youth, Gardam demonstrates that the enduring lessons of boyhood and lifelong friendship can delight readers of any age. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Happy Are the Happy

Yasmina Reza, trans. from the French by John Cullen. Other Press, $20 (160p) ISBN 978-1-59051-692-8

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Playwright and author Reza’s newest book is a fragmented novella of vignettes, all of which function as independent short stories. Reza follows more than a dozen characters struggling with marriage and loneliness—opening with “Robert Toscano,” a hilarious study of patience and insistence revolving around a married couple in France, the Toscanos, who get into an escalating argument over cheese (he doesn’t buy the kind she likes). Reza’s askew humor pervades the book—four chapters later, we find out that the seemingly perfect Hunter family (bitterly envied by the Toscanos) has a secret: the son is not interning abroad, he is in a mental institution because he believes he is Celine Dion. Reza’s vignettes are also dark (a man’s incestuous relationship with his brother later turns him into a sexual masochist) and sardonic (a man accuses his wife of wanting to be buried together for social reasons: “My wife is counting on the grave to outfox spiteful gossips, she wants to remain a petit bourgeois even in death”). Reza’s stories build and build, creating a complicated, multifaceted world—a world that is unmistakably Reza’s. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Coyote

Colin Winnette. Les Figues (SPD, dist.), $17 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-934254-56-1

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like a modern-day Poe, Winnette (Fondly) has fashioned a narrator whose pull on the reader’s sympathy gradually fades as she recounts the aftermath of her daughter’s mysterious disappearance. The girl, who remains unnamed (like her parents), was put to bed one evening and simply vanished in the night. As her parents appear on various talk shows in an effort to find their daughter, her mother recounts, in small, minutely observed sections, the devastation wrought by the loss of a child. At first, the reader shares the woman’s pain as she struggles to come to grips with her loss. Slowly, however, the reader becomes aware that first impressions are not to be trusted, as the narrator begins to reveal less about her child and more about her own tenuous grasp on sanity. This novel offers a glimpse into an unhinged mind, made all the more horrifying by the narrator’s own obliviousness. Winnette’s deeply affecting story is hard to put down and even harder to forget. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Sellout

Paul Beatty. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-374-26050-7

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Beatty’s satirical latest (after Slumberland) is a droll, biting look at racism in modern America. At the novel’s opening, its narrator, a black farmer whose last name is Me, has been hauled before the Supreme Court for keeping a slave and reinstituting racial segregation in Dickens, an inner-city neighborhood in Los Angeles inexplicably zoned for agrarian use. When Dickens is erased from the map by gentrification, Me hatches a modest proposal to bring it back by segregating the local school. While his logic may be skewed, there is a perverse method in his madness; he is aided by Hominy, a former child star from The Little Rascals, who insists that Me take him as his slave. Beatty gleefully catalogues offensive racial stereotypes but also reaches further, questioning what exactly constitutes black identity in America. Wildly funny but deadly serious, Beatty’s caper is populated by outrageous caricatures, and its damning social critique carries the day. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust: A Flavia de Luce Novel

Alan Bradley. Delacorte, $25 (416p) ISBN 978-0-345-53993-9

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Set in 1951, Bradley’s exceptional seventh series whodunit (after 2014’s The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches) takes Flavia de Luce, a preteen with an interest in poisons, from her family home in Bishop’s Lacey, England, to Canada, where she is to attend her late mother’s alma mater, Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy. On Flavia’s very first night there, a fellow student, P.A. Collingwood, bursts into her room and reveals that three other girls have disappeared. When the head of school, Miss Fawlthorne (aka the Hangman’s Mistress), knocks at Flavia’s door, Collingwood flees up the chimney, dislodging a mummified corpse and detaching its skull. This intriguing setup only gets better, and Bradley makes Miss Bodycote’s a suitably Gothic setting for Flavia’s sleuthing. Through it all, her morbid narrative voice continues to charm (e.g., “If you’re anything like me, you adore rot. It is pleasant to reflect on the fact that decay and decomposition are what make the world go round”). Agent: Denise Bukowski, Bukowski Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Once Upon a Grind

Cleo Coyle. Berkley Prime Crime, $26.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-425-27085-1

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There's magic in the Ethiopian coffee beans that Matt Allegro, Clare Cosi's ex-husband, brings to her New York coffeehouse at the start of Coyle's 14th amusing combination of caffeine and chaos (after 2013's Billionaire Blend). The inaugural Storybook Kingdom, a festival in Central Park celebrating fairy tales, draws plenty of participants, many dressed as princesses and knights. When the two children of Clare's boyfriend, Mike Quinn, go missing, Clare joins the search, and winds up finding the body of the Pink Princess, Anya Kravchenko. After Matt, who's costumed as one of the knights, becomes a prime suspect, Clare must again play detective. Disturbing visions from drinking the special coffee help guide her, as does the mysterious necklace charm key worn by Anya and other women that leads to the exclusive Prince Charming Club and its sometimes surprising members. An extensive list of mouth-watering recipes rounds out the volume. Agent: John Talbot, Talbot Fortune Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Iris Fan

Laura Joh Rowland. Minotaur, $25.99 (352p) ISBN 978-1-250-04706-9

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Rowland's 18th and final mystery set in feudal Japan showcases the series' strengths and weaknesses. In 1709, four years after the events of 2013's The Shogun's Daughter, Sano Ichiro is grappling with the repercussions of yet another reversal of fortunes. Sano's refusal to abandon his pursuit of the truth behind the death of the aging shogun's daughter, Yoshihato, has cost him dearly. In particular, his choice to view Lord Ienobu, the ruler's nephew and heir, as responsible for Yoshihato's death has led to another demotion. Once having held the post of chamberlain, the shogun's first minister, he is reduced to a lowly patrol guard. When an attempt is made on the shogun's life, Sano gets a chance to redeem himself. The prominent place of the supernatural in the plot, more so than in other recent entries, will unsettle fans of traditional detecting. Still, Rowland offers the usual high-stakes suspense, convincing period detail, and nuanced characters you care about. Readers will be sorry to see the last of Sano. Agent: Pam Ahearn, Ahearn Agency. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Third Target

Joel C. Rosenberg. Tyndale, $26.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4143-3627-5

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Known for his globe-spanning thrillers (The Twelfth Imam), many dealing with the interplay between radical Islam and the West, Rosenberg has ripped a page from current headlines with a heart-stopping plot about the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also commonly called ISIS). When New York Times reporter J.B. Collins is given unprecedented access to world leaders and terrorists, it puts him in a position to advise even the president of the United States about looming chemical weapons attacks and a "third target" besides Syria and Iraq. The plot is executed with well-paced precision, includes a mysterious Israeli love interest named Yael, and has more than enough to satisfy those who love over the top action, down to the last shocking word of the book. Rosenberg's writing skills are impeccable, yet some Christian readers may wonder whether the grisly violence he depicts and the xenophobia it stokes contradict the Christian gospel messages found in the book. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Saving Grace

Jane Green. St. Martin's, $26.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-04733-5

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Green (Tempting Fate) woos readers with her latest offering, a memorable novel probing the flimsy façade of one woman's seemingly perfect life. Grace and Ted Chapman have an idyllic life: he is a well-known author, and she is his adoring wife. When their assistant, Ellen, leaves her job, Grace is desperate to find someone who can take Ellen's place and can adjust to Ted's ever-changing moods. Grace hires Beth, who proves to be an excellent employee, anticipating Ted's needs and assisting Grace as well. But there are oddities in Beth's behavior that Grace can't explain. And when Grace begins to see a psychiatrist who prescribes a host of potent medications, she hardly recognizes herself anymore, either emotionally or physically. As Grace's life threatens to completely spiral out of control, she must take stock of what is most important to her and discover how to find true happiness. Green has imbued her story with realistic, imperfect characters. The lure of the novel lies in Green's ability to create a consistenly evolving story that entices from the very first page. First printing: 125,000 copies. Agent: Christy Fletcher, Fletcher & Company. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Sherlock Holmes: Gods of War

James Lovegrove. Titan (www.titanbooks.com), $14.95 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-781165-43-0

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Lovegrove's second Holmes pastiche is more traditional than its steampunk predecessor, 2013's The Stuff of Nightmares, and is mostly successful at portraying Holmes and Watson in character. In 1913, the doctor visits his retired friend on the Sussex Downs, where the pair happen upon the corpse of Patrick Mallinson, the victim of a fall from a great height. While the man's father, Craig, a mining magnate, believes that Patrick took his own life, he asks Holmes to determine the truth to avoid damage to his business from rumors that something else had happened. Elizabeth Vandenbergh, Patrick's lover, reveals that he had some Egyptian hieroglyphs tattooed on his body, raising the possibility that his death was the work of a secret and sinister society. The chapter titles sometimes spoil what's to come, and Lovegrove does strike some false notes. For example, Holmes's use of a magnifying lens to look for evidence is cited by Watson as evidence of his declining vision, although Conan Doyle had a much younger Holmes use such an aid in A Study in Scarlet. Still, the mystery and its solution are creative ones. (June)

Reviewed on 11/21/2014 | Details & Permalink

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