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Hostile Takeover: A John Lago Thriller

Shane Kuhn. Simon & Schuster, $25 (304p) ISBN 978-1-4767-9618-5

When newlywed hit man John Lago and his former nemesis, Alice, cap their bespoke Manhattan nuptials by bumping off their boss at Human Resources Inc.—a boutique contract assassination firm with the genius MO of getting killers close to otherwise inaccessible targets by placing them as interns—the couple expect some blowback. But nothing even their exquisitely twisted imaginations can conjure comes remotely close to the smoke and mirrors scenario that unfolds in this sardonically funny and psychologically astute sequel to Kuhn’s debut, 2014’s The Intern’s Handbook. Nor does anything prepare the sizzling hot duo, now partnering uneasily as co-CEOs of the thriving HR Inc., for the marathon mayhem that ensues once their bone-deep distrust turns them back into each other’s deadliest enemies. Though character soon takes a back seat to the inspired multiplex-ready execution scenarios of the bullet-train plot, readers ready for a cartoonishly enjoyable adventure shouldn’t mind a bit. Agent: Hannah Brown Gordon, Foundry Literary + Media. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Vanishing Games

Roger Hobbs. Knopf, $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-385-35264-2

A shipment of incredibly valuable uncut sapphires, smuggled out of Burma and hijacked by pirates in the South China Sea, provides the MacGuffin for Edgar-finalist Hobbs’s fantastic sequel to 2013’s Ghostman. Enter a pair of professional thieves, Jack (aka Mr. Outis/Ghostman) and his onetime mentor, now partner, Angela. Each of them is a master of disguise, able to alter posture, attitude, accent, and expression to suit the moment. Equipped with an array of false passports, they move through the glamorous world of the super-rich in Hong Kong and Macao. Jack has no qualms about killing and does his share. Yet Hobbs stops the action, when he sees fit, in the most amazing fashion. In one scene, Jack and a professional assassin pause to discuss Greek mythology and the story of the cyclops Polyphemus for several pages before resuming their battle to the death. Those who can stomach the graphic violence will find this an irresistible ride. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Meant to Be

Jessica James. Patriot Press, $16.99 ISBN 978-1-941020-02-9

James uses the idyllic setting of Ocean City, Mary., as a man and woman quickly fall into a whirlwind romance. Rad meets Lauren as he is jogging on the beach; despite being brushed off, he meets her again on the boardwalk, and she agrees to go to the Ripley Museum with him. Their romantic day on the boardwalk together turns into a most memorable night as she meets his friends at a beach bash, and their romance continues until almost dawn. Neither Rad nor Lauren disclose any information to the other about their jobs or what paths led them to Ocean City, and they go their separate ways. But not much later, through circumstances related to their military careers, they see each other again. In this difficult new situation, however, both Lauren and Rad need to set aside their personal feelings to complete their respective assignments. Sweetly sentimental and moving, James’s novel is an endearing page-turner offering a unique view of military life and the difficult choices faced by those involved. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Speak

Louisa Hall. Ecco, $27.99 (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-239119-3

Spanning nearly 400 years, the uneven latest from Hall (The Carriage House) merges truth with fiction to relate the history of MARY3, an artificial intelligence software found in a doll banned for causing mysterious ailments in children, and the imprisonment of its developer, Stephen Chinn, in the year 2040. The novel unfolds through epistolary means: Chinn communicates to the reader via memoir; Alan Turing, the novel’s lone nonfictional character, is responsible for much of the original concepts behind artificial intelligence and is depicted through his correspondence from the 20th century; Karl Dettman, the developer of the original (but fictional) MARY talking computer in the 1960s, and his wife, Ruth, who aims to turn MARY into MARY2, a thinking machine, also converse with each other through letters, in the 1960s; Mary Bradford, an early pilgrim from England to Massachusetts, subject of Ruth Dettman’s academic work, and namesake of the MARY computer, is represented by journal entries from 1663; and MARY3 finds voice in court transcripts presented at Chinn’s trial in the year 2035. Throughout, Hall aims to write about both technology and the preservation of memory. Characters claim that, in order to understand one another, they must “[hold] several time periods in mind at once.” But while some story lines prosper, others—the Turing and the Dettman sections, in particular—strain under stilted structures. Characters rarely speak to each other (except in letters, many of which never get replies), resulting in some flat passages. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Confidence

Russell Smith. Biblioasis (Consortium, U.S. dist.; University of Toronto Press, Canadian dist.), $15.95 trade paper (158p) ISBN 978-1-77196-015-1

Smith (How Insensitive) specializes in portraits of the thin social strata of Toronto—the fashionable (trend-conscious partygoers, habitués of hip downtown restaurants and bars), the aspiring white middle class, and dissatisfied heterosexual couples whose male halves display a relentless propensity for infidelity. With gallery openings, DJs, snorted pharmaceuticals, vapid conversations about rabbit dumplings in miso vanilla froth, and the expected handful of cheating husbands and boyfriends, this collection of eight stories reflect the author’s ongoing attraction to his signature demographic. His guys might be aging (as in “Fun Girls”) or climbing the real estate ladder (“Gentrification”), but they still troll faddish venues for pretty women and cool contacts. The most memorable stories work with the formula but have added depth. Mixing satiric comedy with pathos, the married dad in “Raccoons” pretends to search the garage for the titular pest. In fact he is digging for sex tapes—about which a furious woman (an affair that flamed out) has been making threatening phone calls, while he strives to maintain the illusion of being nothing but a loving husband and father. A minor change in Smith’s strategy, the story signals his capability of breaking away from his shopworn themes and settings. Agent: Martha Magor Webb, Anne McDermid & Associates (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Kitchens of the Great Midwest

J. Ryan Stradal. Viking/Pam Dorman, $27.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-525-42914-2

Stradal’s debut novel centers on Eva Thorvald, the daughter of a chef and an aspiring sommelier, who has food in her DNA—a fact that remains irrefutable even after her mother abandons her and her father dies when she is an infant. Raised by relatives in Wisconsin and Iowa, Eva grows into a tall, awkward girl obsessed with restaurant kitchens, chili peppers, and local cuisine, which she folds into extremely popular and sought-after fine-dining experiences. Eva’s story unfolds more like a short story collection than a novel as each vignette, told from the point of view of a different character, reveals another facet of her personality. The unifying (though slightly trite) conceit is that each character introduces an ingredient that lands on Eva’s tasting menu in the final act. Stradal’s neither a food snob nor exclusively a comfort-food advocate: he lovingly skewers Lutheran church-basement cuisine and locavore foodies alike as he tracks Eva’s path to success. Certain bits of information occasionally feel deliberately withheld for dramatic effect (though they are eventually revealed), and Eva’s superstar status at the end of the story feels like a little bit of a stretch, but Eva herself is a compelling, deliciously flawed character. Agent: Ryan Harbage, Fischer-Harbage Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The New World

Andrew Motion. Crown, $25 (416p) ISBN 978-0-8041-3845-1

Motion, poet laureate of the U.K. from 1999 to 2009, provides a strong dose of swashbuckling, adventure-driven historical fiction in this second of a trilogy, a cheeky reimagining of Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Motion’s story catches up with characters from his first book (Silver), Long John Silver’s daughter, Natty, and Jim Hawkins’s son, Jim. Natty has persuaded Jim to sail with her to Treasure Island to recover the silver Jim’s father believed was left behind. As this novel begins the youths find themselves the only survivors of their shipwreck off the Gulf Coast of Texas. Ashore, they attempt to journey north and east through desert and thicket to the Mississippi River, which they hope will eventually lead them home to England. But Jim, stricken perhaps by the same greed as his father, has stolen a beautiful power-laden silver necklace from Black Cloud, who had captured and thrown Jim and Natty into a cabin. Jim and Natty manage to escape with the help of a child, but they realize soon enough that Black Cloud and his sidekick, the Painted Man, are willing to pursue them to the ends of the Earth to recover the necklace. There is meaning and metaphor just under the surface of Motion’s New World, including the symbolic killing off of one Mr. Stevenson, who is on board the ship. Jim and Natty learn much about themselves from the land they cross and the Native Americans they meet, some of whom they live among and grow to love. But then again the novel, which was labeled crossover fiction in Great Britain, can satisfy simply as a good, page-turning yarn. It is clear the author enjoys writing these tales, and the reader will find it easy to sit back and enjoy reading them. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Small Backs of Children

Lidia Yuknavitch. Harper, $24.99 (208p) ISBN 978-0-06-238324-2

In this daring novel, Yuknavitch (The Chronology of Water) takes a provocative look at the intimate relationship among love, art, and sex in a group of emotionally scarred artists who want to save one of their own. Written in the voices of characters without first names—photographer, writer, poet, performance artist, playwright, filmmaker, and painter—the novel begins in modern Eastern Europe (likely Lithuania), occupied by an unseen force, where a photojournalist captures an award-winning shot: a young girl running from her exploding home, in which the rest of her family dies. The girl escapes into the woods, making her way to a widow’s home; the widow teaches her about art, and the girl begins to paint. Meanwhile, an American writer who is friends with the photographer, is hospitalized with severe depression. The writer’s best friend, a poet, believes she can help the writer; she enters the war zone to bring the orphaned girl to the United States. Yuknavitch’s novel is disturbing and challenging, but undoubtedly leaves its mark. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Where Pigeons Don’t Fly

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed, trans. from the Arabic by Robin Moger. Bloomsbury, $17 trade paper (396p) ISBN 978-9992179161

Saudi writer Al-Mohaimeed’s moving novel follows self-exiled artist Fahd al-Safeelawi, who grew up in the conservative religious city of Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. After enduring a childhood with a joyless, superstitious family that made him a scapegoat for their troubles, Fahd’s father, Suleiman, falls in with an antigovernment group and lands in jail for four years. There, he pens journals that he eventually leaves to his son. Suleiman briefly finds happiness after marrying Soha, a Jordanian woman, with whom he has Fahd and a daughter, Lulua. The family has a loving life together, filled with music and art, but it comes to an abrupt halt after Suleiman’s death in a car crash. In the ensuing turmoil, Fahd moves in with his best friend, Saeed. Like many of his countrymen, Fahd circumvents social constraints and manages to have physical relationships with women, first with the difficult (and married) Thuraya, and then with Tarfah, who also has a sad past. It’s with Tarfah that Fahd is targeted by the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice and accused of sorcery. Stilted and rife with exposition, dialogue isn’t Al-Mohaimeed’s strong suit: “Listen here Fahd: it’s nothing to do with surour, the word for happiness,” Saeed says. But the fractured storytelling style, filled with memories, is perfect for what is ultimately a son’s loving tribute to his father, who tried to encourage joy in a place where it was easily snuffed out. Al-Mohaimeed also deftly demonstrates how women especially pay the price in this society. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Mirages of the Mind

Mushtaq Ahmed Yousufi, trans. from the Urdu by Matt Reeck and Aftab Ahmad. New Directions, $18.95 trade paper (576p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2413-0

A sprawling, gently satirical collection of linked tale within tales, Yousufi’s novel is a hymn to the chaotic lives of India’s Muslims, which follows a post-Partition immigrant to Pakistan, Basharat Ali Farooqi—schoolteacher, poet, and lumber-shop boss, whose misadventures are the subject of good-natured ridicule from the narrator. Basharat’s ferocious father-in-law, Quibla, is imprisoned in Kanpur for beating up a rival shopkeeper and emerges from prison undaunted, “but when he immigrated to Karachi, not only did he find the land strange but his own feet as well.” At 70, Quibla displays a photograph of his abandoned Kanpur home, repeating, “We left this to come here.” When old-fashioned Basharat buys a horse and a car, both disappoint and financially devastate him; the horse is lame, the car hardly runs, and Karachi authorities ticket him for both. A friend who remained in India faces circumstances no less absurd—traveling back to Kanpur after his wife’s death, Basharat discovers that Mullah Aasi lives in Basharat’s childhood room and “has impaled on darning needles all the letters... his friends and family have written.” Rich with allusions to Western and Muslim culture, philosophical asides, and poetic couplets, Yousufi’s text brims with the collected wisdom of generations. He treats the persistent ache of nostalgia for a long-gone world with its only effective salve: laughter. (July)

Reviewed on 05/22/2015 | Details & Permalink

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