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Lies the Mushroom Pickers Told

Tom Phelan. Skyhorse/Arcade (Perseus, dist.), $24.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-62872-428-8

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This witty novel from Phelan (The Canal Bridge) features Patrick Bracken, a 64-year-old special correspondent for the Irish Times, who returns to his agricultural hometown of Gohen. Patrick is investigating two suspicious deaths that occurred there 55 years ago, in 1951; he suspects a village cover-up took place. He visits the retired octogenarian coroner, Sam Howard, and his spunky wife, Elsie. Sam’s official ruling determined that the deaths of Father Jarlath Coughlin and Lawrence “Doul Yank” Gorman were both accidental, but Patrick insists on discussing the two cases with Sam. Before the deaths, both men came under attention in the close-knit farm community: the conniving Doul Yank double-crossed his nephew Mattie on the inheritance of the family farm, and the haughty Father Coughlin lobbied the dirt-poor locals for charitable donations to operate his missionary school in India. Additionally, Patrick has vivid memories from his own boyhood that still trouble him and complicate his search into the deceptions of the village. The bawdy humor and the plentiful details of the farming lifestyle do much to enrich Phelan’s entertaining murder mystery. Agent: Tracy Brennan, Trace Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Jillian

Halle Butler. Curbside Splendor, $14.95 trade paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-940430-29-4

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Eternal optimist Jillian, 35, works in a gastroenterologist’s office in an upper-middle-class neighborhood in Chicago. New coworker Megan, 24, arrives in a state of permanent resentment: at having to work in such a stupid job, at Jillian and her much larger desk and chipper attitude. The duo’s total lack of self-awareness makes them the perfect yin and yang for Butler’s sly comedy of modern manners. When Jillian dreams of getting a cute dog, Megan is quick to cite the high cost of vet bills. Megan suffers from a handful of minor, but unpleasant, maladies and alienates her friends; Jillian blithely follows her own misguided bliss, leading her to neglect Adam, her young son. Heedless of outside advice, both women follow the paths they have chosen. As both women fray, this poison pill of a novel moves to its arch conclusion. Butler’s aim is perfect, and her touch deft. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Green on Blue

Elliot Ackerman. Scribner, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-7855-6

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In Ackerman’s debut novel, young Aziz Iqtbal and his older brother, Ali, live in the remote agriculture hamlet of Sperkai, Afghanistan, until a mortar round fired by the Taliban leader Garzan destroys their home and family. Left as orphans, the two brothers escape to the nearby city of Orgun, where they scrape by as panhandlers and transporters in the bazaar, until another explosion leaves Ali legless and requiring expensive long-term hospitalization. Aziz agrees to serve in the Special Lashkar, an American-backed local militia unit, in exchange for Ali’s medical care. Aziz swears as well to follow the Pashtun tribal code to avenge his crippled brother’s honor by fighting against Garzan. Aziz becomes a trained combatant and joins a unit opposing Garzan. While stationed at the firebase near the strategic border village of Gomal, Aziz associates with the corrupt American military liaison known as Mr. Jack and visits the village leader, Atal. An edgy romance emerges when Aziz falls in love with Atal’s ward, Fareeda, also damaged by the war. Aziz is thrown into the maelstrom of deceit, greed, and betrayal as the different factions extend the war for personal gain. Ackemna’s novel is bleak and uncompromising, a powerful war story that borders on the noir. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fram

Steve Himmer. Ig (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (248p) ISBN 978-1-935439-98-1

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This mordant, funny novel from Himmer (The Bee-Loud Glade) pokes fun at modern American government. Oscar has worked for the Bureau of Ice Prognostication (BIP), a secret “basement” federal agency in Washington, D.C., for 10 years. He downplays his position of prognosticator as “pretty dull stuff” to discourage any questions about it, even from his wife, Julia, from whom he is drifting apart. When Oscar’s fiery boss, Director Lenz, dispatches him on an assignment to BIP’s Northern Branch in the Arctic, a lifelong fantasy becomes reality. Oscar obsesses over the annals of Arctic explorers, what Julia calls his “polar fever.” He keeps a reference set of National Geographic magazines on hand and studies the exploits of the Norwegian polar adventurer Fritjof Nansen and his ship the Fram, designed to reach the North Pole on a drifting pack ice. While on the eventful journey north, Oscar learns that other shadowy interests believe he knows the location of valuable uranium deposits, which he denies. He feels as if he’s entered a game of “international intrigue and espionage” while he tries to stay in touch with Julia. Himmer’s story is fun and exhilarating, especially as it heads toward its heroic climax. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Big Seven

Jim Harrison. Grove, $26 (288p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2333-6

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Retired detective Simon Sunderson returns in the latest from Harrison (after The Great Leader), which the author describes as a “faux mystery.” This time Sunderson is investigating a series of homicides near his newly purchased fishing cabin in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. The victims are all members of the Ames clan, a nefarious backwoods family, and the first act of violence strikes down Lily, Sunderson’s housekeeper. After entangling himself intellectually with aspiring writer Lemuel Ames and physically with 19-year-old Monica Ames, Sunderson devotes himself to tracking down the culprits, all the while suspecting his beautiful paramour to be behind the crimes. Characters from the detective’s previous adventure return, including sidekick Mona, who assists Sunderson by scraping together information on the Ameses, and Diane, the ex-wife he still fancies. The novel takes its time finding its story, with characters introduced early who never reappear, and at one point, Harrison halts his hero’s investigation with a long vacation to Mexico. This wandering can frustrate, as can the hillbilly stereotypes and Sunderson’s obsession with female posteriors. But when our hero is neck deep in his quest for justice, snooping while also considering the seven deadly sins (hence the title), Harrison proves once again that he is an inimitable, inexhaustible talent. Agent: Steve Sheppard, Cowan, DeBaets, Abrahams & Sheppard. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The American Lover

Rose Tremain. Norton, $25.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-393-24671-1

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In the title story, which kicks off this collection from Tremain (Man Booker Prize shortlisted for Restoration), Beth, a British author nearing 30, has recently been in a car accident that broke both her legs. Recuperating at her parents’ apartment, Beth takes to waiting for Rosalita, the housekeeper, who comes by every afternoon and listens to the story of Beth’s life, while dusting and sharing some stories of her own. In Paris at age 19, Beth was seduced by an older, aloof American who left her bereft after his sudden departure. Beth then depicted their relationship in what became a global sensation of a novel, which made her rich but no less forlorn. “The Housekeeper” features a former servant in a grand English estate recounting the betrayal of a lover. In “Extra Geography,” two high school girls, both field hockey players, set their sights on a young female teacher. The breadth of subjects and settings is matched by Tremain’s exquisite prose. Readers might just want to take a break between stories, to savor the language and the images. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Country of Ice Cream Star

Sandra Newman. Ecco, $26.99 (576p) ISBN 978-0-06-222709-6

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Newman’s latest depicts a dystopian future in which America has been decimated by “Posies,” a powerful plague that leaves few living beyond 20 years of age. Ice Cream Star, the novel’s 15-year-old narrator, is a member of the Sengles tribe of the Massa Woods, which was once Massachusetts. Ice Cream’s brother, Driver, the 18-year-old leader of the Sengles, has just begun coughing—the first telltale sign of the plague. During a standard raid of an abandoned neighborhood for left-behind supplies, Ice Cream and her fellow raiders capture Pasha, a stranger to Massa, who is a shocking 30 years old and knows a rumor about a Posies cure. Ice Cream begins her harrowing adventure to find it and save her brother—and maybe the rest of the country in the process. Written entirely in the broken English of these short-lived children, now generations removed from the plague’s onset, Newman’s novel is ambitious, taking on race, sex, class, religion, politics, and war all at once. What sets the work apart is its unapologetic narrator, whose fantastically unbridled, wholly teenage point of view renders each page a pleasure to read. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Whites

Richard Price, writing as Harry Brandt. Holt, $28 (352p) ISBN 978-0-8050-9399-5

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Price (Lush Life) is one whale of a storyteller by any name, as evinced by the debut of his new brand—okay, Brandt—a gripping, gritty, Greek tragedy of cops, killers, and the sometimes-blurry line between them. The sprawling tale centers on stoic police sergeant Billy Graves, banished to the purgatory of the NYPD's night watch since his role in a racially charged, politically explosive double shooting a decade earlier. Despite the adrenaline-pumping emergencies that routinely erupt during his 1–8 a.m. tour, he has time to obsess over his troubled wife, Carmen; his increasingly demented father, Billy Sr., a retired former chief of patrol; and, most of all, his "White" (that's what Billy, with a harpoon salute to Melville's tormented mariner, calls the one who got away): triple-murderer Curtis Taft. He's the elusive monster Billy is fated to hunt, probably even after retirement—to judge from the way Billy's former colleagues in the Bronx, a group calling themselves the Wild Geese, continue to hunt their own Whites. Suddenly, one of Billy's friends' Whites turns up murdered amid a St. Patrick's Day scrum at Penn Station. Soon a second disappears. And then it starts to look as if someone is stalking Billy's family. The author skillfully manipulates these multiple story lines for peak suspense, as his arresting characters careen toward a devastating final reckoning. Author tour. Agent: Lynn Nesbit, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/19/2014 | Details & Permalink

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