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Above Us Only Sky

Michelle Young-Stone. Simon & Schuster, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4516-5767-8

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This charming if somewhat too neatly packaged novel begins with the birth of a winged girl, then takes flight through time to tell a family saga of the girl's Lithuanian and German ancestors, some of whom were bird women. Prudence Eleanor Vilkas's wings were cut from her back at a young age, but she feels their uncanny presence as she grows up. She flirts with death as a teenager but is saved from drowning by a ghostly bird woman, whose eyes are exactly the same green as her own. Young-Stone (The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors) employs breathless prose, full of magical happenings and terror, as she travels back and forth through history, recounting the trials of Prudence's grandfather, the Old Man, whose family was slaughtered by the Red Army; her grandmother, whose own mother was raped and murdered by the Russians; and the Old Man's youngest sibling, Daina, who survives being assaulted and left for dead. The imaginative and vivid storytelling is commendable, but her orchestration of the convergence of all these lost loved ones into a happy ending is too predictable. The coincidences required to tie up all the loose ends strain belief, and do not do justice to those past horrors described so vividly. Agent: Michelle Brower, Folio Literary Management. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Heroes' Welcome

Louisa Young. Harper Perennial, $14.99 trade paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-235449-5

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This swing volume in Young's engaging WWI-era trilogy picks up where My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You ended, just months after the armistice. Now, each of the finely drawn main characters has to figure out how to get past the horrors of the Great War and accept the changes it has brought. Young Riley Purefoy, a working-class boy elevated to captain during the war, faces the biggest challenge: living with a disfiguring facial wound. Riley meets this new world head-on. He marries his childhood sweetheart, the wealthy Nadine Waveney, who served as a nurse during the war, and searches for a suitable occupation. Meanwhile, Peter Locke, Riley's former commanding officer, tries to blunt his memories of the trenches with alcohol, ignoring his devoted wife, Julia, and their young son. While Peter and Julia seem stuck in the past, Peter's sister, Rose, still working as a nurse, is determined to become a new woman of the postwar period, dedicated to career rather than family. Parts of the plot seem a bit Downton Abbeyish, but Young manages to create characters who project an appealing combination of melancholy and moxie, imbuing her story with such quiet power that readers will be anxiously awaiting the final installment. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Architect's Apprentice

Elif Shafak. Viking, $27.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-525-42797-1

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Shafak's (The Bastard of Istanbul) rambling historical epic weaves its way through the rule of three sultans in 16th-century Istanbul. Twelve-year-old Jahan arrives in the city alone except for an important gift for the Sultan that he has been entrusted with by the Shah of India—a baby white elephant named Chota. Jahan is quickly taken in by the palace seraglio to be Chota's trainer and caretaker, and so begins his new life in the center of the flourishing Ottoman Empire. After a year in the palace, he and Chota are ordered to assist the army in an upcoming war.On this tour that he meets Sinan, Chief Royal Architect, who is impressed by the boy's intelligence and curiosity and arranges for him to receive a palace education. Eventually, Jahan is given a coveted position as Sinan's apprentice. With three others, he studies architecture and works at construction sites, helping their master build some of the most celebrated buildings in the history of the empire. Jahan works with his beloved master for many years and witnesses disastrous plagues, the intricate dance between religious and political power, and the anxiety of changing regimes. All the while, he nurtures a secret love for Princess Mihrimah, the beautiful and headstrong daughter of Sultan Suleiman. Shafak's ambitious and colorful novel loses momentum at times, but he skillfully uses the fictional elephant trainer to paint a vivid portrait of the great architect, Sinan, and the lives of both royals and commoners. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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People and Peppers

Kelvin Christopher James. Harvard Square, $22.95 (248p) ISBN 978-1-941861-98-1

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James (Fling with a Demon Lover) turns a love letter to Trinidad into this stylish literary novel filled with sensuous prose and colorful setting. Twenty-something ex-athlete Vivion K. Pinheiro, now a farmer in Trinidad, cultivates a five-acre patch of specialty spicy peppers called Moruga Red Scorpion. He flies off to New York City in search of a distributor to market and sell his prized pepper crop to restaurants. Meantime, his live-in girlfriend, Shanika "Nikki" Grant-Ali, discovers she is pregnant with their child while she's pursuing her lucrative career as a much sought-after portrait painter. The other strong, independent woman in Vivion's life is his wealthy mother, Andaluza Ashaki Pinheiro, a real estate mogul, who spoils her only son by deeding him a former cocoa plantation. She also indulges Vivion's other whims by bankrolling the construction of his "dream palace," where he grows his hot peppers. While in New York City, Vivion meets and befriends jolly Hideo Arata, "the hot pepper baron of Japan," and invites him to come and inspect his pepper-growing project. The protagonist's passion for agriculture and ecological issues help to add the needed character depth to the rich-kid stereotype. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Ravenscrag

Alain Farah, trans. from the French by Lazer Lederhendler. House of Anansi Press (Publishers Group West/Perseus, U.S. dist.; HarperCollins Canada, Canadian dist.), $22.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-1-77089-895-0

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The latest book from Quebec writer Farah (Pourquoi Bologne, a finalist for a Governor General's Literary Award) is an experimental work of fictional autobiography. Shifting between two time periods, 1962 and 2012, a professor at McGill University in Montreal attempts to solve the conspiracy at the center of his life. But his memory is faulty, with gaps and inconsistencies. Places, people, and objects become telescoped, while encounters with water trigger some impossible memories; even dinosaurs make an appearance. Through his investigation he relives scenes from not only his past, including a childhood split between a Catholic orphanage and a mother who would gamble her own son in order to pay off her debts, but also scenes from the memories of other people, including his deceased uncle, Nab Safi, a man once bent on a similar investigation. The elusive Dr. Cameron, a psychiatrist who was once engaged in deprogramming experiments, is at the center of it all. Translated by Lederhendler, who won a Governor-General's Award for translation in 2008, this novel is part thriller and part surreal adventure. At times a challenging read, it is, nevertheless, a page-turner to the very end. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Orpheus on the Underground and Other Stories

Rhys Hughes. Tartarus (tartaruspress.com), $65 (224p) ISBN 978-1-905784-71-4

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An antic spirit animates the 16 delightful fantasies in this collection, which gives the reader the literary equivalent of a wink and a rib nudge. In "Double Meaning," a man finds himself "betrayed by myself to myself" when a duplicate he has created to perform his work then creates a duplicate who is superior to both of them. "The Bicycle-Centaur," which lampoons H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, is saturated with Carrollian wordplay and features such giddily imagined characters as a centaur with bicycle wheels for feet, a leprecorn (half leprechaun, half unicorn), and Damon Nomad, "king of the traveling palindromes." In the title story, lyre-strumming Orpheus is reimagined as a busking musician whose Hades is the London subway system. The stories are showcases for Hughes's dexterous punmanship and his skill at conjuring the comically absurd through arresting imagery—for example, the enthusiastic writer who describes himself as "straining like a lobster at an avant-garde leash." Though Hughes proves capable of writing a completely serious ghost story in "The Upper Reaches," he is just as likely to subvert the form, as in "The Despicable Bungling of Yorick Porridge," a tale of an inept psychic detective that evokes the psychic sleuths of classic horror fiction, and "The Ghost Written Autobiography," in which a ghost discovers that his afterlife contains no less drudgery than his life did. In several of these stories, Hughes references the work of Saki, a 20th-century master of satirical fantasy, and readers will find his tales their contemporary equivalent. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Broken Blade

Anna Thayer. Lion (Kregel, dist.), $15.99 trade paper (608p) ISBN 978-1-78264-105-6

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In the conclusion to Thayer's Knight of Eldaran epic fantasy trilogy, her trademark tension is thick. Despite being the second most powerful man in Dunthruik, Eamon Goodman's proximity to the Master draws never-ending scrutiny. As Right Hand, he must juggle playing the loyal, submissive pawn to the Master; manage Dunthruik's affairs; and carefully hide his loyalty to the rightful king in exile. Eamon's most compelling conflicts are internal: how can he act in just, loving, compassionate service while being pressured by his adversaries to commit atrocities? What does it mean to love in the face of hate and fear? Thayer's painting of the Master helps readers to understand Eamon's plight: his power comes not merely from intimidation or fear, but cruel affection and intimacy. The ending comes earlier than expected and is protracted, losing the momentum of the story that preceded it. Fans will be pleased to see all loose ends tied up, and despite a few flaws, this installment is a thrilling and satisfying conclusion to the series. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Black Iris

Leah Raeder. S&S/Atria, $15 paperback (384p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8642-1

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Like an afternoon special on bullying gone impossibly dark, Raeder's (Unteachable) dizzyingly intense, drug-addicted queer teenage revenge fantasy takes its reader on a sexy, bloody journey of pure emotion that's by turns expressed, denied, and turned back in on itself. Delaney Keating, viciously mistreated in high school for her attraction to girls and damaged by her unstable mother's suicide, falls into a love triangle with two of the dramatic inhabitants of underground dance club Umbra: DJ and patient medical student Armin, and impulsive, fierce, deliciously sensual Blythe. She pulls them into her scheme of violence against her abusers in a heady mélange of lust and bloodlust, while the triad pulls against itself with internal jealousies. A twisting timeline dancing over a year's events makes every moment seem both immediate and angrily steeped in memory. Major themes include depression, mania, and the ways that the use and abuse of drugs affect access to the reality of self and the world's essential nature; but the soul-searching always comes in the context of action, everyone around hit by the shrapnel of exploding feelings. This is an exhilarating ride for our inner underdog, craving a taste of what it would feel like to just get back at everyone if we were reckless enough not to care about the consequences. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Deadlight Hall

Sarah Rayne. Severn, $29.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8471-8

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The very accessible fifth novel in Rayne's neo-gothic haunted house series (after What Lies Beneath) hits highs in plot and writing, with a well-balanced mix of emotions including humor, poignancy, and the macabre. When Oxford professor and children's book author Michael Flint is approached by his colleague Leo about the titular old house and the dark memories associated with it, Flint and his paramour, antiques dealer Nell West, set off to discover the building's true history. Nell and Michael are largely bystanders, as the majority of the action takes place in the past (revealed in historical documents and letters), but readers will be too caught up in the story to miss them. The house's sordid history covers everything from Victorian penal conditions and child labor to Nazi spies and Holocaust survivors, and while some of the fates are just gruesome (there are multiple immolations), several are genuinely tragic. As always, Michael's cat, Wilberforce, provides some lighter moments, this time wreaking havoc with painters and photographers. Michael and Nell's ever-evolving relationship also provides a nice contrast to the sorrows they discover in their research. Rayne's able pacing ties together all the historical and contemporary threads in a satisfying conclusion. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Face of the Earth and Other Imaginings

Algernon Blackwood, edited by Mike Ashley. Stark (starkhousepress.com), $19.95 trade paper (222p) ISBN 978-1933586-70-0

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The 30 stories and essays that Blackwood biographer Mike Ashley (Algernon Blackwood: An Extraordinary Life) has gathered for this volume—some of them never before collected—provide an invaluable portrait of Blackwood at the start of his literary career, en route to becoming one of the 20th century's greatest writers of weird fiction. Early ghost stories, including "The Boy Messenger," show him perfecting his skill at conveying the "emotion of chill presentiment and fear." The title tale represents one of Blackwood's first efforts to evoke a recurrent theme in his later work, that of the earth as "the physical body of some vast Intelligence." Two essays, "Down the Danube in a Canadian Canoe" and "The Psychology of Places," serve as illuminating sidebars to "The Willows" (not included), his masterpiece about the awesome and terrifying forces that animate the natural world. Readers new to Blackwood's work will find the stories satisfyingly spooky, and established fans will appreciate Ashley's bibliographic excavations. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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