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Orphans of the Carnival

Carol Birch. Doubleday, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-385-54152-7

Birch’s vivid novel is about the life of an infamous Mexican orphan named Julia Pastrana. The performer (based on a real person who lived from 1834 to 1860) first appeared on the carnival stage in New Orleans in the mid-1800s. She was a slight girl with delicate feet who sang, danced, and spoke several languages. She’s also described as having the face of an ape, her body covered with hair (“ ‘It’s not fur,’ she always scolded, ‘it’s hair.’ ”). As in her previous novel, the Booker-nominated Jamrach’s Menagerie, Birch follows a forgotten historical figure living in an age when Darwin was the rage and the boundaries of society were strict. Julia seemed an ordinary girl who worked hard to perfect her act as she traveled the world, from New York to London, Berlin to St. Petersburg. Though it’s arguable that she’s not being exploited by the minders, rubes, and carnival folk with whom she travels, Julia accepts the dastardly marriage proposal of Theo Lent, her manager. Along the road, Julia and Theo meet many colorful people, some grand and some who cannot come to terms with what Julia is. Woven into this historical narrative is the story of a 21st-century girl called Rose, an endearing hoarder who has found a doll in a rubbish bin in London that was once a beloved possession of Julia’s. Rose is a memorable character, and the rest of the cast of misfits, dolls, and bad guys are just as full of nuance. Among the novel’s many pleasures are Birch’s compelling turns of phrase, and an immersive, melancholy milieu. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Lesson in Manners

Misty Urban. Snake Nation Press, $20 (126p) ISBN 978-0-9863589-3-7

Urban takes readers on an amazing journey in this exceptional collection of short stories. She travels from a nameless hospital in the title story, where a young woman is trying to understand how her once perfectly healthy younger sister could be slowly dying of a tumor, to a Tennessee bar, where an up-and-coming country western singer yearns to make a baby with her unsuspecting boyfriend (“The Memoirs of Sam Wesson”), to an Evanston, Ill., center for healing, where an emotionally damaged employee is on the cusp of recovering from the death of her beloved adopted sister (“Planet Joy”). The author has an uncanny ability to explore relationships, love, and loss in a fresh and original way. In “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County,” an Arkansas woman, pregnant with her first child, contemplates fleeing the husband who raped her in order to claim the future she was meant to have. In “Welcome to the Holy Land,” an exotic dancer seeks redemption in a Tampa religious theme park, having fallen in love with the actor who plays Jesus in one of the exhibits. These are powerful stories told by a strong voice and written with vivid precision, leaving readers wondering what happens to the characters after their stories end. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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His Bloody Project: Documents Relating to the Case of Roderick Macrae

Graeme Macrae Burnet. Skyhorse, $24.99 (288p) ISBN 978-1-5107-1921-7

Burnet’s fascinating second novel (after The Disappearance of Adèle Bedeau), which has been shortlisted for the 2016 Man Booker Prize, purports to be an account of the celebrated case of Roderick Macrae, a 17-year-old crofter who was indicted for three brutal murders carried out in his native village of Culduie in the Scottish Highlands in 1869. The documents mentioned in the subtitle include statements from his neighbors; an account written by Roderick while awaiting trial; extracts from the delightfully titled Travels in the Border-Lands of Lunacy by J. Bruce Thomson, “a man of science” in the field of criminal anthropology; and coverage of the trial gleaned from newspaper accounts and transcripts. The Rashomon-like shifting of perspectives adds depth to the characters and gives readers the pleasure of repeatedly reinterpreting events. Although Burnet paints a disturbing picture of the hopelessness and hardships of tenant farmers, as well as providing an eye-opening introduction to the fallibility of so-called expert witnesses, this is not a bleak book. Rather, it is sly, poignant, gritty, thought-provoking, and sprinkled with wit. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Winter’s Child

Margaret Coel. Berkley, $27 (304p) ISBN 978-0-425-28032-4

Bestseller Coel deftly melds Native American history with a fairly-clued whodunit in her 20th Wind River mystery (after 2015’s The Man Who Fell from the Sky). At a meeting of the Fremont County (Wyo.) Bar Association, Vicky Holden, an Arapaho attorney, talks to fellow lawyer Clint Hopkins, who’s white, about an adoption case he’s handling. Myra and Eldon Little Shield, an Arapaho couple, have been raising a white girl as their own since the night she was abandoned on their doorstep as an infant, and now, five years later, they want to formalize the relationship. Just after Clint and Vicky say goodbye, a truck runs Clint down as he’s crossing the street and speeds off. She’s the only witness who believes that the fatality was intentional, and her own efforts to investigate are stymied when she finds that Clint’s records on the Little Shield case are minimal. Meanwhile, series regular Fr. John O’Malley helps her try to persuade Vince White Hawk, a client of hers who has been charged with armed robbery, to surrender to the authorities. This is an excellent entry point for new readers, many of whom will be motivated to seek out earlier books. Agent: Rick Henshaw, Richard Henshaw Group. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Hidden Back Room

Jason A. Wyckoff. Tartarus, $50 (312p) ISBN 978-1-905784-85-1

As in his first book, Black Horse and Other Strange Stories, the 14 fantastic tales in Wyckoff’s new collection are refreshingly nontraditional in the theme and run the gamut from the whimsically fantastic to the genuinely horrific. In the title tale, the architectural peculiarities of a restaurant’s layout make it an inescapable nightmare for a patron desperate to flee its eccentric staff. “Tanoroar” is a monster story in which two luckless travelers are waylaid at a remote farmstead and forced to serve as sacrifices for a modern incarnation of the Minotaur. There are two haunted house stories: the eerie “The House on North Congress Street,” about a house whose legendary haunt is never seen or explained but whose terrifying power is gauged by its effects on those who endure it; and “Stronger Than All Storms,” in which a terminal cancer victim finds surprising solace from a ghost who gives him perspective on mortality. The novella “The Dreams of Pale Night” is a uniquely inventive fantasy about a small town in Alaska that has to engineer its own form of nighttime to prevent debilitating “sun-sickness” during the harsh midnight-sun days. Wyckoff creates characters with whom the reader can easily identify, and that makes their dramas seem all the more disturbing when events move them into the more shadowed recesses of personal experience. His stories abound with surprises that even diehard readers of weird fiction are not likely to anticipate. (July)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Fatal Thunder

Larry Bond. Forge, $27.99 (368p) ISBN 978-0-7653-7864-4

In bestseller Bond’s intricate fifth Jerry Mitchell submariner thriller (after 2013’s Shattered Trident), a nuclear detonation in Kashmir threatens to break the fragile Indo-Pakistani cease-fire. U.S. national security advisor Dr. Joanna Patterson determines that the device was not Indian in origin, but was a Soviet-era warhead stolen from an undersea entombment first discovered in 2007’s Dangerous Ground. Russian former naval officers have plundered the site to arm the leaders of an Indian military coup, who are planning to attack targets in China; once they destroy the Chinese capability to protect Pakistan, they can renew the war. Cmdr. Jerry Mitchell of the USS North Dakota, with the help of his former enemies Russian captain Aleksey Petrov and Indian captain Girish Samant, must hunt down the rogue Indian submarine that’s intent on delivering the cataclysmic payload. Bond has a facility with non-American characters, and the diverse all-star cast from earlier novels makes for a stalwart crew. Sound the klaxons and dive in. Agent: Robert Gottlieb, Trident Media. (May)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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All the Gold Hurts My Mouth

Katherine Leyton. Goose Lane/Icehouse (UTP, dist.), $19.95 trade paper (62p) ISBN 978-0-86492-886-3

Leyton’s debut poetry collection is at times angry, often deeply sexual, and always captivating. It’s also an incredibly personal collection: unabashedly feminist, inquisitive and self-interrogating, and in many ways transgressive. That, too, is tangled up in eroticism. The speaker’s histories and commentaries are laid bare in plain and staggeringly beautiful free verse, as well as more formal styles. Her voice is at once conversational and conspiratorial; the reader is invited in to observe memories and other less tangible ghosts as they collide on the page in kaleidoscopic prose that’s firework-bright and brilliant. Her subjects are often deceptively simple yet intricately, expansively layered, as in “The First Time with Pay-Per-View”: “Her body was an ostentatious palace/ where he broke all the furniture.” Leyton’s subject matter creates a compelling basis for the work, and her voice, audacity, and dexterity as a poet underscore the book’s decidedly impressive momentum. This is a book that reads quickly and pulls no punches. Though the collection is slight, it feels weighty. Leyton’s writing speaks in soft whispers but hits like a sledgehammer. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Snowdrops in Summer

Helen Duggan. Camel, $15.95 trade paper (330p) ISBN 978-1-60381-272-6

Duggan’s wordy debut starts slowly and is additionally hampered by identity and genre confusion. Within the first two pages, a barista from Newton, South Wales, is alternately referred to as Angelica, Angel, and Angela. From there it’s anybody’s guess as to who she is and what other perplexities might be in store for her. Readers are left to wonder how three wrong-side-of-the-tracks gal pals—lesbian Angelica and straight single moms Claire and Lisa (aka Lise)—manage to get invited to a big social blast with Newton’s well-heeled society folk and known criminals. Then, on the slimmest of premises, the women embark upon an uninspired and ill-fated venture that’s purely derivative of Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency. The plot line holds promise but fails to fully engage. Even the lackluster groin-grinding between Lisa and local cop Niall falls woefully short of a bona fide romance. Despite efforts to make these two-dimensional women appealing, it’s difficult to care about them and their throwaway supporting cast. (July)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Sapphire Affair

Lauren Blakely. Montlake Romance, $12.95 trade paper (237p) ISBN 978-1-5039-3547-1

Blakely’s first Jewel contemporary romance sizzles with intense attraction between a bounty hunter and a vacation tour guide on parallel quests. Steph Anderson is leading a rock climbing and diving tour for her company in the Caymans. She agrees to help her mother look into allegations that her mother’s ex-husband, Eli, stole money from his company to start a new club there. While in the Caymans, Steph meets Jake Harlowe, a recovery specialist who is working for Eli’s former business partner to find out where he hid the skimmed funds. The attraction between Steph and Jake is instantaneous, and when they realize they’re both searching for the money, they join forces. The suspense continues to escalate, but Steph and Jake’s attraction is too great to ignore. The only disappointment in this no-holds-barred romantic thriller the cliffhanger ending, which will hopefully be resolved in the next installment. Agent: Michelle Wolfson, Wolfson Literary. (July)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Osama the Gun

Norman Spinrad. Wildside, $14.99 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-1-4794-2095-7

In this thought-provoking work set in the near future and first published in 2007, Spinrad (Raising Hell) traces the course of his protagonist’s life from naive youth to veteran soldier. His hero is named Osama and is born in a Caliphate that includes most of the Muslim world. As a young agent of the Caliphate in Paris, he leads a series of attacks on Parisian landmarks with “graffiti bombs” (a sort of automatic tagging in grenade form), followed by the use of actual munitions. Osama flees from France and undertakes the hajj, after which he is called to Nigeria to aid the Muslim government in its fight against rebels backed by America’s robot army. Back in the Caliphate, a final showdown looms with the U.S. Throughout the book, Osama struggles to discern what Allah calls him to do rather than what Earthly political entities require of him. This book will no doubt discomfit many readers because it portrays the U.S. and the Caliphate governments as equally dubious, and devout Muslims may consider some of Osama’s thoughts and actions sacrilegious, but the Muslim figures that Spinrad depicts are, by and large, earnest in their beliefs, even as they disagree. At its core, the book is about a young man struggling with his faith and the politics that are rightly or wrongly attached to that faith, and his choices feel plausible even to readers who would make very different ones. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 09/23/2016 | Details & Permalink

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