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Waking Up Dead

Nigel Williams. St. Martin's/Dunne, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-09246-5

British author Williams (The Wimbledon Poisoner) takes a simple idea—what happens if you are still somehow present after you die?—and makes a meal of it in this droll tale. One morning, 65-year-old retired banker George Pearmain wakes up dead in his house in Putney. It happens to be the 99th birthday of his mother, Jessica, and a host of relatives and friends have already gathered at the house to celebrate. George's wife, Esmeralda, chides him for not getting out of bed, then stomps out of his room. A short time later, he hears Esmeralda screaming Jessica's name. Jessica is dead. Only later does Esmeralda realize that George is also dead. In his disembodied state, George is able to take in the conversations among his relatives, Jessica's caregiver, and assorted hangers-on. Most are concerned with Jessica's fortune; all George wants to know is who murdered him. Fans of understated British humor ("Maybe he was dead. If he was, sex was liable to be out of the question for the foreseeable future") will be pleased. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Title Wave

Lorna Barrett. Berkley Prime Crime, $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-425-28270-0

In Barrett's diverting 10th Booktown mystery (after 2015's A Fatal Chapter), bookstore owner Tricia Miles and her sister, Angelica, a cafe owner, treat themselves to an authors' cruise on an Irish ocean liner. Tricia is known in her hometown of Stoneham, N.H., as the village jinx because she stumbles across bodies with alarming regularity, and she can't escape her reputation when she finds famous author E.M. Barstow dead in her stateroom. The ship's security officer seems more interested in protecting the cruise line's reputation than investigating Barstow's suspicious death. Barstow has made enemies of almost everyone in the publishing world over the years, and Tricia fears that she and Angelica are traveling with a boatload of potential murderers. Barrett is more concerned with creating relatable characters and realistic interactions among Tricia and her family and friends than in plotting a credible murder, but series fans will enjoy how Tricia and Angelica's relationship has grown and deepened. Those who enjoy the mysteries of Carolyn Hart will find a lot to like. Agent: Jessica Faust, BookEnds. (June)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Lament for Bonnie

Anne Emery. ECW (Perseus/Legato, U.S. dist.; Jaguar Book Group, Canadian dist.), $24.95 (344p) ISBN 978-1-77041-168-5

Emery's ninth Collins-Burke mystery (following Ruined Abbey) takes place during a summer vacation to Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. Young Normie Collins and her family arrive two weeks after the disappearance of her step-dancing, fiddling 12-year-old cousin Bonnie. Narrated by Normie, her father, and the Mountie officer on the case, the book delves into the stories of Normie's relatives, the fame of her aunt and step-uncle's Celtic band, the hidden connections among families in town, and the fear gripping the extended family over the missing child. From her great-grandmother, Normie gets lessons in speaking Gaelic and tuning into her second sight, skills that will eventually become lifesavers. The investigation into Bonnie's whereabouts turns up little, and the family is shocked to the core when the missing girl's grandmother is accused of being involved. At that point, the real hidden skeletons in the family begin to emerge. The story is both an engaging mystery and an exploration of the unique and enduring culture built by Scottish settlers in Cape Breton. It contrasts the innocence of young Normie with some very adult situations that she handles with the strength and wisdom of her ancestors. This story is irresistible. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Kalyana

Rajni Mala Khelawan. Second Story (Orca, U.S. dist.; UTP, Canadian dist.), $19.95 trade paper (328p) ISBN 978-1-927583-98-2

Khelawan's second novel (following The End of the Dark and Stormy Night) tells the story of a young Indian woman growing up in the late 1960s in Fiji, where her family relocated during the British occupation of India. She was lovingly raised by her mother, who vividly recounts tales of her family and India's mythological stories; her aunt, with whom she shares a bed and her education; and her father, known in the neighborhood as a liberal man because he does not beat his wife without reason. Kalyana's world is shattered at age 11 when her uncle rapes her. When Kalyana's mother tells her she must hide what has happened for the sake of their family, the young woman struggles to reconcile the narratives that connect women to each other while enduring the silencing that her society requires. As the story follows Kalyana into adulthood—including marriage, immigration to Canada, and having a child of her own—readers see how political movements shape her life. Khelawan elegantly intertwines the effects of patriarchy, colonialism, slavery, and second-wave feminism in a story about a young woman losing and then finding her voice. Rich in detail and memory, the novel celebrates the power of storytelling as both formative and healing. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Good People

Nir Baram, trans. from the Hebrew by Jeffrey Green. Text (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-925240-95-5

In Berlin in early 1939, a famous radio broadcaster at a party is asked about the political climate: "I work very closely with the Minister of Propaganda," he assures partygoers, "and I can guarantee that Germany is doing everything it can to avoid war." Thomas Heiselberg, the protagonist in this dense novel, hears the claim but knows far too much to be convinced. Instead, Thomas feels "the familiar weakness... People became shadows. Everything blurred." He's terrified by the events unfolding around him, including the violent murder, in his own home, of a Jew who'd previously worked for his family and returned, unbidden, to care for his mother. Neither generous nor immoral, Thomas, who at least initially works for an American company, tries to stay alive, travelling from Warsaw to Lublin in the process. Not dissimilar to Thomas in nature is Sasha, a young Russian woman in Leningrad in 1938, whose parents have not returned from their most recent interrogation and who then finds herself faced with the choice, as her future husband puts it, to "die or become another person." The book follows Thomas and Sasha in alternating chapters as they become more entangled in the parties they remain determined to neither support nor oppose. As promising as the setup sounds, the narrative is difficult to navigate. Readers will find that the opening dramatis personae of 31 characters in five cities is only the beginning, and that there are, in fact, far more names and positions and connections to keep track of. This breadth reflects Baram's tremendous knowledge, but the story is ineffective and diffuse, as even Thomas and Sasha become as blurry as Thomas's fear. (Sept.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Addlands

Tom Bullough. Dial, $27 (336p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9872-6

Welsh novelist Bullough's fourth novel—his first published stateside—traces a farming family's 70-year descent into what one minor character calls "post-pastoral" life in rural Wales, beset over the years by a stream of difficulties that are by turns singular and historically common. As far back as 1941, Idris, the family's stern if stolid patriarch, finds "defiance in precision, in a tidy job, and if his neighbors took it for acquiescence, well, there it was." When his young wife, Etty, gives birth to a son, Oliver, she hopes he'll get a proper education. As it happens, Oliver becomes a local boxing champion for a time before settling into his place as head of the farm and, on account of his bar-brawling exploits, a figure of dubious local lore. With the farm perpetually treading water, the savvy Etty must drag Idris and later Oliver into the future, for which they're both ill-equipped. The struggle between old and new is ever-present, but this novel is foremost about the rural paradox of the coexistent sensitivity and brutality spurred by isolation. Bullough's intimate depictions extend from the "trembling" bluebells and rain-beaten sycamores with their five-pointed leaves to a cow's gory demise a page later, and in one of the book's more unnervingly gorgeous descriptions, a ewe's miscarriage rates a distinctly Welsh meter of anapests cut through with iambs: "In her lee was a lamb in an afterbirth slick—its eyes red pits, its chin so bloody that it might have been feasting on flesh." Agent: Clare Alexander, Aitken Alexander Associates. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Mona Lisa

Alexander Lernet-Holenia, trans. from the German by Ignat Avsey. Pushkin, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-78227-190-1

This new translation of prolific Austrian writer Lernet-Holenia's brisk 1937 novella is a special treat for readers who appreciate his unique blend of comedy and philosophy. The young French nobleman Bougainville, while serving on a military campaign in 16th-century Italy, is an improbable guest at Leonardo da Vinci's workshop where he happens to catch a glimpse of the titular painting and falls deeply in love with its subject. The sight of the painting prompts Bougainville's investigation into the current whereabouts of the woman who posed for the painting, and despite hearing that she died of the plague more than a year before, he insists upon seeking her out, having convinced himself in the throes of passion that her husband has faked her death and locked her away as a prisoner. Lernet-Holenia's comical portrayal of da Vinci contributes to the novella's generally whimsical tone. The power of art to inspire love proves to be its true subject, as Bougainville's ultimately tragic quest demonstrates the lamentable difference between reality and mere representation. Lernet-Holenia's entertaining style pairs well with the fast-paced nature of his hero's journey, and readers will delight in following alongside Bougainville as he follows his outsized passion through to the bitter end. (June)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Special Power of Restoring Lost Things

Courtney Elizabeth Mauk. Little A, $24.95 (202p) ISBN 978-1-5039-3705-5

Mauk (Orion's Daughters) again probes the secrets and lies of family relationships in her somewhat disappointing latest. It's been a year since 21-year-old Jennifer Bauer's disappearance from her Lower East Side home and probable abduction by a stranger. When a body matching Jennifer's description is found, the surviving members of her small family are all on the verge of their own crises. Her dad is desperate to obliterate the emotional distance that he fears drove Jennifer away. Her younger brother, Ben, spurred by Jennifer's disappearance and the recent devastation of Hurricane Sandy, prepares for disaster. And her mom is paralyzed by sadness—except when she puts on Jennifer's clothes and goes clubbing in an attempt to feel closer to her daughter in her final hours. All three of them swirl around Jennifer's enigmatic and possibly destructive friend Sandra, who remains a cipher. With its shifting perspectives, Mauk's narrative offers moments of both tension and insight. Its exploration of differing responses to grief is familiar, and its attempts to contrast the Bauers' Upper West Side with the dark and dangerous Lower East Side that swallowed up Jennifer are dated and artificial. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Rebels: A Well-Regulated Militia

Brian Wood, Andrea Mutti, et al.. Dark Horse, $24.99 trade paper (262p) ISBN 978-1-61655-908-3

Native Vermonter Wood (Northlanders) pulls from the central mythology of his home state for a graphic novel that portrays the American struggle for independence from the points of view of the people who needed it the most. Building a war narrative around Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, the story follows Seth Abbott through the war years, exploring what he did during the conflict, what he lost, and what his wife and child paid for his involvement. Wood crafts dark dramatic elements with the rush of wartime action, capturing the adrenaline and soulful patriotism that could draw a person away from his own life for years. The larger story is followed by shorter slices of war that cover other concerns within the conflict, including those of women who played a role in combat, Native Americans who had to navigate the battle to ensure their own survival, and black combatants desiring actual independence in a war that focused on white men's freedom. Mutti (Marvel Zombies), the artist of the main story, adds atmosphere and historical detail along with strong storytelling. (May)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Anne Happy, Vol. 1

Cotoji. Yen, $13 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-316-27217-9

Anne Happy, pronounced "unhappy," is a morbid yet lighthearted spoof of the "high school days" genre, a dark frolic that's a cross between Yotsuba&! and Assassination Classroom. Ruri Hibarigaoka has been placed into a high school classroom that focuses on its students finding happiness—because they've got such bad luck that they'll never make it in society. But Ruri is convinced she doesn't belong; she simply has a crush on a fictional character. She's forced to run a gauntlet of zany challenges to increase her luck, and her teammates, Anne (a walking catastrophe and eternal optimist) and Botan (an easily broken wreck), make Ruri's life just that much harder. But the power of friendship slowly starts to turn Ruri from disaster into a girl who can overcome her denial and fit in with real people. A larger plot introduced at the end will entice readers to look for future volumes. (May)

Reviewed on 08/26/2016 | Details & Permalink

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