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Force of Nature

Jane Harper. Flatiron, $25.99 (320p) ISBN 978-1-250-10563-9

Australian author Harper follows her bestselling debut, The Dry, with a gripping tale of an elemental battle for survival. Federal agents Aaron Falk and Carmen Cooper are investigating the role of a respected Melbourne accounting firm in an extensive money-laundering scheme with the help of insider source Alice Russell. Then she vanishes during a team-building wilderness expedition that includes the chief executives of the company she has been working to expose. Pressed by their bosses to get the remaining documents needed for the probe and worried that Alice may have met with foul play, Falk and Carmen head for the rugged Giralang Ranges to aid in the search. Once in the bushland, they discover that the beautiful, brainy, but unabashedly cruel Alice had no dearth of enemies, ranging from her bullied assistant to a fellow executive who’s been her frenemy since their years together at an exclusive private school. Although certain plot strands seem contrived, Harper once again shows herself to be a storytelling force to be reckoned with. Agent: Daniel Lazar, Writers House. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Tizita

Sharon Heath. Thomas-Jacob Publishing, $14.99 trade paper (342p) ISBN 978-0-9979517-2-1

Heath (The History of My Body) continues the story of fictional young Nobel laureate Fleur Robins as she pursues matters of the heart as well as her cutting-edge physics research, while facing challenging social interactions. Fleur’s 21st birthday celebration is also her send-off for her fiancé, Assefa Berhanu, who is returning the following day to his native Ethiopia in search of his missing father. At Caltech, Fleur and her research team discuss possible avenues to harness the “dark matter within all living organisms” to transport people by means of “the principle of dematerialization.” After finding his father, Assefa remains in remote Ethiopia to reconnect with the beautiful Makeda Geteye, whom he knew as a child and who is now part of a team running a home for children orphaned by AIDS. Meanwhile, Fleur deals with the crush that a new research assistant has on her, Assefa’s sudden physical and emotional distance, a neighborhood squabble, and some medical issues. With so much going on, this could feel overstuffed, but Heath’s adroit writing makes Fleur’s remarkable life consistently captivating. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Book Club Babies

Ashton Lee. Kensington, $15 trade paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-4967-0580-8

This latest book in the Cherry Cola Book Club series by Lee (Queen of the Cookbooks) presents a rosy-tinged pregnancy story with few obstacles for its characters. Cherico, Miss., library director Maura Beth McShay is expecting, as is her sister-in-law, Elise McShay, professor of women’s studies, and her friend, Periwinkle Place, owner of a popular local restaurant. Maura Beth decides that the three of them could use a bit of encouragement and so founds Expecting Great Things, an offshoot of her successful Cherry Cola Book Club, so that expectant mothers can be supported by others in the community. The problems that the three face are given equal narrative weight, though their problems are not equally weighty. Periwinkle faces the racism of her mother, who won’t interact with her black husband Parker, or her “mixed-race” baby on the way; feminist Elise must inform her parents that she has chosen to be a single parent. Maura Beth is simply facing pressure from her mother over her child’s name. A series of family meals, potlucks, parties, and visits to the local grocery for free samples comfort the heroines. Problems are resolved effortlessly, which may appeal to readers looking for upbeat entertainment. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Oliver Loving

Stefan Merrill Block. Flatiron, $26.99 (400p) ISBN 978-1-250-16973-0

Block (The Storm at the Door) once again explores the ways in which debilitating illness breaks apart tenuous family bonds in his unsettling third novel. Set 30 miles north of the Mexico border in west Texas, where closed storefronts outnumber what’s in business and sentiment against “illegals” runs high, the book opens with a shooting at a school dance that leaves a popular teacher dead. Four students also die, including gunman Hector Espina Jr., the 21-year-old son of an undocumented Mexican sanitation worker. Seventeen-year-old Oliver Loving survives and is discovered on the floor covered in blood by his father, Jed, but he is in a vegetative state. Over the course of the next decade, the event takes its toll on the townspeople, especially Rebekkah Sterling, a crush of Oliver’s who escaped the shooting, and Oliver’s guilt-ridden family members. Jed descends into drunkenness; Oliver’s mother, Eve, maintains a myopic bedside vigil; and Oliver’s younger brother Charlie flees to New York, but never pulls his life together. When a new test shows signs that there is activity in Oliver’s brain, hope is tentatively restored, but at a steep cost for everyone involved. Block discloses the truth of what happened at the shooting by telling the story from different perspectives. Though the lead-up to the big reveal is perhaps too long to sustain itself, the book poses big questions about what constitutes a life worth living. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Unmade World

Steve Yarbrough. Unbridled, $18 trade paper (384p) ISBN 978-1-60953-143-0

In Yarbrough’s intricate and satisfying novel (after The Realm of Last Chances), the lives of two ordinary men intersect during one winter night in Poland. Richard Brennan is an affable, middle-age American journalist whose chief problems are the vagaries of the newspaper business and his apartment building’s lack of elevator. A fateful night in December 2006 finds him decorating a Christmas tree with his daughter and then heading to dinner with his wife and in-laws. Meanwhile, the kindhearted but unlucky Bogdan Baranowski, defeated by the shuttering of all but one of his chain of grocery stores (not to mention his near-wordless marriage), plans to rob a wealthy developer to save his last store from bankruptcy. Richard and Bogdan are unexpectedly drawn together when a car accident on a snowy road outside Krakow alters both men’s lives and links them permanently. The story tracks Bogdan and Richard through the following years, revealing how both come to grips with that night, grapple with their senses of self, and cope with the repercussions of long-held guilt. Yarbrough crafts intriguing subplots involving a murder investigation and property crime, set against a backdrop of 2016 politics. Though the prose is straightforward, the characters are compelling and the narrative steers clear of easy moralizing or predictable endings. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Everything Here Is Beautiful

Mira T. Lee. Viking/Dorman, $26 (368p) ISBN 978-0-7352-2196-3

At the opening of Lee’s promising debut, Chinese-American Lucia Bok marries a coarse yet charming Russian-Israeli Jew named Yonah. The newlyweds quickly settle into a life in Manhattan’s East Village, where Yonah runs a health food store and Lucy writes features for a Queens newspaper. But then, in quick succession, a mental illness Lucy thought had been cured returns and she realizes she wants a child. Those catalysts launch the rest of the novel’s sprawling turbulence as characters deal with love, duty, the medical establishment, heritage, and the difficult choices that shape a life. Lee tells the story from several points of view, and the section from Lucy’s perspective is the stand-out: Lucy is funny, observant, and emotionally intelligent. Her descriptions buzz with the unexpected: “They said I ‘suffer’ from schizoaffective disorder. That’s like the sampler plate of diagnoses, Best of Everything.” The other sections are staid by comparison, and the prose is occasionally marred by awkward, clipped constructions, as well as some distracting overreaches. But Lee handles a sensitive subject with empathy and courage. Readers will find much to admire and ponder throughout, and Lucy’s section reveals Lee as a writer of considerable talent and power. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Job of the Wasp

Colin Winnette. Soft Skull (PGW, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (208p) ISBN 978-1-59376-680-1

Winnette’s sinister novel (after Haints Stay) begins with a Dickensian premise, as the narrator (unnamed for most of the book) is enrolled in a draconian school for orphans which, its headmaster brags, is “not a school.... It is a temporary holding facility with mandatory education elements.” Things quickly take a change for the weird when the headmaster singles out the narrator for special treatment, after which his rivals and bullies among the student body begin turning up dead. As corpses pile up, the narrator falls under suspicion, a possibility he refuses to discount even as he tries to solve the mystery. His ensuing investigation results in a death by wasp’s nest, runs afoul of a pair of sadistic twins, and begins to suggest that the school is not what it seems, but some kind of “purgatory of adolescence.” But who is the killer? Though the novel is tricked out with too many reversals, obfuscations, surreal characters, and seemingly random twists, it’s commendable for its experimentation: its oddness evokes Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten and Ferdydurke by Witold Gombrowicz. This is a worthwhile novel for readers of the dark and twisted, who will find both in spades. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Lord of California

Andrew Valencia. Ig (Consortium, dist.), $16.95 trade paper (284p) ISBN 978-1-63246-059-2

Set in a future California that has declared itself an independent republic following the disbanding of the United States, Valencia’s gritty debut novel chronicles a family’s struggle to survive. The novel is divided into three sections, each told from the viewpoint of a main character: Ellie, one of 12 children born to a bigamist father, five of whose wives and families became aware of each other after his death; Elliot, the estranged older son of a sixth wife previously unknown to the other family members; and Anthony, Ellie’s stepbrother and confidant, whose religious convictions give the tale its moral center. Following their patriarch’s death, the five Temple families band together to secure land in the San Joaquin Valley that they can farm communally to continue their hardscrabble existences. That plan is threatened when Elliot, a coastal elite like his father, contests their property rights, setting in motion a showdown that pits family members against one another. Valencia keeps the focus of his novel intimate, skillfully suggesting a nation in chaos through tensions in the Temple family. His plot takes an unexpected turn in the concluding section, with the burden of the family’s fate falling almost entirely on Ellie and Anthony’s shoulders. It’s not completely convincing, but the prospect of personal redemption at the conclusion is a fine grace note to this bracing, tense tale. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Other Side of Everything

Lauren Doyle Owens. Touchstone, $25 (272p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6779-9

Owens’s tense, rich debut follows the wide-ranging consequences of a brutal murder for the lives of three unconnected neighbors in sleepy Seven Springs, Fla.: widower Bernard, teenage waitress Maddie, and painter Amy. Bernard, a reclusive widower, convinces his cohort of fellow single retirees to pair up in a buddy system for safety, and the time he spends with his next-door neighbor prompts him to reevaluate his lifestyle and reopens the old wounds of his marriage. Fifteen-year-old Maddie, waiting tables and coping with her mother’s abandonment through expertly hidden self-harm, worries about the vagrant accused of the murder. Lastly, the victim’s next door neighbor Amy, whose creativity and marriage have been strained by her hysterectomy and double mastectomy, is inspired to paint again by the murder. Her creepy works make her a target of both the media and the murderer after she’s interviewed for a blog. Owens impressively captures the emotional landscape of three generations and the varying compromises required of women in each. Fans of crime fiction wanting literary flair and emotional depth will gladly follow this trio of complicated characters. Agent: Barbara Poelle, Irene Goodman Literary Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Phone

Will Self. Grove, $27 (624p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2537-8

In the hefty stream-of-consciousness conclusion to Self’s ambitious trilogy (Umbrella, Shark), disconnected narratives collide, bringing long-hidden secrets to light. Zachary Busner, a retired psychiatrist, embarks on a spiritual journey that requires him to come to terms with the Alzheimer’s blurring his reality. Despite his criticism of modern technology’s emphasis on data-gathering, he carries a constantly ringing smartphone with him, programmed by his autistic, technology-adept grandson to provide him with an illusion of continued independence. Meanwhile, Jonathan De’Ath, a British intelligence officer who goes by the moniker “The Butcher,” falls in love and pursues a furtive long-term relationship with a handsome, closeted soldier named Gawain. As Gawain rises through the army ranks and Jonathan’s carefully kept records of their phone booth conversations and remote bed-and-breakfast liaisons build, they weigh the consequences of keeping their affair hidden. Self’s densely cerebral prose leaps between narratives, disregarding linear storytelling and paragraph breaks in favor of extended musings that are often intelligent and periodically insightful. It’s less than subtle, however, in how heavily it hammers home messages about the dehumanizing impacts of war, screen-based communication, and psychological wounds that have never fully healed. But then again, Self hasn’t built his career on subtlety. Agent: Jeffrey Posternak, The Wylie Agency. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 10/20/2017 | Details & Permalink

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