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L’Origine

Lilianne Milgrom. Little French Girl, $17 trade paper (268p) ISBN 978-1-73486-700-8

Artist Milgrom debuts with a richly imagined blend of autofiction and art history that revolves around a copyist named Lilianne Milgrom’s engagement with a shocking Courbet painting. During a brief residency at the Musée d’Orsay in 2011, Lilianne gains permission to copy 19th-century French painter Gustave Courbet’s scandalous L’Origine du monde, a diminutive nude portrait featuring the female subject’s genitals. Lilianne proceeds to unravel the picture’s story from its commission by Khalil Bey, a wealthy Turk in Paris, when Courbet was at the height of his fame in 1865, to the painting’s belated public display at the end of the 20th century. Milgrom evokes the powerful reactions that attracted its owners and the lengths they undertook to conceal the work as well as Courbet’s tragic death after being convicted on false charges of desecrating national artifacts because of his association with the Paris Commune. In 1913, Hungarian Jewish art collector Ferenc Hatvany acquires the painting, and subsequently recovers it from Nazi confiscation. The final private owner, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, uses it as a therapeutic talking point with his patients. The outrages, desire, and desperation the painting provokes make for delicious, emotionally powerful reading, while the historical details appear unobtrusively. Readers will be delighted by this delectable tale. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Adventure of the Deceased Scholar: The Early Case Files of Sherlock Holmes; Case Three

Liese Sherwood-Fabre. Little Elm, $14.99 trade paper (312p) ISBN 978-1-952408-11-3

Sherwood-Fabre’s enticing third mystery featuring a teenage Sherlock Holmes (after 2020’s The Adventure of the Murdered Gypsy) finds Holmes attending the Oxford-Cambridge boat race on the Thames with his astute mother and his brother, Mycroft, a student at Oxford. There, Mycroft’s accosted by Lady Surminster, the mother of his classmate Vernon, who recently disappeared. The three Holmeses agree to help look for Vernon, until a drowning victim turns up wearing the missing man’s suit. After the sad news is broken to Vernon’s family, their butler, Hamilton, goes to the hospital to make a formal identification. Hamilton declares the dead man a stranger, but then he recognizes a second drowned body on a nearby autopsy table as Vernon’s. The coroner declares Vernon killed himself. Fearing that an official verdict of suicide would forfeit their assets to the Crown, Vernon’s relatives threaten to release a letter that they believe would implicate Mycroft in a scandal unless the Holmeses investigate. With a tight deadline to prove Vernon was murdered, the Holmeses pursue several leads, including Vernon’s mysterious interest in 16th-century land records pertaining to a property apparently unconnected to his family. This is the author’s best plot yet. Fans of the Enola Holmes graphic novel series will be intrigued. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Rebel

Kendall Ryan. Kendall Ryan, $14.99 trade paper (360p) ISBN 978-1-952036-04-0

Ryan (Playing for Keeps) launches her Looking to Score series with a steamy story full of delicious detail that’s light on angst. Eden Wynn is a wealthy girl from the right side of town, and though Holt Rossi has harbored a crush on her for years, he’s never felt worthy of her. When their one college hookup ends with Eden leaving him a note that reads, “This was a mistake,” Holt’s worst fears are confirmed. Years later, Eden inherits her grandfather’s hockey team and must publicly cope with the fact that her ex, Alex Braun, is one of her players. Just when things couldn’t get more stressful, her team hires Holt as her new security detail. The last thing Eden needs is a relationship tied to her work, but Holt still has feelings for the girl that got away, and soon enough Eden realizes that she made a mistake all those years ago. Ryan keeps the focus on the feelings rather than action, and the result is a soothing escape that more than makes up for its lack of twists and turns with endearing characters, sizzling sex scenes, and an emotion-driven plot. This is the literary equivalent of comfort food. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 08/13/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Safekeeper

Esther Archer Lakhani. Bowker, $9.99 (188p) ISBN 978-1-73587-821-8

A sentient house named Gigi, an interesting play on alien invasion, and a resourceful heroine who learns she has a special connection to all of it distinguish this creative debut from Lakhani. Sophomore Macy Steward, 15, who has reddish-brown hair and dark blue eyes, lives with her parents at the Greenmont Grith Retreat Center in Las Aves, Calif., where they host vacationing aliens who temporarily take over the bodies of compounders—humans with a bit of alien genetic makeup. When a strange, black-haired, hazel-eyed new senior, Nick Pendigon, arrives at Las Aves High with too many questions, Macy must determine what he knows and whether he is a threat to the five offworlders at the Center. While the visitors adjust to their borrowed bodies, Macy must come to terms with Gigi’s sudden revelation of communicative abilities—and simultaneously, Macy’s identity as the Center’s Safekeeper. An alien assassination team, a missing “unofficial ‘guard crow’ ” named Clio, and Nick’s mysterious background compound Macy’s problems. The book’s short length inhibits character development, but Lakhani’s worldbuilding and vivid cast bolster a fun series starter for those seeking a fresh speculative twist. Ages 12–up. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Damaged Goods: Erica Jensen Mystery #1

Debbi Mack. Renegade, $11.99 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-7341094-1-2

Erica Jensen, the heroine of this sterling series launch from Mack (the Sam McRae series), survived her deployment to Afghanistan in 2011 as a member of a team of female Marines “who performed valuable back-up to the ground troops and intel-gathering duties.” But the concussion she received from an explosion left her addicted to painkillers, a condition that barred her from later getting a PI license in Maryland. Instead, Jensen takes on research assignments from clients with their own reasons for not going to someone with official credentials. Her latest such job comes from Stuart Blaine, an affluent real-estate developer with a drug-dealing conviction, whose college student daughter, Melissa, has been out of touch for four days. Blaine fears something bad has happened, and Jensen agrees to spend a little time tracking down Melissa. Her discovery of a murder victim connected with her employer raises the stakes. Mack never makes her lead’s work feel anything but realistic and captures the psyche of an addict’s struggles. Fans of flawed but empowered female detectives will be pleased with this exceptional mix of character study and detective work. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Evangeline Goes West

Julia DeBarrioz. Julia DeBarrioz, $12.99 trade paper (196p) ASIN B08MVTHYBH

DeBarrioz (the Dakota del Torro series) delivers a moving tale of personal empowerment. When Evangeline Everett’s husband, Jared Wassler, becomes physically abusive, Evangeline takes her savings and runs, heading to her childhood best friend’s ranch in Wyoming. But she’s not expecting hot young ranch hand Chase McCoy. Their attraction is immediate, but Chase is 20 to Evangeline’s 29, and the traumatized Evangeline uses their age difference as an excuse to avoid exploring their connection. As Evangeline rediscovers her love for horses and art, however, she and Chase grow closer. Evangeline’s marriage has taught her never to compromise who she is again, and she’s frank with the more conservative Chase about her views on abortion, gun control, and religion. Chase, in turn, opens up about his difficult childhood. There’s only so long flimsy excuses can keep these two apart—and DeBarrioz pushes it past the point of believability. Still, Evangeline’s humorous, folksy narration makes the meandering will-they-won’t-they work. It’s inevitable that Jared catches up with Evangeline just as her relationship with Chase takes off, but after the leisurely opening, the blazing finale—which features abductions, gunfights, and bear attacks—feels out of left field. Still, the scenic descriptions, steamy sex scenes, and gutsy heroine make this a solid pick for cowboy romance fans. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Love Is Free. Guac Is Extra: How Vulnerability, Empowerment, and Curiosity Built an Unstoppable Team

Monty Moran. Lioncrest Publishing, $10 e-book (318p) ASIN B08DT4HBRV

Moran, former co-CEO of Chipotle, debuts with an inviting inventory of the tactics he used to transform Chipotle into a national brand. After being recruited from his position at a law firm to help lead the growing eatery chain in 2005, Moran focused on empowering the company's employees by restructuring the hiring process and visiting locations to interact one-on-one with as many team members as possible. Curiosity, respect, vulnerability, and honesty, he writes, are the cornerstones of his leadership style, and while Moran believes "one's capacity to be fully human is perhaps the greatest prerequisite to being an effective leader," he doesn't shy away from delivering tough messages: "Don't fall for the morale trap... the only way to create a culture not in need of morale-boosting actions is to build a culture of empowerment." While some will find Moran's perspective a bit rosy, his down-to-earth style will appeal to managers looking for ways to engage their workforce. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Bell Hammers

Lancelot Schaubert. Lancelot Schaubert, $27 (334p) ISBN 978-1-949547-02-3

Schaubert recounts a mischievous man's eight decades in Illinois's Little Egypt region in his rambling picaresque debut. In 1941, six-year-old Wilson "Remmy" Remus cuts the tension in his classroom following news of the attack on Pearl Harbor by peeing in a bucket, launching a life of constant schemes and pranks and a lifelong feud with classmate Jim Johnstone, whose notebook was splashed in the act. Told in snapshots, the narrative recounts stories of Remmy unleashing pigs in the high school, dumping cow manure for neighborhood kids to play in, and deploying devious punishments for his children, such as sending his 15-year-old daughter on a circuitous Greyhound ride after she complains during a family vacation. He starts a home-building company with an eye on building a Camelot for a band of friends, but his plans run afoul of the local oil drilling company Jim works for. After a storm fells a derrick on his land and pollutes the well water, his petty squabbles with Jim ramp up. The aftermath of a particularly foolhardy prank in 1977 involving some makeshift medieval weaponry proves consequential. While the hodgepodge of anecdotes doesn't offer much in the way of plot, the tone of this particular old man's reminiscences about his greatest hits has some appeal. At its best, this is a hoot. (Self-published)

Reviewed on 04/09/2021 | Details & Permalink

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