THE CALL OF THE SWAMP

Book Cover

An Italian import confronts
questions of identity, belonging, and family.

The story begins with a folkloric
sensibility as it introduces a white couple who “had given up hope that they
would ever have any” children. They find a “newborn” child in a swamp and
ignore his unusual appearance, including gills, large eyes, and, instead of
hair, the watercolor-and-ink illustrations add spiky appendages that look like
sea anemones atop his head. In an initially troubling turn for a fantasy
positioning itself as an adoption allegory, the couple decides it doesn’t
matter whether the baby’s parents abandoned him or died; they simply name him
Boris and take him home. Boris grows up happily enough, but the titular call of
the swamp beckons, and he leaves home to reconnect with the swamp. He communes
with creatures who, though realistic animals, look something like him, and he
delights in his swampy surroundings. His compassionate parents, in gestures
that belie their initial insensitivity, leave notes reading “If you’re happy where you are, then we’re
happy too.” But—“How much are we really like those who look like us?” Boris
wonders as he begins to feel there’s nowhere he belongs and notices differences
between himself and the swamp creatures. An affecting, emotional open ending concludes
the story, resisting a happily-ever-after tone as Boris departs to reunite with
his parents.

A melancholy contemporary folk tale.
(Picture book. 4-8)

BLOOD MEMORY SOCIETY

Book Cover

A doctor must aid a handful of
people with life-changing abilities, all of whom are targets for assassination,
in Field’s debut thriller.

Dr. Will Dunbar is relaxing in the
Bahamas when he gets a message from West Point pal Col. Ross Chapman. Ross
convinces the doc that D.C. needs him—it’s a matter of national security. In
Washington, Will meets a panel of individuals, from the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff to the CIA Director. It seems a secret society is in trouble. The
group, the Inherited Memory Society, comprises people with a memory-boosting genetic
mutation responsible for a massive spike in human advancement in the last
couple centuries. Someone recently attacked secured facilities to kill IMS
members and destroy their cell samples. Since Will, a reproductive
endocrinologist, discovered ubiquitin’s role in miscarriages (a protein tied to
the mutation), he may be able to help “restore” the IMS population. Later, at a
Florida safe house, Will and IMS physicist Victoria Van Buren narrowly avoid an
assassination attempt. Field’s enthralling premise showcases a special trait
(the IM in IMS) that’s both fascinating and believable. This necessitates an
exposition-heavy plot, which, though never tedious, limits action scenes and
accelerates Will and Victoria’s inevitable romance. The thriller abounds with exacting
prose: a jet sucking “cool morning air into its red-hot compressors where the
molecules of oxygen were compressed tightly, then saturated with a high-octane
fuel.” And the adrenalized final act imperils Will, Victoria, and even Will’s
Bahamian buddy, Tiny, while Field gives the narrative several real-world ties
with clever references to historical figures and monuments.

Methodically maps out its concept;
an admirable start to a series rife with potential.

THE PERSIAN ALWAYS MEOWS TWICE

Book Cover

A cat groomer boarding the cat of a slain millionaire suspects
her feline tenant may be the missing piece in solving the murder.

After moving to Chadwick and opening her own cat grooming and
boarding facility, Cassie’s Comfy Cats, Cassie McGlone is feeling pretty comfy
herself. She’s happy to be around friends and out of the sight of Andy, the
recent ex whose anger issues upset her almost as much as his treatment of her
three feline companions. Cassie is delighted that she’s been recently hired by
George DeLeuw for the regular grooming of Harpo, a cream-colored Persian with a
tendency to mat. Not only is DeLeuw a generous and loving owner to Harpo, a
purebred who proved a worthless financial investment; providing routine
services to such a well-heeled client has become a dependable income stream for
Cassie. This time, however, Cassie shows up for her customary service call only
to find DeLeuw’s body and realize that he’s been killed. Though she doesn’t
have a background in investigating, it’s easy for her to do enough digging to
figure out who might have reason to murder such a kind man. At first her poking
around isn’t welcomed by the detective on the case, Angela Bonelli, but
eventually the two are able to coordinate their efforts to learn about DeLeuw
more efficiently, and Cassie offers to care for Harpo until the will is
settled. When other people from DeLeuw’s life suddenly show an interest in
Harpo’s well-being, Cassie suspects that learning more about the cat may
provide the key to DeLeuw’s death.

Fans of felines will appreciate Cassie’s demonstrated attachment
to the master species, which Watkins successfully integrates throughout her
debut, a deft blend of mystery and cat love.

SILENCING THE SKEPTICS

Book Cover

A new interpretation of the Bible
challenges both its detractors and apologists.

The Bible is notorious for its
internal contradictions, which critics take as a reason to reject its
revelatory authority and defenders refuse to acknowledge. The Gatekeeper (The
Gospel Matrix
, 2015) adopts a different exegetical approach. The author
concedes that there are, in fact, numerous inconsistencies but claims that they
are all purposeful, inserted in order to point audiences in the direction of a
higher truth. To understand the experiential value of these incongruities, a
literal interpretation must be discarded in favor of one that accepts the
allegorical character of the Bible. The author’s tour of the Bible is a
thorough one, covering all the Gospels, the book of Revelation, and Paul’s
letters, to name a small but central sampling. The Gatekeeper contends that the
Christian church is really a corrupt institution, something revealed when the
Bible is properly understood. The author revisits key passages, especially
regarding the “body of Christ” and the “bride of Christ,” to tease out their correct
meanings. One of the chief arguments of the book is an epistemological
one—humanity is caught in a “matrix” that occludes unfettered access to
objective reality, but the time is fast approaching when the truth can be fully
disclosed. That truth will include the transcendence of the shallow vision of
God as a distinct person who governs humans in favor of an all-pervasive
intelligence. The Gatekeeper’s erudition is impressive, including the author’s
grasp of the Bible as well as the scholarly commentary devoted to it. In
addition, The Gatekeeper’s aims are not only ambitious, but are also exercised
with great spiritedness—he openly challenges Bart Ehrman, a pre-eminent critic
of the Bible. But the whole work is written in a gratuitously hectoring,
peremptory tone, dismissing disagreement as either evil or stupid; at one point
he refers to intellectual competitors as “archontic parasites.” Furthermore,
the author never tires of informing the reader how revolutionary this book is,
apparently a fount of sublime truth, a self-congratulatory conceit that quickly
becomes tiresome.

Despite this study’s striking and provocative
scholarship, many readers will likely be put off by its bombastic style. 

DIARY OF A RELUCTANT DREAMER

Book Cover

Mexican-American scholar/writer/artist Ledesma (Graduate
Diversity Director/Univ. of California) recounts his own experience of “the
immigrant experience,” with its tiers of risk and layers of aspiration.

Drawing on a mix of prose, sketches, and other drawings that
commemorates his emergence as a “critical cartoonist” to match his work in
literary critical theory, the author describes his long years “underground” as
the undocumented child of undocumented immigrants from Mexico, a “dreamer” who
wanted nothing more than to go to college and have a chance at success. “Being
undocumented,” he writes, “as I’m sure you can imagine, meant that we always
lived with the fear of being caught, that any misstep we took could endanger
the entire family.” This fear is why undocumented immigrants tend to be very
law-abiding, and when they’re caught, they have developed skillful strategies,
sometimes keeping silence, sometimes talking a strange patter of doublespeak.
None of that helps in the end; Ledesma writes of his own father saying that no
matter how well he spoke English, he still was a target: “la migra will
still get you.” A good chunk of Ledesma’s text is given over to an ABC of
immigrant life—for example, “R is for the resilience of undocumented immigrant
mothers”; “B is for the back pay that was withheld from your father’s paycheck
those few years when he worked as a bracero”; “M is for machine, the inevitable
result of an immigrant worker’s metamorphosis from human being to mechanical
instrument.” Ledesma and his family have been legal residents of the United
States since the 1980s, but the old fears remain, he writes, especially given
the anti-immigrant sentiment of the new administration. As he writes in
closing, “President Trump? Even thinking about the phrase feels as if I am
uttering an uncouth incantation. He has stood in front of Weimar multitudes, ratcheting
up jack-booted antagonisms targeted towards my people.”

Affecting, highly charged, and deserving of broad attention.

IMAGINE

Book Cover

In this illustrated version of the
lyrics of Lennon’s 1971 song “Imagine,” a pigeon carries its message far and
wide.

Traveling from a crowded subway
platform and flying over a river, the pigeon with a mission encourages readers
to imagine a world without heaven or hell, without countries, without anything
to kill or die for, without religion, possessions, greed, or hunger.
Appropriately equipped with an olive branch and orange messenger bag sporting
the iconic peace symbol, the pigeon intervenes when two sea gulls fight over a
fish and two hummingbirds squabble over a flower. Surrounded by birds of
different colors, shapes, and sizes, the pigeon asks them to imagine living in
peace and brotherhood. They may think he’s a dreamer, but he’s not alone and
suggests they join with him so the “world will be as one.” The visual device of
the pacifist carrier pigeon spreading peace gives tangible form to Lennon’s
intangible aspirations. Executed in boldly brushed ink lines and digitally
colored in an arresting palette of blues, grays, and whites with strong pops of
red, orange, chartreuse, and purple, the strikingly simple illustrations
reinforce the simple, powerful text.

An inviting, relevant, and
timely message of tolerance, inclusiveness, unity, and peace. Just imagine. (foreword
by Yoko Ono Lennon, afterword) (Picture book. 4-8)

HOLY CRAP! THE WORLD IS ENDING!

Book Cover

A California girl finds the hunky
love of her life in a Barnes & Noble—and he turns out to be an ancient
alien, the harbinger of Earth’s destruction.

In this debut novel, Autumn is a
hip, slim Orange County girl with a habit of listening to late-night,
conspiracy-talk radio. Inspired to visit a Barnes & Noble for a book on
“light beings,” the alien visitors du jour, she suddenly senses invisible
forces and hears voices in her head. It seems that the handsome-as-a-god
stranger glimpsed at the bookstore is, in fact, a god—or the equivalent, a
nearly ageless alien who, with the rest of his unimaginably advanced
civilization, inspired legends of ancient Sumerian divinities and Noah’s flood
(their doing, in fact). Rigel, Autumn’s newfound, hot extraterrestrial
boyfriend, is an “Anunnaki,” one of a space-going race who guided the evolution
of humans in primordial days (using them as slaves in gold mining) and whose
home world, Nibiru, normally remains unseen in the solar system. But Nibiru’s
orbit is about to brush with Earth’s. The cataclysmic alignment will kill all
of humanity unless the heroine—gifted with a blue-colored soul, a fact that
could shake the whole Galactic Federation to its foundation—makes the ultimate
sacrifice. The busy plotline takes breathers not only for ecstatic
trans-species sex (or attempts, the whole “light being” thing making intimacy a
tricky proposition), but also retellings of Mesopotamian mythology with such
figures as Innana, Enki, and Enil recast as squabbling space gods (and
reappearing in Autumn’s apocalypse). Abell uses the flibbertigibbet voice of a
chick-lit heroine for this comical take on UFO lore and Erich von Däniken’s
pseudo-science in Chariots of the Gods?, complete with a
world-shattering denouement of cosmic catastrophe. It kind of works—or at least
goes down easier than had it been played for straight sci-fi/fantasy and
paranormal romance, as most scribes in those genres’ stacks would have done.
Abell name-checks such real-life, fringe-science authors as Zecharia Sitchin
and Marshall Klarfeld and lists them as suggested reading in a short afterword
(the e-book version provides links), though this yarn can be taken either as
gonzo humor or a primer for cult-y New Age cosmology. That it bills itself as
the first installment of the Anunnaki Chronicles suggests that the bleak ending
is a cliffhanger.

A chirpy doomsday tale starring a
Bridget Jones–esque protagonist. 

FORTITUDE SMASHED

Book Cover

In the first book of the Camellia Clock Cycle series, Brooke (Legacy
Strain
, 2017, etc.) puts a fun twist on the proverbial biological clock
with a surgical implant that counts down to the exact moment each person will
fall in love.

Detective Shannon Wurther looks down at his Camellia Clock, a
microchip that was planted under his fingernail at birth, only to see it time
out just as he is arresting Aiden Maar for attempting to steal a painting
called Fortitude Smashed from a gallery. To his horror,
Aiden’s clock hits zero as well, which means the handsome suspect is eligible
for a life sentence as Shannon’s “Rose Road,” or soul mate. With nothing but
their clocks in common, the two men will have to learn what makes the other
tick. More than just a clever device, the Camellia Clock has a well-thought-out
effect on the culture and economy of marriage: there are conventions to help
singles prepare for the big day and support groups for teen couples and widows.
Shannon’s partner, Karman, is bitter knowing that no one she will date after
her late husband will truly be “the one.” Chelsea, Shannon’s ex-girlfriend,
can’t believe the clock would pair Shannon with a lowlife instead of her. But
the belief that science can predict matters of the heart is really put to the
test when Shannon has to use his badge to cover for Aiden’s bad behavior. At
times, Aiden’s internal struggles with mental illness overshadow his crimes,
but he never fails to get Shannon’s pulse racing.

Handcuffed by fate, this cop-and-robber duo will steal hearts; a
strong start to a promising series.

THE LOST TETRADS OF MARSHALL MCLUHAN

Book Cover

Oracular ramblings by the erstwhile maven of media studies.

A tetrad, in Canadian literary scholar McLuhan’s gnomic
formulation, “obsolesces logical analysis and ‘efficient causality.’ ” Put a
little less elusively, a tetrad is a set of four “laws that govern all human
innovations,” which is to say that a bit of technological advancement—a
dishwasher, say—enhances, obsolesces, retrieves, and reverses all at the same
time. So, by the author’s account, war “intensifies passions, and goals,”
“obsolesces leisure and luxuries,” “retrieves camaraderie, team spirit,” and
“reverses into research, social science, and double-agentry.” It helps to be
well-versed in McLuhan-isms to follow the flow of logic of this extension
of Understanding Media (1964), which does not always
seem—well, logical. Still, giving McLuhan his lead, let’s grant that a kayak
“obsolesces swimming” (one would think that, more properly, it obsolesces
drowning), that a mirror “obsolesces the corporate mask and corporate
appearance,” whatever that might mean, and that, as he puts it in a commentary
on the tetrad for camera, “the stripper is naked only from the moment she steps
backstage.” Things get more baffling as the tetrads seemingly dissolve into
something like prose poems, as when he writes, anent the law of obsolescence,
“entails the relegating of the form/action/service to the subliminal level of
awareness while its content monopolizes the attention of the user.” Very well,
then. The pleasure to be taken in this text is to observe the obvious pleasure
McLuhan had in assembling these little puzzles, allowing for plenty of
head-shaking along the way. At times, they resemble surrealist calligrammes, at
others the bizarre philosophizing of a Dr. Bronner’s soap label, and most of
the time they seem a species of private joke.

A treat for compleatist members of the cult of McLuhan, but best
left to those insiders.

A HERO DREAMS

Book Cover

In Ristau’s coming-of-age debut
novel, a young boy, distraught over his father’s death, has trouble fitting in
at summer camp, where he has unsettling visions and is comforted by a
disembodied voice.

By 1976, as America celebrates its
bicentennial, 10-year-old Ricky Williamson
hasn’t quite recovered from losing his father two years ago. He’s prone to
dreams and visions of tragic events, including some that he knows have already happened
(such as a train accident) and others that are unfamiliar. Ricky is also less
than thrilled when his mother announces that he and his 9-year-old little
brother, Danny, will spend five weeks at a summer camp, six hours away from
their hometown of South Orange, New Jersey. Danny, a talented baseball player, has
no problem making friends, but it’s not as easy for Ricky. Soon, he’s torn
between sticking his neck out for a frequently bullied new friend, Miles Romano, and keeping to himself. He finds solace in a voice in his head,
which he thinks could be an angel that he saw after nearly drowning at the age
of 4. “Have faith,” the voice repeatedly assures him. And faith he’ll surely
need as he confronts his fears and suffers a terrible trauma. Ristau’s tale
poignantly conveys Ricky’s struggle; the narration, by an older Ricky looking
back on his past, retains the persistent and naïve hopefulness of his younger
self: “Maybe, just maybe, I could belong to his group.” The scenes of Ricky
seeing or hearing his angel, and sometimes his father, are profound but
sorrowful. His real-life interactions, too, alternate between effectively
upbeat moments and others that are outright depressing, as when Ricky feels that
he somehow deserves his misfortunes. Though an early vision boldly validates the
protagonist’s dreamlike images (with a future historical event that readers
will recognize), the final act is more ambiguous. By the end, Ricky makes a
decision that, while offering very little resolution, perfectly sets the stage
for a continuing series.

A sad but laudable story of a boy
who endures more than he should have to bear.

UNSTOPPABLE

Book Cover

An entrepreneur’s debut memoir takes
him from the wilds of Ethiopia to the neon lights of Hollywood.

In 1986, Bogale’s parents were told
he’d died in utero, so they traveled to the closest hospital, almost 250 miles
from their home in Ethiopia’s Amaro Mountains. After discovering that he was,
in fact, alive, they rejoiced and named him “Tariku,” or “the story.” The joy
ended, however, when Bogale’s father divorced his mother within a few years and
took him away to another village. (Later,
when Bogale was living alone, he took in his impoverished mother and siblings.)
As a teen, he enrolled in computer classes and started a company called
Advanced Computer Technology. The memoir’s action-packed first part is by far its
most engaging, painting a vivid picture of the author’s early hardships. After
being arrested for faking a Tanzanian passport at 16, Bogale spent months in a
nightmarish prison. He finally made it to South Africa, where he hired a white man “to negotiate sometimes,” because local
racists didn’t want to pay a black man. Undaunted, he ventured into several
other businesses and became rich; he also got married, which didn’t last. Part
II is also intriguing, detailing how Bogale built a shopping center after
fighting corrupt, powerful forces. In spy-thriller fashion, the memoir takes the
author to Switzerland, where he ran afoul of immigration authorities, met an
attorney and former model named Naomi, and found that his jackets kept getting
stolen. In Part III, Naomi’s doppelgänger (or possibly Naomi herself) reappears
in New York; after several rambling pages, however, she simply leaves. Part IV,
however, will appeal to fans of lavish Hollywood lifestyles; the author seems extremely
label-conscious (he doesn’t just drive—he drives a Mercedes-Benz SL550) and
drops famous names, such as director Steven Spielberg’s. Still, Bogale’s
friendly narrative voice always emanates confidence: “You might say that I have
the heart and the senses of a lion, noble in its bearing, attuned to the sounds
and smells of his environment, and able to pounce with great ferocity to make
his killing.”

A high-speed, energetic tale of a sometimes-bumpy
ride from rags to riches.

THE GHOST TOWN PRESERVATION SOCIETY

Book Cover

In search of answers about her past, an aging professor makes
her way to the Montana town that’s wrapped the key in a cast of colorful
characters.

While she’s always been the sort of person who yearns for
something, AJ Armstrong is finally ready to act on her desires when she leaves
her college teaching job to pursue the very personal project of figuring out
who her mother is. AJ hopes this quest will not only give her a sense of self,
but also teach her what “AJ” literally stands for. Finding her way to Misfire,
Montana, AJ rents a room that’s all but uninhabitable as she gets down to the
task at hand, accidentally getting hired along the way at the local rag, the Sun-Tribune. Though many potential
complications appear poised to begin at this point, Simon instead introduces a
roll call of the town misfits, her loving characterizations of their folksy
quirks overshadowing AJ’s purpose. Before long, AJ feels right at home in
Misfire, even though it’s not clear whether she’ll ever learn her own origin
story. Enter drama in the form of AJ’s adoptive parents, Bet and Chas, two
drifters who can’t seem to let their daughter go even if they’ve barely shown
an interest in her to date. As Bet and Chas make it clear to AJ’s chagrin that
they’re here to stay, more of the past catches up with her. Her ex-husband and
former colleague, Litton, arrives, supposedly to collaborate with her on a
hush-hush history project but actually to make her life a living hell. In all
the hubbub, AJ returns to her original purpose with renewed energy even if the
answers she finds don’t give her the satisfaction she’d hoped for.

Happily, the third act exchanges Simon’s focus on obfuscating
tangents and context-free character studies for a renewed interest in the plot
of this uneven debut.

THE WHOLE OF THE MOON

Book Cover

A single copy of The Great Gatsby begets
another novel.

In a Los Angeles Public Library branch there’s a copy of 813.52
FIT—aka The Great Gatsby. Over some 50 years it will be checked out
and read by the main characters in this first novel. As the book opens, it’s
the present day. An unemployed actor is lying by a pool at the Fairfax
Apartments complex waiting for a call about a possible job on a television
series. The book sits on a table in his apartment, “just down the road from
where [Fitzgerald] died.” His story is one of six, alternating and twisting
back and forth in time like trains passing in the night. In 1964, two high
school seniors ditch school to hike in the mountains outside LA. They get lost.
Dorothy Latham checked this novel out long ago for her husband, George, a
professor at a local college. For years he’s been writing and composing a
musical based on it, One Fine Morning. In the early 1990s, there’s
a talented high school baseball player, Mike Allison, who has a dream of
playing for the Los Angeles Angels. In the only first-person narration, an
unnamed man tells the story of his cousin, Billy Goodwin, who was “a real
dreamer,” like Gatsby. In 2005, Billy goes missing after his employer, a famous
perfumer, is found dead. In 2000, Felicity becomes pregnant as a young woman
and has a boy, Nick. She raises him as she tries for years to make something of
herself. Only once do two of the characters meet. Watching a volleyball game in
2014 between schools they work for, Felicity and the cousin briefly discuss the
novel and then part: “Our lives intersect that way, little coincidences that we
never know.” This is at the heart of Rogers’ ambitious and thoughtful book.

Infused with subtle, evocative details, each story beautifully,
quietly beats on against time’s current.

BLAZE

Book Cover

In the third installment of Menear’s
(Poseidon’s Sword, 2015, etc.) thriller series, an airline pilot is the
key to activating a weapon with the potential to destroy much of the world.

After Samantha Starr discovered an
artifact in a curio shop in Hong Kong, she became caught in the middle of a
race between various groups to find a powerful weapon called Poseidon’s sword.
Sam’s artifact is a prototype of the larger weapon, and it seems that only she
can activate both versions. This makes her a target for abduction by arms
dealer Lord Sweetwater, as well as by members of the Black Sun, a nefarious
cult that may not be as dead as Sam thought. Fortunately, Sam is aided by the
British Special Air Service, including her boyfriend, Capt. Ross Sinclair, and
the U.S. Navy, in which her twin brothers, Mike and Matt Starr, are lieutenants. Meanwhile, three
sisters, Blaze, Luna, and Solraya, raised
as goddesses for 23 years in the Himalayas by their captors from ancient
Atlantis, have a telepathic
connection to Sam. Many people believe
she’s the Golden Twin, prophesied to locate and use Poseidon’s Sword. This
would likely decimate a large part of Earth, and if the Atlanteans have their
way, they’ll use the weapon to rule the world. Menear pulls readers into a
story in progress: Sam has already been dodging bad guys for a while in
previous installments, when she wasn’t being kidnapped and/or tortured by them.
But those just joining the series with this book won’t feel lost, thanks to
numerous recaps via dialogue or Sam’s first-person narration. These summaries
also prove somewhat detrimental, however, as characters repeatedly explain
what’s going on. The protagonist still manages to shine, though; she gains
sympathy by proving to be more concerned about a fellow abductee than herself,
and she’s unquestionably formidable as a taekwondo expert. The novel’s
exhilarating second half features intense battles with a giant sea creature, as
well as the eventual appearance of Atlantean assassins. A stellar final-act
turn highlights the world-threatening danger.

An exciting paranormal action tale,
notwithstanding its excessive plot summaries.

QUESTS FOR GLORY

Book Cover

A sudden rash of kidnappings and
random violence kicks off a major challenge to the reign of King Arthur’s newly
crowned son, Tedros.

The shining titular promise of the
previous episode, The Last Ever After (2015), fades as Tedros—noble at
heart but paralyzed by self-doubt and, it must be said, dumb as a box of
rocks—refuses to ask his clever, loving fiancee, Agatha, for help dealing with
pirates and other raiders. Meanwhile, back at the titular school, her glamorous
BFF, Sophie, newly appointed Dean of Evil, discovers that all of the fourth-year
students are somehow failing in their obligatory, assigned Quests. With a crew
of allies (including Nicola, a nonmagical but quick-witted Reader), Agatha and
Sophie set out to investigate and discover amid a characteristic mix of tongue-in-cheek
set pieces and harrowing scrapes that a (possibly) legitimate contender for the
throne of Camelot has risen, with deadly powers including (apparently) the
ability to twist and corrupt storylines with “different truth.” In a slow-to-arrive
but catastrophic climax, Agatha, Tedros, and the rest discover too late that
they’ve been thoroughly played throughout; the final pages find them not only
routed in battle, but tricked into a series of devastating betrayals. Bruno’s
polished vignettes add appropriate notes of humor and horror and reveal Nicola
to be black, in contrast to the mostly white or pale-skinned cast.

New chapters in this metafictional
romp leave the villains ascendant. Stay tuned. (color map) (Fantasy. 11-13)

BEST DAY EVER

Book Cover

A husband and father has a very, very special weekend planned
for his wife in this creepy little chiller.

Ohio couple Paul and Mia Strom are heading up to their lake
house on the shores of Lake Erie for the perfect weekend, and Paul is
determined to make it the best day ever. Their two young sons are with a babysitter,
and Mia, who has been struggling with a mysterious illness, is feeling better.
And why shouldn’t it be a perfect day? Paul and Mia have a perfect family, and
Paul is the perfect husband (he even says so) and Mia, the perfect housewife.
All is…well, perfect. Or so Paul would have everyone think. After 10 years,
the shine has worn off for Paul, but he chose Mia for a reason, and he’s
determined to make it work; he’ll do it on his terms, though, and this weekend
will be a turning point. But Paul’s skeletons are falling out of the closet in
droves, and Mia isn’t the wilting housewife he thought she was. The Stroms
seems to have it all and are a king and queen of their suburban domain, but
there’s a creeping rot underneath, and his name is Paul. There are children at
stake, though, not to mention Mia, who has endured this man for far too long.
Rouda’s (The Goodbye Year, 2016) choice to have Paul narrate is a
compelling one, and he is about as awful as he can possibly get without going
completely over the top (although a laughable attempt to whisk his mistress off
to Disneyland in the middle of the night pushes it a bit). He laces his
narrative with just enough snippets about his fraught childhood to give his
warped pathology some psychological heft. The conclusion even leaves a little
bit of uncertainty for readers to chew on.

Darkly funny, scandalous, and utterly satisfying.

RISKING IT ALL

Book Cover

Even the best of marriages have their tipping points.

Marcia and Jeff Naiman have a loving marriage, but after three
years of trying to conceive, Marcia is still not pregnant. When taking
temperatures and charting ovulation doesn’t work, Marcia steps up the game, but
even the expensive in-vitro procedure that Jeff eventually agrees to is
fruitless. With renewed determination, Marcia researches surrogacy. Her sheer
determination and her promise to have no relationship with the surrogate after
the child is born persuade Jeff to agree to the process despite misgivings. The
seeds of a good marriage going bad are sown. Initially neither Marcia nor Jeff
understands what’s happening; each assumes that when their child is born things
will get back to normal. But rather than improving, the marriage goes into a
death spiral. Of course, nothing is ever as simple as expected, and a set of
unusual circumstances compounds the stress of an already fraught situation.
Marcia and Jeff are forced to look deeply into themselves to determine what
really matters to them and ultimately to see the other from the inside
out…and decide if even that is enough to sustain their marriage. Both Marcia
and Jeff are sympathetic characters, and Darnton (The Perfect Mother, 2014,
etc.) makes clear the reasons for their actions, reactions, decisions, and choices.

Thoughtfully written and thoroughly engaging—a tale of
compromise, tough decisions…and love.

THE BEST KIND OF PEOPLE

Book Cover

“Imagine the person you love and trust becoming a different
person overnight. What would you do?” After perpetual Teacher of the Year
winner and local “man of distinction” George Woodbury is arrested on multiple
charges of sexual misconduct with minors, his wife and children are forced to
answer just that question.

Science teacher Woodbury first hit the headlines nearly a decade
earlier, when he disarmed a man with a rifle who had entered Avalon Hills prep
school with murder in mind. Now, George has become an instant media sensation
all over again, this time following the accusations of several female pupils.
Having swiftly and unfussily set up this scenario, Canadian novelist Whittall (The
Middle Ground
, 2010, etc.) chooses to focus not on the alleged crimes but
on the repercussions on George’s family: wife Joan, a nurse; bright daughter
Sadie, 17; and son Andrew, a lawyer with a boyhood history of being bullied at
Avalon. George’s perspective is not included, leaving an obvious vacuum at the
heart of the story. Instead Whittall gives voice to the range of sympathy and
suspicion from friends and colleagues in this comfortable middle-class
community, as well as more extreme responses, like the man who shows up at
Joan’s house wearing a “Justice for Men and Boys” T-shirt, telling
her, “It’s the feminists who are going to ruin your husband’s life, you
know.” Joan joins a support group to help deal with the loss of a happy
life and beloved partner—all now in the past, whatever the future brings—while
Sadie makes her own journey from innocence to experience via a family friend
who is secretly writing a novel based on the events. After the novel’s busy
opening section, the pace slows to allow for the characters’ shifts in feeling,
eventually reaching a diffused conclusion that makes the memorable point that a
story like this never ends.

A humane, cleareyed attempt to explore the ripple effects of
sexual crime.

CATCH MY BREATH

Book Cover

Briggs delivers the fourth title in
the Walt Disney Animation Studios Artist Showcase series, a musing on familiar
turns of phrase.

When the narrator’s mother prompts
the child to “catch your breath,” the child pauses to wonder “Where would it
go?!” Narrated by a child entirely washed in yellow with straight, cropped
hair, a hoodie, and pants, the book wastes no time in employing “fun sayings
about breath.” These are by turns endearing (“Mom says Grandpa grumbles under
his breath…. / Maybe my breath is there?”) and groan-inducing (“Oh no!— / I can’t
hold my / breath underwater!” the child exclaims as the breath literally eludes
outstretched fingers). Personified as a floppy, smiling red-pink entity with
the consistency of a semi-inflated balloon, the breath enjoys the chase. Some jokes
will require explaining: “I’ve heard I can buy babies’ breath at a nursery,” says
the child to a doctor in a maternity unit. A muted palette and the sparing use
of color work to softly highlight characters and dialogue (conveyed in speech
bubbles). Loosely drawn black-and-white backgrounds, as well as small details
such as secondary characters’ mid-20th-century-yet-undated attire,
create a nostalgia that is unsurprising for Disney. However, this nostalgia
combined with jokes that rely on a young child’s naiveté about wordplay may
leave readers wondering who this book is really meant for.

No need to wait with bated breath. (author’s
note) (Picture book. 4-8)

RETURN TO THE DARK VALLEY

Book Cover

Or, love and loss in a time of ruin.

“Cities are bad and they lie in
wait for people.” So says a police officer to a hospitalized victim of a street
beating in Madrid, a city embroiled in all sorts of madness, including a wave
of jihadi violence and economic unrest. That victim is a priest and former
guerrilla who has been trying to distance himself from a past that is catching
up with him, just as Manuela Beltrán, at the center of Colombian writer
Gamboa’s swirling kaleidoscope of a novel, struggles to come to terms with her
own: a poet, student of philology, and an all-around sort of mystery woman, she
yearns to avenge childhood abuse even as she keeps questionable company in the
Spanish capital and uses literature as an escape. Manuela is brilliant and
apparently sane, which might not be said of the odd fellow called Tertullian,
who claims to be the son of the pope and to be “the voice of reason and the
future, emerging into the ether from the caves of hyper-consciousness to bring
you the words of the ancient masters and sages, broadcasting from obscure and
forgotten highways.” Each of these characters—along with a couple of others who
step over from Night Prayers (2016), an earlier novel of
Gamboa’s—turns up in more or less regular alternation as the storyline draws
them together‚ now with the addition of the poet Arthur Rimbaud, whose
dramatized life story occupies a central part of Gamboa’s tale. In a narrative
that moves across continents, from Spain to Ethiopia and Latin America, Gamboa
would seem to be saying that none of us is at home anywhere and that, as
Manuela muses, “Some worlds just don’t mix with others. You just have to know
it.”

A complex, challenging story that speaks to the terror and
dislocation of the age.

GASLIGHT LAWYERS

Book Cover

A historical study of the often dysfunctional
judicial system in late-19th-century New York City.

In the last third of the 1800s,
Manhattan was a hotbed of crime, and its courts were often hamstrung by a toxic
combination of unscrupulous law enforcement personnel and crude investigative techniques.
In this book, Underwood (Law/Univ. of Kentucky; Crimesong, 2016)
furnishes a series of journalistically rendered vignettes meant to capture the
essence of that legal milieu. Much of the work is devoted to larger-than-life
legal figures: William “Big Bill” Howe, for instance, was a cinematically
dramatic defense lawyer known for his courtroom histrionics; he kept reporters
on the payroll to advertise his triumphs and was among the first to rely upon a
client’s claim of insanity as a defense. William Travers Jerome, known as “The
Reformer,” was a prosecutor who made his reputation sending corrupt attorneys
to jail. But he was no angel; he once used an affidavit in a case from a
crooked lawyer he’d once prosecuted for suborning perjured affidavits. Over the
course of two chapters, the author follows the case of Ameer Ben Ali, nicknamed
“Frenchy,” who was tried and convicted for the murder of a woman in 1891. The
prosecution was particularly devious and suggested that Ali might also be
London’s Jack the Ripper, but he was eventually pardoned. Underwood is a
masterful researcher, and he combs diligently through newspapers and trial
transcripts to reconstruct these historical snapshots. He meticulously
describes a judicial cosmos that’s largely unfamiliar now—one without Miranda
warnings or scientifically sophisticated forensic tools. Trials instead relied
heavily on eyewitness testimony and lawyerly skill, which generated unequal
outcomes: “Because crime science was in its infancy, the guilty actually had a
shot at acquittal with the right lawyer; but the innocent were often at the
mercy of unscrupulous prosecutors, corrupt police, and hanging judges.”

An accessible, marvelously rigorous
account of a bygone legal era.

CITY OF SPIES

Book Cover

A young girl straddles two cultures in 1970s Pakistan.

Aliya Shah is 11 years old. Her mother is Dutch, her father is
Pakistani, and when Aliya was 5, her family moved from Europe to Islamabad,
where her father now works for the country’s Water and Power Development
Authority. Aliya goes to an American school with the children of diplomats and,
presumably, spies. Her best friend is a blonde girl named Lizzy. Aliya exists
between worlds; with her brown skin, she’s clearly set apart from her
schoolmates, but at home, she can’t speak Urdu with Sadiq, the family’s
servant. One night, Sadiq’s young son is hit and killed by a car, which then
drives off. Over the next year, Aliya gradually begins to piece together what
happened in the crash, including the identity of the driver. All of this is set
against a complicated political background: it’s the 1970s; Bhutto has been
deposed, and Gen. Zia has assumed leadership. Then, too, the hostage crisis in
Iran, in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days, has taken over the news:
suspicion of and resentment toward Americans, for their interference in the
Middle East, is at a premium. Khan (Five Queen’s Road, 2009, etc.)
writes with a lovely elegance; both her characters and the world they inhabit
come vibrantly alive. Unfortunately, she has an occasional tendency to overexplain
themes already implicit in the narrative. Her treatment of race, class, and
American imperialism can feel heavy-handed in places. Still, overall the novel
is a moving success and necessary at a time when many of the same concerns have
come to dominate our national (and international) consciousness.

Despite occasional heavy-handedness, Khan’s third novel is a
complex and moving examination of, among other things, American imperialism through
the eyes of a young girl.

WHISPERS OF WARNING

Book Cover

Young spiritualist and suffragette Ruby Proulx (Whispers
Beyond the Veil
, 2016) investigates a second suspicious death at a resort
hotel on the coast of Maine in 1898.

The cause of women’s suffrage and the Victorian fad for the
occult join in the personage of Sophronia Foster Eldridge, who’s found the
ideal place to rally her cause in Old Orchard. In this charming Maine seaside
town, Ruby’s aunt Honoria Belden operates the Belden Hotel, where freethinkers
gather to tend their sensitivities to everything from tarot cards to hay fever.
Not all the citizens of Old Orchard are so enlightened, however: Sophronia’s
march threatens to upstage the opening of a new pleasure pier, incurring the
wrath of the chief of police and Congressman Nelson Plaisted. Even more
disquieting is the information Sophronia’s spirit guides reveal about the
corruption among men in power—corruption that can be dispelled only by full
public knowledge and the voices of women in politics. Before Sophronia can
publish her manuscript of supernaturally inspired muckraking, she’s found
drowned in a bathing pool with rocks in her pockets. The police chief is more
than happy to close the case as a suicide, but Ruby knows that Sophronia was
too committed to the cause to kill herself. She finds an ally in her best
friend’s brother, Officer Warren Yancey, who’s determined to see justice done
and who’s more than a little smitten with Ruby. Together they uncover the
killer and preserve the good name of the Belden Hotel for another season.

Well-paced and appealingly quirky. The ideal entertainment for
the reader’s own restorative visit to the seaside.

THE CUBAN AFFAIR

Book Cover

Old bones and old grudges in contemporary Havana.

In this, his 20th, DeMille (Radiant Angel, 2015, etc.)
deftly drops Daniel “Mac” MacCormick, captain of The Maine, a 42-foot sport fisherman out of Key West, into a storm
of competing visions of Cuba’s future. When a trio of Cubans and
Cuban-Americans, Carlos Macia, Eduardo Valazquez, and the lovely Sara Ortega,
offer him a small fortune to participate in a scheme to recover documents and
cash hidden in a cave during the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Mac is tempted and
succumbs to both avarice and lust for Sara. The plan is to infiltrate Mac and
Sara into Cuba as part of an educational tour under the auspices of Yale
University (and some fun is had at the expense of the Elis). The two will break
away from the tour, recover the money and documents, meet The Maine, which will be participating in a fishing tournament down
the coast, and escape. Relations with Cuba are in flux; the exile community
rejects the notion of a “Cuban Thaw,” and the security services in Cuba also
resist the idea. But some in the U.S. promote a lessening of tensions, and some
in Cuba itself understand that the nation cannot survive without a quick
infusion of money and that the best hope is U.S. tourist dollars. The real
poverty of Cuba is clearly described, as are the conditions of the
infrastructure and the social climate. In spots the narrative seems to slog
through discursive observations, but they are mostly informative and
worthwhile, and then the plot picks up energy again. Though Mac and his mate
Jack Colby seem to share a somewhat adolescent obsession with “getting laid,”
they are stout fellows in a fight, and the thriller charts a satisfying course.

A good day’s work from an old pro.

KEEP HER SAFE

Book Cover

Overwhelmed by complications arising from her unplanned third
pregnancy, a Hertfordshire housewife flees her home for the comforts of an
upscale Arizona resort and lands smack in the middle of a fictionalization of
the JonBenét Ramsey case, which quickly swallows her up.

Patrick Burrows is a good provider and a good man, but he really
doesn’t want any more children. So Cara Burrows runs away from home—there’s no
better way to put it—and sinks a third of the family’s savings into a two-week
stay at the Swallowtail Resort and Spa, which feels like the capital of
“America: Land of Hyperbolic Overstatement.” In a place dedicated to fulfilling
her every whim, night clerk Riyonna Briggs accidentally gives her a key to the
wrong room, and the conversation she overhears from the bathroom she thinks is
her own plunges her into the case of Melody Chapa, whose parents were convicted
of her murder in Philadelphia seven years ago even though her body was never
found. Cara becomes convinced that the girl she overheard is Melody, and she’s
not the only one: regular guest Lilith McNair has been announcing sightings of
Melody every year even though nobody pays any attention. Will anyone pay
attention to Cara? Tearful Riyonna is no help; the rest of the Swallowtail
staff treats Cara to a series of simpering brushoffs; and Lilith McNair seems
even crazier in their sole one-on-one conversation. Only sharp-tongued florist
Tarin Fry and Zellie, her daughter and sparring partner, take Cara seriously,
and their interest doesn’t prevent either Riyonna or Cara from vanishing as
competing parties—the variously compromised local cops, the FBI, the TV host
of Justice with Bonnie who played a key role in getting Naldo
and Annette Chapa convicted all those years ago—paw the ground and look
accusingly at each other while Cara’s peril deepens.

Hannah (Closed Casket, 2016, etc.) continues her quest to identify all
the reassuring certitudes mystery novels take for granted and demonstrate how
much fun it is to toss them overboard. There’s no point in objecting to the
coincidences and implausibilities required to launch this brilliant nightmare:
resistance is futile.