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Fiction Reviews: Week of 4/21/2008

-- Publishers Weekly, 4/21/2008

The Road Home
Rose Tremain. Little, Brown, $24.99 (432p) ISBN 978-0-316-00261-5

Tremain (Restoration) turns in a low-key but emotionally potent look at the melancholia of migration for her 14th book. Olev, a 42-year-old widower from an unnamed former east bloc republic, is taking a bus to London, where he imagines every man resembles Alec Guinness and hard work will be rewarded by wealth. He has left behind a sad young daughter, a stubborn mother and the newly shuttered sawmill where he had worked for years. His landing is harsh: the British are unpleasant, immigrants are unwelcome, and he's often overwhelmed by homesickness. But Lev personifies Tremain's remarkable ability to craft characters whose essential goodness shines through tough, drab circumstances. Among them are Lydia, the fellow expatriate; Christy, Lev's alcoholic Irish landlord who misses his own daughter; and even the cruelly demanding Gregory, chef-proprietor of the posh restaurant where Lev first finds work. A contrived but still satisfying ending marks this adroit émigré's look at London. (Aug.)

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows. Dial, $22 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-34099-1

The letters comprising this small charming novel begin in 1946, when single, 30-something author Juliet Ashton (nom de plume “Izzy Bickerstaff”) writes to her publisher to say she is tired of covering the sunny side of war and its aftermath. When Guernsey farmer Dawsey Adams finds Juliet's name in a used book and invites articulate—and not-so-articulate—neighbors to write Juliet with their stories, the book's epistolary circle widens, putting Juliet back in the path of war stories. The occasionally contrived letters jump from incident to incident—including the formation of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society while Guernsey was under German occupation—and person to person in a manner that feels disjointed. But Juliet's quips are so clever, the Guernsey inhabitants so enchanting and the small acts of heroism so vivid and moving that one forgives the authors (Shaffer died earlier this year) for not being able to settle on a single person or plot. Juliet finds in the letters not just inspiration for her next work, but also for her life—as will readers. (Aug.)

Gerard Woodward. Norton, $14.95 paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-393-33271-1

Shortlisted for the Whitbread in 2001, Woodward's novel is the first in a trilogy focusing on the expansive, deeply troubled Jones family. (The books have been published out of sequence in the U.S.) An accident on a Welsh bicycling tour in 1955 leads Aldous Jones to discover the farm that will be the site of subsequent holidays. Every summer that follows, Aldous pitches tents for his rapidly burgeoning young family in the pastures of the good-natured, seemingly unchangeable Evans family, which serves as an annual mirror for the Joneses. Alas, Jones family life, despite its simple joys of mountain climbing, practical jokes and bicycling, is not nearly so idyllic as among the Evans clan. Eldest Jones son Janus, a brilliant pianist, develops dark fixations and antisocial tendencies. Aldous's wife, Colette, originally a vivacious, nurturing mother, rapidly descends into drug use. Quiet, unassuming Aldous, the figure at the eye of so much drama, becomes the novel's most compelling character only near its anticlimactic, elegiac end. Woodward's vision of family life is bleak indeed; although tempered by moments of levity, whimsy and descriptions of the lovely landscape, the narrative is virtually devoid of solace or redemption, finding only heartbreak in familial evolution. (Aug.)

The Defenestration of Bob T. Hash III
David Deans. Random, $22 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4000-6700-8

This whimsical but disappointing debut provides a Kafkaesque metamorphosis, but in reverse. Bob T. Hash III is a family man and publisher of illustrated grammar books. While he attends a business conference, his place is taken by his African gray parrot, Comenius. The former parrot has no trouble fitting into Bob's life: sex with Bob's wife, Matilda; playing games with his three children, Betsy, Jane and Bobby; and being kowtowed to at work by Bob's obsequious employees are delightful to parrot-Bob—which they weren't to Bob. The parrot's biggest challenge comes in figuring out what to do with the latest iteration of Forward with English!, a grammar book that has been subversively edited by a bored Bob (and of which sample chapters are interspersed in the narrative). How Bob the parrot rectifies the real Bob's acts of grammatical sabotage and falls in love with Matilda form the core of this fitfully amusing, farcical fantasy. But the sendups of educational texts, corporate culture and suburban life leave the book nowhere near as fun as it should be. (Aug.)

Art in America
Ron McLarty. Viking, $25.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-670-01895-6

Ambitious and consistently charming, this overstuffed third novel by the author of The Memory of Running is brimming with gems of richly observed smalltown life. In Creedemore, Colo., a land-rights dispute pitches locals against one another and attracts national media attention. Into the fray arrives Steven Kearney, a prolific New York author of unpublished novels, poems and plays, who has been invited by the Creedemore Historical Society to write and direct a play dramatizing the town's history. Steven's relocation sparks a colorful fish-out-of-water story populated with cowboys, environmental activists, hordes of reporters, performance artists, ecoterrorists and bona fide outlaws. Keeping the peace is sheriff Petey Myers, whose recollections of (and occasional conversations with) his slain partner provide some of the novel's finest moments. Sparkling, at times hilarious dialogue keeps many—perhaps too many—subplots moving. The depth of characters like Steven and Petey is contrasted by some of the minor characters, who can come off as stereotypes. Still, readers will root for the residents of Creedemore as they alternately divide over a trial and come together to stage the new play. (July)

The Other
David Guterson. Knopf, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-307-26315-5

Guterson (Snow Falling on Cedars) runs out of gas mulling the story of two friends who take divergent paths toward lives of meaning. A working-class teenager in 1972 Seattle, Neil Countryman, a “middle of the pack” kind of guy and the book's contemplative narrator, befriends trust fund kid John William Barry—passionate, obsessed with the world's hypocrisies and alarmingly prone to bouts of tears—over a shared love of the outdoors. Guterson nicely draws contrasts between the two as they grow into adulthood: Neil drifts into marriage, house, kids and a job teaching high school English, while John William pulls an Into the Wild, moving to the remote wilderness of the Olympic Mountains and burrowing into obscure Gnostic philosophy. When John William asks for a favor that will sever his ties to “the hamburger world” forever, loyal Neil has a decision to make. Guterson's prose is calm and pleasing as ever, but applied to Neil's staid personality it produces little dramatic tension. Once the contrasts between the two are set up, the novel has nowhere to go, ultimately floundering in summary and explanation. (June)

Beijing Coma
Ma Jian. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27 (592p) ISBN 978-0-374-11017-8

The outcome of this bleak, wrenching generational saga from Ma Jian (Stick Out Your Tongue and The Noodle Maker) is known from early on: the politicization of Dai Wei, a diligent molecular biology Ph.D. student at Beijing University, ends in Tiananmen Square with a bullet striking him in the head. As the book opens, Dai Wei is just waking from a coma that has continued over 10 years following the June 4, 1989, massacre—still apparently unconscious, but actually aware of his surroundings. The narrative then alternates between Dai Wei's very conscious observations as a nonresponsive ''vegetable'' over the years of his coma, and his childhood and student life. Ma Jian evokes the horrors of an oppressive regime in minute, gruesome detail, particularly in quotidian scenes of his mother's attempts to care for Dai Wei, which eventually lead her to a member of the banned Falun Gong movement. The book's behind-the-scenes portrayal of the nascent student movement hinges on repetitious ideological bickering and sexual power plays. Lengthy expositions of Dai Wei's condition slow the book further, but Ma Jian achieves startling effects through Dai Wei's dispassionate narration, making one man's felled body a symbol of lost possibility. (June)

A Patent Lie
Paul Goldstein. Doubleday, $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-385-51718-8

Goldstein, a Stanford law professor and intellectual property expert, delivers on the promise of his thriller debut, Errors and Omissions (2006), with this outstanding sequel. Michael Seeley, who's living in seclusion in Buffalo, N.Y., agrees at his estranged brother's urging to travel to San Francisco to take on a patent infringement case that Vaxtek, a small company, is bringing against St. Gall, a Swiss pharmaceutical giant, over an AIDS vaccine. Robert Pearsall, the lead plaintiff's attorney, apparently committed suicide on the eve of trial. Surprised that Pearsall, known for his meticulous preparation, didn't depose Lily Warren, a St. Gall employee who claimed to have invented the vaccine, Seeley pursues that loose end, only to find that Warren's version of events raises questions about not only Seeley's clients but also his predecessor's death. In lean prose, Goldstein masterfully portrays the intricate courtroom maneuvering and the ethical dilemmas of trial attorneys. Scott Turow fans will welcome this complex protagonist. (June)

The Remnant
Chris Kenneally. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $25 (320p) ISBN 978-1-933648-87-3

Andrew Greeley meets Robert Ludlum with mixed results in this erratically paced thriller from retired Irish Catholic priest Kenneally (Second Son). Fr. Michael Flaherty, soon after his reassignment from Ireland to upstate New York, gets inexplicably transferred to Rome, where he becomes an unwitting pawn in a looming religious civil war involving a dying pope and ruthless bishops. A secret cabal of ultraconservative clerics have vowed to remove the church's liberal advocates “with the steel of the Crusaders and the fire of the Inquisition.” Kenneally's narrative voice is as knowledgeable as it is forceful when he describes the Vatican as “a theatre of war” and the supreme pontiff's restricted role (“There are convicts in Roman prisons who are freer than the Pope”). Some readers, however, may have trouble with the decidedly nonlinear story line and an ensemble of two-dimensional characters with no clear protagonist. (June)

No One Tells Everything
Rae Meadows. MacAdam/Cage, $23 (330p) ISBN 978-1-59692-292-1; $13 paper ISBN 978-1-59692-294-5

Two lost souls establish a tenuous bond in Meadows's intriguing tale of an aimless copy editor and a hapless murder suspect. When a female student at Emeryville, a small Long Island, N.Y., college, goes missing, a would-be suitor and fellow student, Charles Raggatt, is arrested and confesses to her murder. The sensational crime strikes a chord with Grace, a copy editor at a weekly Long Island news magazine, who becomes obsessed with the case, especially after she discovers that Charles, like she, is originally from a Cleveland suburb. Though Grace is convinced that there's more to the story than the public is being told, alternating points of view leave the reader in little doubt about Charles's guilt. Meadows (Calling Out) artfully sketches the growing relationship between the pair that starts with letters, then phone calls and a visit. There's a moving irony in this forging of a potentially redemptive friendship in the aftermath of a brutal murder. (June)

House Rules
Mike Lawson. Atlantic Monthly, $22 (368p) ISBN 978-0-87113-983-2

At the start of Lawson's snappy third thriller starring congressional snoop Joe DeMarco (after The Second Perimeter), a series of three failed attempts by Muslim terrorists to attack Washington, D.C.—one by plane, one by car, one by lone suicide bomber—causes nationwide panic. DeMarco wades into the mess when his boss, House Speaker John Mahoney, asks him to check out the possibility that the terrorist onslaught may have been more homegrown than it appears. Quickly appearing on DeMarco's radar is a suspicious, high-profile piece of anti-Islamic legislation, pushed by the blowhard junior senator from Virginia, that's on the fast track for approval. While the efficient plot takes some predictable turns, Lawson's engaging characters, with DeMarco leading the pack, come across as seriously flawed individuals trying to navigate a political world of high demands and constant distractions. Full of insider information, this novel reinforces Lawson's place in the upper rank of Washington thriller specialists. (June)

The Disorder of Longing
Natasha Bauman. Putnam, $24.95 (432p) ISBN 978-0-399-15495-9

In Bauman's overwrought debut, 1890s Bostonian Ada Pryce longs to escape the restrictions of a sexually frustrating, socially constricting marriage with tyrannical Edward, a gentleman hobbyist. Though he is an advocate of “Karezza” (spiritual purity through sexual deprivation), Edward can't suppress Ada's physical desire, first unleashed in a premarital affair with her college Shakespeare professor, nor can he rein in her intellectual tendencies, encouraged by friends but frowned upon by Ada's Boston society matron mother. When Edward brings home a trio of orchid hunters—William Parrish, Walter Kebble and Jao da Cunha—opportunity for an Amazonian adventure knocks at Ada's door. Bauman's spirited heroine, range of settings and intimate knowledge of turn-of-the-century society impress, but they get smothered in descriptions of sexual dissatisfaction and rhapsodies on the erotic beauty of exotic plants. The overripe language may be meant to dramatize Ada's unrequited passions, but the humidity makes for more squish than swoon. (June)

Dinosaurs on the Roof
David Rabe. Simon & Schuster, $26 (496p) ISBN 978-1-4165-6405-8

In his entertaining second novel, Obie Award–winning playwright Rabe (In the Boom Boom Room ) presents an overly eventful day-in-the-life of two women in smalltown Iowa. Elderly Bernice Doorley is convinced that in the company of Reverend Tauke and his followers, she will be on her way to heaven that evening, which, according to the reverend, is when the rapture is due to arrive. Bernice's main concern is who will take care of her beloved pets, particularly her old dog, General. On the outs with daughter Irma, Bernice turns to Janet Cawley, the eccentric daughter of her recently deceased friend, whose days revolve around jogging, drinking and sleeping with her married boyfriend. Bernice waits in her best outfit to be beamed up; Janet, meanwhile, has other adventures with a former student (she was a fourth-grade teacher). Serious topics like spirituality and mother-daughter relationships get an airing in this satire of American excess, but the proceedings end up increasingly contrived. (June)

Gail Jones. Europa (Consortium, dist.), $15.95 paper (240p) ISBN 978-1-933372-55-6

The resilient daughter of a doomed, loveless couple narrates the luminous third novel from Australian Jones (Sixty Lights). Perdita Keene recalls her childhood as the Australian-born daughter of a British anthropologist and his wife, who come to the outback in 1930 for Perdita's WWI-veteran father Nicholas's fieldwork. Perdita is unwanted, and her mother, Stella, withdraws. Nicholas forces himself sexually on the local Aboriginal women. Among his victims is an orphaned teenager, Mary, who is brought from the local convent to take care of Perdita when Stella is hospitalized. Mary and Perdita develop a close, sisterly relationship as Mary teaches Perdita indigenous wisdom that is a far cry from what Stella and her beloved Shakespeare impart. Nicholas's violence precipitates a tragedy, and the expiation of Perdita's long-held guilt, for her father's crimes among other things, edifies this beautifully composed work. (June)

Danielle Steel. Delacorte, $27 (320p) ISBN 978-0-385-34025-0

Romance titan Steel doctors up a familiar formula with fresh results. Having had just about enough of the gadabout ways of dot-com millionaire and perpetual Peter Pan, Blake Williams, Maxine, 42, divorced him five years ago and is raising their three children (ages 13, 12 and six) while running a thriving psychiatric practice specializing in childhood trauma and adolescent suicide. Blake, meanwhile, is continent-hopping among houses in London, Morocco and New York, bedding nubile young things. Maxine and Blake have remained friends, but when a horrific teen suicide case leads Maxine to meet doctor and childless divorcé Charles West, she finally falls for the type of man she thinks she's always wanted: serious, responsible and a bit stuffy. A disaster makes Blake rethink his lifestyle, however, and Maxine suddenly has a choice to make. While Steel never locks in on her characters' emotions, she keeps the pages turning and offers a satisfying twist at book's end that most readers won't see coming. (June)

How to Be Single
Liz Tuccillo. Atria, $24.95 (354p) ISBN 978-1-4165-3412-9

The sassy coauthor of He's Just Not That into You and former executive story editor for Sex and the City stays on familiar ground for her energetic fiction debut. It follows the dating lives of five single New York women, one of whom, narrator Julie, is writing a book about how bachelorettes across the world manage. A Yahoo-sponsored trip sent Tuccillo traveling the world interviewing women in preparation for her novel; Julie embarks on a similar journey while her four friends duke it out on the New York dating scene. The subsequent stories of courtship, marriage and romantic expectations from Julie's travels are revealing and compelling, but the narrator's interviews quickly give way to her own international affair. The friends back home engage in familiar behavior: the postdivorce fling, the forbidden workplace romance, the comfortable but boring relationship and the quirky pet as substitute-boyfriend. The women's plucky points-of-view are nicely intermingled, with Julie as the woman who ties them all together in Carrie-like fashion. Occasional shifts to issues like poverty in India, however, work against the book's strengths. (June)

David J. Schwartz. Three Rivers, $14.95 paper (384p) ISBN 978-0-307-39440-8

Schwartz borrows heavily from classic comic books in this eager-to-please but unsatisfying debut. After five college friends wake up after a night of partying to discover they have superpowers, they band together as the All Stars, supernatural crime fighters straight out of Madison, Wis. From there, the plot packs few surprises: the team—Charlie, Jack, Harriet, Mary Beth and Caroline—embark on dozens of good Samaritan adventures. While it's entertaining enough (in a pulpy way) for a while, characters remain mostly static, and the narrative never attains any sort of urgency, so that by the time 9/11 comes into play—and, regrettably, it does—the text reads like an ill-considered parody. (June)

Lucia Nevai. Tin House, $14.95 paper (240p) ISBN 978-0-9794198-3-6

Nevai's subtly barbed latest (following Seriously) portrays the secret agonies of an Iowa girl rescued from neglect by a loving foster family. Born in 1950 to a half-Indian prostitute living in a squatter's shack with a married “evangelist and healer” and his wife, Crane Cavanaugh suffers the disfigurement of her mother's attempted abortion as well as the privations of being unwanted and poor. Along with her devoted older half-siblings, Jima and Little Duck, she manages to scrape by: a kindly developer, Sam Fanelli, who is transforming farmland into postwar suburbia, feeds the children from his lunchbox. Eventually seized by the state, separated from her siblings and farmed out to a childless Methodist couple, Crane's identity changes completely—a change that is the crux of the book's meditation on chance, identity and circumstance. With skillful, wicked irony, Nevai poignantly evokes Crane's desperate childhood and fragile transformation, and creates a cast of sympathetic, memorable grotesques. (June)

Candy Everybody Wants
Josh Kilmer-Purcell. Harper Perennial, $13.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-06-133696-6

Memoirist Kilmer-Purcell (I Am Not Myself These Days) tells the sad tale of wannabe TV star Jayson Blocher, a suburban high school student in the 1980s Midwest. After writing and starring in his home-shot, gay coming-of-age soap, Dallasty! Jayson sets his sights on Hollywood. A rogue Dallasty! screening sets off pandemonium, so Jayson's alcoholic mother sends Jayson to his father, which leads to a seamy romp through the gay semicelebrity scene of New York and L.A as AIDS emerges. And when Jayson actually does get his big Hollywood break, it is no surprise that his connection to his mother deteriorates further. Kilmer-Purcell certainly has interesting and tough-minded things to say about being young, gay and celebrity-obsessed in the 1980s, but the characters aren't strong enough to withstand the rollicking plot. (June)

The Foreigner
Francie Lin. Picador, $14 paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-36404-5

In Lin's stunning debut, a crime novel set in Taiwan, Emerson Chang, a 40-year-old virgin who's a financial analyst, travels from San Francisco to Taipei on a quest to scatter his mother's ashes and re-establish contact with his shady younger brother, Little P, who's been bequeathed the family hotel. At a meeting with Little P, Chang encounters two peculiar cousins, Poison and Big One, as well as Little P's devious friend, Li An-Qing (aka Atticus), who's anxious to get Little P to sell the family hotel to him. Emerson soon finds himself mixed up in machinations involving Atticus and extortion due to Little P's unsavory dealings. In addition, Emerson loses his job back in California, and the property he's inherited in Taipei turns out to have its own mysteries. Chang's distinctive voice propels a strong and original plot, with horrifying revelations. Taut, smart and often funny, this novel will satisfy readers of thrillers and general fiction alike. (June)

Paul Carson. St. Martin's, $24.95 (384p) ISBN 978-0-312-36711-4

Clichéd prose mars this tale of revenge from Irish author Carson (Betrayal). Scott Nolan, a mild-mannered American doctor who's recently moved to Dublin, and his adored wife, Laura (she of the “dancing blue eyes that mocked and taunted”), enjoy a wonderful life filled with love (“They kissed, long and lovingly, wet and hungrily”). When Laura is shot dead in an ambush aimed at Ireland's antidrug-crusading justice minister, Harry Power, Scott enlists the help of his Irish cop brother-in-law, Mark Higgins, to find and kill the mastermind behind the attack. Ireland's senior police officer, Commissioner Peter Cunningham, and Power agree to a secret plan whereby Scott uses his medical skills to extort information from drug dealers he and Higgins kidnap in their effort to track down the villain. The modern Dublin setting may interest U.S. readers who otherwise will find the writing itself out-of-date. (June)

Bobbie Faye's (Kinda, Sorta, Not Exactly) Family Jewels
Toni McGee Causey. St. Martin's Griffin, $13.95 paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-312-35450-3

The folks of Lake Charles, La., are still recovering from Bobbie Faye Sumrall's first explosive adventure, Bobbie Faye's (Very, Very, Very) Bad Day (2007), when Francesca Despré, Bobbie Faye's cousin, demands her assistance in recovering valuable diamonds Francesca's eccentric artist mother, Marie, hid before vanishing in this rollicking sequel. Supposedly, Emile, Marie's estranged husband, has put a hit out on Marie in the event the diamonds aren't recovered. The Department of Homeland Security is also interested—ditto assorted international criminals. Reluctant to get involved, Bobbie Faye winds up getting abducted by some thugs and is later rescued by the dashing Trevor Cormier, an undercover FBI agent. Meanwhile, Det. Cameron Moreau, Bobbie Faye's old boyfriend, investigates the shooting of a local jeweler that could land Bobby Faye in jail. Though the pace is almost too fast and frantic, Causey's masterful depiction of Cajun country and Bobbie Faye's irrepressible spirit redeem this colorful caper. (June)

I Kill
Giorgio Faletti, trans. from the Italian by Muriel Jorgensen, Lenore Rosenberg and Antony Shugaar. Baldini Castoldi Dalai (IPG, dist.), $24.95 (595p) ISBN 978-8-8607-3295-8

Personal tragedies affect almost everyone involved in Faletti's well-constructed serial killer novel set in glitzy Monte Carlo. FBI agent Frank Ottobre is recovering in Monaco from his wife's death by visiting his friend police commissioner Nicolas Hulot when the first deaths occur, of an American race car driver and the celebrated driver's chess champion girlfriend. Ottobre is soon drawn into a baffling case where the killer goads police with untraceable phone calls to Jean-Loup Verdier, the principality's most popular radio host, before each murder. As the victim count mounts, so does the suspense in this fine cat-and-mouse game of skill and subtlety. A smooth translation and several intriguing subplots, one of which features a powerful American general intent on vigilante justice, keep the pace moving briskly, despite the unusual length. First published in Italy in 2002, this winning novel marks Milan-based publisher Baldini Castoldi Dalai's entry into the U.S. market. (June)

Mark Schorr. St. Martin's Minotaur/Dunne, $24.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-312-35916-4

When an FBI raid on a White People's Freedom Party stronghold near Portland, Ore., leaves two agents dead in Schorr's uneven follow-up to Borderline (2006), agent Louise Parker takes the blame. On forced administrative leave, Louise turns to psychotherapist Brian Hanson, a Vietnam vet, for solace. When the pair learn that Arnold Beil, a skinhead felon on the FBI's Most Wanted list, escaped capture during the botched raid and Louise receives a series of mysterious packages, she and Brian suspect Biel has a new target. Cut off from the FBI, Louise begins her own investigation that sends her and Brian into the underground worlds of hackers and white supremacy groups. After someone plants a homemade bomb in her car, Louise and Brian realize that Biel may not be the only threat. Underdeveloped characters with little chemistry and neo-Nazis who are more stereotypical than chilling disappoint in a thriller that starts promisingly but winds up more confusing than entertaining. (June)

Hardcore Hardboiled
Edited by Todd Robinson. Kensington,$14 paper (320p) ISBN 978-0-7582-2266-4

Drawn from Robinson's online magazine Thuglit, these 25 mostly solid crime stories will largely appeal to those with a taste for explicit violence. (For others, one description of mutilated genitalia is likely to be more than enough.) The best entries rely on subtlety and spare character portraits to make their point, like Mike MacClean's “McHenry's Gift,” the account of a drug runner's legacy with a vicious twist at the end that O. Henry might have appreciated. Dark humor propels Duane Swierczynski's satirical “The Replacement,” in which a drunk driver is sentenced to live out the life of his victim. Bill Fitzhugh's “The Neighbors,” about post-9/11 hysteria in California, does a nice job of playing off readers' expectations. In contrast, Vinnie Penn's “Trim,” a predictable and gory tale of revenge, makes an impression solely because of its gross-out factor. As Otto Penzler cautions in his introduction, this anthology is not for the fainthearted. (June)

Dark Horse
Ralph Reed. S&S/Howard, $19.99 (448p) ISBN 978-1-4165-7649-5

For Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition, politics is a man's world to its very core—especially when it comes to the race for president, which is at the center of this first novel. Women characters are either wives with drinking problems, tarts who use sex to get ahead professionally (but not that far) or VP candidates chosen purely for show, who are belittled behind the scenes for lack of experience and “lightweight” intelligence. Democrats are drunks who play dirty and bloody each other's noses. Cue the white knight—Gov. Bob Long, newly come to Christ, a true independent candidate—to save the day, rock both parties' worlds and remind the country about good values and the meaning of patriotism. Long is God's candidate, and with Christian leaders taking his side, he just might trump Republicans and Democrats alike. Reed's prose is average for a potboiling political thriller, and the crisis-laden plot keeps the pages turning, but the novel's specifically Christian agenda will satisfy some readers and alienate others. (June)

Washington's Lady: A Novel
Nancy Moser. Bethany House, $13.99 paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-7642-0500-2

Popular historical novelist Moser (Mozart's Sister; Just Jane) turns to Martha Custis Washington in an uncharacteristically slow, unimaginative tale. Moser opens with the death of Martha's first husband and her subsequent marriage to George. When the Revolution commences, Martha is forced to flee Mount Vernon, and Loyalist newspapers claim that she has abandoned the Patriot cause. Moser, who cut her literary teeth on Christian fiction, depicts religious faith throughout: we see Martha attending church, offering up the occasional prayer, devotedly loving her husband and caring for her children. The description of the death of her daughter, Patsy, is especially moving. The novel focuses on the Washingtons' early marriage and experiences during the war. After the Revolution ends, Moser briefly describes George's election as president, and then fast-forwards 11 years to his death. Unfortunately, the novel lacks a real plot; there is no central conflict that demands resolution. The historical details—such as Lafayette's joining the family as “another son”—are accurate enough, but Moser never fully plunges readers into an earlier world. (June)

Odd Hours
Dean Koontz. Bantam, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-553-80705-9

Quirky humor and an endearing narrative voice lift bestseller Koontz's winning fourth Odd Thomas novel (after Brother Odd), set in the small California community of Magic Beach (whose motto is “Everyone a Neighbor, Every Neighbor a Friend”). Thomas, a 21-year-old fry cook, takes his prophetic dreams or visions, which often foretell trouble, very seriously. When three male thugs approach Thomas and Annamaria, a pregnant friend of his, on a lonely pier, he finds that physical contact with one of the men triggers his fiery nightmares. Thomas's chivalric impulses soon put his life at risk, and when he finds that his adversaries are ostensibly employees of the town's beach department, he must work to stave off disaster without the assistance of the local authorities, some of whom have conspired with terrorists to smuggle nuclear weapons into the country. Sensitive portrayals of minor characters whose lives Thomas touches are a plus. (May 20)


Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography
Stanley Plumly. Norton, $25.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-393-06573-2

The great English poet John Keats (1795–1821) wrote his last complete poems in the fall of 1819; already ill from tuberculosis, he traveled to Italy with his friend Joseph Severn in a doomed attempt to get well, and died in Rome after a year of getting worse. The prolific and widely honored poet Plumly (Old Heart) offers seven informative, overlapping chapters that consider aspects, consequences and echoes from that sad last year of Keats's life. Plumly discusses artists' portraits of the poet (among them Severn's arresting deathbed sketch). He examines the lives and motives of the people closest to Keats, such as the faithful Severn (who outlived the poet by decades), the perhaps faithless (but perhaps not) Charles Brown and Keats's fiancée, Fanny Brawne. He considers Keats's love letters, Keats's medical training, Keatsian and Shelleyan landmarks in Rome, the fate of Keats's manuscripts and, finally, Keats's sense of his own life, as bound up in the poems. Plumly's linked essays incorporate old-school scholarship, but never seem dry or academic in the bad sense: the result feels “personal” indeed, if never autobiographical. At times Plumly seems unsure for whom he is writing. At other times, though, his unstinting admiration and evocative prose promise to create Keatsians yet unknown. (May)

What Love Comes To: New and Selected Poems
Ruth Stone. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $32 (380p) ISBN 978-1-55659-271-3

Many of Stone's loyal readers may know only her most recent, and most celebrated, works: the National Book Award–winning In the Next Galaxy (2002), and its immediate prequels, which present a poet of wisdom and experience in clear, compact free verse. For this late-life writer, who will turn 93 this year and is the state poet of Vermont, “clotheslines/ where the laundry lashes the bitter air” present a “microcosm of the world.” This wry and thoughtful poet, akin sometimes to Stanley Kunitz, sometimes to Grace Paley, appears again in the many new poems here, whose raw moments are a small price to pay for their power: “I am complicated,” she writes, “and yet, how simple is my verse.” But the real news is found in the selections from Stone's earlier books—beginning in 1959, but especially with Topography (1971) and Cheap (1975), which may stun younger readers with their sheer variety. There are transcribed speeches from working-class lives, nursery rhyme couplets of uncanny force, angry political allegories and explorations of second-wave feminism—in short, the evidence of an ambitious career, one that has been not only long, but full of constant change. (May)

The Pear as One Example: New and Selected Poems
Eric Pankey. Ausable (Consortium, dist.), $16 paper (282p) ISBN 978-1-931337-39-7

Serious, even solemn, in his meditations on appearance and reality, dejection, consolation, selfhood and grief, Pankey's seven earlier books won the sustained respect of sophisticated readers. This first retrospective volume shows both the consistency of his self-scrutinizing tone and the ways in which, for him, a change of line and form changed everything. His free verse adagios of the 1980s emphasized personal epiphanies; Apocrypha (1991) brought the rhythms and the diction of Wallace Stevens to Pankey's engagement with Christian belief. More recent works such as Reliquaries (2005) pursued the details of the visible world and the vicissitudes of meditation in longer lines reminiscent of Charles Wright: “I say a prayer for the world,” Pankey intones, “and in the midst lose my place/ Amid the winter garden, the rain garden,/ the minor chord/ Of seasons.” There and in 25 new poems—among them elegies, seasonal odes and associative “self-portraits”—Pankey works hard to bring together his abstract intensities with his desire to live in the here and now: “Soon enough the word// Incarnates as a burnished body.... The stop-gap stitches where the narrative frays.” Many will continue to find such speculations profound. (May)

Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond
Edited by Tina Chang, Nathalie Handal and Ravi Shankar. Norton, $24.95 (760p) ISBN 978-0-393-33238-4

This ambitious yet accessible gathering of hundreds of poets from various parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, America and elsewhere is likely to excite poetry fans as well as those new to poetry. Seeking a response to 9/11, the three editors, who are poets and teachers of Asian-American descent, hoped to share “an alternate vision of the new century in which words, not weapons, could define our civilization.” Divided into nine idiosyncratic sections—with titles like “Bowl of Air and Shivers” that cover topics including Eros and the meeting of the political and the personal—the book is more an esoteric journey than a systematic reference. Readers may recognize the names of major international figures (Nazim Hikmet, Taha Muhammad Ali) and famous American writers (Michael Ondaatje, Li-Young Lee), who may draw attention to many writers unknown in the U.S., such as Hsien Min Toh of Singapore, who, upon seeing sport hunters shooting crows, awakens to an all-too-familiar ambivalence about “my unkind nation, in whose name only I will be/ able to walk up the lane with lowered head.” While the book's sheer size can be overwhelming, it is packed with treasures. (Apr.)

Rising, Falling, Hovering
C.D. Wright. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $22 (112p) ISBN 978-1-55659-273-7

In her first collection of new lyric poems since 2003, Wright braids some of her most personal and intimate poetry to date with an extended meditation on the consequences of America's contemporary stance toward other countries. Short, elliptical lyrics, featuring Wright's trademark repetition of lines and sharp wit, which interrogate their own speaker and a companion (“She is not really hearing what he's really saying”) flank the two-part title piece, a long poem that is a travelogue of a trip to Mexico at the beginning of the current war in Iraq. Everywhere the shell-shocked speaker goes, she finds people “mesmerized// by the new media-borne war,” while she feels “Ashamed of her solace in being here” because, now more than ever, “to be ashamed is to be American.” As the lines blur between tourism and empire, and as images and impressions accrue (“Whole new breed of dog born in every warren”), the poem's speaker also reflects on the safety and precariousness of her own family. This book displays a new level of social and personal consciousness for Wright (One Big Self), who characterizes the powerful ambivalence that now accompanies life in America, where injustice may be the price of freedom, and where “poetry/ doesn't/ protect/ you/ anymore.” (Apr.)

For All We Know
Ciaran Carson. Wake Forest Univ., $12.95 (120p) ISBN 978-1-930630-38-3

A contemporary of Paul Muldoon, Carson is one of the most well-known poets of his generation in the U.K. He is too little known here, though this ambitious new book may change that. Borrowing its structure in part from the repetitions and variations of the musical fugue, this collection enacts the ways the past, present and future are interwoven, as objects in hand—a watch, a pen, a dress—evoke memories of people and places—Paris, Berlin, Dresden—of the past. The poems—sets of long-lined couplets divided into two sections, so that each poem has a twin with the same title, for a total of 75 poems—follow a pair of lovers, one from Paris, the other from Northern Ireland, whose romance comes to a tragic end, having passed through the Irish Troubles (“We were sequestered in The Crown after the explosion”) and intrigues elsewhere in Europe (“You gave me to understand in a manner of speaking/ that you'd some longstanding unfinished business in Nevers”). As the voices in the poems—and the poems themselves—talk to each other, Carson dissolves the borders between one time and another, between the personal and the historical, seeking and evading the truth always with the awareness that “The lie is memorized, the truth is remembered.” (Apr.)

Selected Poems, 1970–2005
Floyd Skloot. Tupelo (Consortium, dist.), $17.95 (168p) ISBN 978-1-923195-59-0

Skloot's reputation for quiet warmth and mellifluous rhymes—on display in poems about his elderly parents, his growing (now grown) daughter and the green slopes and rivers of his rural Oregon—are peculiarly hard-won clarities: during the late 1980s, in the same years that his verse first gained some fame, a rare virus attacked his brain. Ever since, Skloot has suffered from—and described, in poems and a memoir, The Shadow of Memory—cognitive and mnemonic impairments that interfere with his daily life. Skloot's demotic language and his focus on pathos will remind some readers of William Stafford, others of former laureate Ted Kooser, as when, over bowls of soup, “steam... rose like the past made whole.” As this cull from Skloot's five earlier volumes moves from the first (1994's Music Appreciation) to 2005's Approximately Paradise, the proportion of such lyric moments slowly recedes. Instead, the poems develop an increasing focus on the end of life: a startling diptych shows Skloot's ailing mother, while other pages depict writers, artists and composers, each one glimpsed near his death: Freud in London, Maurice Ravel with aphasia and the French composer Couperin “deep in the brief coda of his years.” (Apr.)

The Importance of Peeling Potatoes in Ukraine
Mark Yakich. Penguin, $18 (122p) ISBN 978-0-14-311333-1

This bold second collection is profane, political and humorous in its engagement with what it means to live, especially as a poet, in terrible times. A former National Poetry Series winner, Yakich (Unrelated Individuals Forming a Group Waiting to Cross) showcases a mixture of dark wit (in poems with titles like “Spell to Bring Me Osama Bin Laden”); clowning sorrow (“When I apply my manhood like makeup,/ Everything is at once promising/ and suspect”); strident opinions (“Let the mind worry/ about the logic. But don't // Forget to drag the body,/ As witness, through the sand”); and sociopolitical awareness (“What about a flag of bacon? Oh I would/ Not have the courage to fly it”). Private poems (on family, parenthood, sex, suicide) mediate between, and meditate on, the book's otherwise public focus, showing a softer side of Yakich's agile lyricism: “Paper,// Tell the tree/ I'm sorry.// Tree, tell/ The paper// My story.” (Apr.)

The Odyssey: A Dramatic Retelling of Homer's Epic
Simon Armitage. Norton, $14.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-0-393-33081-6

One of Britain's most successful poets, the versatile and clever Armitage follows up his translation of the medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” with this engaging and compulsively readable adaptation of Homer's epic, in which the wily sailor-hero Odysseus must outplay, outwit or outlast seductive nymphs, a malevolent enchantress, a one-eyed giant, and his own impious crew in order to reach his home island, his son and his faithful wife. Written for BBC radio, Armitage's version is not a translation of the ancient Greek epic, but rather a dramatic rendering, divided into scenes with parts (mostly in verse) for voice actors. Armitage delivers fast paced and decidedly contemporary language: Odysseus himself envisions “A freak wave cracking the keel of some poor sailing ship.... Just the Gods doing their thing.” The transformation of a tale about one man into exchanges among sets of characters can make things seem choppy early on, but it pays off when Odysseus reaches home and has to maintain his disguise until he can slaughter his wife's suitors. Armitage's play will entertain, if not enlighten, anyone interested in the fresh ways that Homer's story can be told. (Apr.)

Woods and Chalices
Tomaz Salamun, trans. from the Slovenian by Brian Henry and Tomaz Salamun. Harcourt, $22 (96p) ISBN 978-0-15-101425-5

Slovenian poet Salamun (The Book for My Brother) has become an influence, and a mentor, for plenty of young American poets. One reason lies in Salamun's postmodern mix of giddy and global with the earthy retrospect he takes from his homeland. Salamun (now a visiting professor, with associate professor Henry, at the University of Richmond) makes his new collection a whirlwind tour of sites and moods, naming locales from Persia to the Grajena River to the Pacific coast and riffing on the work of other poets from Walt Whitman to Mark Levine. Unrhymed sonnets and choppy stanzaic poems shuffle and deal among postsurrealist images, violent memories, sexual dreams: “Crystals are bedsprings, they have noddles/ in their robberies,” the poet decides in “Odessa,” while “In the Tent Among Grapes” begins: “Don't sneak me onto mountains, chicken. Don't verify/ your neighbor. You creep on my vaults.” The next-to-last, and most coherent, piece, “New York–Montreal Train, 24 January 1974,” seems to recall a visionary experience from the poet's own life: this record of a brush with bizarre immanence (“as if someone were dragging me/ through milk”) may help readers new to Salamun trust the disorientation to be found in much of his work. (Apr.)

King Baby
Lia Purpura. Alice James (Consortium, dist.), $14.95 paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-882295-68-5

Purpura's charming and mystifying third collection comprises a book-length sequence of attentive, rapturous untitled poems, most of them addressed to the titular figure, who becomes alternately a found doll, a missing child, a spiritual representative of childhood and a real infant to whom the poet gave birth. Purpura (On Looking) captures both the fierce love and the flighty weirdness of life with a baby, opting always for the symbolic and the surprising over the literal record: “Come. It's my birthday,” she writes, addressing both her readers, and her baby. “Make me over/ into a thing a tree could use, like light to drink.” Though some readers may feel lost, others should welcome how winter weather, fairy tale scenes and moments of bafflement (“You with a block of ice in your head”) keep Purpura unpredictable. One of the quieter, sweeter segments compares the poet-as-mother to a builder of playgrounds and to a bowerbird: “I went out for a walk to find a blue boat,” she says, “to remind you of home and having to go/ beyond the known, I did not find a boat/ but more blue things than I thought abound.” (Apr.)

Envelope of Night: Selected and Uncollected Poems, 1966–1990
Michael Burkard. Nightboat (SPD, dist.), $19.95 (382p) ISBN 978-0-976718-56-7

Poets whose principle source of inspiration is a well of deep sorrow, as Burkard's is, tend to avoid sentimentality either by tempering their feeling with formal rigor and stylistic complexity or else simply by rendering it too raw and frayed around the edges to be thought mawkish or soft. Rambling, hard-hitting, and sometimes downright bizarre (“I am hugging myself to death, declarative,/ ... like/ a moist nun”), Burkard most often takes the latter approach, but at his sharpest and best, he demonstrates how the two ways of keeping pathos in check can, in fact, cooperate: “I am so tired/ of disagreeing/ I almost want death/ once, twice/—want death to get it/ over with, over there/ here, light or not.” This retrospective gathers poems from five of Burkard's early books, 47 previously uncollected poems and a brief author's preface. While a greater selectiveness would have intensified the impact of this volume and many of the poems in it, Burkard probably shouldn't be read for the scrupulousness of his editing but for his appealing introspection, hard-won wisdom, dreamy turns, authentic emotionality and for the pleasure of encountering, here and there, those poems in which all his strengths—including rigor and complexity—come together. (Apr.)

My Zorba
Danielle Pafunda. Bloof (http://www.bloofbooks.com/) $15 (80p) ISBN 978-0-6151-9593-3

In Pafunda's fast-paced second collection, a ubiquitous imaginary friend/child named Zorba accompanies the book's wacky speaker through a series of misadventures and transformations. Pafunda (Pretty Young Thing) accumulates mystifying lists (“California bloodmoss, aphrodisiac, plenty”) and discomforting imagery (“The honeysuckle weeps like a lesion”) in an extended meditation on fertility. Read as “a pelvic/ diatribe” in which the female body is a “praise-shack” holding the promise of the “ovary of homestead,” these poems seek to locate the point at which the female body goes from human being to baby-making machine. Dehumanized, the female body in Pafunda's poems is as unstable and conditional as the poems themselves: “Zorba might argue that, for the third time in a year, I had/ become hysterically pregnant. Indeed, might I.” (Apr.)

It's Go in Horizontal: Selected Poems, 1974–2006
Leslie Scalapino. Univ. of California, $16.95 paper(258p) ISBN 978-0-520-25462-6; $45 cloth ISBN 978-0-520-25461-9

Most often classified with the language poets, Scalapino is shown in this welcome overview to have developed a distinctive idiom, as fresh and powerful here as when first published in 14 mostly small press editions. Scalapino fuses a richly detached Buddhist mindfulness with an algorithmically precise disjunctive syntax to explore sex, gender and violence—their politics and their moment-to-moment embodiedness. The longish, serial form that she favors works well in the selected format when the poems are presented in full. Highlights include the title piece from Considering how exaggerated music is (1982), which relates a set of attitudes toward others shocking in its blank frankness, and “The Floating Series,” from 1988's Way, which turns an act of intercourse into a stop-motion tour-de-force, as if filmed by Muybridge and analyzed by Lacan. Many other poems appear in excerpt, with results that can be frustrating—as with the poetically captioned photographs of Crowd or Not Evening or Light (1992) or “ 'Can't' Is 'Night' ” (from 2007's Day Ocean State of Stars' Night)—but only because one wants to see the works resolve. Readers of Bernadette Mayer, Alice Notley or Ai who haven't discovered Scalapino should use this volume to do so. (Apr.)


Hell Hole
Chris Grabenstein. St. Martin's Minotaur, $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-312-38230-8

John Ceepak and his rookie sidekick, Danny Boyle, of the Sea Haven, N.J., police force look into the apparent suicide of Cpl. Shareef Smith, an Iraqi war vet whose body is discovered in a men's room at a Garden State Parkway rest stop, in Grabenstein's entertaining fourth John Ceepak mystery (after 2007's Whack a Mole). The loose plot involves a group of local-yokel thieves, a major drug dealer, a squad of soldiers fresh from the Iraqi battlefields and a blowhard senator who's running for president. As ever, the fun derives chiefly from the comic byplay between Danny, who's young, inexperienced and interested in girls and beer, and Ceepak, a straight-shooter who speaks like a robot and adheres to a strict moral code (“I will not tolerate those who lie, cheat, or steal”). While some readers may find Danny's narrative voice a tad annoying, even the grumpiest won't be able to resist the occasional smile. (July)

Not in the Flesh: A Wexford Novel
Ruth Rendell. Crown, $25.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-307-40681-1

In bestseller Rendell's superb 21st Inspector Wexford mystery (after 2005's End in Tears), the British police detective investigates first one, then two male bodies that turn up on the old Grimble property in the insular hamlet of Flagford. Who were these men? Are their deaths related? Older people fill this wise and nuanced story—sleepy, bitter and disengaged—since no “current” crime is at stake, just these two literal skeletons from the past. Among the suspects in the bizarre case are dying fantasy novelist Owen Tredown, who lives with two loopy women, Claudia and Maeve, his divorced first and second wives, in a hideous Victorian manor. Outside groups—including members of the Somali community and itinerant fruit-pickers—tantalize with their secrets and idiosyncrasies. The suspense persists until the book's final sentences, when the last pieces of the puzzle click elegantly yet unexpectedly into place. (June)

Rules, Regs and Rotten Eggs
H.R.F. Keating. St. Martin's Minotaur/Dunne, $23.95 (272p) ISBN 978-0-312-37533-1

In British author Keating's underwhelming seventh Hard Detective mystery (after 2006's One Man and His Bomb), Birchester Det. Supt. Harriet Martens and her husband, John Piddock, witness a murder attempt in the course of an anti-hunting rally on Robert Roughouse, an ex-MP who vigorously defends the blood sport. As the only officer present, Martens secures the scene as best she can, and ends up heading the investigation. She soon finds evidence that the motive for the attack might be connected to Roughouse's role in his political party, the Innovation Party, and an old boys' network known as the Zealots. When he regains consciousness, Roughouse cryptically utters only the word “loyal,” but Martens makes little headway before a second, successful attempt is made on Roughouse's life. Keating's failure to make the stoic Martens an emotionally accessible character will be a drawback for many readers. (June)

A Prisoner of Memory and 24 of the Year's Finest Crime and Mystery Stories
Edited by Ed Gorman and Martin H. Greenberg. Pegasus (Norton, dist.), $15.95 paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-933648-80-4

Drawing more than half their selections from Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Gorman and Greenberg offer a star-studded lineup of crime and mystery stories published in 2007 in their latest anthology. Among the highlights are Jeffery Deaver's “Making Amends,” which plays a deadly twist on a popular TV sitcom; Sandra Scoppettone's “Everybody Loves Somebody,” which will fool most readers; and Doug Allyn's “Dead as a Dog,” which pits a harried husband against a deadly hunter. Other notable entries include Loren D. Estleman's “The Profane Angel,” about Hollywood legend Carole Lombard, and Brendan DuBois's “Country Manners,” in which a rural New Hampshire PI gives the FBI a lesson. Jon L. Breen provides a critical overview of the year, while Sarah Weinman, who chose four online stories for the volume, supplies a brief survey of online mysteries. (June)

Hell's Gate
Richard E. Crabbe. St. Martin's Minotaur/Dunne, $24.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-312-34159-6

Crabbe's third novel (after The Empire of Shadows and Suspension) links a pedestrian police investigation plot to New York City's worst pre-9/11 catastrophe, the 1904 fire aboard the steamship General Slocum, which claimed more than a thousand lives. The city is in the grip of numerous gangs, but Det. Sgt. Mike Braddock, the son of a legendary police captain, manages to throw a monkey wrench into their operations by disrupting a smuggling operation in the East River. One of the smugglers dies with the word “bottler” on his lips, giving Braddock a lead to pursue. A less-than-compelling subplot centers on Braddock's love interest, Ginny Caldwell, a prostitute who's forced to find new work after a run-in with a customer. The climax disappoints, despite the inherent drama of the General Slocum disaster. (June)

An Expert in Murder: A New Mystery Featuring Josephine Tey
Nicola Upson. Harper, $24.95 (304p) ISBN 978-0-06-145153-9

Mystery writer Josephine Tey (The Daughter of Time) makes a convincing sleuth in British author Upson's debut, the launch of a new whodunit series. On a train journey from Scotland to London in 1934, Tey meets a fan, Elspeth Simmons, who's traveling to the capital to attend a performance of Tey's hit play about Richard II. When Simmons is found brutally murdered—stabbed with a hatpin, posed with some dolls and partially shaved—after arrival at King's Cross, Tey's Scotland Yard friend, Insp. Archie Penrose, investigates and soon learns that the victim was adopted under irregular circumstances. After another death, the evidence suggests that both crimes are linked to a murder committed amid the devastating trench warfare of WWI. While the heroine falls conventionally into the killer's clutches before a solution many will anticipate, the engaging prose will leave even readers unfamiliar with Tey's fiction eagerly looking forward to the next in the series. (June)

Next Door to Murder
Anthea Fraser. Severn, $28.95 (224p) ISBN 978-0-7278-6614-1

In Fraser's leisurely sixth Rona Parrish cozy (after 2007's Rogue in Porcelain), the freelance journalist and her artist husband, Max Allerdyce, are used to knowing little about the tenants who come and go at the four-story Georgian house next door to their own in Marsborough. But when a reserved couple, Barbara and Keith Franks, and their adult daughter, Louise, become their new neighbors, Rona is intrigued to learn from Louise that she has no memory of her prior life in Canada due to an accident. Rona soon discovers that helping Louise reclaim her past is more exciting—and perilous—than her current assignment, writing about a family-owned furniture store for Chiltern Life magazine. Fraser's cozy goes down with a mild kick, like tea laced with a dash of brandy. (June)

Old School Bones
Randall Peffer. Bleak House (http://www.bleakhousebooks.com/), $24.95 (396p) ISBN 978-1-932557-85-5; $14.95 paper ISBN 978-1-932557-86-2

Hypocrisy and racism are rampant at Tolchester-Coates, a multicultural prep school outside Boston, in Peffer's downbeat third Cape Islands mystery (after 2006's Provincetown Follies, Bangkok Blues). When black student Liberty Baker is found in her dorm bathroom with her wrists slashed, an apparent suicide, Liberty's proctor, Awasha Patterson, suspects foul play. Liberty received a crude warning note while she and Hong Kong student Gracie Liu were researching a term paper about TC's clandestine societies. “There's something evil at work in my school,” Awasha tells a detective after old bones turn up in a dorm attic. Cape fisherman Michael Decastro's prolonged probes raise suspicions about why headmaster Malcolm Sufridge (aka “Bumbledork”) suppressed accounts of the Red Tooth society and its splinter group, Club Tropical. With its stereotypical characters, familiar issues and implausible ending, this bitter tale will appeal primarily to the teen rebel crowd. (June)

Murder at Hotel Cinema: A Five-Star Mystery
Daniel Edward Craig. Midnight Ink (http://www.midnightinkbooks.com/), $15.95 paper (432p) ISBN 978-0-7387-1119-5

Last seen in Craig's debut, Murder at the Universe (2007), hotelier Trevor Lambert is now general manager of Hotel Cinema, “Hollywood's spectacular new boutique hotel,” in this splashy follow-up. When Tony Cavalli, Hotel Cinema's overbearing owner, offers superstar Chelsea Fricks $150,000 to appear at the hotel's opening and dive from the penthouse balcony into the swimming pool, Chelsea agrees to take the plunge. But when Chelsea remains at the pool's bottom, Trevor dives in and makes a heroic but futile effort to save her life. Was it a publicity stunt gone awry, suicide or murder? When the body reveals stab wounds, LAPD Det. Stavros Christakos develops a list of suspects that starts with Chelsea's abrasive publicist, Moira Schwartz. This fast-paced puzzler shines with droll wit and hotel-savvy details. (June)


Steampunk Edited by
Ann &
Jeff VanderMeer. Tachyon, $14.95 paper (432p) ISBN 978-1-892391-75-9

The VanderMeers (The New Weird) have assembled another outstanding theme anthology, this one featuring stories set in alternate Victorian eras. Michael Moorcock, the godfather of steampunk, is represented by an excerpt from his classic novel The Warlord of the Air. In “Lord Kelvin's Machine,” a fine tale from prolific steampunk author James P. Blaylock, mad scientists plot to throw the Earth into the path of a passing comet, declaring that “science will save us this time, gentlemen, if it doesn't kill us first.” Michael Chabon's vivid and moving “The Martian Agent, a Planetary Romance” recounts the lives of two young brothers in the aftermath of George Custer's mutiny against Queen Victoria, while historical fantasist Mary Gentle describes a classic struggle between safety and progress in “A Sun in the Attic.” This is a superb introduction to one of the most popular and inventive subgenres in science fiction. (June)

A Fire in the North
David Bilsborough. Tor, $25.95 (480p) ISBN 978-0-7653-1893-0

The generic plot of this slow-starting sequel to 2007's The Wanderer's Tale does little to engage readers. After the confusion of a climactic battle, Bolldhe, the warrior destined to battle the resurrected evil lord Drauglir, grimly resumes his journey north to battle Drauglir at Vaagenfjord Maw. Despite being the ostensible hero, Bolldhe is quickly eclipsed by his fellow fighter Nibulus, whose evolution into a true leader gives him top billing among their companions. The pace accelerates promisingly when the warlord of Wrythe's army and Nibulus's allies converge upon the darkly menacing Maw, but the ponderous and unwieldy prose frequently detracts from the action. British colloquialisms like “knackered” and modern objects such as gas masks and “strangely shaped polyhedral dice” (used for role-playing games, no less!) are jarring in the epic fantasy setting, and egalitarian fans may seethe over women being repeatedly called “breeders.” This disappointing second installment contains the same shortcomings as the first. (June)

Blood Noir
Laurell K. Hamilton Berkley, $25.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-425-22219-5

The florid 16th Anita Blake novel (after 2007's The Harlequin) updates Anita's endlessly erotic adventures as a living vampire with many weird lovers. Anita serves her vampire sweetie Jean-Claude, Master of the City of St. Louis, obsessed with feeding him and her own need to leech off of others' sexual pleasure or “ardeur” while retaining her rep as vampire executioner (despite the seeming conflict of interest), U.S. marshal and necromancer. She's also accompanying her bed-buddy Jason Schuyler to visit his dying estranged father in North Carolina. After arriving, Jason's mistaken for his rich cousin Keith Summerland, who's ditched his bride-to-be to run off with the wife of a vampire Master, giving Anita a case to solve between wild orgies with wereanimals. Hamilton chronicles Anita's escapades with a growing air of ennui, which longtime readers can't help sharing as sex increasingly takes the place of plot and character development. (June)

The Prefect
Alastair Reynolds. Ace, $25.95 (416p) ISBN 978-0-441-01591-7

The seventh novel set in Reynolds's Revelation Space milieu (most recently encountered in his 2007 collection Galactic North) is a fascinating hybrid of space opera, police procedural and character study. One of the 10,000 colony habitats of the utopian Glitter Band has been destroyed, and title character Tom Dreyfus, a cop who patrols the Glitter Band beat, is assigned to learn whodunit and why. Meanwhile, his protégé, Thalia Ng, shepherds a supposedly minor series of software upgrades on several other habitats, while Dreyfus's superiors oust their leader, ostensibly for her own good. Reynolds unfolds revelations layer by onionskin layer, supplying enough detail to imply a novel's worth of unwritten backstory without ever obscuring the stakes and personalities. The high-quality characterization more than compensates for the slightly too shadowy villains. This is solid British SF adventure, evoking echoes of le Carré and Sayers with a liberal dash of Doctor Who. (June)

Brian Ruckley Orbit, $14.99 paper (528p) ISBN 978-0-316-06770-6

This awkward middle volume, the second installment of Ruckley's Godless World trilogy (after 2007's acclaimed Winterbirth), lacks the thematic impact and emotional intensity of its predecessor. As the armies of the Black Road, a fatalistic religious movement revolving around a creed of predestination, descend from their northern exile, the quarrelsome leaders of the True Blood clans must join forces or die, but supernatural forces beyond their understanding are playing with their destiny. Multiple plot threads featuring dozens of integral characters bog down the pacing considerably, creating a narrative that, like the unwieldy and poorly led True Blood army, becomes a “lethargic thing” emanating “resentment and reluctance.” New readers will be utterly lost and fans left impatient for book three. (June)

Mass Market

Lover Enshrined
J.R. Ward. Signet, $7.99 (560p) ISBN 978-0-451-22272-5

Wards's terrific latest picks up the Black Dagger Brotherhood of vampires where Lover Unbound left off. Phury, a sworn Brother who has also become the Primale, is wrestling with a destiny he doesn't want, an addiction he can't handle and an insurmountable feeling of inadequacy that bleeds over into his love for Cormia, his Chosen First Mate. He holes up at the Brotherhood's rural New York base. The Omega, bent on destroying the vampire race, is meanwhile growing ever stronger, and his long-held plan to destroy the Brothers, via the Lessening Society, is coming to fruition. Younger Brotherhood trainees John Matthew, Qhuinn and Blaylock are learning what it means to come of age and are immersed in their own drama with Qhuinn's malicious cousin, Lash. The stories all reach a shared climax, leading to explosive revelations that set up the next book beautifully. Focusing less on Phury and Cormia and more on the Omega's plot amps the tension on all sides. A subplot involving Rhevenge, John Matthew and the female symphath Xhex is particularly exciting, with Ward diving into varied subspecies, sexual predilections and questions of identity. Ward has outdone herself with this latest Brotherhood novel. (June)

Your Scandalous Ways
Loretta Chase. Avon, $6.99 (384p) ISBN 978-0-06-123124-7

A world-weary British spy and master of disguises living in Regency Venice, James Cordier has been dispatched by the government to retrieve highly sensitive letters in courtesan Francesca Bonnard's possession. A few mishaps later, it's clear that Cordier isn't the only one wanting something from the notorious Francesca, who fled England following an affair that left her humiliated, divorced and friendless. Lord Elphick, her ex-husband, is a man with multiple mistresses and great political ambitions. Cordier's mission and Francesca's inability to ever trust a man again lead the two into a marvelously and intricately danced tango of a romance. An Italian woman with a penchant for emeralds, a grudge against Cordier and a misguided love for Lord Elphick sweetens the pot, but Chase hones in on her leads admirably. The two delight with sparkling dialogue, sizzling sex appeal and a surprising amount of pathos. (June)

Pitch Black
Susan Crandall. Grand Central/Forever, $6.99 (386p) ISBN 978-0-446-17856-3

In this taut potboiler from Crandall (Promises to Keep, etc.), Philadelphia reporter Madison Wade moves to a quiet Tennessee town with her adopted son, Ethan, a tough street kid just starting to get his bearings. Madison is beginning a fledgling romance with the local sheriff, Gabe Wyatt when Ethan goes on a camping trip with his new friend, Jordan, and with Jordan's stepfather and a couple of other boys. The trip ends in tragedy: Jordan's stepfather dies; the evidence points to murder; all suspicion turns toward new kid Ethan. That the reader gets to see things from Ethan's viewpoint drains some of the tension from the plot, but the real drama, nicely turned, is among the adults in their attempts to trust one another. (June)

Run Among Thorns
Anna Louise Lucia. Medallion, $7.95 (384p) ISBN 978-1-933836-33-1

In Lucia's off-kilter debut, normal gal Jenny Waring takes extraordinary action in an office-building hostage taking, and manages to kill the three armed men holding her. That attracts the notice of an anonymous government security agency, certain Jenny is working for someone and determined to find out who. When Jenny doesn't break under interrogation, enter specialist Kier McAllister, who takes her to a cabin in Scotland to break her down psychologically. That he begins to believe that she is telling the truth may mean more bad news for Jenny, who has already fallen for her captor, as the agents have plenty of uses for a woman with her native skills. Lucia tries to covers too much ground in this Stockholm syndrome-based bit of romantic suspense, with early twists and turns either simplified or eliminated by the middle chapters. Red herrings further muddy the waters. (June)


Freddie & Me: A Coming-of-Age (Bohemian) Rhapsody
Mike Dawson. Bloomsbury USA, $19.95 paper (304p) ISBN 978-1-59691-476-6

It's usually wise for a memoirist to have either an intrinsically interesting life or unusual sensitivity to the meaning of personal experiences. Dawson, unfortunately, has neither. The premise of his comics memoir is, as he puts it, that “when I think of Queen I can remember my whole life”: he's been obsessed with the British rock band and its late front man, Freddie Mercury, since he was a child living in England, and they're the madeleine that triggers memories of his life's significant events. But he barely explains why they mean so much to him, other than that they rock (Mercury's sexuality is mentioned briefly, once), and his recollections are the common stock of geeky, misunderstood adolescent male cartoonists. Dawson's black-and-white artwork is smoothly paced, fluid caricature in the vein of Joe Sacco or Alex Robinson, and his narration neatly evokes the hyperdramatic worldview of a teenager; some of the individual anecdotes he recalls are amusing, as when he imagines the breakup of Wham! or shows himself as a 10-year-old belting out “Bohemian Rhapsody” a cappella at a talent show and being hustled off stage. While Dawson rambles at times, anyone who was ever obsessed with a creator will recognize some of the whimsical story. (June)

Ao Mimori. Viz, $8.99 paper (200p) ISBN 978-1-4215-1802-2

In this quick shojo read, 16-year-old Sakura has a crush on Fuji, the unpopular bespectacled boy who sits next to her in homeroom, until she finds out he works at a host club. Sakura tells him anyone with such a morally dubious after-school job is unworthy of her affections. Up for the challenge, Fuji replies, “I will absolutely win your heart.” Fuji proceeds to manipulate Sakura's emotions in a halfhearted romance contest, and the naïve Sakura falls for all of his ploys. Sakura declares a new crush on the more upstanding Inaba, chairman of the Library Committee, only to get involved in a shady sexual situation with Inaba in the library. Fuji saves Sakura, and Inaba admits he actually swings the other way and has a crush on Fuji. The scope of the story is frustratingly small. Sakura has no life outside her crushes, and no distinctive personality. The plot wanders just enough to stay interesting, but the reader will likely wonder where this is going, as the series is on volume 12 in Japan. The artwork is adequate, but Mimori includes an excessive number of flashbacks to scenes that happened only a few pages earlier. The hilarious author's notes overshadow the humor in the story. (May)

Mother Tells You How
Various. Abrams, $14.95 paper (128p) ISBN 978-0-8019-9542-0

This selection of advice-comics published in the British journal, Girl, in the early 1950s is a sweet mix of nostalgia and helpful advice. There's a quaint segment on how to decorate for the coronation (of Elizabeth II): “why not... a huge coronation cake?” But “Grannie's Scorch Mixture,” used to remove mild burn marks from overironed shirts, is a recipe people will want to write down. Plenty of advice on how to refurbish old dresses may become useful again, depending on the economy. The book harks back to both the postwar era and a time when between economic straits and postwar rationing, “women's work” really mattered in keeping a household going. The artwork, which like the text is uncredited, is very '50s without being cloying or misogynist, surprisingly. Overall, it's warm and kind, and likely to find a varied group of readers: women who do crafts, conservative religious women, but also younger women and girls who, like much of the j-pop crowd, are into making their own things. (For instance, it wouldn't be surprising if Lolitas discovered this book.) It's lovely to see things like baked Alaska made simple and advice on how to make your own cheese straws, which probably beat Cheezits any day. (Apr.)

Three Shadows
Cyril Pedrosa. Roaring Brook/First Second, $15.95 paper (272p) ISBN 978-1-59643-239-0

Rarely has the succulent appeal of quiet country life been portrayed with such sensual skill as it is in Pedrosa's limpid graphic novel about a boy, his parents and the trio of hooded riders who watch them. Pedrosa adeptly establishes the mood of timeless bucolic idyll immediately, with his swirling, sometimes harshly etched, black-and-white renderings of the land cultivated by hulking farmer Louis; his wife, Lise; and their scampering boy, Joachim. The family's playful antics are overshadowed first by ruminative narration, then by three riders, who watch the family with unnerving patience from the foggy distance. A local witch tells Lise that the “shadows” have come for Joachim, after which Louis impetuously makes a run for it with his son, warned that he must treasure every moment with the boy. The resulting story is more Appointment in Samarra–style dream than chase, with Louis and Joachim floundering from one mysterious episode to the next, the implacable shadows following, as in a nightmare. French artist Pedrosa's background as a Disney animator is clearest in his exaggerated movements and facial expressions, but the story (inspired by the death of a close friend's young child) is a glorious and revelatory fable, beautiful in its grief. (Apr.)

The Grand Inquisitor
John Zmirak and Carla Millar. Crossroad, $16.95 (76p) ISBN 978-0-8245-2500-9

“Comics” don't get much odder that this conservative Catholic tract in the form of a graphic novel. When a priest from Sudan is invited to Rome during the Vatican conclave to select a new pope, he finds himself instead kidnapped to a mental hospital where he is threatened/tempted by an aged cardinal. The canny old man knows that the young, black prelate will become the next pope, and the cardinal wants to make sure that his long career of deliberately subverting Church doctrines won't be wasted. Thus, the story is essentially a self-justifying debate between the earnest fundamentalist priest and the slippery European autocrat, interrupted by scenes of African turmoil, liberal perversions and souls of sinners burning in Hell. Unfortunately, Millar's elaborate but stiff art doesn't suggest that her dramatically posed characters were ever alive. Nor does Zmirak's tortured script succeed as blank verse or as intense normal conversation. The result is extremely sincere, but stagy and fake, and the whole project is a demonstration of what sheer dogmatic faith can achieve—and what it can't. (Apr.)

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