Fiction, March 1, 2019 | Xpress Reviews

A  fast-paced espionage thriller; Cleeton is an incredible storyteller; filled with unexpected turns of imagination; you have to remind yourself that this is fiction; another work rich with character development; an emotional anthology of political sf; Iles consistently turns out atmospheric thrillers; Kilpack never disappoints; a powerful and engaging work; Vila-Matas engages the reader in a metaliterary game

Week ending March 1, 2019

Alexis, André. Days by Moonlight. Coach House. Apr. 2019. 224p. ISBN 9781552453797. pap. $17.95. F
Canadian author Alexis (e.g., the Giller Prize–winning Fifteen Dogs) sends botanical artist Alfred (Alfie) Homer on a journey through Ontario with longtime family friend Professor Bruno. It is ostensibly Bruno’s trip (he’s researching the life of a favorite poet), and Alfie is merely the professor’s chauffeur. But while Bruno searches for what he seeks, Alfie finds something for which he never was looking. Through a series of stops, the two discover an Ontario that is not merely Canada-quirky but downright bizarre. The citizens of Nobleton celebrate the town’s pioneer spirit by burning down a house built specifically for a homeless family, while those of Coulson’s Hill honor indigenous peoples with a parade in which descendants of Native Canadians hurl tomatoes at citizens dressed up as the town’s founders and riding by on floats. Such episodes echo the grotesque surrealism of Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” and the picaresque nature of this narrative finds antecedents as far back as The Odyssey. The humor (and there is quite a bit scattered amid serious character introspection) carries forward that of Twain and Dickens, with Professor Bruno as a particularly Pickwickian character.
VERDICT A delightful, somewhat off-the-wall read. The botanical artwork nicely supplements the narrative.—Michael Russo, Louisiana State Univ., Baton Rouge

Altman, John. The Korean Woman. Blackstone. Apr. 2019. 304p. ISBN 9781470826970. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781470826994. THRILLER
Mi-Hi Abrahams looks like a typical wealthy Upper East Side mom, but beneath the veneer of wealth and privilege lies a shocking secret: her real name is Song Sun Young, and she’s a North Korean sleeper agent. Song has spent years in America and has come to appreciate her lifestyle, but she’s ready to leave her family at a moment’s notice to do the work she was trained to do. Her first task—seducing a financial insider—is a breeze, but, unfortunately for Song, the CIA already knows who she is and is tracking her every move. Thus begins an epic game of cat and mouse as Dalia Artzi, a former Israeli operative and military strategy expert, and Benjamin Bach, an intelligence strategist, pursue Song in hopes of preventing whatever mayhem North Korea plans to unleash. The action sequences are where The Korean Woman shines—Altman writes an excellent, almost cinematic chase scene—and the pacing is steady, with the tension ratcheting up as Song evades her pursuers.
VERDICT Readers looking for an enjoyable, fast-paced espionage thriller won’t be disappointed.—Nanette Donohue, Champaign P.L., IL

Cleeton, Chanel. When We Left Cuba. Berkley. Apr. 2019. 368p. ISBN 9780451490865. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780451490872. F
Cleeton (Next Year in Havana) follows up her historical fiction family saga in her second novel. The trials of the Perez family, which were relayed through the eyes of Elisa and her granddaughter Marisol between 1958 Havana and 2017 Miami, FL, continue with the story of the eldest Perez sister, Beatriz. The novel opens in 1960s Palm Beach, FL, and as the family tries to settle into a life of exile after being stripped of their land by Castro’s revolution, Beatriz vows revenge against and payback from Castro. Recruited by the CIA to get close to Fidel when he arrives in New York City for a summit, Beatriz has orders to kill Cuba’s new dictator. But she didn’t expect to fall in love with a powerful U.S. senator—or that she would begin to rethink where her heart, her love, and her loyalties lie. She is forced to grapple with the consequences of her choices and decide if love is stronger than retribution.
VERDICT Historical fiction fans will find that Cleeton is an incredible storyteller of the past, describing Palm Beach and Havana of the 1960s as clearly as if she had been there, taking readers along through a decade that would change the world.—Adriana Delgado, West Palm Beach, FL

Eaves, Will. Murmur. Bellevue Literary. Apr. 2019. 184p. ISBN 9781942658641. pap. $16.99. F
This Goldsmiths Prize–short-listed work from poet/novelist Eaves ( The Oversight) is based closely on the life of Alan Turing, although here the protagonist is named Alec Pryor. Not factually biographical, the narrative is refracted and impressionistic, shifting from correspondence between Pryor and June, his close friend and almost fiancée, to Pryor’s complex and erudite ruminations on artificial intelligence and the Universal Machine. Interspersed throughout are hallucinatory dream sequences Pryor experiences, a side effect of his court-imposed hormone treatments following his arrest for “gross indecency with a male person.” The hallucinations themselves are prose poems, stunning images piled one on another.
VERDICT A rewarding but challenging read: if musings about ethics and the Singularity (although this term isn’t used) aren’t daunting enough, the novel is filled with Briticisms and unexpected turns of imagination, from a Paleolithic man’s death to a stroke victim’s stream of consciousness. With so much here in fewer than 200 pages, it bears reading twice.—Reba Leiding, Emeritus, James Madison Univ. Lib., Harrisonburg, VA

redstarGroen, Hendrik. On the Bright Side: The New Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 85 Years Old. Grand Central. Mar. 2019. 448p. ISBN 9781538746639. $27; ebk. ISBN 9781538746615. F
The pseudonymous Groen returns in this sequel to The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83¼ Years Old, along with the cronies he lives with in a retirement home in Amsterdam. You don’t need to have read the previous work, but you may want to after reading this delightful diary-cum-novel from 2015, the year he turns 85. Groen strikes just the right note here with his wit and ironic observations, all the while gently revealing the very real sadness and inevitable loss that old age brings. Henk and his friends belong to the Old but Not Dead Club, a select group of only eight people, so they can fit into a van to go on their various excursions. The adventures of the club members and the inevitable bickering of various “inmates” in the retirement home are so true to life that you have to remind yourself that this is fiction.
VERDICT While this work may appeal especially to older readers, it is so warm, touching, and funny that you don’t have to be a member of the Old but Not Dead club to enjoy it.—Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA

Hauck, Rachel. The Memory House. Thomas Nelson. Apr. 2019. 384p. ISBN 9780310350965. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780310350972. CF
Beck Holiday is a hardened NYPD beat cop who lost all memories of her childhood after her father died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. An encounter with an abused dog leads to choices that get her suspended from the force, and an unexpected letter sends her to a tiny Florida town to stay at the “Memory House.” Her newfound free time brings back a few memories, but most of her childhood is still a blank. Bruno Endicott, struggling sports agent, remembers Beck and the many summers they spent in the Memory House as kids. His recollection of his childhood sweetheart do not quite match with the woman loaded with emotional baggage in the present, however. In a parallel story from 1953, a young woman loses her whole family in a tornado and struggles to reclaim a life of promise. Hauck (The Writing Desk) is a master at weaving together plots from multiple time periods. Here the key theme is memory and how the characters react to tragedy.
VERDICT Hauck’s fans will be keen for another work rich with character development. Readers of Kristy Cambron, Heidi Chiavaroli, and other time-slip novelists will also want to pick up this book.—Christine Barth, Scott Cty. Lib. Syst., IA

If This Goes On. Parvus. Mar. 2019. 296p. ed. by Cat Rambo. ISBN 9780999784211. pap. $19.99; ebk. ISBN 9780999784204. SF
What could happen when current politics intersects with speculative fiction? The answer is 30 stories of nationalism, consumerism, and environmental decline that will make or break society, all reflecting growing unease and divides between people. Starting with E. Lily Yu’s “Green Glass: A Love Story,” a tale of “One Percenters” marrying in the midst of world collapse, and Jack Lothian’s “Good Pupils,” seen through the eyes of a teen caught up in a controlling school system. With an increasingly aging population, those over 75 are mandated to die 100 days after a health issue in Kathy Schilbach’s “Counting the Days,” while Chris Kluwe’s “The Machine” shows how workers caught in dangerous conditions and threatened with exportation are ever a part of the American economy.
VERDICT This emotional anthology of political sf provokes soul searching and issues a rallying cry to fight for the future we truly want and not the cautionary tales reflected here.—Kristi Chadwick, Massachusetts Lib. Syst., Northampton

Iles, Greg. Cemetery Road. Morrow. Mar. 2019. 608p. ISBN 9780062824615. $28.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062824639. THRILLER
Major change is coming to the small Mississippi river town of Bienville. A Chinese firm has invested in a paper mill creating local jobs and bringing hope for the beleaguered citizens. When a local archaeologist and vocal critic of the project is found dead, political journalist Marshall McEwan doggedly investigates his childhood mentor’s suspicious death. A hometown boy, Marshall knows the real power lies with the Bienville Poker Club, a group of a dozen ruthless businessmen. Along with his former girlfriend Jet and coffee shop owner Nadine, Marshall uncovers the sketchy political and financial machinations of the club, putting all their lives at risk. Iles has succeeded again by bringing the town to life with characters that are ever evolving and effectively showing that good versus bad is not always clear-cut when it comes to people or their intentions.
VERDICT Best-selling author Iles consistently turns out atmospheric and action-packed thrillers (Mississippi Blood). Although a lengthy novel, this one reads quickly, much like those of Lee Child or Michael Connelly. [See Prepub Alert, 9/17/18.]—Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV

Kilpack, Josi S. Daisies and Devotion. Proper Romance: Shadow Mountain. (Mayfield Family, Bk. 2). May 2019. 304p. ISBN 9781629725529. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781629737454. HISTORICAL ROMANCE
Timothy Mayfield may act the fool on occasion, but owing to his family history, he knows he must find a bride with a fortune, and he takes that mandate very seriously. Yet as he tells Maryann Morrington, his best friend Lucas’s sister-in-law, he expects to love that woman as well. Never has anyone been as honest with Maryann about their motives, certainly none of the suitors sniffing around her since she entered the London Season at the advanced age of 22. She feels so comfortable with Timothy, but after his circumstances change, and money is no longer his object, he shares the list of attributes for his perfect wife with his dear friend Maryann, who realizes that she doesn’t fit the profile. Timothy introduces her to Colonel Berkins, an older former army officer. Perhaps he will be the right man for Maryann since it obviously won’t be Timothy.
VERDICT Friends trying to help one another navigate the Season and romance need look no further than at each other to find true love. Kilpack’s second “Mayfield Family” story (after Promises and Primroses) is sweet and a bit unexpected; she never lets her readers down.—Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal

McGoldrick, May. Highland Crown. St. Martin’s Paperbacks. (Royal Highlander, Bk. 1). Apr. 2019. 312p. ISBN 9781250314970. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250314987. HISTORICAL ROMANCE
In the Scottish Highlands in the early 1820s, one woman and one man are brought together by fate while Highland rebels and English authorities clash around them. Widow Isabella Drummond is easily identified by her beauty; as a physician, she has a penchant for helping anyone who needs it. Hiding from both the British government and Scottish rebels has not been without risk. She finally begins to feel a measure of security, but that is swept away when she saves the life of a sea captain who has washed ashore. Cinaed Mackintosh was cast out of his home as a child and has allegiance to no one but himself. Cinead soon learns that he is willing to gamble everything to protect Isabella and keep her in his arms. Will these two independent survivors be able to find the refuge they seek and keep the lover they need?
VERDICT This new series opener from husband and wife team McGoldrick ( Sleepless in Scotland) is a fast-paced, well-written trip through a fictional Scottish landscape loosely based on historical events. Readers will soon be caught up in Cinead and Isabella’s love story and find themselves wishing there was more when they reach the end.—Colleen Sargent, Anderson P.L., IN

Murphy, Devin. Tiny Americans. Harper Perennial. Mar. 2019. 256p. ISBN 9780062886248. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780062856074. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062856081. F
This latest from Murphy, a real change of pace from his debut, Boat Runner, is a fascinating, beautifully realized, multigenerational novel about family, divorce, and young children moving into adulthood. At its center is the Thurber family, whom we are first introduced to in their suburban home in western New York in 1978. Though they appear to be a young, happy family, there are ominous signs that all is not well. The parents meet with a marriage counselor once a week, and all too soon alcohol issues, growing animosity, and communication breakdowns end the marriage. The father abandons the family, simply driving away one day and leaving his wife and children to rebuild their lives as best they can, with the novel concerning precisely this arduous and psychologically fraught process of moving forward after great pain. Each chapter is told from the perspective of a different family member over 40 years, which allows readers both to develop a complete sense of each character and to understand the complex interpersonal dynamics that define this family.
VERDICT Murphy skillfully handles the emotional and psychological complexity of his story, producing a powerful and engaging work. Recommended for fans of literary fiction and for readers interested in issues of family, divorce, and reconciliation. [See Prepub Alert, 9/24/18.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT

Rock, Peter. The Night Swimmers. Soho. Mar. 2019. 272p. ISBN 9781641290005. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781641290012. F
In the 1990s, Rock’s unnamed narrator is a 26-year-old aspiring writer on Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula with a propensity for nocturnal distance-swimming. There he meets the enigmatic Mrs. Abel (she has a first name, but he never uses it), who shares this inclination. Their relationship appears deeply bonded, but the nature of the bond is elusive; although they spend almost all of their time together sans clothing, it is not particularly physical. One night, on a mysterious shoal, Mrs. Abel simply disappears, for several days, to a magical submarine chamber where she can miraculously breathe. Then she disappears for real. Twenty years later, now a successful novelist, married with children, the narrator returns to the peninsula, still obsessed with that long-ago summer and what it meant, or might have meant. Attempts to contact Mrs. Able yield nothing. Then one day, as the narrator is out walking with his daughters, there she is. The reunion does little to clarify the connection between them, and then she disappears again, this time perhaps for good.
VERDICT The turbulent and unpredictable Lake Michigan where the pair swim is an apt metaphor for this heavily atmospheric novel. Those who love enigma will love this; those who prefer certainty will have to look elsewhere.—Robert E. Brown, Oswego, NY

Vila-Matas, Enrique. Mac’s Problem. New Directions. Apr. 2019. 256p. tr. from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa. ISBN 9780811227322. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780811227339. F
Sixtyish unemployed Mac Vives spends his idle hours writing a diary; even though he insists it is not a novel, its content is in fact the text of Mac’s Problem. The essence of this diary/novel is Mac’s description of his plans to rewrite his famous writer neighbor’s early but poorly executed memoir about a ventriloquist named Walter, titled Walter’s Problem. Nine of the ten chapters, narrated by each of Walter’s different voices, are headed by an epigraph by and adopt the style of a famous short story author, from Petronius to Raymond Carver. Mac first summarizes each of the chapters and then outlines his plans to rewrite them, including occasionally changing the epigraphs. Vila-Matas thus draws a parallel between the relationship of the ventriloquist and the dummy to that of the original writer and the modifier, as Mac assumes the “voice” of Walter. Though Mac claims to be a literary novice, he is well read, interspersing his text with over 100 mostly literary references, some more familiar than others, that defend the art of writing.
VERDICT Vila-Matas again engages the reader in a metaliterary game that here examines the role of repetition in the creation of literary works.—Lawrence Olszewski, North Central State Coll., Mansfield, OH

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