Fiction, August 3, 2018 | Xpress Reviews    

latest volume in Akashic’s “Noir series” maintains its high level of quality; An emotionally gripping page-turner; an ending that will both break and mend readers’ hearts; Fans of Jodi Picoult will glean much from this plainly written book by Peck; Perry’s sure-handed debut is an extraordinary atlas of heartbreak, hopelessness, and the herculean strength

Week ending August 3, 2018

Baghdad Noir. Akashic. Aug. 2018. 293p. ed. by Samuel Shimon. ISBN 9781617753435. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617756542. F

If any city qualifies for noir status today, it is strife-tattered Baghdad, which has suffered four decades of abuse, first from the tyranical Saddam Hussein and since then from steadily growing religious and ethnic conflict. Its inhabitants resent the American interlopers; incompetence, indifference, and graft are the common currency of government, including police enforcement. Compiling an anthology of noir stories about the city, the second-largest in the Arab-speaking world, wasn’t easy. There is no Arab-language tradition for writing this kind of fiction. Thus Shimon ( An Iraqi in Paris) not only had to recruit his writers but educate them in the conventions of detective/crime stories. The results are a mixed bag, but the best of the 14 pieces are quite good, ranging from a killer’s narrative post–2003 (Muhsin al-Ramli’s “I Killed Her Because I Loved Her”) to an Agatha Christie–like tale of tribal vengeance set in the 1950s (“Baghdad House” by Ali Bader).

VERDICT The latest volume in Akashic’s “Noir series” maintains its high level of quality but adds a fillip: How do you address crime in a society that no longer has working protocols to cope with even the worst forms of violence? For mystery lovers.—David Keymer, Cleveland


Bernières, Louis de. So Much Life Left Over. Pantheon. Aug. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781524747886. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524747893. F

Like de Bernières’s internationally best-selling Corelli’s Mandolin (1994), this beautifully realized new work plows the fertile ground of historical fiction with an examination of love in the aftermath of war. In the two decades after World War II, de Bernières follows a group of young men and women who experienced the trauma of war in very different ways and find themselves struggling to move on with their lives. Some emerge with their hearts still “open to the world,” but unfortunately others do not. At the center of the novel is celebrated British flying ace Daniel Pitt, whose war experience made him feel intensely alive. But his wife, Rosie, whom he marries after the war, lost her fiancé in battle and is never able to recover fully. Investigating relationships scarred by a cataclysm beyond an individual’s control, de Bernières handles the emotional and psychological complexities of this subject effortlessly. 

VERDICT An emotionally gripping page-turner; recommended for fans of war novels, historical fiction, and literary fiction. [See Prepub Alert, 3/12/18.]—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT


Carpenter, Lea. Red, White, Blue. Knopf. Aug. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781524732141. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524732158. MYS

Following Eleven Days, Carpenter’s cerebral spy novel features Anna, whose father, Noel, was a longtime CIA operative. She learns the real nature of his work only after his sudden death on the eve of her wedding. An encounter with a stranger during her honeymoon puts both Anna and her husband’s career in jeopardy, and the couple must undergo rigorous government interrogation. In this Chinese puzzle box of a novel, information is revealed out of sequence, and it’s initially unclear how the pieces fit together. The narrative’s great strength is its examination of the psychological aspects of a life in espionage. Divided loyalties, moral relativism, and lying by omission to family and friends take a toll on relationships and over time lead one to doubt the purpose and validity of the mission. The touching depiction of a marriage of opposites, between reserved Anna and her gregarious husband, along with Anna’s close bond with her father, provide the story’s emotional core.

VERDICT Those looking for an action-packed, straightforward spy thriller will not find it here. But readers interested in examining the development of character in extreme circumstances will discover the journey rewarding.—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis


Harbison, Beth. Every Time You Go Away. St. Martin’s. Jul. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781250043832. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466842212. F

Willa lost her husband, Ben, suddenly and has been unable to move on in the three years since his death. However, she finally decides it’s time to get their family vacation home in Ocean City, MD, where Ben died, ready to put on the market. With the support of her son, Jamie; her best friend Kristin; and Kristin’s daughter Kelsey, the crew not only gets the house in order but also reconnects and rekindles old friendships—and Willa truly begins the path to healing. In beautifully haunting prose, author Harbison ( One Less Problem Without You) illustrates how a grieving widow eases the pain of her husband’s passing through mysterious visits with her deceased spouse. Readers will feel for Willa as she makes every effort to overcome her loss, including her self-proclaimed insanity at having conversations with her dead husband and having to explain it to her best friend.

VERDICT Complete with iconic Ocean City hot spots that show that the author has done her homework and an ending that will both break and mend readers’ hearts, this is a perfect beach read.—Erin Holt, Williamson Cty. P.L., Franklin, TN


McNear, Mary. The Secrets We Carried. Morrow. Sept. 2018. 368p. ISBN 9780062846105. $26.99; ISBN 9780062699275. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062699251. F

At 28, journalist Quinn LaPointe returns to her hometown of Butternut, MN. After the accident in the spring of her senior year that killed her boyfriend Jake Lightman and two other seniors, Quinn fled the town, with no plans to return. When she receives an anonymous note about the memorial dedication for the three young men, she returns to try to deal with her feelings about the deaths. She discovers that some townspeople have never recovered from the drownings. One mother wants to blame everyone else. Quinn’s best friend Gabriel blames himself. Jake’s older brother, Tanner, returns monthly, taking responsibility for those his brother left behind. Quinn copes with her emotions by writing and questioning others, activities that finally bring her peace and resolution.

VERDICT McNear’s (The Light in Summer) latest is a reflective story featuring haunted people. The sympathetic characters, stuck in the past, may appeal to new adults. While the ending seems abrupt and pat, the novel is for readers of McNear’s “Butternut Lake” novels, all stand-alones featuring the same atmospheric small-town.—Lesa Holstine, Evansville Vanderburgh P.L., IN


Pack, Jessica. As Wide as the Sky. Kensington. Aug. 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781496718167. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781496718181. F

When Robbie Mallorie becomes a random shooter, killing ten people at a mall during the Christmas shopping season, his act sends out ripples of pain. Jaxon must come to terms with being a paraplegic and never walking again. Larinda stuffs down the pain of losing her daughter by overeating. Amanda, Robbie’s mother, has completely shut down her world to focus solely on Robbie, ignoring even her other child in her grief. Then Robbie’s execution is fast-tracked, and Amanda is forced to come to terms with the loss of her son. As she is cleaning out Robbie’s room in preparation for moving, she finds a class ring that didn’t belong to him. As she tracks down the original owner, her world begins to open again.

VERDICT Fans of Jodi Picoult will glean much from this plainly written book by Peck, a pseudonym for Josi S. Kilpack (“Sadie Hoffmiller” culinary mysteries). Readers will grieve with Amanda and perhaps begin to understand Robbie in this timely novel.—Jennifer Mills, Shorewood-Troy Lib., IL


redstarPerry, S.K. Let Me Be Like Water. Melville House. Aug. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9781612197265. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9781612197272. F

[DEBUT] Twentysomething Londoner Holly flees to Brighton, broken by the death of her longtime love, Sam, killed in a traffic accident a few months before. A chance encounter with Frank, an elderly retired magician who is further along the continuum of grief, cracks open the darkness just enough for Holly to move off emotional paralysis. Through Frank, Holly meets a group of loving patient friends who encourage her to take her time as she returns to music and small moments of joy—learning to cook, learning to feel, testing the waters of a new romance—only to be derailed time and again by loss and despair and longing on a molecular level.

VERDICT Written as a long goodbye love letter by Holly to her beloved Sam, Perry’s sure-handed debut is an extraordinary atlas of heartbreak, hopelessness, and the herculean strength required to power through despair to survival into recovery. Hard to put down; impossible to forget.—Beth Andersen, formerly with Ann Arbor Dist. Lib., MI


Ritchie, Solange. Firestorm. Stony Hill. May 2018. 272p. ISBN 9781947835030. pap. $15.99. F

Firestorm picks up where The Burning Man left off. Forensic pathologist Dr. Catherine Powers is still traumatized from her son’s kidnapping and her injuries at the hands of serial killer and arsonist Eric. At the start of this psychological thriller, Cat receives an envelope containing a lock of her son’s hair and a black-and-white photo of him being restrained. Eric has been in hiding for a year, but that is about to change. When several women are found murdered, with Eric’s name carved on their stomachs, Cat travels to California, where she partners with police detective Jim McGregor to stop Eric. While Eric continues to kill, readers learn that he has hooked up with a serial arsonist who is setting fires all over California. When Eric is killed, David takes over, believing that Eric’s spirit has entered his body.

VERDICT Ritchie is a master at moving along a story. She uses short sentences and linear prose to amp up the terror as the body count rises. Readers who enjoy psychological suspense about psychopaths will enjoy this book, though squeamish readers will want to steer clear.—Nanci Milone Hill, M.G. Parker Memorial Lib., Dracut, MA


Shaykh, Hanan al-. The Occasional Virgin. Pantheon. Jul. 2018. 240p. tr. from Arabic by Catherine Cobham. ISBN 9781524747518. $24.95. F

In her latest novel, highly acclaimed Lebanese author al-Shaykh ( I Sweep the Sun Off Rooftops) refuses to shy away from sensitive topics, and her female characters push the boundaries of what’s allowable even as they experience or relive the impact of the Lebanese civil war. From Muslim and Christian families, respectively, Huda and Yvonne grew up in Beirut and then moved away; Huda’s theater career led her to Toronto, while Yvonne is a successful marketing executive in London. As the novel opens, the two are vacationing on the Italian Riviera, eager to find romance or sex, if not both. Several months later, their chance encounter with the devout Muslim Hisham at London’s famous Speaker’s Corner reveals distinctive sexual ambitions for the two women. Poignant glimpses of Huda’s and Yvonne’s past are countered with Huda’s farcical quest to seek revenge on Hisham and Yvonne’s desperate yearning for motherhood. What’s missing is a more intensive probing of their conspicuous lack of fulfillment.

VERDICT Not a deep book, but al-Shaykh demonstrates an overall ability to write entertaining novels about contemporary women facing considerable social, political, and cultural obstacles. Recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 1/22/18.]—Faye A. Chadwell, Oregon State Univ. Lib., Corvallis


Zinovieff, Sofka. Putney. Harper. Aug. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780062847577. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062847591. F

Single mother Daphne returns to her hometown Putney (in England) with her 13-year-old daughter, Liberty, reflecting on her dizzying, nontraditional childhood during the 1970s and her first love, Ralph. When the two first met, Ralph was 27, “a boy practically,” as he reminisces. Four years later, the romance had reached full flower when 13-year-old Daphne lost her virginity during what was meant to be a romantic trip to Greece. The novel switches between the past and the present and is told in three voices: those of Daphne, Ralph, and Jane, Daphne’s best friend from school. Jane served as an audience to the couple’s relationship, but her youth and jealousy make her unreliable as a friend and narrator. Watching Liberty navigate ‎adolescence alters Daphne’s romanticized view of her own teen years with some prodding from Jane. Meanwhile, Ralph lies to himself and those around him about who he is and what he does, and not until his deathbed does he reckon with his true self.

VERDICT Zinovieff’s (The House on Paradise Street) novel about revisiting the past is well crafted and balanced. The main characters are three-dimensional, if not always likable, and the story sadly believable. Recommended for readers of literary fiction and followers of #metoo.—Pamela Mann, St. Mary’s Coll. Lib., MD

LJ Reviews

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