Fiction: Beattie, Brookmyre, Conroy, DePalo, the Hammers, James, MacColl, Moggach, Waters, More | Xpress Reviews

A medieval tale; Beattie's welcome stories; Jack Parlabane races against the clock; Conroy's impressive literary fiction; DePalo hits a lot of right notes; a solid Scandinavian noir; Holohan's debut is elegantly written; Conroy is totally satisfying; MacColl's historical fiction is a perfect fit; a darker Moggach; a heaping dose of scientific and historical intrigue; and overpowering pieces from Waters

Week ending June 9, 2017


Arin, Lise. Matilda Empress. Archer. Mar. 2017. 448p. ISBN 9781941729144. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941729229. F

[DEBUT] Matilda is Empress of the Holy Roman Empire and a widow. When her brother dies in a shipwreck, Matilda’s father, Henry I, plans for her to succeed him, becoming Queen of England. To do so, she must also wed Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, a stranger in a strange land. Sadly, Matilda’s love belongs to another, her cousin Stephen. That is, until Stephen usurps the throne upon the death of Henry I. Matilda longs to take her rightful place as queen, but she is at the mercy of the men in her life. Matilda’s control over events is limited, despite her best efforts to the contrary. Debut author Arin does a wonderful job of showing how difficult life was for a woman in the 12th century, regardless of her lineage. She perfectly captures Matilda’s emotions—her frustration and loneliness—and readers will feel her fear over her future and the rage at those who have betrayed her.

VERDICT An excellent read for anyone who enjoys medieval history with fleshed-out characters made more human in fictionalized form.—Sonnet Ireland, St. Tammany Parish P.L., Mandeville, LA


Beattie, Ann. The Accomplished Guest: Stories. Scribner. Jun. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781501111389. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501111402. F

Traveling to see family, friends, and former spouses; accepting an invitation to an annual if somewhat belabored holiday party; and receiving guests in one’s own home, whether they have been invited or not. Beattie’s collection of short stories centers on “company” and all its messy permutations. In “For the Best,” a man attends a party in Manhattan and finds that reconnecting with old acquaintances gives him a sense that time is passing him by. “The Indian Uprising” brings together a woman and her retired but still feisty poetry professor. During their visit to a restaurant it becomes clear that the old man is being defeated by his own contrariness as well as his diabetes. A woman deals with her adult daughter, her increasingly confused parents, and her extremely needy clients in “The Caterer.” In each, Beattie (Picturing Will) stays within her milieu: well-educated East Coast natives who display nostalgia, regret, and ennui in equal measure.

Verdict Deftly engaging the reader in each story, Beattie once again proves to be a master of unwrapping the puzzlements of human relationships. Her legion of fans will not be disappointed. [See Prepub Alert, 1/4/17.]—Susanne Wells, Indianapolis P.L.


Brookmyre, Christopher. The Last Hack: A Jack Parlabane Thriller. Atlantic. Jul. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780802126948. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780802189073. F

Nineteen-year-old Samantha Morpeth is being bullied, her mother is in prison, and Sam is left to care for Lilly, her Down syndrome–afflicted sister. Only on her computer in secret is she a skilled hacker and member of an anonymous group. One of them, Zodiac, blackmails her into breaking into a tech company to steal a device worth millions. Meanwhile, Jack Parlabane, an investigative journalist just getting his life together after a botched job, is coerced by Sam into helping her. His burglary know-how and her computing ability make them a good team, but things quickly go wrong. Jack is trapped with a dead body and a bloody weapon as the police approach, while Lilly is kidnapped to force Sam’s compliance to Zodiac, who seems always one electronic step ahead.

Verdict Scottish author Brookmyre’s eighth Parlabane title (after Black Widow) begins slowly but quickly develops into a deadly race against the clock. Jack and Sam learn to trust each other, mostly, but numerous plot twists surprise them and the reader. Sam is a fully developed character in a tech world that Jack and the reader now truly appreciate. [See Prepub Alert, 1/23/17.]—Roland Person, formerly with Southern Illinois Univ. Lib., Carbondale


Conroy, James. The Coyote Hunter of Aquidneck Island. Permanent. Jun. 2017. 334p. ISBN 9781579624934. $29.95. F

The swelling coyote population on Aquidneck Island, RI, compels the inhabitants of this mostly rural community to take action that proves controversial: they hire a coyote hunter to thin the population by half. So begins this compelling, beautifully realized novel about nature, politics, and love. Protagonist Micah LaVeck, a longtime resident with close ties to the mayor, is asked to allow the coyote hunter to park a trailer on his property for the duration in order to keep public scrutiny to a minimum. The coyote hunter turns out to be a young woman, Kodi Red Moon, a former army sniper whose American Indian heritage has made her deeply spiritual and profoundly respectful of nature. Though Micah is much older and turns out to be terminally ill, over the course of the novel the two develop an unlikely friendship that is brought convincingly to life by Conway (The Anarchist; Literally Dead). This is a philosophical novel, asking important questions about the nature of love and about how we define our relationship to the natural world.

Verdict An impressive and winning achievement. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT


DePalo, Anna. Hollywood Baby Affair. Harlequin Desire. (Serenghetti Brothers, Bk. 2). Jun. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9780373838523. pap. $5.25; ebk. ISBN 9781488011672. CONTEMPORARY ROMANCE

In the second installment in the “Serenghetti Brothers” series (after Second Chance with the CEO), DePalo focuses on middle brother Rick. Rick is a stuntman working on a film with popular actress Chiara Feran. Chiara is facing bad press because of her gambler father, and her manager suggests that she pretend to be in a romantic relationship with Rick in order to divert the media. Rick is intrigued by Chiara but only goes along with the plan because a stalker is targeting her. Their false romance soon turns all too real, and the two have to figure out whether they can sustain an actual relationship or part ways.

Verdict Despite a few tropes too many—e.g., an incredibly hot millionaire hero, a beautiful movie star heroine who’s sweet and loves to cook—the novel hits a lot of right notes; a fast and fun read.—Jane Jorgenson, Madison P.L., WI


Hammer, Søren & Lotte Hammer. The Lake. Bloomsbury USA. Jul. 2017. 384p. tr. from Danish by Charlotte Barslund. ISBN 9781632867490. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781632867513. F

The fourth book in the Konrad Simonsen series (after The Vanished) from the Danish sister-and-brother writing team exposes a darker side of Denmark. An African woman’s body is found in a lake north of Copenhagen, and when a local police officer’s racist comment goes viral, the case is handed over to Detective Superintendent Simonsen of the Copenhagen Police. It soon becomes clear that the victim was part of a much larger operation involving human trafficking and prostitution. Svend Lerche and his wife, Karina Larsen, along with their adult daughter Benedikte, have made it their very profitable family business and will go to great lengths to protect themselves and their money. As the machinations of this brutal world come to light and inevitably involve many prominent people, Simonsen and his team must figure out how to find justice for the trafficked women.

Verdict Readers know from the beginning how the murder happened, so the thriller relies on slowly revealing the sadistic details about those involved and the intricacies of the police investigation. The ending, however, delivers some interesting twists. A solid bet for fans of Scandinavian noir.—Melissa DeWild, BookOps, New York P.L.


Holohan, Dan. Singer Island. CreateSpace: Amazon. Apr. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9781545160169. pap. $15.99. F

[DEBUT] Traveling salesman Charlie Molloy is from the old school. He genuinely loves people and thinks the best way to do his job is by making personal connections with his clients through what he calls The Chat. Unfortunately, his views don’t mesh with those of his new boss, who believes the only effective way of making a sale is from behind a computer or smartphone screen. Forced into early retirement and a subsequent identity crisis, Charlie and his wife, Donna, find themselves on Singer Island, FL. Charlie has nothing to do but go to the beach and try to revive The Chat in local bars in the afternoons—that is, until he meets Clare.

Verdict Elegantly written, this self-published first novel is the Death of a Salesman for the digital age. Charlie’s struggles to find his place in a world that has left him behind are reminiscent of those of Arthur Miller’s iconic Willy Loman. Ultimately, however, this novel is about the importance of family (especially fathers and daughters), of making connections with the people around us, and of taking the time to unplug from our digital devices so those bonds can form.—Elisabeth Clark, West Florida P.L., Pensacola


James, Peter. Need You Dead. Pan Macmillan. Jun. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9781509816316. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781509816347. MYS

Lorna Belling’s lover Greg assures her he will divorce his wife and take Lorna away from her abusive husband, Colin. However, as Lorna views a customer’s vacation photos, she recognizes Greg, lovingly gazing into his wife’s eyes. Realizing Greg has been lying to her, Lorna vows to ruin him and at their next tryst advises him of her intentions. In a fit of rage, he bashes her head against the bathtub wall, blood spurting everywhere. Unsure if Lorna is dead, he flees. Returning later to a corpse, Greg plots to incriminate Colin. Brighton DS Roy Grace appoints Guy Batchelor to cover the case as senior investigating officer, partly because Grace will be in Germany meeting Bruno, the ten-year-old son he never knew he had from his first marriage. James’s 13th Roy Grace mystery (after Love You Dead) packs a punch. Suspects and red herrings abound, and the investigative team follow plentiful leads. Grace’s attention alternates between the murder and the psychological impact on Bruno of his mother’s suicide and his subsequent move to England.

Verdict This British police procedural has action, car chases, gory deaths, and more; totally satisfying. James rates with Ian Rankin, Colin Dexter, and Peter Robinson.—Edward Goldberg, Syosset P.L., NY


starred review starMacColl, Mary-Rose. Swimming Home. Penguin Pr. Jun. 2017. 432p. ISBN 9780143129967. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101993507. F

Set in the 1920s, MacColl’s (In Falling Snow) new novel opens with Catherine Quick at ease with her quiet life on one of Australia’s Torres Strait Islands, swimming the days away in its welcoming waters. But her father’s death forces her to live with her aunt Louisa in London, an arrangement that pleases neither woman. As Louisa, a busy doctor, and Catherine butt heads over the younger woman’s behavior, charming and enigmatic American banker Manfred Lear Black enters their lives and talks Louisa into bringing Catherine to New York, where she can train as a professional swimmer with other women. Louisa eagerly accepts, wanting her niece to move forward in life. But Louisa harbors a secret, which, if revealed, will irrevocably transform her relationship with Catherine.

Verdict Readers who enjoy their historical fiction with complex characters and a fast-paced narrative will undoubtedly find this novel a perfect fit.—Adriana Delgado, Palm Beach Cty. Lib., Loxahatchee, FL


Moggach, Deborah. Final Demand. Overlook. Jun. 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781468310931. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781468315332. F

Natalie Bingham is always up for the Next Big Thing, and it’s to your advantage to keep an eye on her. A 32-year-old beauty underemployed in a huge telecommunications conglomerate in Leeds, England, she happens upon a simple but exquisite scam to defraud her employer, and no one gets hurt—except the company. That’s the beauty of it. So what if it means marrying a nerd who lives with his mother and raises amphibians? At least she showers as much affection on him as he receives from his newts. So what if a few people have their phones disconnected? Who gives a big whoop? Certainly not Natalie. This page-turner raises intriguing questions about the impact an iron butterfly flapping its wings in Leeds might have as far afield as London and Brighton. Is there such a thing as a victimless crime? Is there anything amiss with following our self-interest to its logical end?

Verdict This novel introduces us to a cast of relentlessly flawed characters, all of whom demand our rigorous attention almost as much as Natalie does. Those familiar with Moggach’s earlier work (among others, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the basis for the movie franchise, and Tulip Fever, soon to be a major motion picture) should know that this is decidedly darker but definitely something to keep your eye on.—Bob Lunn, Kansas City, MO


Schutt, Bill & J.R. Finch. The Himalayan Codex: An R.J. MacCready Novel. Morrow. Jun. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780062412553. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062412577. F

Coauthors Schutt (Cannibalism: A Perfectly Natural History) and Finch begin a second adventure (after Hell’s Gate) with zoologist and war hero Capt. R.J. MacCready crash-landing on a snowy cliff in the Himalayas just after World War II. MacCready and his team were sent to investigate the two-trunked mammoth skull of recent origin found in the nearly inaccessible mountains of Tibet. What they find are living mammoths, which display an almost human intelligence, being raised by a giant humanoid species that have an eerie control over their extreme environment. Meanwhile, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, renowned illustrator Charles Knight attempts to translate a codex on Himalayan discoveries left by Pliny the Elder almost two millennia earlier, as Chinese and Russian troops trail MacCready in a race to discover and weaponize the evolutionary secrets of these hidden beings.

Verdict James Rollins and Steve Berry fans who relish a heaping dose of scientific and historical intrigue in their thrillers will find plenty of both here, as well as cameos by such historic figures as JFK and Khrushchev.—Catherine Lantz, Univ. of Illinois at Chicago Lib.


Smith-Stevens, Emma. The Australian. Dzanc. May 2017. 240p. ISBN 9781941088746. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781945814082. F

[DEBUT] As this first novel opens, a young man known only as “The Australian” poses in a superhero costume for tourist photos. After graduating from college, he moves to New York City to earn a fortune in high finance. This career doesn’t last long, as the Australian suffers from a “failure to demonstrate a sense of urgency.” Drifting around the city, he meets Fiona in a bar and strikes up a friendship. The relationship becomes more serious, and they marry, relying entirely on her hard-earned income to support themselves and, eventually, their son. Still unable to decide on a career path, the protagonist finds a job at a styling salon, which is the location for a reality TV show that becomes a huge hit. Now the Australian has the fame and money he desires, but he’s neither happy nor comfortable. He leaves the city and his family, returning to his homeland.

Verdict Smith-Stevens has been published in journals such as Wigleaf, Joyland, Subtropics, and many others. While her writing is highly descriptive, with clever similes, the title character here remains aloof. Perhaps it is his anonymity and subdued emotions that keep him at arm’s length, which will make this book a challenge to many readers.—Lisa Rohrbaugh, Leetonia Community P.L., OH


starred review starWaters, Don. The Saints of Rattlesnake Mountain: Stories. Univ. of Nevada. May 2017. 216p. ISBN 9781943859290. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780874174700. F

A collection of nine superbly crafted short stories, this third book by Waters set in the Southwest (Sunland; Desert Gothic) reminds us that this is not the old Southwest of pioneers and gunfighters but an updated view of broken neighborhoods and rundown lives. In the title story, Emmett, a trustee on a Nevada desert work farm, is up for parole, but his sympathy for the farm’s rehabilitated wild mustangs drives him to a decision that frees the horses and sends him back to lockup. Sgt. Lucero Luna returns to his poverty-stricken hometown coping with PTSD in “Espanola,” only to learn his despicable father gave his sister to a drug dealer to pay off a debt. In “La Luz de Jesús,” screenwriter James Miles retreats to a ranch near Albuquerque to finish a script. Twelve penitents, also living on the land, unexpectedly inspire him to finish his screenplay. “Day of the Dead” tells of an online-assisted suicide group meeting up in Juarez, Mexico. “Full of Days” portrays Marc, a Las Vegas right-to-lifer helping homeless pregnant teens. Tough but vulnerable, all of Waters’s characters have been short-changed by life but still cling to something meaningful while coexisting with the intense landscape of the Southwest.

Verdict This Iowa Short Fiction Award winner offers original, overpowering pieces; a sure-to-please collection of both beauty and sadness.—Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO

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