Fiction from Baker, Carr, Cornick, Gaines, George, Kurbjuweit, Lliteras, Mankell, St. Aubyn | Xpress Reviews

For readers who appreciate regional mysteries; a complex family story with realistically flawed characters; historical fiction with mystery and royal intrigue; a perfect introduction to Gaines’s work; a this well-crafted mystery; an edgy psychological thriller; this slim novel will leave a lasting impression; A powerful celebration of life wrapped in a Swedish crime novel; St. Aubyn does Lear

Week ending September 29, 2017


Baker, Shannon. Dark Signal: A Kate Fox Novel. Forge. Oct. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780765385475. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9780765386274. MYS

In her second outing (after Stripped Bare), Kate Fox, the new sheriff of Grand County, NE, must unravel the mystery of who killed railroad engineer Chad Mills and why. Recently divorced from the county’s previous sheriff, Kate faces personal issues such as living once again in her parents’ house, meddling siblings, unpleasant encounters with her ex-husband and his pregnant new wife, and some fellow residents who don’t believe she is qualified to be sheriff. State patrol officer Trey Ridnoir, working with Kate on this case, also has his doubts about her abilities. He butts heads with her over the evidence and clues until Kate untangles the complicated web of unexplained wealth and betrayal that leads to the real killer: someone Kate has known most all her life. Despite the sometimes confusing plethora of characters, the strong-willed Kate rises to the top.

Verdict Set in the Sandhills of western Nebraska, a landscape populated with cattle and windmills, this sophomore effort will appeal to readers who appreciate regional mysteries for their atmosphere.—Patricia Ann Owens, formerly with Illinois Eastern Community Coll., Mt. Carmel


Carr, Robyn. The Summer That Made Us. Mira: Harlequin. Oct. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780778331049. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780778330868. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488023644. F

Multiple RITA Award winner Carr (“Virgin River” series) continues to explore the connections that women build with one another in her latest stand-alone novel. Not as romantic as some of her other titles, Carr’s latest instead narrows in on the tangled and intimate bonds of three generations of women in a large family, especially the circumstances that can make or break the strongest relationships. With an abundance of female characters—two sisters marry two brothers and each of the sisters has three daughters (double cousins)—and motivations, the many plotlines, mysteries, and time jumps can be a bit confusing, but the main focus is on family and the last summer they were all together, the one summer at their shared lake house where everything changed. That is the pivot that eventually pulls the threads together into a compelling and deeply satisfying conclusion.

Verdict Multiple time lines and points of view, along with a cast of many women, can make this difficult to follow, but readers who enjoy piecing together complex family stories with realistically flawed characters should enjoy this. [See Prepub Alert, 4/10/17.]—Charli Osborne, Oak Park P.L., MI


Cornick, Nicola. House of Shadows. Graydon House: Harlequin. Oct. 2017. 464p. ISBN 9781525811388. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488027901. F

The Sistrin pearl and its companion piece, a small jeweled mirror, have been passed down the royal line since King Alexander I. Legends surround both pieces, where owners of the pearl often mysteriously die a watery death and the mirror is said to destroy those who seek to use its power for their own gain. Now Holly has been given the mirror, and her brother, who recently went missing while researching his family genealogy, may possess the pearl. Returning to her childhood home in Oxfordshire to search for him, Holly is quickly overwhelmed with the additional expectations of sifting through the troublesome history surrounding these beautiful artifacts, figuring out old unresolved personal issues and, perhaps, starting to form a solid romantic relationship. But maybe there’s more help available than she realized? Three complex story lines, set in the 1600s, 1800s, and present-day London, twine together around the central mystery of the pearl and mirror. The contemporary characters display the greatest range of emotions, but that is owing more to the modern times they navigate, but all the relationships have depth. Details of where and how the people in each time frame lived and loved enrich the reading experience.

Verdict Kate Morton and Alison Weir fans and readers who like their historical fiction blended with mystery, royal intrigue, light romance, and strong female characters will put Cornick’s (The Penniless Bride) latest at the top of their reading list. [This title marks the launch of Harlequin’s new Graydon House imprint.—Ed.]—Stacey Hayman, Rocky River P.L., OH


starred review starGaines, Ernest J. The Tragedy of Brady Sims. Vintage. Aug. 2017. 128p. ISBN 9780525434467. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780525434474. F


The amount of life packed into this novella made up almost entirely of conversation among black men in a barbershop may surprise those who haven’t read this author’s highly regarded novels, including A Gathering of Old Men, written in similar style and set in the same fictional Louisiana plantation town. Readers will note slight changes from the segregated Bayonne of earlier books, starting with the narrator—a young, black, college-educated cub reporter assigned to write a human interest story for the next day’s paper. His subject is Brady Sims, an old black man who has just shot a condemned prisoner point-blank in the courtroom. Although often itself dark, humor lightens the somber subject matter and racial tension in this book that can be read in one sitting.

Verdict This dialog-filled novella is both a powerful depiction of different generations of a tight-knit African American community and a very subtle commentary on how high incarceration rates of black men nationally have created the equivalent of a Jim Crow criminal justice system. A perfect introduction to this acclaimed author’s work.—Laurie Cavanaugh, Thayer P.L., Braintree, MA


George, Nelson. To Funk and Die in L.A. Akashic. Sept. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781617755859. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9781617755866. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617756023. MYS

George’s (Lost Treasures of R & B; The Plot Against Hip Hop) fourth crime novel finds a grieving D Hunter traveling from New York to Los Angeles for his grandfather’s funeral. Daniel “Big Danny” Hunter was thought to be a respected South Central businessman murdered in a vicious drive-by, but D learns his beloved grandfather orchestrated some shady deals. Moving through Crenshaw’s streets, he observes a community transforming from a thriving African American neighborhood into a diverse area increasingly populated with Mexican and Korean families and concealing plenty of suspicious characters. Ruthless Calle 18 gang members glare from the sidelines. More than a few women seem to be femmes fatales, and D worries that Big Danny’s running partner Red Dawg could be a Judas. Intertwined throughout the tale is Dr. Funk, an old R & B musician now homeless and busking for small cash, who had a mysterious connection to Big Danny.

Verdict Critic and journalist George knows the streets and his work has a gritty feel that will hold readers’ attention. Name-dropping of 1970s and 1980s performers such as the Dazz Band, Shalamar, and Chaka Khan adds spice to this well-crafted mystery.—Rollie Welch, Lehigh Acres, FL


Kurbjuweit, Dirk. Fear. Harper. Oct. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9780062678348. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062678362. F

When a respectably middle-class German architect and his family move into a new apartment in Berlin they have big plans, until their downstairs neighbor threatens them with his bizarre behavior. Dieter Tiberius, an unstable loner with an emotionally difficult past, begins benignly enough, sending notes or home-baked pies to Randolph Tiefenthaler’s wife, Rebecca. These soon progress to love letters and eventually to threats against Randolph and his family. As everyday life becomes unbearable, Randolph seeks the aid of social workers and the police, but they can do little, even as the ferocity of the threats increases, culminating in Dieter’s allegations of child abuse that turn Randolph and Rebecca into the potential criminals. Ultimately, Randolph feels compelled to take the law into his own hands, enlisting the aid of his gun-loving father.

Verdict Drawing its inspiration from events Kurbjuweit experienced, his first novel in English translation is an edgy psychological thriller exploring the effects of fear on an individual, a family, and even as passed down through generations. A parable with resonance well beyond Germany, Kurbjuweit’s work powerfully explores how easily—and how quickly—the veneer of middle-class respectability can be stripped away by fear.—Lawrence Rungren, Andover, MA


Lliteras, D.S. Syllables of Rain. Rainbow Ridge. Oct. 2017. 152p. ISBN 9781937907525. pap. $16.95. F

Llewellyn is devastated after his girlfriend walks out on him. Cookie is on his own after his wife kicks him out of the house. Llewellyn and Cookie, two former homeless Vietnam vets, meet again by chance in Baltimore. All the members of their little group are dead, including Jansen, who tried to help them find balance in their lives through Zen Buddhism. Llewellyn, attempting to track down his spiritual path through recalling his past, has returned to Baltimore only to find it much changed. Cookie, dealing with his despair through drink, is sinking fast. As they work through their conflicting issues, the two men realize what they must do to keep the hope for their futures alive.

Verdict Lliteras (Viet Man) has created a compact, emotionally charged snapshot of two soldiers trying to make sense of the world around them. Combining prose and poetry, this slim novel will leave a lasting impression on anyone who is or has known a military veteran.—Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV


Mankell, Henning. After the Fire. Vintage. Oct. 2017. 416p. tr. from Swedish by Marlaine Delargy. ISBN 9780525435082. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9780525435099. F

Acclaimed Swedish crime novelist Mankell is perhaps best known for his series of Kurt Wallander novels, made into a TV series starring Kenneth Branagh. Concerning a mysterious fire set at the isolated home of disgraced 70-year-old Swedish physician Fredrik Welin, who lives alone on a small island off the coast, this new book—the final novel Mankell worked on before he died in 2015—is in many ways also a crime novel. But it is so much more: it’s also a gripping, deeply moving philosophical meditation on life, loneliness, and old age. During the course of the book, Welin’s estranged daughter, his only child, reestablishes communication with him and announces that she is pregnant. Welin also strikes up an unlikely friendship with a female reporter who interviews him for the local newspaper about the fire. These unlikely developments coax Welin, who at the beginning of the novel has essentially given up and is waiting to die, back into the world of living and loving. Mankell handles this all with great compassion, humor, and humility.

Verdict A powerful celebration of life wrapped in a Swedish crime novel; enthusiastically recommended for fans of literary fiction.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT


St. Aubyn, Edward. Dunbar. Hogarth: Crown. Oct. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781101904282. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781101904299. F

This latest in the “Hogarth Shakespeare” series recasts King Lear as the story of an aging, modern-day media mogul whose two eldest daughters, with the help of a shady doctor, have their father committed to a mental institution as they attempt to engineer a company takeover. With the help of a fellow patient, a manic comedian, Henry Dunbar manages to escape confinement and wanders the northern English countryside. Meanwhile, his beloved youngest daughter, Florence, works to locate her father and thwart her sisters’ plans. Unlike Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres, which shifted point of view away from the father and toward the elder daughters, St. Aubyn stays closer to Shakespeare’s intent. While Abby and Megan are almost cartoonishly villainous, Dunbar, though cold and ruthless as a businessman, gains our sympathy as he wanders in a state of confusion and dementia reevaluating his life. He acknowledges that he made his daughters what they are, but the deepest tragedy is that his enlightenment comes too late.

Verdict There is a surreal quality to the heightened violence and depiction of Dunbar’s inner turmoil, again in contrast to Smiley’s stark realism. One needn’t know Shakespeare to appreciate the novel, but it helps. [See Prepub Alert, 4/10/17.]—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Univ. of Minnesota Libs., Minneapolis

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