Fiction from Bokal, Cowell, Eber, Machado de Assis, Sager, Willett, Wolas, and a Starred Debut | Xpress Reviews

Recommended for those who enjoy the second-chance-at-love trope; the characters and setting make this debut addictive to read; a pleasure from start to finish; Eber writers compellingly; highly recommended for those who savor the short story; this tension-building sophomore release from Sager offers dizzying twists; the story’s conclusion may leave readers with more questions than answers; Wolas once again writes with gorgeous intensity about the strata of loving relationships

Week ending July 13, 2018

Bokal, Jennifer D. Rocky Mountain Valor. Harlequin Romantic Suspense. (Rocky Mountain Justice, Bk. 3). Sept. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781335456571. $5.75; ebk. ISBN 9781488093197. ROMANTIC SUSPENSE

Bokal’s “Rocky Mountain Justice” series features a group of freelance investigators, all ex-military, who are on the hunt for a Russian drug kingpin. RMJ leader Ian Wallace has been chasing Mateev for nearly a decade, devoting his life to bringing the crime lord down. But just as his frustration leads Ian to cross ethical lines that get his agency thrown off the case, the one woman he can’t forget returns with troubles of her own. Petra Sloane needs Ian to help her figure out whether she might have murdered her high-profile client, while Ian wants to know how her client, the city’s MVP quarterback, got himself mixed up with the Russian mafia. And the real killer needs them both to take the fall. This reunion love story ramps up the danger and suspense from the previous book (Rocky Mountain Defender), while losing some of the over-the-top coincidences that made that story so much fun.

Verdict There’s a lot of heat as well as angst in the broken relationship between Ian and Petra, but so much of their chemistry is based in the past, of which readers don’t get to see nearly enough. Recommended for those who enjoy the second-chance-at-love trope and are looking to see how the series wraps up.—Marlene Harris, Reading Reality, Lawrenceville, GA


starred review star Citkowitz, Evgenia. The Shades. Norton. Jun. 2018. 208p. ISBN 9780393254129. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393254136. F

[DEBUT] The intimate yet dysfunctional family at the center of Citkowitz’s debut novel may be inspired by the author’s own famous family: her mother, Lady Caroline Blackwood, was a celebrated author and notorious drinker, and her sister Ivana Lowell wrote a memoir about her difficult childhood. Here, Catherine and Michael are a well-off artistic couple living in London who lose their 15-year-old daughter Rachel in a car accident. Soon after, their son insists on going away to boarding school, where he develops an unhealthy obsession with climate change. Finding herself with a prematurely empty nest, Catherine spends a lot of time holed up in their historic country house. A striking young girl who used to live there comes to visit, and Catherine is infatuated. The girl is Catherine, but she is also Rachel, and Catherine’s mother, who drowned mysteriously. The basics of the novel’s plot can’t come close to describing the hypnotizing puzzle that Citkowitz creates.

Verdict The characters and setting make this addictive to read, with twists that will have readers going back to savor details they missed. Recommended for fans of literary mysteries and family sagas.—Kate Gray, Boston P.L.

Cowell, Alan S. Cat Flap. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2018. 240p. ISBN 9781250146519. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250146526. F

Distinguished journalist and fiction writer Cowell (e.g., The Terminal Spy) offers an absurdist romp of a novel that riffs on Franz Kafka’s famous story about Gregor Samsa (who woke up one morning to find himself transformed into a beetle). In this case, however, Dolores Tremayne—wife, mother of two young daughters, and high-powered business executive who regularly travels abroad from her home in London—wakes up to find herself inhabiting the body of her family’s beloved house cat, X. All sorts of mayhem ensue from this inspired premise. As it turns out, Dolores’s husband is ardently unfaithful, seeing not one but three other women while posing as a responsible house-husband and father. By the end of this well-paced and skillfully executed novel, the husband’s infidelities have been exposed, and he is rendered an appropriately farcical comeuppance. The novel is literate in the best sense of the term, with Cowell’s wearing his intelligence and sense of humor lightly, mixing in references to high culture (Proust, Kierkegaard) and popular culture (the Disney movie The Aristocats) to great effect.

Verdict A pleasure from start to finish. Recommended for fans of literary humor and anyone who loves cats.—Patrick Sullivan, Manchester Community Coll., CT


Eber, Christine. When a Woman Rises. Cinco Puntos. Jun. 2018. 208p. ISBN 9781941026847. pap. $16.95. F

Veronica, a young Maya woman in Chiapas, Mexico, has persuaded her mother, Magdalena, to participate in an oral history project by recording stories of her life, in particular, those memories of her now-missing best friend, Lucia. Magdalena recounts their childhood days of deficiency and hardship, marked by substandard education and prejudice against her indigenous community. While Magdalena chooses an early marriage and motherhood, the expected path for women in their fictional town of Lokan, Lucia becomes a skilled and respected healer. Lucia’s attraction to the kind Madre Ester, a local nun, confuses and isolates her, and she turns to alcohol. The women become involved with the Zapatista political movement and learn about community organizing, cooperative economic efforts, and political resistance. When poverty drives Lucia to look for work away from Lokan, Magdalena’s premonition of great harm befalling her friend threatens to become reality. Anthropologist Eber has done extensive fieldwork among the Maya in Chiapas and has written extensively about the area and its people (e.g., 2011’s The Journey of a Tzotzil-Maya Woman of Chiapas, Mexico: Pass Well over the Earth). Presenting her years of findings and impressions in this fictionalized form is a powerful way to bring the lives of these women to light.

Verdict Eber writers compellingly, and fans of contemporary fiction investigating conflicts between traditional and modern mores, men and women, and political factions should enjoy this one.—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis


starred review star Machado de Assis, Joaquim Maria. The Collected Stories of Machado de Assis. Liveright: Norton. Jun. 2108. 992p. tr. from Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa & Robin Patterson. ISBN 9780871404961. $35; ebk. ISBN 9780871404978. F

Despite such well-known champions in the United States as Harold Bloom and Susan Sontag, novelist Machado de Assis (1839–1908) has never reached the literary reputation here that he enjoyed in his native Brazil. This edition brings together, for the first time in English, all stories from his seven collections, stories that he himself chose as his best, published in his lifetime. The stories are set mainly in Rio de Janeiro, then the capital of the Brazilian Empire and in transition from colonial backwater to imperial metropolis. As the grandson of freed slaves writing at the time of emancipation in Brazil, Machado de Assis saw slavery more as a backdrop than an issue, although “The Cane” and “Father Against Mother,” written after abolition, confront the topic head-on. Although some of the stories seem to feature nostalgia, Machado views the past as unfathomable as it is irretrievable. One of his main themes is personal obsession, which can descend to the level of madness, as in “Second Life” or the even more chilling “The Secret Cause.”

Verdict Machado veered away from the romantic-realist school of his contemporaries to scale new heights in form and subject matter often in a way that, it has been argued, prefigures magical realism. Highly recommended for those who savor the short story and for all Latin Americanists.—Jack Shreve, Chicago

Sager, Riley. The Last Time I Lied. Dutton. Jul. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9781524743079. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781524743086. F

Haunted by memories of fellow campers who went missing 15 years before, Emma Davis is now a successful artist thriving in New York City. Her paintings channel the mysterious events of that harrowing summer at Camp Nightingale, which to this date have never been solved. When Emma serendipitously gets the opportunity to return to Nightingale as an arts teacher and counselor, she reluctantly accepts in hopes that she can uncover the truth of the missing girls. Chapters alternate between the present and 15 years earlier, all told from the perspective of Emma, who reveals herself as an unreliable narrator making readers wary of what to believe. Atmospheric and foreboding, the story unfolds much like an on-screen thriller filled with nods to the horror genre.

Verdict Reminiscent of Picnic at Hanging Rock, this tension-building sophomore release from Sager (Final Girls) offers dizzying twists and makes for a fun summer read. Recommended for mystery, psychological fiction, and thriller fans. [See Prepub Alert, 2/1/18.]—Carolann Curry, Mercer Univ. Lib., Macon, GA

Willett, Marcia. Summer on the River. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781250121059. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250121066. F

Summer at Evie’s riverside house should be a relaxing getaway and an opportunity to cherish family memories. The beautiful house should be a place for her to remember her late husband and reminisce with her stepson, Charlie. Charlie looks forward to a respite from his unhappy London home as well. While he visits Evie, he meets a woman with whom he feels an instant connection, which is sure to cause distress in his rocky marriage. Evie, too, has a secret, and as it comes to light, scandal looms. The family’s future is threatened, and Evie and Charlie must keep this from being their last summer at the river. Setting is just as important as plot in Willett’s (A Week in Winter) tale of summer and intrigue. The story gets off to a slow start, but the pace picks up slightly as secrets begin to be revealed.

Verdict Though Willett’s writing is strong overall and the setting is beautifully described, there are an overwhelming number of characters, which can be difficult to keep straight; furthermore, the story’s conclusion may leave readers with more questions than answers.—Kristen Calvert, Marion Cty. P.L. Syst., Belleview, FL

starred review star Wolas, Cherise. The Family Tabor. Flatiron: Macmillan. Jul. 2018. 400p. ISBN 9781250081452. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250081469. F

Seventy-year-old Harry Tabor and his family are preparing for a gala evening in Palm Springs, CA, where he will accept the Man of the Decade award for his philanthropic work resettling persecuted Jews over the past 30 years. He’s still deeply in love with his wife, Roma, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders, and the couple welcome the arrival of their adult children. Within hours, the surface family serenity quickly unravels. Phoebe, a wealthy Hollywood lawyer, struggles with an empty romantic life. Camille, a brilliant anthropologist, is coming out of a deep depression triggered by her exit from her fieldwork. Simon, the youngest, also an attorney, who specializes in reclaiming stolen Jewish art from all over the world, infuriates his wife with his nascent crisis of faith. The Tabor clan’s preparations for the evening’s fete unmask long-buried secrets and deceptions that come roaring back, culminating in a shocking disappearance.

Verdict Wolas, whose much-acclaimed debut novel, The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, earned countless well-deserved accolades, once again writes with gorgeous intensity about the strata of loving relationships that entwine families in all their messy contradictions that often stubbornly resist transparency, the truth, and resolution. Savor this. [See Prepub Alert, 1/8/18.]—Beth E. Andersen, Ann Arbor, MI

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