Fiction from Gaylin, Kasai, Powell, the Samatars, and Sigurdardóttir | Xpress Reviews

Gaylin’s skillful balance of tension and intimacy will appeal to fans of psychological and domestic suspense; Kasai explores the horrors of slavery and its legacy; the first volume in a new trilogy that will appeal to military sf fans; this series of brief fictions and sketches combine to dazzle the imagination; not up to Sigurdardóttir’s high standards

Week ending February 9, 2018


Gaylin, Alison. If I Die Tonight. Morrow. Mar. 2018. 384p. ISBN 9780062641106. $26.99; pap. ISBN 9780062641090. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062641113. THRILLER

In the small town of Havenkill, NY, aging rock star Aimee En pounds on the door of a police station, claiming that her car was stolen and a teenager who tried to stop the carjacking was run over by the thief. Meanwhile, divorced realtor Jackie Reed frets over the growing distance between her and sons Connor and Wade. As the tragedy consumes the small town, secrets compound, and Wade becomes the target of everyone’s suspicions. Edgar Award nominee Gaylin (Hide Your Eyes; What Remains of Me) deftly pries into the challenges of parenthood, the hidden lives of teenagers, and the cruelties that hide behind the idyllic facade of small-town life while also maintaining unrelenting tension. The narrative is told from four perspectives, each with a distinct voice and emotional depth and all trying to understand what happened that fateful night. Though the plot and characters are skillfully managed, the story wraps up quickly after the big reveal and may be unsatisfying to readers who want all their loose threads to be fully fleshed out.

Verdict Gaylin’s skillful balance of tension and intimacy will appeal to fans of psychological and domestic suspense, and the questions she raises about parents, children, and bullying have rich potential for book clubs. [See Prepub Alert, 9/22/17.]Carol Munroe, Frank L. Weyenberg Lib., Mequon, WI


Kasai, Kirsten Imani. The House of Erzulie. Shade Mountain. Feb. 2018. 275p. ISBN 9780998463414. pap. $24.95. F

Parallel stories from past and present come together in this Southern gothic novel that juxtaposes present-day architectural historian Lydia’s contemporary struggle with mental illness and marital troubles with the historical story, chronicled in letters and journals, of madness tearing a guilt-ridden, slave-owning Louisiana Creole couple apart in the 1850s. The author of two novels of speculative fiction (Ice and Song; Tattoo), Kasai skillfully blends an atmosphere of hallucinatory tension with well-researched explorations into 19th-century beliefs in voodoo and spiritualism, until the reader is as unsure as the novel’s characters whether severe stress or a mysterious house of magic is the source of the numerous tragedies straining the relationships of the two couples, past and present.

Verdict Kasai explores the horrors of slavery and its legacy in this gothic tale that tingles on the verge of psychological horror. For readers of African American literary fiction and dark, surreal stories.—Laurie Cavanaugh, Thayer P.L., Braintree, MA


Powell, Gareth L. Embers of War. Titan. Feb. 2018. 416p. ISBN 9781785655180. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781785655197. SF

Trouble Dog is a sentient warship who has resigned her position and joined an unarmed nonpartisan rescue fleet. She and her small crew are each working through their own private emotional fallout from a recent bloody war and the atrocities they witnessed or committed. They receive a distress call while they are escaping from a disastrous rescue mission that had cost the life of one of their crew. A cruise liner is under attack in a distant star system. There are 900-plus people aboard, and Trouble Dog is the closest vessel. Will they get there in time? Will there be survivors to rescue? Meanwhile, Ona Sudak, a well-known poet aboard the liner, is dealing with memories of her own. She may not be whom she appears to be. But who is she?

Verdict Powell, author of the 2013 BSFA Award–winning Ack-Ack Macaque, launches the first volume in a new trilogy that will appeal to military sf fans, especially those who seek a little mystery in space. Like most titles in this genre, there is some subtle social commentary, but it doesn’t interfere with the story. If you enjoy James A. Corey or Vernor Vinge, you will want to read this.—Elizabeth Masterson, Mecklenburg Cty. Jail Lib., Charlotte, NC


starred review starSamatar, Del & Sofia Samatar. Monster Portraits. Rose Metal. Feb. 2018. 84p. illus. ISBN 9781941628102. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941628119. FANTASY
World Fantasy Award winner Sofia Samatar (A Stranger in Olandria) and brother Del’s hybrid collaboration of text and artwork explores the monstrous and otherness through folkloric and literary storytelling. Inspired by Del’s artwork (recalling William Blake’s visionary fusion of demonic and divine), Sofia’s mix of speculative fiction, memoir, nightmares, historical quotes, and mythology creates imaginative space in the reader where anything might happen—an incubator for ideas and even social commentary. Beyond mere escapism and entertainment, works of fantasy can question our existence in ways unavailable to nonfiction and so-called mainstream literature and illuminate reality with haunting, sometimes brutal precision. As Sofia urges: endure the scar, and let an insight come and find you. Monsters serve as avatars—masks, if you will—obscuring identity so we can participate in transgression and celebrate the beauty of ugliness.

Verdict The series of brief fictions and sketches combine not only to dazzle the imagination but question and bear witness to society’s destructive impulse to catalog and marginalize the Other—in humankind. Readers of Octavia Butler, Ursula K. Le Guin, and many of the authors selected by editor Ellen Datlow for the “Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror” anthologies will find here much to admire and think about.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV


Sigurdardóttir, Yrsa. The Legacy. Minotaur/Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Feb. 2018. 463p. tr. from Icelandic by Victoria Cribb. ISBN 9781250136268. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250136275. MYS

For a small country with a low crime rate (1.8 murders a year), Iceland produces a fair number of mystery writers with gruesomely dark imaginations. Among the most notable is Sigurdardóttir, whose chilling The Silence of the Sea won the 2015 Petrona Award for Best Scandinavian Crime Novel. In a departure from her books featuring lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdottir and a spooky stand-alone (I Remember You), the author launches a new series introducing a sleuthing duo, newly promoted detective Huldar and Freyja, director of the Children’s House refuge for traumatized and abused children, who are called in to interview a seven-year-old girl who witnessed her mother’s brutal murder while hiding under a bed. As the two hunt for clues to the killing and the other bizarre murders that follow, readers will wonder how this crime links to the prolog, set in 1987, in which three young siblings are split up and sent to separate adoptive families. The final reveal will have them scratching their heads. Really? All these convoluted red herrings for this clunky, unbelievable ending? Likewise, Sigurdardóttir’s protagonists (who share a brief past via a disappointing one-night stand) are not particularly compelling.

Verdict Although not up to the author’s high standards, this thriller will have Nordic noir fans turning the pages. [Library marketing.]—Wilda Williams, Library Journal

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