Fiction from Hämäläinen, London, Longworth, and Misko and Debuts Galore | Xpress Reviews

Debuts from Buntin, Cottrell, Hartnett, Magariel, Ruby, and Underdown are all worth checking out, for disturbing, emotional, sharp, insightful, nerve-jarring, astute, and suspenseful fiction. Also, Hämäläinen's intriguing puzzle, London's breathtaking romance, and Longworth's whodunit
Week ending March 10, 2017 starred review starBuntin, Julie. Marlena. Holt. Apr. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781627797641. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781627797634. F marlena031017[DEBUT] From the first page of this stunning first novel, as we meet the adult Cat, we know that she has never recovered from her teenage friendship with the daring, desperate, ultimately destructive Marlena. And we know that Marlena is dead, though it takes reading through the nervy narrative to discover how she died and what that has meant for Cat. When she moves to rural Michigan at age 15 with her newly divorced mother and older brother, the naïve, stumbling Cat is immediately drawn to hard-drinking, drug-taking, school-skipping, wrong-side-of-the tracks Marlena. Cat was once a good student who even attended private school, but with Marlena she can’t seem to stop herself from spinning out of control: “I saw myself get up…. But a girl, another one, remained…safe inside the library. In other words, I saw myself split in two.” Every moment of the way, we’re screaming at Cat to pull back. And yet we understand Marlena’s allure; she promises a bold new life while serving as both lodestar and safe haven. Verdict Buntin perfectly captures a burning and essential friendship with lasting consequences and that terrible moment when we make a wrong turn and can’t go back. An exceptional portrait, disturbing and precisely observed; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 10/10/16.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Cottrell, Patty Yunni. Sorry To Disrupt the Peace. McSweeney. Mar. 2017. 288p. ISBN 9781944211301. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781944211318. F [DEBUT] In this distinctive debut, as unsettling as it is darkly funny, Helen Moran is shattered by the suicide of her adoptive brother, Korean-born like herself, and flies home to Milwaukee to discover what happened. She’s long been estranged from her white parents, whose perception of her cultural heritage doesn’t extend beyond ornamental chopsticks, and works in New York with troubled youth who call her Sister Reliability. Helen prides herself on behaving ethically and explains her actions in earnest, off-kilter, unintentionally witty language: to her adoptive parents, as she pointedly calls them, she says, “I’m here to look into the abyss and to offer my support in whatever form it takes.” It’s clear that Helen has been skirting the abyss for some time and that she and her brother struggled with the dissociation of being Korean (not Chinese) in an insular society. Yet the book deals more with her coming to realize that she hadn’t entirely listened to her brother and that his final act was meant as both a noble gesture and his one assertive act. “TO LIVE AND LIVE ON,” she ends up shouting, summing up the real issue at stake. Verdict A sharp, fresh voice that draws readers in; for most fiction readers.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Hämäläinen, Karo. Cruel Is the Night. Soho Crime. Apr. 2017. 320p. tr. from Finnish by Owen Witesman. ISBN 9781616956813. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616956820. F This English-language debut by a prize-winning Finnish author has a great hook—it’s the morning after a dinner party of four people and now three cell phones are ringing unanswered because their owners are dead. How did we get here and who’s the survivor? Mikko and his wife, Veera, have flown from Finland to join Robert and wife Elise for dinner in their new wildly expensive apartment in London. Robert and Mikko had gone to school together but had taken different career paths. Robert became a hedge fund billionaire, while Mikko is an investigative reporter who works tirelessly to expose financial corruption among the world’s rich and powerful. Each character narrates a chapter, and Mikko makes clear in his first outing that he plans to kill Robert. The whys and wherefores are up to the reader to discover. But Mikko may not be the only one with murder in his heart. Verdict Although the story bogs down in the middle as the two couples reexamine the paths that led them to that fateful dinner and it’s difficult to know whom to root for, the intriguing puzzle will be enough for some—especially readers who enjoy books like L.S. Hilton’s Maestra and Caroline Kepnes’s You, in which the game is the goal.Jane Jorgenson, Madison P.L., WI starred review starHartnett, Annie. Rabbit Cake. Tin House. Mar. 2017. 344p. ISBN 9781941040560. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941040577. F [DEBUT] In this whimsical and utterly original debut, Elvis Babbitt’s mother is a sleepwalker and even a sleep-swimmer, which leads tragically to her drowning. Smart, studious Elvis can’t accept the death as an accident, assiduously working her way through the medical literature to prove that her mother knew she had some sort of illness. Things aren’t easy for Elvis. She has to manage her clueless dad, long on love but short on parenting skills, and a destructive older sister named Lizzie who engages in dangerous behavior that includes sleep-eating, which could poison her. Elvis must also meet with a ditzy therapist who gives her a time line for grief while maundering on about her own divorce. The beautifully drawn Elvis is rescued by a job at the zoo that fits her interests perfectly and, more important, by her own stunning perseverance; this is one family that veers toward the depths but is finally, joyously redeemed. Verdict Elvis is a charmer, and the entire novel is as delicious as the rabbit cakes Lizzie bakes in abundance both to win a place in the Guinness record book and to honor their mother. Highly recommended for a wide range of fiction readers.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal London, Julia. Sinful Scottish Laird. HQN: Harlequin. (Highland Grooms, Bk. 2). Feb. 2017. 384p. ISBN 9780373789900. pap. $7.99; ebk. ISBN 9781459294950. HISTORICAL ROMANCE sinfulscottish031017At 29, Daisy Bristol, Lady Chatwick, has less than three months to find a husband or forfeit her son’s inheritance, as stipulated by her late husband’s will. To guarantee nine-year-old Ellis has a future, she’ll agree to another marriage of convenience, but she’s wrecked emotionally and swarmed by suitors after her fortune. Needing time to think, she travels with Ellis and loyal cousin Belinda and Uncle Alfonso to Auchenard lodge in the Scottish Highlands. Scotsman Cailean Mackenzie, laird of Arrandale and successor to the head of the respected Mackenzie clan, intercepts her on her journey. But Cailean isn’t at all interested in a wife, especially not an Englishwoman. Now feeling like a pariah in enemy territory, Daisy sees the sudden return of her first love, British naval officer Rob Spivey, as a godsend. Yet when Rob’s hidden agenda comes to light, Daisy is back to square one, and this time she just might have to go it alone. Verdict Haunted by a past failed relationship, our hero is loath to trust his instincts and let go of prejudice, while our heroine combats the opposite challenge, trusting too quickly and suffering repeated disappointment. London (Wild Wicked Scot) keeps her promise of a happy ending, but readers will wonder as they empathize with both sides, breathing a sigh of relief when the final vows are sealed.—Annalisa Pešek, Library Journal Longworth, M.L. The Curse of La Fontaine: A Verlaque and Bonnet Mystery. Penguin Pr. Apr. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780143110941. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781101992715. MYS When a rising chef opens a restaurant in Aix-en-Provence, it proves to be very popular with the locals. That is, until he reveals his vision to turn the historic courtyard into an outdoor eating area. Despite the vocal protests, he proceeds with his plan, only to be derailed when a skeleton is unearthed next to the landmark fountain, the site of a 17th-century hanging and two murders committed during World War II. Everyone agrees the fountain is cursed, except for Judge Antoine Verlaque, who is all too familiar with human evil. With help from his new wife, Marine, Verlaque uncovers myriad suspects in the small community. Longworth’s sixth series entry (after The Mystery of the Lost Cezanne) does a wonderful job of transporting readers to the south of France. The uniqueness of the French justice system is outlined without stopping the action with too many details. The sleuths are appealing, as are many of the supporting characters. Layers of clues require close attention, but the payoff is worth the effort. Verdict Fans of Georges Simenon and Joanne Harris will enjoy this work, which will definitely appeal to readers who like a little armchair travel with their whodunits. [See Prepub Alert, 10/17/16.]—Julie Ciccarelli, Tacoma P.L. Magariel, Daniel. One of the Boys. Scribner. Mar. 2017. 176p. ISBN 9781501156168. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781501156182. F [DEBUT] Slim and sharp as an ice pick, Magariel’s debut features two brothers whose father triumphantly claims them after a vicious divorce, arguing that their mother never wanted them—and getting his younger son, the 12-year-old narrator, to collude in lies about her negligence. As they drive through the night from their Kansas home to New Mexico, the boys initially seem to revel in their buoyant father’s man-to-man camaraderie and the adventure he’s launched. But warning signs come early that this father isn’t entirely stable. They’ve barely arrived at their new home when he provokes a fight with a bartender, encouraging his sons’ profanity when they’re refused beers, then beats the narrator unmercifully when he gets into a scrape at school. Not used to working at home, the father soon seems distant, hollow-eyed, and increasingly violent, and the brothers have to rethink what really happened to their family. Suddenly, their choices are as stark as the New Mexico landscape, matched by the sharply pared-down language. Verdict The nerve-jarring narrative develops unexpectedly and insightfully as Magariel sketches a fine study of family, responsibility, and what it means to be a man. A satisfying if disturbing read.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal Misko, James A. The Path of the Wind. Square One. Apr. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780757004445. pap. $17.95; ebk. ISBN 9780757054440. F Miles Foster is disappointed when he is offered a job in Tamarack Creek, a remote lumber town, rather than Portland, OR. But he moves there with his pregnant wife to teach geography, history, music, and typing while also acting as an assistant to the football coach and driving the school bus. When he decides to work toward providing this small, rural school with band uniforms, he quickly learns that superintendent/principal Calvin Brooks is interested in nothing except the bottom line. The men are increasingly at odds as Miles tries to make the students’ education meaningful and practical. He is also becoming frustrated with the increasing demands on his time from both his job and his family. Verdict Misko (As All My Fathers Were) attempts to show that a one-size-fits-all education is inappropriate for a number of students, but this book is disappointing. Characters and subplots are not fully developed, and the story seems choppy while not living up to its potential. There are also problems with the time line—e.g., Miles receives his teaching degree in less than a year, and his wife has an ultrasound in 1958 or 1959, which was not available in the United States until the 1970s.—Margaret Bentley, Shiawassee Dist. Lib., Owosso, MI starred review starRuby, Ryan. The Zero and the One. Twelve: Hachette. Mar. 2017. ISBN 9781455565184. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781455565191. F [DEBUT] At Oxford, shy, bookish Owen, an English lad who’s the first in his family to attend university, is charmed by a charismatic and vainglorious New Yorker named Zach whom he meets in a philosophy tutorial. Zach shows Owen to a wider world of drinking, partying, and prostitutes, taking him to Berlin and daring him to overstep boundaries of convention and, finally, morality. He also facilitates Owen’s involvement with Claire, Owen’s first real girlfriend, even as Zach toys with Claire’s friend Tori. But Zach is on a collision course with death, compelling Owen to enter into a suicide pact for reasons that are slowly revealed in this tantalizing first novel and different from what one might expect. We learn what has happened through flashbacks, as the novel opens with Owen’s arrival in New York for Zach’s funeral, and the plaintive, desperate story of the two Oxford students becomes intertwined with Owen’s involvement with Zach’s family, especially his restless, enthralling twin sister, Vera. Verdict Readers might feel the occasional moment of irritation with self-indulgent youth, but this book is a winner, offering astute psychological insight and a suspenseful unfolding to a shocking end.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal starred review starUnderdown, Beth. The Witchfinder’s Sister. Ballantine. Apr. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780399179143. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780399179150. F witchfinder031017[DEBUT] “Witchfinder General” Matthew Hopkins is believed to have caused the deaths of as many as 300 accused women over a few short years in 17th-century England, 50 years before Salem, MA, earned its own infamous reputation. First novelist Underdown imagines Alice Hopkins, Matthew’s loving but increasingly horrified sister, who returns destitute and pregnant to her brother’s household after being widowed. Alice’s gratitude fades as she realizes that his childhood peculiarities have given way to something far more sinister. In frantically piecing together the old family secrets that still torment Matthew, Alice worries about who might be his next target. Verdict Filled with details about the process of supposedly identifying and testing witches, this satisfyingly suspenseful book should appeal strongly to readers who enjoyed other witchcraft-themed historical fiction; it will also attract those who like such novels as Jessie Burton’s The Miniaturist that feature female protagonists resisting restrictive social roles to do a little sleuthing about the men in their lives. Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 10/31/16.]—Mara Bandy, Champaign P.L., IL

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