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Almost Famous Women

Megan Mayhew Bergman . Scribner, $25 (256p) ISBN 978-1-4767-8656-8

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The conceit for Bergman's second collection (after Birds of a Lesser Paradise) is immediately appealing—short, punchy sketches of women either completely neglected by popular memory or better known for their association with men. Hence we have Lucia Joyce, daughter of James, in "Expression Theory," Norma Millay occupying the shadow of her sister, Vincent, in "Norma Millay's Film Noir Period," and the steady dissolution of Oscar Wilde's niece in "Who Killed Dolly Wilde?" Bergman's strongest stories concentrate on the historical moments in which her cast of characters (which includes conjoined twins, lady stunt motorcyclists, and smart-mouthed horn players) function as vectors, precisely because these women—lesbians, artists, and African Americans—remain outsiders in their own era. The larger-than-life boat racer "Joe" Carstairs makes her private island into a refuge for lost souls in "The Siege At Whale Cay"; the painter Romaine Brooks shuns even her servants in "Romain Remains"; and Butterfly McQueen repudiates both God and her most famous role, the maid from Gone With the Wind, in "Saving Butterfly McQueen." But for all its veneration for these women, the collection becomes repetitive—too many devoted friends narrating the story of their doomed and famous peers, too many aging burnt-out dames and, overall, too little access to the actual voice and psychology of its heroines. Still, even with weaker entries like the redundant Shirley Jackson impression "The Lottery, Redux," the collection is worth it for its feminist reclamation of the narrative that—for example—celebrates Byron and forgets his abandoned daughter. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Captives

Norman Manea, trans. from the Romanian by Jean Harris. New Directions, $16.95 trade paper (288p) ISBN 978-0-8112-2047-7

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In this bold novel, Manea (The Hooligan's Return) explores a population "imprisoned by the ravaged waters of impossible forgetting" in the aftermath of World War II, trying to make sense of what it means to have survived. An unnamed office worker cannot forget about a lonely piano teacher, Monica Smântănescu. He can't forget about the apparent suicide of fellow comrade, Captain Bogdan Zubcu, or the Captain's orphaned daughter. As these reflections mix with recollections from his youth in Stalinist Romania, the office worker's instability rises to the surface. Translator Jean Harris describes the book's structure as, "The semi-therapeutic writing of a madman." As the narrator wanders around, trying to make sense of his existence, the plot is uncovered in a succession of memories between 1947 and 1965—often these moments are told out of order, scenes flow into each other and perspectives swirl together using first-, second, and third-person perspectives. Many scenes are revisited and reimagined, and every retelling provides more lucid descriptions. As the narrator repeats, again and again, an outburst to his superior at the office or recalls the recurring image of hands on throats, each occasion carries new and greater meaning. A masterful work. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Dead Letters: An Inspector Best Mystery

Joan Lock. History/Mystery (IPG, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-7509-5657-4

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First published in the U.K. in 2003, Lock's lively third historical featuring Det. Insp. Ernest Best of Scotland Yard (after Dead Born) focuses on a terrorist bomb threat. The anonymous Quicksilver, whose "infernal device" has been causing steam engines to explode across London, has sent the authorities a note threatening disaster at the annual Police Fête held on the grounds of the Alexandra Palace on August 19, 1880. Soon after Best arrives at the vast palace on the appointed day, a middle-aged woman dies on a merry-go-round, seemingly of a heart attack. Best wonders whether the woman's death is in fact just a diversion created by Quicksilver. Joining Best in the hunt for the elusive bomber are jolly but determined Detective Littlefield, diminutive Dr. "Stompy" Roper, and hapless Sergeant Smith, who finds himself aloft in an air balloon while pursuing a suspect in one of the story's more humorous scenes. Readers get a good first-hand look at the challenges law enforcers faced more than a century ago that are not so different from what we face in our day. (Dec.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Celia's Song

Lee Maracle. Cormorant Books (UTP, Canadian dist.), $24 trade paper (280p) ISBN 978-1-77086-416-0

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This novel is the seventh work of fiction from one of Canada's most acclaimed aboriginal authors and critics. Maracle, author of Ravensong and Daughters are Forever, is an elder from Sto:lo Nation (The People of the River) on the West Coast of Canada. This story is narrated by Mink, who bears witness to the crisis that follows the suicide of dreamer-seer Celia's son, Jimmy. The structure takes on the character of Celia's dreams, "scattered moving pictures, disconnected from current time," a format that Maracle expertly uses to tell of the history of contact with the Europeans. Beginning with Celia's great-great-grandmother being renamed Alice in exchange for medicines, Celia's visions trace the effects of colonization, beginning with the medicine that did nothing for the small-pox that came with the newcomers blankets, through the horrors of residential schools, down to the present day. Mink insists that bearing witness to the past and present is of great importance, and unflinchingly does so, along with Celia and her nephew Jacob. Celia's scattered images coalesce into a hauntingly beautiful narrative and eventually into a way forward from the pain. Maracle in no way suggests that the answers to Canada's colonial past are clear, but she tells a fiercely honest and wonderfully compassionate story. (Nov.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Fiction River: Past Crime

Edited by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. WMG (www.wmgpublishing.com), $15.99 trade paper (302p) ISBN 978-1-56146-606-1

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Rusch's strong anthology contains a dozen stories of "crimes that aren't crimes any longer," as she states in her introduction, stories that move from as far back as ancient Egypt to as recently as the 1970s. In Dory Crowe's "Stolen in Passing," the volume's arresting opener set in Massachusetts in 1857, two half siblings share black blood but very different fates. Set in the 1890s, Jamie McNabb's "The Bank Teller" tells how a man press-ganged onto a terrible ship seeks vengeance in Port Townsend, Wash. Dean Wesley Smith's "An Education for Thursday" features a woman avenging dreadful crimes against women in 1880 Idaho. Cat Rambo's "The Raiders" evokes the awful conditions at Andersonville during the Civil War and the struggles among the Union prisoners themselves. Rusch, writing as Kris Nelscott, tackles lynchings in the Jim Crown South in "The Monster in Our Midst," while J.C. Andrijeski sets "The Stonewall Rat" in a gay bar in 1960s Manhattan. Readers will find many impressive voices, both familiar and new. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 12/12/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Lamentation

C.J. Sansom. Little, Brown/Mulholland, $27 (656p) ISBN 978-0-316-25496-0

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Everything works in Sansom’s superb sixth Matthew Shardlake novel (after 2011’s Heartstone): the murder mystery with grave political implications, the depiction of Tudor England, and the further development of a lead who’s both courageous and flawed. The “great heresy hunt of 1546” has attorney Shardlake jumpy, especially after he reluctantly witnesses the burning of four people who denied transubstantiation, the belief that the consecrated host contains the body and blood of Christ. His efforts to survive in these uncertain times are complicated when he agrees to try to locate Lamentation of a Sinner, a private work written by Henry VIII’s queen, Catherine Parr, which has been taken from her chambers. In it, the queen speaks of her belief “that salvation comes through faith and study of the Bible, not vain ceremonies,” a view that would be too radical for her capricious husband. A few days after the theft, printer Armistead Greening is found in his shop with his head beaten in—and the first page of the volume clutched in his hand. Shardlake must now also identify Greening’s killer. The rich period details burnish Sansom’s status as one of today’s top historical writers. Agent: Jennifer Weltz, Jeanne V. Naggar Literary Agency. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Rough Justice

Sarah Castille. St. Martin’s Paperbacks, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-250-05660-3

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Most bikers are hobbyists or businessmen, but Army vet Jagger is that rare bird: a motorcycle-riding ruthless criminal. As president of the Sinner’s Tribe Motorcycle Club, which dominates the illegal gun trade in Montana, it’s his responsibility to deliver violence and vigilante justice to protect his and the club’s interests. Personal relationships offer too many vulnerabilities to risk. But Jagger is surprised by the lengths he will go to dominate, protect, and win the heart of Arianne, whom he captures after a rival club burns down his headquarters. Tough Arianne may have been raised in the biker world, but all she wants is to escape to a civilian life, regardless of the protection and sex Jagger offers. Castille dials up the biker slang to 11, and at times it’s hard to root for a couple enmeshed in an illegal, misogynist lifestyle. Even Castille’s fans will wish that some of the lighter moments from her Redemption series had snuck into this rough, tough contemporary. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Earls Just Want to Have Fun

Shana Galen. Sourcebooks Casablanca, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-4022-9871-4

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Galen (Love and Let Spy) launches her latest Regency series with a pleasant but predictable story spiced with a touch of social conscience. Marlowe is the best pickpocket of the Covent Garden Cubs, a gang of young thieves under the thumb of the ruthless Satin. Cold, hunger, and the threat of prison are the only life Marlowe’s ever known, but when she learns that she might be the missing Lady Elizabeth Grafton, she dares to believe she could escape the slums. Maxwell Derring, Earl of Dane, is unhappy about being the keeper for his brother’s latest find, no matter how intriguing she is under all that grime. Still, within a few days their spark is undeniable, and Maxwell finds he’s willing to risk his own life to free Marlowe from Satin’s grip even if she isn’t a marquess’s daughter. Good chemistry, solid writing, and an interesting plot are all present, but the stakes never get high enough to build tension. Agent: Joanna MacKenzie, Browne and Miller Literary Associates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Raven

Sylvain Reynard. Berkley, $16 trade paper (416p) ISBN 978-0-425-26649-6

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Reynard (the Gabriel Trilogy) launches a series with this uneven paranormal contemporary set in a remarkably well-portrayed Florence. Art restorer Raven Wood, who works at the Uffizi Gallery, is attacked on the way home from a party, but a mysterious figure intervenes. At the same moment, valuable Botticelli drawings are stolen from the gallery. The two events are linked by William York, the vampire prince of Florence. He has fallen hard for Raven and attempts to win her heart while fending off vampire hunters, possible traitors in his court, and the police investigation into the art theft, which he committed. The depiction of Raven’s disabling limp is nuanced and thoughtful, and Reynard makes a credible attempt to subvert and critique many of the genre’s clichés (though he falls prey to a few). There’s nothing resembling a plot, the action scenes are muddled and confusing, and the ending is merely a pause before book two. Still, it can’t be overemphasized how well this novel captures the details, locations, and long history of one of the most beautiful cities in the world. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The Distraction

Sierra Kincade. Berkley, $15 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-0-425-27800-0

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Kincade follows The Masseuse with a confusing mix of eroticism, suspense, and deep emotion. Alec Flynn is a violent, dangerous man who leaves a trail of destruction behind him. Everyone warns Anna Rossi away from him, but she ignores all advice, to her detriment. The first half of the book is blazing hot, though Kincade teases the reader with unfulfilled promises of kinky play. Then comes an abrupt shift into fast-paced drama and improbable action sequences, paired uncomfortably with realistic emotional reactions to violence and abuse. Kincade piles on a series of predictable revelations of secret identities that are no surprise. The reader is left despairing that these two could find anything resembling a happy ending. Agent: Joanna MacKenzie, Browne and Miller Literary Associates. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 12/05/2014 | Details & Permalink

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