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Invisible Streets

Toby Ball. Overlook, $26.95 (336p) ISBN 978-1-4683-0902-7

Ball's third thriller set in an unnamed American city (after 2011's Scorch City) is his best yet. It's 1963, and the power structure is moving ahead with a radical plan to alter the city's geography using tax incentives to transform its center into "a single, powerful, enormous business district." Highways will link the center with new affluent suburbs while bypassing poorer neighborhoods. With the support of businessmen and corrupt politicians, the New City Project seems unstoppable. The theft of a full trailer of explosives interjects an element of uncertainty. Against this backdrop, Panos Demitropoulis asks reporter Frank Frings, who has been waging a quixotic fight on behalf of the have-nots, to trace his missing grandson, Sol Elia, whom he hasn't seen in two years but now has reason to hope is alive. Frings's search for Sol intersects with a wide array of plot lines, which build to a stunning conclusion. Ball portrays the realities of graft and moral compromise in government perfectly, and slides in some insights into urban planning as well. Agent: Rob McQuilkin, Lippincott Massie McQuilkin. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Last to Know

Elizabeth Adler. Minotaur, $25.99 (336p) ISBN 978-1-250-01992-9

In this plodding whodunit from Adler (Please Don't Tell), Boston homicide detective Harry Jordan retreats to his lakeside cabin in Evening Lake, Mass., to decompress after the recent breakup with his fiancée, Mallory Malone. But he can't relax for long when a neighboring house, belonging to Lacey Havnel and her daughter, Bea, suddenly goes up in flames, with Bea the only survivor. Little is known about the Havnels among the small community of Evening Lake, but the unofficial matriarch of the area, Rose Osborne, agrees to take 21-year-old Bea in while the investigation into the fire continues. Rose and her husband, acclaimed suspense novelist Wally Osborne, share their home, known as a haven of calm, with oldest son Roman, twins Madison and Frazer, and youngest son, Diz. When Jordan digs deeper into the lives of Lacey and Bea, he's surprised by the larcenous trail he discovers, making him question whether the fire was an accident after all. In predictable fashion, another corpse shows up, and the Osbornes are revealed to be more complex than they first appeared. Readers will find nothing new or revelatory, and the interstitial sections written by "the killer" are more annoying than insightful. Agent: Anne Sibbald, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Beyond Rue Morgue: Further Tales of Edgar Allan Poe's 1st Detective

Edited by Paul Kane and Charles Prepolec. Titan, $14.95 trade paper (332p) ISBN 978-1-781161-75-3

Execution doesn't match concept in this uneven anthology, which includes Poe's "The Murders in the Rue Morgue" and nine stories inspired by that classic tale introducing C. Auguste Dupin, the prototypical eccentric sleuth, whose brilliance is chronicled by an admiring sidekick. In Mike Carey's sly and witty "The Sons of Tammany," easily the volume's best entry, political cartoonist Thomas Nast narrates Dupin's experiences in 1870 New York City investigating the death of 20 men working on constructing the Brooklyn Bridge. While the authorities are quick to write off the fatalities as accidental, Dupin quickly ascertains the truth and the motive behind the crimes. Given that Dupin was created to be the master rational problem-solver, readers may be disappointed that some selections are thrillers rather than whodunits. Other contributors include Clive Barker, Simon Clark, Joe R. Lansdale, Elizabeth Massie, and Lisa Tuttle. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Cup of Blood: A Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Prequel

Jeri Westerson. Old London (www.JeriWesterson.com), $12.99 trade paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-497476-12-7

A prequel, Westerson's seventh medieval noir (after 2013's Shadow of the Alchemist) lacks the cleverness that distinguished earlier entries in the series. In 1384, seven years after Crispin was implicated in a treasonous plot, the knight-turned-PI is relaxing in a London tavern when his pocket is picked. Upon apprehending the boy thief, Jack Tucker, Crispin finds that one of the other pickpocket's victims is no longer among the living. Naturally enough under the circumstances, the sheriff arrests Jack for poisoning the victim, who appears to have been a Templar knight. Despite the absence of a paying client, Crispin resolves to determine who the real killer is. The inquiry brings him back in touch with his old flame, Rosamunde, Lady Rothwell, who left Crispin after his disgrace. The resolution is more Raymond Chandler than Ellis Peters, but even longtime fans may find aspects of the resolution a letdown. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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The City

Dean Koontz. Bantam, $28 (416p) ISBN 978-0345545930

Bad things happen, but good things happen, too. That seems to be the message of bestseller Koontz's maudlin account of the life of Jonah Kirk, saddled by his parents with no less than seven middle names, each the last name of a famous jazz musician. The novel, which recounts the consequences of Jonah's encounters with a woman "who claimed she was the city," offers airy optimistic passages that won't persuade anyone acquainted with the harder side of life to always look on the bright side of it: "In fact, time teaches us that the musical score of life oscillates between that of Psycho and that of The Sound of Music, with by far the greatest number of our days lived to the strains of an innocuous and modestly budgeted picture." Jonah's relationships with his gifted, loving mother and with his absent, hustler father are clichés, and the concept that a city, which after all is made "great or not" by its people, takes the form of an attractive woman is too underdeveloped to have any charm. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Glitter Bomb

Aaron Belz. Persea (Norton, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-0-89255-431-7

"There's no I in team,/ but there's one in bitterness/ and one in failure," writes Belz (Lovely, Raspberry) in his third collection. In fact, that's the entirety of the poem "Team," and Belz continues throughout the book in a similar manner, riffing off idioms, pop culture, and the common language of banality in poems that straddle the line between light verse and narrative poetics. "I'm starting with the man/ in the convex mirror," he exclaims in a poem titled "Michael Jashbery." Later, we find him reminiscing, "You had a bonnet and a puffy dress—/ Puff Mommy I called you (as a joke)." Belz's main mode is humor, and while "I'm not trying to pick a fight here," he claims, "I am trying to pick a bunch of other stuff,/ though, such as a bone, with you." The subject matter occasionally darkens and can even be strangely affecting (as in the poem "On the Death of Leslie Nielsen"), but Belz rarely shirks from an attempted punch line, even in that darkness: "My new band name/ the Macronauts really/ captures the largeness/ of what it's like/ to be in Los Angeles." Belz may have mastered the tongue-in-cheek, but the myriad pop references rarely yield much substance. (July)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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A Several World

Brian Blanchfield. Nightboat (UPNE, dist.), $15.95 trade paper (106p) ISBN 978-1-937658-17-5

Blanchfield follows 2004's Not Even Then with an impressive collection that walks a tightrope between two traditions. His lithe, rhythmically irreducible free verse seems to champion the beauty of language above all else, as an urgent, thrumming, hypermodern voice wants to chat about life in our disorienting 21st century. "Remember in Corinth, walking home from the piers, wet/ in the aftermath of a squall?" he writes in a poem that begins with a memory of the polis and ends with the admission that "none of the old options applied" while squatting "on the fire escape for better connection." Blanchfield tarries in a zone of listlessness, pausing to note how sprigs of grass are "Sort of Garamond," but his poems' languor is constantly thrown into a striking new light: "the sun/ came out and earmarked the farther/ barrel. None of this reminds me of/ heterosexuality." The book's crescendo is a sequence in which the self is both formed and deformed by authority, time, and alienation, and the very language that composes poetry is bookended and bullied by the voices of those around us. With his complex phrasing, his gentleness and wit, and his commitment to recording the beauty around him, Blanchfield's poetry proves to be a rewarding read. (June)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Ghouljaw and Other Stories

Clint Smith. Hippocampus (www.hippocampuspress.com), $20 trade paper (256p) ISBN 978-1-61498-065-0

The 14 stories in Smith's first collection of short horror fiction range from the poignant and unsettling to the viscerally horrific. "The Hatchet" tells of trick-or-treating brothers who confront a horror at an abandoned house that haunts them for the rest of their lives. In "Dirt on Vicky," another haunted house story, a father and son share a ghostly encounter that unites them with the boy's dead mother, who may have experienced it herself back when she dated his father. "Don't Let the Bedbugs Bite" is a speculation on the strange life form that might evolve from the detritus sucked up by a vacuum cleaner, and "Like Father, Like…" is a ghoulish meditation on the significance of blood ties between parents and children. Virtually all of the horrors that Smith conjures take their shape and substance from the emotional responses of characters to the estrangement, loss, or death of spouses and family members. Although narrated in a straightforward fashion, these stories have refreshingly unpredictable plots that spring their horrors unexpectedly. (May)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Burnt Black Suns

Simon Strantzas. Hippocampus (www.hippocampuspress.com), $20 trade paper (310p) ISBN 978-1-61498-083-4

In this powerful new collection of short stories, fallible characters trip over their feet of clay and sprawl into encounters with horrors beyond their comprehension. "One Last Bloom" tells of a graduate student in microbiology who's so obsessed with staying ahead of an academic rival that it blinds him to the enormity of a horror that's gradually overwhelming their laboratory. "Emotional Dues" concerns a painter inspired by his hatred of his domineering father and the insidious parasitic relationship that develops between him and a wealthy art patron. In the title story, a man pursues his ex-wife to Mexico to retrieve their young son from the cult she has joined, only to discover that what he has mistaken for a simple case of domestic family abduction is part of an elaborate ritual to bring something unholy from the dawn of time back into the world. Strantzas (Nightingale Songs) nimbly balances sympathetic characters humanized by their flaws with horrors on a cosmic scale so vast that they mock the very notion of human significance. The 10 stories in this book abound with references to the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Thomas Ligotti, and Robert W. Chambers, and Strantzas deftly demonstrates his ability to hold his own with them. (May)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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Nothing Is Impossible: Further Problems of Dr. Sam Hawthorne

Edward D. Hoch. Crippen & Landru, $19 trade paper (238p) ISBN 978-1936363032

Hoch's third collection of impossible short mystery stories (after 2006's More Things Impossible) is another showcase of the author's ingenuity. Throughout the 15 stories, spanning Dr. Sam's career as smalltown doctor and amateur sleuth in New England from 1932 to 1936, Hoch plants clues fairly, although few readers will be able to anticipate the solutions. The situations include a neat variation on the Golden Age locked-room—a shooting in a sealed crying room in a movie theatre intended for parents with young children—as well as the baffling disappearance of a teenager who bikes around a corner before simply vanishing. The entries are all excellent, much more than just two-minute mysteries by virtue of the subtle yet significant changes in Dr. Sam's life from story to story. Perhaps the highlights are "The Problem of the Invisible Acrobat" and "The Problem of the Thunder Room." In the first, Dr. Sam is initially baffled when an acrobat appears to make himself invisible and a clown is murdered; in the second, a prospective new assistant is traumatized by thunder and has a vision of a man bludgeoned to death by a hammer, just as such a killing happens miles away. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 07/18/2014 | Details & Permalink

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