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Wishful Thinking

Kamy Wicoff. She Writes (shewritespress.com), $16.95 trade paper (370p) ISBN 978-1-63152-976-4

This whimsical, humorous romance with a fantastical twist should appeal to working parents. Jennifer Sharpe is a good-hearted, plucky 39-year-old divorced mom withtwo young sons, Julien and Jack. She works long hours at her job as a v-p at the New York City Housing Authority. Her ex, a journeyman actor who's often broke, has largely ignored their sons. Her boss is a rich, blustery real estate developer who uses his financial support of her pet project to manipulate her. Her babysitter and loyal friend help out, but Jennifer finds there are still too few hours in the day. Enter Dr. Diane Sexton, an eccentric neighbor and brilliant physicist, who installs a time-travel app she appropriately calls Wishful Thinking on Jennifer's phone. The novel's wildly imaginative fun begins. Considering the app “miraculous," Jennifer activates it for her trial run, and the stunning results get her hooked. While still at the office, she uses her new time travel powers (“like a hot flash on steroids") and attends Julien's guitar recital, where she meets and falls for his music instructor Owen. As undesirable complications arise, the app permits one final momentous deed before Wicoff (I Do But I Don't) brings her entertaining novel to its sunny Hollywood ending. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Viper: No Resurrection for Commissario Ricciardi

Maurizio de Giovanni, trans. from the Italian by Antony Shugaar. Europa/World Noir, $17 trade paper (352p) ISBN 978-1-60945-251-3

Set during Holy Week 1932, De Giovanni's engaging sixth Commissario Ricciardi mystery (after 2014's By My Hand) opens with the murder of Viper, Naples's most famous prostitute. She had only two regular clients: the owner of a sacred art shop, whose obsession with her threatened his family's fortune and reputation, and a fruit vendor, the childhood love who wanted to marry her. As Ricciardi learns about Viper's tragic life, he realizes that the clients, their families, and other prostitutes all had motives to kill her. Meanwhile, two strikingly different women vie for his affections: beautiful, sophisticated Livia Lucani, who followed him to Naples after he solved her husband's murder, and Enrica Colombo, an alluring neighbor. Rich detail about Easter traditions, observances, and cuisine—in keeping with the seasonal theme of the series—contrast with the sinister growth of Mussolini's power, made starkly apparent when outspoken pathologist Bruno Modo disappears after a clash with Fascists. Bambinella, a transvestite prostitute, fails to transcend cliché, but melancholy Ricciardi, Brigadier Raffaele Maione, and other characters are compellingly drawn. New readers and returning fans should savor this novel like a Neapolitan pastiera. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Dynamite Room

Jason Hewitt. Little, Brown, $26 (304p) ISBN 978-0-316-32765-7

In Hewitt's strong debut novel, set in England during WWII, 11-year-old Lydia has run away from her wartime foster family to return home, only to find her seaside town abandoned and Grayfriar, her family home, desolate and empty. Heiden, a German soldier, arrives in the same night to occupy the house, and he imprisons the young girl there. Over five days, Heiden keeps Lydia hostage while turning the house upside down for official documents and other supplies—items, he explains, that will be useful for a pending German occupation. Over time, however, it becomes clear that there's more to Heiden's preparations than he is revealing, and more brought him to Grayfriar in particular than just his orders. Hewitt's novel is well-crafted and engrossing. In the confines of a house that can feel at once claustrophobic and expansive, he artfully explores family and identity, and how war changes the lives of both soldiers and civilians. Agent: PJ Mark, Janklow & Nesbit. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Five Selves

Emanuela Barasch-Rubenstein. Holland House (hhousebooks.com), $15.99 trade paper (206p) ISBN 978-1-909374-79-9

Barasch-Rubenstein's collection of five splendid novellas explores Israeli identity and self-awareness. While preoccupied with different issues—grief and privacy, inflexibility and a changing work culture, generational rift, and a phobia—characters are interconnected in the literature through their common search for personal insight. The strongest entry, “Aura," is the surrealistic narrative of a hospitalized man who drifts in and out of consciousness and recognition, providing moments of enlightenment and horror. Barasch-Rubenstein's lean, beautiful writing prevents the characters from overstating emotion, and avoids any melodrama. In “A Bird Flight," a woman fends off unwelcome and intrusive attention from a man who's trying to deal with his mother's demise and tactlessly probes for minutiae about the woman's father's recent death. A young Israeli woman contemplates her Israeli-born mother and European grandmother in “Earrings," a meditation on generational and cultural differences. A teacher with an outdated, rigid teaching style spirals out of control when a more charismatic instructor takes her place in “The Grammar Teacher." And a young man's debilitating fear of dogs, combined with his shame and fear of discovery, consume his daily life in “Watch Dog," which brings a fresh understanding to phobias. This anthology is a highly visual, spiritual gem. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Saltwater Cowboy: The Rise and Fall of a Marijuana Empire

Tim McBride with Ralph Berrier Jr.. St. Martin's, $25.99 (272p) ISBN 978-1-250-05128-8

In this genial memoir, former smuggler McBride portrays an idyllic, footloose, and lucrative career running marijuana on the southwest Florida coast in the 1980s. In 1979, McBride drove his Mustang Cobra from Wisconsin to “live like a beach bum" on Chokoloskee Island, just outside the Everglades. A month later he was smuggling pot from South American freighters. The money kept getting better as he began to run crews of his own. McBride embraced his version of the American Dream, buying the best toys, flinging $100 bills at waitresses, and falling in love with a beautiful, volatile bartender. Inevitably, a stint in federal prison led him to recalibrate his priorities. Chapters alternate between McBride's rise as a smuggler and his years of jailhouse blues. In both milieus he provides vibrant sketches of characters and situations, including a business trip via private jet to the mansion of a paranoid Colombian cartel boss. The best writing depicts the funky community of his sheltered corner of the Everglades, a seeming paradise where a big family of rednecks, fishermen, and freaks put one over on the feds. McBride offers himself as an American everyman who was both rewarded and punished for a national hypocrisy. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Klandestine: How a Klan Lawyer and a Checkbook Journalist Helped James Earl Ray Cover Up His Crime

Pate McMichael. Chicago Review (IPG, dist.), $26.95 (320p) ISBN 978-1-61373-070-6

Journalist McMichael digs deep into the racial violence of mid-20th-century America with this brutal but sometimes confusing account of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. McMichael claims newly released documents and his own research definitively prove that 40-year-old escaped convict James Earl Ray singlehandedly murdered King on April 4, 1969, pulling the trigger of a Remington .243-caliber rifle from the window of a Memphis rooming house and killing King on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Media reports said Ray was framed, but the author, a finalist for the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists, disagrees. McMichael argues that Ku Klux Klan lawyer Arthur Hanes and William Bradford Huie, a corrupt journalist who placed more value on money than truth, helped Ray perpetuate a conspiracy theory with links to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy five years earlier. Does McMichael prove beyond a doubt that Ray, who died in 1998, was the sole perpetrator? That's debatable. But historians will appreciate the timely connection to the 50th anniversary of Alabama's Selma to Montgomery marches, and McMichael's thorough research provides context for readers unfamiliar with how thoroughly race divided the country in the 1950s and 1960s. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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John Lennon: The Collected Artwork

Scott Gutterman. Insight Editions, $50 (204p) ISBN 978-1-60887-029-5

Music and art critic Gutterman curates a lifetime of drawings by musician John Lennon, with text summarizing his life story, artistic style, and major themes and techniques. He begins with Lennon's childhood and attendance at Liverpool College of Art, where his portraiture already exhibited a “naturally surrealist bent." In a later series of self-portraits from the 1970s, the artist is represented as “alternatively whimsical and wild, anguished and awestruck," notably in a frenzied sketch of him perched atop the globe. The 1970s also found Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, in Japan, where he began incorporating Japanese words and phrases into his work along with elements of the ancient art of sumi-e. A highlight is 1979's “Jazz Man," in which a fan greets Lennon on the street, saying, “I've been getting into Jazz, man!" and receives the response, “I've been trying to avoid it all my life." An entire chapter is devoted to drawings of Lennon and Ono: resting under a tree, floating on a cloud, and conducting their “bed-in" with paparazzi looking on. Rounding out the aesthetics of the book are lovely photographs of Lennon, alone and with Ono, and handwritten song lyrics. This collection pays tasteful homage to Lennon's lesser-known calling as a visual artist. (Jan.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Twisted History

Howard Watson. Firefly, $19.95 trade paper (175p) ISBN 978-1-77085-556-4

History isn't pretty, but Watson (Secrets & Lies: Elite Fighting Units) makes the case for it being downright gory. The past holds traitors, murderers, thieves, and gangsters with stories written in blood, bones, money, and immorality. Watson recounts the deeds of infamous villains such as the Roman emperor Nero and the legendary pirate Blackbeard, and introduces lesser-known evildoers such as Stalin's hitman, Lavrentiy Beria, and Indian serial killer Thug Behram. A few heroes such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and René Goupil are also featured, with emphasis on the ways they were victimized by others. Despite the brevity of this survey, Watson paints nuanced portraits of some of history's scoundrels. He acknowledges that some, such as Julius Caesar's betrayer, Brutus, may have had noble motives. Others have been blamed for more than they actually did. Watson doesn't excuse wrongdoing but attempts to present history as accurately as possible, including the places where good and evil collide. The text is cleanly written and supported by extensive photos, sidebars, and clever graphics. These true tales of terror are grimmer than fiction and not for the faint of heart. (Feb.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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Dare to Serve: How to Drive Superior Results by Serving Others

Cheryl Bachelder. Berrett-Koehler, $24.95 (192p) ISBN 978-1-62656-235-6

Bachelder, CEO of the Popeyes restaurant chain, provides a slim, unsatisfying guide to leading for the good of your employees. After being fired from KFC, Bachelder found herself at a crisis point; soon thereafter, she was offered the position at Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen, Inc. But the job came with its own difficulties, as she immediately faced leadership distrust, employee unhappiness, and a company-wide need for an attitude adjustment. Bachelder proposed a radically new approach: servant leadership, meaning that the company would shift focus from her to the people she was leading. According to the book, this kind of selfless service might be most associated with non-profit and charity work, but it can and should be applied to businesses as well. As Bachelder explains, it did indeed lead to the turnaround of the Popeyes chain; Bachelder goes on to describe the possible benefits for other executives, which include finding a renewed sense of meaning in one's work, clarity of purpose, and improved teamwork. She also makes the case for avoiding the spotlight in favor of letting rank-and-file employees do noteworthy work. All of this is to the good, but ultimately the material feels stretched thin; readers will have to skim and glean the lessons for which they're searching. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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The Book of Wanderings: A Mother-Daughter Pilgrimage

Kimberly Meyer. Little, Brown, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-316-25121-1

A poet, essayist, and literature teacher at the University of Houston meditates on the incongruence of her conventional life with the path she desired but never took as a young woman—“a bohemian-explorer-intellectual kind of life"—in this travel memoir. Meyer and her oldest daughter embark on a life-enhancing odyssey through Germany, Italy, Croatia, Greece, and parts of the Middle East to duplicate the pilgrimage of Felix Fabri, a Dominican friar in the Middle Ages. Meyer weaves together Fabri's pilgrimage with her own, revealing a confluence of insight and experiences, even though they lived centuries apart. Occasional bumps in the road include a case of head lice, intestinal afflictions, transportation and lodging hardships, and a frightening encounter in the Sinai, which could have ended very badly. These are balanced with a lighter tone. Meyer follows Fabri's path, “to bare myself to the actual world, to see it and experience it for myself, not just read about it in books... trying to return to something essential within myself." Meyer's internal dialogue is accessible, and will resonate with readers experiencing similar midlife reflection. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/27/2015 | Details & Permalink

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