I was at the local auction house with the missus one recent Saturday night when she began explaining some deep thing about some damned thing; with the auction in full swing, her enthusiastic hand gesticulations were as easy to corral as eels on a boat deck. Try as I might to clasp her wildly waving hands unto my chest in a show of support and succor, she sees herself “dealing with something here” while the auctioneer sees her “bidding,” and I drove home with a nine-inch miniature shogun sword, a 6′ x 8′ white alpaca carpet, a Russian glass tea set (circa 1880s), and a collection of 15 skeleton keys.
We all make mistakes, right? Everyone accrues questionable physical and psychological baggage in life. The stories in this month’s BFD selections feature protagonists who make mistakes, carry baggage, and need some resolution. So have a heart. After all, fictional characters are human, too.
Atkins, Ace. The Broken Places. Putnam. (Quinn Colson, Bk. 3). Jun. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780399161780. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101592700. F
Atkins’s third book in the “Quinn Colson” series (after The Ranger and The Lost Ones) begins when intelligent, nasty thugs Esau and Bones escape the Mississippi State Penitentiary at Parchman Farm so they can recover some loot they left with murderer and ex-con Jamey Dixon. A fascinating character, Jamey found Jesus and is now giving his all to preaching. He’s one of them deep thinkers (says things like, “[m]y Jesus would dig Marshall Tucker”), who believes “…everything he read from the Bible or learned from Johnny Cash” and is mutually besotted with his girlfriend Caddy. Local sheriff Quinn Colson is a dutiful, likable 13-tour vet of Iraq who stays calm in the most painstakingly tense situations. The big problem them boys don’t know is that Quinn is also Caddy’s brother. Anyone who puts a Southern man’s beloved sister close to dangerous conflict is going to have a problem The three-pointed conflagration coincides with a combo-meal rainstorm/flood/tornado ripping the area apart, itself a culmination of Atkins’s concise, but masterly, descriptions of Southern weather. Hidden agendas muddy typical good/bad guy dynamics and Atkins has real men grappling with classic themes like redemption, duty, villainy, and sympathy; his knack for realistic dialog is especially attuned to the direct, Southern way of speaking that conveys volumes about the speaker’s nobility or crudeness.
Verdict Supercool. “Manly” writing akin to Elmore Leonard’s Detroit Westerns.
Howey, Hugh. Wool. S. & S. 2013. 528p. ISBN 9781476735115. $26. F
Folks in Howey’s postapocalyptic novel live underground in a massive bunker silo consisting of approximately 150 unelevatored levels: administration is on the top levels, medical at level 20, gardens on level 50, pigs on level 90, 106 is ladies lingerie, a big farm on 130, and mechanical starts on 140. Outside, the world is deathly toxic and unseen except through some manky old remote cameras. The most extreme form of punishment in this otherwise happy world is cleaning the remote cameras, and the exile that follows is between Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery crossed with Logan’s Run. After the dutiful sheriff Holston’s unlikely request to return to the outside is fulfilled, readers get a thumbnail sketch of the silo’s society as his replacement, Jules, is recruited. Howey’s hints at periodic revolts to upset the balance of power are surprises for the readers as is bright and beautiful Jules, an ex-mechanic with a frighteningly strong work ethic, who is determined to learn fast and do justice. Unfortunately, she and her mechanic friends have made powerful enemies in IT, a shadowy, devious group that hog most of the silo’s resources and give back little except secrecy. Soon after Jules meets Lukas, a quiet IT guy with a rebellious streak, she, too, is sentenced to clean the cameras; however, she makes it out of sight of the cameras! Makes it to…where? The uncertainty and pressure push the silo’s unstable situation into an uprising.
Verdict A plodding pace is relieved by Howey’s flipping between the present and anywhere from days to years prior and a wild variation among narrative focal characters. An impressive debut in a new series; readers will swoon over the character Jules and the unpredictable early plot.
Kuhns, Eleanor. A Simple Murder. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. 2012. 336p. ISBN 9781250005533. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466802490. MYS
Color me prejudiced, but I judge books by their covers all day long. Immediate deal breakers are flowers, predominant pink, and any of these words in the title: Tuscan, Sea, Lost, and/or Lincoln. So how the hell did Kuhns’s debut historical mystery, replete with a bonnet on the cover, manage to snare me? Set in 1796, Kuhns’s book focuses on a weaver named William Rees, who’s a widower and a veteran. He’s really just out to reconnect with his son when he’s tapped to investigate a murder in a community of Shakers in Maine. And by “Shakers” I don’t mean the [insert your alma mater here] rugby squad come Sunday morning but the religious communes marked by celibacy and silence. Apparently not all Shaker chicks are sweetness and light, especially Sister Chastity as she‘s the one who got offed. The community assigns Rees a helper, a former sister named Lydia Jane; sparks fly—1796 sparks and not something out of one of Rollie Welch’s column titles. The simple plot offers little in the way of fancy twists or turns, so mostly this is carried by Kuhns’s gift for clear writing with a just-right amount of historical detail (e.g., there were no cars then. No fridges, either), which were fine enough to win her the 2011 “first crime novel competition” of the Mystery Writers of America.
Verdict The act of murder doesn’t get much simpler than a rock to the head, and if you’ve ever been tempted by historical fiction, Kuhns delivers a nice ’n’ easy entrée.
Nevill, Adam. Last Days. Griffin: St. Martin’s. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9781250018182. pap $15.99. F
Nevill’s (Banquet for the Damned) latest is everything a good horror novel should be: original, suspenseful, mind-poopingly freaky, and maybe even plausible. No-budget English filmmaker Kyle Freeman, scraping the bottom of his barrel so hard he’s hit the cobbles, gets a big-money offer he can’t refuse: shoot a tightly timed, highly structured film about a defunct “hippy death cult” from the Seventies called the Temple of the Last Days. Its origins lay in “a cocktail of Scientology and apocalyptic millennial ideas, a mimicry of Christian sainthood, occult magic, Buddhism, a belief in reincarnation….” Besides “the usual” lurid sex ’n’ drugs, Kyle’s interviews with permanently damaged former members and location shoots at ruins of cult compounds point to activities ranging from infectiously creepy to total bat shit, including physical and psychological torture, rape and buggery, enslavement, presences, and out-of-body traveling. Tension and dread build with the appearance of “reeking stigmata” on walls and physical manifestations of…things. Nevill slow burns the toxic effect of all this on Kyle in a deliciously fetid way. As strong as it is, the horror doesn’t overpower the 400-year-old mystery behind it all, and Nevill reveals just enough to keep readers guessing and flipping pages when it’s already way past bedtime. Believable dialog and authentic filmmaking terms further make this novel a winner.
Verdict Excellent, suspenseful, wicked fun. OCD readers will need to block off a couple days—and I mean days; don’t read this at night.
Scalzi, John. The Human Division. Tor. May 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780765333513. $25.99. SF
No wonder LJ’s editorial staff were atwitter over Hugo Award nominee Scalzi’s (Redshirts) latest novel—it kicks ass! It’s hard to sum up pithily the background where Earth has finally cut off supplying soldiers and colonists to the Colonial Union (CU). As the CU struggles to get Earth back into the fold, it also needs to avoid conflict with any of the other 600 races in the universe at all costs; diplomacy is the new gold standard. Though each can be read independently, chapters function as a tapestry of related missions with fast plot movement and political intrigue joined with “hard” sf. Characters overlap; most, but not all, chapters feature Ambassador Ode Abumwe’s diplomatic mission group supported by Lt. Harry Wilson. “She was acerbic and forbidding; he was sarcastic and aggravating.” Wilson, the mission’s token Colonial Defense Force (CDF) soldier, is like all CDF: ex-Earth, completely green with bionic blood, and a kind of iPad device embedded in his head. His wry, sarcastic humor, chutzpah, capability, and can-do attitude make him the effective amalgam of Scotty, Spock, McCoy, and Kirk all rolled into one funny green man. Refreshingly, most of the missions are fairly low-level political stuff (e.g., trading for Burfinor medical technology); nothing cosmos-threatening, no epic sagas, and it’s unfailingly confounding to see fiction “real” future life that reflects today’s—down to the stereotype of media talk show hosts. Despite the diplomatic shenanigans and Wilson’s cheerful insouciance, the possibility of an upcoming human division is real. Earthlings need to choose between “a forced alliance with former oppressors” or leaving the CU to join a large political bloc called the Conclave. Which would you choose?
Verdict Enjoyable, lol funny, readable, and realistic. Bradbury or Asimov fans will OD on this. [See Editors’ Spring Picks, LJ 2/15/13, p. 30.]
Unger, Zac. Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows. Da Capo. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780306821165. $25. NATURE
This terrifically energetic, dude-friendly adventure, originally published in 2005, mixes ecology with travel and is informative and endearingly funny. Unger is a family man (“…not a nutcase with a bear fetish or a shrill environmental warrior”) who likes the woods, eats organic, and feels guilty about getting crappy mileage on his minivan. After earning a master’s in environmental science from Berkeley, he stopped hoping that the Navy SEALS would open “a small division for peacenik forest rangers” and became (naturally) an Oakland fireman (Working Fire: The Making of a Fireman). Though attuned to climate issues and global warming, Unger grew impatient to see its effects and decided to search them out. In autumn 2008, he bundled his wife and three young kids (ages five, four, and two) up to the “plucky trailer park” of Churchill, Manitoba (pop. 943), that is the polar bear tourist capital of the world to “see the great bears before they died, to witness man’s destruction of one of the last great things on earth….” There he joined a polar bear poop-gathering expedition, saw dozens of bears up close, and ruminated on their habitat. His narrative is chock-a-block with fascinating descriptive passages on myriad subjects like the history of Churchill, bear lifting a “repeat offender” northwards, and describing “tundra buggying,” a sort of whale watch in “an unholy union between an RV and a FEMA trailer.” Unger finds that while the bears are indeed jeopardized, the empirical evidence is often murky. Unger’s love of his family is completely charming, as is this book. Photos show Churchill and some of its polars up close and also reveal Unger to be as good looking as Justin Timberlake with a unibrow.
Verdict If you like any two of the following boxes, try it: polar bears; travelogs; humor writing; family adventures.
 The big picture is that in the distant future, there are about 600 or so different races in the universe who fight and squabble among themselves. Tall, insectoid ones, squat, hairy aquatic ones, ones that look like Robert Redford, you name it. The humans, called the Colonial Union (or CU), included Earth, the primary supplier of colonists needed to expand and the soldiers to defend them. But when two-thirds of the aliens form a cohesive bloc called the Conclave, the CU is left out in the cold, subject to the predation and genocidal aggression of the other 200 alien races. On top of that, Earth is considering leaving the CU, leaving the remainder without protection. Thus the development of two prime directives: “One: Bring Earth back into the fold…Two: Whenever possible, avoid conflict with the Conclave and unaffiliated alien races. Diplomacy is the best way to make that happen” (31). That shit established is where the fun begins.