Lafaye, Vanessa. Under a Dark Summer Sky. Sourcebooks. Jun. 2015. 400p.
ISBN 9781492612506. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781492612513. F
It’s 1935, and the town of Heron Key, FL, simmers in ill-fated relationships and prejudice. Missy has been working for the Kincaids and living with her Mama for as long as she can remember. When Henry, who left to fight in the war 17 years earlier, finally returns home, Missy begins to hope for something more in life. But, on the night of the annual Fourth of July barbecue, a white woman is found beaten nearly to death. Henry is suspected of the crime. And the town, preoccupied with its troubles, sits at the cusp of the most forceful hurricane America has ever seen. Before the storm is over, it takes casualties at random, but it also pushes the people in Heron Key to reveal their true selves, both the evil and the heroic. VERDICT Lafaye’s debut novel succeeds on the merits of its well-drawn characters, its sense of place, and on the tragic events it details. The author keeps the reader at a distance from the characters, but this serves a greater purpose: a focus on the big picture of a town struggling under the weight of the past. Readers of historical fiction will find this book rewarding.—Shannon Greene, Greenville Technical Coll. Lib., SC
Liu, Ken. The Grace of Kings. Saga: S. & S. (Dandelion Dynasty, Bk. 1). Apr. 2015. 640p. ISBN 9781481424271. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481424295. FANTASY
Not many generations after one of the kings of Dara rose and united all the kingdoms under his own imperial flag, others plot to destroy the Imperium and restore the old realms. Two men who grew up under imperial rule are fun-loving, easygoing Kuni Garu and the noble scion and fierce warrior Mata Zyndu. Both find their purpose in the wars against the Imperium, but when that enemy is vanquished, their differing natures set them on an inevitable path to conflict. VERDICT A long-awaited debut novel from award-winning short story writer Liu, this is the first volume of what looks to be a chewy, epic fantasy series. The plot builds slowly, but the author is clearly planning for the long haul. Rather than drawing on a medieval Europe influence for his world, Liu has pulled in Asian cultural touches, which make for a nice change.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego
Mahin, Shanna. Oh! You Pretty Things. Dutton. Apr. 2015. 368p. ISBN 9780525955047. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698191136. F
Recently divorced, 29-year-old Jess Dunne returns to her hometown of Los Angeles for a fresh start. She moves in with her best friend and gets a job as a barista, but her coffee days are over when she starts working as a personal assistant to an Oscar-winning film composer. Jess’s new routine includes shopping for luxury goods and cooking. She’s a great cook, which draws the attention of a famous actress, along with a job offer. As Jess quits one job and starts another, her life is further complicated when her estranged mother moves back to town. Jess struggles to hold it all together as she deals with her mom and navigates the demanding world of working for a celebrity. Being third-generation Hollywood, Mahin knows L.A. life, and it shines through in the authentic details in this novel, her first. While Jess is often too clueless about what’s going on with the people in her life and the story meanders at times, the memorable characters, witty banter, and fascinating world of celebrity assistants make these faults forgivable. VERDICT Recommended for readers who enjoy novels with a Hollywood backdrop, such as Gigi Levangie Grazer’s The Starter Wife and Maria Semple’s This One Is Mine. [See Prepub Alert, 10/27/14.]
Novic´, Sara. Girl at War. Random. May 2015. 336p. ISBN 9780812996340.$26. ebk. ISBN 9780812996357. F
We know the broad outlines of the terrible shattering of the Balkans in the early 1990s, but the essence of war is in the details, and Croatian-born Novic´’s debut novel delivers a finely honed sense of what the bloodshed really meant for those who withstood it. Ana Juric´, who’s been blithely chasing around Zagreb with best friend Luka, gets a taste of what’s to come when she goes to buy cigarettes for her godfather and is asked nastily whether she wants the Serbian or Croatian brand. Even as the fighting breaks out, Ana’s little sister becomes so ill that the family must risk a trip to Sarajevo. Rahela is sent to America for treatment, but the rest of her family doesn’t fare well on the trip home, and we next see Ana as a college student in New York. Adopted by the couple who also took in Rahela, Ana powerfully resists discussing a past that includes a bone-jarring turn as a child soldier, as revealed in flashback. Finally, Ana returns to Croatia, uncertain what she wants and uncertain in what she finds. VERDICT Novic´’s heartbreaking book is all the more effective for its use of personal rather than sensational detail and will be embraced by a wide range of readers. [See Prepub Alert, 10/13/14.]
Obioma, Chigozie. The Fishermen. Little, Brown. Apr. 2015. 304p. SBN 9780316338370.$26; ebk. ISBN 9780316338363. F
This elegantly near-mythic debut novel from a Hopwood Award winner in fiction and poetry tells a deeply personal story that mirrors the larger social and political tensions in Africa. It opens with Father receiving a letter of transfer from his employer that will take him from Akure, Nigeria, to Yola. Because Yola is a dangerous place, he’s leaving his five sons and one daughter home with his none-too-pleased wife. Shortly after he’s gone, the four older brothers, including Benjamin, our narrator, slip the knot of Father’s strictures and become fishermen at the filthy Omi-Ala river, considered a place of evil. There, they encounter the madman Abulu, who predicts that one brother will kill another. What follows is a downward spiral of fear and violence and revenge that nearly destroys a family. After discovering that his sons have been to the Omi-Ala, Father makes them promise that they will be fishermen of the mind, and though tragedy makes Benjamin a fisherman of a very different sort, in a redemptive flash at the end we see how he has kept his word. VERDICT Made vivid by the well-rendered specifics, Obioma’s quietly unfolding story of family tragedy gathers strength as its cycle of violence spins faster and faster. All fiction readers will enjoy.
Tremayne, S.K. The Ice Twins. Grand Central. May 2015. 306p. ISBN 9781455586059. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455586080. F
British author Tremayne’s first novel is the chilling story of the death of one identical twin sister and the effect that it has on her family. Angus and Sara Moorcroft and their surviving daughter, Kirstie, leave London for a cottage on a Scottish island that has been in Angus’s family for centuries and that he hopes to eventually sell, having lost his job after the family’s tragedy. Torran Island’s isolation promises to give the Moorcrofts a chance to heal, and a new school for Kirstie is expected to help her adjust to the terrible loss of her sibling. However, things don’t go as planned, and Sara is deeply disturbed by Kirstie’s claims that she is actually her dead twin, Lydia, and the thought that perhaps she has misidentified her surviving daughter. Struggling with her concern for her daughter, her isolation and increasing doubts about her husband, Sara is tortured by the past and about what actually happened that fateful day when one of her children died. VERDICT Filled with secrets and lies, this gripping psychological thriller will keep readers absorbed until the final page. [See Prepub Alert, 11/24/14.]
Turner, Marc. When the Heavens Fall. Tor. May 2015. 544p. ISBN 9780765337122. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9781466831209. FANTASY
Renegade mage Mayot Mencada has stolen a very dangerous tome, the Book of Souls, which gives him power over the dead. He must be stopped before he finishes setting massive armies of long-dead warriors on the warpath. Various forces follow the tendrils of power from the ancient relic to oppose Mayot including Ebon, the heir to the Galitian throne, and Parolla, a necromancer who wants the power of the book. Romany, a priestess of the Spider, may have set it all in motion, but even she may not be able to control the powers unleashed. VERDICT Turner sets a lot of players on the board for his debut epic fantasy. Rival factions within realms, warring nations, gods and goddesses, and the resurrected dead from past civilizations all crowd the stage. Ambitious and action packed, this title is also occasionally muddled, as rapid shifts in perspective are juggled and various forces converge on the Book of Souls. As a series opener, it shows promise.—Megan M. McArdle, San Diego
Quade, Kirstin Valdez. Night at the Fiestas. Norton. Mar. 2015. 288p. ISBN 9780393242980. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780393242997. F
Last fall, the National Book Foundation chose former Stegner fellow Quade as one of its Five Under 35 authors, and rightly so, as this first collection demonstrates. In language that’s fluid, forthright, and emotionally bracing, she comes up with stories that surprise every time. All the stories are set in New Mexico and feature characters in doubt and in betrayal. In the title piece, a somewhat mousy teenage girl travels to town for the big fiesta (with her embarrassingly obsequious father as bus driver), exacting an uncertain revenge after a disturbing encounter with a stranger. In “Nemecia,” the narrator recalls a high-handed older cousin favored by the family when she comes to live with them after a tragedy whose real nature emerges much later. In “The Guesthouse,” a dutiful son’s revelatory confrontation with his sister and estranged father after his maternal grandmother’s death involves a vivid tableau with rats and a very large snake. “The Five Wounds” features loser Amadeo, who commits himself to reenacting the passion of Christ in a shockingly realistic penitential drama and experiences something other than the transfiguration he expected. VERDICT A piercingly perfect debut collection from a young writer who’s already arrived; highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 10/13/14.]
Weiler, Maura. Contrition. Infinite Words. Apr. 2015. 352p. ISBN 9781593096489. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9781476793450. F
Twentysomething Dorie is a writer for tabloid in Los Angeles. After the death of her loving adoptive parents she learns that her biological father was a famous painter, and her birth mother died while delivering Dorie and her hitherto unknown twin sister. Dorie traces her sister to a secluded, contemplative, cloister in scenic Big Sur, but when she works up the courage to visit she finds that her sister has taken a vow of silence and seems horrified to see her. Dorie’s ambition and a misunderstanding propel her sister Catherine to stardom and threaten to destroy their fragile rapport and the cloister itself but may actually be the savior of both—at a horrifying cost. Fast moving yet philosophical, Weiler’s story poses many questions about family, religion, art, and the creative process through Dorie’s awakening. VERDICT This fascinating debut novel offers a view into the world of cloistered nuns that shows their dedication, humor, and stern kindness. It is a solid choice for readers seeking a treatment of contemporary religious life as deep as Rumer Godden’s In This House of Brede. Also for religiously inclined book groups and art lovers.