Fiction from Ashford, Benn, Hamilton, Hansen, Macmillan, Marwood, a Starred Debut | Xpress Reviews

Week ending September 16, 2016

Ashford, Lindsay Jayne. The Woman on the Orient Express. Lake Union: Amazon. Sept. 2016. 358p. ISBN 9781503938120. pap. $14.95; ebk. available. F
Ashford’s ninth novel (after The Color of Secrets) finds Agatha Christie in 1928 on the Orient Express, escaping from the humiliations of a failed marriage and her notorious breakdown. She is drawn to the elegance and novelty of the train journey as well as the anonymity she hopes to maintain by changing her appearance and name. Christie forms a bond with two female passengers who also hold their own secrets. Katharine is willing to marry a man she does not love in order to pursue a career deemed unsuitable for a single woman. Nancy is running from a cheating husband while pregnant with another man’s child. These secrets drive a story of friendship and suspense that continues after the train has reached its final destination of Baghdad. Suspicion, mistrust, and mixed signals among all of the characters in the book add depth to the narrative.
Verdict While the pace is slow, those interested in the 1920s and Agatha Christie will savor the opportunity to spend time in this lost world.—Terry Lucas, Shelter Island P.L., NY

Benn, James R. Blue Madonna: A Billy Boyle World War II Mystery. Soho Crime. Sept. 2016. 336p. ISBN 9781616956424. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616956431. MYS
Court-martialed on five counts of willful violation of the Articles of War, Billy Boyle, a Boston detective–turned–army captain, finds himself saddled with a newbie attorney and no allies. Even his old friend Colonel Harding has turned his back—or so it seems. But Boyle quickly figures out his eventual conviction and loss of rank create the perfect cover to ingratiate himself with the Morgan Boys, a ruthless gang of thugs who make their living stealing from the U.S. Army. With his new identity as a thief, Boyle begins a dangerous mission that begins with the rescue of a hostage and later leads him behind enemy lines. After the murder of two Allied airmen in the chateau where they’ve taken refuge, Boyle quickly realizes the Germans aren’t the only ones to fear.
Verdict Lacking the epic storytelling sweep of Ken Follett and the fast-paced writing style associated with mystery and suspense, the latest series installment (after The White Ghost) misses the mark. Many fans, happy to have another volume, will likely overlook flaws, but others may find the plot unnecessarily complicated.—Vicki Briner, Broomfield, CO

starred review starDundas, Chad. Champion of the World. Putnam. Jul. 2016. 480p. ISBN 9780399176081. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780698407138. F
champion091616[DEBUT] This first novel by a sports journalist tells the tale of an African American wrestler named Garfield Taft trying to get his shot at the heavyweight title in 1921. To help him, former wrestling champion Pepper Van Dean, working on the carnival circuit, becomes Garfield’s trainer. At the training camp in Montana, though, Pepper and his wife, Moira, discover the situation is much more dangerous and deceptive than they thought. Illegal stills, mobsters masquerading as businessmen, and a sport turning into a predetermined farce all make Pepper rethink his decision to work with Garfield, especially when the man who had grievously injured Pepper before a big match years ago is back in Pepper’s life as a local promoter. Readers unfamiliar with the sport of wrestling will find the novel’s accurate details about training and moves helpful and insightful. And the character of Moira provides an excellent female presence.
Verdict Wrestling fans, Montana natives, and those who delight in the 1920s, gangsters, and bootlegging stories will discover a terrific and satisfying novel.—Jason L. Steagall, Gateway Technical Coll. Lib., Elkhorn, WI

Hamilton, Ian. The King of Shanghai: The Triad Years. Anansi. (Ava Lee, Bk. 7). Sept. 2016. 400p. ISBN 9781487001599. pap. $15.95. F
Forensic accountant Ava Lee is at a crossroads in book seven of Hamilton’s series. Her longtime business partner and surrogate father, Uncle, has died, but after a month of solitary mourning she decides it’s time to step back into the world. Though Ava has given up the lost debt collection business she had with Uncle, she hasn’t given up on business. She and her partners have started a venture capital firm, and Ava is eager to put their money to work. In Shanghai, she’s approached by Xu, the man who had nearly as close a relationship with Uncle as she did and who now wants her help on a couple of fronts. Xu is the head of a triad, a secret Chinese criminal organization, and he wants to invest some of its money (mostly illegally gained) in Ava’s firm. But more problematic still is Xu’s request that she become a close advisor in his quest to gain the chairmanship of the Triad Societies, a proposition that will enmesh Ava in gang politics and possibly warfare.
Verdict This newest Ava Lee adventure (after The Two Sisters of Borneo) has a lot less action then earlier entries, but the behind-the-scenes look into the Chinese underworld is intriguing enough to suck in readers.—Jane Jorgenson, Madison P.L., WI

Hansen, Ron. The Kid. Scribner. Oct. 2016. 320p. ISBN 9781501129759. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501133336. F
As an American icon, Billy the Kid looms large in the collective imagination—a horse-stealing, gunslinging outlaw whose life has spawned copious amounts of fiction. Hansen (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) treats us to a detailed yet compellingly readable fictional biography of William Henry McCarty. Charming and deadly, Billy tried to live life on the straight and narrow but was drawn into horse thievery after his beloved mother died. Alternating between stints as a ranch hand and gang member, Billy spent time in jail, honed his sharpshooting skills, and progressed to more serious crimes. At the time of his death, Billy was the New Mexico Territory’s most wanted, and notorious, outlaw.
Verdict From Billy’s parents, to the women he wooed, to his final shootout, Hansen’s work provides a rich tapestry of this outlaw’s life and compatriots. The digressions into the stories of the supporting characters detract a bit from the forward momentum, but, ultimately, this is an evenhanded literary portrait.—Sarah Cohn, Manhattan Coll. Lib., Bronx, NY

Macmillan, Gilly. The Perfect Girl. Morrow. Sept. 2016. 448p. ISBN 9780062476760. pap. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062476753. F
You cannot escape your past—such is the message that weaves throughout Macmillan’s new (What She Knew) novel. Three years  ago, Zoe, a 17-year-old musical prodigy, drove drunk and accidentally killed three schoolmates. After serving her time, she and her mother, Maria, just want to move on and forget the past. It seems as if their plan is working: Maria is remarried to a wonderful, rich man; they have a new baby; and Zoe and her stepbrother are about to give a musical recital. This concert is Zoe’s chance for redemption, yet by the end of the evening, Maria is dead. The narrative occurs over a 24-hour period, with occasional flashbacks to Zoe’s past legal troubles. Unfortunately, relating the story through the perspective of three persons—Zoe, her aunt Tessa, and her lawyer Sam—only serves to confuse. The characters are also flatly developed, offering little chance for readers to be empathetic.
Verdict Despite flaws, this is still a compelling read for fans of psychological suspense. [See Prepub Alert, 3/14/16.]—Marianne Fitzgerald, Severna Park H.S., MD

Marwood, Alex. The Darkest Secret. Penguin. Aug. 2016. 390p. ISBN 9780143110514. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781101992685. F
In 2004, three-year-old Coco Jackson was abducted from her father Sean’s 50th birthday party. Despite a nationwide manhunt, she was never found, and the wealthy and influential guests at that ill-fated weekend, dubbed the Jackson Associates, are haunted by the event. Twelve years later, Sean dies under less-than-honorable circumstances. Estranged daughter Camilla, herself a brief guest at the party, is not only left to identify the body but also gets roped into taking her half-sister Ruby, Coco’s twin, to the funeral. When they arrive at her father’s home, they are met by the remaining members of the Jackson Associates, as well as Sean’s fourth wife, a woman Camilla’s age who has had an unhealthy obsession with Sean since girlhood. As the funeral weekend unfolds, threats are made, secrets are whispered, relationships are strained, and the truth about Coco’s disappearance may finally be uncovered. Marwood (The Wicked Girls) weaves these two weekends together with a deft hand, creating a story filled with suspense and crafty misdirection.
Verdict If Liane Moriarty and Gillian Flynn got their characters together for a drug- and alcohol-fueled two days, Marwood’s latest thriller might well be the result. [See Prepub Alert, 2/29/16.]—Portia Kapraun, Delphi P.L., IN

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