Fiction from Ben-David, Coben, Handler, McBride, and Debuter Swann | Xpress Reviews

Week ending August 11, 2017

Alderman, Naomi. The Power. Little, Brown. Oct. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780316547611. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316547659. F
During the early 21st century, women develop an electrical power that is expelled from their fingers and can be used to shock or kill. As the Power spreads, it ushers in a new religious and political order run by strongwomen, ending with a worldwide war between the sexes. Historical documents from the Cataclysm era interrupt the novel to signal that we are reading about the past. The framework suggests comparison to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, which is unfortunate because while Alderman’s (Disobedience) book won the Bailey’s Women’s Prize, it fails on multiple levels. There’s a flimsy explanation of how women got the Power (from a liquid introduced into water systems during World War II to protect against nerve gas, but then why are only females affected?), and the worldbuilding is just as bad. It turns out that it isn’t possible to create a believable world from a pastiche of Facebook feeds and Reddit threads, and in any case we need some evidence that misogyny is a worldwide problem and not just a personal one. Pre-Power women’s victimization is generalized and in some cases assumed (Muslim women are oppressed), and however tragic, the backstories crafted for the strongwomen are poorly imagined and serve only to justify war crimes and transnational drug dealing during the revolution. The narrative abounds with stock characters such as the ambitious woman, the victim, the misogynist Middle Eastern king, and a good guy with a camera, and almost everyone is a background player to Allie and Roxy, the architects of the Cataclysm. There’s also hard-charging female politician Margo, a set piece going nowhere. With Margo, we have to fill in the blanks ourselves; we know she’s ambitious, for instance, because she let her husband raise the kids. In the end, by focusing on the few and most violent women to make her point, the author ignores the complicated nature of power. Societies fail through the daily capitulation to power and privilege, to self-serving silence and the abdication of individual agency, which is what makes The Handmaid’s Tale so powerful and so relevant.
Verdict Ripped from the headlines but lacking in verisimilitude, this is a book about power through a narrow lens. Readers will be talking about it, but it is not recommended.—Pamela Mann, St. Mary’s Coll. Lib., MD

Ben-David, Mishka. Final Stop, Algiers. Overlook. Sept. 2017. 336p. tr. from Hebrew by Ronnie Hope. ISBN 9781468310221. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781468315622. F
The third of Ben-David’s novels to be translated into English (after Duet in Beirut and Forbidden Love in St. Petersburg), this deep dive into Israeli espionage features Mickey Simhoni, a young man whose right and left brains appear to be in perfect balance as he is an artist who becomes a Mossad operative. He is part of a team training to take out Iran’s nukes. He’s game and able, but when he falls in love with Niki, his priorities become unhinged, especially after Mossad recruits her as well. Will this become the couple’s Mission: Impossible? A patriot, Mickey presses forward to protect Israel’s heritage and future. His family has kept secrets from him and once these begin to leak out, the complications are a wonder to behold.
Verdict Having served in Israel’s spy agency for 12 years, Ben-David knows Mossad to its core. Both Daniel Silva and Tom Clancy fans would find provocative parallels to their work in this engrossing thriller.—Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA

Coben, Harlan. Don’t Let Go. Dutton. Sept. 2017. 400p. ISBN 9780525955115. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780698411661. F
New Jersey detective Napoleon (Nap) Dumas has been brought into a neighboring county’s investigation of a cop killing. Nap is questioned because the love of his life, Maura, whom he hasn’t seen since high school, is a suspect. Although Maura has never been convicted of a crime, her fingerprints are in the database because Nap put them there. His obsession with finding her and the reason she left has consumed him for more than 15 years. Now the evidence indicates that there is a connection among the murdered police officer, Maura, and Nap’s own twin brother, Leo, who was found dead along with his girlfriend in high school. As Nap searches for answers, he realizes there are even greater questions to ponder, and one of them is about his brother’s death and if it really was an accident.
Verdict
Coben (Stay Close; Gone for Good) knows how to deliver an exciting thriller expertly. His latest novel is no exception. Longtime readers will be lining up for this new stand-alone and new fans will be made. [See Prepub Alert, 3/13/17.]—Cynthia Price, Francis Marion Univ. Lib., Florence, SC

Handler, Daniel. All the Dirty Parts. Bloomsbury USA. Sept. 2017. 144p. ISBN 9781632868046. $22; ebk. ISBN 9781632868060. F
“There are love stories galore, and we all know them. This isn’t that,” 17-year-old Cole warns at the outset of his sex-obsessed confession, a millennial Portnoy’s Complaint. “The story I’m typing is all the dirty parts.” And how! In trying to capture the horny teenage mind, Handler (who has written for a younger audience as Lemony Snicket) wisely holds nothing back. Cole brags openly and in ribald detail about his sexual conquests, numbing any feeling of creeping loneliness through the instant gratification of online pornography. That he has gained a reputation around school doesn’t seem to bother him, as he sleeps with a number of girls whose only function is to hone his sexual craft—and even experiments with his best friend Alec. It isn’t until he meets Grisaille, an exchange student who is every bit his match, that Cole is forced to grapple with the emotional consequences of sex. Like David Levithan’s The Lover’s Dictionary, much of Handler’s short novel takes place in the blank space between each episode, and it’s in what the otherwise braggadocio Cole doesn’t tell us that his story achieves its poignancy.
Verdict Its unabashedly graphic language will keep this novel off of the young adult shelves, but it is exactly that readership who might benefit most from its surprisingly subtle exploration of sexual ethics.—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

starred review starMcBride, James. Five-Carat Soul. Riverhead. Sept. 2017. 320p. ISBN 9780735216693. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780735216716. F
National Book Award winner McBride (The Good Lord Bird) here offers an exceptional group of stories. It begins with an antique toy dealer who happens upon a one-of-a-kind train set—with military implications—that once belonged to Robert E. Lee and ends with a mini-novella narrated by a lion at a zoo who is trying to understand the complexity of society and his place in it. Most pieces involve the concept of freedom, none more explicitly than “Father Abe” about a mixed-race orphan who approaches the Union Army in search of a father he believes (mistakenly) to be Lincoln, only to find one named, yes, Abe who marvels at the child’s definition of freedom. There’s also another Civil War story and one from World War II. Arguably the best involves a boastful heavyweight who finds himself in a match with the Devil’s equivalent of St. Peter for his soul and the souls of four others sitting on the “Moaning Bench.” There’s a good amount of humor here, but most of these pieces are deeply emotional. This is McBride at his A-list best.
Verdict Realism with a touch of magical realism for readers who enjoy page-turners that don’t happen to be thrillers.—Robert E. Brown, Oswego, NY

starred review starSwann, Christopher. Shadow of the Lions. Algonquin. Aug. 2017. 368p. ISBN 9781616205003. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9781616207670. F
[DEBUT] Ten years ago, Matthias Glass attended a prestigious boarding school, Blackburne, in Virginia. Near the end of his senior year in high school, his roommate and best friend Fritz Davenport disappeared. Matthias then urged his girlfriend Abby, Fritz’s twin sister, to search for Fritz, but she was resigned to delay her enrollment at Juilliard and care for her distraught mother. A decade later, Matthias has had success with his first novel but failed to produce any work of substance since his literary debut. Fortuitously, as his life is about to fall apart through many bad decisions, he is offered a position to return as an English teacher at Blackburne. Then one of his students is murdered, and when the local police investigate, Matthias again seeks answers to Fritz’s whereabouts.
Verdict
Swann’s tightly knit debut novel is a moving coming-of-age story with a noir twist that will appeal to readers of John Knowles’s A Separate Peace, N.H. Kleinbaum’s Dead Poets Society, and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History.—Russell Michalak, Goldey-Beacom Coll. Lib., Wilmington, DE

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