Fiction by Alexander, McGhee, and Silverberg, with a Trio of Debuts | Xpress Reviews

Week ending October 6, 2017

Alexander, Tasha. Death in St. Petersburg: A Lady Emily Mystery. Minotaur: St. Martin’s. Oct. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781250058287. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250146168. MYS
In this 12th installment (after A Terrible Beauty) of Alexander’s historical series, Lady Emily and her husband, Colin, are wintering in the Russian city of St. Petersburg and taking advantage of cultural opportunities. They are enjoying a brilliant performance of Swan Lake, up until the point where the prima ballerina is found dead. Naturally, Emily is asked to investigate, while Colin attends to his duties as a British spy. In parallel, we learn about two young aspiring ballerinas who are closer than sisters. Katenka has the skill but lacks the passion to achieve greatness, while Irusya seems to succeed without even trying. Can their bond survive when only one of them triumphs?
Verdict Alexander excels at conveying the flavor of Tsarist Russia and painting a vivid picture of how artists often struggle for their art. However, we learn nothing new about Emily or anyone close to her, and she demonstrates no personal growth. In other words, this is a perfectly serviceable mystery that does not move the series forward. [See Prepub Alert, 4/17/17.]—Laurel Bliss, San Diego State Univ. Lib.

Levy, Daniella. By Light of Hidden Candles. Kasva. Oct. 2017. 370p. ISBN 9780991058471. pap. $14.95. F
[DEBUT] Alma Ben-Ami is next in line to attempt to solve the mystery handed down through the generations of her Jewish family, from grandmother to grand-daughter, that involves returning a gold signet ring to its owner or his descendants. Determined to end this 500-year-old quest, Alma signs up for a class at New York University that promises archival research. Manuel Aguilar and his mother moved to New York from Spain several years ago, and he is now also attending NYU. Having grown up Catholic, Manuel even considered becoming a priest once he finishes his education, but in the meantime, he wanders into a Judaica store and meets Alma, with whom he strikes up a friendship. Alma and Manuel team up and head to Spain with their class for a semester to research their respective family histories. What they find growing between them as well as what is hidden in the archives surprises them both.
Verdict This debut from author Levy is part history lesson and part love story that spans from the Spanish Inquisition to present-day Manhattan. Levy provides plenty of detail for the history lover about being Jewish in today’s world and over the centuries as well as a sweet and poignant love story for romance fans. A story that is often funny, always intriguing, and at times suspenseful.—Lisa Jordan, Johnson Cty. Lib., Overland Park, KS

McGhee, Alison. Never Coming Back. Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781328767561. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781328764348. F
When 31-year-old writer Clara returns home to help care for her single mother, Tamar, who was recently diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s, she’s desperate to learn the answers to two long-troubling questions: What did Tamar say to Clara’s now-deceased ex-boyfriend that made him break up with her all those years ago, and why did Tamar secretly arrange for her to leave home to attend college? While racing against time and disease to find the answers, Clara leans on college friends and an attractive local bartender for support and learns more about her mother and herself. McGhee’s latest novel (Shadow Baby; Someday) not only tackles the complexities of a mother-daughter relationship and the unresolved conflicts that can have lasting effects on both women, it also informs readers about how Alzheimer’s can quickly and cruelly ravage a person. The author’s many references to an enduring TV game show and its famous host help lighten the mood while cleverly adding to the novel’s realism.
Verdict Although Tamar and Clara are stubborn and not always likable, readers will root for them to gain closure and find peace. For fans of realistic fiction about difficult family relationships.—Samantha Gust, Niagara Univ. Lib., NY

starred review starMacInnes, Martin. Infinite Ground. Melville House. Oct. 2017. 272p. ISBN 9781612196855. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781612196862. F
[DEBUT] Whenever you think you’ve grasped something in this brilliant and unpredictable novel, it slips away, mutating into something new or evanescing completely. You think you’ve got it and then you haven’t; you’ve got something utterly different, as disorienting as it is menacing. There’s a narrative line—an inspector explores the disappearance of a man who walks away from a family dinner in a restaurant and never reappears—but the story reads like out of Kafka (a radically unstable outer world, a cloud of menace hanging over the protagonist for unspecified reasons) refined by Jorge Luis Borges (the flood of details constructing a carapace of facticity with nothing inside). There are echoes too of J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World as the inspector crashes through the Amazon rainforest, depleted by his quest, having become more animal than man. Facts change, the landscapes and players, too. By the end, nothing is certain. This post-postmodern novel is a detective story in the vein of Borges’s short story “Death and the Compass,” in which truth lies buried beneath reserves of meaningless noise.
Verdict This debut New Weird novel has appeared on several Best Book lists in Britain already. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but it is unputdownable once you get into it.—David Keymer, Cleveland

starred review starShum, Michael Shou-Yung. Queen of Spades. Forest Avenue. Oct. 2017. 256p. ISBN 9781942436317. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781942436331. F
[DEBUT] Shum’s first novel benefits greatly from its deadpan, occasionally absurdist style. Set mainly within a remote casino outside Seattle, the story follows itinerate dealer Arturo Chan from his first night of employment by pit boss Mannheim and manager Gabriela—both fiercely intelligent, with strict expectations. It’s rare to encounter high seriousness and humor under one cover, but the author’s layered grasp of gambling and its contingencies, its potential to dominate players emotionally, charges the narrative with thrills and danger. Perhaps the real triumph, though, is an unflinching (yet humane) glimpse into the lives of several characters in desperate relationships with chance, addiction, and lethal levels of debt. Some inhabit a nearly mystical despair, convinced that the universe is an infinite sea of codes decipherable through numeric rituals any “outsider” would view as madness. What Chan, the mysterious Countess, and a secretly dying boss come to realize is that despite life’s apparently meaningless chaos and suffering, a kind of redemption can be found by recognizing and celebrating the “unknowability of the world, and its sweetness.”
Verdict An enthralling, surreal debut enjoyable even for readers lacking knowledge of the Alexander Pushkin fable it honors and/or the gambling world.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV

Silverberg, Robert. First-Person Singularities. Three Rooms. Nov. 2017. 444p. ISBN 9781941110638. pap. $19.95; ebk. ISBN 9781941110645. SF
Inspired by W. Somerset Maugham’s Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular, the Hugo and Nebula Award–winning Silverberg collects 18 of his stories, each narrated in the first person singular. Encompassing the bulk of his career from the mid-1950s to the late 1990s, these tales reveal Silverberg experimenting with different writing styles and perspectives. Combine this with changes in American culture over that period and the result is a compelling volume that reflects the evolution of a writer, a country, and a genre. Silverberg prefaces each piece with a paragraph that illuminates how the story came to be, while often describing the political, cultural, and other contexts of that time. The stories themselves are captivating and entertaining; Silverberg’s insights are often just as thought provoking.
Verdict With an introduction by John Scalzi, this book is appropriate for young adult readers and upward, with a few instances of explicit content that is always tastefully approached. If you’re a fan of sf stories, or if you’re interested in introducing a friend to the genre, this title is an excellent choice.—Matt Schirano, Univ. of Bridgeport Lib., CT

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