Fiction Reviews, March 15, 2012

starred review star Dryden, Alex. The Blind Spy. Ecco: HarperCollins. Mar. 2012. c.416p. ISBN 9780062088086. $24.99. F

When Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin said, Ukraine is not even a state, he expressed a view commonly held in his country. In Dryden’s third espionage thriller (after Red to Black and Moscow Sting), an election is impending in the embattled country. With Putin’s blessing, the patriotiy‚ a cadre of unreconciled Cold Warriors‚ sets out to undermine Ukraine’s independence. Ex-KGB colonel Anna Resnikov, who now works for the private intelligence agency Cougar, takes on the near impossible task of stopping them. Lined up against her is Balthasar, a blind man who possesses a sixth sense for what others think. Anna and Balthasar share a tangled past: whose side will he join now? VERDICT With a plot as current as today’s headlines, Dryden’s latest is as good as her previous two novels, which is saying a lot. In a series like this, the backstory often smothers new exposition; that’s not the case here. While Anna’s past matters, this exceptional novel stands on its own. Aficionados of spy thrillers will want. [See Prepub Alert, 9/19/11.]‚ David Keymer, Modesto, CA

starred review star Haddon, Mark. The Red House. Doubleday. Jun. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9780385535779. $25.95. F

Wealthy doctor Richard, having recently married trophy wife Louisa and inherited a teenage stepdaughter, the classically disaffected, aggressive Melissa, is feeling bad about his estrangement from sister Angela, particularly after Mum’s death. So he invites Angela and her family‚ husband Dominic and three children‚ for a holiday at a rented house on the Welsh border. Could anything sound more grim and humdrum, not simply for the vacationers but for the reader? In fact, in the capable hands of British author Haddon (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time), this is a stunning and absorbing read. The not unexpected happens‚ Richard and Angela scrap over who fared better in childhood; Angela’s older son, Alex, struggles to shrug off teen dopiness and get it on with Melissa; misfit daughter Daisy, in a devout Christian phase, comes to a shattering new personal place; feckless Dominic’s sins are revealed; and Benjy, still unplugged from adult tensions, plays Batman. VERDICT Refreshingly, Haddon takes the risk of making the ordinary extraordinary and succeeds; each character is poignantly real and each small trauma a revelation. And the language! Highly recommended. [See Prepub Alert, 12/12/11.]‚ Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review star Irving, John. In One Person. S. & S. May 2012. c.448p. ISBN 9781451664126. $28. F

What is normal? Does it really matter? In Irving’s latest novel (after Last Night in Twisted River), nearly everyone has a secret, but the characters who embrace and accept their own differences and those of others are the most content. This makes the narrator, Bill, particularly appealing. Bill knows from an early age that he is bisexual, even if he doesn’t label himself as such. He has inappropriate crushes but doesn’t make himself miserable denying that part of himself; he simply acts, for better or for worse. The reader meets Bill at 15, living on the campus of an all-boys school in Vermont where his stepfather is on the faculty. Through the memories of a much older Bill, his life story is revealed, from his teenage years in Vermont to college and life as a writer in New York City. Bill is living in New York during the 1980s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, and the suffering described is truly heart-wrenching. Irving cares deeply, and the novel is not just Bill’s story but a human tale. VERDICT This wonderful blend of thought-provoking, well-constructed, and meaningful writing is what one has come to expect of Irving, and it also makes for an enjoyable page-turner. [See Prepub Alert, 11/28/11.]‚ Shaunna Hunter, Hampden-Sydney Coll. Lib., VA

starred review star Makine, Andreï. The Life of an Unknown Man. Graywolf. Jun. 2012. c.192p. ISBN 9781555976147. pap. $15. F

Shutov is a has-been Russian émigré writer living in Paris whose very name means clown, as his much younger French girlfriend derisively points out before dumping him. To recover, he decides to return to Saint Petersburg for the city’s 300th-anniversary celebration. Staying with newly rich Yana, a tenderly remembered friend too self-involved to have much time for him, Shutov comes across the elderly Volsky‚ a leftover tenant, soon to be evicted, living in one of the many rooms from which Yana’s apartments has been fashioned. Volsky tells him a heartrending (and heartrendingly rendered) tale of Leningrad during and after the siege, when a young, hopeful Volsky falls in love with fellow singer Mila. Together they brave the awful years of the siege‚ in one riveting scene, a half-starved chorus sings the Internationale on the battlefield itself. What happens after the war is even worse. VERDICT The pointed contrast to our soulless times could have seemed too obviously drawn, but in his deceptively simple, suffused language (there’s real iron underneath), Makine (Dreams of My Russian Summer) helps us relive an awful moment in the 20th century. A humbling read. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]‚ Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review star Moriarty, Laura. The Chaperone. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Jun. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9781594487019. $26.95. F

With her bobbed black hair and strikingly red lipstick, Louise Brooks was a femme fatale in early Hollywood movies. In this latest novel from Moriarty (The Center of Everything), a teenage Louise heads to New York City in 1922 from her home in Wichita, chaperoned by proper Kansas matron Cora Carlisle. Once in New York, Louise is accepted by the renowned Denishawn School of Dancing and is on her way to fame. An innocent young adult she is not‚ hard as nails, she is both self-promoting and self-destructive. The real story here, however, is about Cora, a kind soul despite the shocks she has endured at several crucial times in her life. Cora’s visit to New York gives her a new perspective and changes her life in unexpected ways. The novel, which spans the next six decades of Cora’s life, also reminds us how dramatically American life changed over the 20th century. VERDICT Moriarty is a wonderful storyteller; it’s hard to put this engaging novel down. Fans of the Jazz Age and sweeping historical fiction will likely feel the same way. [See Prepub Alert, 12/5/11.]‚ Leslie Patterson, Rehoboth, MA

starred review star Unger, Lisa. Heartbroken. Crown. Jun. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9780307465207. $24. F

Birdie Burke, a harsh, difficult woman, invites her relatives for a vacation at the family’s property, Heart Island. This secluded spot in the Adirondacks is the backdrop for a tale of family intrigue and dark secrets, as the stories of three women unfold: Birdie, her daughter Kate, and the sad and confused Emily, who has been drawn into a maelstrom of crime and emotional torment through her relationship with her very troubled boyfriend. As Kate fights to cope with her mother’s controlling personality, her own daughter, Chelsea, suffers from a painful lack of self-confidence and falls for a young man she knows only online. VERDICT In Unger’s (Darkness, My Old Friend; Fragile) latest engrossing thriller, the author’s in-depth portraits of three different women searching for answers to their own set of difficulties will captivate fans of mystery and psychological suspense. This is one of Unger’s best novels yet.‚ Linda Oliver, MLIS, Colorado Springs

starred review star Runcie, James. Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. (Grantchester Mysteries). May 2012. c.448p. ISBN 9781608198566. pap. $16. M

There is something very appealing about a man of the cloth playing at detective; the convergence of the sacred with the evils of the modern world can make for delightful mystery reading. Novelist Runcie (The Discovery of Chocolate; Canvey Island), who just happens to be the son of the former archbishop of Canterbury, has bestowed upon us a new and delightful clerical detective. Canon Sidney Chambers is a relatively young vicar with a passion for jazz and backgammon who resides in the quintessential English village of Grantchester. This reluctant shamus continually finds himself embroiled in a variety of mysteries from outright murder to a jewel heist. Fortunately, Sidney has a stalwart companion in Insp. Geordie Keating, who also serves as his drinking and backgammon partner. VERDICT This is a strong series debut with an affable amateur detective set against a post‚ World War II England that is both evocative and informative. A gentle mystery read with strong appeal for devotees of ecclesiastical and English village mysteries.‚ Amy Nolan, St. Joseph P.L., MI

starred review star Vann, David. Dirt. Harper: HarperCollins. Jun. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9780062121035. $25.99. F

With his second novel (after Caribou Island), internationally acclaimed writer Vann brings us into the troubled world of 22-year-old Galen. Galen lives with his mother, Suzie-Q, a broken woman who uses make-believe to hide family secrets. Their existence on the dying family walnut farm depends on the fortune of Galen’s grandmother, who has been shuttled off to a nursing home. Fighting for a piece of the family wealth is Suzie-Q’s sister Helen and her precocious 17-year-old daughter, Jennifer. Galen wants to break free of this dysfunctional family, but a hoped-for college education never happens. Suzie-Q controls the checkbook and tells everyone that the trust fund barely pays for the upkeep of the large house and grounds. Galen espouses all manner of New Age practices, hoping for ultimate enlightenment to escape his mother’s suffocating attention. Instead, his spiritual awakening happens with his cousin Jennifer, who teases him with sexual games. When Suzie-Q witnesses one such game, she ends up threatening Galen‚ and Galen’s deranged world comes to an end in a powerful and gruesome finale. VERDICT Vann has a remarkable gift for capturing the harsh realities of a family held together by hate and violence. Riveting and impossible to put down. [See Prepub Alert, 1/16/12.]‚ Donna Bettencourt, Mesa Cty. P.L., Grand Junction, CO

starred review star Sallis, James. Driven. Poisoned Pen. Apr. 2012. 158p. ISBN 9781464200106. $19.95; pap. ISBN 9781464200113. $11.95. M

Sallis’s slim sequel to his acclaimed Drive might at first glance seem like a prose poem or a children’s book. With its close attention to telling detail and a vocabulary that rarely ranges beyond two-syllable words, it is a bit of both, mixed with interludes of extreme violence, in an angst-drenched Phoenix. That is to say that this novel is a close to perfectly executed noir. By the second paragraph, Driver sees his lover viciously shot dead at his side, and this causes him to set out to discover who is after him. The language is plain, the action is brutal, and the characters are memorably and briefly etched. Typical is this characterization of a suburban couple: Sectional couch! Jell-O salad! Mashed potatoes! Lawrence Welk! Charles Bukowski couldn’t have said it better. VERDICT Coming hard on the heels of the 2011 film version of cult favorite Drive, this gritty, gristly tale will rivet Sallis’s growing audience.‚ Bob Lunn, Kansas City, MO

The following titles are reviewed in the March 15 print issue. Visit our Reviews Center (Beta) for the full reviews.

Aira, César. Varamo. New Directions, dist. by Norton. 2012. c.96p. tr. from Spanish by Chris Andrews. ISBN 9780811217415.

pap. $12.95. F

Delaney, Frank. The Last Storyteller. Random. 2012. c.400p. ISBN 9781400067855. $26. F

DeSanti, Carole. The Unruly Passions of Eugénie R. Houghton Harcourt. Mar. 2012. c.432p. ISBN 9780547553092. $26. F

Ha, Khanh. Flesh. Black Heron. May 2012. c.368p. ISBN 9780930773885. $25.95. F

Harkaway, Nick. Angelmaker. Knopf. Mar. 2012. c.496p. ISBN 9780307595959. $26.95. F

Howe, Katherine. The House of Velvet and Glass. Voice: Hyperion. Apr. 2012. c.432p. ISBN 9781401340919. $25.99. F

Jaye, Lola. Being Lara. Morrow. Apr. 2012. c.320p. ISBN 9780062069344. pap. $13.99. F

Jones, Brandon. All Woman and Springtime. Algonquin. May 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9781616200770. $24.95. F

Kashua, Sayed. Second Person Singular. Grove. Apr. 2012. c.352p. tr. from Hebrew by Mitch Ginsburg. ISBN 9780802120199. $25. F

McCleen, Grace. The Land of Decoration. Holt. Apr. 2012. c.320p. ISBN 9780805094947. $25. F

Medina, Pablo. Cubop City Blues. Grove. Jun. 2012. c.270p. ISBN 9780802119841. $25. F

Murari, Timeri N. The Taliban Cricket Club. Ecco: HarperCollins. May 2012. c.336p. ISBN 9780062091253. $24.99. F

Prete, David. August and Then Some. Norton. Apr. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9780393057997. $24.95. F

Randall, Alice. Ada’s Rules: A Sexy Skinny Novel. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan.
May 2012. c.352p. ISBN 9781608198276. $24. F

Thorne, Melanie. Hand Me Down. Dutton. Apr. 2012. c.320p. ISBN 9780525952688. $25.95. F

Waters, Paul. The Philosopher Prince. Overlook, dist. by Penguin. Apr. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9781590207185. pap. $15.95. F

Wolf, T.M. Sound. Faber & Faber. May 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9780865478503. pap. $17. F

Short stories

McGregor, Jon. This Isn’t the Sort of Thing That Happens to Someone Like You. Bloomsbury, dist. by Macmillan. Apr. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9781596913493. pap. $16. F

Moffett, Kevin. Further Interpretations of Real-Life Events. HarperPerennial. Mar. 2012. c.240p. ISBN 9780062069221. pap. $14.99. F

Ohlin, Alix. Signs and Wonders. Vintage Contemporaries: Random. Jun. 2012. c.272p. ISBN 9780307743794. pap. $15. F

Perillo, Lucia. Happiness Is a Chemical in the Brain: Stories. Norton. May 2012. c.224p. ISBN 9780393083538. $23.95. F

Reents, Stephanie. The Kissing List. Hogarth. May 2012. c.240p. ISBN 9780307951823. $22. F

Last-Minute Christian Fiction

Perrine, Jane Myers. The Welcome Committee of Butternut Creek. FaithWords: Hachette. Apr. 2012. c.384p. ISBN 9780892969210. pap. $14.99. CF