Xpress Reviews: Fiction | First Look at New Books, December 21, 2012

Week ending December 21, 2012

Barry, Dave. Insane City. Putnam. Jan. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780399158681. $26.95. F
Barry fans will not be surprised by the plot twists in his first adult novel in over a decade. Of course, any reader who enjoys Barry’s humorous tours through southern Florida will not care one bit about the lack of surprise in this tale about a slacker groom in way over his head after he loses his custom-made wedding bands at a bachelor party gone awry. It is not exactly a spoiler alert to note that the marriage between impossibly gorgeous, successful, and spoiled Tina and Seth, whose marketing job consists of tweeting about the quality of feminine hygiene products from a variety of Twitter accounts, may not come off as planned.
Verdict Barry does here what he does best—creates a set of memorable and outlandish characters and places them in ever-increasing chaotic and hilarious set-pieces as they move toward an inevitable conclusion. Some scenes and characters work better than others (hired muscle stuck behind a coupon clipper at CVS, the father of the bride’s desire to join an elite secret organization known as the “group of six,” a jewelry-stealing orangutan with a fondness for Cheez-its), and which will stick with readers the most depends upon their own experiences. But die-hard Barry fans will savor his usual lunacy. [See Prepub Alert, 7/30/12.]—Julie Elliott, Indiana Univ. Lib., South Bend

starred review starBasran, Gurjinder. Everything Was Good-Bye. Pintail: Penguin Group (USA). Jan. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9780143186816. pap. $16. F
Seventeen-year-old Meena is the youngest of six daughters raised in a traditional Punjabi family. Her father died years ago, and her mother has shouldered the burden of supporting the family, imparting strong traditional values, and searching out appropriate arranged marriages for each daughter. Meena struggles with the boundaries imposed on her as a young adult and longs for the freedom of a typical teenager. As readers follow Meena through adulthood, she must decide whether to accept an arranged marriage in order to honor her family’s wishes or choose to believe in love and cause a potentially irreparable rift.
Verdict It isn’t surprising that this debut novel by an Indian Canadian writer won the 2011 Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize. Basran displays her talent for beautifully constructed sentences and well-developed characters, and her story convincingly portrays the intricacies of following your heart, as well as the effect those choices have on the people around you. The characters will grab the reader emotionally as the novel takes unexpected turns. Meena will not easily be forgotten. Highly recommended for reading groups and readers who enjoy literary novels about the immigrant experience.—Madeline Solien, Deerfield P.L., IL

Chiaverini, Jennifer. Mrs. Lincoln’s Dressmaker. Dutton. Jan. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780525953616. $26.95. F
Elizabeth Keckley, born a slave who later purchased her freedom, lived a life that was charmed in many ways. Her talents as a seamstress gained her entrée into the dressing rooms of the wives of the political elite in Washington. By far her most famous and long-lasting association was with Mary Todd Lincoln, wife then widow of the 16th President. Chiaverini steps away from her popular “Elms Creek Quilt” series to explore this relationship in this absorbing stand-alone historical novel.
Verdict Taking readers through times of war and peace as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary woman, the author brings Civil War Washington to vivid life through her meticulously researched authentic detail. Chiaverini’s characters are compelling and accurate; the reader truly feels drawn into the intimate scenes at the White House. Historical fiction fans will enjoy this one, while Chiaverini’s devoted readers may be adventurous enough to try something new. [See Prepub Alert, 8/16/12.]—Pam O’Sullivan, SUNY Coll. at Brockport Lib.

Downie, Ruth. Semper Fidelis: A Novel of the Roman Empire. Bloomsbury. Jan. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781608197095. $25. M
In Downie’s fifth novel (after Caveat Emptor) to feature Gaius Petreius Ruso, the Roman doctor and his wife travel from one camp to another as part of the Twentieth Legion serving in Britannia. Accidents and fatal injuries haunt the new native recruits as they settle in with their Roman counterparts, and Ruso finds his skills as a doctor and as an investigator in high demand. Imprisoned after asking too many questions about the tensions between the troops and their officers, Ruso must discover for himself the real crimes and the true criminals while not running afoul of Emperor Hadrian and his entourage.
Verdict In Ruso, an ancient character modern readers will easily relate to, Downie creates a likable protagonist who navigates the terrain and politics of Roman Britannia with humor and good intentions. This latest installment in the best-selling series will delight readers of history, mystery, and popular fiction.—Catherine Lantz, Morton Coll. Lib., Cicero, IL

Heffernan, William. When Johnny Came Marching Home. Akashic. 2012. 320p. ISBN 9781617751271. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9781617751356. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781617751431. M
A sweet kid returns home to rural Vermont from the Civil War, nasty and brutish. Not long after, someone sticks a shiv in him. The reluctant detective is a boyhood pal, also a former soldier but missing an arm instead of a conscience. There’s also some romance—legitimate and not so legitimate—and a shady guy from out of town. Heffernan’s (The Dead Detective) latest sounds like a lot of other mysteries, except for its setting and the interweaving of boyhood and wartime scenes. Jubal Foster, the hero, is kin to NCIS’s Jethro Gibbs: laconic and tough; one could see him as a recurring character in a series. Although rather laden with descriptors, the book is still an enjoyable read.
Verdict Mystery fans will zip through this, fans of historical fiction will enjoy the fin de guerre mood, but this novel is more noted for its characters and atmosphere than for an imaginative or mystifying plot.—W. Keith McCoy, Somerset Cty. Lib. Syst., Bridgewater, NJ

Steampunk III: Steampunk Revolution. Tachyon. Dec. 2012. 432p. ed. by Ann VanderMeer. ISBN 9781616960865. pap. $15.95. SF
In this third anthology focusing on the fast-evolving genre of steampunk (Steampunk; Steampunk Reloaded), contributor Margaret Killjoy writes in an essay, “Steampunk offers a level-headed (and top-hatted) critique of modernity.” Along with four essays, the 39 stories of retrofuturism vary widely in theme, setting, and prose style, inviting a wider definition of the term steampunk. Some interweave closely with fictional history (e.g., “The Stoker Memorandum”) or with actual history. Other tales involve everything from flight engineers in the Philippines to a mystic spaceship in ancient Hindustan, from contraband cars to a brass-bound postapocalyptic landscape. Readers will also meet a cyborg queen in Peking’s Forbidden City, a criminal–turned–defender of art’s beauty, living aircraft, and disturbing dream artificers. There’s even advice from a literary squid.
Verdict Those already familiar with the steampunk basics will welcome this new addition, which expands this subgenre’s borders and helps readers examine technology and society.—Sara Schepis, East Fishkill Community Lib., Hopewell Junction, NY

starred review starThomas, Rosie. The Kashmir Shawl. Overlook, dist. by Penguin Group (USA). Jan. 2013. 480p. ISBN 9781468302462. $26.95. F
Nerys Watkins is a missionary’s wife in 1941 India. When her husband leaves her with friends in order to pursue a more arduous mission alone, the newlywed Nerys finds herself part of British colonial society in the exotic city of Srinagar. She makes friends—and decisions that will change her irrevocably. In present-day Wales, Mair Ellis is going through her late father’s things when she comes across a beautiful Kashmir shawl that had belonged to her grandmother Nerys. Wrapped in the shawl is a lock of hair. Curious, and at loose ends after selling her childhood home, Mair travels to Kashmir in search of information about the grandmother she never knew.
Verdict Thomas (Lovers and Newcomers) brings India to glorious life in this utterly engrossing and beautifully written epic novel, a best seller in Britain. She moves the story from past to present with ease, never allowing one story line to overwhelm another. Her characters are so interesting and realistic that readers will be reluctant to let them go. Fans of Joanna Trollope and Mary Wesley will enjoy this moving work. [Library marketing.]—Elizabeth Mellett, Brookline P.L., MA

Bette-Lee Fox About Bette-Lee Fox

Bette-Lee Fox (blfox@mediasourceinc.com) is Managing Editor, Library Journal.

Now in her 46th year with Library Journal, Bette-Lee also edits LJ's Video Reviews column, six times a year Romance column, and e-original Romance reviews, which post weekly as LJ Xpress Reviews. She received the Romance Writers of America (RWA) Vivian Stephens Industry Award in 2013 for having "contributed to the genre or to RWA in a significant and/or continuing manner"


  1. CJBooker says:

    Solien was on-point with her Everything Was Good-bye review. I stayed up way too late reading, but it was worth the sleep deprivation. This one is definitely going to be a hot pick for book discussions. Great review!