Barbara’s Picks, Aug. 2013, Pt. 5: Fiction, Ranging from Newcomer Barker to Veteran McBride

Barker, Emily Croy. The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic. Pamela Dorman: Viking. Aug. 2013. 576p. ISBN 9780670023660. $27.95. FANTASY
While not supervising international coverage as executive editor of the American Lawyer, first novelist Barker has been living in another world entirely; her heroine, hapless graduate student Nora Fischer, has passed through a portal to a fantasy world where she enjoys fabulous friends, a fabulous boyfriend, and her own fabulous new looks. But most fairytales turn dark, Nora’s included, and she must learn magic skills to survive. Juicily promising and exactly the sort of adult book fans of Libba Bray’s “Gemma Doyle” series and other great YA fantasies of the last decade will anticipate as time goes by; comparisons to Lev Grossman’s “Magicians” series, too.

Bender, Aimee. The Color Master: Stories. Doubleday. Aug. 2013. 256p. ISBN 9780385534895. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780385534901. Downloadable: Random Audio. SHORT STORIES
A two-time Pushcart Prize winner and beloved by those in the know, Bender is nothing if not unexpected in her premises; remember that the protagonist of The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake could taste the sentiments of those who had prepared the food she ate. In these darkly sparkling stories, two sisters learn to stitch together torn tigers, a woman married to an Ogre forgives him when he inadvertently eats their children, and a group of people who eat only apples eagerly await the arrival of a girl with hair like shining wheat. Not, then, your standard writing; sure to surprise and delight.

Black, Benjamin. Holy Orders: A Quirke Novel. Holt. Aug. 2013. 304p. ISBN 9780805094404; $26. ebk. ISBN 9781429943963. MYSTERY
Even if Gabriel Byrne weren’t starring in a new BBC series based on the Quirke novels by Benjamin Black (John Banville’s alter ego), fans will be clamoring for this latest in the popular series. And even those unacquainted with Quirke could be interested, because the novel, though set in the 1950s, addresses painfully relevant issues as it takes on the power of the Catholic Church. Dublin pathologist Quirke is aghast when a friend of his daughter lands on his autopsy table; investigation (with occasional partner Inspector Hackett) implicates the Church in pedophilia and murder.

Cabot, Sam. Blood of the Lamb. Blue Rider Pr: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 416p. ISBN 9780399162954. $25.95. THRILLER
Tasked with recovering an ancient document stolen from the Vatican, American Jesuit priest Thomas Kelly ends up teaming with Italian art historian Livia Pietro, and they remain one step ahead of some evil gents who want the document for themselves. Not surprisingly, the document contains a damning secret that will upend Christianity, but the knowledge that Livia is secretly a vampire might curdle the blood. Surely a feast for the ubiquitous fans of vampire lore and Da Vinci–style thrillers, but what should keep it fresh is Cabot’s identity as two authors in one: Carlos Dews, who as director of Rome-based John Cabot University’s Institute for Creative Writing and Literary Translation, knows the literature and the ambience, and S.J. Rozan, who as a Edgar, Shamus, Anthony, Macavity, and Nero award winner has demonstrated the requisite writerly skills.

Jess-Cooke, Carolyn. The Boy Who Could See Demons. Delacorte. Aug. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780345536532. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780345536549. Downloadable: Random Audio. THRILLER
Author (among other works) of the best-selling novel The Guardian Angel’s Journal and Inroads, an award-winning poetry collection, Jess-Cooke offers a lyrically spooky thriller featuring child psychiatrist Anya Molokova. Anya has been asked to assess ten-year-old Alex, troubled after his mother’s latest suicide attempt and now prone to hurting himself and others—because, he says, he’s told to by the wily demon Ruen. Anguished by her own daughter’s early-onset schizophrenia, Anya thinks Alex too is hearing voices—but then she realizes that Ruen might not be imaginary. Great reviewer and reader response where this book has already been published (e.g., the UK, Ireland, Australia).

Lain, Douglas. Billy Moon: A Transcendent Novel Reimagining the Life of Christopher Robin Milne. Tor. Aug. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780765321725. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781429948074. FANTASY
A childhood lover of Winnie the Pooh, I cannot resist the idea of a novel about Christopher Robin; that the narrative turns on the student revolts of 1968, particularly those in Paris, strikes me as intriguing and original. A.A. Milne wrote son Christopher Robin into his famous children’s books, then ignored him altogether; as Lain portrays him, Christopher Robin grew up conflicted about the divide between his real and fictional selves. Then a French friend hauls him to the turbulent streets of Paris and, furthermore, proves capable of experiencing alternate realities, which helps Christopher Robin come to understand his own life. Whoa!

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9781594486340. $27.95. HISTORICAL/LITERARY
Here McBride continues exploring the long history of America’s color line, begun in his landmark memoir, The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother, and best-selling novels like Miracle at St. Anne. A young slave living in the Kansas Territory, Henry Shackleford must flee with abolitionist John Brown after Brown clashes with Henry’s master. Brown thinks that Henry is a girl (some gender-line exploration, too?), and Henry maintains his disguise right up to the bold raid on Harpers Ferry. Great for discussion, so the reading group guide is a plus.

Sward, Anne. Breathless. Viking. Aug. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9780670026548. $25.95. LITERARY
Though perhaps not as big as other books on this Picks list, Swärd’s August Prize nominee has been resonating with me since the galley was highlighted at ALA Midwinter. The story concerns six-year-old Lo and 13-year-old Lukas, both from immigrant families in Sweden, who forge a tight friendship as they meet at an abandoned lake house, swimming in summer and enthusiastically reciting lines from Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless yearlong. Throughout her adult travels, Lo recalls their innocent but vital friendship, strictly forbidden by her family, and tries to puzzle out how it was destroyed. Comparisons are being made to Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping and Paul Harding’s Tinkers.

Vasquez, Juan Gabriel. The Sound of Things Falling. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 288p. ISBN 9781594487484. $26.95. LITERARY
A hugely important writer in Latin America, Vásquez did well here a few years back with The Informers (“remarkable,” the Washington Post), and there is big in-house enthusiasm and big blog buzz for his forthcoming title. When Antonio Yammara reads that a hippo has escaped from a crumbling zoo in Bogotá once owned by notorious drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, he recalls the era when Escobar’s cartel clashed violently with the Colombian government and Antonio saw a friend murdered. The book should be of broad interest, showing how the violence surrounding narcotrafficking has shaped Colombian history and culture.

Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.