Xpress Reviews: Fiction | First Look at New Books, June 21, 2013

Week ending June 21, 2013

starred review starBanks, Iain. The Quarry. Redhook: Hachette. Jun. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780316281867. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780316281843. F
The ingredients in this final novel by Scottish novelist Banks (The Hydrogen Sonata), who died June 9 at the age of 59, read like a grim recipe for disaster, but the book isn’t one. Guy, a former golden boy who’s never in his life finished anything he started, lives with his 18-year-year-old son, Kit. Guy is dying of cancer. Friends–they studied together at the “uni” years ago—visit for the weekend. None have made of themselves what they hoped to be. They’re ill at ease around their dying friend and, for most of the stay, are whacked out on coke and alcohol. Guy’s friends don’t do much but argue. Nothing is resolved. (It’s hard to win an argument with death.) Guy doesn’t want to die: he takes out his anger on everyone around him but most of all on his son. Kit is the novel’s triumph. Though autistic or near it, he’s learned to live with his handicap and he’s lovable and competent.
Verdict Banks was an extraordinary writer; in straight literary fiction and in his science fiction novels, he engaged the world with passion. We’ll miss him. For good reason, Banks’s many fans will devour this book, which the author wrote after he was diagnosed this past March.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA

starred review starBarclay, Linwood. A Tap on the Window. NAL: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 512p. ISBN 9780451414182. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101623442. F
Shortly after the apparent drug-fueled suicide of their teenage son, Scott, Cal and Donna Weaver each deal with their grief in their own way, neither able to close the growing chasm that has formed between them. While Donna finds comfort in her artwork and in trying to create a perfect impression of her son, Cal uses his skills as a private investigator to track down the people he feels are responsible for his son’s death, albeit indirectly. However, Cal’s search for justice is sidelined when, while stopped at a light on a rainy night, he picks up a teenage hitchhiker, Claire, and becomes an unwitting participant in her ploy. When Claire disappears, Cal’s subsequent quest to find her leads him down an unexpected path to uncover secrets long held by some of the residents of his seemingly sterling hometown of Griffon.
Verdict Fast-paced, spine-tingling plot twists have long been a staple of Barclay’s (Trust Your Eyes) domestic thrillers, and his latest installment does not disappoint. Writing primarily from the first-person perspective, Barclay paints character portraits that are strikingly lifelike and entirely believable. Although the story runs a bit long, the surprising tidbits that are revealed at key points keep the reader engrossed to the very end.—Natasha Grant, New York

Davis, Christopher. The Conduct of Saints. Permanent. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781579623159. $28. F
Davis’s 12th novel is an unsettling story that questions both faith and redemption. The central character is American Brendan Doherty, a Vatican prelate and lawyer who enjoys drinking as much as advocating for his two causes. A staunch death penalty opponent, he attempts to prevent the execution of Nazi collaborator Pedro Koch. At the same time, Doherty is convinced that murderer Alessandro Serenelli is lying about the miraculous spiritual transformation he claimed to have experienced after killing young Maria Goretti. Forty years earlier, Serenelli attacked Goretti, who is soon to be canonized as a child saint. Church politics, sexual trysts, and plenty of alcohol weave these two stories together through post–World War II Rome. Davis skillfully blends fact and fiction by incorporating historical figures such as Koch, Serenelli, and Goretti into the heart of his plot.
Verdict Though the title and main character suggest a heavily religious story, it will be readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in World War II, who will find much here to enjoy.—Shannon Marie Robinson, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH

Palmer, Daniel. Stolen. Kensington. 2013. 327p. ISBN 9780758246660. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780758289322. F
Hanging from a mountain cliff with two other climbers, John must make a gut-wrenching decision: which man should he cut loose in order to save John and one other. John’s action gives us a preview of his personality and capabilities, as the theme of “what would you do to save yourself? plays throughout the rest of this suspenseful thriller. John and Ruby are young, in love, and on their way to success when Ruby is diagnosed with cancer. After finding out their insurance will not cover the lifesaving medicine she needs, John uses his technology skills to steal an identity and file a false claim. But the couple are pulled into a horrible cat-and-mouse game when the identity theft victim threatens to kill people close to them if John and Ruby refuse to play a game called Criminal.
Verdict Palmer’s (Delirious; Helpless) whirlwind of a thriller takes readers into the mind of a psychopath as his victims go to extremes to come out alive. This well-written, well-paced nail-biter will please adrenaline fiction junkies.—Marianne Fitzgerald, Severna Park H.S, MD

Preston, Richard Ellis, Jr. Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders. 47North: Amazon. (Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin). Jul. 2013. 504p. ISBN 9781611099188. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9781611091526. FANTASY
Eighteen-year-old Romulus Buckle, a pilot from the Crankshaft Clan, takes center stage as the larger-than-life captain of the Pneumatic Zeppelin in this postapocalyptic steampunk romp through a future California devastated by an event known as “The Storming.” Everyone in this new Snow World is exaggerated and almost caricature-like in their looks, backgrounds, and abilities, which are revealed as Buckle leads his crew on a mission to rescue his adopted father and clan leader, Admiral Balthazar Crankshaft, from a peaceful mission gone awry in the mysterious City of the Founders. There are allusions to an alien invasion in the form of mysterious obelisks scattered across the landscape; one of Buckle’s crew is half-Martian and viewed with distrust. Along the way, Buckle survives potentially deadly encounters with strange wildlife and gravity with ease and manages to convince a rival clan, the Alchemists, to aid in the rescue of the admiral since their leader was also taken captive. The combined forces sneak into the City of the Founders from the ground and the sky, but making it out again is questionable.
Verdict In this series launch, Preston brings a new dynamic to steampunk by combining it more with postapocalyptic, instead of historical, details, but the repetitive descriptions of the characters and plot bring to mind the overwrought nature of early adventure novels, in which the overall tale was serialized and information needed to be repeated for new readers. Libraries where Kevin J. Anderson and Neil Pert’s Clockwork Angels proved popular may consider purchasing this title, but fans of more historical steampunk may prefer Devon Monk’s “The Age of Steam” series or Meljean Brook’s “Iron Seas” books.—Melanie C. Duncan, Shurling Lib., Macon, GA

Silva, Daniel. The English Girl. Harper: HarperCollins. Jul. 2013. 480p. ISBN 9780062073167. $27.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062073204. F
Silva adds another thrilling entry to the best-selling Gabriel Allon series (after The Fallen Angel). This time his Israeli secret agent and art restorer is home in Jerusalem when an intelligence acquaintance pays him a visit. The British prime minister has received a ransom demand for his captive lover, Madeline Hart. He has to pay in seven days, or she dies and the scandal will be revealed to the media. Allon is more than qualified to find the girl quickly and quietly, an assignment that launches him on a chase around Europe and Russia. Allon finds a few unlikely allies in an assassin who once spared his life and a Russian businessman, as he peels away the layers of the elaborate blackmail scheme that is bigger and more dangerous than anyone anticipated.
Verdict Silva is a sure bet for thriller fans; his 13th action-packed, globe-trotting espionage adventure won’t disappoint. [See Prepub Alert, 1/14/13.]—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI

starred review starWillett, Jincy. Amy Falls Down. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Jul. 2013. 336p. ISBN 9781250028273. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250028280. F
Willett’s previous book, The Writing Class, introduced readers to the wonderfully acerbic author/creative writing teacher Amy Gallup. That novel was a regular whodunit, but this sequel is not in the mystery genre at all. Rather, it is a lovingly gentle but thorough skewering of the current literary world, the media surrounding it, and the “authors-as-brands” who often populate it. The novel opens with Amy falling and hitting her head on a birdbath. Long afraid of doctors and hospitals, she doesn’t immediately seek treatment but instead gives an interview to a local newspaper journalist—a young woman who’s featuring Amy in a “whatever happened to” article. (Amy’s debut novel at 22 was a tremendous success, but nothing in the resulting 40 years quite lived up to the potential promised by it.) Amy’s incoherent ramblings set off a chain of events featuring her as a straight talker surrounded by pretentiousness.
Verdict Funny and whip-smart about the modern book world, Willett’s novel is also profound and touching on relationships, aging, and self-reflection. Absolutely recommended, whether or not you read The Writing Class, and especially if you’re a voracious reader or a writer, a publisher, a critic, or a book blogger. [See Prepub Alert, 1/25/13.]—Amy Watts, Univ. of Georgia Lib., Athens

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"