Xpress Reviews: Fiction | First Look at New Books, July 19, 2013

Week ending July 19, 2013

Ammaniti, Niccolo. Let the Games Begin. Black Cat: Grove. Aug. 2013. 320p. tr. from Italian by Kylee Doust. ISBN 9780802121110. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780802193551. F
Bumbling Satanists, celebrity murder plots, rampaging elephants, subterranean former Olympic athletes—this is not a subtle book. The setting is contemporary Rome —”Rome appeared like an enormous dirty blanket encrusted with diamonds”—and the cast is large. A working-class real estate magnate has purchased Villa Ada, once a public park and now a large private home, and is celebrating by throwing a party for the rich and beautiful. Members of the Wilde Beasts of Abaddon sect pose as caterers at the party in order to kill a pop star. Meanwhile, an anxiety-ridden author attending the event thinks he will find salvation there. Italian novelist Ammaniti (I’m Not Scared) gleefully sets the stage and then lets things go hilariously awry. The story moves at a manic pace, with much sex and food strewn throughout; the depiction of women is absurd (and occasionally cruel) but fits with the satirical tone. What keeps this work from being mere spoof is how Ammaniti tempers the caricatures with quotes from Hamlet and plants believable existential pain in his character’s lives.
Verdict Not all readers will see the male characters’ eccentricity as charming, but as a romp this will find an international audience.—Travis Fristoe, Alachua Cty. Lib. Dist., Gainesville, FL

Kahakauwila, Kristiana. This Is Paradise: Stories. Hogarth: Crown. Jul. 2013. 240p. ISBN 9780770436254. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9780770436261. SHORT STORIES
This debut collection from Kahakauwila, a former writer and editor for Wine Spectator and Cigar Aficionado, draws from her Hawaiian roots to offer readers six stories set in Maui, Oahu, Kaua’i and the Big Island. All the characters have ties to Hawaii, whether they are locals or returning from the mainland, and the liberal use of Hawaiian pidgin in the dialog offers a strong dose of islander reality contrary to the perception of those passing through that this is paradise. The title story, which opens the work, serves as an ideal introduction to this truth: hotel housekeepers and young professional women share encounters with a female tourist who ultimately ends up a tragic victim. In “Portrait of a Good Father,” a young woman recalls family conflict because her father led a dual life. In “The Old Paniolo Way,” a son returning to the islands to spend time with his sister and dying father falls for his father’s caretaker and must struggle with coming out to his family.
Verdict Kahakauwila is an admirable storyteller, able to give characters depth and draw in her audience while evoking strong emotions with spare language. Reminiscent of Lois-Ann Yamanaka’s similarly gritty, no-holds-barred view of life in Hawaii, she is a fresh new voice to be watched.—Shirley Quan, Orange Cty. P.L.

López Barrio, Cristina. The House of Impossible Loves. Houghton Harcourt. Jul. 2013. 336p. tr. from Spanish by Lisa Carter. ISBN 9780547661193. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780547661216. F
One day in autumn 1897, a young Andalusian aristocrat shows up in the chilly highlands of Castile. When he spies the beautiful, amber-eyed Clara and comments to her on the weather, she tells him to go back where he came from. Instead, he impregnates her and gives her the money to start a brothel in the woods, Scarlet Manor. Seeking to break a family curse, Clara runs a successful business and achieves the financial security that will eventually free her descendants, but it still takes three more generations of fatherless daughters before a son is born to a permanent father, typically not a Spaniard. Here, death is gruesome, the weather stormy, and the manor, whose rooms have strange, distinctive odors are surrounded by lush vegetation; and even the bombs of the Spanish Civil War fall as if in a dream.
Verdict This multigenerational saga by López Barrio, a lawyer who has written fiction for young adults, is an imaginative page-turner for those who appreciate magic realism.—Jack Shreve, Chicago

McBride, James. The Good Lord Bird. Riverhead: Penguin Group (USA). Aug. 2013. 432p. ISBN 9781594486340. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101616185. F
In the turbulent times just before the Civil War, abolitionist John Brown visits the Kansas Territories to free the slaves. In the midst of a gunfight between slave owner Dutch Henry and Brown, a young slave named Henry Shackleford watches his father die. Now freed and under the protection of the wily abolitionist, who mistakes the ten-year-old boy dressed in a potato sack for a girl, Henry maintains this feminine guise as he rides with Brown and his band of volunteers. After becoming separated during a skirmish, Henry finds himself in a Missouri brothel only to rejoin Brown’s ragtag group two years later. Brown takes Henry on a fundraising tour back East, meeting with other abolitionists including Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman. Despite John Brown’s reputation for violence, Henry discovers an old man whose intense passion for the abolitionist cause tends to overrule common sense, proving disastrously detrimental as they travel to Harpers Ferry in 1859.
Verdict With its colorful characters caught in tragic situations, McBride’s (The Color of Water; Song Yet Sung; Miracle at St. Anna) faux memoir, narrated by Henry, presents a larger-than-life slice of an icon of American history with the author’s own particular twist. [See Prepub Alert, 2/25/13.]—Joy Gunn, Paseo Verde Lib., Henderson, NV

Palin, Michael. The Truth. Thomas Dunne: St. Martin’s. Aug. 2013. 272p. ISBN 9781250028242. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250028235. F
It takes 11 chapters before actor, comedian, and author Palin’s second novel in 15 years (after Hemingway’s Chair) begins to get interesting. That’s when Keith Mabbut, a middle-aged writer, lands in India in search of an enigmatic international humanitarian named Hamish Melville. Mabbut was once a muckraking ecojournalist, but his career has languished to the point that he has been compelled to write glowing histories for mega-international oil corporations. Given a chance to pen the definitive biography of an environmental activist he much admires, he packs his bags. With leads and some luck, Mabbut tracks Melville to a remote hillside where local villagers are fighting a large-scale mining operation. As Mabbut struggles to convince Melville to share his story with the world, he confronts conflicting versions of the truth in all aspects of Melville’s life. Mabbut is a clueless idealist, a tad dull, but well intentioned. So is this book, which is strongest when describing cultural details and adventure travel in India.
Verdict Fans of Palin’s televised travel programs may be intrigued. Just don’t expect the madcap hilarity of a Monty Python episode, despite the author’s résumé.—Christine Perkins, Whatcom Cty. Lib. Syst., Bellingham, WA

Saul, John Ralston. Dark Diversions. Pintail: Penguin Group (USA). 2013. 336p. ISBN 9780143187509. pap. $16. SHORT STORIES
The narrator of this series of encounters is a journalist of sorts. In the 1980s and 1990s, he interviews dictators, bankers, princesses, and other high-ranking officials from New York to Paris to Morocco to Haiti, while insinuating himself into their lives and luxurious lifestyles. Each encounter is a story in itself, sometimes tied to another vignette but often contrasting markedly, with different worlds featured from one story to the next. The common thread is the voice of the dark, tongue-in-cheek, dead-pan narrator and his delivery of the facts. In one story, he confesses to choosing to let readers draw their own conclusions about the tales he tells. Toronto-based, prize-winning author of both fiction and nonfiction, Saul is the recipient of the Governor General’s Award, Premio lettarario Internazionale and Chile’s Pablo Neruda Medal. Readers of modern short stories will enjoy this new collection.
Verdict Recommended.—Joanna Burkhardt, Univ. of Rhode Island Libs., Providence

Schoenewaldt, Pamela. Swimming in the Moon. Morrow. Sept. 2013. 368p. ISBN 9780062202239. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062202246. F
Lucia D’Angelo and her mother, Teresa, must escape Naples and the Italian villa, where they served a gentle countess and her harsh husband. Their migration leads them to Cleveland, OH, where they confront 20th-century American urban life, fraught with language barriers, unfair labor practices, disease, severe weather, and prejudice. Their lives improve when Teresa’s beautiful voice earns her a position singing on the Vaudeville circuit as the “Naples Nightingale.” Teresa’s career dissolves when her mental and emotional demons return, creating added hardship for Lucia. Against the odds, Lucia aspires to improve her status, eventually finding her own voice in the growing U.S. labor movement.
Verdict Though not completely new territory, as the author covered similar ground in her debut novel When We Were Strangers, this is a classic immigrant story that makes the reader feel good. Its strength as a historical novel is Schoenewaldt’s emphasis on women and their plight during the turbulent 1900s. The story’s pacing at times is uneven, but Schoenewaldt regains consistency through offering rich characters and colorful scenes. Recommended for all fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, 3/4/13.]—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis

Terpening, Ron. Cloud Cover. Cliff Edge. Aug. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780975576137. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9780989403535. F
The seemingly disparate threads of this Cold War–era spy thriller come together and reach a boiling point in Italy in 1984. Michael Higgins, a librarian at the American Institute Library in Trieste, Italy, happens to be in the right place at the right time to assist NATO intelligence in passing along field agent messages. Never trained as a spy, Higgins soon gets a crash course in espionage when his field agents turn up dead and his own life is threatened. With unexpected help (and romance) from Canadian intelligence agent Fae Avadek, Higgins flees Trieste in search of answers, finding stolen missiles and betrayals along the way. It becomes apparent that someone is orchestrating a war, and Higgins and Avadek may be the only ones able to stop it.
Verdict Terpening’s (League of Shadows) latest thriller starts out slowly, involving a multitude of characters across the globe, but it picks up in pace and intensity as the story lines begin to converge. However, the lack of atmosphere and depth of characters may disappoint discerning international thriller readers.—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI

starred review starToperoff, Sam. Lillian and Dash. Other. Jul. 2013. 400p. ISBN 9781590515686. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781590515693. F
This lyrical historical novel imagines the inner life of the tempestuous relationship between American authors Dashiell Hammett (1894–1961) and Lillian Hellman (1905–84). Against the backdrop of 20th-century show business history, Toperoff (Jimmy Dean Prepares) skillfully interleaves their two shifting perspectives. Lillian’s Broadway success and Hammett’s literary fame brings them together in Hollywood in the 1930s. Married to other people, Dash and Lillian fill a need in each other that more traditional relationships cannot, as together they struggle through turbulent times in Hollywood and the world. Both are drawn to the cause of the Spanish Civil War and become involved in World War II: Hellman as a writer for the pro-Soviet propaganda movie Red Star and Hammett as a soldier at the age of 50. During the Cold War, both are called before the House Un-American Activities Committee and Hammett even ends up in jail. This novel shows how, despite intervening periods of strife, infidelity, insolvency, and alcoholism, Dash and Lillian relied on each other.
Verdict A powerful homage to American literary arts and the personal struggles of Hellman and Hammett. Their little-known story shines here with unabashed brilliance.—Henry Bankhead, Los Gatos Lib., CA

White, Stephen. Compound Fractures. Dutton. Aug. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9780525952602. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9781101585528. F
Psychologist Dr. Alan Gregory is back for one last outing, and this time he’s the one on the couch. Reeling from a shooting (Line of Fire) that has left his wife in a coma, White’s beloved, flawed protagonist is also coming to terms with potential betrayal from his most trusted friend and trying desperately to maintain his own sanity with the help of his own personal psychiatrist, Dr. Lila Travis. What he can’t (or won’t) tell her may be the biggest obstacle to healing, but that can wait. First, he has to solve the mystery of the motive behind the shooting and clear his own name from the list of suspects in the attempted murder of his wife, Lauren.
Verdict White ends his epic series that spanned 20 separate novels and 22 years with a satisfying conclusion. Most of the series titles can be read as stand-alone novels, but this one is a continuation of Line of Fire (2012), and probably should be read first. Due to the popularity of the series, demand will be high.—Cynthia Price, Francis Marion Univ., Lib., Florence, SC

Annalisa Pesek About Annalisa Pesek

Annalisa Pesek (apesek@mediasourceinc.com) is Assistant Managing Editor, LJ Book Review
[photograph by John Sarsgard]