Xpress Reviews: Fiction | First Look at New Books, September 6, 2013

Week ending September 6, 2013

Bodden, Marlen Suyapa. The Wedding Gift. St. Martin’s. Sept. 2013. 320p. ISBN 9781250026385. $25.99; ebk. ISBN 9781250026125. F
After selling over 150,000 copies, this debut Kindle original about slavery in the American South was picked up by a major publisher, turning its author, a New York City Legal Aid lawyer, into a self-publishing success. Highlighting the dependent status of women, especially slaves, in the 19th century, the story is told from the perspectives of two different women subject to the whims of cotton plantation owner Cornelius Allen—Sarah, his mulatto daughter whose mother is a house slave forced to visit his bed at night, and Theodora Allen, his highly educated wife, who inadvertently teaches Sarah to read and write. Forced to be both slave and playmate (and, eventually, wedding gift) to frivolous Clarissa, Cornelius’s legitimate daughter, Sarah develops from a young age a powerful desire to escape from slavery and single-mindedly pursues her goal.
Verdict Though passionate, this story is not an historical romance. Women’s relationships, thoughts, and conversations predominate in this novel about slavery and human rights, making it a good choice for readers who like a fast-paced historical story with a clear and relevant theme (for example, Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s Wench). [See Prepub Alert, 3/18/13; library marketing.]—Laurie Cavanaugh, Holmes P.L., Halifax, MA

Hussey, Elaine. The Sweetest Hallelujah. Mira: Harlequin. 2013. 352p. ISBN 9780778315193. pap. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781460316443. F
It’s 1955 in the Mississippi town of Shakerag, and former jazz singer Betty Jewel is dying. A single mother, she must find someone to care for her ten-year-old daughter, Billie, and quietly places a local newspaper ad. When reporter Cassie Malone reads the ad, she leaves the safe, white side of town and tracks down Betty Jewel, hoping to write a story. Instead, Cassie, a childless widow, learns Betty Jewel’s deepest secret and becomes inextricably linked with the cancer-ridden African American mother. Hussey, who pens romance novels under the pseudonym Peggy Web, here writes about women who transcend the racial discrimination of their time to do what is best for a young, soon-to-be orphaned child.
Verdict This page-turning book will enchant fans of Kathryn Stockett’s best-selling The Help. Hussey weaves events from recent American history into the plot, encouraging readers not to forget the cruelties of racial segregation while telling a story of love, hope, and friendship.—Shannon Marie Robinson, Denison Univ. Lib., Granville, OH

Leith, Prue. A Serving of Scandal. OPUS. (Culinary Fiction). 2013. 352p. ISBN 9781623160203. pap. $14.95. F
Kate McKinnon’s catering business, Nothing Fancy, is doing pretty well. Her newest client, Britain’s Secretary of State Oliver Stapler, enjoys more than just her cooking, spending time in the kitchen with her while she cleans up after dinner parties and giving her rides home. Neither of them sees any problems with their friendship until a gossip rag decides to turn innocent companionship into a scandalous affair. With Leith’s background as a food writer, cookbook author, and catering company owner, the story has authenticity (and the segments referring to what Kate cooks are enough to make readers drool on their pages!). However, the narrative feels stilted and difficult to follow for those unfamiliar with British culture, with references to political parties and British slang.
Verdict Like a cake without baking powder, this novel, which launches the publisher’s culinary fiction series, falls flat and fails to satisfy the craving for a light, fluffy, escapist read.—Amber McKee, Cumberland Univ. Lib., Lebanon, TN

Manning, Kate. My Notorious Life. Scribner. Sept. 2013. 448p. ISBN 9781451698060. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781451698084. F
Annie (Axie) Muldoon Jones narrates her rise from overcrowded tenement to Fifth Avenue mansion. Sent west by her widowed mother on the orphan train with her siblings, 13-year-old Axie is unadoptable because of her coarse language and fierce anger. Returning to New York City, she witnesses her mother’s death from complications of childbirth and becomes an apprentice to a midwife. Through reading, observation, and practice Axie develops skills to ensure safe deliveries and learns about formulas to prevent pregnancies as well as ways to remove “obstructions” from wombs. Axie’s Female Lunar Power, which can induce miscarriages, serves as the start of a profitable mail-order business developed by her husband, Charlie, another orphan train reject. Besides delivering babies, Axie discreetly assists in terminating pregnancies for the rich, who pay handsomely, and the poor, who pay little. Wealth buys Axie clothes and mansions but not respectability. Pursued by Anthony Comstock, Chairman of the Society of the Supression of Vice, and reviled by the press, Axie faces ruin and imprisonment.
Verdict Despite the tragic subject matter, Manning’s (Whitegirl) narrative generates little emotional engagement. Except for her economic circumstances, Axie barely changes. Her nemesis, Comstock, receives even less character development. Based in part on the story of a real-life 19th-century midwife, the novel might find an audience in those curious about times when women had little knowledge about reproduction and few options to prevent multiple pregnancies. [See Prepub Alert, 4/1/13.]—Kathy Piehl, Minnesota State Univ., Mankato

starred review starTallis, F.R. The Sleep Room. Pegasus Crime. Oct. 2013. 384p. ISBN 9781605984766. $25.95. F
Young psychiatrist James Richardson couldn’t be happier to accept the highly regarded Dr. Hugh Maitland’s job offer at the remote Wyldehope Hall on the English coast. James has always admired Dr. Maitland’s work, and he’s particularly intrigued by his experiments with sleep therapy. As the new arrival, James is puzzled as to why Maitland will not discuss the sleep patients’ backgrounds, but he has plenty to distract him in the form of a romance with one of the nurses and some very strange occurrences that seem to be supernatural in nature. Soon what began as a promising opportunity for the young doctor begins to look like something more sinister, and James begins to suspect that the purpose of the Sleep Room isn’t quite aboveboard.
Verdict Edgar Award–nominated Tallis (“Max Liebermann” series) is in fine form in this gothic-flavored chiller set in the 1950s. The remote, seaside village makes the perfect venue for this mystery with ghostly elements, which is punctuated by moments of violence made even more shocking by the old fashioned tone. The twist, when it comes, may not come as a complete surprise, but the journey is a very creepy, rewarding one.—Kristin Centorcelli, Denton, TX

Annalisa Pesek About Annalisa Pesek

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