Xpress Reviews: Fiction | First Look at New Books, January 24, 2014

Week ending January 24, 2014

Cornwell, Sarah. What I Had Before I Had You. Harper. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780062237842. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062237866. F
whatIhad012414“Sex is only a flea in the fur of love, which is a magnificent tiger, but that love, like a tiger, will kill you fast.” This is an early introduction to life for preadolescent Olivia, offered by her charismatic but erratic mother, Myla, who claims to be psychic. Enduring a rather confused existence in Ocean Vista, NJ, Olivia must hold everything together until the oft-disappearing Myla resurfaces, sometimes many days later. But one particular summer, Olivia exhibits her own eccentric behavior. This family history novel, rich in images, moves back and forth between Olivia as a troubled youth and Olivia, 20 years later, as a divorced mother traveling back to Ocean Vista with her two children. Uneasy about her new single parent status, she finds herself dwelling on details of her past, momentarily taking her eyes off her bipolar nine-year-old son, Daniel, who vanishes. As Olivia and her daughter begin their search for Daniel, Olivia’s memories of her decidedly dysfunctional family combine with flashes from her unhappy, unstable adult life.
Verdict This is a remarkable debut by an award-winning short story writer; Cornwell’s psychological study of the stormy relationships in one particular family is engrossing and insightful.—Andrea Tarr, Corona P.L., CA

Kinnings, Max. Baptism. Quercus. Feb. 2014. 448p. ISBN 9781623651022. $24.95; ebk. ISBN 9781623651039. F
This colorful thriller of hostage-taking in the London tube opens its narrative in the remote Welsh alpine-wilds of Snowdonia, with the murder of a monk, found with a knife protruding from his throat. Proceeding from there, we follow ex-soldier and religious psychopath Tommy Denning and his twin sister, Belle, who have hijacked a Northern Line subway train driven by George Wakeham, a claustrophobic tube driver (!) whose family has been kidnapped to ensure George’s cooperation with the hijackers. DCI Ed Mallory of the Metropolitan Police faces his greatest challenge as a hostage crisis negotiator in this high-stakes showdown. Blinded in a grenade blast early in his career, Mallory has developed other faculties to compensate, including an acute sense of hearing and a penetrating insight into the workings of the criminal mind.
Verdict The tortuously twisting plot should be popular with thriller fans, and the author’s direct style increases the tension and urgency here, with hundreds of lives at stake as water rises in the tunnel and Mallory and his colleagues struggle to resolve the situation. By using minute-by-minute, almost staccato-length chapters, Kinnings (Hitman; The Fixer) is able to shift among his large cast of characters in a way that makes his scenario, all too plausible in today’s dangerous world, work exceptionally well. This series debut was first published in Britain in 2012.—Vicki Gregory, Univ. of South Florida Sch. of Information, Tampa

Marshall, Michael. We Are Here. Mulholland: Little, Brown. Feb. 2014. 432p. ISBN 9780316252577. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780316252560. F
What if your belief in an imaginary friend was so strong, you made him real? As a child of alcoholic parents, David relied on Maj for everything from entertainment to comfort and encouragement. But Maj eventually faded from David’s memory as he grew into adulthood. Now Maj is back and wants David to give him a life of his own. Meanwhile, John Henderson and his girlfriend Kristina begin investigating the possibility that a friend is being followed. At first, it appears the friend is just paranoid, but it soon becomes clear that she is being watched by a woman who seems to disappear into thin air. As the mystery deepens, John and Kristina discover a group of forgotten people, living in the shadows, some of whom will stop at nothing to keep their existence a secret.
Verdict Intentionally vague storytelling and multiple points of view make Marshall’s (Killer Move; The Straw Men) latest psychological thriller hard to follow. Fans of the author’s other works may enjoy the pace at which information is revealed, but those looking for thrilling suspense will most likely be unsatisfied.—Vicki Briner, Westminster, CO

Smylie, Mark. The Barrow. Pyr: Prometheus. Mar. 2014. 614p. ISBN 9781616148911. pap. $18; ebk. ISBN 9781616148928. FANTASY
A quest for an enchanted sword is at the center of this debut fantasy by comic book writer Smylie. Set in the same world as his “Artesia” series of comics, the story concerns a small and motley group led by Stjepan Black-Heart, who will follow a very unusual map to the long-lost barrow where the sword of an ancient king is hidden.
Verdict This bloody, oversexed, and sexist book is obviously trying for the tone and darkness of George R.R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series but falls short in so many ways, most importantly in the quality of the writing. Endless exposition slows the action, and the book’s attempts at sensuality run exclusively to degradation and violence. Not recommended.—Megan M. McArdle, Berkeley P.L., CA

Whitehouse, Lucie. Before We Met. Bloomsbury USA. Jan. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9781620402757. $25; ebk. ISBN 9781620402764. F
Hannah Reilly grew up in the English town of Malvern dreaming of the day she would move to the United States. But after her marriage to Mark, she finds herself in a transatlantic relationship in which he lives and works in New York while she oversees their London home. Hannah dutifully awaits his sporadic visits until the Friday night he fails to appear at Heathrow and his cell phone goes unanswered. Though Mark eventually calls with a story to explain his absence, its inconsistency is enough to arouse Hannah’s suspicions and call their relationship into question. Her quest to discover what lurks in the long-overlooked dark corners of their marriage leads Hannah down a treacherous path where past and present become intertwined.
Verdict Whitehouse’s (The House at Midnight; The Bed I Made) third novel features an intriguing premise, but the author clouds the story line by confusing the narrative flow with mismanaged flashbacks. She also misses opportunities to bring her characters to life by choosing to summarize their actions rather than portray them. Although parallels can be drawn to Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, Whitehouse’s clunky storytelling technique is a liability.—Nancy McNicol, Hamden P.L., CT