Fiction from Mitchell, Plame & Lovett, and Yu, Plus Two Debuts & Mystery Stories | Xpress Reviews

Week ending October 10, 2014

starred review starThe Best American Mystery Stories 2014. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. Oct. 2014. 400p. ed. by Laura Lippman. ISBN 9780544034648. pap. $14.95; ebk. ISBN 9780544032576. MYS
The 2014 edition of this annual anthology features Lippman (After I’m Gone) at the editorial helm, tapping a range of authors from the well established to the not-yet-known, and the results are haunting. Many stories feature intriguing female characters, including kidnapped girls (Patricia Engel’s “Aida” and Roxane Gay’s “I Will Follow You”), a questionable mother (Megan Abbott’s “My Heart Is Either Broken”), and a distraught sister (Laura Van Den Berg’s “Antarctica”). Others explore mysteries as varied as the relationship between man and wife (Ed Kurtz’s “A Good Marriage”) and the story behind a pet’s grave (Jim Allyn’s “Princess Anne”). But standout stories from Annie Proulx (“Rough Deeds”) and Charlaine Harris (“Small Kingdoms”) are some of the best of the bunch—especially the latter, wherein a high school principal explores how her past work experiences, carefully applied, can benefit the school community.
Verdict This collection of mystery stories is by turns chilling and thought provoking and a good choice for readers who enjoy books by Lippman or Jeffery Deaver and who appreciate reading both new authors and proven writers in the genre.—Amy Hoseth, Colorado State Univ. Lib., Fort Collins

Chicurel, Judy. If I Knew You Were Going To Be This Beautiful, I Never Would Have Let You Go. Putnam. Oct. 2014. 288p. ISBN 9780399167072. $25.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698138643. F
The summer after her high school graduation, Katie hangs out in “The Trunk,” the shabby neighborhood in her seaside town of Elephant Beach, which, in 1972, is well past its heyday as a resort spot. Katie, adopted, imagines that her birth mother was from a neighborhood like this; it’s a connection to a life that could have been. Her friends are having sex, getting married, moving to New York City, dying even, while she pines for Jake, who has just returned from Vietnam, but can’t figure out how to get close to him. Maybe because Katie lives in the better part of town and has caring, stable parents, she sees the Trunk’s residents as romantically exotic, when many have serious drug problems or suffer from alcoholism or PTSD. Some of them are able to get out, move away; others meet their demise. In every situation, Katie is an acute observer who mourns change and feels everything deeply. There are too many colorful characters in Katie’s world to get to know them more than superficially, but that is often the quality of relationships in one’s youth.
Verdict Narrated in the first person, this debut novel of connected short stories is similar to Dylan Landis’s Rainey Royal and is recommended for those who like poignant coming-of-age stories.Sonia Reppe, Stickney–Forest View P.L., IL

starred review starMcBride, Eimear. A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Coffee House. 2014. 240p. ISBN 9781566893688. $24; ebk. ISBN 9781566893787. F
girlhalfformed101014The heroine of McBride’s remarkable debut novel, winner of the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction, is angry, flippant, rebellious, tender, promiscuous, hungry, risk-embracing, lonely, confused, desperate, caring, and wholly unsupported by those around her. She’s every young woman trying to find herself in an unwelcoming world and very specifically a sister contending with a brain-damaged brother, particularly difficult because she is younger, unable to protect him, and flooded by the fallout—a situation too little explored in literature. But as the narrative makes clear, her anguish is multiplied by the classic visitation of brutality and small-mindedness from grandfather to daughter to granddaughter, and one begins to understand why this girl (like so many others) is half-formed. And about that narrative: one often reads that a novelist’s style is unique, but this is the rare case when that’s actually true. The language moves in fits and starts, with incomplete sentences and stuttering phrases that capture the narrator’s inner turmoil, her never being able quite to articulate what she’s thinking or feeling (because who’s listening?): “You said it is like nothing at all. It must be something what? And words, trace stammer of.” Throughout, she addresses her brother in the second person, ever trying to connect; over-the-top behavior and brutal sex are means not of losing herself but of feeling herself there.
Verdict This book will confound readers who like their text traditional, but it’s addictive and flowing and works perfectly to capture a heroine whose voice we need to hear.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review starMitchell, David. The Bone Clocks. Random. 2014. 640p. ISBN 9781400065677. $30; ebk. ISBN 9780812994735. F
In his breathtaking, audacious, stampedingly beautiful latest, Mitchell (Cloud Atlas) uses the battle between evil soul decanters and good Horologists, who are masterminded by the wise, powerful, body-shifting Marinus, to tell a much larger story. It’s a story that embraces the life of Holly Sykes, from a bad boyfriend moment in the Talking Heads era, discovering that her brother has gone missing, running from home, witnessing the first bloody clash between good and evil when people who take her in are murdered, then recognizing her psychic powers and continuing the run to a snowbound resort in the Alps. There, she encounters sly Hugo, an amoral lout aspiring to the upper crust who redeems himself somewhat by discovering that he loves her. Holly goes on to marry war reporter Ed, who refuses to acknowledge Holly’s connection to the beyond; wins fame writing a book about her experiences, leading to some wonderfully rendered satire about the writer’s world; and finally plays her part in the final battle between the ethereal forces that have been tracking her all along. (Then the narrative moves to war and ecological crash in the 2040s; bad stuff never stops.) This really isn’t a book about Holly, though, but about the variety of fantastically rendered worlds we move through as her story unfolds—which is to say our world, past, present, and looming future, brought to us through a fantasy underpinning that juices up the narrative but isn’t its heart. Mitchell’s not doing genre but asking us ever-ticking bone clocks to stop being so comfortable with how we measure ourselves and our world: “Beware of asking people to question what’s real and what isn’t. They may reach conclusions you didn’t see coming.”
Verdict Quite a lot of book and not for easy-reading fans, but it’s brilliant. [See Prepub Alert, 5/19/14.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Plame, Valerie & Sarah Lovett. Burned: A Vanessa Pierson Novel. Blue Rider. Oct. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780399158216. $26.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698175365. F
Vanessa Pierson, a CIA agent so deeply undercover that her government will abandon her if the action goes south, learns that a miniaturized nuclear bomb is in play not just within the tight circle of international arms dealers but also with an unidentified terrorist. Her allies are few and become even fewer when her intuition points her suspicions back into the highest reaches of Langley itself. With the doubting yet loyal support of her boss, Vanessa and her team race from Paris to Istanbul, where a hellish confrontation awaits her.
Verdict Plame and Lovett’s second foray into nuclear intrigue (after Blowback) is a hard-charging, keenly depicted race against an apocalyptic spike in zero-sum destruction. The coauthors’ eye for the stylish details of their characters does not diminish their insight into these personas’ fraught states of mind. Fans may balk a bit at the broad sketch of the archvillain, but all will thrill to this novel’s relentlessly searing pace as Vanessa matures into a contender for the title of the Wonder Woman of espionage.Barbara Conaty, Falls Church, VA

Yu, Ovidia. Aunty Lee’s Deadly Specials: A Singaporean Mystery. Morrow. Oct. 2014. 368p. ISBN 9780062338327. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062338334. MYS
Lovable busybody Aunty Lee is back in her second Singaporean mystery (after Aunty Lee’s Delights). She’s been hired to cater an event for the prominent Sung family, who requested a buffet of traditional Peranakan food, including buah keluak, a dish that can be lethal if not prepared properly. When matriarch Mabel Sung and her sickly son Leonard are found dead during the party, Aunty Lee quickly becomes a scapegoat as the Sungs accuse her of food poisoning. With her business shut down until the investigation is resolved, Aunty Lee has plenty of time on her hands to find out what really happened. Plus there’s an illegal organ donation scandal that needs some looking into as well. Following her naturally nosy instincts and pretending to be a helpless old woman, Aunty Lee gossips and wheedles her way to some answers.
Verdict Mma Ramotswe and Miss Marple would consider Aunty Lee a kindred spirit, and cozy mystery readers will find much to like in this series, especially the unique food and locale of Singapore.—Melissa DeWild, Kent Dist. Lib., Comstock Park, MI