Fiction from Carter, Khan, Ponicsán, Thomas, and Debuter Robins | Xpress Reviews

Week ending September 1, 2017

Carter, Betsy. We Were Strangers Once. Grand Central. Sept. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9781455571437. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781455571451. F
German Jews Egon Schneider and Meyer Leavitt immigrate to America on the cusp of World War II, having to leave behind their professional lives as a doctor and a writer, respectively, in exchange for work as the “Cheese Man” at a deli and a sandwich board holder. As the two men navigate the culture, language, and romantic landscape of their new land, Carter’s (Swim to Me; The Orange Blossom Special) narrative wanders to include their girlfriends’ backstories, which read like a poor imitation of Adriana Trigiani’s Lucia, Lucia. There are intermittent updates from family in Germany, and examples of anti-Semitic behavior in America, while Egon and Meyer continue to compete with each other for success and women, each encounter triter than the last. It’s not until Egon faces consequences with the immigration service for his illegal veterinary practice and Meyer launches an epistolary campaign to save his friend that some element of maturity enters their relationship. Carter’s fourth novel suffers from too many clichés, and the characters, with the exception of Egon’s parents, are difficult to care about. Likewise, the transitions among the story lines leave gaps in resolution and understanding.
More satisfying reads about the wartime experience of Jewish refugees in the United States and in Europe can be found in Georgia Hunter’s We Were the Lucky Ones or Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key.—Tina Panik, Avon Free P.L., CT

Khan, Sorayya. City of Spies. Little A. Sept. 2017. 284p. ISBN 9781503941571. $24.95; ISBN 9781503941588. pap. $14.95. F
In her third novel, Khan (Noor; Five Queen’s Road) attempts to depict an upper-middle-class, biracial Pakistani household from the time of the overthrow of Prime Minister Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1977 to 1979’s Iran hostage crisis. Protagonist Aliya is a mere child during these years, yet she is observant and attuned to the political climate. She also ponders loyalty and the nature of identity as a half-Pakistani, half-Dutch person moving through native and nonnative social circles within Islamabad and Lahore. Aliya discovers that identity can be fluid or transformative in the midst of personal and political events. The thread that keeps the story together is the relationship between young Aliya and the beloved household servant Sadiq, who descends into madness after his son is killed by an American in a hit-and-run accident. Khan’s prose is not the most compelling, and the story arc meanders from the buildup to the accident to the extensive epilog. However, her novel is distinctive for presenting a perspective unfamiliar to most American readers.
Verdict Khan’s ambitious work, written in a drawn-out, journalistic manner, is a good choice for popular fiction readers interested in 1970s Pakistan and identity politics.—Suzanne Im, Los Angeles P.L.

Ponicsán, Darryl. Last Flag Flying. Skyhorse. Sept. 2017. 224p. ISBN 9781510727748. $24.99; pap. ISBN 9781510733299. $15.99; ebk. ISBN 9781510727762. F
Two navy lifers and the hapless sailor they escorted to prison reunite nearly 35 years later in this sequel to the underground classic The Last Detail, first published in 2005 and now rereleased alongside a film adaptation directed by Richard Linklater. The last time Billy “Bad-Ass” Buddusky (killed in the original 1970 novel but awkwardly resurrected here) saw his old mate Mule Mulhall, they were showing their young charge Larry Meadows an unforgettable time on the government’s dime in protest of his unfairly long sentence. Now, as the pathetic figure of Saddam Hussein gets captured on television three decades later, they once again embark on a road trip of a different kind: Larry has come to Billy’s bar in Norfolk, VA, to round up Mule, a preacher, so they can help Larry bury his son, a marine killed in Iraq under dubious circumstances. Despite personality clashes played for comedic effect, the irascible Billy and the sanctified Mule band together in their old age and mutual weariness of the war machine to complete their final mission.
Verdict Though more autumnal than The Last Detail, its countercultural spirit and rollicking humor shine through in this worthy sequel, a thematic cousin to Tim O’Brien’s later novels.—Michael Pucci, South Orange P.L., NJ

Robins, Jane. White Bodies. Touchstone. Sept. 2017. 304p. ISBN 9781501165085. $24.99; ebk. ISBN 9781501165108. F
[DEBUT] Since childhood, Callie was unnaturally obsessed and envious of her twin sister, Tilda. Awkward plain Callie could never measure up to Tilda’s beauty or popularity. The pattern continued into adulthood as Tilda enjoyed success as an actress, while Callie worked part-time in a small bookstore. When Tilda introduces her sister to her new boyfriend, a wealthy financier named Felix, Callie immediately doubts his motives, suspecting abuse with a possible intent to kill. To protect her sister, Callie joins an online support group aimed at disarming abusive men and subsequently becomes fixated on probing the true nature of Tilda’s relationship with Felix. Despite Tilda’s assertions that Felix is not endangering her life and her constant pleading for her sister to cease, Callie becomes obsessed. As she continues investigating, clues emerge that seem to affirm her belief that Felix is dangerous. Before long, the two sisters are unwittingly ensnared in a “murder for hire” situation that will alter their lives.
Verdict After a slow beginning, this debut by a British journalist (The Trial of Queen Caroline) offers a suspenseful and twisty foray into the world of obsessive love that suspense junkies should not miss.—Mary Todd Chesnut, Northern Kentucky Univ. Lib., Highland Heights

starred review starThomas, Sherry. A Conspiracy in Belgravia. Berkley. (Lady Sherlock, Bk. 2). Sept. 2017. 336p. ISBN 9780425281413. pap. $15; ebk. ISBN 9780698196360. MYS
Charlotte Holmes has found a steady rhythm to her life, now able to use her brain to help others away from the condemnation of her family. Sharing a home with Mrs. Watson allows her to continue the ruse of having a brother, Sherlock, who can investigate everyday problems rather than solely major underworld activity. But the arrival of Lady Ingram under an assumed name throws a kink into the works: though married to Charlotte’s particular friend Lord Ingram, she is seeking the whereabouts of former paramour Myron Finch, who just happens to be Charlotte’s illegitimate half-brother. This second series entry (after A Study in Scarlet Women) reintroduces characters from the first book and tightens the already sticky web of intrigue in which “Sherlock” is embroiled, and the only recourse is to follow the author’s devilishly clever maze of ciphers and criminality. Thomas (My Beautiful Enemy) maintains the shadowy Victorian setting as she advances her marvelous take on the Holmes canon.
Verdict The unexpected cliff-hanger will have readers (even astute ones) gasping (and grinning) in recognition. A must for mystery/Sherlock fans and readers who love excellent puzzles. [See 14 Award-Worthy Mysteries, 3/23/17.]—Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal

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