Fiction from Bacigalupi & Buckell, Harkaway, McAlpine, Piglia, Vargas Llosa, Watts, & Wilson | Xpress Reviews

Week ending January 19, 2018

Bacigalupi, Paolo & Tobias S. Buckell. The Tangled Lands. Saga: S. & S. Feb. 2018. 304p. ISBN 9781481497299. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781481497312. FANTASY
This collection of four linked novellas is set in Khaim, the last remaining city in a faded empire crippled by a magic that perpetuates the growth of a deadly bramble that threatens lives and livelihoods. “The Alchemist” is a man who has sacrificed his life to search for a cure to the bramble, only to discover he has more to lose when he finally succeeds. “The Executioness” is a woman who builds an army of mothers who seek revenge when their children are taken by raiders from another city. In “The Children of Khaim,” refugees from a city overcome by bramble are sold into slavery and worse. “The Blacksmith’s Daughter” revolves around a woman made strong by circumstance when she must risk everything to save her parents from a corrupt duke. Each story delivers a glimpse of a distinct grim fate accorded to the citizens of Khaim.
Verdict Bacigalupi (The Windup Girl) and Buckell (HALO: Envoy) have delivered an intriguing world and characters, but the collection lacks resolution and cohesion. The loosely related tales show promise but, without one overarching story line to tie them together, feel like companion stories to a novel not yet written.—Portia Kapraun, Delphi P.L., IN

starred review starHarkaway, Nick. Gnomon. Knopf. Jan. 2018. 560p. ISBN 9781524732080. $28.95; ebk. ISBN 9781524732097. F
This latest from Harkaway (Tigerman) is set in a near-future Britain managed by the Witness, a pervasive surveillance system connected to instant plebiscites that has taken the place of government. This system is perceived as the ultimate rule of the people by the people, but, disturbingly, the Witness can see into your mind. When suspected dissident Diana Hunter dies under interrogation, investigator Meilikki Neith mentally ingests neural recordings made by the interrogators and thus relives the experience. The book then launches into multiple narrative streams, revealed in the recordings, involving macho Greek banker Kyriakos; fifth-century alchemist Athenais, mistress of Saint Augustine; and Ethiopian expatriate artist Bekele. These narratives are woven together to create a tapestry of meaning and of mystery. The theme of katabasis, the descent and emergence from the underworld, is central.
Verdict The book functions as a riposte to the dangers of the surveillance state, demonstrating the interconnectedness of consciousness and the triumph of the all, the gnomon, over totalitarian control of the few. This work goes so far as to invoke the reader’s role in creating the narrative, which is simply astonishing; to be read at all costs! [See Prepub Alert, 7/31/17.]—Henry Bankhead, San Rafael P.L., CA

Lloyd, Amy. The Innocent Wife. Hanover Square: Harlequin. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781335952400. $26.99; ebk. ISBN 9781488080500. SUSPENSE
[DEBUT] A compelling premise gives way to a lack of momentum in Lloyd’s debut novel. British teacher Samantha, raw from a bad breakup, finds herself increasingly obsessed with an American murder case that found international attention after being featured in a true crime documentary. Twenty years ago, Dennis Danson was arrested and convicted of the murder of Holly Michaels in Florida. Citing a lack of evidence and a police force apparently uninterested in looking at other suspects, a small but dedicated online group is now trying to overturn the conviction. As she learns more, Samantha begins writing to Dennis. Letters turn into a visit, and soon Samantha abandons her job and her home to marry Dennis and campaign for his release. It doesn’t take long for her to start wondering whether he truly is innocent of Holly’s murder and whether he may be connected to other missing girls in the area. Having created such a great setup, Lloyd doesn’t seem to know quite what to do with what she’s built. For long stretches, her characters don’t do much at all, and when they finally do, it’s almost too much, too fast. Despite these flaws, Lloyd is clearly a writer with promise; she did win the 2016 Daily Mail First Novel competition. Hopefully, her next effort is a more even one.
Verdict For die-hard fans of psychological suspense. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]—Liz Kirchhoff, Barrington Area Lib., IL

McAlpine, Gordon. Holmes Entangled. Seventh Street: Prometheus. Mar. 2018. 215p. ISBN 9781633882072. pap. $13.95; ebk. ISBN 9781633882089. MYS
Sherlock Holmes is spending his retirement disguised as an academic professional in varying fields, including his current persona Dr. Heinrich von Schimmel, a specialist in the history of classical physics. Although Holmes has told no one his identity, the well-known author Arthur Conan Doyle mysteriously finds the detective and begs for his assistance. Conan Doyle recently had a spiritual encounter through Madame Du Lac that led to a series of questions that the mysterious Eureka Society does not want answered. Holmes engages the help of the widowed Mrs. Watson (formerly one Mrs. Hudson) to protect Conan Doyle and stop the group. With a plethora of literary allusions along for the ride (including Edgar Allan Poe’s C. Auguste Dupin and Ernest Hemingway), McAlpine (Woman with a Blue Pencil) creates a one-of-a-kind universe that blends literature, sf, and physics.
Verdict This mystery has been described as metafiction, a genre that might not resonate with all readers or fans of Conan Doyle’s original Sherlock Holmes. Still, it will appeal to adventurous Holmes fans who enjoy more modern takes on a literary icon, such as James Lovegrove’s Sherlock Holmes and the Shadwell Shadows.—Jennifer Funk, McKendree Univ. Lib., Lebanon, IL

Piglia, Ricardo. The Diaries of Emilio Renzi: Formative Years. Restless. 2017. 384p. tr. from Spanish by Robert Croll. ISBN 9781632061621. pap. $19.99. F
Authorial alter egos are not literary novelties. James Joyce had his Stephen Dedalus, Ernest Hemingway his Nick Adams, Philip Roth his Nathan Zuckerman—and Piglia his Emilio Renzi. Little known among Anglophones despite his stint teaching at Princeton University, Piglia (Artificial Respiration) was an Argentine ranking among the greats of post-boom Latin American literature, alongside Chile’s Roberto Bolaño. Posthumously published and gracefully translated from the Spanish, Diaries is a fictionalized recounting of Piglia’s childhood, college years, and development as a writer during the 1950s and 1960s. Via his long-standing alternate persona, Piglia delivers meditations and memories drawn from 327 notebooks, whose pages he filled over a lifetime. First in a trilogy based on those diaries, this volume recalls a range of human experience, from political activism to love affairs, and features cameos by luminaries such as Argentine literary master Jorge Luis Borges. Particularly compelling are Piglia’s musings on politics, literature, and love. They are exquisitely erudite, sensitive, and insightful and are in dialog with diverse intellectual traditions—making memory into art.
Verdict This is consummate autobiographical fiction. Readers who appreciate Spanish-language or intellectually rooted literature should hasten to make the acquaintance of Piglia and Emilio Renzi.—Michael Rodriguez, Univ. of Connecticut, Storrs

starred review starVargas Llosa, Mario. The Neighborhood. Farrar. Feb. 2018. 256p. tr. from Spanish by Edith Grossman. ISBN 9780374155124. $26; ebk. ISBN 9780374716134. F
After A Discreet Hero (2015), Vargas Llosa stays on familiar Peruvian turf in this novel of intrigue and murder. A sleazy tabloid publisher is blackmailing Enrique Cardenas, a successful and influential mining engineer, with some compromising photos taken during an orgy with prostitutes. The publisher is brutally murdered, and Cardenas and another innocent victim, a senile former entertainer, are the suspects. The slain editor’s successor daringly reveals that the assassination was discharged under the orders of the Doctor, the henchman of then president Alberto Fujimori (whom Vargas Llosa ran against in 1990), which brings about the downfall of the regime. In the meantime, Cardenas’s wife is having an affair with his attorney’s wife. The narration is fairly straightforward until Chapter 20, when Vargas Llosa indulges in one of his characteristic and long-lived techniques: the overlapping and interweaving of narrations across time.
Verdict This new work from the Nobel Prize winner is a fast-paced and well-executed translation of his 2016 Cinco esquinas, literally Five Corners, a more accurate and certainly appropriate title since it pinpoints where the crucial actions transpire. A murder mystery with political overtones and the underlying power of the press, exquisitely wrought. [See Prepub Alert, 8/28/17.]—Lawrence Olszewski, North Central State Coll., Mansfield, OH

Watts, Stephanie Powell. We Are Taking Only What We Need: Stories. Ecco: HarperCollins. Feb. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9780062749901. pap. $16.99; ebk. ISBN 9780062749864. F
Watts made quite a splash in the literary world with No One Is Coming To Save Us, described as The Great Gatsby set in rural North Carolina and the inaugural selection of the American Library Association’s Book Club Central. Originally published in 2011, her debut short collection is equally as impressive, having won the Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and been named one of the Best Summer Reads by O: The Oprah Magazine. These short stories read like novellas as we learn of a black Jehovah’s Witness missionary struggling with sexual desire, a young drifter who’s excited about her travels, or Aunt Ginny, who has grown from an idyllic young woman into a jaded and wise mother figure.
Verdict What is lovely about these stories is that Watts can take a few words and paint a landscape that reveals so much richness about the people and culture. Similar to Pearl Cleage’s Brass Bed and Other Stories, this collection will appeal to readers of Southern and African American fiction.—Ashanti L. White, Fayetteville, NC

Wilson, Andrew. A Different Kind of Evil. Washington Square: S. & S. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9781501145100. pap. $16; ebk. ISBN 9781501145117. MYS
In this second mystery based on the life of Agatha Christie (after A Talent for Murder), Wilson blends fact and speculation into a pleasant if sometimes slightly ponderous narrative. Loosely based on a trip that Christie made after the failure of her first marriage, the story sees the author traveling to the Canary Islands to probe the death of a British intelligence operative. Was his demise connected to the suicide Christie witnessed on the ocean liner? With corpses present, absent, new and old, misdirection abounds, and the great mystery writer falls prey to it more than once. However, by the denouement, most astute readers will have an idea of the actual killer, though they may require Christie’s wrap-up to bring a semblance of logic to the twisted tale.
Verdict Fans of Agatha Christie may appreciate this fictional look at her life. However, with frequent mention of events from A Talent for Murder, newcomers might want to start these works in order. Those who prefer their mysteries with that certain English tone, or relish murder’s cozier side, will appreciate this as well.—Pamela O’Sullivan, Coll. at Brockport Lib., SUNY

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