Fiction from Jennings, Jump, Kidd, Koontz, Pötzsch, Torras, and Widger, plus a Quartet of Debuts | Xpress Reviews

Week ending April 13, 2018

starred review starHansen, Malcolm. They Come in All Colors. Atria. May 2018. 320p. ISBN 9781501172328. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501172342. F
[DEBUT] In this emotionally acute debut novel, effectively delivered from a child’s perspective, smart-mouthed, biracial Huey Fairchild is the only nonwhite student at New York’s elite Claremont Prep in the 1970s. Growing up in civil rights–era Georgia, Huey hadn’t see himself as biracial—he identified with his white father as the boss of black worker Nestor yet didn’t seem to register his black mother’s race, puzzling over why she couldn’t swim at the local motel pool, as he could. Huey’s family was shattered by traumatizing incidents that began with the closing of the pool (a black boy was rumored to have swum there), and he and his mother headed north, where he got a scholarship to Claremont even as his mother swallowed her disappointment with a housekeeper’s job. Not surprisingly, Huey is an outsider at Claremont, learning uncomfortable truths about how we’re seen and defined by others. His one friend is dorky Ariel J. Zukowski, whose betrayal leads to violence that puts Huey on the line in more ways than one. Throughout, Hansen deftly unpacks the era’s tensions and the complexities of identity in ways that startle; biracial himself, he offers an understanding of Huey’s situation that is distinctive and surprising.
Verdict Eye-opening and rewarding for a wide range of readers. [See Prepub Alert, 11/12/17.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

starred review starJennings, Luke. Codename Villanelle. Mulholland: Little, Brown. Apr. 2018. 224p. ISBN 9780316512527. $25; ebk. ISBN 9780316512510. THRILLER
Jennings (Man Booker–nominated Atlantic) strikes a delicate balance of hired killer versus intelligence officer in this series launch starring the icy Villanelle, a relentlessly focused, talented, and highly trained international assassin with an astonishingly high success rate. After Villanelle’s latest high-profile kills, however, Eve Polastri, an MI5 operative, is recruited by the British Secret Intelligence Services specifically to hunt down this elusive assassin. With Eve just steps behind her every move, Villanelle’s expert actions in targeting subjects worldwide marked for death bring her closer to capture—and to a confrontation with Eve. As Villanelle toys with her trackers, this dangerous cat-and-mouse game upends all rules of play.
Verdict Fans of Stieg Larsson will adore both the steely, resourceful Villanelle and the determined Eve. This finely tuned, knife-edge thriller with two equally unflinching women refuses to sacrifice an ounce of adrenaline while allowing the characters room for depth and complexity. Highly recommended. [This title is the basis for BBC America’s Killing Eve, starring Sandra Oh.—Ed.]—Julie Kane, Washington & Lee Lib., Lexington, VA

Jump, Shirley. The Secret Ingredient for a Happy Marriage. Forever: Grand Central. May 2018. 367p. ISBN 9781455572021. pap. $14.99; ebk. ISBN 9781455572038. F
Life could not look worse to Nora O’Bannon Daniels. It’s her 30th birthday, her eight-year-old daughter was suspended for fighting, and her home is going on the auction block. Though her husband, Ben, hasn’t gambled since rehab a year ago, the damage is done—to their finances and their marriage. Nora is so accustomed to being the person others rely on that opening up to her widowed mother and three sisters, most of whom work with her at the family bakery, seems impossible. Does she want a divorce? How would her kids react to that in addition to having to move? When her youngest sister invites Nora to spend a few days at a friend’s beach house, Nora thinks the kids would enjoy it, and maybe she’ll get some much-needed perspective. Or perhaps she’ll continue to bury her head in the sand, literally.
Verdict Jump revisits the O’Bannons (The Perfect Recipe for Love and Friendship), letting wife and mom Nora find her place in her own life as well as within her bustling Irish Catholic family. Readers might want to shove Nora off the self-control couch a time or two, but eventually she grabs on to what’s important. For fans of Jane Porter and Kristan Higgins.—Bette-Lee Fox, Library Journal

Kidd, Jess. Mr. Flood’s Last Resort. Atria. May 2018. 352p. ISBN 9781501180637. $26; ebk. ISBN 9781501180651. F
Irish magical realism saturates this double mystery with saints, mistaken identities, and a hoarder’s creepy house. Maud Drennan is assigned to attend an elderly man, Cathal Flood, listed as challenging, having chased away the last caregiver sent to his house. Behind the piles of abandoned objects and dirt, past a solid wall of National Geographic magazines, is an uncluttered space filled instead with mostly grotesque curiosities and automata that are lavishly described. As the tale unfolds, saints make appearances and converse, people are not whom they claim to be, and clues to disappearances show up in unlikely ways. The peculiar nature of the Flood family is gradually exposed but in a distorted and disjointed manner that is very much like reality. The tragic disappearance of Maud’s sister is less fully resolved, with the book concluding with Maud setting off to find her.
Verdict The author of Himself has prepared a fine Irish feast for the literary crowd; she simultaneously delights and appalls with her odd and troubled characters, never resorting to formula.—Mary K. Bird-Guilliams, Chicago

Koontz, Dean. The Crooked Staircase: A Jane Hawk Novel. Bantam. May 2018. 512p. ISBN 9780525483427. $28; ebk. ISBN 9780525483441. THRILLER
Yes, Jane Hawk is back. In this, her third outing—following The Silent Corner and The Whispering Room—the 27-year-old rogue agent who is on the run from her former employers, the FBI, remains intensely determined to expose and destroy the Techno Arcadians, a powerful underground group responsible for the death of Jane’s husband. Like its predecessors, this volume boasts an unrelenting plot that continues to reveal new information about these sinister players who have compiled a “Hamlet” list that targets individuals they feel are prime candidates for “adjustment” through nanotechnology engineered to alter the victims’ thought processes. We witness the capture of Tanuja and Sanjay Shukla by the Arcadians, then follow them through the adjustment process and on to the deadly goal for which they are programmed. But it is still Jane who rivets readers’ attention with her struggle for retribution and redemption using a personal arsenal of nearly superhuman skills and abilities.
Verdict Michael Crichton fans and thriller aficionados who appreciate a fierce female protagonist and have not yet done so should be urged to meet Jane Hawk. [See Prepub Alert, 12/4/17.]—Nancy McNicol, Hamden P.L., CT

Lombardo, A.G. Graffiti Palace. MCD: Farrar. Mar. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780374165918. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780374716714. F
[DEBUT] In Lombardo’s ambitious debut, self-styled urbanologist Americo Monk (who’s fascinated by gangs and graffiti) makes his dangerous and continually interrupted way to pregnant girlfriend Karmann Ghia and their harbor-based, cargo-container home through the seething Watts riots of 1965. It’s quite an odyssey—and in fact it’s inspired by the Odyssey, though Lombardo doesn’t belabor parallels. With the cops after him and his graffiti-filled notebook, Monk encounters slightly threatening Nation of Islam adherents, Las Sombras gang members, a wise black man working for pest control, Lotus Palace Restaurant workers who drug him, a legendary tagger and his tough-smart girlfriend, and Godzilla, in the midst of a movie remake (“He’s almost not surprised at the hallucination, just one more aberration in this endless night of fire, signs, and wonders”). Voodoo-ish old Mab explains that he’s a wanderer, and of course it’s the journey that counts, as the sometimes surreal narrative effectively captures the era’s politicized anger as it frankly, even cheekily, portrays Los Angeles’s various ethnicities and craven white panic, making readers themselves urbanologists. Yet it also tracks the turnings of one man’s soul.
Verdict Brilliantly written if overwritten, absorbing if decidedly overlong, glorious if imperfect, this book is a conundrum. Readers whose tastes range from high literary to smart urban fiction will find it a trip and Lombardo a writer to watch. [See Prepub Alert, 9/25/27.]—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Pötzsch, Oliver. The Council of Twelve: A Hangman’s Daughter Tale. Mariner: Houghton Harcourt. Jun. 2018. 512p. tr. from German by Lee Chadeayne. ISBN 9781328508317. pap. $18. MYS
The seventh installment in the “Hangman’s Daughter” series (after The Play of Death) finds Jakob Kuisl and his family traveling to Munich for a meeting of the Council of Twelve, the leaders of the hangmen’s guild. However, as with all things involving Jakob and his daughter Magdalena, it’s not that simple. A series of murders of young women have occurred since the hangmen came to town, and the townspeople are most willing to blame them. Throw in a few other diversions—the need for Barbara, Jakob’s younger daughter, to find a husband; some mystery about the silk manufactory that the Elector of Munich has bankrolled; and a treatise that Simon, Magdalena’s husband, hopes to show off to a famous doctor—and the story soon becomes like tangled threads caught up in a loom. Written with the author’s usual careful attention to detail, the story tends to plod along like an old cart horse, but the resolution of the main mystery is quite surprising.
Verdict Fans of the series will enjoy this latest chapter, but new readers will probably be slightly lost in the references to previous volumes.—Pamela O’Sullivan, Coll. at Brockport Lib., SUNY

Ricciardi, David. Warning Light. Berkley. Apr. 2018. 336p. ISBN 9780399585739. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780399585746. THRILLER
[DEBUT] Zac Miller appears to be an ordinary young American businessman on an ordinary business trip that goes awry. His plane suddenly has engine trouble near restricted air space over Iran and must land. Zac unthinkingly takes pictures of the beautiful sunset. He is promptly arrested by an Iranian colonel with an axe to grind. He escapes and must fight for his life at every turn. Zac meets some gracious people in his flight through the wilderness, and though he’s not sure whom he can trust, he does receive some help along the way. Not everything is as it appears, however, and Zac’s inexperience as a CIA covert operative leads him into more sticky situations. Ricciardi’s debut thriller is a slow and steady adrenaline flow. Zac’s ability to think or fight his way out of seemingly hopeless situations hints at Lee Child’s Jack Reacher and Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon, while his solo status adds Robert Ludlum’s Jason Bourne and John le Carré’s George Smiley to the mix. The author does a nice job of highlighting local culture and settings.
Verdict Readers of le Carré, Ludlum, Len Deighton, and other authors of Cold War–era espionage thrillers will enjoy this action-packed adventure.—Elizabeth Masterson, Mecklenburg Cty. Jail Lib., Charlotte, NC

starred review starTorras, Carme. The Vestigial Heart: A Novel of the Robot Age. MIT. Apr. 2018. 264p. tr. from Catalan by Josephine Swarbrick. ISBN 9780262037778. pap. $19.95. SF
Robotics/artificial intelligence researcher Torras’s (Mechanical Mind) latest novel explores with an insider’s perspective provocative ethical issues and presents neither a dystopian nor sunny view of our tech-mediated future. When the information economy’s aggressive velocity collides with mid-21st-century narcissism and free-market greed (which mesh so slickly with identity, a brutal work-ethic, and consumption) they reinforce one another, resulting in an erosion of empathy. The blunting and outright extinction of many human emotions necessitates the invention of “emotional masseuses”—personal-assistant robots designed to navigate through day-to-day life what could be termed a sociopathic society. Into this world colonized by deeply embedded technologies awakens Celia, a 13-year-old girl cryogenically preserved—along with others suffering terminal disease—during our quaint media-saturated present. Lu, Celia’s adoptive mother, is both fascinated and confounded by her “strange” daughter, and the reader gains insight into the value (and fragility) of emotions by witnessing their absence.
Verdict Readers of William Gibson, Nnedi Okorafor, Pat Murphy, Neal Stephenson, and other cultural code-tweaking authors will find Torras’s vision equally startling in its anticipation—and portrayal—of possible scenarios around complex social issues today’s researchers and policymakers are only now beginning to recognize as imminent.—William Grabowski, McMechen, WV

starred review starVermette, Katherena. The Break. House of Anansi. Mar. 2018. 288p. ISBN 9781487001117. pap. $16.95; ebk. ISBN 9781487001124. F
[DEBUT] In this arresting fiction debut from Métis poet Vermette, a multi-award winner in her native Canada, a young Métis woman named Stella summons the police when she sees a girl being assaulted on a nearby vacant lot she calls the Break. The young Métis officer is sympathetic, his older partner dismissive (“there’s no evidence of anything other than a fight”), but we’re chilled into immediate understanding by the next chapter, as 13-year-old Emily revels in her invitation to a party by handsome, older Clayton. Emily is the daughter of Stella’s cousin Paulina (“Paul”), and the narrative unfolds not as an investigation of the rape but in multiple threads as the story of a close family beset by trouble. From Paul’s sister Lou, bitter about live-in lover Gabe’s infidelities, to their mother Cheryl’s observation that “she thought she’d have it all together by her age,” the women shown here (and it’s mostly women) are caring and caringly portrayed yet also worn by life, with Stella the family outsider; the assault unflinchingly points us to young people dead-ended by crime, drugs, and a history of discrimination.
Verdict In language that’s quick and bruising, sharp-edged and relentless, Vermette limns one family and one community to show us something bigger.—Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal

Widger, Caeli Wolfson. Mother of Invention. Little A: Amazon. May 2018. 353p. ISBN 9781503950078. $24.95; pap. ISBN 9781503951846. $15.95; ebk. ISBN 9781477848302. F
Widger’s second novel (after Real Happy Family) explores the impact of technology on human biology. It is 2021, and Tessa Callahan is a power player in the still male-centric Silicon Valley. Her latest project, with her business partner Luke Zimmerman, allows a woman to complete a pregnancy in just nine weeks. Part of the project requires Tessa to bond with the first three women to undergo the experience who have been dubbed “The Cohort.” Her own marital issues and ambivalence about childbearing sometimes make this difficult. Luke developed the project after learning about women who experienced accelerated gestation (AG) in the 1990s, with no explainable reason. As the child of a famous Mark Zuckerberg type, Luke is driven to be as successful as his father and does not worry too much about how he gets there. As members of the Cohort begin their AG experience, the fate of the original AG mothers and children from the 1990s is revealed, as is disturbing government involvement.
Verdict Complicated relationships, imperfect technology, and a semidystopian backstory make this an intriguing read. For fans of Dave Eggers’s The Circle and the novels of Max Barry.—Terry Lucas, Shelter Island P.L., NY

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