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The Fireman

Joe Hill. Morrow, $28.99 (608p) ISBN 978-0-06-220063-1

In Hill's superb supernatural thriller, the world is falling apart in a maelstrom of flame and fury. A spore dubbed Dragonscale infects people, draws patterns on their skin, and eventually makes them spontaneously combust—and it's rapidly spreading. School nurse Harper Grayson volunteers at a local hospital in Concord, N.H., until it burns down. Soon she discovers that not only is she infected but she's also pregnant. As the beautiful filigreed markings of Dragonscale start to flourish on her body, she vows to do anything to bring her baby safely into the world. Her husband, Jakob, doesn't want the baby and attacks Harper when he realizes she wants to keep it. Harper flees and encounters John Rookwood, a near-mythical figure known as the Fireman. He takes her to Camp Wyndham, where the infected have learned to control and harness what they call the Bright—the flames that smolder just beneath their skin. Harper finds purpose there, but Jakob has found a purpose too: he's joined the Cremation Crews, brutal marauders who kill the infected on sight. When the peace of the camp is threatened, Harper, John, and their friends band together. The good-hearted Harper is a captivating heroine, the peaceful eye in a storm of evil that threatens to harm everyone she holds dear, and it's impossible not to root for her. Hill has followed 2013's NOS4A2 with a tremendous, heartrending epic of bravery and love set in a fully realized and terrifying apocalyptic world, where hope lies in the simplest of gestures and the fullest of hearts. (May)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Girls

Emma Cline. Random House, $27 (368p) ISBN 978-0-8129-9860-3

A middle-aged woman looks back on her experience with a California cult reminiscent of the Manson Family in Cline’s provocative, wonderfully written debut. Fourteen years old in the summer of 1969, Evie Boyd enjoys financial privilege and few parental restrictions. Yet she’s painfully aware that she is fascinated by girls, awkward with boys, and overlooked by her divorced parents, who are preoccupied with their own relationships. When Evie meets “raunchy and careless” Suzanne Parker, she finds in the 19-year-old grifter an assurance she herself lacks. Suzanne lives at a derelict ranch with the followers of charismatic failed musician Russell Hadrick, who extols selflessness and sexual freedom. Soon, Evie—grateful for Russell’s attention, the sense of family the group offers, and Suzanne’s seductive presence—is swept into their chaotic existence. As the mood at the ranch turns dark, her choices become riskier. The novel’s title is apt: Cline is especially perceptive about the emulation and competition, the longing and loss, that connect her novel’s women and their difficult, sometimes destructive passages to adulthood. Its similarities to the Manson story and crimes notwithstanding, The Girls is less about one night of violence than about the harm we can do, to ourselves and others, in our hunger for belonging and acceptance. Agent: Bill Clegg, the Clegg Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Smoke

Dan Vyleta. Doubleday, $27.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-385-54016-2

Vyleta’s latest is a fiercely inventive novel set in a late Victorian Britain at once recognizable and intricately transformed. Best friends at an elite boarding school, Charlie Cooper and Thomas Argyle accept the way their world works: dark thoughts and deeds immediately cause black “Smoke” to emanate from human bodies, and the upper classes rule by virtue of being visibly more pure than the lower. Then the friends spend Christmas at the baronial home of Thomas’s uncle Baron Naylor, and everything changes. They are both attracted to his daughter, Livia, and her half-brother, Julius Spencer, Thomas’s cousin and a prefect at their school, hides a violent soul behind an irreproachable persona. Meanwhile, Lady Naylor is conducting secret research that throws everything they believe—from the texts of the Bible to the very nature of Smoke—into doubt. After investigating her laboratory and being attacked by an unknown assailant, Livia and the boys make for London, where they risk their lives for the chance to change their nation and themselves. Though its pacing falters a bit mid-book, Vyleta’s (The Crooked Maid) bold concept and compelling blend of history and fantasy offer a provocative reflection on the nature of evil, power, belief, and love. Dickensian in its imaginative scope and atmosphere, Smoke will have readers glad that a sequel is already underway. (May)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Buccaneer at Heart

Stephanie Laurens. Mira, $7.99 mass market (400p) ISBN 978-0-7783-1878-1

Laurens’s delicious second Adventurers Quartet Regency romance introduces protagonists whose compatibility develops from their matched wits and bravery, making them charming collaborators. Capt. Robert Frobisher is envious of his brother Declan’s happy life as a newlywed and decides that after he has completed the mission Declan began (in The Lady’s Command), he will find himself a wife. Robert is certain that he doesn’t want a woman like Declan’s beloved Edwina, preferring someone less “forceful.” However, on his mission to discover who is behind the disappearance of numerous adults and children, he runs across Aileen Hopkins. Robert’s “inner diplomat” relents to “the buccaneer in him,” and he finds himself drawn to Aileen’s strong will and determination. Their romantic interest in each other, slow-brewed with the increasing tension of the mystery, is natural and credible, and their lovemaking scenes are simmering and sensual. The narrative’s changing perspectives keep the story moving quickly. Laurens deftly balances action with dialogue and description, creating an intriguing and suspenseful novel that is equally effective whether read as a sequel or on its own. (May)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Time Will Clean the Carcass Bones: Selected and New Poems

Lucia Perillo. Copper Canyon (Consortium, dist.), $23 trade paper (244p) ISBN 978-1-55659-473-1

With this volume that spans more than 20 years and six poetry collections, Perillo (On the Spectrum of Possible Deaths), a poet, fiction writer, and MacArthur Fellow, exhibits her range and depth in exquisite yet unfussy poems. She writes skillfully of urban, suburban, and wild environments, but she’s nearly unparalleled when addressing the “meat cage,” and its pain and mortality. Perillo’s poems move against the backdrop of her own struggle with multiple sclerosis: “If I sleep on my belly, pinning it down,/ my breasts start puling like baby pigs/ trapped under their slab of torpid mother.” Yet these vivacious poems reveal humor, sexuality, and a sharp sense of images and turns of phrase. Her 4-page narrative poem, “Limits,” may be one of the most graphic and vulnerable poems about death in the genre, but Perillo’s later poems move away from dense text and rich narrative, opening up into shorter pieces, and the kind of long, airy, and sprawling single-line stanzas found in her magnetic poem “The Rape of Blanche DuBois.” Few writers capture the beautiful and the sordid as well as Perillo, and this marvelous collection is full of “those black moments that contained both the ardor and the horror, and the wonder at their having been simultaneously created.” (Mar.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Blue Laws: Selected & Uncollected Poems 1995–2015

Kevin Young. Knopf, $30 (608p) ISBN 978-0-385-35150-8

In this extensive and impressive selected volume that also includes a generous helping of unpublished poems, poet and critic Young, winner of the 2015 Lenore Marshall Prize for Book of Hours, puts his characteristically succinct narrative lines on full display as he crafts voices that speak to the pleasures and pains of African-American lives, including his own. Young demonstrates a deft skill for persona, taking on the voices of such historical figures as Jack Johnson, the great 20th-century boxer, and Cinque, the leader of the Amistad rebels. Music, especially blues, jazz, and hip-hop, moves as both an undertone and overtone throughout the book. Young shows his mastery of form throughout—particularly in “Urgent Telegram to Jean-Michel Basquiat”—while his love poems display a tremendous ear and the talent for turning stock images into moving metaphors: “Even a bird,/ a dog, got him a cage// he can bark/ all night in, or sing.” Some poems feel more concerned with flexing their muscles than engaging the reader, and metaphors can seem redundant (not altogether surprising, given Young’s prolific output), especially in a series of odes to foods. Yet Young also offers stunning confessional lines that will move the reader with their lyrical starkness, as in a heartrending series of elegies for his father: “The day will come// when you’ll be dead longer/ than alive.” (Feb.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Panther’s Prey: A Leo Maxwell Mystery

Lachlan Smith. Grove/Atlantic/Mysterious, $24 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8021-2503-3

Fans of Scott Turow will relish Smith’s outstanding fourth Russian nesting doll of a whodunit featuring San Francisco lawyer Leo Maxwell (after 2015’s Fox Is Framed). Leo, who has left private practice to take a job in the public defender’s office, is representing Randall Rodriguez, who “has spent his adult life on the street, in mental hospitals, or in jail.” He also has a record of confessing to crimes he didn’t commit. Despite Rodriguez’s confession of rape in the present case, Leo and his hardworking cocounsel, Jordan Walker, succeed in getting the jury to acquit after providing expert testimony as to why he would admit to something he didn’t do. Leo and Jordan sleep together after the triumph, but the relationship proves short-lived. One night in bed, Jordan receives a text message and kicks Leo out. Three days later, he finds her battered corpse in her apartment, with evidence implicating Rodriguez. The plotting is impeccable, and Smith adds even more layers to his complex lead, while creating a San Francisco as morally ambiguous as Turow’s Kindle County. Agent: Gail Hochman, Brandt & Hochman Literary Agents. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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A Woman’s Worth

Audra North. CreateSpace, $2.99 e-book (182p) ISBN 978-1-519-36884-3

North (Giving It Up) begins a contemporary erotic series with the realistic romance of a working woman entangled with her older boss. Overworked Chantal Jones juggles her upper-level marketing job with caring for her two kids after a messy divorce. She guiltily relieves stress and frustration with sexy fantasies about her aloof boss, Ronan Nakata, never imagining that her crush might be returned. She’s astonished and aroused to learn Ronan is attracted to her, and he reveals that he’s eager to have Chantal take charge during sexual encounters. She relishes the power she has over him, but remains confused about Ronan’s restrained, almost passive behavior; he offers her his body but never permits a real emotional connection to develop. Her best friend provides counseling and support as Chantal balances frequent scorching sex with Ronan’s tentative approach to emotional intimacy, trying to figure out how to get the committed equal partnership—and workplace success—that she wants. The workmanlike prose makes its points too emphatically, and the characters are bland and unsurprising, but the story refreshingly centers the heroine and gives her most of the sexual agency, and the sex scenes are more original than the rest of the story. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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The Bride Tournament

Ruth Kaufman. Ruth J. Kaufman, $2.99 e-book (240p) ISBN 978-0-9908469-6-3

Kaufman hits her stride with this enjoyable third entry in her War of the Roses Brides series, set in Northumberland, England, in 1462. Lady Eleanor learns on her wedding day that instead of marrying Arthur, her betrothed, King Edward has decreed that she will marry the new earl of Glasmere, Richard Courtenay. Like Eleanor’s father, Richard’s father was an alchemist, believed to have recorded the mystical formula in lost scrolls for which Richard and others search at the king’s behest. Eleanor believes that the pursuit of alchemy is heresy, and she’s determined that other “women may submit to a man’s commands, but no man controls me.” She seeks to annul this forced marriage so that she may be with Arthur. Richard, admiring his willful bride, agrees to postpone consummation in order to woo her, while Eleanor plans to find him a more suitable bride by means of a tournament. The reluctant lovers become aware of their hearts’ true desires only as Eleanor’s plan succeeds, publicly ending their marriage. Appealing protagonists, a satisfying pace, engaging supporting characters, and numerous obstacles to overcome combine in this emotionally satisfying romance. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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Three Weeks to Wed

Ella Quinn. Kensington/Zebra Shout, $4.99 mass market (320p) ISBN 978-1-4201-3955-6

Quinn (Lady Beresford’s Lover) opens a Regency series with this unexceptional installment. Lady Grace Carpenter doesn’t expect she’ll ever wed. With seven brothers and sisters entirely under her care and a tenuous grasp on their guardianship, even if she could find a man willing to take on her responsibilities, she would never be able to trust him. When an unexpected rain storm waylays her for a night at an inn with Lord Worthington, her expectations are overturned. What she intended to be a single night of passion, the memories of which would carry her through a life of spinsterhood, turns into a whirlwind courtship. The two lovers struggle to avoid drawing the attention of scandalmongers during the London season. Worthington has four sisters of his own to care for, heaping a pile of practical concerns atop the lovers’ very real struggle to stop making out long enough to get anything done. This light, cheery romance coasts comfortably toward its awkwardly fumbled ending. Agent: Elizabeth Pomada, Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 02/12/2016 | Details & Permalink

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