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The Last Taxi Ride: A Ranjit Singh Novel
The Last Taxi Ride: A Ranjit Singh Novel
by A .X. Ahmad
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.92
62 used & new from $4.67

5.0 out of 5 stars THE LAST TAXI RIDE is steeped in atmosphere, wonderfully developed characters, action and suspense., July 28, 2014
When you come across a new author who creates fascinating characters you care about, weaves a plot that has you yearning to get back to the book as it twists and turns, and keeps you guessing until the last page --- all in his debut novel -- you know you’ve found a keeper. We first met Ranjit Singh, a turbaned Sikh former Indian army officer, in THE CARETAKER. He was on the run from assassins, smuggling his wife and daughter to America to stay with family in New York City. Falsely accused of killing members of his own outfit in the Himalayas, Singh found a job taking care of the Long Island summer cottage of a US Senator. There he found himself entangled anew in an espionage plot against the Senator, gaining him support in high places.

It is two years later when we catch up with Ranjit in New York City, where he drives a cab for a wealthy Indian entrepreneur. He is divorced from his unhappy wife, who is feeling lost in America and has returned to India with their daughter, while he is determined to make a go of it in his adopted country.

Ranjit is flagged down on Broadway by a beautiful woman who asks to be dropped off at the famed Dakota Hotel. He recognizes her as Shabana Shah, a famous Bollywood star whom he had long admired. She leaves a shopping bag with an expensive new dress in the backseat, and Ranjit goes back to the hotel to return it. He encounters Mohan, an old army acquaintance from India, now a doorman at the Dakota, who accompanies him to Shabana’s suite. She is away, but Mohan shows him around, they snack on leftovers from a party, admire her collection of statues, and leave.

The next morning, Shabana’s brutally murdered body is found in her living room, and Mohan has vanished. Ranjit was spotted on the hotel security camera, leaving at the approximate time of the murder and is taken into custody. His fingerprints are found on the statue that killed Shabana. Ranjit’s daughter is returning to live with him in three weeks, and a grand jury has been called to interrogate him in 10 days. His boss posts bail and instructs him to hunt down the missing Mohan for him. So begins a page-turning sequel that lives up to all expectations. Skeptical NYPD detectives and Indian mafia thugs from Mumbai dog Ranjit’s steps as he searches among the immigrant neighborhoods for Mohan.

A.X. Ahmad is a master at the intricate art of plotting. He grasps that hangman’s noose of mystery writing --- the flashback --- with masterful ease as he fills in Shabana’s tragic story from 20 years past during her rise and fall as a Bollywood star. THE LAST TAXI RIDE is steeped in atmosphere, wonderfully developed characters, action and suspense. Perhaps it is Ahmad’s many years as an architect that provides him with the intricate structure and planning for which the best writers strive. How easy it is for a potboiler to go astray as an inexperienced writer tries to juggle the characters in a fully rounded story. But not so with Ahmad. Even with the foreign names and large cast, at no point is the reader lost or confused. Never do you have to look back to see who’s who or muddle through a convoluted storyline.

We can look forward to at least a third novel as the satisfying ending leaves room for more. What is next for Ranjit Singh as a new American? I cannot wait to find out.

Reviewed by Roz Shea.

Bravo (Jad Bell)
Bravo (Jad Bell)
by Greg Rucka
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.00
41 used & new from $11.43

5.0 out of 5 stars Rucka is one heck of a writer, capable of changing a perception or a mood with a subtle sentence or two., July 28, 2014
This review is from: Bravo (Jad Bell) (Hardcover)
I first became acquainted with Greg Rucka’s work through comic books and graphic novels. Ironically enough, he was just starting to write for a number of the Batman titles as I was slowly beginning to curtail my visits to the comics store; one of the last titles I bought and read was his original series, Queen & Country. I discovered that he had been writing novels all along (not quite sure how I missed that), so I devoured his backlist, all the while pleased to discover that these books were as good as or, in some cases, better than his comic work. While the speed of Rucka’s output varies, the quality does not. Well into his second decade of writing, his books are impossible to set aside from their opening sentences.

BRAVO is the second of his Jad Bell novels, commencing almost immediately after the conclusion of ALPHA, the inaugural title. Bell, an extremely capable ex-Special Forces operative, is tasked with apprehending the man who almost succeeded in carrying out what would have been a devastating terrorist attack on United States soil. Bell and his fellow special-ops team members were successful in foiling it, but they want not only the man who put it into action but also the individual (nicknamed the Architect) who so meticulously and brilliantly planned it. Their hope is that they ultimately will reach the people who financed the operation.

That is a long climb, however, and along the way the hunt coalesces around two women. One is a United States special agent who has been operating under very deep cover for so long that her loyalties and motives may be suspect. The other is the Architect’s lover, who is both the enigmatic figure’s strength and sole weakness.

What Bell quickly comes to discover is that, since the first attack was foiled, a second terrorist act has been planned and set in motion already. You want a ticking clock plot point? Rucka gives you one that you can hear all through the house. Actually, he gives you more than one, given that the Architect, thanks to the people who have hired him, knows all about Bell and his team. Rucka is adept at throwing plot twists and turns at the reader when least expected; as a result, BRAVO is full to bursting with heart-stopping moments whereby one pauses and thinks, “No. That didn’t really happen.” In most (but not all) cases, it really did. This would apply to the book’s ending, which kind of turns everything sideways and sets things up for what is almost certain to come in subsequent volumes.

Regular readers of Rucka’s work will know that there is much more to BRAVO than explosions, karate and intrigue. He is one heck of a writer, capable of changing a perception or a mood with a subtle sentence or two. To name but one, there is an extremely short vignette near the end that involves the Architect and a bicycle. It’s very simple, yet shows another side to the Architect that is totally unexpected. That’s all I’m going to tell you about it, other than to say that it’s worth reading the entire book just to get to that one scene. If Rucka is not already at or near the top of your must-read list, then BRAVO should put him there.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub.

Strangers (Nameless Detective)
Strangers (Nameless Detective)
by Bill Pronzini
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.42
52 used & new from $7.50

5.0 out of 5 stars STRANGERS is a terrific read that both longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy. Pronzini is still at the top of his game., July 28, 2014
When Bill Pronzini started a mystery series about a nameless San Francisco detective in 1971, he was paying homage to Dashiell Hammett. He probably never imagined the series would last over four decades.

STRANGERS is the latest Nameless adventure --- the 43rd book featuring the SF detective --- and it has all the elements that make this such an excellent and beloved series. For longtime readers, it is a bit of a throwback in that Nameless, who we learned many years ago has a name (Bill), works the difficult case alone.

Pronzini allowed his hero to age in real time, and few of us are now what we were in 1971, sadly. So, in recent years, as Bill supposedly semi-retires, these books have followed a triple-subject format, as cases were worked by Bill; his computer-savvy office manager, Tamara Corbin, and younger field operative Jake Runyon.

But when Bill gets a call from a woman he loved decades ago telling him that her son has been accused of three rapes, he has no choice but to go. Alone. What readers love about this series is the character of Bill and his iron-clad professional code. Pronzini writes as Bill: “My profession, bottom line, is helping people in trouble. It is not a job for me; even now, semiretired and tilting toward geezerhood, it’s what I live for.”

So he embarks on the 450-mile drive to the mining town of Mineral Springs, Nevada, to see his old flame and one of the three loves of his life, Cheryl Rosmond. Pronzini writes, “What had been and had almost been between us belonged to a part of my life that seemed so remote now it was as if someone else had lived it.”

He walks into a town that Dashiell Hammett, author of the classic Continental Op novel RED HARVEST, would appreciate as a surrogate for hell. On his first visit to Cheryl, somebody throws a rock through her kitchen window and sets her storage shed on fire. Pronzini describes Bill’s first encounter with her: “Seeing her again had been difficult after all. Not because of any lingering personal feelings, but because of what she was now --- hurt, lost, afraid, edging towards the end of hope.”

The case against Cody is largely circumstantial, but virtually everybody in the tiny desert town thinks he is guilty. They soon come to direct their hostility at the big city outsider trying to get a serial rapist off. Bill sees it as part of his job to be thorough and stir things up. Part of the pleasure of this series is following Bill along and seeing him persevere despite the doors being slammed in his face.

Pronzini, who has won just about all the awards a mystery writer can, is a master craftsman, and his narrative structure is a brilliant technique that allows readers to learn what he does exactly as he learns it. And the more Bill pulls at strings, the more he finds out about the dirty underbelly of the town, including drugs, a burglary ring, and a dangerous and highly armed “desert rat” survivalist living in an abandoned ghost town. At one point he says, exasperated, “Christ, what a town this was.” That is about as emotional as he gets.

Remarkable in this day and age, the Nameless series is not big on gore, and violence and bloodshed are kept to a minimum. But this is a great noir series because solving the case is almost secondary in noir. The real issue is the darkness inside not just the bad guys --- you expect that --- but also among the people you go into the story expecting to root for. As its French name indicates, that darkness is all around us. No matter how much we expect good to triumph --- in noir, as in real life --- it is not certain that it will at all.

Nameless tries to do something to drive away the darkness that scars and sears the soul. He is a good man and a great investigator at breaking cases, but that does not assure a happy ending. “There is nothing more to say. I’ll be going,” he simply says on the final page, and that is probably the most terrifying words in the book. And then he follows it with: “I would never look back this way again.” And in noir, that is sometimes all there is. You do your best and then try to save yourself.

STRANGERS is a terrific read that both longtime fans and newcomers will enjoy. Pronzini is still at the top of his game. May he keep writing a Nameless novel a year for long into the future.

Reviewed by Tom Callahan.

What Is Visible: A Novel
What Is Visible: A Novel
by Kimberly Elkins
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $25.00
66 used & new from $11.84

4.0 out of 5 stars Laura's voice, in particular, is lively and engaging, full of pent-up energy and longing., July 28, 2014
As I started reading Kimberly Elkins's debut novel, WHAT IS VISIBLE, I kept asking myself, "Why didn't I know this story before?" Much of the book takes place at the Perkins School for the Blind, which today is located just a mile or two from my house outside Boston. An acquaintance of mine lives in the Beacon Hill home once occupied by Perkins School founder Samuel Gridley Howe and his wife, "Battle Hymn of the Republic" author and poet Julia Ward Howe. And yet I had never heard of Dr. Howe's most notable protégé, Laura Bridgman, whoin the mid-19th century, was one of the most famous women in the world, but whose story about being the first deaf and blind person to learn language has since been subsumed by the story of Helen Keller, who came 50 years after her.

As Elkins explains in her afterword, in fictionalizing the story of Laura Bridgman, she adhered to the writer Thomas Mallon's dictate to write historical fiction on the basis of "what might have happened as well." So the fundamentals of Laura’s story remain intact in Elkins's well-researched novel. Laura, who lost not only her hearing and sight but also her senses of smell and taste following a bout of scarlet fever when she was a toddler, was sent from her home in Hanover, New Hampshire, to the Perkins School in Boston when she was still a young girl.

There, she was made something of a star pupil of Samuel Gridley Howe, who used a variety of methods to enable Laura to communicate using tactile sign language as well as reading raised lettering (Braille was not yet used in the United States at that time) and writing. Laura became quite a celebrity; she was featured in a chapter in Charles Dickens's AMERICAN NOTES (the author made a point of meeting her when he was on one of his American tours) and commemorated in dolls sold around the country.

Laura, who had been taken from her own family at such a young age, saw Howe as a father figure. When he began shifting his focus to his own family following his marriage to Julia Ward (who was apparently quite uneasy around the disabled children with whom her husband worked) and their subsequent parenthood, Laura suffered as a result. She longed to find meaning through reading the Bible, but Howe and his fellow progressive educators were determined to use her as an example of how moral education can be imparted without relying on traditional religious education. Laura had quite a mind of her own, thanks in no small part to Howe's work with her, and she became determined to take her education and her life into her own hands.

Told in alternating chapters through the voices of Laura, Howe, his wife Julia, and Laura's beloved teacher Sarah, as well as through letters, WHAT IS VISIBLE traces Laura's life from a teenager in the 1840s through her meeting with a young Helen Keller in the 1880s. Laura's voice, in particular, is lively and engaging, full of pent-up energy and longing. Around her, those charged with her upbringing and well-being encounter dramas and scandals of their own.

Many readers of WHAT IS VISIBLE will be curious to know which elements of these stories are taken from the historical record and which are embellished or invented by the novelist. Elkins's excellent afterword spells this out, and those who, like myself, find themselves wanting to know even more about this nearly forgotten figure can find out much more by picking up the biographies that Elkins cites as her inspiration for giving Laura Bridgman a new voice --- and renewed visibility.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl.

Herbie's Game (Junior Bender #4) (Junior Bender Mystery)
Herbie's Game (Junior Bender #4) (Junior Bender Mystery)
by Timothy Hallinan
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.08
67 used & new from $7.24

4.0 out of 5 stars Cataclysmic and full of rough justice, HERBIE'S GAME is the most satisfying installment of the series to date., July 28, 2014
I have loved the act of reading since I was four years old. Six decades (almost) is a long time to do anything; there are occasions (rare, but they do happen) when the act of reading, even the thought of it, leaves me feeling burned out. When that occurs, I turn to a Timothy Hallinan book. Hallinan, in his exotic Poke Rafferty series (set in Bangkok) and offbeat Junior Bender canon (which takes place in the more familiar but no less bizarre environs of Los Angeles), hits a literary sweet spot that no one else quite touches. I can’t explain it precisely; there are authors as good as Hallinan and a couple who may be better, but no one else is writing books quite like these, which read like a collaboration of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler with a dash of world-wise-and-weary thrown in.

Hallinan’s latest, HERBIE’S GAME, is part of the Junior Bender series. You can pick it up and become instantly immersed in it, even if you haven’t had the pleasure of reading what has transpired in previous installments. Bender is a burglar for hire, and the people who bring him on are usually criminals, bad at worst but mostly not evil (though there are exceptions). The book explores Bender’s backstory, telling the tale of how he went from being an after-school shoe salesman to one of the best entering-without-breaking men in the business, all without losing what principles are possible when stealing is an integral part of one’s method of earning a living.

HERBIE’S GAME gets rolling when Bender is retained by Wattles, the so-called “executive crook” of the San Fernando Valley, to recover a very important and incriminating item that has been burgled from Wattles’s office safe. The item in question is a written list of a chain of criminals who stretch between a client who has requested a hit and the actual hitman. The chain exists to create a wall between the hitman and the person who has commissioned the kill. The list shouldn’t even exist, but for the fact that Wattles no longer trusts his memory. The problem is that the burglary bears a trademark peculiar to only two people: Bender and Herbie Mott, who is Bender’s mentor in crime and, in many ways, his substitute father.

Bender, of course, isn’t the guilty party (at least in this case), but it becomes quite clear who it is when Bender finds the beloved and colorful Mott dead as the apparent result of an unpleasant and unsuccessful interrogation that went too far. Bender begins to trace each fragile step in the chain. However, someone else is doing the same thing but with ill intent, so that bodies begin piling up in and around the Los Angeles area. As Bender’s investigation takes a couple of interesting turns, he discovers things about Mott that he cannot or will not believe, and that he wishes he had never known. By the time the rather cataclysmic climax occurs and a rough justice is achieved, Bender learns some uncomfortable but necessary truths about Mott and himself, and gains something by relinquishing something else. The ultimate result is the most satisfying installment of the series to date.

As good as the story in HERBIE’S GAME may be, Hallinan’s afterword is worth checking out as well. One cannot read a Hallinan novel without learning something --- in the instant case, some fascinating history of World War II-era French jewelry, among other things --- and the afterword, which describes in part the coming together of the book that precedes it, is both instructional and entertaining. And, as with Rafferty’s Bangkok, Bender’s Los Angeles is laid out in full, splendid view, warts and all.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub.

Last to Know
Last to Know
by Elizabeth Adler
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $16.43
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5.0 out of 5 stars A well-written novel that spills over with description, both in terms of character backgrounds and rich settings., July 28, 2014
This review is from: Last to Know (Hardcover)
Detective Harry Jordan seeks refuge from the fast-paced Boston crime scene at his lake house on peaceful Evening Lake. In western Massachusetts, he shares the quiet atmosphere with close-knit families who represent generations of well-heeled status. His closest neighbors, the Osbornes, enjoy their summers there to escape life’s distractions. The father, Wally, relishes the solitude at Evening Lake to concentrate on his latest writing project. Rose takes pride in her role as matriarch: a gourmet cook, hostess of finesse, and mother to twin adolescent girls, a college-bound son and a quietly adventurous younger son.

Author Elizabeth Adler introduces each character with expansive background information and vivid personality description. Before the reader can feel overwhelmed by the volume of detail, the action picks up when the quiet is broken by a massive explosion and fire directly across the water. Lacey Havnel, a flirtatious newcomer, along with her daughter, Bea, are the victims in the raging inferno. Lacey’s hair catches on fire; sparks ignite Bea’s blond tresses as well, but Bea dashes for the water. Harry and Diz Osborne, the youngest boy, pull her from the water but are too late to save Lacey. The detective becomes involved when the woman’s body is found with a knife sticking from her eye, obviously now a murder scene.

Harry’s partner, Carlo Rossetti, arrives to help in the murder investigation and to dig up background information on the victim. What he discovers will lead to more unanswered questions. After the fire, poor Bea has no home or relative to claim her. Harry convinces Rose to take her in for a week or so until her future can be sorted out. Wally reacts to the idea with disdain, refusing to support Rose. The children side with their mother and vow to help the now-homeless girl. Bea arrives and blends right into the family’s activities.

The murder and arson investigations open secret lives of drug addiction, criminal drug sales, identity theft, the actual cause of the explosion, and lies shedding multiple personality layers. Most chapters are titled by place and time to stabilize the reader’s equilibrium. Each italicized chapter speaks the serial killer’s intention in a grim first-person narrative. An unintentional murder occurs when a would-be investigative reporter hides behind a tree to observe the comings and goings of the Osbornes. Jemima Forester writes an investigative blog and snoops to prove theories. She unearths significant information about Lacey and Bea, and informs Harry. He soaks it in and decides to take her home and run out to the lake to see Rose. Jemima follows him and unwittingly becomes the next murder victim. Bodies are piling up but with no solutions.

On top of all this, we follow Mal Malone, Harry’s former fiancée, to Paris. There, she languishes for his company while he tries to forget her. Harry, though, cannot bear to let her go. Was his job more important than their relationship? The question remains throughout the story when he comes to grips with reality.

LAST TO KNOW is a well-written novel that spills over with description, both in terms of character backgrounds and rich settings. Its characters spring from the pages with vitality, emotion and reality. Although I was unfamiliar with Adler’s previous novels, I look forward to exploring her backlist and anticipate future adventures.

Reviewed by Judy Gigstad.

Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring
by Peter Duffy
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $23.27
39 used & new from $10.78

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The intrigues of Sebold and his minders are vividly depicted by journalist/author Peter Duffy through historical detail., July 28, 2014
A few days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, members of a group of American men and women known as the Duquesne Spy Ring were all found guilty of treason against the United States. Behind this large, well-played game of spycraft ending in multiple lengthy imprisonments was one man who, until relatively recently, was unknown, his real name not revealed, his life story kept a secret due to his activities as a double agent.

William Sebold was a German-born naturalized American citizen who took his oath of loyalty to his new country seriously. In the early days of Hitler's rise to power, he returned to Germany to visit his mother and was recruited as a spy for the Nazis. Reckoning that he might not get back to the US if he refused, he allowed himself to be trained in espionage. But he also let his recruitment be known to the Americans and asked to work for the FBI as a counter-espionage agent. For two years, he lived a shadowy, spy-vs-spy existence, befriending the German underground operating in New York City, and its roguish leader, South African Fritz Duquesne, who proudly boasted of having killed Britain's Lord Kitchener. The man charged with supervising the operation to bring down Duquesne, unapologetic master-spy Hermann Lang and their cohort of German sympathizers was J. Edgar Hoover, in his new position as head of the FBI.

The intrigues of Sebold and his minders, vividly depicted by journalist/author Peter Duffy (THE BIELSKI BROTHERS), read at times like a John le Carré novel. There is a gray, dank sense of boredom in a spy's daily existence, along with a frisson of reckless endangerment, both of which Duffy conveys through a plethora of historical detail. An example is the code used by Sebold and his principal American contacts, "based upon the letter arrangements of a particular page (which would change each day) in the British edition of Rachel Field's bestselling historical romance, ALL THIS, AND HEAVEN TOO.

Ironically, the first cause for which the Duquesne Spy Ring was being trailed was the Norden bombsight, a piece of equipment that, it was believed, could make bombing almost completely accurate and efficient; Lang had worked in the Norden plant, and it was believed he leaked its design to the Nazis. But in the heat of the European air war, it turned out that the bombsight was not a major factor, as it was quickly determined that "the best way to defeat Germany was to pummel its cities under the cover of darkness."

Nonetheless, the Ring's members were bent on a perfidious quest to foster Germany's domination of the world and the elimination of Jews and other inferiors, as well as anyone inimical to the German cause. Sebold, a quiet man of accurate mind and unusual patriotism, unhesitatingly did his part to see that they did not succeed.

Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott.

Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies
by Alastair Bonnett
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.81
51 used & new from $12.45

4.0 out of 5 stars UNRULY PLACES is a readable but thoughtful and even provocative work that asks you to think about place and space in a new way., July 28, 2014
Gary Snyder wrote, “Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there.” Yet finding a special place may not be easy in a world seemingly covered in urban sprawl, strip malls and gated communities. Never fear: Alastair Bonnett has shared 47 remarkable locales in UNRULY PLACES.

With more than a nod to authors, philosophers, researchers and explorers who, in recent decades, have examined place as a physical, spiritual and psychological reality and, for many, as an “emergent anxiety” due to geographic, climate, social and economic changes, Bonnett aims to reveal “the range and power of the geographic imagination.” From inhabitable but ephemeral sandy islands to strips of land on the side of busy highways, UNRULY PLACES briefly considers geographies that challenge our notions of place, ownership, livability and home.

The “Lost Places” Bonnett describes include large cities like Leningrad and Mecca that have purposely changed identity or modified the cityscape. There is also the Aralqum Desert, which used to be the Aral Sea before it dried up to a shifting, sandy desert. The “Hidden Geographies” section reveals The Labyrinth discovered by urban explorers under Minneapolis-St. Paul. This is a fascinating story of found space, difficult to access but eventually contested. There are compelling underground spaces to be found in the Cappadocia region of eastern Turkey as well.

One of the most interesting hidden geographies is the North Cemetery in Manila, where up to 6,000 residents live among the tombs. Though the residents of the cemetery originally settled there due to poverty, they have created a small town complete with sub-neighborhoods, businesses and illegally cabled electricity. Cemetery towns, like the one in Manila, or the larger ones found in places like Cairo, speak to economic, socio-cultural and even political conditions of the nations in which they are found. They also speak to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the inhabitants.

In addition, there are sections describing what Bonnett calls “No Man's Lands,” like the 27-kilometer distance between the borders of Senegal and Guinea in West Africa and a 795-square-mile space between Sudan and Egypt that each country refuses to claim. The shifting border between El Salvador and Honduras has left the people there unsure of citizenship and with a confused national identity. Kangbashi and Wittenoom are just two examples of “Dead Cities,” abandoned due to danger, evacuated by the government, or, in the case of Kijong-dong, never inhabited in the first place.

Readers also will be enthralled by examples of “Floating Islands,” “Ephemeral Places,” “Spaces of Exception” and “Enclaves and Breakaway Nations.” Some of Bonnett's examples are captivating, like Sealand, an offshore rig housing one family that claimed sovereignty from England and named themselves royalty. Others are frightening, like the islands of floating trash that have formed in the oceans when circulating currents begin to accumulate debris. Not all are as powerful or compelling, but most do pose interesting and complicated questions.

UNRULY PLACES is a readable but thoughtful and even provocative work. Bonnett asks readers to think about place and space in new ways. Though there are a few dull spots, overall this is a book that will have readers looking at maps and globes, their own towns and cities, and the world around them with fresh eyes, as they re-think place on the planet and our responsibility for it.

Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman.

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel
The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing: A Novel
by Mira Jacob
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $19.22
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mira Jacob’s delightful first novel is uncommonly easy to like, right from the very first pages., July 28, 2014
Reading debut novels always provides a challenge to the thinking reader, as one is not able to fall back on being either quietly disappointed or pleasantly surprised; the feelings so reassuringly familiar when reading a new work by an author on which we already have firm opinions are totally inaccessible. One is required instead to generate a reaction off the cuff that, as any dinnertime speaker will tell you, wracks the nerves and upsets the digestive system. Mercifully, Mira Jacob’s delightful first novel is uncommonly easy to like, right from the very first pages.

THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING is a saga centering on the Eapen family, who have emigrated from India to America. The protagonist, Amina Eapen, is a sometime photojournalist now living in Seattle. Her promising career taking “serious” photographs seems to have come to a premature end, and she is hiding out in the less glamorous world of wedding photography. Comedy ensues. Meanwhile, her middle-aged father, Thomas, is back in her adolescent home of Albuquerque and has taken to sitting on his front porch, passing the nights chattering away to the ghost of his long-dead mother. As Amina plans to return to her family home to visit her ailing father, we are drawn back into the Eapen family’s history, stretching beyond Albuquerque to Salem India, and to the intersection of the family’s traumatic past and its critical present.

The conflicts in the novel are eternal ones --- the pull of the old world versus the new, the responsibilities we have to the living versus those we have to the dead. Yet the way these conflicts play out --- a teenaged Indian boy fuming at the decision to cast Ben Kingsley as Gandhi, young women faced with the question of whether or not to marry according to their parents’ ethnically drive view of a good match --- keeps the narrative firmly grounded in the mundane. In this way, Jacob deftly fulfills Flannery O’Connor’s doctrine that “There are two qualities that make fiction. One is the sense of mystery and the other is the sense of manners.”

Speaking of “manners,” one of Jacob’s strengths is her handling of the vernacular; the particularly Indian English of the parents’ generation is set against the more American colloquialisms of Amina and her contemporaries. Kamala, Amina’s mother, whose fervor to see her daughter married rivals Mrs. Bennet’s, charms us with her idiosyncratic variations on English idioms. When trying to dismiss the importance of something, she says, “No big deals,” and when complaining of the promiscuity of American twenty-somethings, she cites the way her niece is always “opening relationships.”

The central trauma around which the novel turns is the death of Amina’s brother, which occurs some years before the narrative begins. While the elements of the grieving family are familiar enough on paper --- an overbearing mother, a more reticent father, a daughter who is dutiful to the point of self-sabotage --- there is sufficient nuance in Jacob’s handling for her to forge these characters as uniquely her own. Just like Kamala’s idioms, they steer dangerously close to the formulaic but remain comically surprising. THE SLEEPWALKER’S GUIDE TO DANCING is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Reviewed by Frederick Lloyd.

A Wedding in Provence: A Novel
A Wedding in Provence: A Novel
by Ellen Sussman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.63
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4.0 out of 5 stars Told with intimate authority, Sussman brings the countryside to life with her rich narrative., July 28, 2014
With an air of whimsy, Ellen Sussman has delivered a lighthearted tale of love, trust, secrets and family in her new novel, A WEDDING IN PROVENCE. Told with intimate authority and against the backdrop of southern France, Sussman brings the countryside to life with her rich narrative. Picturesque vineyards and tropical beaches are vividly portrayed, as this story of love lost intertwines within the lives of those who take a chance at amore again. Luckily, Sussman lived in France for five years, so hers is a “fable” that can spark a magical aura in many of us, as she shares a romantic tale that could end with a “Happily ever after…”

What could be more exciting or romantic than a wedding in the French countryside? Nothing, as far as Olivia and Brody are concerned --- until they find out it isn’t. Who would have thought that a quiet, intimate family gathering for their nuptials would soon turn into a “war of wills”? Here, differing personalities will clash, like waves against the shoreline as a storm approaches. And, as the story unfolds, upstaging seems to be a major occurrence when all the characters get together.

In most instances, any time you have a story with “wedding” in the title, you conjure up all kinds of bridal-related images, and yes, that is the gist of the novel. But there are also some twists in the road that help make its slow start pick up the pace --- becoming a drama full of surprises and emotional breakthroughs as Olivia and her daughters learn to accept the fact that their lives are about to change…for better or worse. In fact, not only does the wedding stir up a lot of emotions in the bride, everyone develops a self-introspective on some dormant emotions and past errors that may or may not make this story end in a shower of rice.

The wedding will take place at an inn owned by Olivia’s best friend, Emily, and her husband, Sebastian. Surrounded by vibrant gardens and vineyards, this place is earmarked to become the idyllic setting for this intimate gathering of the bride, groom and wedding guests. But it soon turns out that all is not well with the owners of this scenic inn, making it just one of many problems casting pallor on the festive weekend.

Lo and behold, when Olivia’s two daughters, Carly and Nell, come to spend the weekend with their mom --- watching her marry a man who is not their father --- it isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered for either of them. With their own agenda, bordering on baggage, both girls shake things up in their own special way. Ultimately, while sumptuous food and wine narratives flow lavishly throughout the pages of the book, not even these distractions can cover up the underlying secrets that can keep families together or apart.

While the delicate balance of the entire weekend is upset by Nell and Emily’s affairs of the heart, more problems are on the horizon. Emily, who is hosting the wedding, discovers that Sebastian has had an affair, which devastates her and threatens the state of their marriage. Then, to top it off, Brody’s mother, Fanny, arrives for the wedding --- without his father. Apparently, her husband has gone into hiding and, after 55 years of marriage --- give or take a year or two --- wants nothing more to do with his family. So, with this much chaos in the midst of a supposedly idyllic weekend, how can one choose love as a theme song?

A WEDDING IN PROVENCE, told from the perspectives of Olivia and her two daughters, ultimately confirms that “love can conquer all” when you give yourself permission to try your hand at it. Ellen Sussman confirms this philosophy here and states, “The burning question that drove me through draft after draft of this novel was this: How do we commit to marriage, knowing what we do about the challenges of relationships? With many of the characters based on her own love story, she also admits that, like her, all the characters at that weekend wedding --- the family and best friends of Olivia and Brody --- struggle with love. And yet, like the bride and groom, most partners realize that when you begin a new life together, no matter your age, difficulties will arise. The ultimate test of true love is how you face these issues. When done with wisdom and tolerance, knowing that “the fire must be tended,” then and only then will the power of love transform you.

Reviewed by Donna Smallwood.

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