Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Jesus Cow

Humorist Michael Perry (Coop) makes a foray into fiction with The Jesus Cow, a novel about a small Midwest community that is transformed in profound and hilarious ways by a bull calf born in a barn on Christmas Eve.

Perry sets the story in Swivel, Wis.--population exaggerated at 562--only visible from the interstate by a long-stemmed, halogen-lit Kwik Pump gasoline sign whose "logo glows against the sky." He focuses on resident Harley Jackson, who lives in the house where he grew up, on 15 acres of deteriorating farmland. When his prized cow, Tina Turner, delivers a bull calf bearing the image of Jesus Christ on its black-and-white patchwork hide, Harley, a born-again believer, doesn't drop to his knees. Instead, he says, "Well, that's trouble."

Whether the calf was marked by God or not, Harley doesn't want anything to disturb his manageable, unassuming life. But when the Jesus calf escapes from the barn, the animal's image goes viral. Harley's upper Midwest farm soon becomes an international spiritual destination--a circus that sends the town residents into a tizzy. 

As in Truck: A Love Story and Visiting Tom, Perry once again delivers his own brand of outlandishness through rich, endearing characterizations of quirky small-town folks, and how their zany foibles and flaws mask underlying disappointments, secrets and longings. By deploying humor in depicting the often painful truths and absurdities of life, Perry successfully makes much larger statements about society and the human condition.

Harper, $25.99 Hardcover, 9780062289919, 304 pp
Publication Date: May 19, 2015
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (5/26/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (5/11/15). To read the longer review click HERE

Tuesday, June 2, 2015


Love and romance reside at the heart of British author William Nicholson's work, be it in his screenplays (Shadowlands) or in his prose fiction (Motherland). In his historical novel, Amherst, two secret love affairs--past and present--come together under the influence of poet, Emily Dickinson, who has a vivid impact on all their lives.

Nicholson threads the needle of his intriguing, well-plotted narrative with Alice Dickinson, a contemporary, 20-something, London copywriter whose shared last name with the poet draws her to Emily's work. Alice travels to Amherst, Ma., to research a screenplay she's writing about the real-life, 1880s love affair between Austin Dickinson, Emily's 50 year-old, unhappily married brother, and Mabel Loomis Todd, the 24 year-old wife of an Amherst College professor.

Once Alice arrives in the States, she boards in the home of Nick Crocker, a handsome, married, charismatic English Literature academic in his fifties. Alice's research into the mysteries of love, fidelity and passion is soon complicated when she and Nick begin an affair that ultimately parallels the intense complexity found in Austin and Mabel's relationship that was secretly consummated in the home that Emily Dickinson shared with her sister, Vinny. 

The plotlines of these tender, revealing love stories are told via alternating chapters. Nicholson draws from historical texts and includes letters along with Dickinson's poems in order to fictionally recreate the long-standing affair between Austin and Mabel—and the significant role that Emily, an enigmatic spinster-recluse, played in their romance, as well as how Emily's ghost permeates the relationship between Alice and Nick.

 by William Nicholson
Simon & Schuster, $26 Hardcover, 9781476740409, 304 pp   
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (2/17/15), click HERE

Friday, May 22, 2015

Scent of Murder

In Scent of Murder, James O. Born delivers a suspenseful mystery about a specialized K-9 police unit in south Florida and its role in tracking a serial kidnapper and possible murderer.

Deputy Tim Hallett isn't having an easy time. A Caucasian cop, he is on the rocks with his African American girlfriend, with whom he shares custody of their four year-old son. He is also still trying to get back on track after being ousted from the detective bureau—he was accused of using inappropriate methods to catch a child molester. Now, two years later, Hallett is a handler of a loyal and instinctive Belgian Malinois police dog named, Rocky, who is called in, along with two other specialized K-9 teams, to search for the criminal-at-large. But will the case that nearly shattered Hallett's career somehow figure in and come back to haunt him?

Born brings readers inside the minds of cops, and he often shifts the viewpoint, with great effect, to reveal the experiences of the devoted, astute canines, as well. The additional perspective of the criminal--the inner workings of his distorted mind as he goes in pursuit of young women whom he can terrorize and dominate--serves to intensify the suspense.

As in his other novels, Born (Border War) layers in authentic details of his native state of Florida and multi-cultural aspects found in contemporary law enforcement. Fans of crime fiction will be drawn to the investigative aspects of the story, while dog lovers will be intrigued by the realistic exploration of courageous police handlers and their canine counterparts.

Scent of Murder by James O. Born
Forge Books,  $25.95 Hardcover, 9780765378477, 304 pp
Publication Date: April 7, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Sunday, May 17, 2015

House Broken

Geneva Novak is a successful veterinarian living in San Francisco with her husband and two rebellious teenagers. When she receives a phone call from her brother in Los Angeles notifying her that their mother, Helen, has been in a serious car accident, Geneva's world is upended. The urging of her always-optimistic husband--who comes from a loving yet often overbearing family very different from her own--convinces Geneva that taking in the convalescing Helen might help repair their broken and contentious mother-daughter relationship. Grudgingly, Geneva invites a reluctant Helen into their home in the hope that Helen might finally address questions that have remained unanswered for decades--questions about Geneva's long-deceased father, Geneva's sister who has exiled herself to Africa and Helen's chronic alcoholism. Unfortunately, Helen's arrival only heralds new, unexpected problems, and it seems that things might get worse before they get better.

House Broken, Sonja Yoerg's complex, sensitively crafted debut novel, emerges as a multigenerational saga largely narrated by Geneva, who often seems more capable of caring for--and more empathic toward--the animals in her life than people. The viewpoints of Helen and Ella, Geneva's 16-year-old daughter, help flesh out the story. The distinct, authentic voices of these women from three generations probe beneath the surface of their own personal realities, while also shining a light onto dark secrets--past and present--that reveal the flaws and often-irreconcilable differences within family life.

House Broken by Sonja Yoerg
New American Library, $15 Paperback, 9780451472137, 336 pp
Publication Date: January 6, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/9/15), click HERE

Sunday, May 3, 2015


"I've always been interested in watching people together. I wonder what their story is, who they are to each other," explains photographer Melissa Ann Pinney in Two, a collection of more than 90 color images that focus on pairs of people and objects, accompanied by 10 essays by notable contemporary writers.

In this group of vivid, often mystical and playful images, Pinney explores connection, identity and relationships. There is a candid aesthetic to her work. Even her posed photographs grant viewers a glimpse into lives-in-action: a couple's embrace; a tender moment between mother and child; two nested teacups; a girl and her obedient dog; two barefoot, suspender-wearing Amish men staring into a placid sea; an elderly man having his hair done poolside.

The accompanying essays, which delve into the nature of pairs and twosomes, make the book even more compelling. Edwidge Danticat writes about having her feet washed by a stranger in church. Barbara Kingsolver expresses her feelings of being left out of the "charmed Romeo-Julietness" of her parents' marriage. Maile Meloy explores, with awe, the 70-year bond between her grandparents. Allan Gurganus considers the possibility of vanishing twin syndrome, and Elizabeth McCracken writes about her mother's enduring bond with her fraternal twin.

In the moving, eloquent opening essay, Ann Patchett notes that writers and photographers share a similar drive to exist "alone and in the world" in order to create their art. That concept makes Patchett and Pinney's collaborative exploration into the "the power of two" all the more thought-provoking.

Two by Melissa Ann Pinney
Harper Design, $29.99 Hardcover, 9780062334428, 208 pp
Publication Date: April 14, 2015
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (5/1/15), click HERE 

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (12/18/15). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Means

Douglas Brunt (Ghosts of Manhattan) brings readers deep into the competitive world of multimedia journalism as it intersects with the hard-boiled grit of politics. Spanning four years and various U.S. locales, The Means braids together three distinct points of view to form a compelling, complex plot that unspools gradually, deepening the mystery at the center of the book.

Samantha Davis, a former child actress, is smart, beautiful and ambitious. Now a lawyer, she's hired as a national TV news reporter. As she learns the ropes, often the hard way, she pursues an evolving news story concerning the upcoming presidential election that raises her profile and tests her integrity.

Tom Pauley is a handsome, North Carolina defense attorney. After he wins a controversial trial, the well-liked, middle-class fiscal conservative is tapped by the GOP to make a run for governor. Might his popularity and appealing poll numbers encourage him to set his sights on the White House?

Mitchell Mason is a study in personal and professional contradiction: ruthless one minute, caring and sensitive the next. He's a brash, headstrong Democrat serving as president in a post-Obama America. A scandal from his past, however, suddenly threatens to put his re-election bid in peril.

Brunt is meticulous and detailed-oriented. His finely tuned novel is crafted via cinematic scenes, rich in dialogue, that authentically reveal the trappings and snares of power, ambition and human nature. The corrosion of the U.S. political system--on both sides of the aisle--is at the heart of this engrossing, seductive political thriller served with a twist.

The Means by Douglas Brunt
Touchstone, $26.00 Hardcover, 9781476772578, 352 pp
Publication Date: September 16, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (9/23/14), click HERE

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Lynne Truss: Dealing in the Slightly Surreal

The Writer's Life

Lynne Truss started her career as a literary editor. She's been a journalist, a television and book critic and has written extensively for the page, stage, radio and screen. Her book Get Her Off the Pitch details the four years she spent as a sportswriter for theTimes (London), and The Lynne Truss Treasury is a compilation of her humorous columns and three of her comic novels. Truss is probably best known for Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a mega-bestseller that made people care about punctuation and also spawned several illustrated children's books on the topic. Truss has a fondness for gothic fiction and the work of British poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Her latest, Cat Out of Hell (see review below), is a mystery novel infused with humor and supernatural elements that focuses on talking cats, their many lives and the possibilities of their retributive behaviors.
Why return to fiction? And why a mystery novel?
In the 1990s, I wrote three novels in about six years, and my intention was to keep making a living from journalism while writing novels. Then a number of things happened around the year 2000, mainly that my sister died, and I gave up my job. For a while I concentrated on making radio programmes (mainly comedy) for the BBC. One of these programmes was about punctuation, and this led directly to writing Eats, Shoots & Leaves. The reception was truly phenomenal--but suddenly I was known as a nonfiction writer! All along I've been continuing to write stories and plays and dramatic comedies, so when I was commissioned to write a gothic novella for the Hammer imprint in the U.K., it made me very happy. I had written short stories in the comic-gothic mode. I like dealing in the slightly surreal. It seemed like a very natural next step to write a comic-gothic novel.
How did the story and themes arise in Cat Out of Hell
I knew from the start that it would be about talking cats. But when I started the book, all I was clear about was the structure. I wanted to start with a man on his own, poring over a folder of documents, pictures, sound recordings and so on, and being drawn into a mystery that he thinks does not concern him. So the first section would be the documents; the second would be narration; the third would take place in the present tense (e-mail exchanges, heightening the tension); the last would be narration of the dramatic climax. Once I had the structure, the story evolved to fit it. I'm working on a follow-up book at the moment, and the structure is different, but is still crucial to what kind of story will be told. As for the story and themes in Cat Out of Hell, the "many lives" element was one of several aspects of cat lore that seemed to offer gruesome possibilities! I'm quite pleased with my explanation for the belief that cats have nine lives. I also hope that cat owners will feel differently about a few other behaviours (such as purring), but I mustn't give too much away.
What role have cats played (or do play) in your domestic life?  
I had two, much-beloved cats for over 20 years, and I used to write about them quite a lot! I loved their indifference. One of my favourite columns began, "No Valentines from the cats again." After they died, I waited about 18 months and then took in two rescue cats, which was a bit of a disaster. They were semi-feral, I think. They didn't miaow. They didn't like to be stroked. They looked down at me from the top of the stairs like creatures from another planet. I'm sure the experience of having these cats for a couple of years fed into Cat Out of Hell! (Luckily, someone actually asked to have them, and I couldn't have been happier to see them go.)
But anyone who lives with cats knows the mystique they have. However close you get to them, they keep a lot in reserve. And the intelligence of animals is always fascinating. They are clever enough to recognise the sound of your car, but not clever enough to understand that when you put them in a basket, you're not actually trying to kill them. I find cats funny, I suppose. I think you can tell that I love them from the way (in Cat Out of Hell) Alec admires the cat called Roger. The two cats, The Captain and Roger, represent the sort-of Id and Superego of cat nature. One is all instinct and violence; the other all intellect and wit. 
Was Cat Out of Hell as much fun to write as it is to read?
All writing is scary to me. I wrote 24 episodes (in all) of a comic detective series for the radio here, and before each one I would have the internal debate: "I can't write this!" "Of course you can write this." "No, I can't write this." "But you're the only person who CAN write this." But you're right that in many ways writing Cat Out of Hell was just fun. There are passages that still make me laugh out loud--and they did delight me when I wrote them. It's a cliché that comic writing is a quite serious business--but it's true that it's a craft: it's about the timing, precise wording, and so on. You can buff it up. But writing in the comic mode isn't all craft; it's also about being alive to comic possibilities, and a funny idea popping into your head is sheer joy.
Your work certainly reflects how much you enjoy the craft of writing.
You would imagine that the enthusiasm would wear off, but in my case it really hasn't. Perhaps it's because I got going quite late (I was in my mid-30s when I wrote my first novel), I've always felt that it's a big privilege to be a writer. No one in my background had the luck that I've had. I was the first person in my family to go to university; the first not to have a boring job. Somehow I never forget that.
Gardening figures prominently in your comic novels, In One Lousy Free Packet of Seed and in Tennyson's Gift.
It's an odd thing. I have no special knowledge of botany, but I am terribly interested (thematically) in the idea of growth, so I think that's why I return to the subject of plants sometimes. When I started One Lousy Free Packet of Seed, I really wrestled with the idea of whether a comic character has to stay the same forever, or whether it can develop. So the idea of dormancy became a bit of a theme. I liked the idea of seeds--all that potential being contained in something so inert! As for the flower symbolism in Tennyson's Gift, it's in all Victorian art and poetry, so I took it on board. The fact that one of the little girls in Freshwater at the time was called Daisy (symbol of innocence) helped it all come together.
Will there be additional books featuring cats in your writing future?
I am currently writing about a demon kitten (for the next novel), and I get up each morning thinking, "I can't wait." I'm about 10,000 words in, and it's beginning to take shape, but I've got a lot of options still left open, such as: Will Roger return? 

Note: This interview is a reprint and is being posted with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this 
Q&A as originally published on Shelf Awareness  (3/24/14), click HERE

Cat Out of Hell

Roger--a sarcastic, well-read, talking cat who solves cryptic crosswords--is the star of Cat Out of Hell, an adventurous, gothic mystery novel that straddles a fine line between humor and horror, good and evil, life and death. Roger's story is complicated and at times absurdly comical and far-reaching. Readers, however, are in good hands with Lynne Truss (Eats, Shoots & Leaves), who launches her narrative with Alec Charlesworth--a lonely widower, a former Cambridge librarian--who retreats to a North Norfolk coastal cottage to grieve the death of his beloved wife. As dreary days wear on, Alec opens an e-mail sent to him by a former colleague he scarcely remembers, Dr. Winterton. Attached is a mysterious document called "Roger," a compilation of notes, screenplay pages, JPEGs, videos, audios and file transcripts. 

Alec tries to decipher why these materials were sent to him and their meaning. He focuses on a recorded conversation between Roger and a man named Wiggy. Alec learns that Wiggy is also a grieving widower, whose sister and her dog have disappeared. Wading through the files and putting all the pieces together, Alec begins to suspect the chilling story of Roger and his chilling past may link several mysterious deaths. Furthermore, it may even expose a complex plot involving the dark side of cats, their many lives and their intricate--sometimes retributive--behaviors. 

Rich characterizations and the inventive structure of Truss's clever, comic novel all serve to enhance this endearing, insightful and often wicked mystery that ratchets up suspense and intrigue while exploring aspects of mortality.
Melville House, $24.95  Hardcover, 9781612194424, 256 pp
Publication Date: March 3, 2014
To order via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (3/20/15), click HERE

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Murder at the Book Group

Maggie King entertainingly darkens the common perception of book clubs (a benign assembly of readers who've come together to discuss books) in her quirky debut, Murder at the Book Group. The story begins when normally even-keeled, vain Carlene Arness hurls the cozy mystery under discussion into a fireplace. "This book sucks," she exclaims. "There should be a law protecting the reading public from such trash!" The shocked members try to placate irate Carlene, who is also a mystery novelist, then rationally discuss and analyze the plot, which has to do with cyanide slipped into the teacup of an unsuspecting victim.

When the group breaks for refreshments, Carlene suddenly drops dead. Remarkably, her death is deemed the result of cyanide poisoning. When a note is discovered, Carlene's death appears to be a suicide. Many in the group, however, suspect someone killed her and forged the note--or is this kind of thinking the result of having read too many mystery novels? The quest for both who done it and why unearths a host of insidious rivalries and romantic entanglements.

The narrator, Hazel Rose, is a computer programmer turned aspiring romance novelist who cofounded the book club with Carlene. Carlene's death gives Hazel's banal existence a much-needed jolt, but her search for a would-be killer is riddled with snags when Carlene's friends, family and acquaintances offer compelling details of Carlene's multiple identities, surprising secrets and sordid love affairs. The amateur sleuth's pseudo-investigative skills and her interactions with a cast of well-drawn, small-town characters reveal a deception that ultimately coalesces into a study of human nature and the limits of perception.

Murder at the Book Group by Maggie King
Pocket, $7.99 Mass Market Paperback, 9781476762463, 400 pp
Publication Date: December 30, 2014
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (1/6/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (12/18/14). To read the longer review click HERE

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread

Family life never grows old in the hands of Anne Tyler, a master of domestic fiction who returns to familiar terrain in her 20th novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. This time around, Tyler (The Beginner's Goodbye) focuses on the Whitshank family of Baltimore, Md., launching the story with a call from wayward son Denny, who, at age 19, drops an attention-getting announcement on his parents, Abby and Red. He then hangs up and disappears from their lives--and the lives of his three siblings--for years. 

Tyler characterizes the Whitshanks as "one of those enviable families that radiate clannishness and togetherness and just... specialness," and Denny "trailed around their edges like some sort of charity case." Years later, when the entire family--including Denny--finally reunites in Baltimore, stories of the past are retold when Abby and Red's future living arrangements are called into question. 

The common thread binding the generational tapestry of the Whitshanks is the family home built by Red's father in the 1930s; the warm, inviting nature of the house comes to represent the family. In flashbacks, Tyler delves into the history of Red's parents and how Abby and Red met and married in 1950s. The stories of those who inhabited the residence deepen the meaning of the present-day predicament: with Abby and Red growing older and more infirm, the four disparate siblings and their spouses urge the couple to dismantle their bedrock, their beloved home, and make alternate living arrangements. 

Abby and Red's decision will not only affect their lives, but the lives of their children--particularly the two sons who struggle to reconcile their distinct places in the fold. Tension builds in this multi-generational saga as Tyler stitches together an intricate, insightful story about family history, memories, rivalries and long-held secrets.

Knopf, $25.95 Hardcover, 9781101874271, 368 pp
Publication Date: February 10, 2015
To order this book via INDIEBOUND link HERE

Note: This review is a reprint and is being posted (in a slightly different form) with the permission of Shelf Awareness. To read this review on Shelf Awareness: Reader's Edition (2/10/15), click HERE

This review was also featured (in a longer form) on Shelf Awareness: Book Trade (2/6/15). To read the longer review click HERE