Harry Potter meets Lestat de Lioncourt. Throw in a time machine, and you’ve got just about everything you need for a full-kit fantasy.
The protagonist is a witch. Her beau is a vampire. If you accept the argument that we’ve seen entirely too many of both kinds of characters in contemporary fiction, then you’re not alone. Yet, though Harkness seems to be arriving very late to a party that one hopes will soon break up, her debut novel has its merits; she writes well, for one thing, and, as a historian at the University of Southern California, she has a scholarly bent that plays out effectively here. Indeed, her tale opens in a library—and not just any library, but the Bodleian at Oxford, pride of England and the world. Diana Bishop is both tenured scholar and witch, and when her book-fetcher hauls up a medieval treatise on alchemy with “a faint, iridescent shimmer that seemed to be escaping from between the pages,” she knows what to do with it. Unfortunately, the library is crammed with other witches, some of malevolent intent, and Diana soon finds that books can be dangerous propositions. She’s a bit of a geek, and not shy of bragging, either, as when she trumpets the fact that she has “a prodigious, photographic memory” and could read and write before any of the other children of the coven could. Yet she blossoms, as befits a bodice-ripper no matter how learned, once neckbiter and renowned geneticist Matthew Clairmont enters the scene. He’s a smoothy, that one, “used to being the only active participant in a conversation,” smart and goal-oriented, and a valuable ally in the great mantomachy that follows—and besides, he’s a pretty good kisser, too. “It’s a vampire thing,” he modestly avers.
Entertaining, though not in the league of J.K. Rowling—or even Anne Rice. But please, people: no more vamps and wizards, OK?
Sherlock Holmes comes to South Central Los Angeles. Only he’s black, never finished high school, and can’t seem to hold on to a regular job.
Unlike Holmes or other flamboyant “consulting detectives” whose powers of ratiocination have held readers’ imaginations captive since the Victorian era, Isaiah Quintabe, young, gifted, and nonchalantly brilliant, displays few distinguishable quirks beyond a formidable attention span that misses nothing. Well, having a live chicken named Alejandro wandering around his crib may be a little eccentric. But IQ, as he’s appropriately known, earned that bird for services rendered as a discreet, unlicensed investigator who finds missing people, recovers stolen property, and unravels puzzles too delicate or perplexing for the LAPD to handle. Business is steady but sluggish, and IQ, goaded by a one-time high school frenemy named Dodson (rhymes with “Watson,” get it?), agrees to go for bigger bucks in helping to find out who’s trying to murder rap idol Calvin “Black the Knife” Wright, who’s undergoing something of an emotional crisis. The list of suspects is, to say the least, eclectic, beginning with Cal’s ex-wife, Noelle, an ambitious pop diva, and a posse of hangers-on and moneymen, any one of whom might be greedy or vicious enough to sic upon Cal the most monstrously lethal attack dog since the Hound of the Baskervilles. In his debut novel, Ide, a Japanese-American who grew up in the same neighborhood as his mercurial characters, flashes agility with streetwise lingo, facility with local color, and empathy with even the most dissolute of his characters. If there’s a problem, it’s that IQ, for all his brilliance at inductive reasoning (as opposed to “deductive”; apparently there is a difference), seems at once too removed and too moody for readers to connect with. His origin story, alternating with the main investigation, at times reads like the usual gang-violence melodrama. But the roughhousing energy, vivid language, and serrated wit Ide displays throughout this maiden effort make Isaiah Quintabe seem a potential rejuvenator of a grand literary tradition.
The present day, with its high-strung social media and emotional overload, could use a contemporary hero like Ide's, more inclined to use his brain than his mouth (or fists) to vanquish evil and subdue dread.
Cole makes her Avon debut with a romance that draws on familiar genre tropes only to upend them.
An arranged marriage, a mistaken identity, and a handsome prince from an imaginary country are just a few common tropes in the first book in Cole’s (An Extraordinary Union, 2017, etc.) Reluctant Royals series. But with ironic nods to Disney and Mills & Boon, Cole gives 21st-century twists. Naledi, a graduate student in epidemiology, juggles lab work, a waitressing job, and a drunken mess of a best friend. Being raised in foster homes has given her the toughness she needs to succeed as a black woman in an often hostile world but also a vulnerability. Naledi hasn’t been lucky in love, and she wonders whether she’s “like a faulty piece of Velcro; people tried to stick to her, but there was something intrinsically wrong in her design.” When she gets an email addressing her as the long-lost betrothed of Prince Thabiso of the small (fictional) African country of Thesolo, Naledi hits delete. Little does she realize that the incompetent new waiter she's been trying to train is, in fact, the “Playboy PanAfrique,” come to New York to check out his intended. Thabiso insinuates himself into Naledi’s life, and they become friends and, soon after, lovers. Thabiso’s big ego and sense of entitlement are tempered by his exposure to working-class realities, while Naledi discovers how wonderful it can be to open up and connect. Of course, catastrophe is just around the corner, and its resolution comes only after they journey to Thesolo, where Naledi can discover her roots while at the same time working to stop an outbreak of a mysterious disease.
A delightful and sexy take on love between a suave African prince and a nerdy epidemiology student.
An adamantly private lady seeks a sensible match, but a notorious and rakishly handsome adventurer proves difficult to resist in the first of a Georgian-set historical romance series.
Lord Alaric Wilde, the long-absent third son of the Duke of Lindow, has just returned to England a celebrity thanks to his bestselling swashbuckling memoirs. Alaric has no idea of his own fame until his ship is met by mobs of screaming ladies who have stocked up on Lord Wilde memorabilia and repeat viewings of Wilde in Love, a scandalous and unauthorized play about the handsome rogue. During a house party at Lindow Castle, his family’s ancestral seat, Alaric encounters the very reserved Miss Willa Ffynche. He is intrigued at first by her lack of interest in him and later by her wit and intelligence. The trouble is that Willa “had absolutely no desire to be married to a man whose printed image was concealed in young ladies’ Bibles.” This first in James’ (Seven Minutes in Heaven, 2017, etc.) new Georgian-set series about the aptly named Wilde family and its sprawling estate in Cheshire is full of her signature style: witty repartee between a sensual hero and a smart, unconventional heroine and an effortlessly interconnected cast of characters you can’t wait to get to know better. A terrific writer, James conveys both the ordinariness and transcendence of sexual desire: “Yet reining in her desire felt like reining in the dusk. Or the rain. Something real, natural, uncontrollable.”
A charming, romantic, and unexpectedly funny start to a very promising new series. A must for James fans and a sure bet for everyone else.
A debut sci-fi author suggests that the electoral process could be even scarier, more convoluted, and more subject to factual distortions than it currently is.
In the future, the entire world signs on to the “micro-democracy” form of government. Each population of 100,000 people, or “centenal,” votes every 10 years for a government in their area; the one who wins the most centenals gains the Supermajority. Elections and voting are operated and monitored by Information, the organization that also runs the Internet, the phone, and all broadcasting systems. Heritage has held the Supermajority for decades, but the outcome for them seems less certain as the election looms. Both Mishima, an expert troubleshooter for Information, and Ken, an ambitious campaigner for the up-and-coming Policy1st government, hear rumors that the powerful Liberty government might be trying to start a war. Anarchist Domaine, in a loud but essentially ineffectual way, argues for the downfall of the current political system. When an act of sabotage brings down Information on Election Day, who’s to blame, and what is their ultimate goal? The romance between Mishima and Ken feels somewhat undeveloped, but it’s counterbalanced by the larger themes Older is exploring. The author brings a considerable amount of experience and scholarly knowledge to bear here—she has traveled all over the world as an expert in disaster management and is pursuing a graduate degree in the sociology of disaster response. The result is a frighteningly relevant exploration of how the flow of information (small i, both true and false) can manipulate public opinion—in particular, how fear and the desperate desire for safety can become such strong factors in swaying the vote.
Some aspects of the story may risk dating, but on the whole, timely and perhaps timeless.
Following an off-key memoir (Aftermath,2012), Cusk returns to fiction and top form in a novel about the stories we tell ourselves and others.
The nameless narrator is on a plane from London to Athens to teach a summer writing course when an older Greek man begins to confide in her about his unhappy childhood. After learning the narrator is divorced, he tells her about his own marital misadventures. “So much is lost…in the shipwreck,” he says mournfully. It’s the first of many keening conversation she has with her students, Greek friends and fellow writers. They reveal marriages splintered when shared assumptions diverge; parents wearied by their children’s demands but ambivalent when they cease; the struggle to give up comforting illusions and face reality—but then again, don’t we all construct our own realities? (That question, unsurprisingly, especially preoccupies her younger students.) As they pour forth the particulars of their lives, the narrator sparingly doles out some of hers while coping with texts and phone calls from her needy sons. Pained by the disconnect “between the things I wanted and the things I could apparently have,” she says, “I had decided to want nothing at all….I was trying to find a different way of living in the world.” The existential musing can get somewhat abstract, but it’s grounded by Cusk’s knack for telling details: the slightly reddened eyes of the narrator’s friend who asks for a nonalcoholic beer or the vivid makeup of a woman whose unfaithful husband has just redecorated his office entirely in white. The individual stories collectively suggest that self-knowledge is a poor substitute for happiness, but perhaps readers can find some hope from the narrator’s admission that she can’t shake “this desire to be free…despite having proved that everything about it was illusory.”
Dark, for sure, but rich in human variety and unsentimental empathy: a welcome change from the cloistered, self-absorbed feel of Arlington Park (2007) and The Bradshaw Variations (2010).
Better known for her nonfiction (The Drunken Botanist, 2013, etc.), Stewart crafts a solid, absorbing novel based on real-life events—though they’re unusual enough to seem invented.
Constance Kopp and her sisters, Norma and Fleurette, are driving into Paterson, New Jersey, on a summer day in 1914 when a motor car rams them, splintering their buggy and mildly injuring all three women and their horse. Drunken lout Henry Kaufman thinks that owning a local silk manufacturer entitles him to ignore Constance’s reasonable request that he pay for the damages, but he’s misjudged his opponent. As Constance’s first-person narrative unfolds, we see that she’s a bold woman unafraid to defy convention, determined to see justice done and to protect her family; Fleurette, we learn, is actually Constance’s out-of-wedlock baby, raised as a late-life sibling by her mother. When Henry and his thuggish friends start turning up at the Kopps’ isolated farm, firing guns and sending bricks through the window bearing letters threatening all the sisters but paying particular attention to Fleurette, our tough-minded heroine is not about to be intimidated. She swears out a complaint against Henry, backed up by Sheriff Robert Heath, himself something of a rule-breaker. More threats ensue, as does the complicating factor of a young woman employed at the silk factory who bore Henry’s baby and is convinced he had a hand in the child’s mysterious disappearance. Stewart deftly tangles and then unwinds a complicated plot with nice period detail, and it’s good to see Henry finally get his comeuppance, but the real interest here is rooting for Constance as she refuses to be patronized or reduced to a dependent of her well-meaning brother, who thinks three unmarried women should naturally be living with a male protector. A final scene offers well-deserved new horizons for Constance and hints a series may be in the works.
More adventures involving gutsy Constance, quietly determined Sheriff Heath, and a lively cast of supporting characters would be most welcome.
After two self-indulgent detours, Atkinson proves that her Whitbread Award–winning debut, Behind the Scenes at the Museum (1996), was no fluke with a novel about three interconnected mysteries.
They seem totally unrelated at first to private detective Jackson Brodie, hired by separate individuals in Cambridge, England, to investigate long-dormant cases. Three-year-old Olivia Land disappeared from a tent in her family’s backyard in 1970; 34 years later, her sisters Amelia and Julia discover Olivia’s stuffed toy in their recently deceased father’s study and want Jackson to find out what he had to do with the disappearance. Theo Wyre’s beloved 18-year-old daughter Laura was murdered by a knife-wielding lunatic in 1994, and he too hires Jackson to crack this unsolved murder. Michelle was also 18 when she went to jail in 1979 for killing her husband with an ax while their infant daughter wailed in the playpen; she vanished after serving her time, but Shirley Morrison asks Jackson to find, not her sister Michelle, but the niece she promised to raise, then was forced to hand over to grandparents. The detective, whose bitter ex-wife uses Jackson’s profound love for their eight-year-old daughter to torture him, finds all these stories of dead and/or missing girls extremely unsettling; we learn toward the end why the subject of young women in peril is particularly painful for him. Atkinson has always been a gripping storyteller, and her complicated narrative crackles with the earthy humor, vibrant characterizations, and shrewd social observations that enlivened her first novel but were largely swamped by postmodern game-playing in Human Croquet (1997) and Emotionally Weird (2000). Here, she crafts a compulsive page-turner that looks deep into the heart of sadness, cruelty, and loss, yet ultimately grants her charming p.i. (and most of the other appealingly offbeat characters, including one killer) a chance at happiness and some measure of reconciliation with the past.
Wonderful fun and very moving: it’s a pleasure to see this talented writer back on form.
The 12th anniversary of a school shooting reunites two survivors in a second-chance romance that explores the lasting effects of trauma.
Olivia Arias returns to her Texas town to participate in a documentary commemorating the night her prom was invaded by two gunmen. On film, she recounts the moments before the tragedy and how she took shelter in a janitor’s closet. What she doesn’t reveal to the filmmaker is that she was in the janitor’s closet making out with Finn Dorsey, her school’s football star. No one needs to know that detail, especially since Finn arrived at the prom with someone else and left Liv alone in the closet to save his date once the shooting started. Though she’s willing to participate in the documentary, since proceeds go to help the victims’ families as well as "research that could help prevent things like this from happening," she isn’t expecting Finn to show up to add his own memories. After the shooting, Finn became a local hero—he was shot protecting his date, Rebecca—and his family moved away when the media attention became too much. Liv is in no hurry to have a reunion and relive her feelings for him. However, with both of them staying at the same small lodge during filming, seeing each other becomes unavoidable. Every page is packed with tension, and the frightening plausibility of the school shooting could easily have overwhelmed the promise of a happy ending. Loren (By the Hour, 2017, etc.) undertakes a careful balancing act with tenderness and tact as she introduces men and women who were forever changed by one horrific night. Liv and Finn's romance—wary, hesitant, and incredibly patient—is a soothing balm for the characters and reader alike. With the issue of gun violence at the forefront, this isn't an easy story, but every word, scene, and bit of dialogue is thoughtfully crafted.