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Kirkus Indie Books of the Month - March 2016

A man long accused of fabricating a book of Holocaust poems reveals deeper and more complicated secrets in this absorbing...

A Stone for Bread

A graduate student uncovers the truth behind a scandal that ended a university teacher’s career.

In this new novel from Herin (Absolution, 2007), enterprising graduate student Rachel Singer decides in 1997 to talk to disgraced North Carolina poet and former Duke University professor Henry Beam. She’s intent on learning what really happened 34 years earlier, when Beam published a group of poems that he claimed were written by a prisoner in the Nazi concentration camp Mauthausen in Austria. Critics jumped on the book, A Stone for Bread, accusing Beam of inventing the whole collection and effectively driving him into seclusion. With little coaxing from Rachel, Beam begins telling his story, recounted in skillfully handled jump-cuts between past and present. He tells her about the year he spent in Paris, the love affair he had with a woman named Eugénie, and the intellectual alliance he made with a passionate French political agitator named Renard Marcotte. And gradually, he tells her about the man named René, the source of the Stone for Bread poems (and the focal point of his own point-of-view thread running throughout the book). Over the course of their interviews, Beam drops his guard around Rachel, and she in turn personalizes her interest, although she’s slow to abandon her caution about what she’s hearing (“He was a writer after all. Could she trust anything he told her?”). Herin’s carefully constructed narrative steadily builds in tension as its separate storylines accelerate and pull together; the reader learns more about the surprisingly heady time Beam spent in France with Eugénie and the pitched back and forth of his encounters with Renard. At one point, Beam tells Rachel: “Passion is that way in us, one-third God, two-thirds devil.” As Beam’s feelings for Rachel deepen, clues begin accumulating about a mystery in Rachel’s own past. In this last thread, there might be a touch too much contrivance for some readers, but the compelling book’s dramatic structure is carried with such eloquence and earnestness that its author can pull off the occasional plot convenience. The series of climactic revelations is expertly done.

A man long accused of fabricating a book of Holocaust poems reveals deeper and more complicated secrets in this absorbing novel. 

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-60489-157-7

Page Count: 299

Publisher: Livingston Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 24, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

A frank, funny, immensely winning novel about a “sex pioneer” exploring the hinterlands of desire.

The Stormwater Drains in Canberra

A coming-of-age story metamorphoses into a global sexual odyssey.

Kurt Larsen, the ardent young hero of this debut novel, lives in the small Norwegian town of Bodø, north of the Arctic Circle, where privacy for a teenager in the late 1990s remains in short supply. Kurt’s dreams extend far beyond the constraints of his town; he wants to “canvass the entire world for perfect bliss,” he says; “I wanted to investigate the secret thoughts of my peers. I wanted adventure, to be a sex pioneer.” His pioneering is initially limited to placing ads for anonymous hookups with strange men. Through such desperate teenage measures, he meets Jonny Larsen, with whom he’ll have an on-again, off-again relationship throughout the book, as Kurt moves on to college (where he’s the “thin-skinned, over-interpretative, horny type—a roaming satyr”). At university, the scope of his mission suddenly broadens immensely when he begins a fast-paced international flying agenda to qualify for an incredible airline giveaway that will provide him with five free tickets to anywhere in the world. On one of these stopovers, in Oslo, he sees Ragnar, a young man “on top of my list of candidates for sexual perfection,” to whom the entire narrative is addressed. Kurt clearly loses his heart to Ragnar, pleading with him that second chances at their kind of happiness don’t come along often: “Later in life there’d be work, family, and the twenty-four hour job of raising children.” The plaintive, hyperaware tone is typical of Kurt’s narration of his various erotic escapades, which are related by the author in prose that manages to be vivid without becoming either titillating or melodramatic (“Tomorrow I’d meet a dark-haired boy just under my height,” Kurt says of one of his earliest encounters. “And soon after, I’d remove his blue and yellow all-weather jacket and get down to some serious boy fun”). Kurt might at one point profess a desire to be normal and average, but in reality, his far-flung exploits are a rebellion against a young man’s hunger for experience and fear of stagnation. Karlsen conveys the poignancy of it all with extremely knowing skill, raising Kurt’s sordid, picaresque adventures to the level of a life quest.

A frank, funny, immensely winning novel about a “sex pioneer” exploring the hinterlands of desire.

Pub Date: Dec. 21, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9969272-0-8

Page Count: 292

Publisher: Krutt & Plutt Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Moving, descriptive, and seductive urban tales.

Driving In Budapest

STORIES OF LOSS AND LOVE, HOPE AND DESPAIR...ABOUT LIFE

Brill’s promising debut collection of short stories enjoyably navigates the streets and the heart of the Hungarian capital.

All the central characters of these stories seek direction, including a widower who’s traveled to Budapest to learn to play jazz, a librarian who’s become disconnected from the world, and a secret policeman who struggles to comprehend post-communist Hungary. The ever present chaos of the capital’s traffic encircles them as they attempt to carve routes through their own lives. The opening, first-person story, “Taxi!,” is written with such honest fluidity that readers may be fooled into mistaking it for autobiography. In it, San Franciscan Allan Simmons is on a mission to rediscover life after the death of his spouse. He hopes to achieve this by learning to play jazz piano but finds difficulty integrating into a city where he speaks little of the language and struggles to bridge the cultural gap. By chance, he meets Tibor, a taxi driver and fellow jazz aficionado, which allows him to experience the true embrace of Hungarian hospitality. It’s by far the standout story of an emotionally insightful, rewarding collection. In the elegantly written, sad, and charming tale “Getting Lost,” Maria, a lonely librarian, is unnerved by the sudden arrival of a mysterious gentleman who courts her attention. “Bullies,” about Lsazlo Hajdu, an ice-cold former member of the secret police, recalls communist Hungary’s atmosphere of intimidation and suspicion and considers how such ideologies linger on in the present. The author captures the vibrant hum of the city and revels in playing the flâneur, keenly observing the populated streets with brio: “I walked down streets I had never been on before...through pretty little squares with children playing...past a music school and listened to the sound of violins filling the air.” Overall, the collection is stylistically reminiscent of Paul Auster’s short stories, and it’s a must for anyone interested in Budapest.

Moving, descriptive, and seductive urban tales.

Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2015

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 232

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Dec. 11, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

Eccentricity at its finest in a detective story and proof that a flawed protagonist can still earn sympathy.

Mr. Mayhem

A BRINKER NOVEL

A publicist for a crime tour drums up business by hiring a mercy killer, but his murderous employee may be choosing his own victims in this thriller.

Former investigative journalist Brinker hasn’t found much work since losing his newspaper job, having accused his boss of bribing cops over a reputed DUI. His newest gig entails public relations for Pennsylvania funeral home owner and local coroner Frank Mabry’s Seen of the Crime, a tour of murder sites. A lack of sensational murders has kept business down, but Brinker’s doctor, Timothy Jolley, has an idea: spruce up the tour by paying someone to kill terminal patients. The doctor will bankroll it, and Brinker can clear his debt, courtesy of a lawsuit relating to that DUI allegation. Seen of the Crime sees more tourists, but Brinker soon will have to stop a commissioned serial killer who may no longer be using Jolley’s victim list. The novel is a detective story with a darkly humorous twist; Brinker’s unquestionably responsible for the killing spree, but most of it is as much a mystery to him as it is to readers. He, for one, hires the murderer (dubbed Angel, for Angel of Death) through pal Stanislaw Niemoczynski and doesn’t know Angel’s true identity. There’s likewise a sinister pattern to the later, seemingly random murders, something that Brinker will have to unravel. He’s essentially the detective, and he’s a tad shadier than the shadiest of cinematic gumshoes. Not only does he know about the murders beforehand, Brinker also repeatedly beds various women with emotional detachment and prints and intends to sell I SHOT THE SHERIFF T-shirts, corresponding to a recent victim. Despite this, the protagonist remains likable, particularly because his firing from the newspaper was unjust and he cares for his ailing grandmother. And he’s still the hero, in a prime position to thwart the murders, even if it means becoming the unhinged killer’s next target. The story is somber but self-assured, like a film noir with a stylized, shadowy atmosphere. Widmer (Riding with the Blues, 2015, etc.) rounds out Brinker by outfitting him with snazzy dialogue: Mabry rejects upping revenue with crime re-enactments, noting that the tour’s “authentic,” to which Brinker coolly responds, “So is bankruptcy.”

Eccentricity at its finest in a detective story and proof that a flawed protagonist can still earn sympathy.

Pub Date: Nov. 24, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9964987-4-6

Page Count: 282

Publisher: Allusion Books

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

An enjoyable, violent novel that delivers a strong-willed heroine and a brooding hero.

Girl of Myth and Legend

From the The Chosen Saga series , Vol. 1

A determined teenager confronts a dystopian world and an unwanted destiny in this YA fantasy series opener.

Leonie, an Australian girl who attends community college, eats cold pizza for breakfast, and talks back to her father, struggles to get by. A few years ago, a tragedy stole her will to smile, and now she keeps a routine, just waiting to be a part of something bigger. When she feels “intense heat” blazing in her chest one day, she’s at first terrified, then disbelieving, until finally she starts to understand that she’s one of the Chosen, magical people of another realm. To them, she’s a Pulsar, the first of a group of warriors and protectors to be born after the rest were massacred 200 years ago. She travels to the new world to learn how to tame her gift—and to be granted a shield, a guardian creature she is assured possesses no will of its own. But this kytaen, Korren, turns out to be a person in his own right who has no desire to be subjugated by the Chosen. When rebels against the Chosen government come to claim Leonie’s abilities for their own cause, her decision to treat Korren as a friend gives him the power and will to defend her. In her debut book, Simlett, who lives in Australia, creates a realm that is full of wonder by day but terror by night and populates it with the type of political unrest that teenagers who love dystopian fantasies should gravitate toward. Leonie is a prickly narrator, at once sympathetic and suffering; she alternates between sarcasm and an optimistic wisdom that leaves others inspired. Korren, as a counterpoint narrator, allows readers to see just how much has deteriorated in the world of the Chosen while also providing a look at Leonie that shows her as tougher than she believes herself to be. This solid first volume registers a high death toll, and by the end, the protagonists seem to be facing even more complications—and dangers. This should be a surefire hit for fans of Marie Lu’s Legend and Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogies.

An enjoyable, violent novel that delivers a strong-willed heroine and a brooding hero.

Pub Date: Dec. 29, 2015

ISBN: N/A

Page Count: 363

Publisher: WWS Publishing Ltd

Review Posted Online: Dec. 14, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2016

A potent, nearly perfect brew of politics, murder, mayhem, and mystery.

Jake & Clara

SCANDAL, POLITICS, HOLLYWOOD, AND MURDER

Stokes’ (How to Keep Calm and Carry On, 2014, etc.) crisp work of historical fiction animates the most sensational homicide trial in the criminal annals of Oklahoma.

It’s a familiar story. A middle-aged man falls in love with a much younger woman, and they carry on for years, until stronger passions, such as the desire for power and fame, conflict with what passes for love. It’s worth noting that the middle-aged man in this true story was “the Oil King of Oklahoma,” Jacob “Jake” Hamon, slated to be a member of President Warren Harding’s cabinet until his megalomania and other character failings derailed his ambitions and ended up costing him his life. Hamon was 37, and his paramour, Clara Smith, was just 17 when she came to his attention. Never mind that he was a prominent Republican and a married man with two children, Jake installs his mistress in a hotel suite in the Oklahoma town of Ardmore. Clara, for her part, is no wide-eyed ingénue , exploiting Hamon’s riches to pad her own purse. Eventually Jake’s megalomania kicks in, and he dumps Clara for political gain only to have her fatally shoot him. Stokes’ tightly paced narrative keeps humming even when it’s focused not just on the sensational crime, but all associated players as well. Especially impressive is the nuanced character development—there are no uniformly good or bad guys here; even Jake’s long-suffering wife exploits his death to raise her own social standing. Despite a lag in the action toward the end—when the story focuses on the aftermath of the shooting and Clara’s 15 minutes of fame—it’s a revealing exercise in the way public opinion can make or break one person’s fortunes. A relevant lesson in today’s hashtag-driven pop-culture world.

A potent, nearly perfect brew of politics, murder, mayhem, and mystery.

Pub Date: Nov. 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-9969892-0-6

Page Count: 348

Publisher: Critical Mass Press

Review Posted Online: Dec. 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2016

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