McCall Smith knows how to concoct delightful fictions, but this one is undercooked.

MY ITALIAN BULLDOZER

McCall Smith (Chance Developments, 2016, etc.) adds to the overworked subgenre of Tuscan travel romance with this pallid story about a Scottish cookery writer recovering from his broken heart in Italy.

Paul has published nine wildly successful books about food and wine under the tutelage of his “freelance editor” Gloria, who may harbor but doesn’t quite express deeper than professional feelings for him. This is a contemporary novel, and Paul, whose decency and sensitivity McCall Smith frequently touts, is only supposed to be 36, but his reticence, especially concerning sex, and the mildly witty, buttoned-down dialogue make both character and time frame seem much older—think 1930s Fred Astaire sidekick. After Paul’s girlfriend, Becky, dumps him for her personal trainer (the first of many oh please! moments in a novel rife with clichés) and Paul falls apart, Gloria suggests he take a trip to Tuscany to finish up his book on the Tuscan lifestyle. Arriving in Pisa, he faces a series of unfortunate events one would think an experienced travel writer would manage more handily. Victimized by stereotypically hot-tempered, conceited, and larcenous Italians, he’s left without transportation to his destination, the small village of Montalcino, and even lands briefly in jail until the equally stereotypical, charming Italian “cavaliere” whom Paul met on the flight over bails him out and finds a vehicle for him to drive: a bulldozer. That bulldozer also more or less drives the plot, allowing Paul to meet charming American art historian Anna when he pulls her car out of a ditch and involving him, however unknowingly, in several escapades involving Montalcino villagers. Soon romantic complications set in: Paul thinks he’s in love with Anna but she has a male friend coming to visit; Becky shows up to apologize, followed for reasons that remain vague by Gloria. Montalcino, of course, is full of natural beauty, ruined buildings, salt-of-the-earth if charming connivers, and underappreciated wine.

McCall Smith knows how to concoct delightful fictions, but this one is undercooked.

Pub Date: April 4, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-101-87139-3

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Feb. 5, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

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WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING

A wild child’s isolated, dirt-poor upbringing in a Southern coastal wilderness fails to shield her from heartbreak or an accusation of murder.

“The Marsh Girl,” “swamp trash”—Catherine “Kya” Clark is a figure of mystery and prejudice in the remote North Carolina coastal community of Barkley Cove in the 1950s and '60s. Abandoned by a mother no longer able to endure her drunken husband’s beatings and then by her four siblings, Kya grows up in the careless, sometimes-savage company of her father, who eventually disappears, too. Alone, virtually or actually, from age 6, Kya learns both to be self-sufficient and to find solace and company in her fertile natural surroundings. Owens (Secrets of the Savanna, 2006, etc.), the accomplished co-author of several nonfiction books on wildlife, is at her best reflecting Kya’s fascination with the birds, insects, dappled light, and shifting tides of the marshes. The girl’s collections of shells and feathers, her communion with the gulls, her exploration of the wetlands are evoked in lyrical phrasing which only occasionally tips into excess. But as the child turns teenager and is befriended by local boy Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, the novel settles into a less magical, more predictable pattern. Interspersed with Kya’s coming-of-age is the 1969 murder investigation arising from the discovery of a man’s body in the marsh. The victim is Chase Andrews, “star quarterback and town hot shot,” who was once Kya’s lover. In the eyes of a pair of semicomic local police officers, Kya will eventually become the chief suspect and must stand trial. By now the novel’s weaknesses have become apparent: the monochromatic characterization (good boy Tate, bad boy Chase) and implausibilities (Kya evolves into a polymath—a published writer, artist, and poet), yet the closing twist is perhaps its most memorable oddity.

Despite some distractions, there’s an irresistible charm to Owens’ first foray into nature-infused romantic fiction.

Pub Date: Aug. 14, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1909-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 15, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2018

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Relentlessly suspenseful and unexpectedly timely: just the thing for Dick Cheney’s bedside reading wherever he’s keeping...

WITHOUT FAIL

From the Jack Reacher series , Vol. 6

When the newly elected Vice President’s life is threatened, the Secret Service runs to nomadic soldier-of-fortune Jack Reacher (Echo Burning, 2001, etc.) in this razor-sharp update of The Day of the Jackal and In the Line of Fire that’s begging to be filmed.

Why Reacher? Because M.E. Froelich, head of the VP’s protection team, was once a colleague and lover of his late brother Joe, who’d impressed her with tales of Jack’s derring-do as an Army MP. Now Froelich and her Brooks Brothers–tailored boss Stuyvesant have been receiving a series of anonymous messages threatening the life of North Dakota Senator/Vice President–elect Brook Armstrong. Since the threats may be coming from within the Secret Service’s own ranks—if they aren’t, it’s hard to see how they’ve been getting delivered—they can’t afford an internal investigation. Hence the call to Reacher, who wastes no time in hooking up with his old friend Frances Neagley, another Army vet turned private eye, first to see whether he can figure out a way to assassinate Armstrong, then to head off whoever else is trying. It’s Reacher’s matter-of-fact gift to think of everything, from the most likely position a sniper would assume at Armstrong’s Thanksgiving visit to a homeless shelter to the telltale punctuation of one of the threats, and to pluck helpers from the tiny cast who can fill the remaining gaps because they aren’t idiots or stooges. And it’s Child’s gift to keep tightening the screws, even when nothing’s happening except the arrival of a series of unsigned letters, and to convey a sense of the blank impossibility of guarding any public figure from danger day after highly exposed day, and the dedication and heroism of the agents who take on this daunting job.

Relentlessly suspenseful and unexpectedly timely: just the thing for Dick Cheney’s bedside reading wherever he’s keeping himself these days.

Pub Date: May 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-399-14861-2

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Putnam

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2002

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