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She Rides Shotgun

Jordan Harper. Ecco, $26.99 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-239440-8

At the start of Harper’s visceral, pulpy, vernacular-filled first novel, introspective 11-year-old Polly McClusky has an unexpected reunion on the steps of her Southern California middle school with her estranged father, Nate. Nate has recently been released from Pelican Bay State Prison, where a gang known as Aryan Steel issued a death warrant for him and his family, including Polly’s mom, Avis. Nate is committed to saving Polly from the Aryan Steel killers, though he’s too late to prevent the brutal murder of Avis and her new husband. Nate, Polly, and her stuffed bear, who serves to articulate the swirling emotions that Polly hesitates to voice, go on the run, sought by not only the gang but also Det. John Park, who’s investigating the murders. Nate and Polly’s relationship blooms, despite their being in constant crisis-survival mode, as the action builds to a climax that’s over-the-top but consistent with what has gone before. Expert pacing and well-developed characters lift this above the thriller pack. Harper is also the author of a story collection, 2016’s Love and Other Wounds. Agent: Nat Sobel, Sobel Weber. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Widow Nash

Jamie Harrison. Counterpoint (PGW, dist.), $26 (400p) ISBN 978-1-61902-928-6

Debut novelist Harrison paints a lovely and memorable portrait of a desperate woman’s flight to a new life. In late 1904, Leda Cordelia Dulcinea Remfrey has been summoned to Seattle to attend to her dying syphilitic father, Walton. Dulcy must go, even though the summons comes from her father’s business partner and her ex-fiancé, Victor Maslingen, a man of violent rages who raped her. She is Victor’s only hope to find out what the increasingly deranged Walton has done with the profits of the sale of some African mines, money that Victor needs. After Walton’s death, as Dulcy and her sister, Carrie, travel back East to bury their father, Dulcy makes her way from the train to begin a new life in Livingston, Mont., as the Widow Maria Nash. Livingston is not without its own violence and drama, but it promises the safety of anonymity and possibly even real love. Harrison’s lead is a strong and clever woman who is easy to admire, while the rest of the heroes, villains, and ambiguous sorts are as vividly drawn as the raw and terrible scenery of Montana. Readers will treasure Harrison’s rich characterization and sharp turns of phrase. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Dear Cyborgs

Eugene Lim. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $14 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-0-374-53711-1

Two radically different story lines—one involving a short-lived friendship between two Asian-American boys in the Midwest, the other an ongoing philosophical debate amongst a team of superheroes—are cleverly tied together in this short, sly, unorthodox novel. Opening in suburban Ohio, the first chapter describes the intense bond formed, mostly over comic books, between the narrator and his classmate, Vu, before a sudden move to Chicago separates them. The story’s focus abruptly shifts to the superheroes known as Team Chaos, who dine in Thai restaurants and sing karaoke amidst discussions of Occupy Wall Street, diversification as assimilation, performance artist Tehching Hsieh, activist Richard Aoki, and more. Back in “reality,” the narrator marries, divorces, and has a child, but a sharp awareness of Vu’s absence continues to haunt him, which makes their coincidental reunion (and the retrospective depth that it adds to the superheroes’ conversations) an immensely satisfying closing chapter. Some might find Lim’s (The Strangers) bricolage style too disorienting, but others will revel in how it mirrors the characters’ alienation and confused search for answers. The core relationships, whether they’re between estranged childhood friends or opinionated superhumans, are real and profoundly moving. Agent: Marya Spence, Janklow & Nesbit Associates. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Just an Act

Tamara Tilley. Archer Press, $15.99 trade paper (490p) ISBN 978-0-692-83226-4

Mitch Burk needs a break from life as movie star Simon Grey. But when an accident leaves him stranded at the Diamond-J ranch in Kansas, Mitch might have asked for more than he can handle. The beautiful ranch owner, Beth, and her angst-filled teenage son, Shane, reluctantly allow Mitch to stay on their property to recuperate. A wayward traveler is the last thing Beth needs right now, but she suspects her son had more to do with the accident than he lets on, so she lets the stranger stay. As Mitch recovers from his wounds, he finds himself the confidant of the troubled Shane, much to Beth’s chagrin. When the roles reverse and Beth needs help, Mitch does what he can to make sure no harm comes to her, Shane, or the Diamond-J ranch. Just as Mitch starts to see what life and family after stardom could look like with Beth, contractual obligations call for Simon Grey to publicly reappear, and a person from Beth’s past returns. Tilley (One Saturday) creates compelling characters, even as the needless bickering can get in the way of plot and character development. The intense climax seems more serious than the rest of the novel would suggest, but the redemption and freedom it offers the characters in the end ultimately wins out. (BookLife)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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With You Always

Jody Hedlund. Bethany House, $15.99 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-0-7642-1804-0

Christy Award–winner Hedlund (For Love and Honor) crafts an enjoyable first installment of the Orphan Train Series, about the women involved with the 19th-century movement to resettle orphaned children from the crowded East Coast slums to the Midwest. Due to the 1857 financial crisis in New York City, 19-year-old German immigrant Elise Neumann is forced to leave her younger siblings behind and head west in the hope of finding work. Thornton Quincy is at the other end of the economic spectrum: his father, the owner of Quincy Enterprises, is nearing the end of his life, and he decides to set up a friendly competition between his twin sons to determine who will take over the company. Each son must complete a sustainable town along the Illinois Central Railroad and marry a woman he loves within six months’ time. Bradford has always been the favorite, and Thornton views this contest as his last chance to win his father’s love and respect. Meeting Elise, Thornton finds himself in an unusual relationship that makes him question the nature of love and his commitment to his family. But, in the end, the vast differences in their backgrounds may be too much to overcome. Hedlund’s Cinderella story, shedding light on the hardships women faced in both the East Coast cities and the developing West in the 1850s, is a pleasant romance with plenty of twists to keep readers engaged until the final page. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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The Weaver’s Needle

Robin Caroll. Shiloh Run, $14.99 trade paper (320p) ISBN 978-1-63409-994-3

Nickolai Baptiste and Landry Parker, competing recovery specialists who make their living finding valuable lost or stolen items, have been offered the job of a lifetime: find a map of the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine in the Superstition Mountains of Arizona. When wealthy widow Winifred Winslet calls them both to her stately home in uptown New Orleans to discuss her husband’s recent murder and the task of recovering the map, Landry is immediately intrigued by mysterious Nickolai. The two set out as a team to recover the document, but someone doesn’t want them to succeed, which puts them (and their budding romance) in danger. This fast-paced faith-based thriller comes with unique elements not normally covered by Christian fiction, particularly the in-depth discussions of mental issues and caregiving. Caroll does a fine job of weaving Native American spiritual elements into the story, but the settings of New Orleans and Arizona are frustratingly underdeveloped. And Nickolai, a former police officer and savvy recovery specialist, draws readers in, but Landry, a former army MP now in charge of a struggling business, feels static throughout. While book begins quickly with high stakes, the plot drags in the middle as Nickolai and Landry go about their investigation surrounded by secondary characters who are never fully fleshed-out. However, despite some uneven plotting, Caroll’s novel will go down easy for fans of romantic suspense. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Ascension of Larks

Rachel Linden. Thomas Nelson, $15.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-7180-9573-4

A powerful exploration of love, loss, and hope, Linden’s debut novel begins with acclaimed international photographer Maggie Henry rushing back to tiny San Juan Island, off the coast of Washington State, to join the family of her beloved friend Marco, who was recently killed in a kayaking accident. Marco’s widow, Lena, seems unable to deal with the reality of her husband’s death, and her incapacity requires Maggie to take on the care of Marco’s three children. Soon afterward, a prestigious photography competition opens up, forcing Maggie to choose between lifelong ambitions and a deep love for the only family she has. Complicating an already dicey situation, she meets Daniel, the sorrowful, enigmatic poet who caused Marco’s accident. The two must learn to embrace their hopes, and dare to trust each other, before their lives and futures can move forward. Linden’s lyrical prose paints a delicate, insightful picture of a grieving family seeking an anchor during a tumultuous upheaval. Winsome kids and family friends add depth and warmth to the well-developed cast of characters. Readers will eagerly await future offerings from this promising new author. Agent: Chip MacGregor, MacGregor Literary Agency (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Happy Is the Bride

Lori Wilde, Janet Dailey, Cat Johnson, and Kate Pearce. Zebra, $7.99 mass market (384p) ISBN 978-1-4201-4262-4

Set against the backdrop of Ellie and Brady’s cowboy wedding, this contemporary romance anthology is chock-full of clichés, starting with four couples who meet at the wedding. There are some nice twists, such as Air Force pilot Shane serving as Ellie’s man of honor and wealthy rancher Meg as Brady’s best woman. Shane and Meg are both skeptical about how quickly Ellie and Brady fell in love, but all it takes for them to believe is a tornado. City girl falling for country boy is standard romance fare, but it feels fresh when Austin wedding planner Erin and ranch hand Tanner grouse to each other about how they don’t understand millennials. California sheriff Nate is lightning-struck by love when he meets photographer Della, but to make their romance work they need the help of a fairy godmother disguised as a country western singer. And horse breeder Lincoln gets a chance to win back his ex-wife, Tracy, but only if he gives up a three-year supply of tangy barbecued ribs and an excellent bottle of Kentucky bourbon. He doesn’t hesitate, but Tracy doubts that Lincoln has truly changed and could be the husband she needs. The lovers’ smart repartee is enjoyable, and each couple sizzles with chemistry. There’s not a lot of emotional depth, but there are plenty of heartwarming moments for fans of lighthearted fare. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Amish Brides

Jennifer Beckstrand, Molly Jebber, and Amy Lillard. Kensington, $15 trade paper (329p) ISBN 978-1-4967-1163-2

Three worthy women embrace their communities’ values and find true love in these sweet novellas. Beckstrand (the Honeybee Sisters series) spices up “The Reluctant Groom” with humor as Suvie hangs her hopes on widower Aaron and convinces his mischievous great-grandmother Anna to assist in matchmaking. Anna, a notoriously awful cook, is delighted: “They’d mix like oil and vinegar, raisins and meatloaf, peanut butter and maple syrup.” Stilted dialogue slows the pace in Jebber’s (Two Suitors for Anna) “Joshua’s Bride” (“I enjoy helping the doctor. To me, medical care is interesting. It’s rewarding to take part in helping the injured or sick. I admire nurses”), but lovers of the genre will be satisfied as Madeline finds joy by staying true to her beliefs, refusing to marry Joshua against his parents’ wishes, and praying for God’s intervention. Sparks fly in Lillard’s (Courting Emily) delightful “A Summer Wedding in Paradise,” which features a spunky schoolteacher heroine, a handsome outsider with a runaway horse and “dastardly dimples,” and three impish children determined to see their old-maid aunt married. Readers need not be fans of Amish romance to enjoy this final story’s wit and chemistry. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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Dating You/Hating You

Christina Lauren. Gallery, $16 trade paper (368p) ISBN 978-1-5011-6581-8

The first standalone contemporary from Lauren (the Wild Seasons series) is an entertaining but uneven workplace romance in which the well-realized relentless atmosphere of Hollywood talent agencies provides the backdrop for a relationship that’s in trouble almost as soon as it begins. Evie Abbey and Carter Aaron, both agents at different firms, hit it off after meeting at a friend’s costume party and are eager to act on their robust chemistry. When their agencies unexpectedly merge and Evie and Carter find themselves in direct competition, their fling takes a detour into mischief and antagonism—until they realize they have a common enemy. Their childish antics are sometimes amusing, but at other times their attempts at sabotage have exasperating consequences, and Carter’s occasional obliviousness to the sexism Evie has fought throughout her career is particularly off-putting. On the other hand, Evie and Carter function well together when they’re focused on the same objective, whether that’s a night of fulfilling sex or an agency retreat, and their lively group of friends sweetens the deal. Agent: Holly Root, Waxman Leavell Agency. (June)

Reviewed on 04/21/2017 | Details & Permalink

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