Peril and Victorian steampunk meld in Peter Bunzl’s winsome middle grade novel, Moonlocket. Lily, her mechanical fox Malkin, and their friend, Robert, return for a personal mission that highlights London’s old-world mystique.
Jack Door is an escape artist who broke out of prison to reclaim a royal blood diamond he’d stolen years earlier. Robert—still grieving his father’s death—is looking for his mother, Selena, who abandoned him for reasons he’s yet to discover. When Robert learns that Jack and Selena are bound by a shared history, the race to find her intensifies.
The book builds on melodrama, presenting Jack as a canny opponent whose tricks and perfect timing build suspense. His brushes with Robert, Lily, and their friends range from classic villainy (dramatized when he drops his calling card, the Jack of Diamonds) to outright cruelty. Warped by ego, Jack’s thieving nature pits him against the other characters and their goodness. The resultant clever chase lets the children test their limits.
From London’s streets to its sewers, Bunzl crafts a storied environment laced with the nineteenth century’s curious artifacts, such as automatons, and objects of pure invention, including the title’s moonlocket. That the blood diamond dovetails with Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee is a fun, intelligent bonus.
In a less prominent side story, tension between humans, mechanicals, and hybrids—who are part-human and part-mechanical—raises questions on belonging. Lily, whose clockwork Cogheart is introduced in the first volume, struggles to prove that she’s just as capable as anyone. Her loyalty in helping Robert is touching.
Drawing on wondrous details and strongly motivated characters, Moonlocket is a caper with heart.
KAREN RIGBY (June 27, 2019)
Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper
A helpful reminder that no one escapes this life alive, Lori Erickson’s Near the Exit is a travel text and an act of religious exploration, presenting spiritual meditations from some of the holiest places on Earth.
Erickson developed an early fascination with death and the dying, as well as a healthy appetite for travel. The two converge in this collection of spiritual maps, a travel guide to other cultures and their unique relationships with death. Erickson—an open-minded Episcopal deacon and amateur anthropologist—has explored the tombs of the ancient Egyptians, the sacrificial structures used by the Aztecs, and nursing homes in America, and plumbs those experiences to teach us about the emotions surrounding our own deaths, how to treat those who are dying, and how to grieve and commemorate the dead once they pass.
Erickson also immerses herself in her own grief, her experiences intertwining with everything she learns while traveling. The result is an objective, educational, and often humorous work. Erickson is seen evolving across the book, guided by her willingness to be open and transparent in her faith. She learns even through her skepticism.
Photographs of holy sites around the world preface each chapter and are an entertaining addition. Interviews with others are extraordinary in their insights, and quotes from religious texts and experts make the book’s perspective more thorough. Erickson’s good-natured and exploratory attitude finds her adapting across cultures and embracing ideas, making her an ideal conduit: her experiences are shown to intertwine with those of her subjects, resulting in unexpected questions and answers.
Showing how coping mechanisms and spiritual practices from around the world can be valuable for learning more about our own lives and eventual deaths, Near the Exit is an ideal guidebook to facing the inevitable with religious or spiritual perspective.
KATIE ASHER (June 27, 2019)
In Shane Hinton’s post-apocalyptic novella Radio Dark, a horrifying epidemic creeps upon the known world, ending its normalcy in a flash and rendering people static.
The affected freeze in place—holding buckets of minnows, idling in their cars, or standing before grocery displays, unblinking. Bouncing balls roll into gutters and communications cease. In the immediate aftermath, government agents fan out, seeking to stymie the country’s collapse.
In Florida, an FCC agent connects with Memphis, a radio station worker. They work together with the station’s DJ to secure a radio signal and draw other survivors in.
The details of this new world are both gruesome and quiet, varying from a survivor’s infected and decaying hands, to the miasma of rot, to a cobbled together radio tower that is, in fact, a collection of assembled, frozen human beings stretching skyward.
As more people arrive, the tower grows “narrower and narrower … to a point with a single young woman in a thin brown dress.” At its edges, survivors subsist, and at their fringes, a cult lurks, sounding trumpet blasts and declaring that there’s holiness in the silence.
In these brief pages, survival is portrayed as rote—a matter of eating, copulating, disassociating, and mitigating all expectations and desires. Even among the active, no characters are named save Memphis. People are known by their roles and nothing else, and any assertion of vivacity or acknowledgement of individuality comes at too high a cost to consider.
The book’s images are as incisive as razors. It breaks open notions of human intimacy to examine their blood and bits, its gaze unflinching and its diagnosis less than promising. In the visceral and sharp novella Radio Dark, the end of the world is synonymous with the cessation of human hope.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (June 27, 2019)
Rob Leininger’s Gumshoe Rock is a gritty one-two punch of a PI mystery that tracks Mortimer Angel through a tense, gruesome investigation in Reno.
Mort is everything a private investigator should be: grim, grizzled, old enough to appreciate a good looking lady, and smart enough to keep his mouth shut. He’s also a former IRS field agent and “the preeminent locator of famous missing persons.”
In short, Mort is the perfect sleuth for a case involving a much-despised IRS agent whose clean-picked skull is dropped through the slashed top of a convertible. The car belongs to Mort’s incredibly bendy partner, Lucy Landry, who is also more than what she seems. As Mort works from a high-level embezzlement case to the problem of the skull, he’s sucked into a lethal mystery that puts more than his reputation at stake.
Fast moving, wisecracking, and deadly, each chapter features tight beats that build suspense. The landscape is incorporated into scenes with humor and wonderful physicality. Several slapstick moments are laugh-out-loud funny, especially when delivered in Mort’s deadpan voice. Quirky characters include a bartender, Ma, who is “an elderly lady who could walk from here to Colorado and back in a day or two and put down more booze than your average college football team.”
For all its grisly crime scenes, the novel is also funny, and its humor sets it apart, making its extreme violence more tolerable. Its sex scenes happen off-stage, and while Mort’s relationship with Lucy is charged, its depiction leans on mutual playfulness instead of straightforward romance.
Gumshoe Rock is a knock-your-socks-off mystery with a healthy dose of graveyard humor.
CLAIRE FOSTER (June 27, 2019)
In 1976, the Cold War is turning up some chilling evidence for a detective in East Berlin. David Young’s A Darker State follows the mysterious case of a drowned teenage boy with a tattoo that links him to a conspiracy within the corrupted Stasi police.
Promoted to major within the newly created People’s Police Department, Detective Muller knows that she’s on thin ice. Has she been set up to fail or get herself killed, or is she about to solve a case that will reveal a massive web of bureaucratic corruption?
As Muller investigates the murder, she finds undeniable links to another disappeared boy—the son of one of her team members. She races to find the missing boy and uncovers a vile plot to experiment on “social undesirables” and turn them into model citizens. Multiple perspectives are incorporated, including those of the victims, Muller’s associates, and key witnesses. The result is a tight, heart-pounding novel that dives deep into social prejudices and the hypocrisy of socialist Germany.
The stakes are higher than before: Muller has a family, including infant twins, to care for, and her desire to protect and provide for them works against her at every turn. She is an excellent lead: on equal standing with her male colleagues, she is drawn as flawed, but with good intentions and common sense.
Information about Muller’s physical and social landscapes is beautifully woven through the story: at a meeting near Senftenberger See, “the beached dinghies from the boating club joined in, their partly furled sails and lanyards snapping in Aeolian syncopation.” Muller’s Berlin feels complete.
A Darker State is a top notch thriller packed with intricate, frightening plot twists.
CLAIRE FOSTER (June 27, 2019)