Family abuse and the complex secrets surrounding it are at the heart of Michael J. Malone’s new thriller In the Absence of Miracles.
John is struggling to live a normal life. He teaches at a local high school and spends time with Angela, a single mother who wants him to commit to her and her daughter. But John has trouble getting close to people, and his dependency on alcohol is getting worse. He sinks into dark dreams on most nights. Then his mother, whom he’s always been close to, has a stroke and is confined to a care facility.
John isn’t sure why he has so many issues, but he finds a clue when looking through his mother’s belongings. He unearths a picture of an older brother whom he never knew existed. This discovery leads him to reconnect with his younger brother, Chris. The two begin to uncover what their mother hid, and they consider how it impacted them as adults.
This moody thriller turns assumptions around and explores the ways that families can turn on themselves. Though he’s never able to face his problems, John uses his quest to find his brother as a means of rediscovering himself and all that he’s lost. When it comes to the mystery of his hidden brother, layered realizations are revealed at a perfect pace. Shocking twists destroy myths about abuse, including that it’s a black-and-white matter.
Compassion is generated for all of the book’s characters involved. With its pitch-perfect dialogue and fast pace, this is more than a thriller—it’s a meditation on the subject of dark family secrets that shines a beacon of hope as it follows John’s quest for redemption.
Nothing is what it seems in In the Absence of Miracles, an intelligent psychological novel that’s both thought-provoking and heartbreaking.
ANGELA MCQUAY (February 27, 2020)
Love, Heroism and the Battle for the Soul of Mussolini’s Rome
Taras Grescoe’s artful and detailed Possess the Air draws on letters, memoirs, and secondary sources to chronicle twenty years of resistance to Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
Set in Mussolini’s Rome, which lives and breathes thanks to Grescoe’s storytelling, the book covers the dictator’s disastrous attempts to restore Rome as the capital of a new empire. Rome’s streets are enlivened by the characters whom the book profiles and develops, including Mussolini himself—a “short, bald, bow-legged poet”—and his bands of ruthless blackshirts. They’re seen gaining power and turning to acts of terror and suppression. Against them, people of conscience emerge, including Americans, young artists, and intellectuals. The book details their growing skepticism and their courageous resistance in the face of prison, torture, and death.
At the book’s emotional center is a brilliant young Roman playwright and intellectual, Lauro de Bosis, whose growing antipathy toward all things fascist led him to an audacious plan: a solo night flight over militarized Rome to drop pamphlets urging his fellow Romans to resist Mussolini and work toward a free Italy. De Bosis is the book’s romantic hero; his quest supplies a dramatic narrative arc that counterbalances the arc of Italian fascism.
The book’s refined prose includes abundant quotes and anecdotes; its is a fresh approach to Mussolini’s fascist movement. Alarming parallels emerge to the contemporary rise of populism, autocracy, and racial and religious intolerance. In this regard, Possess the Air is, just like de Bosis’s leaflets were as they drifted down on the streets of Rome, an inspirational message for all of those who love democracy.
JOE TAYLOR (February 27, 2020)
A Hannah Swensen Mystery
Cozy mysteries don’t get any cozier than Joanne Fluke’s, and her latest in the Hannah Swensen series, Coconut Layer Cake Murder, is no exception.
Hannah is a baker and amateur sleuth who’s ordered to take a vacation after a stressful experience. She and her mother leave Minnesota for sunny Los Angeles, intending to help Hannah’s friend pack up her home for a move. But before they can get started, Hannah receives a hysterical phone call from her best friend, Michelle, whose boyfriend, Lonnie, has been named a suspect in a local murder. Michelle needs Hannah’s support—and help cracking the case, of course.
Coconut Layer Cake Murder continues the Hannah Swensen series’ traditions, featuring heartwarming, small-town relationships that are spiced with just the right amount of murder and mayhem. Charming and innocent, Hannah, her friends, and her family are the epitome of feel-good characters who always try to do the right thing. Hannah’s perseverance and sunny outlook, even in the face of dire circumstances, is refreshing. Descriptions of life in Lake Eden, her Minnesota town that’s complete with a cast of eccentric locals, hearken back to easier times.
A rollicking mystery with plenty of surprises, the book also features delicious recipes attributed to Hannah’s hand. They range from confections she creates in her bakery to more savory dishes that she serves to family and friends. Notes within the recipes gesture to characters who’ve tasted them or made their own alterations to them, connecting every entry to the story.
The continued antics of Lake Eden’s quirky characters make Coconut Layer Cake Murder a treat—everything a cozy mystery should be.
ANGELA MCQUAY (February 27, 2020)
Parnaz Foroutan’s Home Is a Stranger is a personal and political memoir about being a woman, and an Iranian American, in both the US and Iran.
Foroutan left Iran when she was six, during the rise of Ayatollah Khomeni. She grew up in suburban Los Angeles. Her book follows her as she returns to Iran during her intense twenties, in the era just before, and then after, September 11th, 2001. With a heart condition and in fear for her life, and facing a taut combination of repressed sexual desire and the near constant threat of sexual violence, she explores both countries, juxtaposing memories of California with observations about Iran.
Sensual descriptions of Iran’s people and countryside include repeated and melodramatic flirtations that come to characterize the first half of the book. Foroutan’s upper-middle class American upbringing led to struggles in Iran, which she considered repressive of women’s agency. She chafes at restrictions, from the hijab to the suppression of laughter; those decisions elicit ire and fear from her hosts. But as her relationships grow more serious and world events intensify, the book’s relaxed, cyclical rhythm shifts to a tight, controlled whirl. When Foroutan returns to Los Angeles, that rhythm becomes both poetic and dizzying.
Great and dark as it conveys American assumptions about the freedoms and joys of women in the US and Iran, the book suggests that what are perceived as advantages in the US have a spiritual cost. The happiness and vivacity that Foroutan experiences in Iran’s homes, markets, and wilderness are expressed in poetic terms; her ambivalence about returning to the US is understandable, and the return itself proves to be a devastating loss.
Home Is a Stranger is a thought-provoking memoir about the challenges of personal and national relations.
LISA ALEXIA (February 27, 2020)
The Silent Gods Series, Book 1
Artifacts, ancient secrets, and an aching desire to prove himself force neophyte Annev de Breth to contend with magical forces in Master of Sorrows, the first book in The Silent Gods series from Justin Travis Call.
Annev, a student at the Academy Chaenbalu, is an underdog. He has a physical disability that he is ashamed of and conceals. However, Annev is also tougher than he looks. He’s ambitious—driven to become an Avatar, a warrior-thief who steals magical artifacts from people who hoard and misuse their powers.
As he learns the Avatar’s craft, Annev’s faith in himself is invigorating. From his obscure origins—as a child, he’s raised by his parents’ killers—onward, the novel levels up. Annev battles school rivals, magical enemies, and the final boss: a twisted master bent on absolute power. Ultimately, he has to decide which side of a magical war he wants to be on.
Disability and physical limitations are a recurring theme, and some stereotypes play in, as when a disability is interpreted as evil or as a weakness that correlates with moral infirmity. But the story is visceral and heartfelt, most focused on gritty details.
Murderous magical tools and a glittering array of weapons punctuate it. In one scene, a handmaiden blinds a witch with a handful of spores; moments later, a blackthorn copse’s “barbed black needles punctured her thighs, back, and arms, their ridged two-inch-long spikes holding her firm.” Violence is a constant—bones break in new ways from chapter to chapter—and tenderness is rare. The closer Annev gets to the truth, the higher the stakes are, threatening his life and the world that he lives in.
Master of Sorrows is a rousing and imaginative high fantasy novel—a promising beginning to a new series.
CLAIRE FOSTER (February 27, 2020)