Revenge of a Not-So-Pretty-Girl by Carolita Blythe; Delacorte Press, 319 pages ($16.99) Ages 12 and up.
An unlikely friendship blooms in this heartfelt novel of relationship, race and redemption, relayed through a remarkable narrative voice – of a hurting teenage girl named Faye. Faye and her two juvenile delinquent buddies, partners in crime in shoplifting and mugging “stuckup” pretty girls in their Brooklyn neighborhood, up the stakes when they hear an elderly movie star named Evelyn Ryder lives in a luxury apartment building only seven blocks away. As the novel begins the three teens are forcing their way into the apartment, terrorizing the old lady and smashing things as they hunt for money when Faye accidentally shoves the old woman, her head hits a table and the girls flee. Faye, worried that she might have killed the woman, returns to the building to check on her, and from there this talented novelist takes the story in a very unexpected direction. Blythe performs a kind of magic in making a sympathetic character out of Faye, through her honest, unsparing examination of Faye’s peer influences, her lack of guidance and her difficult home life, with a caring but absentee father (a touring musician who pays her tuition at a Catholic high school) and a mother who is both verbally and physically abusive and obviously in need of a psychiatric intervention. Faye’s hard-learned lessons about herself, and the person she wants to be, come as small, entirely believable revelations.
– Jean Westmoore
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson; Reagan Arthur, 527 pages ($27.99)
In Kate Atkinson’s “Life After Life,” Ursula Todd is born in the British countryside in 1910 – and dies almost immediately, umbilical cord wrapped around her neck.
No matter. She’s born again – and again and again and again. Each time, snow falls (“She was born with winter already in her bones, but then came the sharp promise of spring. …”) Each time, she adjusts to avoid death for a little while, or maybe life adjusts itself around this second (or third or fourth or fifth) chance.
Two things are implicit in such a setup: a warning (some repetition lies ahead) and a promise (don’t worry, I know what I’m doing, and you won’t be bored). The gifted Atkinson, best known for the excellent suspense series that began with “Case Histories,” is clever and talented enough to build on this shifting foundation, and she tells the story of Ursula’s odd existence with enough twists and revelations to keep the reader guessing. She’s so adept at propelling us through this hefty novel, which flits through both World Wars and beyond, that we’re able to temporarily overlook the first two pages, in which Ursula employs the most egregious cliche available to alternative histories.
How much weight do two pages carry against hundreds that invent breathtaking ways to examine the whims of fate, the cost of war, the human tenacity for survival? “Life After Life” eventually returns to the unfortunate development — the least interesting part of the novel — but until it does, Atkinson keeps us enthralled with how Ursula shapes her destiny.
The most shattering parts of “Life After Life” encompass Ursula’s experiences in London during the Blitz, all the more sobering because they are rendered unsentimentally. Atkinson has written movingly about Britain at war before, in her fine novel Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but “Life After Life’s” relentless depiction of the sights and sounds of the bombings are chilling, unforgettable.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald
Rage Against the Dying by Becky Masterman; Minotaur, 320 pages ($24.99)
“Rage Against the Dying” would be an astounding debut based on the solid plot, the intriguing characters and the pulse-racing, pervasive sense of danger that permeate the story. But Masterman further elevates her first novel by making her heroine Brigid Quinn, a 59-year-old retired FBI agent who put her work above her personal life. Then she became the scapegoat of office politics and bad press after she shot a serial killer who, for that one moment, happened to be unarmed.
“Rage Against the Dying” works well as an intense police procedural and a tale about learning the true meaning of unconditional love. Quinn’s 40 years of vigorous training and of hunting serial killers haven’t made her an ideal retiree.But for the first time she is married, to a widowed former philosophy professor and ex-priest.
Quinn is pulled back into her old life when the FBI arrests a trucker who claims to be the Route 66 killer, a case she was never able to close.
– Oline H. Cogdill, Sun Sentinel