IYCRMM: Celebrating villainy, identity, nostalgia, and hyper-reality

Book reviews on "If I Survive You," "Starter Villain," "Assistant to the Villain," "Prophet," "Red Queen," and "A Line in the Sand."

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Here are novels that celebrate villainy with rich humor, transform racial identity into award-winning writing, and effortlessly transport us to the brink of fantasy and modern adventure. There's so much to enjoy with these six books.

If I Survive You by Jonathan Escoffery 

Shortlisted for the 2023 Booker Prize, this debut novel by Escoffery consists of a series of interconnected stories about his family and their journey from Kingston, Jamaica, to Miami, and then on to education in the Midwest. It explores what the American Dream has come to mean for these new sets of immigrants.

From his childhood and teenage years to his brother Delano and his cousin Cukie, including a chapter on animals described in Biblical plague proportions called Pestilence, and even odd jobs like the one at Silver Towers, a housing project for senior citizens, there's much to grasp and understand about how the move to the USA works for this Jamaican family. Ultimately, a number of them return to Jamaica.

Racial identity is a prominent theme in the early chapters. The narrator finds himself in a perplexing position, being "too brown to be Black, too dark to be white," and unable to speak Spanish to qualify as a Latino. He morphs himself into different ethnic identities to feel like he belongs. Frequently asked "What are you?" he's confounded by how unsatisfactory his response is for most Americans.

There's also the long-simmering issue of Trelawney being the overlooked second son, with Delano favored by their father in a manner that truly hurts and leaves deep psychological scars for life. The novel shifts between moments that are funny and ludicrous and others that are serious and disturbing. It offers a lot to contemplate regarding identity, family, desperation, and the consequences of faulty decision-making.

Escoffery's writing is energetic, and I'm eager to read his next novel.


Starter Villain by John Scalzi  

The author of the entertaining SciFi adventure, "Kaiju Preservation Society," is back with a story filled with crazy details, such as spy cats that can type and get debriefed and an island lair with security detail dolphins who want to go on strike. Welcome to the topsy-turvy world of one Charlie Fitzer.

When we first meet Charlie, he’s a substitute teacher who lives with Hera, a cat. His parents passed away years ago, his wife left him, and he can hardly afford the house he lives in. To add to the chaos, his uncle Jake, his mother's brother, has just died. Charlie's last memory of Jake stretches back to when he was five years old, but it turns out that his uncle's parking buildings business was just a front for his life as a supervillain.

That's the zany premise for the "Fish out of Water" narrative that ensues when Charlie is asked to take over Uncle Jake's evil empire. It's an empire that utilizes the latest technological innovations and inventions as both software and hardware, sold to governments all around the world. Things get even more absurd and deadly when we're whisked to Lake Como for a supervillain conference, but it's all in good poker-faced fun. We meet the members of the Lombardy Convocation, a loose federation of villains, each with distinct personalities bordering on the egotistical, psychotic, and deceitful.

In true Scalzi form, this is SciFi steeped in adventure and technological advances, with an engaging narrative and humor. Plus, you'll fall in love with the cat, Hera.


Assistant to the Villain by Hannah Nicole Maehrer  

A RomCom with a big fairy tale heart, this is the TikTok sensation now transitioning to book form, and kudos to Maehrer for securing a publishing deal. The significant difference in this mash-up is the way comedy and humor are prominently utilized in the narrative. Our heroine is Evie, who is sometimes snarky, sometimes silly, and often foot-in-mouth.

As with most fairy tale female protagonists, Evie is burdened with a sick father, a younger sister, and a brother and mother who have both passed away or disappeared from the scene. In her quest for income, she stumbles upon an individual popularly known as "The Villain" while in the forest. He's the thorn in the side of King Benedict, who rules this particular kingdom.

Working as an assistant to the kingdom's enemy, "The Villain," may not offer many advantages, but for Evie, the chance to see his terrific cheekbones, eyes, and lips on a near-daily basis is her perfect job. The story features pet dragons, other mythical creatures, and an entertaining cast of supporting characters. It delves into complicated family issues on Trystram's side, "The Villain," and his ongoing feud with King Benedict.

After its success on TikTok, it wouldn't be surprising if this eventually gets adapted into a limited series for a streaming platform. It has that kind of success stamped on it, making it an easy transition that many will enjoy. It's Chick-Lit, but with a humorous twist that can be appreciated by all.

Prophet by Helen MacDonald + Sin Blaché 

Here's a team-up that has resulted in an enthralling SciFi story mixed with psychodrama. In Somerset, an English field, a 1950s American diner inexplicably appears. A few days later, a collector obsessed with American memorabilia from that era is so overjoyed with the discovery that his heart literally ruptures and bursts. Have we weaponized nostalgia, and put joy and death together? It would seem that "Prophet" has accomplished that, and it's left to Sunil Rao and Adam Rubenstein to investigate and unravel the why and who's behind "Prophet." Sunil is unpredictable, a loose cannon, while Adam is military and fastidious. It's like "Twilight Zone" meets "X-Files."

It's the buddy tandem of Sunil and Adam that elevates the narrative. Like some LGBTQ version of Scully and Mulder, there's constant antagonism in their interactions, with Sunil being openly gay and Adam repressing all emotions. In battling this new reality, they're forced to evaluate and seek solutions that have never been formulated or tested before. Other characters, such as Rhodes, a tight-lipped woman who represents a corporate interest, are also interesting creations that help steer the narrative in unexpected directions. While there's a tendency to make it all seem like preliminaries leading up to the reckoning in the last 50 pages, I won't fault the writing duo for creating an atmosphere of weirdness. It's as much about the journey and getting there as it is about reaching the end.

Red Queen by Juan Gómez-Jurado 

This runaway bestseller in Spain was favorably heralded as the country's own version of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo." Considering that Spain is also responsible for "Money Heist," one can imagine this becoming a feature film or TV series, which apparently debuts later this year.

First, we have Antonia Scott, a Spanish mother with a British diplomat father, who possesses a great forensic mind and can reconstruct crime scenes. However, she has been a recluse ever since a personal tragedy. Then there's Jon Gutierrez, a disgraced Bilbao police officer who is approached by the shadowy Mentor to pull Antonia out of her self-imposed exile. And there you have the set-up. And, of course, what's a crime novel without a killer or criminal mastermind on the loose?

Ezekiel is the moniker that our self-appointed avenging angel has given himself. He murders the son of a banker by bleeding him out and kidnaps the daughter of Spain's richest businessman. Antonia and Scott are in a high-stakes cat and mouse game with this Ezekiel. To make things even more complicated, the two have to interact with a Special Forces team who are officially on the case and resent the duo's intrusion and involvement.

While very different from Lisbeth Salander of "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo," Scott brings her own version of steely talents and fragile personality faults. Her husband, Marcos, is in a coma that she blames herself for, and there's a son under the guardianship of the grandfather. The story features quirky and memorable characters and fast-paced action.

A Line in the Sand by Kevin Powers 

Arman Bajalan was an interpreter for the US forces during their occupation of Iraq, where he bore witness to the actions of American private military contractors. He now resides in a lonely sanctuary in the USA following a failed assassination attempt in Mosul, Iraq, which resulted in the tragic deaths of his wife and child. The narrative of this novel takes off when Arman goes for his daily swim and discovers a dead man in a suit on the beach.

Detective Catherine Wheel is on the case, alongside her deputy, ex-serviceman Lamar. The third central character is local Virginia journalist Sally Ewell, who is investigating a private military contractor about to be awarded a $2 million contract. Initially unrelated, the novel skillfully brings these three protagonists together in an explosive manner.

Powers, a National Book Award finalist and winner of the Guardian First Novel Award with 'The Yellow Birds,' leverages his military background, having been stationed in Afghanistan and Iraq, to craft hyper-real and authentic narratives. His storytelling maintains a high suspense quotient and skillfully tightens the screws to keep readers invested in the characters and plot. With "A Line In the Sand," the novel begins as a juggling act with Arman, Catherine, and Sally each pursuing their own lives and circumstances. Readers will appreciate how Powers seamlessly brings these storylines together, turning the novel into a suspenseful race against time, as the characters grapple with dark forces determined to suppress truth and honor in the name of profit and greed. It's also a tale of trauma, treachery, and the far-reaching consequences of war.