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Only to Sleep by Lawrence Osborne, Hogarth/Crown Publishers, US $26.00, Pp 272, July 2018, ISBN 978-1524759612

The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles, Riverhead Books/Penguin Random House, US $26.00, Pp 464, August 2018, ISBN 978-0735210998

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar, Harper, US $28.99, Pp 490, September 2018, ISBN 978-0062859952

Only to Sleep is set in 1988. Philip Marlowe, now 72, has retired and moved to Mexico. He is living in the terrace bar of the La Fonda hotel where he spends his time sipping margaritas, playing cards, with his silver-tipped cane at the ready. One day, two men visit Marlowe unexpectedly and request him to help them solve one last case to solve. Marlowe accepts the assignment. Pacific Mutual recently paid $2 million on a life policy for Donald Zinn who had recently died. The insurance company suspects that he is still alive and his widow has scammed the company. They think the couple is planning to move to Mexico and spend the rest of their lives there. Marlowe requests Dolores Zinn for a meeting which she readily accepts. Dolores is a generation younger than her supposedly dead husband. Also, she is very, very pretty. They meet and Marlowe continues to investigate the case. Soon, Marlowe finds evidence that Zinn is indeed still alive and is living under the identity of one Paul Linder, whose death remains shrouded in mystery. Zinn is mad when he learns that Marlowe has found out the truth and plans to kill him to remove him from the scene. But, Dolores tries to calm him down and offers a hefty amount of money to Marlowe if he agrees to report to the Pacific Mutual that he was unable to find any evidence that Zinn is still alive. Osborne has been successful in re-creating a beloved character and a mysterious ambiance that is full of suspense. Seventy-two-year-old Marlowe has been adapted to the modern times and he is equipped with a small radio transmitter with bugging devices, a pair of opera glasses, and a subminiature Minox camera, but interestingly his .38 has been replaced with a shikomizue, a razor-sharp sword hidden in his cane. Only to Sleep has a plot with a cast of shady characters. It is an extraordinarily gripping and absorbing mystery.

Lawrence Osborne is the author of the critically acclaimed novels The ForgivenThe Ballad of a Small PlayerHunters in the Dark, and Beautiful Animals. He is the third writer, after John Banville (writing as Benjamin Black) and Robert B. Parker, to be asked by the Raymond Chandler Estate to write a new Philip Marlowe novel. In Only to Sleep, Osborne draws from his time working as a reporter on the Mexican border in the early 1990s. His non-fiction includes Bangkok Days and The Wet and the Dry. His short story ‘Volcano’ was selected for Best American Short Stories 2012.  He was born in London and now lives in Bangkok.

*****

Set in 1930s Brazil, The Air You Breathe is the story of intense friendship between two women. Nine-year-old skinny Dores met Graça when Dores was working in the kitchen of a sugar plantation. This was the beginning of a friendship that changed everything for both of them. Graça is the spoiled and ill-mannered daughter of a wealthy sugar baron. She is pretty and clever. Dores is the daughter of a local promiscuous woman and was taken as a help in the kitchen of a local sugar baron when she was very young. The two girls built a bond of strong friendship over shared mischief and, most importantly, over their passion for samba style of music. If Graça has a beautiful voice, Dores feels the music in her soul and can compose lyrics. As they grow, music becomes their shared passion and the foundation of their friendship — but also the source of their rivalry. At times their relationship is strained because of the differences in their nature and ambitions but it endures. Music is the way out of the world they were born into. But only Graça becomes a star and is transformed into Sofia Salvador, an international samba star. Their intimate but volatile bond will shape their future — and haunt their memories. The Air You Breathe will take you from Brazil’s inland sugar plantations to the mean streets of Rio de Janeiro’s famous Lapa neighborhood and from there to Los Angeles during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It is beautifully written and structured. The moral of the story is that one way to survive and live peacefully is to forget the past. The Air You Breathe is a moving portrait of a lifelong friendship, with many lows, and it shows how friendship shapes our lives and what we owe to it. This is one of those novels you find hard to put down without finishing.

Frances de Pontes Peebles is the author of the novel, The Seamstress, translated into nine languages and winner of the Elle Grand Prix for Fiction, the Friends of American Writers Award, and the Michener-Copernicus Fellowship. Born in Pernambuco, Brazil, she is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her short stories have appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories, Zoetrope: All-Story, Missouri Review, and Indiana Review. Her story, The Serrambi case, has been adapted into a short film by Australian director Emily Avila and entitled, In a cane field. Her novel, The Seamstress, was adapted for film and mini-series in Brazil as Entre Irmãs.

*****

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock is set in 1780s London, during the reign of King George III, when Jonah Hancock, a rich merchant receives an unusual and unexpected gift from the captain of his merchant ship — a mermaid. The gift comes at an unusually high price. The captain tells Jonah Hancock that he sold Jonah’s ship for the rare and far more precious mermaid on his last voyage to the Far East. The mermaid is brown and wizened “like an apple forgotten at the bottom of the barrel” mermaid is as small as an infant, with vicious teeth and claws and a torso with the tail of a fish. But the mermaid is dead. Jonah Hancock is a smart and sensible merchant who accumulated his fortune by playing sensibly. He suddenly feels he has lost his hard-earned fortune in this deal. As the news spreads through the docks, bars, coffee shops and even brothels throughout London, the curious people start coming to see this marvel at his house near the London docks. It seems his possession has upended his life as he moves from one fine drawing room to another of high society. He is invited to opulent parties where he and his mermaid are the focus of everybody’s attention. At one such party, he makes the acquaintance of Mrs. Chappell, the elderly madam of London whose curiosity is aroused beyond anybody’s imagination by his mermaid. Nobody understands the appetites of London’s rich men better than Mrs. Chappell who decides to debut the mermaid in a pornographic show where Hancock meets Angelica Neal, a beautiful and desirable courtesan. She is a woman of great accomplishments who has fallen on the edge of financial ruin. A marriage with Jonah Hancock can pull her out of the debts. Imogen Hermes Gowar explores eighteenth-century class, race and human curiosity in this brilliantly written novel. The characters are so powerful that overwhelm the story plot. This fairy-tale novel is full of imagination. This debut novel with a lot of romance makes Imogen Hermes Gowar a welcome voice in fiction.

Imogen Hermes Gowar received the Malcolm Bradbury Memorial Scholarship in 2013 to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock, her debut novel, was shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize for Fiction and the inaugural Deborah Rogers Foundation Writers Award and was a finalist in the Mslexia First Novel Competition. Her previous studies in archaeology, anthropology, and art history, and her work in museums inspire her fiction. She lives in London.

*****

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