An Unconventional Family by Roberta Bombonato is one page-turner of a novel, despite its epically awful cover. (Paperback version is a vast improvement.) The plot involves Marvin Costa (alias Azrael) and his on-again/off-again stripper girlfriend Carmen. Their lives are turned upside down by Marvin’s discovery of a recently orphaned 8-year old Asian girl named Keiko. Marvin and Carmen unofficially adopt her, knowing that the ruthless man who killed her family is still searching for her. Keiko’s adorable maturity-beyond-her-years and utter dependency on Marvin and Carmen for survival wins them both over. It also provides an innocence and tenderness to their relationship, sorely missing since Marvin has been hiding a dark secret: He’s a hitman. His targets typically deserve their death, more or less, but it’s a brutal way to make a living. One scene in particular finds Marvin ambushing, then torturing the mob boss who killed his own family, an event which led to him being a hitman in the first place. Body parts go flying. It’s fairly gruesome stuff.
Bombonato’s writing is nothing flashy to say the least, but she’s a master of pacing. The plot rolls along so seamlessly that I finished the book in two sittings. Snappy but realistic dialogue helps, too. The reader is presented with an abundance of side characters, all of whom are interesting and well-rounded enough that you can nearly smell them. Each plays a crucial part in the action as it barrels towards its inexorable climax. Many of these people have hidden relationships to each other, revealed along the way in a manner that is astonishing yet somehow believable. This is pulp fiction at its most pulpy, which is to say that it’s loads of fun. There’s nothing capable of making a reader care more for a book’s moving pieces than their connection to a helpless child. An Unconventional Family does possess a few suspense novel tropes, such as gunshot wounds which seem to become only mildly bothersome after a few days, and Carmen conveniently taking the news that her boyfriend is a murderer far too nonchalantly—still, the book more than makes up for this through the power of its storytelling, the careful handling of its scenes, and the reverent way it treats its characters. A solidly good read.