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Never can say goodbye

lostandwanted“In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently.”

That’s how Nell Freudenberger begins her new novel Lost and Wanted (Knopf, digital galley), a haunting tale of friendship, loss and, well, physics. The latter comes courtesy of narrator Helen Clapp, a MIT professor known for her research on five-dimensional spacetime and two accessible books on cosmology and black holes.  Devastated by the unexpected news that her Harvard roommate Charlotte Boyce has died in California, she’s puzzled by subsequent texts and e-mails from her best friend. There has to be a rational explanation, probably something to do with a missing cell phone. Still…

Freudenberger uses the mystery of the messages to explore the greater mystery of the trajectory of friendship over time. Helen remembers how, 20 years ago, “an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena”  bonded during freshman orientation.  The connection has loosened of late. Charlie moved west to pursue her career as a TV screenwriter and producer,  married a surfer, had a daughter, struggled with lupus. Meanwhile, Helen’s been happy with academia and her 7-year-old son Jack, whose father is an anonymous sperm donor. Yet, the sudden fact of Charlie gone, no longer living, knocks her flat, especially when Charlie’s husband Terrence and 9-year-old daughter Simmi move to Boston. Grief for Charlie and their lost past is further compounded by the arrival of Neel, Helen’s college boyfriend and her long-time research partner. He’s a member of a team that’s made the most exciting breakthrough in physics in years. He also has personal news.

Helen can easily explain gravitational waves, the uncertainty principle and chaos theory to her students. She has a harder time reconciling mind and heart to the inexplicable. “Scientific analogies for emotional states are imprecise,” she thinks, “but recently I’ve been finding them difficult to avoid.”

Lost and Wanted takes its title from an Auden poem read at Charlie’s memorial service that takes on greater significance as all who loved Charlie deal with her absence and how it’s reconfigured their world.  It’s a lovely poem, and Lost and Wanted is a lovely book. As soon as I finished it, I started over. It’s that good.

So is Sally Rooney’s new novel. I liked her first one, Conversations with Friends. But I love Normal People (Crown/Archetype, digital galley). And I’m not alone in raving about the 28-year-old Irish writer’s second book, which won the Costa Novel Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker. But my favorite thing anyone has said about this compulsively readable book is what my publishing friend Jen Adkins Reynolds posted on Facebook: “This was so good, even if reading it was a thousand paper cuts to the heart.”

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are both seniors at the same school in a small Irish town. Both are really smart, but Connell’s the popular one, a good-looking athlete, while she’s an awkward outsider. At school, they ignore each other, but Connell’s warm-hearted mom cleans house for Marianne’s wealthy, aloof mother, and it’s at her house that Connell and Marianne make small talk and then hook up. Connell insists on keeping their relationship a secret, and Marianne doesn’t care until he asks another girl to the end-of-school dance and breaks her heart.

“I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” Marianne says at one point. “I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.”

Marianne’s low self-esteem, burnished by her emotionally abusive family, will continue to be a problem when she and Connell meet again in the fall at Trinity College, Dublin, even though their social roles have reversed. She’s now the admired one in a bright, witty crowd and has a new boyfriend. He’s the outsider, uncomfortable and insecure.

Rooney follows their on-and-off again relationship over four years, deftly alternating perspectives, zooming in on their messy emotions, frequent misunderstandings and most intimate moments. He suffers from depression; she deliberately seeks out men who mistreat her. Their connection to each other is intense, thrilling, painful, impossible, necessary. They can’t talk about it, or when they do, the words come out wrong.

That’s not the case with Rooney’s writing. Normal People is a deceptively simple story told in direct, unadorned prose that is scalpel-sharp. Someone asked me why I prefer it to Conversations with Friends, which is similar in style. I think it comes down to the characters. Marianne and Connell are sympathetic, vulnerable and oh so young. I wish them well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spring break

I need a break. Not from school or work or even the large orange cat determined to share my lap with the laptop. (Please move, Peach). No, I need a break from the willful ignorance and hypocrisy floating this way from Tallahassee, where the Florida Legislature is being lobbied by a conservative group that wants to ban certain books from public school readers. Again. Y’know, the books they find objectionable, ones by Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, Anthony Burgess, Kate Chopin, among others. Yes, that’s the stench of censorship wafting across the Sunshine State. Where oh where are the orange blossoms of yesteryear? Like I said, I need a break, so I’m not going into my standard rant. Instead, I’m going to read some lovely books of my own choosing. I suggest you do the same, right after you read this story from the Tampa Bay Times, “Bills may foster bans on books.”  http://tinyurl.com/yypzeapk

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to make me forget my woes. An island castle, a missing bride, a hidden passage, a rare butterfly. It’s the latter that lures intrepid lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell to Cornwall in Deanna Raybourn’s witty A Dangerous Collaboration (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). She’s posing as the fiance of Tiberious, Viscount Templeton-Vane, who just happens to be the brother of Veronica’s fellow adventurer, Stoker. Her feelings for the dashing Stoker are as deliciously complicated as the secrets awaiting the three of them on St. Maddern’s Isle, where the beautiful Rosamund disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. Maybe a seance will reveal her whereabouts.

In The Stranger Diaries (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Elly Griffiths takes a break from her Ruth Galloway series to craft a modern Gothic that includes a classic ghost story. English teacher Clare Cassidy’s work on a biography of Victorian writer R.M. Holland is interrupted by the violent deaths of several of her colleagues in ways suggested by Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger.” If that’s not weird enough, Clare finds someone has been leaving her messages in her diary. Add her teenage daughter’s new circle of friends, and you’ve got a chilly puzzle enhanced by excerpts from Holland’s horror tale.

leonAlthough Venetians love to gossip, Commissario Guido Brunetti usually pays no attention to the constant chatter. But in Donna Leon’s absorbing Unto Us a Son Is Given (Grove Atlantic. digital galley), Brunetti’s wealthy father-in-law asks him to investigate when he hears that his elderly art dealer friend Gonzalo plans to adopt a younger man as his sole heir. Gonzalo has said it’s his business and to stay out of it, but then the old man dies suddenly and a visiting friend organizing a memorial service is murdered in a Venetian hotel room. As usual, the procedural atmospherics complement Brunetti’s reflections on human nature, doubt and justice.

Although the title of Alice Quinn’s rousing historical novel The Huntress (Morrow, digital galley) refers to a ruthless Nazi war criminal, it also applies to the fascinating Nina Markova, who survived her encounter with the Huntress in war-torn Poland and is now bent on revenge. After the war, she is joined in her search by British war correspondent Ian and his sidekick, former American soldier Tony, who are tracking Nazis wanted for war crimes. Eventually, their stories will intersect with aspiring photographer Jordan McBride, who lives in Boston with her Austrian stepmother. The story moves back and forth between time periods and continents, but it’s Nina who kept me flipping pages. Her fierceness owes much to her childhood in the wilds of Siberia, which she uses to her advantage to learn to fly and then talk her way into the infamous regiment of female Russian bomber pilots known as “the Night Witches.” Her flying exploits, and those of her comrades, are terrifying and adrenaline-fueled, and they scar her forever. As in her last best-seller The Alice Network, Quinn has done her research, and facts bolster her fiction.

Flashback to February when I read several engrossing family dramas. In Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics (Morrow, digital galley), the four Skinner siblings are all marked by the three-year interval they refer to as “the Pause.” It occurs when they are children and their father suddenly dies and their mother abdicates her role as parent because of mental illness. At just 11, Renee assumes most of the burden of caring for Caroline, Joe and Fiona, who narrates the story from advanced old age. Still, demons follow them into adulthood, where they face another tragedy that illuminates family ties. Anissa Gray’s affecting first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Penguin/Berkley, digital galley), is told through the alternating voices of the three Butler sisters. When pillars of the community Althea and her husband Proctor go on trial for scamming a local charity, middle sister Viola returns from Chicago to help younger sister Lillian care for Althea’s troubled twin teenagers, Kim and Baby Vi. But these strong sisters, whose backstories artfully unfold, also need to learn to care for themselves. Right after I read Nickolas Butler’s Little Faith (HarperCollins, digital galley), I read a newspaper story about parents arrested for withholding medical treatment from their sick child because of religious reasons. In Butler’s book, which gracefully chronicles one year in the life of a rural Wisconsin family, grandparents Lyle and Peg become concerned when their adopted daughter Shiloh becomes involved with a charismatic evangelist who convinces her that her five-year-old son Isaac is a budding faith healer. There’s further conflict when Isaac is diagnosed with diabetes, and Shiloh chooses prayer over medicine. The ensuing drama plays out thoughtfully, unlike a TV medical show that wraps up everything in an hour episode.

Go your own way

Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (Ballantine, digital galley) has it all. Think of it as your fun, flashy ride back to the 1970s. Just put Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on shuffle, shift into cruise control and off you go. Sure, yesterday’s gone, but that doesn’t stop the characters in Reid’s novel from talking about the past.

The talk is essential because Reid structures the book as an oral history of a ubiquitous ’70s band that mysteriously combusted 40 years ago at the height of its popularity. Imagine a Rolling Stone cover story expanded into a book, a mockumentary charting the early rise of Billy Dunne’s blues-rock band, the Six, which really takes off when a producer suggests adding aspiring singer and songwriter Daisy Jones. Free-spirited Daisy — tall, blonde, gorgeous, with a distinctive raspy voice — has been hanging around the Sunset Strip since her early teens, popping pills and sleeping around with rockers and roadies. She and Billy — dark, denim-clad, sober after rehab — have both creative and physical chemistry. But he’s married to high school sweetheart Camila, who keeps him grounded after he went off the rails on the Six’s first tour. Bandmate Warren remembers those days: “I was getting laid, Graham was getting high, Eddie was getting drunk, Karen was getting fed up, Pete was getting on the phone to his girl back home, and Billy was all five, at once.”

If Daisy Jones & the Six were just a compilation of cliched memories, it would be pretty boring. Fortunately, Reid offers soapy drama, star-crossed romance, bad-band behavior and a lot of authentic-sounding details about making a hit album. The stock male characters play second fiddle to the more complicated women in their lives — Daisy, Camila, keyboardist Karen. There’s a photo shoot in the desert for an album cover that sounds so familiar as to be iconic. There are all-night sessions in the recording studio  and sold-out, weed-hazed gigs in anonymous cities. Reid also provides the lyrics to the songs that underscore Billy and Daisy’s rollercoaster of yearnings and regrets.

What she can’t provide is the music itself, which is why I’ve been listening to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and why I’ll probably add Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles to my playlist for the book. But Daisy Jones & the Six may yet get a soundtrack of its own. Reese Witherspoon is reportedly working with Amazon on a 13-part streaming series, and someone’s got to write those songs. I hear Lindsey Buckingham might be available.

Booked for murder

If you’re the kind of reader who races through a mystery to find out whodunnit, Sophie Hannah’s The Next to Die (Morrow, digital) is probably not your kind of book. Her domestic suspense/procedurals  featuring married police detectives Charlie Zailler and Simon Waterhouse delve into motive and character, and she plots outside the lines. Here, a serial killer dubbed “Billy No Mates” is apparently targeting pairs of friends by first sending them mysterious handmade booklets with a line of verse on one page. Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbick, who narrates parts of the book, is mystified when she realizes a stranger gave her one of the booklets at a gig a year ago. She has an ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend and a dreadful brother but no real friends for “Billy No Mates” to kill. Kim and Charlie pal around, though, driving around England to revisit Kim’s tour bookings, and spying on Charlie’s sister in the process. An angry journalist muddies the waters with her insistence that the killer hates women, and a police profiler proves useless. Eventually, most of the digressions and characters come together in a denouement that is quite clever in retrospect. It’s certainly audacious.

Set in the sweltering Outback of an Australian summer, Jane Harper’s third novel The Lost Man (Flatiron, digital galley) is a stunner from its first atmospheric pages. Queensland rancher Cameron Bright’s body is spotted from a helicopter near an isolated marker known as the Stockman’s Grave. His older brother Nathan, who owns an adjoining ranch hours away, and younger brother Bub, who works the family land with Cameron and their widowed mother Liz, can’t figure out how Cameron was separated from his fully outfitted Land Cruiser found a few miles away, the keys in the seat. No water, no shade, he wouldn’t have lasted a day. The odd circumstances surrounding the death of the popular rancher, who left behind a wife and two young daughters, leads loner Nathan to the mystery of family present and past.  He discovers secrets that wound, secrets that break hearts, secrets to die for.

A group of old friends gather for a New Year’s celebration in a country house during a snowstorm. You’ve been there before, but Lucy Foley ups the ante in The Hunting Party (HarperCollins, digital galley). The friends are former Oxford classmates and their partners; the house is an exclusive luxury lodge in the Scottish Highlands; the snowstorm is a blizzard of epic proportions cutting them off from civilization At book’s beginning, the gamekeeper reports that the body of a missing guest has been found. But Foley then flashes back several days to reveal the proceedings from rotating perspectives. Secrets lurk among the friends; tempers flare and tensions rise. Golden couple Miranda and Julian are not so golden, after all. Rumors of a serial killer stalking the Highlands add to the unease. This is the kind of book you race through to find out whodunnit. Fun while it lasts, but I read it a month ago and now can’t remember victim or killer.

Inspector Alan Banks has always been good company, and that hasn’t changed now that he’s Detective Superintendent Banks. In Peter Robinson’s sturdy procedural Careless Love (Morrow, digital galley), two suspicious deaths at first appear unrelated. The college student found in an abandoned car didn’t own a car, or even drive. How did she get in the car and where’s her cell phone? As to the well-dressed older man found at the bottom of a ravine on the moors, did he fall or was he pushed? And what was he doing in the middle of nowhere? The answers, when they come, point to an old foe and an all-too current crime. Even Robinson’s minor characters are well-drawn, like the owner of the abandoned car who won’t let the detectives get a word in edgewise.

Aurora Jackson was just 14 in the summer of 1983, when she disappeared during an overnight camping trip with her older sister and five other teens. Thirty years later, Aurora’s remains are found in a secret hideaway in the woods by a collapsed river bank, and the discovery disrupts the successful adult lives of her fellow campers. In Gytha Lodge’s artful She Lies in Wait (Random House, digital galley), the narrative alternates between the present, when detective Jonah Shields leads the investigation into the cold case he worked on as a young cop, and the past. Back then Aurora feels lucky to be tagging along with the popular older crowd, although she’s out of her depth with the drinking, drugs and make-out sessions. The book becomes a suspenseful guessing game as Jonah questions the others and we also see their younger selves. Aurora’s sexy sister Topaz  is now married to one of the boys from the group, a university professor. Another boy is an Olympic gold medalist and entrepreneur. Then there’s the married politician, the landscape architect who lost her fiance in a rock-climbing accident, the unhappy woman nursing a secret affair. Which one is a killer? Who lied then? Who is lying now — and willing to kill again?

There’s a dead body on the kitchen floor of the nice Victorian house in an upscale neighborhood in Bristol, England. That’s the very beginning of Watching You (Atria, digital galley), but then, without revealing the identity of the corpse or possible killer, author Lisa Jewell plunges into a complicated scenario tangling rumor and obsession. The house belongs to Tom Fitzwilliam, a respected headmaster with a wife and son. One of his neighbors, newly married Joey Mullen, has something of a crush on Tom and begins spying on him. But she’s not the only one watching flirtatious Tom. Two of his students are keeping an eye on him, as is one girl’s psychologically disturbed mother who swears she remembers him from a long-ago incident. Then there’s Freddy, Tom’s autistic son, who spies on everyone from his upstairs window. Jewell moves craftily among the characters, revealing bits and pieces of past interactions and more recent encounters. Motives for murder abound, but the conclusion as to corpse and killer still comes as a shock.

 

Perchance to dream

Ever dreamed of hibernating through winter? In the reality-adjacent Wales of Jasper Fforde’s  wild and crazy new novel Early Riser (Viking Penguin, digital galley), winter is so horrible that the majority of the population literally hibernates in huge, high-rise Dormitoria. Many of them are under the influence of Morphenox, a trademarked drug that suppresses calorie-robbing dreams. Heaven forbid if your stored fat doesn’t last till spring; you could be one of those poor souls who Died in Sleep. By comparison, the risk that Morphonox could turn you into a cannibalistic nightwalker is so slight that most pony up the bucks for the drug or have a job that guarantees it. Which is why orphan Charlie Worthing enlists as a novice Winter Counsel, guarding the sleeping masses through SlumberDown from such perils as maurauding nightwalkers and the fearsome Winterfolk. Adventure awaits, as do subplots and satire aplenty, when Charlie goes searching for the source of a viral dream featuring a blue Buick and grasping hands.

Fforde, best-known for his fantastic Thursday Next series that began with The Eyre Affair, is as clever and inventive as ever with this stand-alone. He pushes the boundaries of absurdity at times, and the plot threatens to collapse under the weight of the world-building. But the wordplay is so much fun, as are the many deft and delightful details and pop culture references. Only Fforde — or maybe Monty Python — could envision a creature whose ominous presence is announced by the faint strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. That’s entertainment.

Dystopia is disquieting in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (Random House, digital galley), written in a lovely minor key. In her 2012 first novel The Age of Miracles, the end of the world as we know it was triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and narrated by a California sixth-grader. The story was elegiac and intimate as the ordinary rites of adolescence continued in the face of global catastrophe. “We kids were not as afraid as we should have been. We were too young to be scared, too immersed in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

The focus is wider, the voice omniscient in The Dreamers as people in a small California town fall victim to a mysterious sleeping sickness. The first victims are college students who fall asleep after a night of partying and slide into comas. But then scattered townspeople and the health workers caring for them sicken, too, and the viral epidemic spreads so that within just a matter of weeks the area is quarantined. Walker moves in out of the dreams and lives of the infected and the still-well. Especially poignant are the two young girls left alone when their prepper father falls ill. Their basement is full of canned goods, and they try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, taking in stray pets. Next door is a young couple who monitor their newborn for symptoms after she is inadvertently exposed. Across town, two students come together as volunteers nursing dreamers in the college library.

Walker’s tone is measured, almost hypnotic throughout. The result is a story as mysterious as a dream, as disturbing as a nightmare.

 

Chiller-thriller-killer

The snow is falling hard and the surprises keep coming in Taylor Adams’ page-turner No Exit (HarperCollins, digital galley). A fierce blizzard causes college student Darby Thorne to pull over at a remote rest stop in the Colorado mountains. Stranded with four strangers, she ventures outside to get a cell signal but instead discovers a kidnapped child hidden in the van parked next to her. Who among her fellow travelers has locked the little girl in a dog crate? What Darby does in the next few hours will determine all their lives. Gripping and cinematic, Adam’s tale is destined for the movies, but why wait when you can read it now.

There’s snow and ice and a car plunging into a dark river in The Current (Algonquin, review copy), Tim Johnston’s riveting second novel after the very good The Descent. It’s the dead of a Minnesota winter when state troopers recover an SUV and two young women from the Black Root River. Audrey Sutter is half-frozen but alive; her friend Caroline has drowned. With echoes of a similar incident in which a young woman drowned in the same river a decade ago, this new tragedy is no accident. Audrey discovers the townspeople she thought she knew — the father of the first dead girl, a suspect who was a teenager at the time, her father the former sheriff — are harboring secrets and regrets. The plot is layered, Johnston’s writing evocative. The Current carries you along inexorably, the way good stories do.

Watcher in the Woods (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), like other entries in Kelley Armstrong’s Casey Duncan series, is set in the isolated community of Rockton in the wilds of the Canadian Yukon. But don’t look for it on any map. It’s a safe haven for both criminals and victims, who pay a corporation big bucks to stay off the grid. Casey is the town’s detective, and her boyfriend Eric Dalton is the sheriff. When a U.S. Marshal shows up looking for a resident and is subsequently shot, the two have to figure out not only the murder but also how the marshal found Rockton in the first place. Could be it has something to do with Casey’s estranged sister, April, secretly flown in to assist on a medical case. Atmospheric, tightly plotted and smartly paced, the book delves more deeply into Rockton’s mysterious past. There’s more than one watcher in the woods.

Seraphine Mayes has long wondered why she looks different from her twin brother Danny and their older brother Edwin, and looks for answers in Emma Rous’ twisty The Au Pair (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). An old photo of her mother, who fell to her death from the Norfolk cliffs shortly after Seraphine and Danny were born, shows her mother holding a single newborn. The picture was taken by Edwin’s young au pair at the time, Lauren Silviera. As Seraphine searches for Lauren in the present, the narrative alternates with Lauren’s story in the past. Threatening notes, secret lovers, family quarrels and village gossip of changelings contribute to the murky puzzle. You’ll have to decide if the solution — given the outlandish premise — makes sense.

Maureen Johnson is at her most devious in The Vanishing Stair (HarperCollins, library hardcover), the second in her wickedly entertaining Truly Devious series. In the first book, readers met Stevie, an Ellingham Academy student obsessed by the unsolved murder and kidnapping case at Ellingham in 1936. Stevie thought she was making progress, but then one of her classmates died and another disappeared, and Stevie’s parents yanked her out of the alternative boarding school. She’s totally miserable as the second book begins, but then hated politician Edward King pulls some strings and Stevie’s back at Ellingham. Her story alternates with that of two students from the 1936 Ellingham class, who fancy themselves as a stylish crime couple like Bonnie and Clyde. What do “Frankie and Eddie” have to do with the Truly Devious case? Secret tunnels, hidden doorways and peculiar riddles abound as Stevie works with an eccentric true crime writer and tries to figure out her relationship with classmate David, Edward King’s son. It’s all great fun and nail-biting suspense right up to the very last page — and another cliffhanger ending. Maureen Johnson, you’re killing me!

 

Cold cases

When the skeleton of a private detective missing for a decade turns up in an abandoned car, it isn’t long before semi-retired Edinburgh police detective John Rebus is drawn into the investigation with ties to his past. The twisty cold case allows Ian Rankin to assemble the old gang of coppers and crooks — Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Big Ger Cafferty — and makes In a House of Lies (Little Brown, digital galley) a must for readers of the long-running series. An old pair of police-issue handcuffs on the corpse hints at possible corruption and cover-up on the part of Rebus’ former team, or maybe the cuffs are just a leftover prop from the low-budget zombie flick in which the missing man was an extra. Then again, they could be a red herring in a case that involves land deals, drug deals and a plea deal that landed a possibly innocent man in prison. For sure there’s something fishy about the “Chuggabugs,” a pair of shady cops now working in the ACU –Anti-Corruption Unit — and gunning for the good guys. In Val McDermid’s Broken Ground (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), the search for buried treasure in a peat bog leads to a perfectly preserved body and thus a case for Karen Pirie of Police Scotland’s HCU — Historic Crimes Unit. McDermid deftly splices scenes from World War II into the layered narrative as Pirie digs into the past, bucking her present control-freak boss, irritating the treasure hunters and getting to know a kilted Highlander named Hamish.

 

The past is always present in James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux novels, and no one is better than Burke at evoking the haunted landscape of southern Louisiana. The New Iberia Blues (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), the 22nd in the series, finds Dave, adopted daughter Alafair and old buddy Clete Purcell all in the orbit of Desmond Cormier, a local boy made good as a Hollywood film director. Dave suspects Cormier and his smarmy friend Antoine Butterworth know more than they’re saying about the murder of pastor’s daughter Lucinda Arceneaux, whose crucified corpse is found in the river near Cormier’s estate. But then other bodies show up posed like Tarot card symbols, and the number of suspects escalates as well. Escaped Texas convict Hugo Tillinger is certifiably crazy, as is Chester “Smiley” Wimple, returning from last year’s Robicheaux, and it looks as if the mob is providing the money for Cormier’s latest project. Both the director and widower Dave are attracted to new young deputy Bailey Ribbons, who seems to have wandered in from another book. Still, as digressive as the narrative seems, Burke unknots the tangled strands with practiced ease.

Christopher Fowler’s entertaining tales of London’s legendary Peculiar Crimes Unit don’t appear in chronological order, and so Bryant & May: Hall of Mirrors (Ballantine, digital galley) features our heroes — prehistoric in the 21st century — still in their prime in 1969. John May, of course, looks debonair in Carnaby Street fashions as he and the sartorially challenged Arthur Bryant go undercover to protect prosecution witness Monty Hatton-Jones. An obnoxious snob, Monty resents the coppers escorting him to a country-house weekend at Tavistock Hall, and ignores their efforts to keep him from getting killed. The atmosphere is more Agatha Christie/P.G. Wodehouse than hippy-dippy, but the assorted cast is suitably eccentric to qualify for Peculiar Crimes’ attention, and the ancient butler goes above and beyond in service to his employer. All in all, it’s quite a lark.

Intrepid 1950s English girl sleuth and chemist Flavia de Lucia returns in Alan Bradley’s The Golden Tresses of the Dead (Ballantine, digital galley), suitably devastated that older sister Ophelia is getting married and suitably delighted when a severed finger shows up in the wedding cake. She immediately whisks it away for testing, and she and sleuthing partner Dogger, her late father’s valet, conclude it’s the embalmed digit of a recently deceased woman reknowned for her skill on the guitar. How this ties in with the homeopathic remedies of Dr. Augustus Brocken (confined by his infirmities to Gollingford Abbey), his daughter’s search for stolen letters, and two missionary ladies recently arrived from Africa makes for one of Flavia’s most interesting and macabre investigations. A train trip to visit a Victorian cemetery and the surprising help of Flavia’s snarky cousin Undine are among the highlights, although Flavia might choose the dissection of a poisoned rat.