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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.

 

Comfort and joy

Some books, you know, are just nice. And it seems this is the time of year when I need them most, when, like Langston Hughes, I am waiting for the world to be good and beautiful and kind.

Second chances, second acts. In Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), the title character’s car skids off an icy road and lands in Lake Superior, but he escapes with a concussion and some memory and speech loss.  His ensuing recovery becomes something of a rebirth for the part-time town clerk and movie-house owner, who is helped by the quirky residents of his small Minnesota town. Enger (Peace Like a River) mixes whimsy, nostalgia and a touch of magical realism to record Virgil’s odyssey.

Joy Davidman was an unhappily married writer and mother of two young sons when she first started writing letters to Oxford don, theologian and author C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).  Her questions about faith and religion impressed “Jack,” and their burgeoning friendship in the 1950s eventually led her from New York to England and an unexpected love. In the novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Thomas Nelson, review copy), Patti Callahan realistically explores the meeting of two minds and hearts whose relationship was challenged by Joy’s ill health.

Readers of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful 2016 middle-grade novel Raymie Nightingale will remember Raymie’s irrepressible friend Louisiana Elefante. In Louisiana’s Way Home (Candlewick, purchased e-book), it’s 1977. 12-year-old Louisiana is forced to leave Central Florida and friends Raymie and Beverly when her grandmother decides a middle-of-the night road trip is in order. Only Granny isn’t planning on returning. When Granny’s toothache lands them in a small Georgia town, Louisiana finds kindness, friendship “and free peanuts” in the midst of hard times. Her narration is often a hoot as she despairs of the adults around her, but her resilience is real and endearing.

I’m not surprised Josie Silver’s rom-com One Day in December (Crown, digital galley) is already on the bestseller list. It’s Love Actually meets When Harry Met Sally meets One Day as Londoners Laurie and Jack lock eyes through a bus window. But they don’t actually meet until a year later, by which time Jack is Laurie’s friend Sara’s boyfriend. Mutual attraction, missed opportunities and a few surprises mark the next decade of their friendship, and happily-ever-after remains in doubt until the very end. Sweet.

 

If you’ve ever watched Escape to the Country, Britain’s answer to HGTV’s Househunters, than you’ll know the extraordinary pastoral beauty of South Devon, the setting for Marcia Willett’s contemporary family saga, The Songbird (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Several cottages make up the Brockscombe estate, home to an extended, blended family presided over by Francis, an elderly retired MP. The newcomer is Tim, a renter hiding the secret of his recently diagnosed neurological illness from his friend Mattie and her relatives. But others — a former ballerina, a young navy wife, a man whose wife has moved on (maybe) — have secrets, too, all of which are eventually sorted out in leisurely fashion.

 

Favorites

Santa isn’t the only one keeping a list. Everybody and her brother who has read a book this year has opinions to share. I don’t mind because I’m always looking for recommendations to add to my TBR tower. I do mind labeling lists “Best,” because who has read everything?! So I’ll just say the following are my favorites from what I read in 2018, the books I’ll buy for myself and friends, the ones I’ll reread in the years to come. All of them except one I’ve reviewed on the blog this year. I missed Rebecca Makkai’s remarkable third novel The Great Believers (Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in June. But on a recent weekend I was transported by this chronicle of the fallout of the AIDS epidemic told in two intertwining narratives, one from 1985 Chicago, the second in Paris 30 years later. Now I can’t stop caring about Makkai’s characters, both those whose lives were cut short and those who survived and loved them. Absent friends, a lost generation. Thanks to whoever first put this on their best list. Now it’s on mine. (Credit: “A Woman Reading in Bed” by Frederick Serge).

My 2018 favorites, in no particular order:

 

 

 

 

Once upon a time. . . Those are storytelling’s magic words. And when novelist Diane Setterfield drops them in the Thames, than you get Once Upon a River (Atria, digital galley), and it’s magic, too.  On a midwinter night at the Swan Inn, the storytellers are surprised when a battered stranger bursts through the door holding the drowned body of a little girl. But a sad scene turns wondrous when the child lives, although she cannot speak her name. As news of this miracle spreads, several people arrive at the inn to claim her as their own. Lily White, the parson’s odd housekeeper, declares she is her little sister Ann. Farmer Robert Armstrong thinks she is his grandchild Alice, daughter of his runaway son. And Helena and Anthony Vaughan hope she is their kidnapped child Amelia. Setterfield, who vaulted to fame a decade ago with The Thirteenth Tale, again casts a spell as her stories spill and overlap, flowing like the river that connects them. There are twists and turns, swirls and eddies, unexpected depths and a ghostly ferryman known as Quietly. Don’t miss the boat.

C’est magnifique! How else to describe the world-building in Christine Dabos’ A Winter’s Promise (Europa, digital galley)? The glittering first entry in The Mirror Visitor Quartet, translated from the French by Hildegarde Serle, features castles in the air, palace intrigue, magic aplenty. Ophelia and her family live on isolated Amina, one of the floating celestial islands called arks created after the great Rupture split the world into shards. Individual ancestral spirits determine the customs of each ark, which is why Ophelia is surprised when Amina’s matriarchs arrange her betrothal to a stranger from the faraway icy ark called the Pole. Living with her enigmatic fiance Thorn’s treacherous kin in Citiceleste, Ophelia, who can read the history of objects by touch, also calls on her ability to travel through mirrors to understand the complex politics of the Pole. Is she just a pawn, or can she become a heroine? The next book arrives in the spring.

I wondered where time-traveling librarian Irene Winters would land next after enjoying her Jazz Age New York adventures in The Lost Plot, the fourth entry in Genevieve Cogman’s rousing The Invisible Library series. The answer is 1890s Paris, where the chaos-causing Fae and the order-imposing Dragons — both of whom can assume human form — are holding a peace conference with representatives of the Library as mediators. When an important Dragon is stabbed to death in The Mortal Word (Berkley, digital galley), the Library calls on Irene and Vale the detective to investigate, along with Irene’s former assistant Kai, son of a Dragon king, and Silver, the seductive Fae lord. The Fae and the Dragons not only suspect each other, they also suspect the Library of treachery — and they may be right. Then again, there are anarchists hiding out in the sewers and possessed cats patrolling the streets. Action-packed and atmospheric, with a little romance to boot, this may be my favorite entry so far.

Ben Aaronovitch’s urban fantasy series, Rivers of London, just keeps getting better, although newcomers might want to sample the earlier books before diving into Lies Sleeping (DAW, digital galley). Police officer and apprentice wizard Peter Grant goes up against an old enemy, the Faceless Man II, who is conspiring with Peter’s former colleague Lesley May to wreak havoc on London by digging up magical artifacts. Anybody seen Excalibur? The plot is complicated, the writing is witty and the history fascinating. A ripping good yarn.

Now for something completely different, The Travelling Cat Chronicles by Hiro Arikawa, translated by Philip Gabriel (Penguin, digital galley). I know, I know, you’re not into talking cats. But Nana, a crooked-tail stray, proves to be a winning narrator as he recounts an unusual road trip with Saturo, the young man who rescued him after he was hit by a car. Nana and Saturo travel through the Japanese countryside in a silver van to visit several of Saturo’s old school friends and their pets, but Saturo has a secret agenda. You might guess what it is before Nana, but you’ll still want to see how all is resolved. Sweet and bittersweet.

 

A few mysteries more

Ballard and Bosch. Sounds like an accounting firm, or maybe a couple of interior designers. Actually, Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch are two of Michael Connelly’s most appealing and complex series detectives. Introduced in last year’s The Late Show, Ballard works the night shift at Hollywood Station, camping on the beach with her dog during the day. Bosch, the veteran cop of 20-plus books, now works cold cases for the San Fernando P.D., and in the deft procedural Dark Sacred Night (Little Brown, library hardcover), he teams with Ballard to investigate the disappearance of teen Daisy Clayton. The narrative focus alternates between the two rule-benders, both of whom are sidetracked by their own cases. A heist from a dead woman’s house, a porno movie studio operating out of the back of a van, and a run-in with a vicious gang leader tied to Mexican drug dealers end up linking to the cold case and a serial killer. Ballard and Bosch — BOLO for their next adventure.

An English country house during a sultry summer, unreliable narrators harking back to past events, a pair of mysterious lovers, an outsider yearning to belong. Claire Fuller’s involving Bitter Orange (Tin House Books, digital galley) reminds me of one of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s serpentine  suspense novels. In 1969, Frances Jellicoe, an unsophisticated 39, spies on the private lives of couple Peter and Cara when they end up sharing quarters in a derelict mansion owned by an American millionaire. Things are not what they seem, to say the least, and there’s a creeping dread as Frances recalls that summer from a hospital bed years later. There will be blood. And a body.

Speaking of English country houses, Liane Moriarty cheerfully channels Agatha Christie in Nine Perfect Strangers (Flatiron Books, purchased hardcover), although she subs a posh Australian health resort for the requisite house. Romance writer Frances Welty, whose career and love life are trending downward, is among the nine people hoping to transform their lives in 10 days. Others taking part in the regimen of diets, meditation, facials, etc. include an aging jock, a divorced mom, a grieving midwife and her schoolteacher husband. All have their secrets and all have their say, as does the mysterious Masha, the Russian executive running  things. For a long time, not much happens except a lot of mindful living, but then the plot takes a turn. In fact, it goes completely off the rails, but I kept on flipping pages so fast I got a paper cut, although not as bad as the one Frances suffers from early on.

V.I. Warshawski is all in for friends and family in Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game (HarperCollins, digital galley). First, the Chicago detective’s friend Lottie asks for help with her great-nephew Felix, a Canadian-born engineering student who is mixed up in the murder of a man of Middle Eastern descent. Then, Harmony Seale, the niece of Warshawski’s ex-husband, attorney Richard Yarborough, shows up from Portland looking for her missing sister Reno. Richard had helped Reno find a job with a sleazy pay-day lender, but claims to know nothing about her present whereabouts. The intrepid sleuth doesn’t take kindly to slammed doors and unsubtle hints to mind her own business, which is why she’s soon sorting out corporate intrigue, insurance scams, Russian mobsters, ISIS supporters and the blackmarket trade in priceless antiquities and artwork. The case is complicated and timely; both the pace and detective are relentless.

First, a young curator at a Colorado history museum vanishes on an overnight camping trip. Next, a valuable historical diary disappears from the same museum before a fund-raising gala. Then there’s a murder at the museum after hours. Detective Gemma Malone stays more than busy in Emily Littlejohn’s satisfying third mystery, Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). A new mother, Malone continues to be an appealing character as she untangles a family’s secret history and the rumored curse of the icy, isolated lake.

 

If you’re looking for a taut legal thriller, you won’t find it in John Grisham’s The Reckoning (Doubleday, digital galley). There is some courtroom drama, but this is one of Grisham’s slice-of-life Southern sagas set in Clanton, Miss., place-centered and character-driven. In 1946, war hero and family man Pete Banning walks into a church and shoots the pastor dead. “I have nothing to say,” Banning tells the sheriff, and he stubbornly refuses any explanation to family, friends, judge and jury. It takes years — and flashbacks to World War II and the town’s history — before Grisham allows a reckoning with the truth.

 

Lou Berney’s noir-tinged November Road (HarperCollins, digital galley) is a crime novel, a road novel and a love story, all taking off from the November 1963 Kennedy assassination. Frank Guidry is a New Orleans mob fixer on the run from a hired killer when he stops to help Oklahoma housewife Charlotte Roy and her two kids heading for a new life in California. Stopping is Frank’s first mistake, falling for Charlotte is his second. Don’t  make a mistake and miss this one.