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Spring mix

I didn’t go anywhere on spring break, but I’ve been everywhere. Thanks to books, I’ve traveled from New York to London, Paris to Venice, Berlin to Baltimore. I’ve even been to the moon and back, skipping through time and space via Emily St. John Mandel’s wonder-filled Sea of Tranquility (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a sort of companion novel to Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel. I suppose it’s science fiction, what with classic elements like time travel, spaceships and colonies on the moon, but its reality — past, present, future — is both familiar and strange, and its characters are achingly human. There’s an English expat wandering in the Canadian woods, a best-selling novelist on a future book tour, a curiously named stranger playing time detective. There’s devastating climate change, and another pandemic, and the world maybe, probably coming to an end, yet there is as much life as loss. It’s hopeful, too, and I’ve been carrying it around in my head like a half-remembered dream. I realize I haven’t given you much detail as to the shimmering plot, but I want you to experience that sense of discovery when the strands come together.

Back to earth, and we’re in Baltimore, where Anne Tyler has made ordinary lives seem extraordinary in numerous novels. She does it again in French Braid (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), floating among members of the Garretts as they spin out and away from each other over several generations and decades. Not that they were ever very close, even on a family vacation in 1959 where younger son David avoids the lake and his overloud father Robin, while mother Mercy paints landscapes and ignores her teenage daughters. I lost all sympathy for Mercy when she later leaves a cat, who had curled on her bed like a ”nautilus,” at an animal shelter. She also effectively leaves her husband, moving bit by bit into a small artists’ studio. A granddaughter inherits her artistic talent, though, even as other offspring are imprinted with distinctive family traits. Tyler writes prismatically of the passage of time and the enduring mystery of family.

A teenage love triangle ends in tragedy in Stuart O’Nan’s Ocean State (Grove Atlantic, digital galley., which reads like a literary episode of Dateline. The little sister of the killer reveals both the identity of murderer and victim in the first line, while flashbacks tell the suspenseful backstory of young love and jealousy in a working-class Rhode Island town. It reminds me of O’Nan’s beautifully written novel of a few years back, Songs for the Missing, about a family stricken by the disappearance of a beloved daughter. O’Nan is very good at getting inside the heads of teens, their hothouse emotions stoked by hormones and peer pressure.

Other kinds of mysteries propel novels of crime and suspense. Donna Leon returns again to lovely, watery, crowded Venice in Give Unto Others (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), where police officer Guido Brunetti suspects a respected charity is a cover-up for fraud. Tech-savvy Claudia Lin whizzes around New York on a bike in Jane Pek’s clever The Verifiers (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), checking out clients using a popular dating app. Alex Segura’s terrific Secret Identity (Flati ron, digital galley) is set in 1970s New York, where comic book fan Carmen Valdez ghostwrites a female superhero comic for a colleague, who then turns up dead.

Paris is always a good idea, right? Lucy Foley crafts a locked-room puzzle in The Paris Apartment (HarperCollins, digital galley) as Jess arrives to stay with her brother in his posh digs, only to discover he’s disappeared and his odd neighbors are of little help. In An Impossible Imposter (Penguin, digital galley), Deanna Raybourne has Victorian sleuth Veronica Speedwell confronting her past while investigating a long-lost heir at a Dartmoor mansion. Kelley Armstrong may be winding up her Rockton series with The Deepest of Secrets (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) with detective Casey Duncan facing the closure of the off-the-grid community in the Canadian wilderness. Rockton’s not on any map, but it’s a must-stop for people looking to lose their pasts.

A map is at the heart of Peng Shepherd’s inventive The Cartographers (HarperCollins, digital galley), which deftly mixes mystery with a little bit of magic. There’s a body in the New York Public Library — that of noted cartographer Dr. Daniel Young. His estranged daughter Nell, her father’s protege until a famous falling-out, arrives at the scene of the crime with a mix of emotions. She’s even more confused when she finds a cheap, gas station map among his papers — the very map that caused the fateful argument — and learns that it’s the last of its kind and very much-wanted by a mysterious group known as the Cartographers. But why? That’s the secret someone will kill to keep secret, and it’s simply amazing, as Nell discovers with the help of her ex-boyfriend and her father’s friends from long ago. The Cartographers is amazing, too, and I’m already looking forward to a return visit.

 

As you like it

The Olympics. The Super Bowl. Wordle. Reader, it’s all about the games this winter, so time to play As You Like It, as in “if you like that, then you may like this.” Game on!

If you like crime novels like S. J. Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep,  in which amnesia plays a key role, then try Alafair Burke’s tricky Find Me (HarperCollins, digital galley). Hope Miller is not her real name. Fifteen years ago, an unidentified young woman was rescued from an overturned car with no memory of her past and befriended by Lyndsay Kelly, now a Manhattan defense attorney. When Hope goes missing shortly after starting a new life in East Hampton, Lyndsay goes looking for her and reaches out to NYPD detective Ellie Hatcher after a drop of blood connected to Hope’s disappearance also connects to an infamous Kansas crime. Ellie, whose police detective father died before he could arrest the serial killer eventually convicted for those murders, is intrigued by the link to her past and joins the search for Hope. If this sounds complicated, it is, but Burke is a pro at juggling multiple storylines and shifting perspectives. She spins quite a web of secrets and lies before cleverly unraveling several dark mysteries, the Kansas one inspired by real-life serial killer BTK, who terrorized Wichita in the 1980s. (I know, I was there. So was Burke).

If you like cozy mysteries like The Thursday Murder Club and quirky characters like Eleanor Oliphant, then check out Nita Prose’s The Maid (Ballantine, digital galley). Even though her co-workers think she’s an oddball, narrator Molly Gray loves the routine of her job at the Regency Grand Hotel and everything about it — the crisp white sheets, perfectly plumped pillows, her organized cleaning cart. But when she discovers the body of a wealthy guest in a room she’s assigned to clean, her subsequent actions, which make perfect sense to her, cast her as a murder suspect. Molly makes for a delightful narrator, and writer Prose crafts a fresh and tidy take on the traditional hotel murder scenario.

If you like hefty detective novels like Robert Galbraith’s Lethal White or any of Elizabeth George’s recent doorstops featuring Thomas Lynley, then you’ll want to dig into George’s latest Lynley, Something to Hide (Viking Penguin, purchased e-book). When an undercover police detective investigating incidents of FGM (female genital mutilation) in North London’s Nigerian community is murdered, her death reveals personal links to the illegal practice. Central to the story is the immigrant Bankole famly, which is planning an arranged marriage for a rebellious teenage son and a horrific surgery on an 8-year-old daughter. Lynley, DS Barbara Havers and DS Winston Nkata encounter culture clash, racism, sexism, domestic violence and blackmail in their investigation, which is much more interesting than the obligatory digressions about their personal lives. The book reminds me of an earlier entry in the series, Deception on His Mind, an equally involving story about Asian immigrants in an English seaside community. 

If you like The Secret History and are drawn to classical mythology, then you might approve of Mark Prins’ The Latinist: A Novel  (Norton, digital galley). Set in the hallowed halls of Oxford University, this modern reimagining of the myth of Daphne and Apollo does not wear its knowledge lightly, so brush up on your Ovid and the Roman gods and goddesses. Tessa Templeton, a star classics student getting ready to defend her thesis, learns that her beloved mentor, famous classics scholar Christopher Eccles, has been sabotaging her career, damning her with faint praise in letters of reference. Disbelieving and then furious, Tessa confronts Chris, who initially denies his part in any plot even as he continues to track her texts and emails. Totally obsessed with Tessa, he plans to keep her in Oxford as his assistant, but then she runs off to an archaeology dig and makes a important discovery about a minor Latin poet known for “limping iambs.” The novel is not so much about overheated passion and desire as cold-blooded power, ambition and revenge. 

If you like Agatha Christie — both her fiction and as a fictional character in other writers’ novels, than you’re in luck. Like last year’s The Mysterious Mrs. Christie and the movie Agatha, Nina de Gramont’s The Christie Affair (St. Martin’s, digital galley) is an inventive take on Christie’s mysterious 11-day disappearance in 1926. De Gramont blends fact and fiction, using some real names and some made up. Narrator Nan O’Dey is the stand-in for Archie’s real-life lover, Nancy Neele, and has a complicated background in Ireland that serves as catalyst for her later involvement in the Christies’ life. The resulting plot is clever but implausible, an entertaining mystery as long as you forget the the few facts of the case. Agatha Christie has more minor roles in two other tales, Colleen Cambridge’s Murder at Mallowan Hall (Kensington, digital galley) and Lori Rader-Day’s Death at Greenway (HarperCollins, digital galley). Set in 1930, Mallowan is the first in a series featuring Phyllida Bright as housekeeper at the manor house of the famous author and her second husband Max Mallowan. When a body’s found in the library, Phyllida decides to play Hercule Poirot and solve the case. The atmospheric Greenway is set during World War II, and focuses on trainee nurse Bridget Kelly tending to 10 babies and toddlers evacuated to the Devon country home of Christie and her husband, who are away doing war work. A fellow nurse called Gigi has more of a talent for fun than caring for children, but when a strangled body is found in the river and Gigi mysteriously disappears, Bridget is determined to discover what’s going on. For some real Agatha Christie stories, pick up the collection A Deadly Affair (HarperCollins, digital galley), subtitled “Unexpected Love Stories from the Queen of Mystery.” Indeed, romance often has fatal consequences in these 14 short stories featuring favorite Christie characters such as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple and Tommy and Tuppence. Now, how about a cuppa?

 

It’s a wrap


So many books. So many good books. While some of us were frittering away the first days of the pandemic trying to figure out Zoom, writers were writing. 

Not that writers weren’t affected by the pandemic. Ann Patchett found she couldn’t get into writing a new novel, but essays came more easily. The result, These Precious Days (HarperCollins, digital galley), is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s like having a conversation with a good friend, one who is smart and witty and shares your interests: the challenges of clearing out possessions,  the wonders of Kate DiCamillo’s books for children of all ages, the tangled ties of families. The title essay, which went viral when first published in Harper’s Magazine, chronicles the unlikely friendship between Patchett and Tom Hank’s personal assistant Sookie. There’s also a bittersweet epilogue. Before that, though, Patchett writes of the pleasures of co-owning a bookstore. “As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you can hand that book to a friend and say, Here, you’re going to love this.”

I’ve shared my love for quite a few books this year. Here are some not previously mentioned that I’m wrapping up for friends this holiday season.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King (Grove Atlantic, digital galley): In the title story, a bookseller’s daughter plays matchmaker for her reclusive, awkward father. Other stories sparkle as King illuminates  transformative and unexpected moments. She’s especially good at capturing young teens on the cusp of adulthood  (“Creature,” “When in the Dordogne”), while ‘Timeline” reads like an excerpt from her splendid novel Writers & Lovers. “On the way back to Vermont, I thought about words and how, if you put a few of them in the right order, a three-minute story about a girl and her dog can get people to forget all the ways you’ve disappointed them.”

Still Life by Sarah Winman (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley): Sarah Winman is the most generous of storytellers in her expansive novel of love and friendship, art and war. British private Ulysses Temper meets aging art historian Evelyn Skinner in the wine cellar of a Tuscan villa in 1944, and she suggests he visit Florence before he leaves Italy. That visit marks Ulysses as he returns to post-war London, his old pub and friends, including free-spirited Peg, whom he married before the war and who now has a daughter Alys. An unexpected inheritance takes Ulysses and his family of friends back to Italy in the 1950s, but he doesn’t meet Evelyn again until 1966, the year of the great Arno flood and the race to rescue Florence’s great art treasures. Don’t miss the parrot and a cameo by E.M. Forster. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, digital galley): In the turbulent first year of the pandemic, a small, independent bookstore in Minneapolis becomes a touchstone and refuge for assorted booksellers and booklovers. Outside, the George Floyd protests roil a city haunted by its racist past. Inside the store, bookseller Tookie, an irreverent ex-con and avid reader, is trying to exorcise the ghost of annoying customer Flora. A white woman who wanted to be Native American, Flora died on All Souls Day but is still hanging around the shelves. Erdrich mixes humor and heartbreak like a literary alchemist. Readers won’t be able to resist.

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz (HarperCollins, digital galley): Anthony Horowitz the author has a great time again playing sidekick to fictional detective Daniel Hawthorne in a third clever mystery.  This time, the two are at a literary festival in the Channel Islands to promote the books Horowitz writes about Hawthorne. When the inevitable murder occurs, the other authors, with their quirks and pretensions, all fall under suspicion. It’s a tricky case, but Horowitz thinks they’ve got it all figured out — until the ever enigmatic Hawthorne turns the tables. More, please.

London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Bantam/Random House. digital galley): The Home Office is again shutting down the Peculiar Crimes Unit, but this time it’s for real. Still, ancient detectives Arthur Bryant and John May discover an open case in the death of a 91-year-old woman, a former security expert. Her demise, though, is soon linked to that of several other peculiar deaths by way of a toy replica of London Bridge. If this is, indeed, the end of the PCU, it’s a doozy of a finale for Bryant and May. I’m going to miss them. Thanks for the mysteries. 

Wyman and the Florida Knights by Larry Baker (Ice Cube Press, ARC): Call it Florida Gothic. In the first half of his entertaining novel, Larry Baker recounts the fabled history of the Knights, who settle in the Florida wilds north of Orlando in 1866. In the second half, famous portrait painter Peter Wyman tries to escape his past by disappearing in Knightville in 2016, but his presence leads to the unraveling of Knight family secrets. There’s passion, betrayal, corruption, murder, an unmarked grave and a mythic black panther.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hardcover): More like Conversations with Friends than Normal People, Rooney’s smart comedy of manners finds best friends Alice and Eileen worried about turning 30 and the sorry state of the world, but also about finding love and connection. Successful novelist Alice begins seeing factory worker Felix, while literary editor Eileen turns to her old childhood friend Simon. Rooney’s writing is addictive in its clarity and precision. 

 

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow, digital galley): A low-flying plane and a body on a rural runway kick off Cash’s Southern-noir tinged tale. But the murder mystery is just the frame for a layered portrait of a small-town sheriff dealing with racial tensions and personal problems in Reagan-era North Carolina. The ending may come as a surprise, but, in hindsight, it’s inevitable.

Keep calm, keep reading

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Not of State of Terror (Simon Schuster/St. Martin’s library e-book), which is the first thriller from Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny. It’s very good, and scary timely, and I’ll get to it in a minute. But what has me in a state of anxiety is the news that stores might be running out of books this holiday season because the pandemic has messed with the supply chain. Paper shortages, printing back-ups, shipping delays and rising costs have all contributed to the problem, which has publishers rescheduling some books until spring and advising readers to shop early because restocking popular titles will be difficult. Oh dear!ki

But really there’s no need to panic. You might have to wait a little longer to get your hands on a a particular title from the store or library, but we’ll find you another book (or two, or three) to read in the meantime. There are so many good new novels that I’ve had trouble keeping up, and I still haven’t gotten to Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land or Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway.  Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois is so big and rich that I’m taking it slowly, savoring every page. I’m looking forward to new short stories from Lily King, essays by Ann Patchett.  But first, what I have read that’s worth the wait  includes State of Terror, in which newly minted Secretary of State Ellen Adams faces the nightmare of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons. Thanks to Clinton’s inside knowledge, the plot proves all too plausible. Thanks to Penny’s crime writing skills, it’s a suspenseful, rollercoaster tale. It’s also unexpectedly funny as Adams deals with incompetent politicians and foreign heads of state who continually underestimate her. Then there’s the former president, Eric Dunn, aka Eric the Dumb, hiding out in Florida and scheming to get back in power. How far will he go? I expect Clinton and Penny had a good time writing this book. I sure had a good time reading it.

Reading Silverview (Viking, purchased hardcover) is bittersweet because it’s the last book from the late, great John le Carre. It’s a little elegiac as a young bookstore owner becomes involved in the secrets of a mysterious Polish emigre, whose wife is high up in British intelligence. But it’s also a classic hall-of-mirrors tale, silkily written, where even the minor characters make an impression. There’s a terrific set piece of old spies reminiscing about past operations and the very value of their careers,  and a collection of blue-and-white china plays the role of red herring. 

Who knew that a novel about a 12th-century nun could be so thrilling? “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” Thus begins Matrix (Riverhead/PRH, digital galley), in which Laura Groff fiercely imagines the life of the historical writer and poet Marie de France. Awkward, ungainly Marie is slow at first to accept her fate when Eleanor of Aquitane sends her as prioress to an impoverished convent in the middle of nowhere. But she is smart and creative and ambitious in a patriarchal age, and her vision empowers the women around her. Groth’s lilting prose evokes both earthly desires and heavenly delights. Matrix is a nominee for the National Book Award, as is Laird Hunt’s lyrical Zorrie (Bloomsbury, library hardcover), a quiet, slender novel encompassing the ordinary yet remarkable life a woman in 20th century rural Indiana.

Colson Whitehead, winner of multiple awards for books such as The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, turns to crime with Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, digital galley), a hugely enjoyable heist tale/family saga. In 1960s Harlem, furniture salesman Ray Carney is “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked,” but his dreams of respectability collide with his cousin Freddie’s schemes of quick money. Soon Ray, who contends with the disapproval of his wealthy in-laws, is dealing with local low-lifes, connected gangsters, shady cops and the always perplexing question: Where to bury the body? The identity of a dead body is somewhat in doubt in The Man Who Died Twice (digital galley), Richard Osman’s frisky follow-up to The Thursday Murder Club. It’s best to read that book first so you can acquaint yourself with the quirky senior sleuths solving crimes in an English retirement community. Here, they’re on the trail of some missing diamonds, as are several murderous villains.

Hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Alice Hoffman first introduced us to the Owens family of witches in Practical Magic. Since then she has written two prequels exploring the Owens’ family’s storied history and the long-ago curse that befalls anyone an Owens woman dares to love. In The Book of Magic (Scribner, digital galley), we’re back in the present, where the curse is threatening the life of college student Kylie’s beloved Gideon. While he lies in a coma, Kylie heads to England to find someone who can open a magical book that may tell her how to end the curse. Other members of the Owens clan are quick to follow, calling on their own powers and knowing that sacrifices will be required in a final reckoning. Hoffman enchants again.  If you are still bespelled by C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then you’ll want to read Patti Callahan’s charming and imaginative Once Upon a Wardrobe (Harper Muse, advance reader copy), set in 1950 England. Oxford student Megs Devonshire braves the home of Lewis himself because her beloved younger brother George, who has a terminal heart condition, wants one question answered: Where did Narnia come from? Listening to Lewis’ recollections of his childhood and writing them down for George, Megs discovers the magic and power of stories, the hope contained therein. 

Timothy Schaffert’s atmospheric The Perfume Thief (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes place in the shadowy world of 1941 Paris, where Clementine, an aging gender-fluid American ex-pat, mixes perfumes for a select clientele. She’s also a former con artist, and it’s those skills she calls on when she wants to steal a book of perfume formulas from Nazi bureaucrat Oskar Voss. She gains his attention by spinning tales of her own colorful life of crime. Voss is fascinated by Clem and her stories, and readers will feel the same. A shout-out as well to my former Orlando Sentinel colleague Geri Throne’s novel Secret Battles (independently published, digital galley). She draws on her own family history to tell a well-researched and involving story of love and war.  Walt and Nora Baran marry just before Pearl Harbor and are almost immediately separated. Walt hopes to avoid the frontlines by becoming a medic but ends up in North Africa, experiencing war’s horrors. Nora, stuck at home in New Jersey under her father-in-law’s thumb and with a sickly baby, waits weeks for Walt’s heavily censored letters. Neither is able to reveal the reality of their lives to each other, and both harbor secrets that test their bonds.

If you’re looking to get in the holiday spirit, may I suggest The Santa Suit (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), by my pal Kathy Trocheck, known to readers as Mary Kay Andrews. Moving into an old farmhouse in a small North Carolina town, Ivy Perkins finds it crammed with furniture and assorted junk. But an old Santa suit in the top of a closet is in great shape, and in one pocket Ivy discovers a note from a little girl with one Christmas wish — that her father return safely from the war. Who is the little girl and did she get her wish? Ivy goes looking for answers and finds secrets large and small, new friends and a new love. After all, it is Christmas. Put this one on your wish list.

 

I often play detective when reading crime novels, puzzling over clues and sniffing out red herrings until I can spot whodunnit. But I don’t even try to guess with spy novels. I figure everybody is lying and playing a double — or triple — game, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride, the dizzying twists and turns. And so it goes with my old friend Dan Fesperman’s new novel, The Cover Wife (Knopf, digital galley), which is tense and timely even though it’s largely set in 1999 Germany. Paris-based CIA agent Claire Saylor isn’t too thrilled about playing the wife of a stodgy American academic with scandalous views of the Quran on a European book tour. She’s more intrigued by a mysterious secondary assignment in Hamburg, keeping an eye on a group of young Muslims gathering at a local mosque. Among them is an American expat trying to win the trust and approval of his new friends. To make matters more confusing, the FBI also has gotten wind of the operation without knowing the details. Perfectly plotted and neatly mixing fiction with fact, the book’s pages practically turn themselves. I had an idea where The Cover Wife might be going, but the ending was still a stunner. Brilliant.

When I first read Rebecca Starford’s An Unlikely Spy: A Novel (HarperCollins, digital galley), about a young British woman tapped by MI5 to infiltrate a group of German sympathizers in 1939 London, it seemed teasingly familiar. I finally figured out why. Starford was inspired by the wartime experiences of real MI5 agent Joan Miller, as was writer Kate Atkinson in her wonderful novel Transcription. But the two authors go in different directions in reimagining the story behind the story. An Unlikely Spy is the more conventional, as recent Oxford grad Evelyn Varley gets a job in the War Office. While a scholarship girl at boarding school, Evelyn made friends with wealthy Julia and her influential family; now, her innate cleverness and her acquired upper-class manner make Evelyn the perfect candidate to get close to members of the Lion Society. Still, the secrets Evelyn uncovers among the upper-classes thrust her into a conspiracy she doesn’t understand and test her loyalties.

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to put a chill in a sultry summer. Rachel Donohue’s atmospheric The Temple House Vanishing (Algonquin, digital galley) owes a lot to one of my favorite books and movies, Picnic at Hanging Rock, but stands on its own in its haunting depiction of obsession and desire.  In 1990 Ireland, scholarship student Louisa is a misfit at Temple House, a Catholic boarding school for girls on the dreary and craggy coast. Then she meets charismatic rebel Victoria, who seems to have a special relationship with the bohemian art teacher Mr. Lavelle, and is drawn into their orbit. On the eve of the Christmas holidays, Louisa and Mr. Lavelle vanish into the night, never to be seen again. Twenty-five years later, a journalist begins an investigation, and her present-day chronicle alternates with chapters written from Louisa’s point-of-view about her time at Temple House. Something Louisa learns early on at the school is that nothing is ever what it seems. You’ve been warned.

Megan Abbott is another writer who knows obsession and desire. Having written thrillingly about teenage cheerleaders (Dare Me) and rival gymnasts (You Will Know Me), she focuses on ballet dancers in The Turnout (Putnam/Penguin), a controlled burn of a book. The Durant sisters, Dara and Marie, are lifelong bunheads, schooled by their glamorous dance-teacher mother, whose popular studio they inherited. Dara’s husband Charlie, their mother’s former live-in student, can no longer dance because of chronic injuries and runs the business office while Marie and Dara teach. The annual run-up to a production of “The Nutcracker” is more fraught than usual after a fire destroys part of the school’s rehearsal space. Enter contractor Derek, who convinces the trio to up-renovate the school and bill the insurance company, even as he seduces vulnerable Marie. “Ballet is full of dark fairy tales,” Abbott observes in her mesmerizing narrative that sears the pretty off the pink. A little bit Gothic, a whole lot noir, The Turnout is fierce enchantment.

Several of my friends and I long ago dubbed a couple of manicured streets near downtown Orlando “Axe-killer neighborhood” because we never saw a living soul. We joked that something horrific could go on behind closed doors, and the neighbors would just say, “They were so quiet. We had no idea.” So I chuckled when I saw the title of Megan Miranda’s new domestic suspense tale, Such a Quiet Place (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). Hollow’s Edge was an idyllic enclave until Fiona and Brandon Truett were murdered in their home and neighbor Ruby Fletcher was found guilty of the crime. A year and a half later, the Truetts’ house is still empty, neighbors can’t sell their houses and Ruby, her conviction overturned, has moved back in with her astonished roommate Harper Nash. She has nowhere else to go, Ruby tells Harper, and immediately sets out to provoke the neighbors. Somebody lied at Ruby’s trial. But who?

 

 

Catch a crime wave

dreamyInjured in a fall, successful novelist Gerry Andersen is confined to a hospital bed in his new Baltimore penthouse, dependent on his colorless assistant and a stodgy night nurse. His drug-addled mind roams through his past and present like Marley’s ghost, but he is certain the woman calling on the phone at night saying she’s Aubrey is not Aubrey. Impossible. Aubrey is the main character in his best-selling novel “Dream Girl.” She’s fictional. Gerry made her up. She doesn’t exist. Or does she?

You’re not wrong if Laura Lippman’s entertaining new novel Dream Girl (William Morrow, digital galley) reminds you of Stephen King’s Misery. Lippman finds inspiration for her crime novels in  books, old movies, real-life crimes. But whatever the source, she has a way of turning the material upside-down and inside-out, making it her own. So, yes, her  Dream Girl (William Morrow, digital galley) pays homage to King,  but also to Hitchcock and her other literary and cinematic favorites. It’s a shout-out, too, to the process of writing and the writer’s life. Gerry’s mind may be playing tricks on him when it comes to phone calls from Aubrey, but the woman who turns up next to him one morning is very real — and very dead. Lippman’s novel is twisty and twisted, quite the nightmare for poor Gerry, who is an insufferable jerk. I didn’t like him at all, but I sure liked Dream Girl.

maidensI detested Alex Michaelides’ second novel The Maidens (Celadon, purchased hardcover). Let me count the ways: poor writing, uneven pacing, unbelievable characters, absurd plot, ludicrous ending. I did like the setting — Cambridge University with its historic, shadowed halls of academe. But the story of a widowed psychotherapist convinced that a classics professor is killing his female students is a slog from slow beginning to ridiculous conclusion, a true disappointment for those who liked Michaelides’ The Silent Witness. Sorry I wasted the time and money, bamboozled by the hype and comparisons to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. If you want to read something else on the best-seller list (keeping in mind that “best” refers only to sales), try Laura Dave’s The Last Thing He Told Me (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), in which a woman’s husband disappears in the midst of a corporate scandal, and she and her teenage stepdaughter go looking for him. It’s a quick, suspenseful riff on the old “you never know really know somebody” plot. 

nighthawksThank goodness for Elly Griffiths and Laurie R. King. Neither writer misses a beat in the latest entries in their long-running detective series. In Griffith’s The Night Hawks (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and her new colleague David Brown are called to a crime scene when metal detectorists discover Bronze Age artifacts, a new corpse and a skeleton on a Norfolk beach. Soon after, these same “Night Hawks” are at the scene of a presumed murder/suicide at an isolated farmhouse, and then one of their own turns up dead. DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 10-year-old daughter, doesn’t like coincidences, and he’s also suspicious of Ruth’s new colleague, who is a first-class meddler. The bits of history and folklore (there’s a gigantic hound) are fascinating, as is the mystery itself and the continuing relationship between Ruth and Nelson. History, mystery and myth also play into King’s lively Castle Shade (Bantam/Random House, digital galley), with Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes helping Marie of Roumania — yes, the real Queen — figure out who is threatening her teenage daughter. Marie is ensconced in her beloved Castle Bran in the Carpathian mountains of Transylvania, once home to Vlad the Impaler. There are whispers of witchcraft and rumors of vampires among the villagers and castle servants, although Holmes’ brother Mycroft suspects Marie’s diplomatic enemies of trying to undermine her popularity. Russell and Holmes think someone inside or close to the castle wants Marie out of the way. King makes the most of the shivery atmosphere as her wily and witty detectives stalk things that go bump in the night.

boxwoodsHaving wrapped up the infamous Ellingham cold case in the “Truly Devious” trilogy,  teen detective Stevie Bell returns in Maureen Johnson’s nifty The Box in The Woods (HarperCollins, digital galley). The new owner of Camp Wonder Falls offers Stevie and her Ellingham friends Janelle and Nate jobs as counselors in return for Stevie’s help with a podcast investigating the 1978 Box in the Woods murders. Back then at what was Camp Sunny Pines, four counselors were killed and three of their bodies hidden in an old hunting blind. Johnson has a blast moving the story back and forth between past and present, and using every summer camp trope from from familiar books and horror movies. You practically expect Jason to jump out from behind a tree. It’s also fun seeing the friends trying to fit in at camp — engineer Janelle proves to be super at crafts, while Nate, who wrote a best-selling fantasy novel at 14, is plagued by a critical camper, and Stevie discovers previously unknown outdoor skills. It helps that boyfriend David is camping at a nearby lake and knows the way her mind works — and her anxiety grows — when confronted with a puzzle. The Box in the Woods may be even better than its predecessors, The Hand on the Wall, etc., because the various mysteries are satisfactorily resolved by book’s end. But one remains — what will Stevie Bell do next?

 

 

Spring into summer

I know you think I’ve been languishing, and maybe I have a little. But mostly I have been reading, because as a recent Facebook meme put it, “Sometimes you just need to lie on the couch and read for a couple of years.”  Or a couple of months in my case. So many new books, and a few so good I want to read them again.  Katherine Heiny’s novel Early Morning Riser (Knopf, digital galley) is bright and funny but also smart and serious, and Heiny’s writing reminds me a bit of Laurie Colwin, which is always a good thing. Schoolteacher Janey falls hard for woodworker-handyman Duncan, who is handsome, sexy and kind, and who apparently has slept with every woman in Boyne City, Michigan. And he’s still friends with them, including his ex-wife Aggie, who is now married to Glenn but has Duncan mow her yard.  A lot of folks are Duncan-dependent, Janey realizes, especially his intellectually challenged assistant Jimmy.  That and the fact Duncan doesn’t want to get married again leads Janey to sadly move on. But then a tragedy down the road unexpectedly entangles her life with Duncan, Aggie, Glenn and Jimmy. You just never know what’s going to happen when you greet a new day. 

Jessica Anya Blau’s coming-of-age novel Mary Jane (HarperCollins, library e-book) is like a nostalgic blast from the past on the radio. You can’t help but smile.  It’s summer of ’75 in Baltimore, and 14-year-old narrator Mary Jane Dillard, whose parents are conservative country-club types, gets a job as a nanny with the unconventional Cones — psychiatrist Richard (he has a beard), artistic Bonnie (she’s braless) and five-year-old daughter Izzie (precocious) . Mary Jane is enchanted by their casual manners and friendliness, and they welcome her housekeeping and cooking skills. Then Richard invites rock star client and heroin addict Jimmy and his movie star wife Sheba to move in for some intensive therapy, and Mary Jane gets a close-up look at sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. Wearing cut-offs and singing harmony to Jimmy’s hits, Mary Jane knows she’s courting her parents’ disapproval and ignores rising tensions at the Cones. A day of reckoning is inevitable, and there will be consequences. Still, you readily understand why Mary Jane thinks it’s the best summer ever. A bit of a priss at first, Mary Jane turns out to be a real charmer. So is Mary Jane the book.

Heading to the beach? Take your favorite adult beverage and Mary Kay Andrews’ The Newcomer (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), a heady mix of family drama and mystery, with a spritz of romance. Letty Carnahan is so sure her wealthy brother-in-law Evan Wingfield is behind her sister Tanya’s death that she goes on the run with her four-year-old niece Maya. Like previous Andrews heroines, Letty is smart, feisty and good with people and interior decorating. She and Maya end up hiding out at an old-timey mom-and-pop Florida motel, where the snowbirds eye her and Maya with suspicion. But Letty, who has more secrets than shells on the beach, manages to win over the motel’s owner, get a job and spark with the local deputy. Evan and his henchman are hot on her trail, though, as are some of Tanya’s old “friends.” There’s treasure to be had on Treasure Island. Cheers!

Despite its evocative title and cover, Jennifer Weiner’s That Summer (Atria, digital galley) isn’t a breezy beach book. Rather, Weiner crafts an involving, non-linear saga of female friendship and empowerment hinging on a devastating “Me Too” incident. A misdirected e-mail initially connects Philadelphia cooking teacher Diana “Daisy” Shoemaker with successful business consultant Diana Starling. But as Weiner explores Daisy’s present life with her wealthy husband and restless teenage daughter — the memorable Beatrice — she also excavates Diana’s patchwork past. Turns out both women have history with Cape Cod and share more than a first name.  Weiner has a light hand with some heavy subject matter for the most part, although men generally do not come off well. Still, she’s preaching to the choir, and her many fans will appreciate the affecting story.

 

How about a few thrills and chills? Have I got the books for you. Both Alexander Andrews’ Who is Maude Dixon? (Little, Brown, digital galley) and Jean Hanff Korelitz’s The Plot (Celadon Books, library e-book) are clever takes on the perils of literary impersonation and plagiarism. Andrews’ inventive tale is more of a caper as writer-wannabe Florence Darrow becomes the assistant to best-selling, reclusive author Maude Dixon. Maude is the pseudonym of hard-drinking Helen Wilcox, who decides a trip to Morocco will cure her writers’ block. And it’s in Morocco that Maude/Helen disappears and Florence wakes up in the hospital and decides she will become Maude. Delicious, devious complications ensue. The Plot also entertains, but it’s a more serious exploration of ambition and identity as once-promising novelist Jacob Finch Bonner decides to steal the sure-fire plot of a dead writing student’s unfinished manuscript. Devilish consequences snowball when Bonner’s book becomes a best-seller. So good. 

So is Flynn Barry’s tense Northern Spy (Penguin, library e-book), in which Tessa, a single mother and BBC news producer in peacetime Belfast is shocked to discover her sister is working for the IRA. Tessa, who grew up in the city’s Catholic neighborhoods, doesn’t know who to trust — family friends she’s known her whole life, or the British intelligence officer who wants her to inform on the IRA sympathizers. Desperate to keep her young son safe, Tessa becomes a double agent, knowing that she could be betrayed in a heartbeat. Errant sisters also figure in Carole Johnstone’s twisty and twisted Mirrorland (Scribner, digital galley). After a dozen years in California, Cat Morgan returns home to Edinburgh when her brother-in-law Ross lets her know that her estranged twin, El, is missing, presumed drowned in the Firth of Forth. The mystery of El’s disappearance lies in the twins’ dark childhood, during which they escaped into a fanciful world called Mirrorland. The twins’ blurrng reality and imagination spills over into Johnstone’s gripping but confusing narrative.

The real-life kidnapping of  Polli Klaas in 1993 California plays in the background of Paula McClain’s first suspense novel When the Stars Go Dark (Random House, digital galley). Missing persons detective Anna Hart takes a break from work after a personal tragedy, returning to her late foster father’s house near Mendocino. When the 15-year-old daughter of a well-known actress and her husband goes missing, Anna is brought into the case, even though it calls up traumatic memories of her childhood and the later disappearance of a teenage friend. It’s a well-written if unevenly paced story, and the villain is easy to spot. Be sure to read the author’s note at book’s end.

 

If you’ve ever spent the day rafting on a river, then you know you carry the river’s rhythms back on land, the sensation of gently rocking to an unseen current. I felt something similar when I finished reading Jamie Harrison’s deep and lovely novel The Center of Everything (Counterpoint, purchased e-book). Maybe it’s because the Yellowstone River is such a part of the story, or because memory moves like water through the pages, but I didn’t want to leave the world of the book.

At its center is Polly Schuster, living in 2002 Livingston, Mont., with her husband Ned and their two small children, planning a party for Great-Aunt Maude’s 90th birthday. Her retired schoolteacher parents are helping out, and Polly is trying desperately to act like her usual self even while recovering from the concussion sustained in a recent bike accident. She forgets things, her attention span is erratic, she lapses into momentary waking dreams. “Lately, Polly thought her mind was a river, constantly scouring and pooling, constantly disappearing, filling with details that glinted and vanished.”

A helicopter buzzing overhead is an unwelcome distraction, a reminder of the ongoing search for a beloved local babysitter apparently drowned in the rushing snow melt of the Yellowstone. Polly thinks accidents are like arrows, and this one pierces her mind in unexpected ways. She imagines the drowned girl floating underwater, her face turned to the moon. But she also remembers past drownings observed when she was a child, although her mother asserts she’s confusing memory with reality. Maybe not. In sequences set largely in the summer of 1968, when Polly was living with her great-grandparents on the Long Island shore, family secrets and tragedies are revealed that echo down generations. But Polly’s eighth year is largely idyllic as she and family friend Edmund swing on the tire, ramble through the woods and on the beach, ignore the adults. It is only years later that childhood perceptions will give way to adult recognition. Harrison moves easily between Polly’s past and present, writing beautifully of the wonders of nature, the mystery of family, the kaleidoscope of memory. I can’t say enough good things about The Center of Everything. I’m reading it again.

Imagine two teenage girls walking together, obviously best friends. The thin, pale one is 14-year-old Josie. The one with dark hair and kind eyes is Klara, an almost state-of-the art AF — artificial friend. A robot created to be a companion and who once stood in a storefront window waiting to be chosen, Klara is also the narrator of Kazuo Ishiguro’s beguiling and bittersweet new novel, Klara and the Sun (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Reminiscent of Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, it also wrestles with questions of memory, identity, love and what it means to be human in a near-future dystopian world. There’s the subdued, subtle prose that hints at darkness to come, the wistful, melancholy tone. Klara and Kathy H., the narrator of the earlier novel, are cousins of a sort, both characters whose fate is determined by science. (So is Josie, as it it turns out.) But Klara and the Sun is a kinder, gentler Never Let Me Go. It touches the heart but doesn’t quite break it.

Josie’s mother at first hesitates to buy solar-powered Klara, thinking a brand-new model might be better. But Josie is insistent, and her divorced mother gives in, because Josie is suffering from an unnamed illness for which her mother feels guilty. More of Josie’s circumstances are revealed as the story progresses and Klara gets to know the boy next door who Josie’s longtime friend but one with a different future chosen for him. There’s also Josie’s father, met on a visit to the city, where Josie goes to see a mysterious portrait painter. Everyone wants the best for ailing Josie, and Klara is no exception, making a bargain with the life-nourishing sun that sets her on an unusual adventure.

What am I talking about — the whole book is unusual, and the more so because of the deliberate ambiguity of the setting, familiar in many ordinary details but remarkably strange as perceived by Klara. When she encounters the unknown, her vision fractures into a series of boxes until her programming adapts. Don’t be surprised if Klara and the Sun rocks your world.

Abigail Dean’s harrowing debut Girl A (Viking, purchased hardcover) is one of those books that is as hard to put down as it is to read. It needs to come with trigger warnings — child abuse, imprisonment, psychosis, suicide. But while the subject matter is the stuff of tabloids, Dean’s story avoids sensationalism because events are filtered through the understated voice of Alexandra, a sucessful 30-year-old lawyer. Fifteen years ago, she was “Girl A,”  the one who escaped from her parents’ “House of Horrors” in a suburban English town and told authorities about the brothers and sisters left behind. Now their mother has died in prison, naming Lex executor of her will and leaving the house to her and her siblings, who were adopted separately. Lex and younger sister Evie would like to turn the house into a community center so something good can come out of their disastrous childhood, but Lex will need each sibling to sign off on the plan.  Getting in touch with the others, though, is a journey into a past they would rather forget.

This is how Dean structures the book, splicing present days scenes with glimpses of the past that begin with Lex struggling out of chains and breaking a second-story window to get away from years of starvation, neglect and her father’s cult of control and failed zealotry. A meeting with older brother Ethan who is planning his wedding leads to Alex’s memory of days when her family was still relatively normal but how her father first slapped 7-year-old Ethan at Sunday dinner when he thought his authority was being challenged. Things go downhill in increments — the children are teased at school because of dirty clothes and empty lunchboxes, then comes the isolation of homeschooling and rote learning, no baths, rationed food, the first bindings. Delilah lies to their  aunt that all is well just as Lex starts to say otherwise. Gabriel is always bruised. Evie whimpers in her sleep. The siblings are individually and collectively damaged as children, and they remain broken in various ways as adults.

So Girl A is not a happy story but it is a fascinating one as Dean artfully explores how memory both helps and hurts trauma survivors. You can hardly see Lex’s physical scars anymore, and she believes her psychic wounds are well hidden. But they are there. Memory bleeds.

I love a mystery

Let’s hear it for the old guys. No, not Brady and Gronk, although that was pretty super. I’m talking about venerable detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the stalwarts of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit in Christopher Fowler’s long-running series. May is the younger, more sauve one. Bryant looks like a tortoise and is brilliant. At the beginning of Bryant and May: Oranges and Lemons (Ballantine, digital galley), it appears  the long-threatened PCU has met its demise. The Kings Cross office has closed, the team disassembled. May is in hospital recovering from a bullet wound, while Bryant has gone walkabout. But then a government official is crushed by a delivery of fruit falling from a produce van, and the incident is bizarre enough to reunite everyone under the watchful eye of a Home Office spy. Also new on the scene is young Sydney, who wants to be the next Bryant. The original cannily connects the crime to the death of a bookseller and a familiar nursery rhyme about London church bells. More murders bear him out, but figuring out the identity of the killer is another thing altogether. Along with droll writing and endearingly eccentric characters, the series is known for the arcane bits of London history that Fowler enfolds in his convoluted plots. In Oranges and Lemons, excerpts of Bryant’s walking tours of the city provide entertaining and essential asides. 

Australian author Jane Harper whisks readers to Tasmania in her new stand-alone The Survivors (Flatiron Books, digital galley/purchased hardcover). When Kieran and his partner Mia return to their childhome home on Evelyn Bay to help his mother move house, they bring with them their baby daughter and conflicted memories of a decade-old family tragedy The discovery of the body of a young waitress on the beach also revives the town’s memory of the storm in which two men drowned and a local girl disappeared. The police soon discover that Kieran’s father, a former teacher now sliding into dementia, was the last person to see both girls. As in her last book, The Lost Man, Harper excels at detailing the complicated dynamics of family ties and friendships, of guilt and grief. Treacherous seaside cliffs and caves, as well as a submerged shipwreck,  provide the atmospheric backdrop for the involving story. 

A narrator with a head injury is about as unreliable as they come. Aarav Rai is that guy in Nalini Singh’s noirish Unquiet in Her Bones (Berkley, digital galley). At 26, the first-time mystery writer has just seen his book turned into a hit film when a car crash sends him back to live with his wealthy father in a New Zealand cul-de-sac. His beautiful mother Nina vanished 10 years ago with a suitcase of her husband’s cash, but even as Aarav nurses a broken foot and migraines with prescription drugs, her bones are discovered in a nearby forest. She’s still in her sleek Jaguar, now buried by lush undergrowth. But the money is missing. Aarav’s quest to discover who killed his mother — the suspects range from his domineering father to neighbors who may have been her lovers or rivals — is hindered both by his fragmented memories of the night she disappeared and his current messed-up mind and paranoia.  He remembers a scream in the night, a slamming door, chilling rain, tail lights. Or does he? 

On a snowy night in 1893 London, a seamstress carries out a mysterious task in an upstairs room and then steps out the high window, falling to her death. Reading this eerie prologue encouraged me to buy The House on Vesper Sands by Paraic O’Donnell (Tin House Books, purchased e-book). I got the Gothic I was expecting, but was surprised by the amusing entertainment that ensued, as if Edward Gorey and Charles Dickens invited Sherlock Holmes for drinks and war stories. The plot is a Victorian mash-up of missing girls and sinister secrets, eccentric aristocrats and unsettling seances. The memorable characters include smart, brusque Inspector Cutter of Scotland Yard; his self-appointed sidekick, university student Gideon Bliss; plucky society reporter and reluctant heiress Octavia Hillingdon, who turns to a marquess nicknamed Elf for the latest gossip; and the elusive Lord Strythe, head of the Spiriters, who supposedly steal the souls of young working women. All in all, a clever winter’s tale that begs for a sequel.

Kelley Armstrong’s Rockton novels are an annual winter pleasure. The sixth in the series, A Stranger in Town (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) finds detective Casey Duncan and her sheriff boyfriend Eric Dalton rescuing a gravely wounded hiker in the Canadian Yukon. But bringing the stranger inside the borders of the off-the-grid settlement threatens Rockton’s existence as a sanctuary for people needing to escape from the outside world. Armstrong further explores the history of the nomadic “hostiles” who live in the nearby wilderness, their connection to Rockton’s past — and its future.

Former pro snowboarder Allie Reynolds brings her ski cred to her first novel, Shiver (Putnam, digital galley), which will appeal to fans of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, and by extension, Ruth Ware’s excellent One by One and Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party. Milla accepts an invitation to a remote ski resort in the French Alps, but the expected reunion with four former snowboarder pals turns out to be rigged. No one will admit to stranding them atop the icy mountain where one of their gang was injured 10 years ago and another disappeared. Reynolds alternates the tense present-day narrative with flashbacks to the time when the frenemies were competing on the circuit, trading lovers and indulging in sabotaging pranks. Milla’s chief rival was the beautiful Saskia, whose body has never been found. Shiver…

In December of 1926, Agatha Christie, just beginning to make her name as a mystery writer, disappeared from her country house and was thought to be a suicide or victim of foul play. A nationwide search failed to find the missing woman until she reappeared 11 days later at a spa under an assumed name, alive and well and claiming amnesia. Author Marie Benedict uses this real-life incident as the springboard for her new novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie (Sourcebooks, library e-book) and proposes an intriguing and plausible scenario. Benedict shifts between the voices of Agatha and her husband Archie to chronicle their lives leading up to the disappearance and during Agatha’s absence. The two marry quickly on the eve of World War I, but Archie is changed by his battlefield experiences. Agatha does her best to keep her selfish husband happy but is hurt by their young daughter’s preference for her father and Archie’s caddish behavior. Archie is having a secret weekend with a girlfriend he plans to marry when his wife disappears. No wonder he’s the chief suspect in the case. It’s satisfying watching Archie protest his innocence, and even more satisfying when he gets his comeuppance. Agatha always was a masterful plotter.

 

 

Making spirits bright

Hi. Remember me? Constant reader, infrequent blogger. When I took a break the end of August to pack up and move house, I didn’t think I’d be gone so long. But, y’know, this year. Days are slow motion, but weeks fast forward. All of a sudden — or so it seems — literary prizes are being awarded, lists of the years’ best books are being announced. Charles Yu won the National Book Award for Interior Chinatown. Haven’t read it yet. Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart won the Booker Award. It broke my heart, which was already cracked from reading Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, winner of the UK’s Women’s Prize for Fiction. Both belong on my year-end list of favorites; I don’t do “bests” because I haven’t read that widely. Still, it’s nice to see books I liked show up on others’ lists: James McBride’s Deacon King Kong, Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half, Carl Hiaasen’s Squeeze Me, Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic and, especially, Lily King’s Writers and Lovers.

King’s Writers and Lovers is my favorite of favorites, but I can’t give a lot of copies away for Christmas because I gave away many for birthdays. My go-to gift for the holidays is Fannie Flagg’s The Wonder Boy of Whistle Stop (Random House, digital galley), the literary equivalent of a warm hug. A follow-up to Flagg’s beloved Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, it returns to that Alabama sweet spot in a series of loosely connected vignettes interspersed with chatty missives from former resident Dot Weems. The title character is the one-armed Buddy Theadgoode, whose mother Ruth ran the cafe with her partner Idgie. Buddy always thought he had a lucky childhood, and when he closes his veterinarian practice and moves to Atlanta to be near his grown daughter Ruthie, he revisits the past in memory. But when he actually seeks out Whistle Stop, he finds the old railroad town is abandoned and falling apart. Flagg’s finely honed comic set pieces jump around in time, much like talking to an old friend whose backtracking is an essential part of the conversation. The novel made me hungry for home — and for fried green tomatoes.

KJ Dell’Antonia’s fun first novel The Chicken Sisters (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley) made me hungry for fried chicken. In small-town Kansas, residents are loyal to either Chicken Mimi’s or Chicken Frannie’s, competing restaurants founded by feuding sisters a century ago. The feud heats up when two contemporary sisters — Mae and Amanda Moore — enter a reality TV show competition with a $100,000 first prize. But proving who has the best fried chicken exposes family secrets that threaten to permanently divide the sisters. I’m giving this excellent takeaway on sibling rivalry and family dynamics to my cousins, sisters Meg and Gail, along with Rachel Joyce’s captivating Miss Benson’s Beetle (Dial Press, purchased paperback). In dreary 1950 London, eccentric spinster teacher Margery Brown decides to fulfill a lifelong ambition by searching for the elusive golden beetle of New Caledonia. She needs an assistant, but Enid Pretty isn’t what she had in mind — a flirtatious young bottle-blonde with a secret or two. Still, the unlikely pair set off an ocean voyage that turns into an extraordinary adventure half-way around the globe. Joyce’s witty story of their unexpected friendship is itself full of unexpected turns. Put on your pith helmet and follow along.

I was delighted to find out that the equine protagonist of Jane Smiley’s engaging Perestroika in Paris: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is based on one of Smiley’s own horses, also named Perestroika, aka Paras. The novel’s Paras is a curious racehorse who wanders away from her stable and ends up in central Paris, where she meets a street-smart German shorthair pointer Frida.  But it’s not easy being a runaway horse in the city, and Paras  will need the help of not only Frida, but also a wise raven, a pair of mallards and a lonely 8-year-old boy.  Smiley’s sophisticated fable offers plenty of whimsy and just the right amount of commentary on the human (and animal) condition. So it’s been awhile since you read a story with talking animals that wasn’t a kid’s book. This one will lift your spirits.

Nora, the main character in Matt Haig’s fanciful The Midnight Library (Viking, digital galley), is so depressed she’s ready to check out. Instead, the 35-year-old Englishwoman finds herself in a library where every book offers an alternative world, a road not taken. Nora samples a number of lives she might have lived if she had made other choices: rock star, wife and mother, professor, Arctic researcher. Still, something’s not quite right, and Nora keeps returning to the Midnight Library. Most of us had those “what might have been” daydreams, and it’s no surprise that Haig’s tale is a best-seller, scooping up several readers’ choice awards. It’s got all the feels.

That’s a wrap for now. May the holidays bring you comfort and joy and many good books.

 

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