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Past, not past

Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were the Three Musketeers back in the day, celebrating college graduation Memorial Day weekend 1971 at Martha’s Vineyard. In the summer of 2015, they reconnect at the same cottage, haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, the Vietnam draft and the missing Fourth Musketeer, the blue-blooded sorority girl Jacy. Ever wonder what happened to her?

Richard Russo’s Chances Are. . . (Random House, digital galley) is part teasing mystery, but mostly it’s a familiar reunion novel of friendship, memory and regret. But it’s also about fathers and sons, small towns, first love, male bonding and things that go unsaid. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are all good guys but flawed in recognizable ways. Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, happily married to his college sweetheart who contends with his tyrannical father. Solitary Teddy, who is about to lose his job as head of a small press, has a secret he’s kept so long it’s like a vital organ. Mickey seems the least changed since college — still riding a Harley and playing in a bar band up and down the Cape. All three were in love with Jacy back when, and she remains the epitome of dream girl, the rich rebel who could sing like Grace Slick.

Russo’s narrative goes down easy, helped by humor and a modicum of suspense. There’s the expected Big Chill nostalgia, and a couple of subplots involving a retired cop and a bully of a next-door neighbor. The ending’s less of a reckoning with the past than a resolution that comes second-hand. Still, this is good-hearted summer reading. Chances are you’ll like it.

I love it when I start reading a book and the next time I look up, I’m four chapters in and eager to return. That’s the way it was with Chanelle Benz’s wonderful first novel The Dead Gone (HarperCollins, digital galley), a daughter’s journey into the past to examine the circumstances of her Civil Rights-era poet father’s death. Billie, a Philadelphia grants writer, hasn’t been to small-town Mississippi in 30 years, but returns to claim the derelict cottage where her father once lived. It’s full of memories and spiders, a suitable metaphor for the web in which Billie’s soon entangled. Her relatives tell her to leave well enough, and the local law proves less than helpful. After she finds a chapter of her father’s memoir of the region’s racist history, she enlists the help of a well-known scholar and becomes involved with the wayward son of the neighboring landowner. Threats and violence stalk Billie and her dog Rufus.

Billie’s is the book’s main voice, but Benz also orchestrates a distinctive chorus that adds to the lyricism and atmosphere. Even an old juke joint, Avalon, has a say, recalling times now dead and gone. Sadly, injustice lingers as the past bleeds into the present.

You don’t have to know a PBR from an IPA, or even like beer, to like J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is as refreshing as a cold one on a hot summer day. Stradal,  who delighted foodies and readers with his novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, now rides the wave of enthusiasm for craft beer.

Sisters Edith and Helen are close growing up in 1950s Minnesota, until Helen convinces their father to leave her his entire farm so she can invest in her new husband’s family brewing business. The betrayal leads to a long estrangement, until Edith’s orphaned granddaughter Diana displays a talent for making craft beer that also incorporates Edith’s famed pie-making abilities. Turns out a family feud, strong women, beer and pie are just the ingredients needed for an engaging tale. Stradal’s a first-rate storyteller.

Good story

When a reporter tells her editor that she has a good story, she doesn’t necessarily mean good news. Often, it’s bad or sad, like the Little League team whose equipment has been stolen, or the day-old baby left at the fire station. Sometimes, it’s tragic: the missing girl found murdered in a wooded area, or the unidentified body of a woman dredged up from a city park fountain.

Maddie Schwartz isn’t yet a reporter in Laura Lippman’s compelling new novel, Lady in the Lake (Morrow, digital galley), but she knows a good story. A 37-year-old Baltimore housewife who has recently left her attorney husband, Maddie is resurrecting old ambitions to make her mark in the world. After she helps discover the body of a missing child, she uses her smarts and inside info from her new lover — a black police officer — to correspond with the accused killer, then parlays his letters into a clerical job at the Baltimore Star. But she wants a byline and sets her sights on discovering why Cleo Sherwood died in the fountain, even though the paper’s editors don’t see the “Lady in the Lake” as a good story, or much of a story at all. It’s 1966, and they figure the Star’s readers don’t care about the death of a black cocktail waitress. Maddie’s on her own in the old boys’ club of a newsroom, in a city marked by race and class.

Most of the involving narrative is told from Maddie’s perspective, but it is interspersed with first-person vignettes in the voices of numerous minor characters, from the mother of the dead woman, to a jewelry store clerk, to a veteran newspaper columnist. This diverse chorus amplifies the character of Baltimore itself and shows off Lippman’s talents as reporter and novelist. One voice stands out — that of Cleo, who wishes Maddie would leave the case alone. There are consequences Maddie can’t forsee; people are going to get hurt. Besides, Maddie doesn’t really care about Cleo, the single mother with  lots of hopes and limited options. She’s after that good story.

Lady in the Lake works as newspaper novel and mystery. In last year’s Sunburn, Lippman paid homage to James M. Cain, and her 2016 novel Wilde Lake was inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the title gives a noir nod to Raymond Chandler, but the chronicle of a woman pursuing her dreams and an identity of her own is right out of another of Lippman’s favorite novels, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. As for the two murders Maddie pursues, they are based on two actual Baltimore cases. But whatever the source material, Lippman always makes it her own. Lady in the Lake is no exception, especially with its killer twist. Good story.

 

 

 

 

 

Quick escapes

Riley Sager dedicates his new killer thriller Lock Every Door (Penguin Dutton, digital galley) to Ira Levin, setting up apartment-sitter Jules Larsen in the Bartholomew, an ominous Manhattan high-rise. Out of a job and a boyfriend, Jules is delighted to stay in the gargoyle-studded building overlooking Central Park where her favorite girlhood novel took place. The rules are strict to protect the privacy of the wealthy residents, but it isn’t until fellow apartment-sitter Ingrid disappears that Jules begins to probe the Bartholomew’s sinister history. As with best-sellers Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied, Sager twists familiar tropes to keep readers guessing and reading. Pages fly by.

Megan Miranda (All the Missing Girls) also knows how to twist plots and play with memory and perception, as proven by The Last Houseguest (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). In the Maine resort town of Littleport, wealthy summer visitor Sadie Loman picks local girl Avery Greer to be her bestie, which is why Avery doesn’t believe Sadie committed suicide last summer. The narrative  hopscotches between past and present, as Avery, who works as a property manager for the Lomans, fends off suspicions that she was somehow involved in Sadie’s fatal fall from the cliffs. Miranda deftly depicts class tensions and the small-town dynamics of the summer season.

A female friendship is also at the center of Nancy Thayer’s Surfside Sisters (Ballantine, digital galley), but this is leisurely beach book, no murders involved. Successful novelist Keely Green is reluctant to return to Nantucket when her widowed mother becomes ill because it means seeing her one-time best friend Isabelle. Growing up, the two both dreamed of becoming writers, but a betrayal during college set them on different paths. Thayer’s linear narrative follows Keely as she overcomes past obstacles, mainly her family’s skidding finances, and confronts new ones, like the return of her longtime crush, Isabelle’s brother Sebastian.

Queen Bee (Morrow, digital galley) is another of Dorothea Benton Frank’s winning tall tales of Lowcountry South Carolina. On Sullivan’s Island, Holly McNee Jensen works part-time at the library, tends her beloved bees and immerses herself in the lives of next-door neighbor and single dad Archie and his two young sons. This helps her escape the endless demands of her hypochondriac mother, dubbed “Queen Bee” by Holly and her married sister Leslie, who returns home when her handsome husband decides he’s into cross-dressing. There’s high drama as Archie plans to marry a snob with no use for kids, Leslie and her headstrong mother head for Las Vegas, and Holly tells all to her bees, who weaponize. Queen Bee may be implausible, but it’s also sweetly funny.

 

 

 

 

Gone reading

Sorry, I forgot to put out my “Gone Reading” sign at the first of the month, but I’ve been reading so much there hasn’t been time to write. Let’s catch up.

“It’s not what it looks like,” says P.I. Jackson Brodie on the very first page of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Little Brown, digital galley). It never is with Atkinson, the most wily of writers, or with Jackson, my favorite book boyfriend. Returning for his fifth outing after a too-long absence, he’s tracking an errant husband in an English seaside town, sometimes in the company of his 13-year-old son and an aging Labrador, when things get complicated. They always do. This time, it’s a circle of sex traffickers, a murdered wife, a missing hitchhiker, a pair of young coppers working a cold case, assorted villains and innocents. Atkinson uses multiple points of view and quirky characters, zigs when you expect her to zag, and expects readers are smart enough to keep up.

I miss the Sorensons. They’re the Midwestern family at the center of Claire Lombardo’s immersive first novel The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had (Doubleday Knopf, digital galley), which I binged like a favorite Netflix series. So good. David and Marilyn Sorenson live in her childhood Oak Park home, two peas in a pod ever since they fell in love under the ginkgo tree in the backyard in the mid-1970s. This is surprisingly hard on their four grown daughters, who joke about the “magical albatross” of their parents’ love for one another. The bar is set so high, and each tries to measure up — or not — in singular ways. At book’s beginning, the oldest, Wendy, a rich widow, stirs the sisterly stew of rivalries and resentments by introducing a teenage boy into the mix — the child secretly given up for adoption by one of the sisters 16 years ago. Uptight lawyer and stay-at-home mom Violet can’t deal, college professor Liza is coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a depressive boyfriend, and the youngest, Grace, is off in Oregon, supposedly acing law school. The emotionally resonant narrative follows family members over the course of a year with frequent flashbacks to fill in everyone’s past, and Lombardo deftly orchestrates the chorus of perspectives. The book’s maybe a little too long, saggy in spots, and it’s Sorenson-centric — the tumultuous times don’t intrude, although the family is not immune to misfortune and regret. Real life is rich and messy, and The Most Fun We Ever Had feels real. It reminds me of Sue Miller’s classic novel Family Pictures or Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’ve read some other good books, too. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything (Atria, digital galley) follows two sisters over 50 years, and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, digital galley) features neighboring families tied together by the profound connection between two of their children. In Michael Parker’s atmospheric and lyrically written Prairie Fires (Algonquin, digital galley), the bond between two sisters on the Oklahoma frontier is tested when they both fall in love with their schoolteacher. Kristen Arnett’s morbidly funny first novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House Books, digital galley) is set right here in swampy Central Florida, where Jessa-Lynn Morton tries to keep the family taxidermy business going in the wake of her father’s suicide. Arnett examines grief, loss and love with the same skill that Jessa dissects and rebuilds a raccoon. If that’s not your thing, Denise Mina’s thrilling Conviction (Little, Brown, digital galley) stars a woman whose obsession with a true-crime podcast collides with her secret history.

The books were strong this past month. Historical novels, family sagas, literary fiction, crime novels. You can call it summer reading. I call it heaven.

In The Flight Portfolio (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Julie Orringer artfully mixes fact and fiction, transporting readers to 1940 Vichy France, where journalist Varian Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission to get threatened European artists and intellectuals away from the Nazis to safety in America is complicated by the personal (the return of his Harvard lover Elliott Grant), the political (closed borders, collaborators, government interference) and the moral (who decides who is “worthy” of the committee’s meager resources). The sunny countryside and port cities teem with intrigue, danger and romance on a grand scale.

Elderly narrator Vivian Morris looks back fondly to 1940 New York City in Elizabeth Gilbert’s entertaining City of Girls (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley). At 19, Vivi’s talent for not attending classes at Vassar is matched by her skill at making dresses for her classmates. When she’s asked not to return, her wealthy parents ship her off to New York and her unconventional aunt Peg Buell, who runs a struggling theater specializing in musical comedy. Vivi quickly and happily loses her innocence in the theatrical milieu, consorting with showgirls and hitting the nightclubs, but her actions have devastating consequences when she becomes embroiled in a tabloid scandal surrounding the hit musical “City of Girls.” Redemption does not come easily, as the reality of war soon changes everything, but Vivi’s witty, confessional voice charms throughout.

There’s a midsummer dreamy feel to Leah Hager Cohen’s Strangers and Cousins (Penguin Riverhead) as relatives and guests gather at Walter and Bennie’s Rundle Junction home for the wedding of eldest daughter Clem. The narrative slips smoothly through the various characters’ heads and memories, quandaries and secrets. Frail, ancient Aunt Glad carries the physical and emotional scars of her involvement in a town tragedy when she was a child. Walter and Bennie’s harmonious life is about to be upended by the arrival in Rundle Junction of a community of Orthodox Jews eager to buy property, and by an unexpected but not unwelcome addition to the family. And mercurial Clem’s elaborate plans for her wedding are soon to be upstaged by her unconventional college friends and the antics of her younger siblings.

Julia Phillips’ haunting debut of crime and connection, Disappearing Earth (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), takes place on the desolate Kamchatka peninsula in northeastern Russia, where the landscape has been shaped by earthquakes and tsunamis. The baffling disappearance of two schoolgirls at the book’s beginning reverberates through the community over the next twelve months. In chapters titled simply “April” or “June,” Phillips deftly concentrates on those individuals affected by the presumed kidnapping, from the girls’ grieving mother, to the college-student daughter of a reindeer hunter, to a policeman’s wife on maternity leave. The links of loss and longing among the characters accumulate, and revelations at a summer solstice festival lead to an unexpected conclusion.

New additions to three ongoing detective series prove more than welcome. The Scholar, (Penguin, digital galley), Dervla McTiernan’s follow-up to last year’s The Ruin, is a complex police procedural that finds Galway’s Detective Cormac Reilly investigating a sticky hit-and-run at a university research center. Researcher Emma Sweeney, Reilly’s girlfriend, finds the body, believed to be Carline Darcy, the brilliant heir apparent to Ireland’s largest pharmaceutical company. Both academic and police politics play into the plot, and suspicion undermines Reilly’s relationship with both Emma and his colleagues. A third book is on the way.

In the first entry in Elly Griffith’s sterling Ruth Galloway series, 2009’s The Crossing Place, forensic anthropologist Ruth meets DCI Harry Nelson while investigating missing girls near the Norfolk fens. Now, in the 11th book in the series, The Stone Circle (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Ruth and Nelson are working on another missing girl case with ties to the first. Of course, they’ve other ties in common, including a 7-year-old daughter conceived during a one-night stand. Nelson’s wife Michelle knows about Kate, but not their two grown daughters. Their discovery that Kate is their half-sister, plus Michelle’s surprise pregnancy, works into the new plot, which is already complicated enough. Series fans will appreciate the recurring characters and references to the past, but newcomers may want to start with The Crossing Place.

Anthony Horowitz is his usual clever self in The Sentence is Death (HarperCollins, digital galley), the second in the meta-mystery series featuring fictional PI Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz. The conceit, of course, is that the prolific Horowitz is taking time off from penning Foyle’s War screenplays and Alex Rider novels to play Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock and write about it, as he did in last year’s playful The Word is Murder. The case of a divorce lawyer bludgeoned by an expensive bottle of wine turns out to be quite tricky with suspects aplenty. Horowitz provides witty insider details about the film and publishing worlds, and he as self-promotional as Hawthorne is secretive. Jolly good fun.

I spy summer

I raced through Chris Pavone’s clever first thriller, The Expats, when it came out in 2012 and wished then for a sequel, but his next two books, The Accident and The Travelers, had only tenuous ties to the first book. But The Paris Diversion (Crown Archetype, digital galley) is the knotty, twisted follow-up I wanted, with expats Kate (wife, mom, spy) and day-trader Dex — returning, only to have the past catching up with them big-time.  You don’t have to have read the The Expats, as long-ago events are briefly explained, but, really, you should. Otherwise, certain revelations might not hit you like a quick punch to the gut. Pavone ups the tension by having most of the narrative unfold during one day in tourist-packed Paris, where a suicide bomber plants himself and a briefcase in the courtyard of the Louvre. The city, wounded by previous terrorist acts, is nonetheless surprised, as are a rotating cast of characters: Kate, who was planning a dinner party, dons disguises and looks over her shoulder; Dexter tries to put together a mega-deal before the markets tumble; a corporate tycoon is whisked into hiding by his security deal; assorted assassins, spies and bad actors race through alleyways and the Metro. There will be blood. Things are not what they seem. More, please.

Before she was beach book queen Mary Kay Andrews, my pal Kathy Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity mystery series, so she usually includes a mystery subplot in her summery novels like Savannah Breeze and The High Tide Club.  It might be a scam, an unexpected inheritance, long-ago family secrets.  All of these, plus a cold case murder, figure in Andrews’ new charmer, Sunset Beach (St. Martin’s, ARC), which features down-on-her-luck Drue Campbell. After her mother’s death, Drue’s long-estranged father Brice gives her a job at his personal injury law firm, where his latest wife Wendy, who went to middle school with Drue, is the office manager. It’s pretty awful, but at least Drue can live in the run-down Florida beach house she inherited from her Cuban grandparents. She might even make enough money to renovate it, or at least put in AC. Cleaning out the attic, she stumbles on the cold-case disappearance of Colleen Hicks, which links to the days when her father was a beat cop. Drue can’t resist some sleuthing; she’s already looking into the death of a resort hotel housekeeper, whose mother and young daughter badly need insurance money. Drue’s varied attempts to access the resort in search of evidence make for entertaining set pieces, while flashbacks to 40-years-ago Florida add atmosphere and suspense. And just so you remember Sunset Beach is trademark Mary Kay Andrews, Drue also makes time for decorating with cast-off treasures, deals with family drama and finds a little romance. I see a sequel.

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book (Flatiron Books, digital galley) is one of those sprawling, multi-generational family sagas that seems designed for long, lazy days in a hammock. The writing is so lovely that it almost lulls you into forgetting that you’re reading about some of the worst aspects of the so-called “best” people. The Miltons are wealthy, white, privileged. They own a small island off the coast of Maine, bought by banker Ogden in the depths of the Great Depression to help his young wife Kitty recover from a family tragedy. This is where the Miltons summer over the years, and the book skips around in time, from Ogden’s pre-war business interests in Germany and a fateful decision on Kitty’s part; to 1959, when their three children invite outsiders, including a Jewish banker and an African-American writer-photographer, to the island retreat for what should be a celebration; to the present, when Milton granddaughter and Kitty lookalike Evie and her cousins must decide the island’s future now that fortunes have dwindled and family secrets are about to be revealed. Blake weaves issues of class, race and religion into the involving narrative as the Miltons and their connections ambitiously embody the social history of America in the 20th century. I kept thinking I’d read most of it before in summer sagas of seasons past, such as Beatriz Williams’ A Hundred Summers or Anne Rivers Siddons’ Colony. That’s okay. What’s old is new again for summer 2019.

 

 

Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.