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Archive for the ‘Loved It’ Category

Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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I didn’t make a year-end list of recommendations for 2009 because I was too busy trying to get this blog going. (And it was the holidays, too). But now several of my favorite books from last year are out in paperback. I see that that they are all mysteries of one kind or another, but each is so different from another. Still, they all surprise.

When Will There Be Good News?  by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown): A great title for a great literary mystery that begins with a scene of shocking violence in the English countryside, then skips ahead 30 years to catch up with the 6-year-old witness and survivor. Her happy life intersects in unusual ways with a cast of well-drawn characters, including motherless mother’s helper Reggie, police inspector Louise Monroe and the always intriguing detective Jackson Brodie.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Random House): Agatha Christie meets Harriet the Spy in the personage of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who as an aspiring chemist has a familiarity with plants, potions and poisons. But her experiments with a rash-inducing face cream for her older sister can’t compete with her discovery of  a dying stranger in the garden. When her father, the stamp-collecting Colonel, is implicated in the man’s murder, Flavia is not above picking locks, eavesdropping on her elders and figuring out clues, including a dead bird on the doorstep. Clever girl! 

 

The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing): This sequel to The Poet, one of the best serial killer novels ever, finds LA Times investigative reporter Jack McEvoy forced to not only take a buy-out but also to show the ropes to his attractive rookie replacement. The two think they’ve found a good story when a drug-dealing teen supposedly confesses to a horrific murder, but that’s just the beginning of the bloodletting as Connelly unravels a twisty tale that also pays homage to the struggling daily newspaper industry and its ink-stained wretches. Give this to your favorite reporter, or former reporter as the case may well be.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In chilly 1907 Wisconsin, a wealthy widower sends for a mail-order bride, “a reliable wife.” But what he gets is a woman with her own secret agenda — and he knows it. “This begins in a lie,” he says. More lies follow, as does treachery and desire in a downright shivery novel. A good winter’s tale. 

 

 

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Atria/Simon & Schuster): Combination family saga and English Gothic, Morton’s follow-up to the very good The House at Riverton reveals its secrets slowly. On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that her Australian parents adopted her as a 4-year-old left behind on a ship from England in 1913. No one ever claims the child with the small suitcase containing a few anonymous items and a book of fairy tales. Eventually, Nell travels to England’s Cornish coast and Blackhurst Manor in quest of her true identity. But it is left to her granddaughter Cassandra to finally link Nell to the mysterious Montrachet family, “the forgotten garden” and the enchanting book.

Open Book: I received a review copy of The Good Wife from the publisher, checked out The Scarecrow from the library, and bought copies of the other three.

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A modern-day Medusa with anger-control issues. A snarky vampire worried about his 800-year-old looks. Blades of grass growing like sharp knives in a suburban backyard.

These were just three of the fantastic images generated by participants in a recent writing workshop on magical realism sponsored by MAD About Words and moderated by current Kerouac House writer-in-residence Alicia Shandra Holmes. A dozen of us gathered on a Saturday morning at the cozy Kerouac House in Orlando’s College Park neighborhood. We spent the first hour talking about magical realism,  which is often defined as fiction incorporating elements of the fantastic in an otherwise realistic narrative and is generally associated with Central and South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

But as Alicia pointed out with several pages of short examples, magical realism or “non-realistic” writing can include elements of the classic fairy tale, fantasy, mythology, miracles, the grotesque, ghosts, surrealism and so on. It is the imagination unleashed by Toni Morrison in Beloved, Salman Rushdie in Midnight’s Children, Margaret Atwood in her futuristic novels and myth series, Alice Hoffman in her contemporary novels, Angela Carter, A.S. Byatt and Rick Bass in their short stories.

We then were unleashed for the next hour to write whatever we wanted. The last hour was spent reading and discussing our various offerings. We left exhilarated and promised to continue our conversation on-line at the the MAD About Words website.

Since then, I’ve read several books that cross the boundaries between fantasy and reality.  Ice Land by Betsy Tobin draws on Icelandic legend and Norse mythology to tell the story of Freya, the goddess of love, her search for an enchanted golden necklace, and two star-crossed lovers whose families are tearing them apart. It’s 1000 A.D., Mount Hekla is threatening to erupt and Christianity is spreading across Iceland. If you like Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), you’ll enjoy Toibin’s tale.

I had high hopes for Ali Shaw’s first novel, The Girl with Glass Feet, a contemporary fable set on a snowy archipelago where the mundane meets the magical — albino animals, strange miniature cow-like creatures akin to dragonflies, and a mysterious ailment that slowly turns some people to glass. Ida is the young woman who was infected while on vacation and now returns looking for a cure; Midas is the island loner who is initially reluctant to help her. Shaw’s writing is often appropriately lyrical and dream-like, and the imagery often striking, but this story is a sad one, weighted by woe to the point of dreariness. Curious to see what he does next.

Kelly Link’s Magic for Beginners collects her playful short stories where magic is matter-of-fact. The titles give you an idea of what has been called “kitchen sink magical realism” — “Catskin,” “Some Zombie Contingency Plans,” “The Faery Handbag.” In the latter, an entire village moves into a woman’s purse. Really. Magic for Beginners is a bit misleading overall title — it’s one of the stories — because newcomers to this kind of writing may well be puzzled, even put-off. But if you like weird, it’s wonderful.

Open Book: I received a galley of Ice Land (Plume) from the publisher last summer; I checked out The Girl with Glass Feet (Henry Holt) from the library; I bought my copy of Magic for Beginners (Harcourt).

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