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Archive for the ‘Thoughts on Books’ Category

Emma Straub’s new novel is as bright as a new copper penny, and you should pick it up immediately.  All Adults Here (Riverhead, e-galley) — the title is ironic — reminds us that “adulting” can be challenging at any age. Astrid Strick, a 68-year-old widow, gets a wake-up call when she witnesses an empty school bus run over a long-time acquaintance in their Hudson Valley town. She reappraises some of her past choices as a parent and decides to let her family in on a secret “because there are always more school buses.” Her kids have secrets, too, as does granddaughter Cecelia, who is 13 and comes to stay with Astrid after an incident at her New York City school. Cecilia’s new friend is August, who is thinking he might really be Robin. Straub is so good at depicting teenagers, and Cecelia and August are my favorite characters, along with middle daughter Porter, who has yet to tell her mother she’s pregnant via a sperm bank. Surveying herself in a mirror, she reassures herself that she is a “grown-ass woman.” So what if she’s still fooling around with her high school boyfriend, who is very much married with children. Straub writes with wry humor, and her ensemble slice-of-life narrative flows easily. Although each of the Stricks is idiosyncratic in their ambitions and regrets, they are every family with long memories of childhood roles and rivalries.

The first wave of beach books promises sun-kissed days and sandy toes. Mary Kay Andrews’ Hello, Summer (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) mixes small-time secrets, scandals, mystery and romance into an appealing froth with interesting undercurrents. When reporter Conley Hawkins’ exciting new job in D.C. ends before it’s even begun, she backtracks from Atlanta to stay with her grandmother in her sleepy hometown  And once again she’s working for her older sister at the struggling family weekly known for its old-timey gossip column, “Hello, Summer.” But then a local congressman and war hero dies in a single-car accident, and Conley’s investigative reporting skills kick in. No fake news here.

“Fake it till you make it.” Jennifer Weiner takes on social media big-time in Big Summer (Atria, e-galley). Plus-size Instagram influencer Daphne Berg is surprised when high-school frenemy Drue Cavanaugh asks her to be her maid-of-honor at her posh society wedding to a reality star on Cape Cod. Their public falling-out went viral years ago. Still, Daphne never could resist being in beautiful Drue’s orbit, and the wedding’s a chance to up her own media profile and gain new followers. The opulence of the pre-wedding festivities is indeed picture-perfect, and Daphne does her best to ignore the tensions among the bridal party. Then she finds a dead body in a hot-tub. Shades of a Susan Isaac novel — not a bad thing, just a bit jarring as Daphne goes all Nancy Drew. Big fun.

The sudden death of literary lion Bill Sweeney shocks his three grown daughters, bringing them home to Southport, Conn.  But another surprise awaits gallery owner Liza, artist Maggie and attorney Jill — there’s a fourth Sweeney sister. Reporter Serena Tucker recently took a DNA test that revealed Bill Sweeney is also her father, although she only knew him as the famous author who was a childhood neighbor. I kept thinking that I already had read Lian Dolan’s The Sweeney Sisters (William Morrow, ARC), or seen it as a TV movie, but it was just pleasantly familiar, right down to the reading of the will and the search for a missing manuscript. Dolan does a nice job sorting out the sisters and reconfiguring their relationships, but most of the drama is in the set up. No surprise: All’s well that ends well.

 

 

 

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I can’t help but wonder how Micah Mortimer would react to the stay-at-home restrictions of the current pandemic. Probably not that much. The 44-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel The Redhead at the Side of the Road (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is already mired in his mostly solitary routines. I expect he would still run every morning around his Baltimore neighborhood, only with a mask, and instead of making house calls to fix computers, his “Tech Hermit” business would be by phone. He already is obsessively tidy about cleaning the dreary basement flat he gets in exchange for occasional handyman duties, and the stay-in policy is another excuse not to interact with the tenants or his large, messy family.  No, it would take more than a deadly virus to open Micah’s eyes to the world beyond the tip of his nose. Tyler devises two events to shake up Micah’s life. A rich runaway college student shows up on his doorstep claiming that Micah is his father, and his longtime girlfriend, a patient fourth-grade teacher, dumps him after an insensitive remark proves the final straw. Even then, Micah remains oblivious. What is he thinking? Tyler writes oddball characters who are as endearing as they are exasperating, although Micah’s obtuseness would test anyone’s patience. His four older sisters, all waitresses, are much more fun, and a family dinner at a table with a ping-pong net is one of those hilarious set pieces Tyler does so well. The writing is easy, the tone warm and familiar. The Redhead at the Side of the Road — the title’s an apt metaphor — proves good company when staying home.

Lee Smith’s novella Blue Marlin (Blair, digital galley) is short, sweet and very funny, thanks to narrator Jenny. She candidly relates the events of 1958-59, when she was a precocious 13-year-old and spied on the neighbors of her small Southern town. She is especially fascinated by one unconventional woman, who precipitates a crisis between Jenny’s troubled parents. Both suffer from “nerves,” and while they recover separately, Jenny is sent off to live with her church-going cousins. Then her daddy’s doctor proposes a “geographical cure,” and Jenny and her parents take a road trip to Florida, ending up at the Blue Marlin motel in Key West. Wonder of wonders, the movie Operation Petticoat is being filmed in town, and cast members Tony Curtis and Cary Grant are staying at the Blue Marlin. If this sounds like something right out of Smith’s 2016 must-read memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, it is and it isn’t. Smith separates the fact from the fiction in an entertaining afterword.

The fabulous cover of Grady Hendrix’s new novel is just the introduction to the gory delights of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Publishing, digital galley). Set in the Charleston, S.C. adjacent town of Mount Pleasant in the 1990s, it pits a group of housewives and moms with a taste for true-crime books against a pale, handsome stranger looking to establish his gentlemanly credentials. After an elderly neighbor chomps on Patricia Campbell’s ear, she meets the woman’s nephew, James Harris, who insinuates himself into her house and her book club. Meanwhile, people are disappearing across town, and Harris assumes no one will make a connection. Hendrix pays clever homage to both classic vampire stories and true-crime/serial killer tales, but his satire is serious, raising issues of racism, classicism and misogyny. Turns out several of the book club’s members’ husbands are monsters of a different kind, and their dismissive and condescending attitudes toward women made my blood boil. Speaking of blood, there’s quite a bit, so Hendrix’s comedy horrorfest may not be everyone’s cup of tea — or beverage of choice.

Conscripted into the Confederate Army in the spring of 1865, young Kentucky fiddler Simon Boudlin survives the battlefield to end up in Texas with a ragtag band of traveling musicians. Paulette Jiles’ lilting ballad of a novel, Simon the Fiddler (William Morrow, review ARC), covers some of the same gritty territory as her 2016 National Book Award finalist News of the World, in which Simon made a brief appearance. From Galveston to San Antonio, Simon plays jigs, waltzes and reels in hopes of saving enough money to marry pretty Doris Dillon, the Irish governess of a Union colonel’s family. But she’s an indentured servant, and her employer has his own plans for Doris. As a character says near book’s end: “Only a small town on the edge of the world here in Texas, but still terrible things and wonderful stories happen. . . Great tragedies, gripping love stories, tales of uncommon heroism.”

 

 

 

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It begins like a Dateline episode, with an an aerial view of a Caribbean island, then a zoom in to a posh seaside resort. “On the beach are families, the sand around their chairs littered with plastic shovels, swimmies, impossibly small aqua socks; honeymooners pressed closely together beneath cabanas; retirees reading fat thrillers in the shade. They have no notion of the events about to unfold here, on Saint X, in 1995.”

You can practically hear Keith Morrison intoning that last bit and the familiar story that follows: A beautiful teenage girl on a luxury vacation disappears the night before she is supposed to return home with her parents and little sister. A frantic search ensues, a pair of resort workers are questioned, the case makes headlines. Then a body is discovered on a nearby quay.

But even as Alexis Schaitkin structures her involving first novel Saint X (Celadon Books, digital galley) like a true crime special or podcast, splicing the narrative with first-person accounts from those at the center and the periphery of the case, she has more on her mind than mystery.  Some 20 years after Alison’s disappearance, her little sister, Claire, who was an awkward 7-year-old at the time, steps into a New York City cab and recognizes the driver as Clive Richardson, who was an original suspect in Alison’s death. Claire, who has grown up in the dead girl’s shadow, becomes even more obsessed with finding out the elusive truth of what happened on Saint X.

Along the way, Schaitkin skillfully explores issues of race and privilege, the complicated ties of families and friends, the secrets that last a lifetime, or longer. Even minor characters — the actress who plays Alison in A TV movie, the tourist scoring dope in the resort parking lot, the college boy with whom Alison hooked up — have memorable roles. Claire and Clive are the stars, but Saint X benefits from its ensemble cast and faceted structure. Book your ticket now for layered literary suspense.

The primaI landscape of coastal New Zealand looms large in Nalini Singh’s atmospheric A Madness of Sunshine (Berkley, digital galley). Concert pianist Anahara Rawahiri returns to her remote hometown of Golden Cove eight years after the unsolved death of her mother. The largely Maori community has other mysteries, as newcomer sheriff Will Gallagher soon learns when a popular local girl goes missing, her disappearance echoing that of three other women 15 years ago when Anahera and her friends were teenagers. Now they’re all suspects.

The dead woman is not Philadelphia cop Mickey Fitzgerald’s sister — but she could have been. Kacey, an addict living on the Kensington streets Mickey patrols, has disappeared, just when there have been a series of murders in the neighborhood. In Long Bright River (Riverhead, digital galley), Liz Moore alternates between “Then” and “Now” chapters, as she explores the sisters’ onetime closeness as the daughters of addicts. Now single mom Mickey and free-spirited Kacey no longer speak, but Mickey is intent on finding Kacey before she becomes the killer’s next victim. But who is stalking Mickey?

Kelley Armstrong’s Rockton novels are an annual winter treat, and the fifth book, Alone in the Wild (St. Martin’s, digital galley) delves further into the history of the off-the-grid community in the Canadian wilderness. Detective Casey Duncan and her boyfriend, Sheriff Eric Dalton, are camping when they find a crying baby cradled in the arms of a recently murdered woman. Is she a member of one of the survivalist communities in the area, or one of the “hostiles,” as nomadic hunters are known? Making contact with either is a dangerous enterprise as Casey and Eric face off with animal and human predators.

The insular environment of boarding schools and small colleges is a magnet for crime writers. Last year brought Ninth House, The Swallows and The Furies, among others. In the suspenseful Good Girls Lie (MIRA, digital galley), J.T. Ellison uses alternating points of view to tell the tense, twisty tale of mean girls and secret societies at the Goode School, an elite girls’ boarding school in Virginia. YA author Maureen Johnson deftly concludes her Truly Devious trilogy with The Hand on the Wall (Harper Collins, library e-book), as student Stevie Bell solves mysteries old and new at Ellingham Academy. Kate Weinberg explores artistic passion and betrayal in The Truants (Putnam, digital galley), which finds four students at an East Anglia university falling under the spell of a charismatic professor who is also an Agatha Christie expert.

If the thought of the Bates Motel gives you shivers, by all means check out —  or rather, check in — The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James (Berkley, digital galley). Twenty-year-old Carly Kirk gets more than she bargained for when she signs on as the graveyard shift clerk at the run-down Sun Down in upstate New York. Thirty five years ago, her aunt Viv Delaney was the Sun Down’s night clerk when she disappeared. Carly has come from her Illinois hometown to the town of Fell looking for clues to her aunt’s fate and if it had anything to do with a series of murders of young women in the area. In a parallel narrative, Viv is also investigating the deaths, all of them tied in some way to the motel and rumors of a mysterious traveling salesman. By the way, the Sun Down is haunted. Really. Slamming doors and dimming lights are just the beginning of paranormal disturbances, including a vengeful ghost who advises both Viv and Carly: “Run!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I read an advance readers copy of Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt a couple of months ago. This was before it was published Jan.  21, before Oprah made it her book selection and Barnes and Noble and Book-of-the-Month Club followed suit, before the controversy about “cultural appropriation” erupted and everyone and her brother offered an opinion, before publisher Flatiron canceled Cummins’ book tour because of death threats, before American Dirt sucked all the air out of the publishing world.

Before all this, I liked American Dirt, thought it a pretty good thriller with an action-packed narrative and sympathetic lead characters — an Acapulco bookstore owner and her 8-year-old son fleeing a murderous drug cartel, hoping to cross the border to the U.S. and safety. It read like the wind despite some clunky writing and melodramatic moments, so I set it  aside and figured I’d include it a January roundup of new novels.

I never thought American Dirt was the Great Mexican American Novel, a contemporary Grapes of Wrath, which was how it was being hyped, but I wasn’t surprised when Oprah beamed her approval. The subject was timely and open to discussion. I was surprised by the swift backlash from the Latinx community, which is also about the lack of diversity in the publishing community. Tone-deaf marketing exacerbated the situation, as critics leaped on the news that a summer publishing party for the author featured floral centerpieces with barbed wire. Then there was all the stuff that Cummins, who has a Puerto Rican grandmother, reportedly got wrong about Mexico and migrants.

Over on the Readers with Attitude Facebook site, administered by the Miami Herald’s Connie Ogle, the postings on American Dirt just keep on coming. There are links to news stories and opinion pieces, plus plenty of comments from readers from all over. This is my favorite book group on Facebook, by the way, with lots of back-and-forth about all things literary. I put in my two cents at various points — that the discussion on cultural distortion and diversity needs to be ongoing; that I appreciate the errors in the book being pointed out, but I don’t like judgments of a book’s literary merit from those who haven’t read it; that censorship is never a good thing.

I also think the general consensus is we have about run this topic into the ground for the moment. There are other new books to recommend and wrestle with. Read American Dirt or don’t read it, as you wish. I’m ready to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

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If you’re packing for a holiday trip, don’t forget a book or two — providing refuge from contentious family gatherings and weird relatives for lo these many years. Chances are your kin are not nearly as strange as some of the characters in Lisa Jewell’s twisty and twisted psychological thriller The Family Upstairs (Atria, digital galley). On her 25th birthday, Libby Jones learns not only the names of her birth parents but also that she has inherited their large London house, shut up since a murder-suicide when Libby was just a baby. Back then, police discovered a crying infant in a cradle and three dead adults dressed in black, but four older children had disappeared. Jewell shifts three narrative voices as Libby’s quest for her roots entwines with the story of a single mother living in France and that of a disturbed man shadowed by the events of his childhood. The book reminded me of one of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s chilly suspense tales, which means it’s very good indeed.

By now you’ve no doubt heard that Kevin Wilson’s Nothing to See Here (HarperCollins, digital galley) features young twins who can spontaneously burst into flames without endangering themselves — if not their clothes and immediate surroundings. Narrator Lillian, a former schoolmate of twins Bessie and Roman’s stepmother Madison, is their summer caretaker, and she takes a pragmatic approach to their unusual condition — protective gel worn by firefighters, long sessions in the pool, limited contact with the outside world. But then the twins’ father decides to further pursue his political career, and Lillian fears he might send Bessie and Roman away. Nothing to See Here is really something to read — a whimsical, engaging story about friendship, family and the need  to belong.

Robert Harris’ The Second Sleep (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) begins with young priest Christopher Fairfax riding through the 15th-century English landscape to conduct the funeral of a fellow priest, Thomas Lacy, in a remote parish. As usual with Harris’ historical fiction, the narrative is replete with detail and atmosphere. Medieval England is dreary and repressed, its people suspicious of strangers. Fairfax is suspicious, too, that Lacy’s death from a fall was not an accident, and when he finds heretical antiques and manuscripts among Lacy’s possessions, he keeps the information to himself as he begins an investigation. It’s at this point that Harris pulls a rabbit out of his hat, which wary readers will find both clever and confounding. The story remains interesting, even as it rambles downhill, caught up in its own conceit.

Fans of Martha Grimes’ Richard Jury mysteries will get a kick out of the 25th book in the series, The Old Success (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). After all, it’s old home week with so many favorite characters on the scene — Melrose Plant, Brian Macalvie, Aunt Agatha. But newcomers are well-advised to go back to the beginning, or at least to the middle, or risk being thoroughly confused. There are several mysterious deaths, and Jury’s the only one who can connect the dots. Witty writing and unpredictable plotting make for a lot of fun. along with some head-scratching. Really? Didn’t see that coming.

Fun is in the cards as well in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May: The Lonely Hour (Random House, library e-book), No. 16 in the adventures of the elderly detectives of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit. The unit is always on the verge of being shut down, and the case of a wily serial killer who strikes at 4 a.m. could be its undoing. Eccentric Arthur Bryant and suave John May are a formidable team, but May’s involvement with a suspect puts him at odds with Bryant even as it puts the case — and the unit — in jeopardy. There’s a heart-stopping climax, so be sure to read to the very last page.

Colorado police detective Gemma Monroe returns for her fourth outing in Emily Littlejohn’s assured Shatter the Night (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). In the Halloween darkness, a car suddenly explodes, killing a retired judge who had been receiving threats.  Gemma, juggling child care for baby Grace with her fiance Brody, is all over the case because the judge was a family friend. The list of suspects is long and varied, with ties to an imprisoned serial killer and the town’s colorful past. Another murder ups the suspense, and, as the refurbished playhouse prepares to reopen with Macbeth, a vengeful killer targets his next victims.

Real-life Golden Age detective novelist Josephine Tey (A Shilling for Candles, The Daughter of Time) stars as a detective in an excellent series of novels by Nicola Upson. I’ve read them all, and the eighth, Sorry for the Dead (Crooked Lane Books, library e-book), is my new favorite. Like the others, it’s a seamless, atmospheric mix of fiction with fact. But the plot, flashing back from 1938 to World War I, pays homage to Tey’s The Franchise Affair, in which a mother and daughter are accused of kidnapping and imprisoning a young woman. What? You haven’t read The Franchise Affair, itself inspired by a sensational true crime? Well, do that first. Then read Sorry for the Dead. You won’t be sorry.

 

 

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The best lists are everywhere this year. Not only are there best books of the year, but best books of the decade. I don’t do “bests,” just favorites from what I’ve read the past 12 months. I could Say Nothing, I suppose, but unlike Normal People, I’ve spent Furious Hours reading, writing and talking books. Happily, of course.  For book lovers, it’s like The Most Fun We Ever Had. This is my Ninth House since I graduated from high school, and every time I move, I collect more books. It would cost me a fortune to move from Orlando, aka Orange World, so it’s a good thing I consider this Heaven, My Home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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These are the days of early dark, which means long nights that call for long books in which to get happily lost. I suggest Erin Morgenstern’s extravagantly imaginative new novel The Starless Sea (Doubleday, review copy), clocking in at 500 pages and stuffed with snippets of fables and fairy tales. The main narrative follows grad student Zachary Eszra Rawlins, whose discovery of an old book leads him on an epic quest to a vast underground library that smells of smoke and honey. From there, it’s on “to sail the Starless Sea and breathe the haunted air.”  It’s quite the voyage. I reviewed the book for the Minneapolis Star Tribune (https://tinyurl.com/ygzsr29h ), and wound up reading it twice, enchanted by the lush prose and the magical world-building. I would still be adrift if not for the fantastic tales that followed, including rereading Morgenstern’s 2012 first novel The Night Circus.

The fantasy of Leigh Bardugo’s thrilling Ninth House (Flatiron Books, purchased hardcover) is grounded in the reality of Yale University, which is built on a nexus of old magic tended to by its very real secret societies. Bardugo introduces a ninth one, Lethe House, which keeps tabs on the other societies and their rituals. Alex, the newest Lethe recruit, isn’t your usual privileged prepster, but the high-school dropout has an unusual talent in that she can actually see the ghosts — the Grays — that linger around the campus and town. But just when Alex is learning how to use her power, her mentor goes missing and a murder unleashes occult forces. Bardugo’s narrative shifts through three recent timelines, each with its own mysteries, and the suspense is killing, especially as the story reaches a revelatory climax and then a graveyard coda. A sequel can’t come too soon.

Heathers meets The Secret History in Katie Lowe’s intense debut The Furies (St. Martin’s, e-galley), which is set in an all-girl boarding school on the British coast. New to Elm Hollow, Violet falls in with friends Alex, Robin and Grace, becoming part of a study group led by charismatic teacher Annabel. The girls, vulnerable and angry, are at first fascinated and then consumed by Annabel’s lessons on Greek mythology, Celtic legend and witchcraft. Revenge and murder follow. Lowe nails the girls’ cascading emotions, their angst and insecurity as she charts their growing belief in ancient rituals and their own powers.

If Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game is one of your favorite books, don’t miss Kate Raccicula’s smart, playful homage Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts (HMH, digital galley). Fund-raiser and researcher Tuesday loves a good puzzle, but she gets more than she bargained for when eccentric Boston billionaire Vincent Pryce dies, leaving behind clues to a portion of his vast fortune. Joining Tuesday in the city-wide treasure hunt are her  theatrical friend Dex, lonely neighbor girl Dorry, mysterious businessman Archie, and Abby, the ghost of her teenage best-friend. Then there’s Lyle, the widow of the dead man, who knows more than she’s letting on. Interwoven with the fun and games, though, are insights into families and friendships, grief and love.

Things — and people — are not what they seem in W.C. Ryan’s atmospheric A House of Ghosts (Arcade, digital galley), a classic country house mystery with a whiff of the paranormal. In the winter of 1917, British arms tycoon Lord Highmount bows to the wishes of his grieving wife and arranges for a spiritualist gathering at his Devon home in hopes of contacting his two sons killed in the war. Among those visiting Blackwater Abbey are undercover agents Kate Cartwright, whose brother died at the Somme, and Captain Robert Donovan, recently returned from the front. Cue a winter storm, a seance and murder.

 

 

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