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Creep me out. Silvia Moreno-Garcia sure does in her new novel Mexican Gothic, (Ballantine, purchased e-book), lacing classic gothic tropes by way of Bronte with a little Lovecraftian horror. In 1950s Mexico City, chic socialite Noemi reluctantly travels to the remote mountain villa of High Place after her newlywed cousin Catalina sends a mysterious missive that her husband Virgil Doyle’s ancestral home “is sick with rot, stinks with decay, brims with every single evil and cruel sentiment.”  Noemi, who hopes to pursue a graduate degree in anthropology, is skeptical, but High Place, built next to an old silver mine by British aristocrats, is decidedly unwelcoming. Steely Aunt Florence and handsome Virgil supervise her limited visits with sickly Catalina; the dead-eyed servants don’t speak; windows won’t open; and the whole moldering mansion is presided over by ancient family patriarch Howard, a corpse-like figure fond of discussing eugenics. Noemi’s one possible ally is Virgil’s wan cousin Francis, who picks mushrooms in the cemetery and makes detailed botanical drawings of the abundant fungi. Then the hallacinatory nightmares begin, and the dread escalates as a woman’s voice whispers, “Open your eyes.” Who or what is terrorizing Noemi? Turn the page…

In Eve Chase’s atmospheric The Daughters of Foxcote Manor (Putnam, review copy), the titular house is tucked away in the Forest of Dene, covered with vines and shadowed by trees. After the Harrington family home in London goes up in flames in 1971, young nanny Rita Murphy nervously drives mom Jeannie Harrington and her two children, 13-year-old Hera and six-year-old Teddy, to Foxcote while dad Walter remains in town. Still recovering from a breakdown after losing a baby in childbirth, Jeannie retreats to bed, leaving “Big Rita” to contend with the kids, Foxcote and local busybody Maggie. Then Walter’s macho best friend Don shows up at Foxcote and Hera discovers a baby in the woods. Gunshots ring out. Forty years later in London, middle-aged Sylvie deals with her soon-to-be ex-husband, her 18-year-old daughter and her beloved mother, comatose after a fall. Then unexpected news from her daughter sends her down the rabbit hole of old family secrets to Foxcote Manor in 1971. Chase shifts between the two time periods as she pieces together an intriguing puzzle. If some pieces click into place a little too neatly, the overall is as complicated as a Kate Morton tale and just as satisfying.

Something weird is going on at Catherine House (HarperCollins/Charter House, digital galley), a literary gothic from Elisabeth Thomas with shades of The Secret History and Never Let Me Go. For starters, Catherine House is not a house but an elite liberal arts and research college in rural Pennsylvania. Graduates go on to positions of power and influence, but students must first agree to three years of seclusion on the campus. Troubled Ines at first revels in hedonistic pleasures and pays little attention to her studies, the opposite of her roommate Baby, who threatens to crack under the academic pressure. An enforced stint at the “Restoration Center” may be the cure for both of them. Or not. Thomas is great with world-building, the strange hothouse atmosphere in which secrets thrive. She could do more with  character development. Teachers and students blur together, with the exception of outsider Ines, who eventually dares to challenge the establishment.

Riley Sager puts his trademark spin on the haunted house tale while paying homage to The Amityville Horror in Home Before Dark (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley). Maggie Holt is surprised when her father dies and leaves her Baneberry Hall, a dilapidated Victorian in small-town Vermont where she briefly lived with her parents when she was a child. Ewan Holt later wrote a best-selling book, House of Horrors, about how the family fled Baneberry in the wake of supernatural events. He always claimed the book was nonfiction, but Maggie thinks it’s a hoax, that her father took advantage of the house’s reputation as the scene of a gruesome crime. Chapters of Ewan’s book are interspersed with Maggie’s suspenseful present-day account of returning to Baneberry to restore the house and lay to rest its ghosts. Best read this one with the lights on.

Past events also play into the present in Megan Miranda’s involving The Girl from Widow Hills (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). When hospital administrator Olivia Meyer moves to North Carolina from Kentucky, she’s hoping no one will recognize her as Arden Maynor, the six-year-old who was swept away in a storm 20 years ago and miraculously rescued from a drainpipe three days later. Liv remembers little of what happened, but she is still haunted by bad dreams and occasionally sleepwalks. That’s what she’s doing when she stumbles across a dead body between her rental house and her reclusive landlord’s home. Soon, police detective Nina Rigby is asking Liv probing questions even as Liv is investigating on her own. Is she really being stalked, or is it her overactive imagination? Miranda offers up a number of suspects in her twisty guessing-game story.

Megan Goldin uses the popularity of true-crime podcasts to good effect in The Night Swim (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Rachel Krall is known for her podcast Guilty or Not Guilty, but she maintains a low personal profile. So she’s surprised to keep finding anonymous letters left for her in Neapolis, N.C., where she’s covering the controversial trial of champion swimmer Ryan Blair, accused of raping teen Kelly Moore. Excerpts of Rachel’s authentic-sounding podcast about the trial alternate with the revealing letters, in which a girl who calls herself Hannah begs Rachel to investigate the long-ago murder of her older sister. Rachel’s intrigued enough to look into the alleged crime but soon discovers that it was closed as an accidental drowning. Hannah herself proves maddeningly elusive, and the trial heats up as the town takes sides. Rachel claims her podcast puts listeners “in the jury box,” and readers will feel they are there, too, even as they wonder about possible connections with the cold case. Tense and timely.

 

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Put down the remote. Take a break from streaming Hamilton. Don’t you want to read books where stuff happens? We have you covered.

Boy, does stuff happen in Lake Life (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), the impressive first novel from UCF writing prof David James Poissant, following his story collection The Heaven of Animals. The Starling family’s annual summer vacation at their old North Carolina lake house is shadowed by parents Richard and Lisa’s plans to sell the house and retire from academia to Florida. But before grown sons Michael and Thad can recover from the news, a drowning gives rise to revelations and recriminations that rock the family, which includes Michael’s wife Diane and Thad’s partner Jake. Poissant fluently rotates perspectives among the six main characters, each with at least one secret: Alcoholism, infidelity, unexpected pregnancy, suicide attempts, grief that won’t let go. Emotions run deep before roiling to the surface. There’s heartbreak, humor, suspense. Yes, it slips into melodrama — the deer incident — and Poissant sometimes overwrites, as in the drawn-out ending. But excess can be forgiven in a book this good. I’ll read it again.

“Bananas.” That’s what I like best about Elisabeth, the new mother in J. Courtney Sullivan’s novel Friends and Strangers (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Whenever Elizabeth catches herself being judgmental, she says “Bananas” before she can blurt out what she really thinks. And Elisabeth is judgy — about the upstate New York College town where she recently moved with her husband; about the members of her new book club, not as cool as her Brooklyn friends; about her nearby in-laws, so different from her own unhappy, withholding parents; about her younger sister, an Instagram star who borrows money; about the women who apply to be part-time nanny to baby Gil. But then Elisabeth meets Sam, a senior scholarship student at the college with babysitting experience who is good with Gil. No doubt Sam is a find. Trouble is, Elisabeth sees her as a friend. Sullivan’s novel is about the complicated relationship between the two women, about good intentions and privilege and boundaries. Elisabeth and Sam share the narrative, and Sam, with her youthful enthusiasms, her hot sleazy London boyfriend, her consideration for others, is a character to care about. As for Elisabeth, “bananas.” I can’t help it. I wanted more Sam and less Elisabeth. Still, I’ll take them both during lockdown.

In Kevin Kwan’s frothy Sex and Vanity (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), lovely Lucie has suitors named George and Cecil, a brother Freddy and a cousin Charlotte. There’s also a room with a view, which is your final clue that Kwan is putting his “Crazy Rich Asians” spin on E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel.  Kwan subs Capri and the Hamptons for Florence and England, the better to satirize the decadent privilege of his 21st-century characters. Chinese-American Lucie sparks with Chinese-Australian George at a lavish destination wedding, but once back home in New York, she becomes engaged to WASP Cecil. Then George reappears. Kwan has fun with fashion, food and footnotes, and takes name-dropping to new levels — the D’Arcys plus Charles and Camilla.  And lest you forget the wonderful Merchant-Ivory film, where Maggie Smith played Charlotte, there’s a passing reference to the Dowager Countess of Grantham.  Tres amusant.

 

Even if Connie Schultz hadn’t used a quote from A Tree Grows in Brooklyn as an epigraph to her first novel, The Daughters of Erietown (Random House, purchased hardcover), I would still recognize the influence of Betty Smith’s well-loved book. Smith wrote about working-class life in Depression-era Brooklyn. Schultz’s family saga takes place in a blue-collar town in northeast Ohio in the decades following World War II. In a prologue set in 1974, Samantha “Sam” McGinty sets off for college at Kent State. The car ride with her parents, Brick and Ellie, and younger brother Reilly hints at past trauma in the family and life in Erietown, which Schultz then relates in flashback. Ellie, raised by her grandparents, falls in love with high school sports star Brick, and a hurry-up marriage derails plans for college. Brick becomes a union man at the local power plant; Ellie stays home with the kids. It’s the ’50s and then the ’60s, and Schultz writes movingly of the changing times and the McGintys’ struggle to adjust, not always successfully. The period details and cultural commentary, combined with Schultz’s compassion for her flawed characters, makes for a moving and involving story.

 

I binged more books, but I’m having computer problems. Once I get the technical issues resolved, I’ll post about Catherine House by Elisabeth Thomas, The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor, The Lantern Men by Elly Griffiths, Home Before Dark by Riley Sager, The Girl from Widow Hills by Megan Miranda, Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia, The Lives of Edie Pritchard by Larry Watson and Hieroglyphs by Jill McCorkle. I liked them all.

 

 

 

 

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Summertime, and the reading’s whatever you want it to be. Now that bookstores and libraries are reopening, it’s time to open all the books we missed.

It wasn’t until this past week when Oprah named James McBride’s Deacon King Kong (Riverhead Penguin/library e-book) her latest book club pick that I realized I forgot to write about it back in March. That was early stay-home days, and all I did was read, read, read.  McBride’s lively novel transported me to a housing project in south Brooklyn in September 1969, where in front of God and everybody, a crotchety, inebriated church deacon known as Sportcoat shoots the ear off Deems Clemens, former baseball prodigy turned drug dealer. What has led Sportcoat to this moment and the repercussions that follow affects the entire community of churchgoers, cleaning ladies, transit workers, shopkeepers, mobsters and police. It involves moonshine, free cheese, marching ants, hidden treasure and a missing Christmas Club fund, and it includes characters as colorful as their names: Pudgy Fingers, Hot Sausage, Sister Gee, Elephant, Lightbulb, cousins Nanette and Sweet Corn. It’s a lot of fun and full of heart.

Other spring books of note are Gail Godwin’s Old Lovegood Girls (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley) and Richard Ford’s Sorry for Your Trouble (Ecco/HarperCollins, digital galley). The latter collection of short stories features older men pondering the past and contending with the present, the death of old friends, the loss of wives and lovers. Some memories are tinged with regret, while others are more rueful about choices made long ago. In the novella-length, “The Run of Yourself, “ a widower has a surprising encounter with a much-younger woman, while in “Nothing to Declare,” a married attorney recognizes his first love in a New Orleans hotel. Godwin’s pensive novel unfolds elliptically as a successful writer looks back at the complicated, 40-year friendship with her college roommate and how it has influenced her career. Feron Hood, secretive about her alcoholic mother and abusive stepfather, first meets Merry Jellicoe, a confident tobacco heiress, in 1958 at a Southern college for women. They bond over a shared writing class, but Merry has to leave Lovegood when her parents die in an accident. Letters and sporadic meetings over the years keep them connected, and Merry’s first published short story spurs competitive Feron to finish her novel. There are secrets and envy on both sides, though, and questions of appropriation arise. Secondary characters such as Feron’s gentlemanly uncle and Merry’s farm manager play significant roles.

Highlighting issues of race, gender and identity, Britt Bennett’s The Vanishing Half (Riverhead, purchased hardcover) could hardly be more timely, but it’s also a timeless story of sisters, mothers, daughters and how the past shapes the present. Identical twins Desiree and Stella Vignes grow up in a small Louisiana community of light-skinned blacks, but run away to New Orleans at 16. Townspeople thought they’d soon return. “Instead after a year, the twins scattered, their lives splitting as evenly as their shared egg. Stella became white and Desiree married the darkest man she could find.” Bennett follows the twins’ separate lives, focusing first on Desiree, who does return home in 1968 with her dark-skinned daughter Jude. Meanwhile, Stella lives as a white woman in California, raising a blonde daughter Kennedy who is unaware of her mother’s past. Jude and Kennedy improbably intersect as young women, thus reconnecting the twins. The narrative’s drama owes a lot to coincidence, but Bennett writes beautifully about self-discovery and reinvention, secrets and choices, twinship and kinship.

Is every day starting to seem the same? Time to inject some suspense. I started with Lucy Foley’s twisty The Guest List (Morrow, purchased hardcover), which features a fancy celebrity wedding on a storm-tossed Island off the coast of Ireland. The closed circle of suspects gives off Agatha Christie-vibes, but while the identity of the eventual victim is obvious, that of the killer may catch you off guard. There’s no doubt a devious serial killer known as the Shrike is stalking women in the pages of Michael Connelly’s Fair Warning (Little, Brown, library e-book), but it takes the dogged determination of investigative reporter Jack McEvoy to figure out the scary motive behind the murders. McEvoy has come down in the world since he starred in The Poet and The Scarecrow; he now works for an online consumer web site because newspapers are expiring right and left, which is more than sad. Heather Young’s atmospheric thriller The Distant Dead (HarperCollins, digatal galley) is set in a sad desert town, where an orphaned schoolboy discovers the charred corpse of his middle-school math teacher in the desolate hills. The book is layered with mysteries, past and present, as history teacher Nora Wheaton soon discovers. For a more upbeat tale, turn to Riviera Gold (Ballantine, digital galley) as Laurie R. King continues the adventures of Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes. We last saw them in Venice in Island of the Mad, socializing with Cole Porter and his crowd; now Mary’s off to the Riviera and Monaco, where she is surprised to find former housekeeper Mrs. Hudson filling in for Gerald and Sara Murphy’s regular nanny. Still, glimpses of the rich and famous are of little interest when Mrs. Hudson’s checkered past catches up with her and she’s accused of murder. Russell and Holmes to the rescue!

 

 

 

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When the tornado skirted our neighborhood Saturday evening, I was reading. The sky that was gray all day turned dark, the alarm on my cell phone sounded, the wind whooshed, the power went off, transponders popped. It was that quick. I later learned there was significant damage right down the street — roofs ripped apart, trees toppled, cars crushed. No one was hurt, thankfully, but debris was all over. Part of a metal roof rested in some bushes, and a pink pool flamingo nested in an oak tree. Neighbors were surveying damage while helicopters prowled overhead. By now it was night. The rain had stopped; friends had checked in by text and phone. I found a flashlight, fed the cats and went back to reading.

I was rereading Jane Austen’s Emma, prompted by something I read in a diverting new novel, Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Set in post-World II Chawton, the English village where Austen spent her final years, it features a diverse set of characters including the town doctor, a widowed schoolteacher, an American actress, a farm worker, a book-loving schoolgirl and a descendant of the Austen family. What brings them together is their shared enthusiasm for Austen’s works and the desire to establish a Jane Austen museum in a small cottage where she lived. The financial challenges are compounded by a will that will disallow Frances Knight’s claim to the cottage and a valuable library if a male heir is found. Mmm, sounds a bit like something Austen might concoct along with the entangled lives of its seemingly ordinary characters. If Jenner’s first novel lacks Austen’s sparkle, it is enhanced by the characters’ conversations about Austen and many, many references to the books.

Did you know that shell-shocked WWI veterans were encouraged to read Austen novels and that Winston Churchill read them to get through WWII? I totally get it. Austen is a tonic for anxious times, and her books help ease the worries and griefs of Jenner’s characters. “Part of the comfort they derived from rereading was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure — of feeling, each time, an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness, while all the while knowing, on some different parallel interior track, that it was all going to work out in the end. Of being both one step ahead of the characters and one step behind Austen on every single reading.”

Exactly. Of course if you’ve never read Austen or don’t care for her, then the charms of The Jane Austen Society will be lost on you. But I found it a pleasant antidote to uncertainty, and it reminded me that rereading Austen is always a good thing.

Especially before, during and after a storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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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Yes, I know I’m a little late with a March post. Ok, a lot late. But I’ve been busy social distancing, washing my hands, playing with the cats, streaming BritBox and reading in place. Not that much difference from my real life, truth be told. I was a stay-at-home person even before I was told to stay home. I miss friends and lunch out and even running errands, but I’m high-risk. Thankfully, there’s no risk of me running out of anything to read.

My favorite new book is Lily King’s witty and hopeful new novel, Writers & Lovers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which was the book I didn’t know I needed until I read it in one sitting a few weeks ago, and the reread it a couple days back. Casey is a 30ish writer and waitress in Boston, dealing with her grief at her mother’s recent death and struggling to finish her first novel. Two men complicate her life’s plot. Oscar is an older, well-known writer, a widower with two winsome little boys. Silas is younger, a student of Oscar’s, and still improvising his life and work. I went back and forth between the two, but in the end, I rooted for Casey.

Emily St. John Mandel’s last novel, Station Eleven, was about a global pandemic and life afterward, and it’s another favorite, although perhaps not the best choice for rereading just now. So I read her new novel, The Glass Hotel (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley) which differs in subject, following several people afloat in the “kingdom of money,” but which is also moody and haunted. Both Vincent ad her half-brother Paul work at the isolated Vancouver Island resort of the title, but then go in different directions, he as a troubled video performance artist and she as the trophy wife of the hotel’s owner, Jonathan. He’s running a giant international Ponzi scheme, which ensnares a number of people, including a couple of characters from Station Eleven, when it collapses. The story of choice and guilt plays with the idea of parallel/alternate lives, and it is full of ghosts. I liked it, but trying to explain why is like grasping at clouds.

Rats! Chris Bohjalian’s clever thriller The Red Lotus (Knopf/Doubleday, review hardcover) is full of them, all carrying dread and disease and death. Not a comfort read in these times, but it’s tense and diverting, moving between the Vietnamese countryside and a New York research hospital. Alexis is an ER doctor whose boyfriend Austin disappears while they are on a bike vacation in Vietnam. Austin, it turns out, is a first-class liar, and Alexis, wounded and betrayed, is compelled to investigate all the things he never told her. Bohjalian carefully parcels out critical information — about Austin’s darts-playing friend Douglas, an unnamed higher-up in cahoots with Douglas, a former Vietnam vet now a private detective, and antibiotic-resistant pathogens. Rats, too.

 

Louise Erdrich drew on the life of her grandfather in writing The Night Watchman (HarperCollins, digital galley), an involving story set in 1953 on the Turtle Mountain Reservation in rural North Dakota. Thomas Wazhashk, a night watchman at a jewel bearing factory, is also a Chippewa Council member who is fighting against a bill winding its way before Congress that would terminate the rights of Native Americans to their land as spelled out in long-standing treaties. Thomas’ activism will reach to  Washington, D.C., but it also affects the lives of others, including Patrice Parenteau, a high-school valedictorian and factory worker worried about the disappearance of her older sister Vera in Minneapolis; the boxer Wood Mountain; and white high school teacher and coach Stack Barnes. I vaguely remember studying termination in a college anthropology class — dry, distant facts, nowhere near as fascinating and real as Erdrich’s vividly realized novel.

Several ongoing crime series have new entries that offer escapism from the world’s woes. Detective and apprentice wizard Peter Grant takes on corporate crime in False Value (DAW, digital galley), the eighth book in the always entertaining Rivers of London series. Here, he goes undercover at the Serious Cybernetics Company to investigate tycoon Terrence Skinner and his connection to a fabled machine built by Ada Lovelace. In Meg Gardiner’s third volume in the UNSUB series, In the Dark Corners of the Night (Blackstone, digital galley), FBI behavioral analyst Caitlin Hendrix is trailing the Midnight Man. The serial killer terrorizes family homes in Los Angeles, killing the parents but letting their kids live — at least so far. Deanna Raybourn’s high-spirited Victorian mystery, A Murderous Relation (Berkley, digital galley), is the welcome fifth in a clever, sexy series.   Victoria Speedwell and Stoker Templeton-Vane team to resolve a royal scandal featuring a certain relative of Veronica’s, even as a serial killer stalks London’s streets.

 

 

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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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