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Unreliable, unforgettable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I love a mystery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Making spirits bright

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Any other August, I’d have spent the last few weeks finishing up summer reading and maybe getting a head start on fall.  But 2020 continues to be a year like no other, and I haven’t been reading much, or writing at all, because who doesn’t want to move during a pandemic? Yes, after 21 years in the same place, I’m downsizing and moving to a downtown apartment. It’s only two miles away, but that makes no difference when packing up and clearing out clutter — and books. I’m going to have to leave behind my beautiful floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves that my friend and former colleague Don Hey built in my den. I may cry.

This will be my last post for awhile while I actually move and settle in the new digs. But before I go, some thoughts on what I did read this summer and what you might want to read, too.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill published a trifecta of winning novels by several of my favorite authors. Jill McCorkle’s affecting Hieroglyphics focuses on an elderly couple who have moved south from New England after many years and whose lives intersect with a hard-working single mother and her quirky son. All of these characters have been shaped by loss and grief, and McCorkle gracefully weaves in backstories and memories of how each has coped. It’s reflective rather than sad, and I found myself smiling in recognition. Some years ago, author Caroline Leavitt lapsed into a long coma after the birth of her son, and she reimagines that experience in her new novel With or Without You. Stella, a nurse, and Simon, a sessions musician, have been together for 20 years when Stella accidentally mixes up some meds and falls into a coma just as Simon is getting ready to tour with his band. Now he sits beside Stella’s hospital bed, stuck out of time, wondering if he’s missing his big break and finding support from Libby, a doctor and Stella’s best friend. When Stella finally wakes up, she’s unaware of Simon and Libby’s relationship, but she feels like a different person. Her old life and job no longer fit, and she has an amazing new talent for drawing and painting. Like Leavitt’s other novels, including Cruel Beautiful World and Pictures of You, this book is wonderfully written and psychologically astute. In The Lives of Edie Pritchard, Larry Watson is at his storytelling best as he depicts the title character at three points in her life. It’s set mostly in Montana, where readers first meet Edie, an unhappily married bank teller who wonders if she should have chosen her husband’s twin brother. Men are so caught up by Edie’s good looks that they discount her smarts and strength of character. Edie’s possessive second husband makes that mistake, too, and her teenage daughter resents her. Skip forward another 20 years, and it’s 2007. Edie is 64, dealing with a rebellious granddaughter who also has boy trouble, and also with a younger man who wants to control her. No way.

In crime fiction, James Lee Burke’s A Private Cathedral (Simon & Schuster, digital galley) adds to the Dave Robicheaux mythos as the detective and his buddy Clete Purcel step into the past with warring Louisiana crime familes, star-crossed lovers and an evil assassin with paranormal abilities. This is Burke’s 40th book, the 23rd in the Robicheaux series, and Burke’s lyricism makes for a fevered dream of a book as Dave confronts new loves and old demons. Newcomer Alex Paresi goes metafictional with The Eighth Detective (Henry Holt, digital galley), a clever homage to Golden Age mysteries that is intellectually engaging but emotionally flat. Years ago, Grant McCallister came up with a mathematical formula for detective stories and wrote seven short stories to prove his point. Now, book editor Julia Hart seeks out McCallister on a secluded Mediterranean island as her company prepares to republish the collection. As she goes over the stories with the writer, she notices some inconsistencies that need explaining — and thereby hangs the tale. In Denise Mina’s standalone, The Less Dead (Little, Brown, digital galley), Glasgow doctor Margo Dunlop, in search for her biological mother, connects instead with her aunt. A former drug addict and sex worker, Nikki tells Margo that her mother Susan was murdered shortly after Margo’s birth 30 years ago. But Nikki swears she knows the killer and wants Margo to help her get the goods on the former cop. Poor Margo — she’s mourning the recent death of her biological mother, is secretly pregnant and has an erratic best friend in an abusive relationship. Then she starts getting threatening letters.  Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious Squeeze Me (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) made me forget all about the misery of moving because I was too busy turning pages. Granted, fans of the current president might not like this particular mix of mystery and political satire, but the character known as Mastadon fits right in with Hiaasen’s merry band of misfits. There’s petite Palm Beach socialite Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons who goes missing during a fundraiser at Lipid House. There’s critter removal expert Angie Armstrong who gets the call to take out the 18-foot-Burmese python with a large lump in its stomach. There are a couple of feckless thieves that steal the frozen snake from Angie’s storage locker. There’s asylum-seeker Diego Beltran who picks up a pink pebble and then is accused of killing Kiki.  There’s the first lady called Mockingbird who is very close to a certain Secret Service agent. And there’s the weirdness that is Florida, Hiaasen-style. Winner winner, python dinner.

See you in September, or maybe October. There’s an avalanche of autumn books about to fall, including new titles from Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Hoffman, Matt Haig, Anthony Horowitz, Sue Miller and Tana French. I can already tell you to keep a lookout for One by One by Ruth Ware and The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves. Such good books; they kept me from packing.

 

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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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