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Archive for the ‘Writing and Reading’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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The further ahead I read, the more I “fall” behind. Even though I started reading fall books back in the summer, I’m still catching up with some of my favorite authors who had new books in September and October. A neighbor who loves Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto wanted to know about her latest novel, The Dutch House (HarperCollins, digital galley). With its emphasis on blended family dynamics, the book is more like Patchett’s Commonwealth than Bel Canto, but she still injects suspense in her domestic drama, and she is still writing about how we struggle to find a home in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conroy are the Hansel and Gretel siblings, spiritually orphaned when their mother abandons them to the care of their reserved father. Then, after his sudden death, they are exiled from the suburban mansion of their childhood by a grasping stepmother looking out for her own young daughters. Although the fairy tale motifs are obvious, Patchett doesn’t overplay them as she explores complicated family relationships, how the past impinges on the present, how hard it is to forgive and yet how necessary. Adult Danny narrates, but Maeve — fierce, loving, brilliant, thwarted — is the book’s heart.

John le Carre is such a pro. His nimble new novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking, purchased hardcover), offers timely entertainment. Nat, the veteran British spy who narrates, is a passionate badminton player. “Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” Le Carre could well be describing his stylish plotting that has Nat taking over a derelict intelligence substation in London and running its motley assortment of agents. One bright spot is his young second in command, Florence, who has a plan to bug the apartment of a Ukranian oligarch with ties to Putin. There’s also Nat’s weekly badminton game with Ed, an odd duck researcher with a media firm, who vehemently dislikes Brexit, Trump and the British government and who vents his displeasure to Nat over post-match drinks. But when the Ukranian operation goes south, Nat finds that he can’t separate work from play, and the game is on — the great game of espionage, that is, complete with lies, spies, moles and betrayals large and small. No one writes it better than le Carre, even if Nat, Ed and Florence aren’t  as memorable as Smiley and the Cold War crowd of Tinker, Tailor days. Then again, it’s hardly the same world. Have to agree with Ed that we’re living in a hot mess.

I remember feeling bereft when I first finished reading Carol Anshaw’s 2012 novel Carry the One about several siblings and friends affected by a fatal car accident. It followed the characters over the years, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, from Alice the artist to Walter Payton the dog. There’s a cool canine named Sailor in Anshaw’s new novel, Right After the Weather (Atria, digital galley), the same great writing and more complicated characters to care about. In 2016 Chicago, theater set designer Cate is turning 40 and turning over the pieces of her life, trying to get them to fit. Her career is gaining steam, she has an extroverted new girlfriend, and her longtime best friend Neale and her son Joe live nearby. But Cate still gets money from her parents, her angsty ex-husband is living in her spare room and she can’t forget her last girlfriend. Also, Trump has just been elected president. When a couple of addicts invade Neale’s home, Cate comes to her friend’s rescue, but the ensuing violence marks her and those around her in surprising ways. Neale, for one, announces that her estranged husband is returning home. “Pain slams Cate hard in the chest, as though she’s been whacked by an oar. Nothing big happens, she’s beginning to see, without knocking around the adjacent pieces.”

Like her 2016 first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, acclaimed YA author Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel Red at the Bone (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley) reads like a lovely prose poem. It also features a similar time-shifting narrative, but Woodson weaves together five voices in her poignant story of how an unexpected pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes. It opens in 2001 with a party for 16-year-old Melody, whose parents, Iris and Aubrey, had her when they were just 15 and 16. In a turnabout, it is ambitious Iris who left Aubrey and Melody with her parents, Sade and Po’Boy, so she could go to college at Oberlin. Woodson dips in and out of their lives at various junctures in a series of compressed vignettes full of youthful yearning and bittersweet wisdom. There is a lot of pain, but also love and hope, as Red at the Bone cuts close to the bone.

Kate DiCamillo isn’t just one of my favorite authors of books for young readers, but a favorite writer, period.  Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, purchased e-book), the third book in the winning sequence that began with Raymie Nightingale and continued with Louisiana’s Way Home, centers on Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, best friends in 1970s Central Florida. It’s now 1979, and Beverly is grieving the loss of her dog Buddy when she decides to leave town for good. Without a word to Raymie or her neglectful mom Rhonda, she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, where she lies about her age to get a job at a seafood joint and makes the acquaintance of elderly bingo player Iola Jenkins. In exchange for driving Iola around, Beverly gets tuna fish sandwiches and a place to stay. Despite her tough-girl exterior, Beverly has a tender heart, and Dicamillo perfectly captures her bravura and vulnerability. A small group of oddball but caring friends, including store clerk Elmer and waitress Freddie, help Beverly discover her self-worth as she tries to find her place in the world. Supposedly for ages 10-14, Beverly, Right Here should also appeal to so-called grown-ups, especially those who remember what it’s like to be 14. If you don’t, DiCamillo and Beverly are here to remind you.

In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.’’ Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, can communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train.  Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew (Simon and Schuster, review copy), a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy.  I reviewed it last month for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and you can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/yyg5qz3g

 

 

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It’s September, but in Florida that means August: The Sequel. It’s just as hot and humid, only with a greater chance of hurricanes and lovebugs. My survival plan is simple, the same as the last few months: Lots of books and AC, with plenty of flashlight batteries in case the power goes out.

The balance of power between the sexes shifts in Lisa Lutz’s smart and caustic prep school mystery The Swallows (Ballantine, digital galley). The MeToo movement becomes MyTurn when the girls seek revenge on the boys whose faculty-sanctioned sexual gamesmanship has long caused hurt and humiliation. Senior student Gemma and new writing teacher Alex become allies in the search for  “the Darkroom,” the online hangout for the guys and their infamous rating system. I give the book an A-minus.

 

Another chilly campus novel, Cambria Brockman’s Tell Me Everything (Ballantine, digital galley), gets a B because it doesn’t quite live up to its Secret History vibes. The prologue teases with a suspicious death among a tightly knit group of students, who have been living and studying together at a small New England College since freshman year. But they don’t share all their secrets, as narrator Malin well knows. Imposter syndrome, anyone? You don’t know the half of it.

 

Alex Segura goes super-noir in the fifth and final Pete Fernandez book, Miami Midnight (Polis Books, digital galley) as the Miami gumshoe and recovering alcoholic is tempted to take up detecting again by the murder of a jazz pianist and a cold case with a personal connection. Pete’s also trying to repair old friendships and stay away from old enemies, all the while dealing with a missing widow and a costumed contract killer. The atmosphere’s as thick as a South Florida summer. Love me some pulp fiction, and Segura obviously does, too,

The hardscrabble West Virginia town of Acker’s Gap is bleaker than ever in Julia Keller’s new Bell Elkins mystery, The Cold Way Home (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). A former prosecutor turned private detective, Bell finds a dead body on the desolate site of a onetime insane asylum. The solution to the murder lies in the hospital’s sad and sordid history, which Keller imparts through excerpts from a diary kept by a woman who worked there as a girl. Past and present tangle in a grim and fascinating story.

 

All allusions to Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw are deliberate in Ruth Ware’s contemporary Gothic,  The Turn of the Key (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley). But Ware has cleverly updated its classic haunted house element. The mansion in the Scottish Highlands where nanny Rowan Caine finds a lucrative position is actually a “smart house,” wired to the rafters with surveillance cameras and a soundtrack, everything programmed by an electronic assistant “Happy.” Accused of killing a child in her care, Rowan tells her story in letters to a lawyer from prison.  But Ware withholds the identity of the child and the circumstances of the death, scattering clues throughout the narrative, turning up the suspense.

Ann Cleeves, creator of the Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez/Shetland mysteries, launches a new series with The Long Call (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Set in North Devon where two rivers empty into the sea, it features Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, who grew up in a small religious sect in the area. When Matthew rebelled against religion as a teen, he was shunned by his parents and the community. Now in his late 30s, he’s married to Jon, who runs a local arts and counseling center. The discovery of a body with an albatross tattooed on his neck involves Matthew in a case connected to his past and present. The story is absorbing, the mood thoughtful, the characters memorable. Of particular interest are Debbie, a young woman with Downs Syndrome, who works at Jon’s center and knew the victim, and Dennis Salter, the charismatic leader of the sect.  I’m also looking forward to reading more about complicated Matthew Venn.

 

 

 

 

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