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Archive for the ‘Writing and Reading’ Category

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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Riley Sager dedicates his new killer thriller Lock Every Door (Penguin Dutton, digital galley) to Ira Levin, setting up apartment-sitter Jules Larsen in the Bartholomew, an ominous Manhattan high-rise. Out of a job and a boyfriend, Jules is delighted to stay in the gargoyle-studded building overlooking Central Park where her favorite girlhood novel took place. The rules are strict to protect the privacy of the wealthy residents, but it isn’t until fellow apartment-sitter Ingrid disappears that Jules begins to probe the Bartholomew’s sinister history. As with best-sellers Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied, Sager twists familiar tropes to keep readers guessing and reading. Pages fly by.

Megan Miranda (All the Missing Girls) also knows how to twist plots and play with memory and perception, as proven by The Last Houseguest (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). In the Maine resort town of Littleport, wealthy summer visitor Sadie Loman picks local girl Avery Greer to be her bestie, which is why Avery doesn’t believe Sadie committed suicide last summer. The narrative  hopscotches between past and present, as Avery, who works as a property manager for the Lomans, fends off suspicions that she was somehow involved in Sadie’s fatal fall from the cliffs. Miranda deftly depicts class tensions and the small-town dynamics of the summer season.

A female friendship is also at the center of Nancy Thayer’s Surfside Sisters (Ballantine, digital galley), but this is leisurely beach book, no murders involved. Successful novelist Keely Green is reluctant to return to Nantucket when her widowed mother becomes ill because it means seeing her one-time best friend Isabelle. Growing up, the two both dreamed of becoming writers, but a betrayal during college set them on different paths. Thayer’s linear narrative follows Keely as she overcomes past obstacles, mainly her family’s skidding finances, and confronts new ones, like the return of her longtime crush, Isabelle’s brother Sebastian.

Queen Bee (Morrow, digital galley) is another of Dorothea Benton Frank’s winning tall tales of Lowcountry South Carolina. On Sullivan’s Island, Holly McNee Jensen works part-time at the library, tends her beloved bees and immerses herself in the lives of next-door neighbor and single dad Archie and his two young sons. This helps her escape the endless demands of her hypochondriac mother, dubbed “Queen Bee” by Holly and her married sister Leslie, who returns home when her handsome husband decides he’s into cross-dressing. There’s high drama as Archie plans to marry a snob with no use for kids, Leslie and her headstrong mother head for Las Vegas, and Holly tells all to her bees, who weaponize. Queen Bee may be implausible, but it’s also sweetly funny.

 

 

 

 

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Sorry, I forgot to put out my “Gone Reading” sign at the first of the month, but I’ve been reading so much there hasn’t been time to write. Let’s catch up.

“It’s not what it looks like,” says P.I. Jackson Brodie on the very first page of Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky (Little Brown, digital galley). It never is with Atkinson, the most wily of writers, or with Jackson, my favorite book boyfriend. Returning for his fifth outing after a too-long absence, he’s tracking an errant husband in an English seaside town, sometimes in the company of his 13-year-old son and an aging Labrador, when things get complicated. They always do. This time, it’s a circle of sex traffickers, a murdered wife, a missing hitchhiker, a pair of young coppers working a cold case, assorted villains and innocents. Atkinson uses multiple points of view and quirky characters, zigs when you expect her to zag, and expects readers are smart enough to keep up.

I miss the Sorensons. They’re the Midwestern family at the center of Claire Lombardo’s immersive first novel The Most Fun We’ve Ever Had (Doubleday Knopf, digital galley), which I binged like a favorite Netflix series. So good. David and Marilyn Sorenson live in her childhood Oak Park home, two peas in a pod ever since they fell in love under the ginkgo tree in the backyard in the mid-1970s. This is surprisingly hard on their four grown daughters, who joke about the “magical albatross” of their parents’ love for one another. The bar is set so high, and each tries to measure up — or not — in singular ways. At book’s beginning, the oldest, Wendy, a rich widow, stirs the sisterly stew of rivalries and resentments by introducing a teenage boy into the mix — the child secretly given up for adoption by one of the sisters 16 years ago. Uptight lawyer and stay-at-home mom Violet can’t deal, college professor Liza is coping with an unexpected pregnancy and a depressive boyfriend, and the youngest, Grace, is off in Oregon, supposedly acing law school. The emotionally resonant narrative follows family members over the course of a year with frequent flashbacks to fill in everyone’s past, and Lombardo deftly orchestrates the chorus of perspectives. The book’s maybe a little too long, saggy in spots, and it’s Sorenson-centric — the tumultuous times don’t intrude, although the family is not immune to misfortune and regret. Real life is rich and messy, and The Most Fun We Ever Had feels real. It reminds me of Sue Miller’s classic novel Family Pictures or Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House, and I was sorry to see it end.

I’ve read some other good books, too. Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything (Atria, digital galley) follows two sisters over 50 years, and Mary Beth Keane’s Ask Again, Yes (Scribner, digital galley) features neighboring families tied together by the profound connection between two of their children. In Michael Parker’s atmospheric and lyrically written Prairie Fires (Algonquin, digital galley), the bond between two sisters on the Oklahoma frontier is tested when they both fall in love with their schoolteacher. Kristen Arnett’s morbidly funny first novel Mostly Dead Things (Tin House Books, digital galley) is set right here in swampy Central Florida, where Jessa-Lynn Morton tries to keep the family taxidermy business going in the wake of her father’s suicide. Arnett examines grief, loss and love with the same skill that Jessa dissects and rebuilds a raccoon. If that’s not your thing, Denise Mina’s thrilling Conviction (Little, Brown, digital galley) stars a woman whose obsession with a true-crime podcast collides with her secret history.

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The books were strong this past month. Historical novels, family sagas, literary fiction, crime novels. You can call it summer reading. I call it heaven.

In The Flight Portfolio (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Julie Orringer artfully mixes fact and fiction, transporting readers to 1940 Vichy France, where journalist Varian Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission to get threatened European artists and intellectuals away from the Nazis to safety in America is complicated by the personal (the return of his Harvard lover Elliott Grant), the political (closed borders, collaborators, government interference) and the moral (who decides who is “worthy” of the committee’s meager resources). The sunny countryside and port cities teem with intrigue, danger and romance on a grand scale.

Elderly narrator Vivian Morris looks back fondly to 1940 New York City in Elizabeth Gilbert’s entertaining City of Girls (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley). At 19, Vivi’s talent for not attending classes at Vassar is matched by her skill at making dresses for her classmates. When she’s asked not to return, her wealthy parents ship her off to New York and her unconventional aunt Peg Buell, who runs a struggling theater specializing in musical comedy. Vivi quickly and happily loses her innocence in the theatrical milieu, consorting with showgirls and hitting the nightclubs, but her actions have devastating consequences when she becomes embroiled in a tabloid scandal surrounding the hit musical “City of Girls.” Redemption does not come easily, as the reality of war soon changes everything, but Vivi’s witty, confessional voice charms throughout.

There’s a midsummer dreamy feel to Leah Hager Cohen’s Strangers and Cousins (Penguin Riverhead) as relatives and guests gather at Walter and Bennie’s Rundle Junction home for the wedding of eldest daughter Clem. The narrative slips smoothly through the various characters’ heads and memories, quandaries and secrets. Frail, ancient Aunt Glad carries the physical and emotional scars of her involvement in a town tragedy when she was a child. Walter and Bennie’s harmonious life is about to be upended by the arrival in Rundle Junction of a community of Orthodox Jews eager to buy property, and by an unexpected but not unwelcome addition to the family. And mercurial Clem’s elaborate plans for her wedding are soon to be upstaged by her unconventional college friends and the antics of her younger siblings.

Julia Phillips’ haunting debut of crime and connection, Disappearing Earth (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), takes place on the desolate Kamchatka peninsula in northeastern Russia, where the landscape has been shaped by earthquakes and tsunamis. The baffling disappearance of two schoolgirls at the book’s beginning reverberates through the community over the next twelve months. In chapters titled simply “April” or “June,” Phillips deftly concentrates on those individuals affected by the presumed kidnapping, from the girls’ grieving mother, to the college-student daughter of a reindeer hunter, to a policeman’s wife on maternity leave. The links of loss and longing among the characters accumulate, and revelations at a summer solstice festival lead to an unexpected conclusion.

New additions to three ongoing detective series prove more than welcome. The Scholar, (Penguin, digital galley), Dervla McTiernan’s follow-up to last year’s The Ruin, is a complex police procedural that finds Galway’s Detective Cormac Reilly investigating a sticky hit-and-run at a university research center. Researcher Emma Sweeney, Reilly’s girlfriend, finds the body, believed to be Carline Darcy, the brilliant heir apparent to Ireland’s largest pharmaceutical company. Both academic and police politics play into the plot, and suspicion undermines Reilly’s relationship with both Emma and his colleagues. A third book is on the way.

In the first entry in Elly Griffith’s sterling Ruth Galloway series, 2009’s The Crossing Place, forensic anthropologist Ruth meets DCI Harry Nelson while investigating missing girls near the Norfolk fens. Now, in the 11th book in the series, The Stone Circle (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Ruth and Nelson are working on another missing girl case with ties to the first. Of course, they’ve other ties in common, including a 7-year-old daughter conceived during a one-night stand. Nelson’s wife Michelle knows about Kate, but not their two grown daughters. Their discovery that Kate is their half-sister, plus Michelle’s surprise pregnancy, works into the new plot, which is already complicated enough. Series fans will appreciate the recurring characters and references to the past, but newcomers may want to start with The Crossing Place.

Anthony Horowitz is his usual clever self in The Sentence is Death (HarperCollins, digital galley), the second in the meta-mystery series featuring fictional PI Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz. The conceit, of course, is that the prolific Horowitz is taking time off from penning Foyle’s War screenplays and Alex Rider novels to play Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock and write about it, as he did in last year’s playful The Word is Murder. The case of a divorce lawyer bludgeoned by an expensive bottle of wine turns out to be quite tricky with suspects aplenty. Horowitz provides witty insider details about the film and publishing worlds, and he as self-promotional as Hawthorne is secretive. Jolly good fun.

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I raced through Chris Pavone’s clever first thriller, The Expats, when it came out in 2012 and wished then for a sequel, but his next two books, The Accident and The Travelers, had only tenuous ties to the first book. But The Paris Diversion (Crown Archetype, digital galley) is the knotty, twisted follow-up I wanted, with expats Kate (wife, mom, spy) and day-trader Dex — returning, only to have the past catching up with them big-time.  You don’t have to have read the The Expats, as long-ago events are briefly explained, but, really, you should. Otherwise, certain revelations might not hit you like a quick punch to the gut. Pavone ups the tension by having most of the narrative unfold during one day in tourist-packed Paris, where a suicide bomber plants himself and a briefcase in the courtyard of the Louvre. The city, wounded by previous terrorist acts, is nonetheless surprised, as are a rotating cast of characters: Kate, who was planning a dinner party, dons disguises and looks over her shoulder; Dexter tries to put together a mega-deal before the markets tumble; a corporate tycoon is whisked into hiding by his security deal; assorted assassins, spies and bad actors race through alleyways and the Metro. There will be blood. Things are not what they seem. More, please.

Before she was beach book queen Mary Kay Andrews, my pal Kathy Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity mystery series, so she usually includes a mystery subplot in her summery novels like Savannah Breeze and The High Tide Club.  It might be a scam, an unexpected inheritance, long-ago family secrets.  All of these, plus a cold case murder, figure in Andrews’ new charmer, Sunset Beach (St. Martin’s, ARC), which features down-on-her-luck Drue Campbell. After her mother’s death, Drue’s long-estranged father Brice gives her a job at his personal injury law firm, where his latest wife Wendy, who went to middle school with Drue, is the office manager. It’s pretty awful, but at least Drue can live in the run-down Florida beach house she inherited from her Cuban grandparents. She might even make enough money to renovate it, or at least put in AC. Cleaning out the attic, she stumbles on the cold-case disappearance of Colleen Hicks, which links to the days when her father was a beat cop. Drue can’t resist some sleuthing; she’s already looking into the death of a resort hotel housekeeper, whose mother and young daughter badly need insurance money. Drue’s varied attempts to access the resort in search of evidence make for entertaining set pieces, while flashbacks to 40-years-ago Florida add atmosphere and suspense. And just so you remember Sunset Beach is trademark Mary Kay Andrews, Drue also makes time for decorating with cast-off treasures, deals with family drama and finds a little romance. I see a sequel.

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book (Flatiron Books, digital galley) is one of those sprawling, multi-generational family sagas that seems designed for long, lazy days in a hammock. The writing is so lovely that it almost lulls you into forgetting that you’re reading about some of the worst aspects of the so-called “best” people. The Miltons are wealthy, white, privileged. They own a small island off the coast of Maine, bought by banker Ogden in the depths of the Great Depression to help his young wife Kitty recover from a family tragedy. This is where the Miltons summer over the years, and the book skips around in time, from Ogden’s pre-war business interests in Germany and a fateful decision on Kitty’s part; to 1959, when their three children invite outsiders, including a Jewish banker and an African-American writer-photographer, to the island retreat for what should be a celebration; to the present, when Milton granddaughter and Kitty lookalike Evie and her cousins must decide the island’s future now that fortunes have dwindled and family secrets are about to be revealed. Blake weaves issues of class, race and religion into the involving narrative as the Miltons and their connections ambitiously embody the social history of America in the 20th century. I kept thinking I’d read most of it before in summer sagas of seasons past, such as Beatriz Williams’ A Hundred Summers or Anne Rivers Siddons’ Colony. That’s okay. What’s old is new again for summer 2019.

 

 

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Of all the rumors swirling around Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird over the years, the idea that Truman Capote was the book’s real author always bothered me the most. Sure, he was Scout’s pal Dill in the story, but it was always Lee’s story to tell, and anyone who knew anything about Lee and Capote’s friendship and writing styles knew it. What many may not know is that after Lee helped Capote research the Kansas murder that became In Cold Blood, she tried writing her own true crime book. As journalist Casey Cep recounts in her non-fiction page-turner Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (Knopf, digital galley), Lee thought she’d found her subject in September 1977, when she sat unrecognized in a small-town Alabama courtroom similar to the one she described in Mockingbird, drawn there by a case involving multiple murders, insurance fraud, vigilante justice and rumors of voodoo.

“The defendant was black, but the lawyers were white, and so were the judge and the jury. The charge was murder in the first degree. . . The mystery in the courtroom that day was what would happen to the man who shot the Reverend Willie Maxwell. But for decades after the verdict, the mystery was what became of Harper Lee’s book.”

Journalist Cep proves a natural storyteller as she excavates both mysteries, mining details on Alabama history, geography and politics in the process. The first part of the book chronicles the story of “The Reverend”  (Lee’s title for the project), who held insurance policies on many of his relatives, five of whom turned up dead in mysterious circumstances. Often suspected and accused of murder, Maxwell was never convicted. He was the prime suspect in his stepdaughter’s murder, but at her funeral a relative took out a gun and shot him three times in the head. Maxwell’s former defense attorney, having just lost his best client, then volunteered to defend his killer. This lawyer, Tom Radney, a progressive Democrat, chose to argue that his new client was not guilty by reason of insanity.

No wonder Lee saw the makings of a book, and she struggled for years to write it, either as fact or possibly even fiction. Cep, who has written about Lee for The New Yorker, provides a well-researched portrait of a complicated, private woman who was close to her family and a small circle of friends but who often felt like an outsider in her hometown, at college and in law school (she dropped out with a semester to go), and in Manhattan, where she wrote Mockingbird and its predecessor, Go Set a Watchman. The facts may be familiar, but Lee had many facets that Cep illuminates in engaging fashion. Overall, it’s a sympathetic rendering of the issues she faced at various times, including  writer’s block, alcohol, fame, the death of family members and of Truman Capote.

It’s possible that Lee wrote and discarded some semblance of a manuscript, or maybe even kept it, but no pages have been found beyond Lee’s original research and notes. But don’t think of Furious Hours as the next best thing. It stands on its own as a involving story and fascinating literary mystery.

 

 

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An isolated hotel in the Swiss Alps, a small number of guests and staff on hand, then a body in the water tank. Sounds like the set-up for an Agatha Christie closed-circle mystery, but there’s a twist — a big one — to Hanna Jameson’s The Last One (Atria, digital galley).  Historian Jon Keller is at an academic conference when word reaches the hotel that there’s a world-wide nuclear war. In the ensuing panic, many of the guests take off for the nearest airport in hopes of escape but about 20 elect to stay at the hotel, which has power and supplies. But cell service and wi-fi soon disappear, and Jon can’t reach his wife and two daughters in California, or anyone else for that matter. He and the others are cut off from civilization, provided it even exists.

As far as dystopian thrillers go, The Last makes for provocative reading. The group dynamics are interesting, as are the details of day-to-day survival. Toothpaste is hoarded, bullets go missing, strangers hook up, water is rationed. The water situation and paranoia are heightened when a girl’s corpse is found in one of the hotel’s reserve tanks, and Jon begins an investigation that he includes in his daily chronicle of events. This murder mystery is the least effective part of the plot, though. and its eventual resolution kind of a jumble. But other secrets will keep you turning pages to find out Jon’s fate — and that of the world.

In Alafair Burke’s new domestic suspense tale, The Better Sister (HarperCollins, digital galley), the relationship between sisters Nicky and Chloe is more than a little complicated. Growing up in Ohio, they were chalk and cheese. Wild child Nicky married lawyer Adam and had baby Ethan, but when she started drinking too much, Adam turned to sensible Chloe for help in getting custody of toddler Ethan. Several years later, with both Adam and Chloe living in New York, they marry. Now Adam works for a corporate firm, Chloe’s a successful magazine editor, and Ethan is a gangly 16-year-old. Nicky’s still in Ohio, supposedly sober and selling jewelry on Etsy. But everything quickly changes when Chloe finds Adam’s body in their weekend home and Ethan is then arrested for the murder. Nicky shows up, and the two sisters work together to free their son.

Burke puts her own experiences as an attorney to good use, but her writing skills are on full display as she artfully doles out pieces of the puzzle from the main characters’ perspectives. Nicky, Chloe and Ethan all have secrets, and the neatly timed revelations up the suspense as one surprise follows another.

Angie Kim is a former trial lawyer whose first novel, Miracle Creek (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) is a layered courtroom drama that thoughtfully explores themes of family and forgiveness. Korean immigrants Young and Pak Woo and their teenage daughter Mary live in the small Virginia community of Miracle Creek, where they have started a hyperbaric oxygen therapy business in the barn behind their house. An explosion at book’s beginning kills two patients and injures Pak and Mary. A year later, both are among the witnesses at the murder trial of Elizabeth Ward, the mother of an autistic son who died in the explosion. Elizabeth, who took the night off from the therapy session and was smoking by the creek, is thought to have started the fire that led to the tragedy, although some want to point the finger at Pak and Young who stand to profit from the insurance.

Miracle Creek is itself divided by the tragedy and trial. Advocates for special needs kids who are anti-HBOT were protesting at the facility the day of the explosion and are on hand for the trial. So are the patients who escaped, including a doctor who knows more about the mysterious note found on the scene than he has told anyone. Young, always the obedient wife, does what her husband tells her but wishes she knew what her daughter is hiding. Elizabeth, formerly seen as a perfect, loving mother, is a stoic enigma. The result is a story as twisty as the creek providing its name.

 

 

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