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When a reporter tells her editor that she has a good story, she doesn’t necessarily mean good news. Often, it’s bad or sad, like the Little League team whose equipment has been stolen, or the day-old baby left at the fire station. Sometimes, it’s tragic: the missing girl found murdered in a wooded area, or the unidentified body of a woman dredged up from a city park fountain.

Maddie Schwartz isn’t yet a reporter in Laura Lippman’s compelling new novel, Lady in the Lake (Morrow, digital galley), but she knows a good story. A 37-year-old Baltimore housewife who has recently left her attorney husband, Maddie is resurrecting old ambitions to make her mark in the world. After she helps discover the body of a missing child, she uses her smarts and inside info from her new lover — a black police officer — to correspond with the accused killer, then parlays his letters into a clerical job at the Baltimore Star. But she wants a byline and sets her sights on discovering why Cleo Sherwood died in the fountain, even though the paper’s editors don’t see the “Lady in the Lake” as a good story, or much of a story at all. It’s 1966, and they figure the Star’s readers don’t care about the death of a black cocktail waitress. Maddie’s on her own in the old boys’ club of a newsroom, in a city marked by race and class.

Most of the involving narrative is told from Maddie’s perspective, but it is interspersed with first-person vignettes in the voices of numerous minor characters, from the mother of the dead woman, to a jewelry store clerk, to a veteran newspaper columnist. This diverse chorus amplifies the character of Baltimore itself and shows off Lippman’s talents as reporter and novelist. One voice stands out — that of Cleo, who wishes Maddie would leave the case alone. There are consequences Maddie can’t forsee; people are going to get hurt. Besides, Maddie doesn’t really care about Cleo, the single mother with  lots of hopes and limited options. She’s after that good story.

Lady in the Lake works as newspaper novel and mystery. In last year’s Sunburn, Lippman paid homage to James M. Cain, and her 2016 novel Wilde Lake was inspired by Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Here, the title gives a noir nod to Raymond Chandler, but the chronicle of a woman pursuing her dreams and an identity of her own is right out of another of Lippman’s favorite novels, Herman Wouk’s Marjorie Morningstar. As for the two murders Maddie pursues, they are based on two actual Baltimore cases. But whatever the source material, Lippman always makes it her own. Lady in the Lake is no exception, especially with its killer twist. Good story.

 

 

 

 

 

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There’s something comfortably reassuring about Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance (Knopf, digital galley), like turning down a road in your old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed. The tree on the corner may be taller, but the neighbor’s house still needs a lick of paint. It’s all familiar — the gray cat crossing the yard, the light slanting across the front porch, the geraniums on the steps. You can’t help but smile.

So why is there a giant cactus on the cover? That’s not something you see every day in Baltimore, Tyler’s home turf and the setting of such well-loved novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Not to worry. Instead of having a character leave Baltimore in search of adventure, Tyler has Willa Drake departing her Arizona home for a shabby street in blue-collar Baltimore.

But before this we meet Willa at significant intervals in her life: as a 1967 schoolgirl whose mother has apparently walked out on the family; as a 1977 college student on a plane with her new fiance; as a 1997 widow, her controlling husband dead in a road rage accident. Skip forward 20 years, and Willa has remarried and is living in an Arizona golf neighborhood. While stuffy husband Peter golfs, Willa, having given up her teaching job, whiles away the time on mundane tasks. She’s actually sorting headbands when she gets a phone call bidding her to come to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise’s 9-year-old daughter Cheryl. Denise has been hospitalized with a stray bullet in her leg, and Willa has been mistaken for the grandmother who will drop everything and take care of a child she’s never met. Goodness!

Now Tyler’s cooking, and Willa comes into her own, getting to know the oddball neighbors, finding a kindred spirit in self-possessed Cheryl, listening to Denise fret about her shattered love life, and gracefully shuffling Peter to the background. There really are no villains in a Tyler novel. Some people are obtuse, even selfish, but the true enemy is time, ticking away the moments. Tyler, with her generous view of human nature and an affinity for illuminating what might be considered ordinary lives, alerts us to the moments and how they add up. Clock Dance is a very nice book in our not-so-nice times.

 

 

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vinegarAlthough Anne Tyler’s new novel is a modern retelling of The Taming of the Shrew commissioned for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth, Vinegar Girl (Hogarth, digital galley) reads more like a Tyleresque version of the movie Green Card. That’s fine with me, because I’ve always found Shrew problematic for its sexism, even if the two lovers appear to be in cahoots by the end. But I remember Green Card as a charming rom-com, and Vinegar Girl has the easy charm of many of Tyler’s books, with their endearingly oddball characters living seemingly ordinary lives. And, of course, the setting is now Baltimore, “Charm City.”

Kate Battista is a 29-year-old teaching assistant at a neighborhood pre-school, still living at home looking after her widower scientist father Louis and her pretty 15-year-old sister Bunny. She’s not so much shrewish as forthright and tactless — an altercation with a college professor led to her dropping out without a degree in botany — and while her young students adore her, their parents aren’t as comfortable. Still, she’s remarkably patient with her father’s eccentricities –“meat mash” for dinner all week — and over-indulgence of Bunny, at least until he proposes she marry his research assistant, Pyotr, so he can stay in the country. She’s mad and sad as she stomps up the stairs: “He must think she was of no value; she was nothing but a bargaining chip in his single-minded quest for a scientific miracle.”

This then is the farcical set-up for courtship, but the ensuing antics are mild and rather sweet. Pyotr, although literal-minded, is nowhere near as clueless as his employer. He admires Kate’s individuality, her long black curls, how she “resemble flamingo dancer.” Sure, he speaks bluntly without articles and adjectives, but Kate realizes he has layers of thought and feeling. She defends him to busybody relatives, and then is surprised when Aunt Thelma pronounces him “a cutie.”

A subplot involving Bunny’s sudden attraction to a pot-smoking neighbor and thus to veganism and animal-rights seems somewhat forced, but it does provide Tyler the chance for some satirical observations and to kick the action up a gear. The scenes of Kate at nursery school are spot on. The kids play and bicker — “Did so.” “Did not” — like the four-year-olds they are, occasionally spouting perfect gems, as when one girl talks about frolicking baby goats: “Yes, a few of them were just barely beginning to fly.”  The children may not see Kate as an authority figure, but they recognize her as a kindred spirit. The little boys want to marry her one day. They accept her for who she is, as does Pyotr, who knows she is more than a green card.

Still, the question remains. Will Kate and Pyotr marry for convenience, go their separate ways, or will they make a true match of it? Tyler takes her cue from another Shakespeare play: All’s well that ends well. Summer reading, anyone?

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spoolThe Whitshank home on Baltimore’s Bouton Road is a clapboard family house, “plain-faced and comfortable .  . . Tall sash windows, a fieldstone chimney, a fanlight over the door. But best of all, that porch: that wonderful full-length porch.”

This house is at the heart of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, e-galley), a novel as comfortable and welcoming as that gigantic porch. With characteristic ease, Tyler draws readers in to meet the Whitshank clan, which like all families, thinks itself special, spinning its own mythology out of shared history and stories. One story is how Junior, a self-made contractor out of the West Virginia mountains, built the house for another family in the mid-1930s but eventually moved into it with wife Linnie Mae, daughter Merrick and son Red. Another concerns how Merrick schemed to get away from the house by stealing another girl’s rich boyfriend.

Tyler assures us the Whitshanks are ordinary folk. Their talent for pretending everything is fine isn’t just a quirk. “Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Methinks Tyler doth protest too much. Tyler has made a career — this is her 20th novel — of illuminating the ordinary so it becomes extraordinary. Her characters both charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life, which Tyler depicts as both rich and interesting. Readers will recognize the familiar territory, relish the generous details. Here is Breathing Lessons grown old.

The book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the present-day Whitshanks. Laconic Red and effusive Abby are in their 70s, and their four grown children can no longer pretend that everything is fine at the house on Bouton Road. Red has slowed down significantly since a recent heart attack, and Abby has memory slips. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie, both married to men named Hugh, concur with youngest son Stem that he and his family will move in to look after Red and Abby. Then prodigal slacker son Denny, who has dropped in and out of family life for years, moves home, announcing that he will take care of things and why does everyone think he is unreliable, anyway? The list is so long as to afford chuckles if not for the long-held rivalries and secrets bubbling to the surface. An accident changes everything, and the Whitshanks begin to unravel.

Tyler abruptly time-shifts to July of 1959 and “the beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning” when teens Abby and Red begin their courtship at the Whitshank house. The family is preparing for Merrick’s wedding, and as Abby helps usually quiet Linnie Mae in the kitchen, she learns a surprising fact about her future in-laws. It’s a hint of what’s to come in part three, another extended flashback, this time to Junior and Linnie Mae’s early days in Baltimore. Fascinating stuff, and it goes a long way toward explaining Junior’s attachment to the house.

In the end, Tyler returns to present-day, tying up loose ends at the Whitshank house. It’s almost Halloween so the porch is decorated, as always, with a row of six ghosts made of rubber balls tied up in gauzy white cheesecloth that wafts in the breeze. “The whole front of the house took on a misty, floating look.”

It’s one of those indelible images that Tyler is so good with. Another finds the Whitshanks on their annual trip to the beach, where they observe the next-door neighbors year after year and how they change as time marches on. Abby has yet to venture into the water this vacation. “In her skirted pink swimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake.”

And then there’s Junior, who, after he finally gets the house of his dreams, starts beginning every sentence with “In this house.”

“In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not have possibly started out Episcopalian. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.”

 

 

 

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lippmanBaltimore bookie Felix Brewer is the gone guy in After I’m Gone (Morrow, review copy), Laura Lippman’s artful novel of character and family, mystery and murder. When Brewer faces prison in July 1976, he chooses to disappear for parts unknown, leaving behind his beautiful wife Bambi and their three young daughters, as well as his mistress, former showgirl Julie Saxony. All of their lives are forever shaped by the absence of charismatic Felix. Bambi is forced to turn to her husband’s best friend, a wealthy attorney, for ongoing financial help, believing that Felix is still supporting Julie at the expense of her family.  And when Julie vanishes 10 years after Felix, it’s generally assumed that he sent for her at last — until her body is found some months later at a local park. Still, her murder remains a cold case until 2012, when retired Baltimore detective Sandy Sanchez begins investigating as a consultant.

As in such past novels as I’d Know You Anywhere, Lippman smoothly slips among multiple perspectives and time periods, steadily building suspense as she peels away layers of deceit. Lyrics from the 1950s song “Never Let Me Go” signal each section: “Hold me” “Thrill Me” “Miss Me” “Tell Me.”

Bambi, still lovely at 73, has always been good at keeping secrets. Her grown daughters — working mom Linda, smart, needy Rachel and pretty, selfish Michelle — have inherited that trait, as well as a stubborn belief their father will return. Sandy eventually discovers that all of the Brewer woman had motive and possible opportunity to do away with ambitious Julie, who so believed that Felix would marry her one day that she converted to Judaism.

Sandy, who has his own haunted past,  thinks, “we tend to order things according to the reality we know, as we discover it. All life is hindsight, really, stories informed by their endings.” You can keep that in mind as After I’m Gone reaches resolution — and also that Lippman is so very  good at misdirection.  The coda — “Never Let Me Go” — is perfect.

wakeIn 1920, London is still shadowed by the Great War. The reminders are everywhere, as maimed veterans sell small items door-to-door or park their wheelchairs on street corners. And they’re the lucky ones. A generation is buried in France and Belgium, leaving behind grieving wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, lovers. Anna Hope’s sad and lovely first novel Wake (Random House, digital galley) unfolds over five days in November as Britain awaits the arrival of the coffin of the Unknown Warrior. Hope traces the journey of  this anonymous soldier from his grave in France to London on Armistice Day in a series of italicized passages, but her narrative focuses on three women living with loss.

Hettie’s a dance hall girl, whose share of her sixpence-a-dance wages goes to support her widowed mother and shell-shocked brother. At a nightclub, she encounters a handsome veteran who perhaps will be her ticket to a new life. Evelyn, a bitter spinster whose fiance was killed in the war, immerses herself in work at the Pensions Bureau and wonders how her adored brother seemingly shrugs off the horrors he saw as an officer in the trenches. Ada remains so haunted by the death of her only son Michael that she neglects her husband and life itself. Over the course of the book, Hope delicately reveals the devastating wartime tragedy that unknowingly links the three women.

At one point, Ada stands outside at twilight, watching her neighbors at work in their kitchens. She finds it odd looking “at the rhythms and routines of life. It suddenly seems so clear. Some contract has been broken. Something has been ruptured. How have they all agreed to carry on?”

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You may have heard that Anne Tyler includes a ghost in her new novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye. The ghost is Dorothy, a short middle-aged radiologist killed when a tree falls on her house one August. Some months later, she appears to her grieving husband Aaron, a 36-year-old editor at a small Baltimore publisher that specializes in beginners’ how-to guides on various subjects. Aaron first met no-nonsense Dorothy while editing ‘The Beginner’s Cancer” and was impressed when she came right out and asked him about his crippled arm.

Aaron doesn’t believe in ghosts, but here’s Dorothy showing up at his side as he walks down the street or browses in the farmers’ market. These brief encounters cause him to reflect on his so-called happy marriage and how often he and Dorothy were out of sync. And so Dorothy’s ghost begins to ease him out of the suspended animation of his grief, which has landed him back living with his bossy older sister in the family house.

It’s a sweet, slight story written with Tyler’s seemingly effortless grace and charm. But it’s so thin as to be transparent, especially when compared to such Tyler novels as The Accidental Tourist and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. The main characters are the usual endearing oddballs, although I found it easier to believe in Dorothy than obtuse Aaron, whose narrative voice seems that of a much-older man.

In the end, I was smiling, but I also felt bereft. It’s as if I invited Tyler over for a substantive meal, and she just dropped by for tea and sympathy.

Open Book: I bought a digital copy of Anne Tyler’s The Beginner’s Goodbye (Knopf) for my Nook Tablet and my original Nook, which my mom is using. We always read Anne Tyler.

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