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Posts Tagged ‘crime fiction’

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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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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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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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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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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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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If you’re the kind of reader who races through a mystery to find out whodunnit, Sophie Hannah’s The Next to Die (Morrow, digital) is probably not your kind of book. Her domestic suspense/procedurals  featuring married police detectives Charlie Zailler and Simon Waterhouse delve into motive and character, and she plots outside the lines. Here, a serial killer dubbed “Billy No Mates” is apparently targeting pairs of friends by first sending them mysterious handmade booklets with a line of verse on one page. Stand-up comedian Kim Tribbick, who narrates parts of the book, is mystified when she realizes a stranger gave her one of the booklets at a gig a year ago. She has an ex-husband, an ex-boyfriend and a dreadful brother but no real friends for “Billy No Mates” to kill. Kim and Charlie pal around, though, driving around England to revisit Kim’s tour bookings, and spying on Charlie’s sister in the process. An angry journalist muddies the waters with her insistence that the killer hates women, and a police profiler proves useless. Eventually, most of the digressions and characters come together in a denouement that is quite clever in retrospect. It’s certainly audacious.

Set in the sweltering Outback of an Australian summer, Jane Harper’s third novel The Lost Man (Flatiron, digital galley) is a stunner from its first atmospheric pages. Queensland rancher Cameron Bright’s body is spotted from a helicopter near an isolated marker known as the Stockman’s Grave. His older brother Nathan, who owns an adjoining ranch hours away, and younger brother Bub, who works the family land with Cameron and their widowed mother Liz, can’t figure out how Cameron was separated from his fully outfitted Land Cruiser found a few miles away, the keys in the seat. No water, no shade, he wouldn’t have lasted a day. The odd circumstances surrounding the death of the popular rancher, who left behind a wife and two young daughters, leads loner Nathan to the mystery of family present and past.  He discovers secrets that wound, secrets that break hearts, secrets to die for.

A group of old friends gather for a New Year’s celebration in a country house during a snowstorm. You’ve been there before, but Lucy Foley ups the ante in The Hunting Party (HarperCollins, digital galley). The friends are former Oxford classmates and their partners; the house is an exclusive luxury lodge in the Scottish Highlands; the snowstorm is a blizzard of epic proportions cutting them off from civilization At book’s beginning, the gamekeeper reports that the body of a missing guest has been found. But Foley then flashes back several days to reveal the proceedings from rotating perspectives. Secrets lurk among the friends; tempers flare and tensions rise. Golden couple Miranda and Julian are not so golden, after all. Rumors of a serial killer stalking the Highlands add to the unease. This is the kind of book you race through to find out whodunnit. Fun while it lasts, but I read it a month ago and now can’t remember victim or killer.

Inspector Alan Banks has always been good company, and that hasn’t changed now that he’s Detective Superintendent Banks. In Peter Robinson’s sturdy procedural Careless Love (Morrow, digital galley), two suspicious deaths at first appear unrelated. The college student found in an abandoned car didn’t own a car, or even drive. How did she get in the car and where’s her cell phone? As to the well-dressed older man found at the bottom of a ravine on the moors, did he fall or was he pushed? And what was he doing in the middle of nowhere? The answers, when they come, point to an old foe and an all-too current crime. Even Robinson’s minor characters are well-drawn, like the owner of the abandoned car who won’t let the detectives get a word in edgewise.

Aurora Jackson was just 14 in the summer of 1983, when she disappeared during an overnight camping trip with her older sister and five other teens. Thirty years later, Aurora’s remains are found in a secret hideaway in the woods by a collapsed river bank, and the discovery disrupts the successful adult lives of her fellow campers. In Gytha Lodge’s artful She Lies in Wait (Random House, digital galley), the narrative alternates between the present, when detective Jonah Shields leads the investigation into the cold case he worked on as a young cop, and the past. Back then Aurora feels lucky to be tagging along with the popular older crowd, although she’s out of her depth with the drinking, drugs and make-out sessions. The book becomes a suspenseful guessing game as Jonah questions the others and we also see their younger selves. Aurora’s sexy sister Topaz  is now married to one of the boys from the group, a university professor. Another boy is an Olympic gold medalist and entrepreneur. Then there’s the married politician, the landscape architect who lost her fiance in a rock-climbing accident, the unhappy woman nursing a secret affair. Which one is a killer? Who lied then? Who is lying now — and willing to kill again?

There’s a dead body on the kitchen floor of the nice Victorian house in an upscale neighborhood in Bristol, England. That’s the very beginning of Watching You (Atria, digital galley), but then, without revealing the identity of the corpse or possible killer, author Lisa Jewell plunges into a complicated scenario tangling rumor and obsession. The house belongs to Tom Fitzwilliam, a respected headmaster with a wife and son. One of his neighbors, newly married Joey Mullen, has something of a crush on Tom and begins spying on him. But she’s not the only one watching flirtatious Tom. Two of his students are keeping an eye on him, as is one girl’s psychologically disturbed mother who swears she remembers him from a long-ago incident. Then there’s Freddy, Tom’s autistic son, who spies on everyone from his upstairs window. Jewell moves craftily among the characters, revealing bits and pieces of past interactions and more recent encounters. Motives for murder abound, but the conclusion as to corpse and killer still comes as a shock.

 

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