Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

It’s a wrap


So many books. So many good books. While some of us were frittering away the first days of the pandemic trying to figure out Zoom, writers were writing. 

Not that writers weren’t affected by the pandemic. Ann Patchett found she couldn’t get into writing a new novel, but essays came more easily. The result, These Precious Days (HarperCollins, digital galley), is one of my favorite books of the year. It’s like having a conversation with a good friend, one who is smart and witty and shares your interests: the challenges of clearing out possessions,  the wonders of Kate DiCamillo’s books for children of all ages, the tangled ties of families. The title essay, which went viral when first published in Harper’s Magazine, chronicles the unlikely friendship between Patchett and Tom Hank’s personal assistant Sookie. There’s also a bittersweet epilogue. Before that, though, Patchett writes of the pleasures of co-owning a bookstore. “As every reader knows, the social contract between you and a book you love is not complete until you can hand that book to a friend and say, Here, you’re going to love this.”

I’ve shared my love for quite a few books this year. Here are some not previously mentioned that I’m wrapping up for friends this holiday season.

Five Tuesdays in Winter by Lily King (Grove Atlantic, digital galley): In the title story, a bookseller’s daughter plays matchmaker for her reclusive, awkward father. Other stories sparkle as King illuminates  transformative and unexpected moments. She’s especially good at capturing young teens on the cusp of adulthood  (“Creature,” “When in the Dordogne”), while ‘Timeline” reads like an excerpt from her splendid novel Writers & Lovers. “On the way back to Vermont, I thought about words and how, if you put a few of them in the right order, a three-minute story about a girl and her dog can get people to forget all the ways you’ve disappointed them.”

Still Life by Sarah Winman (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley): Sarah Winman is the most generous of storytellers in her expansive novel of love and friendship, art and war. British private Ulysses Temper meets aging art historian Evelyn Skinner in the wine cellar of a Tuscan villa in 1944, and she suggests he visit Florence before he leaves Italy. That visit marks Ulysses as he returns to post-war London, his old pub and friends, including free-spirited Peg, whom he married before the war and who now has a daughter Alys. An unexpected inheritance takes Ulysses and his family of friends back to Italy in the 1950s, but he doesn’t meet Evelyn again until 1966, the year of the great Arno flood and the race to rescue Florence’s great art treasures. Don’t miss the parrot and a cameo by E.M. Forster. 

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich (HarperCollins, digital galley): In the turbulent first year of the pandemic, a small, independent bookstore in Minneapolis becomes a touchstone and refuge for assorted booksellers and booklovers. Outside, the George Floyd protests roil a city haunted by its racist past. Inside the store, bookseller Tookie, an irreverent ex-con and avid reader, is trying to exorcise the ghost of annoying customer Flora. A white woman who wanted to be Native American, Flora died on All Souls Day but is still hanging around the shelves. Erdrich mixes humor and heartbreak like a literary alchemist. Readers won’t be able to resist.

A Line to Kill by Anthony Horowitz (HarperCollins, digital galley): Anthony Horowitz the author has a great time again playing sidekick to fictional detective Daniel Hawthorne in a third clever mystery.  This time, the two are at a literary festival in the Channel Islands to promote the books Horowitz writes about Hawthorne. When the inevitable murder occurs, the other authors, with their quirks and pretensions, all fall under suspicion. It’s a tricky case, but Horowitz thinks they’ve got it all figured out — until the ever enigmatic Hawthorne turns the tables. More, please.

London Bridge is Falling Down by Christopher Fowler (Bantam/Random House. digital galley): The Home Office is again shutting down the Peculiar Crimes Unit, but this time it’s for real. Still, ancient detectives Arthur Bryant and John May discover an open case in the death of a 91-year-old woman, a former security expert. Her demise, though, is soon linked to that of several other peculiar deaths by way of a toy replica of London Bridge. If this is, indeed, the end of the PCU, it’s a doozy of a finale for Bryant and May. I’m going to miss them. Thanks for the mysteries. 

Wyman and the Florida Knights by Larry Baker (Ice Cube Press, ARC): Call it Florida Gothic. In the first half of his entertaining novel, Larry Baker recounts the fabled history of the Knights, who settle in the Florida wilds north of Orlando in 1866. In the second half, famous portrait painter Peter Wyman tries to escape his past by disappearing in Knightville in 2016, but his presence leads to the unraveling of Knight family secrets. There’s passion, betrayal, corruption, murder, an unmarked grave and a mythic black panther.

Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, hardcover): More like Conversations with Friends than Normal People, Rooney’s smart comedy of manners finds best friends Alice and Eileen worried about turning 30 and the sorry state of the world, but also about finding love and connection. Successful novelist Alice begins seeing factory worker Felix, while literary editor Eileen turns to her old childhood friend Simon. Rooney’s writing is addictive in its clarity and precision. 

 

When Ghosts Come Home by Wiley Cash (William Morrow, digital galley): A low-flying plane and a body on a rural runway kick off Cash’s Southern-noir tinged tale. But the murder mystery is just the frame for a layered portrait of a small-town sheriff dealing with racial tensions and personal problems in Reagan-era North Carolina. The ending may come as a surprise, but, in hindsight, it’s inevitable.

Read Full Post »

Be afraid. Be very afraid. Not of State of Terror (Simon Schuster/St. Martin’s library e-book), which is the first thriller from Hillary Clinton and Louise Penny. It’s very good, and scary timely, and I’ll get to it in a minute. But what has me in a state of anxiety is the news that stores might be running out of books this holiday season because the pandemic has messed with the supply chain. Paper shortages, printing back-ups, shipping delays and rising costs have all contributed to the problem, which has publishers rescheduling some books until spring and advising readers to shop early because restocking popular titles will be difficult. Oh dear!ki

But really there’s no need to panic. You might have to wait a little longer to get your hands on a a particular title from the store or library, but we’ll find you another book (or two, or three) to read in the meantime. There are so many good new novels that I’ve had trouble keeping up, and I still haven’t gotten to Anthony Doerr’s Cloud Cuckoo Land or Amor Towles’ The Lincoln Highway.  Honoree Fanonne Jeffers’ novel The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois is so big and rich that I’m taking it slowly, savoring every page. I’m looking forward to new short stories from Lily King, essays by Ann Patchett.  But first, what I have read that’s worth the wait  includes State of Terror, in which newly minted Secretary of State Ellen Adams faces the nightmare of terrorists getting hold of nuclear weapons. Thanks to Clinton’s inside knowledge, the plot proves all too plausible. Thanks to Penny’s crime writing skills, it’s a suspenseful, rollercoaster tale. It’s also unexpectedly funny as Adams deals with incompetent politicians and foreign heads of state who continually underestimate her. Then there’s the former president, Eric Dunn, aka Eric the Dumb, hiding out in Florida and scheming to get back in power. How far will he go? I expect Clinton and Penny had a good time writing this book. I sure had a good time reading it.

Reading Silverview (Viking, purchased hardcover) is bittersweet because it’s the last book from the late, great John le Carre. It’s a little elegiac as a young bookstore owner becomes involved in the secrets of a mysterious Polish emigre, whose wife is high up in British intelligence. But it’s also a classic hall-of-mirrors tale, silkily written, where even the minor characters make an impression. There’s a terrific set piece of old spies reminiscing about past operations and the very value of their careers,  and a collection of blue-and-white china plays the role of red herring. 

Who knew that a novel about a 12th-century nun could be so thrilling? “She rides out of the forest alone. Seventeen years old, in the cold March drizzle, Marie who comes from France.” Thus begins Matrix (Riverhead/PRH, digital galley), in which Laura Groff fiercely imagines the life of the historical writer and poet Marie de France. Awkward, ungainly Marie is slow at first to accept her fate when Eleanor of Aquitane sends her as prioress to an impoverished convent in the middle of nowhere. But she is smart and creative and ambitious in a patriarchal age, and her vision empowers the women around her. Groth’s lilting prose evokes both earthly desires and heavenly delights. Matrix is a nominee for the National Book Award, as is Laird Hunt’s lyrical Zorrie (Bloomsbury, library hardcover), a quiet, slender novel encompassing the ordinary yet remarkable life a woman in 20th century rural Indiana.

Colson Whitehead, winner of multiple awards for books such as The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys, turns to crime with Harlem Shuffle (Doubleday, digital galley), a hugely enjoyable heist tale/family saga. In 1960s Harlem, furniture salesman Ray Carney is “only slightly bent when it comes to being crooked,” but his dreams of respectability collide with his cousin Freddie’s schemes of quick money. Soon Ray, who contends with the disapproval of his wealthy in-laws, is dealing with local low-lifes, connected gangsters, shady cops and the always perplexing question: Where to bury the body? The identity of a dead body is somewhat in doubt in The Man Who Died Twice (digital galley), Richard Osman’s frisky follow-up to The Thursday Murder Club. It’s best to read that book first so you can acquaint yourself with the quirky senior sleuths solving crimes in an English retirement community. Here, they’re on the trail of some missing diamonds, as are several murderous villains.

Hard to believe it’s been 25 years since Alice Hoffman first introduced us to the Owens family of witches in Practical Magic. Since then she has written two prequels exploring the Owens’ family’s storied history and the long-ago curse that befalls anyone an Owens woman dares to love. In The Book of Magic (Scribner, digital galley), we’re back in the present, where the curse is threatening the life of college student Kylie’s beloved Gideon. While he lies in a coma, Kylie heads to England to find someone who can open a magical book that may tell her how to end the curse. Other members of the Owens clan are quick to follow, calling on their own powers and knowing that sacrifices will be required in a final reckoning. Hoffman enchants again.  If you are still bespelled by C.S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, then you’ll want to read Patti Callahan’s charming and imaginative Once Upon a Wardrobe (Harper Muse, advance reader copy), set in 1950 England. Oxford student Megs Devonshire braves the home of Lewis himself because her beloved younger brother George, who has a terminal heart condition, wants one question answered: Where did Narnia come from? Listening to Lewis’ recollections of his childhood and writing them down for George, Megs discovers the magic and power of stories, the hope contained therein. 

Timothy Schaffert’s atmospheric The Perfume Thief (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes place in the shadowy world of 1941 Paris, where Clementine, an aging gender-fluid American ex-pat, mixes perfumes for a select clientele. She’s also a former con artist, and it’s those skills she calls on when she wants to steal a book of perfume formulas from Nazi bureaucrat Oskar Voss. She gains his attention by spinning tales of her own colorful life of crime. Voss is fascinated by Clem and her stories, and readers will feel the same. A shout-out as well to my former Orlando Sentinel colleague Geri Throne’s novel Secret Battles (independently published, digital galley). She draws on her own family history to tell a well-researched and involving story of love and war.  Walt and Nora Baran marry just before Pearl Harbor and are almost immediately separated. Walt hopes to avoid the frontlines by becoming a medic but ends up in North Africa, experiencing war’s horrors. Nora, stuck at home in New Jersey under her father-in-law’s thumb and with a sickly baby, waits weeks for Walt’s heavily censored letters. Neither is able to reveal the reality of their lives to each other, and both harbor secrets that test their bonds.

If you’re looking to get in the holiday spirit, may I suggest The Santa Suit (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), by my pal Kathy Trocheck, known to readers as Mary Kay Andrews. Moving into an old farmhouse in a small North Carolina town, Ivy Perkins finds it crammed with furniture and assorted junk. But an old Santa suit in the top of a closet is in great shape, and in one pocket Ivy discovers a note from a little girl with one Christmas wish — that her father return safely from the war. Who is the little girl and did she get her wish? Ivy goes looking for answers and finds secrets large and small, new friends and a new love. After all, it is Christmas. Put this one on your wish list.

 

Read Full Post »

I often play detective when reading crime novels, puzzling over clues and sniffing out red herrings until I can spot whodunnit. But I don’t even try to guess with spy novels. I figure everybody is lying and playing a double — or triple — game, so I just sit back and enjoy the ride, the dizzying twists and turns. And so it goes with my old friend Dan Fesperman’s new novel, The Cover Wife (Knopf, digital galley), which is tense and timely even though it’s largely set in 1999 Germany. Paris-based CIA agent Claire Saylor isn’t too thrilled about playing the wife of a stodgy American academic with scandalous views of the Quran on a European book tour. She’s more intrigued by a mysterious secondary assignment in Hamburg, keeping an eye on a group of young Muslims gathering at a local mosque. Among them is an American expat trying to win the trust and approval of his new friends. To make matters more confusing, the FBI also has gotten wind of the operation without knowing the details. Perfectly plotted and neatly mixing fiction with fact, the book’s pages practically turn themselves. I had an idea where The Cover Wife might be going, but the ending was still a stunner. Brilliant.

When I first read Rebecca Starford’s An Unlikely Spy: A Novel (HarperCollins, digital galley), about a young British woman tapped by MI5 to infiltrate a group of German sympathizers in 1939 London, it seemed teasingly familiar. I finally figured out why. Starford was inspired by the wartime experiences of real MI5 agent Joan Miller, as was writer Kate Atkinson in her wonderful novel Transcription. But the two authors go in different directions in reimagining the story behind the story. An Unlikely Spy is the more conventional, as recent Oxford grad Evelyn Varley gets a job in the War Office. While a scholarship girl at boarding school, Evelyn made friends with wealthy Julia and her influential family; now, her innate cleverness and her acquired upper-class manner make Evelyn the perfect candidate to get close to members of the Lion Society. Still, the secrets Evelyn uncovers among the upper-classes thrust her into a conspiracy she doesn’t understand and test her loyalties.

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to put a chill in a sultry summer. Rachel Donohue’s atmospheric The Temple House Vanishing (Algonquin, digital galley) owes a lot to one of my favorite books and movies, Picnic at Hanging Rock, but stands on its own in its haunting depiction of obsession and desire.  In 1990 Ireland, scholarship student Louisa is a misfit at Temple House, a Catholic boarding school for girls on the dreary and craggy coast. Then she meets charismatic rebel Victoria, who seems to have a special relationship with the bohemian art teacher Mr. Lavelle, and is drawn into their orbit. On the eve of the Christmas holidays, Louisa and Mr. Lavelle vanish into the night, never to be seen again. Twenty-five years later, a journalist begins an investigation, and her present-day chronicle alternates with chapters written from Louisa’s point-of-view about her time at Temple House. Something Louisa learns early on at the school is that nothing is ever what it seems. You’ve been warned.

Megan Abbott is another writer who knows obsession and desire. Having written thrillingly about teenage cheerleaders (Dare Me) and rival gymnasts (You Will Know Me), she focuses on ballet dancers in The Turnout (Putnam/Penguin), a controlled burn of a book. The Durant sisters, Dara and Marie, are lifelong bunheads, schooled by their glamorous dance-teacher mother, whose popular studio they inherited. Dara’s husband Charlie, their mother’s former live-in student, can no longer dance because of chronic injuries and runs the business office while Marie and Dara teach. The annual run-up to a production of “The Nutcracker” is more fraught than usual after a fire destroys part of the school’s rehearsal space. Enter contractor Derek, who convinces the trio to up-renovate the school and bill the insurance company, even as he seduces vulnerable Marie. “Ballet is full of dark fairy tales,” Abbott observes in her mesmerizing narrative that sears the pretty off the pink. A little bit Gothic, a whole lot noir, The Turnout is fierce enchantment.

Several of my friends and I long ago dubbed a couple of manicured streets near downtown Orlando “Axe-killer neighborhood” because we never saw a living soul. We joked that something horrific could go on behind closed doors, and the neighbors would just say, “They were so quiet. We had no idea.” So I chuckled when I saw the title of Megan Miranda’s new domestic suspense tale, Such a Quiet Place (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). Hollow’s Edge was an idyllic enclave until Fiona and Brandon Truett were murdered in their home and neighbor Ruby Fletcher was found guilty of the crime. A year and a half later, the Truetts’ house is still empty, neighbors can’t sell their houses and Ruby, her conviction overturned, has moved back in with her astonished roommate Harper Nash. She has nowhere else to go, Ruby tells Harper, and immediately sets out to provoke the neighbors. Somebody lied at Ruby’s trial. But who?

 

 

Read Full Post »

Unreliable, unforgettable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

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!

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

When the tornado skirted our neighborhood Saturday evening, I was reading. The sky that was gray all day turned dark, the alarm on my cell phone sounded, the wind whooshed, the power went off, transponders popped. It was that quick. I later learned there was significant damage right down the street — roofs ripped apart, trees toppled, cars crushed. No one was hurt, thankfully, but debris was all over. Part of a metal roof rested in some bushes, and a pink pool flamingo nested in an oak tree. Neighbors were surveying damage while helicopters prowled overhead. By now it was night. The rain had stopped; friends had checked in by text and phone. I found a flashlight, fed the cats and went back to reading.

I was rereading Jane Austen’s Emma, prompted by something I read in a diverting new novel, Natalie Jenner’s The Jane Austen Society (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Set in post-World II Chawton, the English village where Austen spent her final years, it features a diverse set of characters including the town doctor, a widowed schoolteacher, an American actress, a farm worker, a book-loving schoolgirl and a descendant of the Austen family. What brings them together is their shared enthusiasm for Austen’s works and the desire to establish a Jane Austen museum in a small cottage where she lived. The financial challenges are compounded by a will that will disallow Frances Knight’s claim to the cottage and a valuable library if a male heir is found. Mmm, sounds a bit like something Austen might concoct along with the entangled lives of its seemingly ordinary characters. If Jenner’s first novel lacks Austen’s sparkle, it is enhanced by the characters’ conversations about Austen and many, many references to the books.

Did you know that shell-shocked WWI veterans were encouraged to read Austen novels and that Winston Churchill read them to get through WWII? I totally get it. Austen is a tonic for anxious times, and her books help ease the worries and griefs of Jenner’s characters. “Part of the comfort they derived from rereading was the satisfaction of knowing there would be closure — of feeling, each time, an inexplicable anxiety over whether the main characters would find love and happiness, while all the while knowing, on some different parallel interior track, that it was all going to work out in the end. Of being both one step ahead of the characters and one step behind Austen on every single reading.”

Exactly. Of course if you’ve never read Austen or don’t care for her, then the charms of The Jane Austen Society will be lost on you. But I found it a pleasant antidote to uncertainty, and it reminded me that rereading Austen is always a good thing.

Especially before, during and after a storm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

Emma Straub’s new novel is as bright as a new copper penny, and you should pick it up immediately.  All Adults Here (Riverhead, e-galley) — the title is ironic — reminds us that “adulting” can be challenging at any age. Astrid Strick, a 68-year-old widow, gets a wake-up call when she witnesses an empty school bus run over a long-time acquaintance in their Hudson Valley town. She reappraises some of her past choices as a parent and decides to let her family in on a secret “because there are always more school buses.” Her kids have secrets, too, as does granddaughter Cecelia, who is 13 and comes to stay with Astrid after an incident at her New York City school. Cecilia’s new friend is August, who is thinking he might really be Robin. Straub is so good at depicting teenagers, and Cecelia and August are my favorite characters, along with middle daughter Porter, who has yet to tell her mother she’s pregnant via a sperm bank. Surveying herself in a mirror, she reassures herself that she is a “grown-ass woman.” So what if she’s still fooling around with her high school boyfriend, who is very much married with children. Straub writes with wry humor, and her ensemble slice-of-life narrative flows easily. Although each of the Stricks is idiosyncratic in their ambitions and regrets, they are every family with long memories of childhood roles and rivalries.

The first wave of beach books promises sun-kissed days and sandy toes. Mary Kay Andrews’ Hello, Summer (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) mixes small-time secrets, scandals, mystery and romance into an appealing froth with interesting undercurrents. When reporter Conley Hawkins’ exciting new job in D.C. ends before it’s even begun, she backtracks from Atlanta to stay with her grandmother in her sleepy hometown  And once again she’s working for her older sister at the struggling family weekly known for its old-timey gossip column, “Hello, Summer.” But then a local congressman and war hero dies in a single-car accident, and Conley’s investigative reporting skills kick in. No fake news here.

“Fake it till you make it.” Jennifer Weiner takes on social media big-time in Big Summer (Atria, e-galley). Plus-size Instagram influencer Daphne Berg is surprised when high-school frenemy Drue Cavanaugh asks her to be her maid-of-honor at her posh society wedding to a reality star on Cape Cod. Their public falling-out went viral years ago. Still, Daphne never could resist being in beautiful Drue’s orbit, and the wedding’s a chance to up her own media profile and gain new followers. The opulence of the pre-wedding festivities is indeed picture-perfect, and Daphne does her best to ignore the tensions among the bridal party. Then she finds a dead body in a hot-tub. Shades of a Susan Isaac novel — not a bad thing, just a bit jarring as Daphne goes all Nancy Drew. Big fun.

The sudden death of literary lion Bill Sweeney shocks his three grown daughters, bringing them home to Southport, Conn.  But another surprise awaits gallery owner Liza, artist Maggie and attorney Jill — there’s a fourth Sweeney sister. Reporter Serena Tucker recently took a DNA test that revealed Bill Sweeney is also her father, although she only knew him as the famous author who was a childhood neighbor. I kept thinking that I already had read Lian Dolan’s The Sweeney Sisters (William Morrow, ARC), or seen it as a TV movie, but it was just pleasantly familiar, right down to the reading of the will and the search for a missing manuscript. Dolan does a nice job sorting out the sisters and reconfiguring their relationships, but most of the drama is in the set up. No surprise: All’s well that ends well.

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

I can’t help but wonder how Micah Mortimer would react to the stay-at-home restrictions of the current pandemic. Probably not that much. The 44-year-old protagonist of Anne Tyler’s new novel The Redhead at the Side of the Road (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is already mired in his mostly solitary routines. I expect he would still run every morning around his Baltimore neighborhood, only with a mask, and instead of making house calls to fix computers, his “Tech Hermit” business would be by phone. He already is obsessively tidy about cleaning the dreary basement flat he gets in exchange for occasional handyman duties, and the stay-in policy is another excuse not to interact with the tenants or his large, messy family.  No, it would take more than a deadly virus to open Micah’s eyes to the world beyond the tip of his nose. Tyler devises two events to shake up Micah’s life. A rich runaway college student shows up on his doorstep claiming that Micah is his father, and his longtime girlfriend, a patient fourth-grade teacher, dumps him after an insensitive remark proves the final straw. Even then, Micah remains oblivious. What is he thinking? Tyler writes oddball characters who are as endearing as they are exasperating, although Micah’s obtuseness would test anyone’s patience. His four older sisters, all waitresses, are much more fun, and a family dinner at a table with a ping-pong net is one of those hilarious set pieces Tyler does so well. The writing is easy, the tone warm and familiar. The Redhead at the Side of the Road — the title’s an apt metaphor — proves good company when staying home.

Lee Smith’s novella Blue Marlin (Blair, digital galley) is short, sweet and very funny, thanks to narrator Jenny. She candidly relates the events of 1958-59, when she was a precocious 13-year-old and spied on the neighbors of her small Southern town. She is especially fascinated by one unconventional woman, who precipitates a crisis between Jenny’s troubled parents. Both suffer from “nerves,” and while they recover separately, Jenny is sent off to live with her church-going cousins. Then her daddy’s doctor proposes a “geographical cure,” and Jenny and her parents take a road trip to Florida, ending up at the Blue Marlin motel in Key West. Wonder of wonders, the movie Operation Petticoat is being filmed in town, and cast members Tony Curtis and Cary Grant are staying at the Blue Marlin. If this sounds like something right out of Smith’s 2016 must-read memoir Dimestore: A Writer’s Life, it is and it isn’t. Smith separates the fact from the fiction in an entertaining afterword.

The fabulous cover of Grady Hendrix’s new novel is just the introduction to the gory delights of The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires (Quirk Publishing, digital galley). Set in the Charleston, S.C. adjacent town of Mount Pleasant in the 1990s, it pits a group of housewives and moms with a taste for true-crime books against a pale, handsome stranger looking to establish his gentlemanly credentials. After an elderly neighbor chomps on Patricia Campbell’s ear, she meets the woman’s nephew, James Harris, who insinuates himself into her house and her book club. Meanwhile, people are disappearing across town, and Harris assumes no one will make a connection. Hendrix pays clever homage to both classic vampire stories and true-crime/serial killer tales, but his satire is serious, raising issues of racism, classicism and misogyny. Turns out several of the book club’s members’ husbands are monsters of a different kind, and their dismissive and condescending attitudes toward women made my blood boil. Speaking of blood, there’s quite a bit, so Hendrix’s comedy horrorfest may not be everyone’s cup of tea — or beverage of choice.

Conscripted into the Confederate Army in the spring of 1865, young Kentucky fiddler Simon Boudlin survives the battlefield to end up in Texas with a ragtag band of traveling musicians. Paulette Jiles’ lilting ballad of a novel, Simon the Fiddler (William Morrow, review ARC), covers some of the same gritty territory as her 2016 National Book Award finalist News of the World, in which Simon made a brief appearance. From Galveston to San Antonio, Simon plays jigs, waltzes and reels in hopes of saving enough money to marry pretty Doris Dillon, the Irish governess of a Union colonel’s family. But she’s an indentured servant, and her employer has his own plans for Doris. As a character says near book’s end: “Only a small town on the edge of the world here in Texas, but still terrible things and wonderful stories happen. . . Great tragedies, gripping love stories, tales of uncommon heroism.”

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

I read an advance readers copy of Jeanine Cummins’ novel American Dirt a couple of months ago. This was before it was published Jan.  21, before Oprah made it her book selection and Barnes and Noble and Book-of-the-Month Club followed suit, before the controversy about “cultural appropriation” erupted and everyone and her brother offered an opinion, before publisher Flatiron canceled Cummins’ book tour because of death threats, before American Dirt sucked all the air out of the publishing world.

Before all this, I liked American Dirt, thought it a pretty good thriller with an action-packed narrative and sympathetic lead characters — an Acapulco bookstore owner and her 8-year-old son fleeing a murderous drug cartel, hoping to cross the border to the U.S. and safety. It read like the wind despite some clunky writing and melodramatic moments, so I set it  aside and figured I’d include it a January roundup of new novels.

I never thought American Dirt was the Great Mexican American Novel, a contemporary Grapes of Wrath, which was how it was being hyped, but I wasn’t surprised when Oprah beamed her approval. The subject was timely and open to discussion. I was surprised by the swift backlash from the Latinx community, which is also about the lack of diversity in the publishing community. Tone-deaf marketing exacerbated the situation, as critics leaped on the news that a summer publishing party for the author featured floral centerpieces with barbed wire. Then there was all the stuff that Cummins, who has a Puerto Rican grandmother, reportedly got wrong about Mexico and migrants.

Over on the Readers with Attitude Facebook site, administered by the Miami Herald’s Connie Ogle, the postings on American Dirt just keep on coming. There are links to news stories and opinion pieces, plus plenty of comments from readers from all over. This is my favorite book group on Facebook, by the way, with lots of back-and-forth about all things literary. I put in my two cents at various points — that the discussion on cultural distortion and diversity needs to be ongoing; that I appreciate the errors in the book being pointed out, but I don’t like judgments of a book’s literary merit from those who haven’t read it; that censorship is never a good thing.

I also think the general consensus is we have about run this topic into the ground for the moment. There are other new books to recommend and wrestle with. Read American Dirt or don’t read it, as you wish. I’m ready to move on.

 

 

 

 

 

Read Full Post »

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.

 

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

%d bloggers like this: