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lostandwanted“In the first few months after Charlie died, I began hearing from her much more frequently.”

That’s how Nell Freudenberger begins her new novel Lost and Wanted (Knopf, digital galley), a haunting tale of friendship, loss and, well, physics. The latter comes courtesy of narrator Helen Clapp, a MIT professor known for her research on five-dimensional spacetime and two accessible books on cosmology and black holes.  Devastated by the unexpected news that her Harvard roommate Charlotte Boyce has died in California, she’s puzzled by subsequent texts and e-mails from her best friend. There has to be a rational explanation, probably something to do with a missing cell phone. Still…

Freudenberger uses the mystery of the messages to explore the greater mystery of the trajectory of friendship over time. Helen remembers how, 20 years ago, “an upper-middle-class black girl from Brookline and a work-study white science nerd from Pasadena”  bonded during freshman orientation.  The connection has loosened of late. Charlie moved west to pursue her career as a TV screenwriter and producer,  married a surfer, had a daughter, struggled with lupus. Meanwhile, Helen’s been happy with academia and her 7-year-old son Jack, whose father is an anonymous sperm donor. Yet, the sudden fact of Charlie gone, no longer living, knocks her flat, especially when Charlie’s husband Terrence and 9-year-old daughter Simmi move to Boston. Grief for Charlie and their lost past is further compounded by the arrival of Neel, Helen’s college boyfriend and her long-time research partner. He’s a member of a team that’s made the most exciting breakthrough in physics in years. He also has personal news.

Helen can easily explain gravitational waves, the uncertainty principle and chaos theory to her students. She has a harder time reconciling mind and heart to the inexplicable. “Scientific analogies for emotional states are imprecise,” she thinks, “but recently I’ve been finding them difficult to avoid.”

Lost and Wanted takes its title from an Auden poem read at Charlie’s memorial service that takes on greater significance as all who loved Charlie deal with her absence and how it’s reconfigured their world.  It’s a lovely poem, and Lost and Wanted is a lovely book. As soon as I finished it, I started over. It’s that good.

So is Sally Rooney’s new novel. I liked her first one, Conversations with Friends. But I love Normal People (Crown/Archetype, digital galley). And I’m not alone in raving about the 28-year-old Irish writer’s second book, which won the Costa Novel Award and was longlisted for the Man Booker. But my favorite thing anyone has said about this compulsively readable book is what my publishing friend Jen Adkins Reynolds posted on Facebook: “This was so good, even if reading it was a thousand paper cuts to the heart.”

Marianne Sheridan and Connell Waldron are both seniors at the same school in a small Irish town. Both are really smart, but Connell’s the popular one, a good-looking athlete, while she’s an awkward outsider. At school, they ignore each other, but Connell’s warm-hearted mom cleans house for Marianne’s wealthy, aloof mother, and it’s at her house that Connell and Marianne make small talk and then hook up. Connell insists on keeping their relationship a secret, and Marianne doesn’t care until he asks another girl to the end-of-school dance and breaks her heart.

“I don’t know why I can’t be like normal people,” Marianne says at one point. “I don’t know why I can’t make people love me.”

Marianne’s low self-esteem, burnished by her emotionally abusive family, will continue to be a problem when she and Connell meet again in the fall at Trinity College, Dublin, even though their social roles have reversed. She’s now the admired one in a bright, witty crowd and has a new boyfriend. He’s the outsider, uncomfortable and insecure.

Rooney follows their on-and-off again relationship over four years, deftly alternating perspectives, zooming in on their messy emotions, frequent misunderstandings and most intimate moments. He suffers from depression; she deliberately seeks out men who mistreat her. Their connection to each other is intense, thrilling, painful, impossible, necessary. They can’t talk about it, or when they do, the words come out wrong.

That’s not the case with Rooney’s writing. Normal People is a deceptively simple story told in direct, unadorned prose that is scalpel-sharp. Someone asked me why I prefer it to Conversations with Friends, which is similar in style. I think it comes down to the characters. Marianne and Connell are sympathetic, vulnerable and oh so young. I wish them well.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I need a break. Not from school or work or even the large orange cat determined to share my lap with the laptop. (Please move, Peach). No, I need a break from the willful ignorance and hypocrisy floating this way from Tallahassee, where the Florida Legislature is being lobbied by a conservative group that wants to ban certain books from public school readers. Again. Y’know, the books they find objectionable, ones by Toni Morrison, Frank McCourt, Anthony Burgess, Kate Chopin, among others. Yes, that’s the stench of censorship wafting across the Sunshine State. Where oh where are the orange blossoms of yesteryear? Like I said, I need a break, so I’m not going into my standard rant. Instead, I’m going to read some lovely books of my own choosing. I suggest you do the same, right after you read this story from the Tampa Bay Times, “Bills may foster bans on books.”  http://tinyurl.com/yypzeapk

There’s nothing like a good Gothic to make me forget my woes. An island castle, a missing bride, a hidden passage, a rare butterfly. It’s the latter that lures intrepid lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell to Cornwall in Deanna Raybourn’s witty A Dangerous Collaboration (Penguin Berkley, digital galley). She’s posing as the fiance of Tiberious, Viscount Templeton-Vane, who just happens to be the brother of Veronica’s fellow adventurer, Stoker. Her feelings for the dashing Stoker are as deliciously complicated as the secrets awaiting the three of them on St. Maddern’s Isle, where the beautiful Rosamund disappeared on her wedding day three years ago. Maybe a seance will reveal her whereabouts.

In The Stranger Diaries (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Elly Griffiths takes a break from her Ruth Galloway series to craft a modern Gothic that includes a classic ghost story. English teacher Clare Cassidy’s work on a biography of Victorian writer R.M. Holland is interrupted by the violent deaths of several of her colleagues in ways suggested by Holland’s most famous story, “The Stranger.” If that’s not weird enough, Clare finds someone has been leaving her messages in her diary. Add her teenage daughter’s new circle of friends, and you’ve got a chilly puzzle enhanced by excerpts from Holland’s horror tale.

leonAlthough Venetians love to gossip, Commissario Guido Brunetti usually pays no attention to the constant chatter. But in Donna Leon’s absorbing Unto Us a Son Is Given (Grove Atlantic. digital galley), Brunetti’s wealthy father-in-law asks him to investigate when he hears that his elderly art dealer friend Gonzalo plans to adopt a younger man as his sole heir. Gonzalo has said it’s his business and to stay out of it, but then the old man dies suddenly and a visiting friend organizing a memorial service is murdered in a Venetian hotel room. As usual, the procedural atmospherics complement Brunetti’s reflections on human nature, doubt and justice.

Although the title of Alice Quinn’s rousing historical novel The Huntress (Morrow, digital galley) refers to a ruthless Nazi war criminal, it also applies to the fascinating Nina Markova, who survived her encounter with the Huntress in war-torn Poland and is now bent on revenge. After the war, she is joined in her search by British war correspondent Ian and his sidekick, former American soldier Tony, who are tracking Nazis wanted for war crimes. Eventually, their stories will intersect with aspiring photographer Jordan McBride, who lives in Boston with her Austrian stepmother. The story moves back and forth between time periods and continents, but it’s Nina who kept me flipping pages. Her fierceness owes much to her childhood in the wilds of Siberia, which she uses to her advantage to learn to fly and then talk her way into the infamous regiment of female Russian bomber pilots known as “the Night Witches.” Her flying exploits, and those of her comrades, are terrifying and adrenaline-fueled, and they scar her forever. As in her last best-seller The Alice Network, Quinn has done her research, and facts bolster her fiction.

Flashback to February when I read several engrossing family dramas. In Tara Conklin’s The Last Romantics (Morrow, digital galley), the four Skinner siblings are all marked by the three-year interval they refer to as “the Pause.” It occurs when they are children and their father suddenly dies and their mother abdicates her role as parent because of mental illness. At just 11, Renee assumes most of the burden of caring for Caroline, Joe and Fiona, who narrates the story from advanced old age. Still, demons follow them into adulthood, where they face another tragedy that illuminates family ties. Anissa Gray’s affecting first novel, The Care and Feeding of Ravenously Hungry Girls (Penguin/Berkley, digital galley), is told through the alternating voices of the three Butler sisters. When pillars of the community Althea and her husband Proctor go on trial for scamming a local charity, middle sister Viola returns from Chicago to help younger sister Lillian care for Althea’s troubled twin teenagers, Kim and Baby Vi. But these strong sisters, whose backstories artfully unfold, also need to learn to care for themselves. Right after I read Nickolas Butler’s Little Faith (HarperCollins, digital galley), I read a newspaper story about parents arrested for withholding medical treatment from their sick child because of religious reasons. In Butler’s book, which gracefully chronicles one year in the life of a rural Wisconsin family, grandparents Lyle and Peg become concerned when their adopted daughter Shiloh becomes involved with a charismatic evangelist who convinces her that her five-year-old son Isaac is a budding faith healer. There’s further conflict when Isaac is diagnosed with diabetes, and Shiloh chooses prayer over medicine. The ensuing drama plays out thoughtfully, unlike a TV medical show that wraps up everything in an hour episode.

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Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. Taylor Jenkins Reid’s Daisy Jones & the Six (Ballantine, digital galley) has it all. Think of it as your fun, flashy ride back to the 1970s. Just put Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” on shuffle, shift into cruise control and off you go. Sure, yesterday’s gone, but that doesn’t stop the characters in Reid’s novel from talking about the past.

The talk is essential because Reid structures the book as an oral history of a ubiquitous ’70s band that mysteriously combusted 40 years ago at the height of its popularity. Imagine a Rolling Stone cover story expanded into a book, a mockumentary charting the early rise of Billy Dunne’s blues-rock band, the Six, which really takes off when a producer suggests adding aspiring singer and songwriter Daisy Jones. Free-spirited Daisy — tall, blonde, gorgeous, with a distinctive raspy voice — has been hanging around the Sunset Strip since her early teens, popping pills and sleeping around with rockers and roadies. She and Billy — dark, denim-clad, sober after rehab — have both creative and physical chemistry. But he’s married to high school sweetheart Camila, who keeps him grounded after he went off the rails on the Six’s first tour. Bandmate Warren remembers those days: “I was getting laid, Graham was getting high, Eddie was getting drunk, Karen was getting fed up, Pete was getting on the phone to his girl back home, and Billy was all five, at once.”

If Daisy Jones & the Six were just a compilation of cliched memories, it would be pretty boring. Fortunately, Reid offers soapy drama, star-crossed romance, bad-band behavior and a lot of authentic-sounding details about making a hit album. The stock male characters play second fiddle to the more complicated women in their lives — Daisy, Camila, keyboardist Karen. There’s a photo shoot in the desert for an album cover that sounds so familiar as to be iconic. There are all-night sessions in the recording studio  and sold-out, weed-hazed gigs in anonymous cities. Reid also provides the lyrics to the songs that underscore Billy and Daisy’s rollercoaster of yearnings and regrets.

What she can’t provide is the music itself, which is why I’ve been listening to Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac, and why I’ll probably add Jackson Browne, Linda Ronstadt and The Eagles to my playlist for the book. But Daisy Jones & the Six may yet get a soundtrack of its own. Reese Witherspoon is reportedly working with Amazon on a 13-part streaming series, and someone’s got to write those songs. I hear Lindsey Buckingham might be available.

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Some books, you know, are just nice. And it seems this is the time of year when I need them most, when, like Langston Hughes, I am waiting for the world to be good and beautiful and kind.

Second chances, second acts. In Leif Enger’s Virgil Wander (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), the title character’s car skids off an icy road and lands in Lake Superior, but he escapes with a concussion and some memory and speech loss.  His ensuing recovery becomes something of a rebirth for the part-time town clerk and movie-house owner, who is helped by the quirky residents of his small Minnesota town. Enger (Peace Like a River) mixes whimsy, nostalgia and a touch of magical realism to record Virgil’s odyssey.

Joy Davidman was an unhappily married writer and mother of two young sons when she first started writing letters to Oxford don, theologian and author C.S. Lewis (The Chronicles of Narnia).  Her questions about faith and religion impressed “Jack,” and their burgeoning friendship in the 1950s eventually led her from New York to England and an unexpected love. In the novel Becoming Mrs. Lewis (Thomas Nelson, review copy), Patti Callahan realistically explores the meeting of two minds and hearts whose relationship was challenged by Joy’s ill health.

Readers of Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful 2016 middle-grade novel Raymie Nightingale will remember Raymie’s irrepressible friend Louisiana Elefante. In Louisiana’s Way Home (Candlewick, purchased e-book), it’s 1977. 12-year-old Louisiana is forced to leave Central Florida and friends Raymie and Beverly when her grandmother decides a middle-of-the night road trip is in order. Only Granny isn’t planning on returning. When Granny’s toothache lands them in a small Georgia town, Louisiana finds kindness, friendship “and free peanuts” in the midst of hard times. Her narration is often a hoot as she despairs of the adults around her, but her resilience is real and endearing.

I’m not surprised Josie Silver’s rom-com One Day in December (Crown, digital galley) is already on the bestseller list. It’s Love Actually meets When Harry Met Sally meets One Day as Londoners Laurie and Jack lock eyes through a bus window. But they don’t actually meet until a year later, by which time Jack is Laurie’s friend Sara’s boyfriend. Mutual attraction, missed opportunities and a few surprises mark the next decade of their friendship, and happily-ever-after remains in doubt until the very end. Sweet.

 

If you’ve ever watched Escape to the Country, Britain’s answer to HGTV’s Househunters, than you’ll know the extraordinary pastoral beauty of South Devon, the setting for Marcia Willett’s contemporary family saga, The Songbird (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Several cottages make up the Brockscombe estate, home to an extended, blended family presided over by Francis, an elderly retired MP. The newcomer is Tim, a renter hiding the secret of his recently diagnosed neurological illness from his friend Mattie and her relatives. But others — a former ballerina, a young navy wife, a man whose wife has moved on (maybe) — have secrets, too, all of which are eventually sorted out in leisurely fashion.

 

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Santa isn’t the only one keeping a list. Everybody and her brother who has read a book this year has opinions to share. I don’t mind because I’m always looking for recommendations to add to my TBR tower. I do mind labeling lists “Best,” because who has read everything?! So I’ll just say the following are my favorites from what I read in 2018, the books I’ll buy for myself and friends, the ones I’ll reread in the years to come. All of them except one I’ve reviewed on the blog this year. I missed Rebecca Makkai’s remarkable third novel The Great Believers (Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in June. But on a recent weekend I was transported by this chronicle of the fallout of the AIDS epidemic told in two intertwining narratives, one from 1985 Chicago, the second in Paris 30 years later. Now I can’t stop caring about Makkai’s characters, both those whose lives were cut short and those who survived and loved them. Absent friends, a lost generation. Thanks to whoever first put this on their best list. Now it’s on mine. (Credit: “A Woman Reading in Bed” by Frederick Serge).

My 2018 favorites, in no particular order:

 

 

 

 

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I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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