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Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

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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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

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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.”

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

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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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The further ahead I read, the more I “fall” behind. Even though I started reading fall books back in the summer, I’m still catching up with some of my favorite authors who had new books in September and October. A neighbor who loves Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto wanted to know about her latest novel, The Dutch House (HarperCollins, digital galley). With its emphasis on blended family dynamics, the book is more like Patchett’s Commonwealth than Bel Canto, but she still injects suspense in her domestic drama, and she is still writing about how we struggle to find a home in the world. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s outside Philadelphia, Danny and Maeve Conroy are the Hansel and Gretel siblings, spiritually orphaned when their mother abandons them to the care of their reserved father. Then, after his sudden death, they are exiled from the suburban mansion of their childhood by a grasping stepmother looking out for her own young daughters. Although the fairy tale motifs are obvious, Patchett doesn’t overplay them as she explores complicated family relationships, how the past impinges on the present, how hard it is to forgive and yet how necessary. Adult Danny narrates, but Maeve — fierce, loving, brilliant, thwarted — is the book’s heart.

John le Carre is such a pro. His nimble new novel Agent Running in the Field (Viking, purchased hardcover), offers timely entertainment. Nat, the veteran British spy who narrates, is a passionate badminton player. “Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.” Le Carre could well be describing his stylish plotting that has Nat taking over a derelict intelligence substation in London and running its motley assortment of agents. One bright spot is his young second in command, Florence, who has a plan to bug the apartment of a Ukranian oligarch with ties to Putin. There’s also Nat’s weekly badminton game with Ed, an odd duck researcher with a media firm, who vehemently dislikes Brexit, Trump and the British government and who vents his displeasure to Nat over post-match drinks. But when the Ukranian operation goes south, Nat finds that he can’t separate work from play, and the game is on — the great game of espionage, that is, complete with lies, spies, moles and betrayals large and small. No one writes it better than le Carre, even if Nat, Ed and Florence aren’t  as memorable as Smiley and the Cold War crowd of Tinker, Tailor days. Then again, it’s hardly the same world. Have to agree with Ed that we’re living in a hot mess.

I remember feeling bereft when I first finished reading Carol Anshaw’s 2012 novel Carry the One about several siblings and friends affected by a fatal car accident. It followed the characters over the years, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to them, from Alice the artist to Walter Payton the dog. There’s a cool canine named Sailor in Anshaw’s new novel, Right After the Weather (Atria, digital galley), the same great writing and more complicated characters to care about. In 2016 Chicago, theater set designer Cate is turning 40 and turning over the pieces of her life, trying to get them to fit. Her career is gaining steam, she has an extroverted new girlfriend, and her longtime best friend Neale and her son Joe live nearby. But Cate still gets money from her parents, her angsty ex-husband is living in her spare room and she can’t forget her last girlfriend. Also, Trump has just been elected president. When a couple of addicts invade Neale’s home, Cate comes to her friend’s rescue, but the ensuing violence marks her and those around her in surprising ways. Neale, for one, announces that her estranged husband is returning home. “Pain slams Cate hard in the chest, as though she’s been whacked by an oar. Nothing big happens, she’s beginning to see, without knocking around the adjacent pieces.”

Like her 2016 first novel for adults, Another Brooklyn, acclaimed YA author Jacqueline Woodson’s new novel Red at the Bone (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley) reads like a lovely prose poem. It also features a similar time-shifting narrative, but Woodson weaves together five voices in her poignant story of how an unexpected pregnancy brings together two families from different social classes. It opens in 2001 with a party for 16-year-old Melody, whose parents, Iris and Aubrey, had her when they were just 15 and 16. In a turnabout, it is ambitious Iris who left Aubrey and Melody with her parents, Sade and Po’Boy, so she could go to college at Oberlin. Woodson dips in and out of their lives at various junctures in a series of compressed vignettes full of youthful yearning and bittersweet wisdom. There is a lot of pain, but also love and hope, as Red at the Bone cuts close to the bone.

Kate DiCamillo isn’t just one of my favorite authors of books for young readers, but a favorite writer, period.  Beverly, Right Here (Candlewick Press, purchased e-book), the third book in the winning sequence that began with Raymie Nightingale and continued with Louisiana’s Way Home, centers on Beverly Tapinski, the third of the Three Rancheros, best friends in 1970s Central Florida. It’s now 1979, and Beverly is grieving the loss of her dog Buddy when she decides to leave town for good. Without a word to Raymie or her neglectful mom Rhonda, she hitches a ride to Tamaray Beach, where she lies about her age to get a job at a seafood joint and makes the acquaintance of elderly bingo player Iola Jenkins. In exchange for driving Iola around, Beverly gets tuna fish sandwiches and a place to stay. Despite her tough-girl exterior, Beverly has a tender heart, and Dicamillo perfectly captures her bravura and vulnerability. A small group of oddball but caring friends, including store clerk Elmer and waitress Freddie, help Beverly discover her self-worth as she tries to find her place in the world. Supposedly for ages 10-14, Beverly, Right Here should also appeal to so-called grown-ups, especially those who remember what it’s like to be 14. If you don’t, DiCamillo and Beverly are here to remind you.

In the spring of 1941, Berlin is “a tiger of a city filled with soot and ashes, where glass was never swept up, and fires were burned in the hallways of apartment houses, and people disappeared without a trace, and shoes littered the streets, left behind by those who had struggled.’’ Desperate to get her 12-year-old daughter out of Berlin, Hanni Kohn arranges for forged papers that identify Lea as a Christian. But she also has the rabbi’s clever daughter Ettie make a mystical Jewish being — a golem — to watch over Lea and keep her safe. Ava, the golem fashioned from water and clay, can communicate with birds and angels. Her life is linked to Lea’s, but also to her maker Ettie, who flees Berlin on the same train.  Alice Hoffman’s signature magical realism and lyrical chiaroscuro writing enhance The World That We Knew (Simon and Schuster, review copy), a moving story of love and loss and resilience in the face of immense tragedy.  I reviewed it last month for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and you can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/yyg5qz3g

 

 

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Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey were the Three Musketeers back in the day, celebrating college graduation Memorial Day weekend 1971 at Martha’s Vineyard. In the summer of 2015, they reconnect at the same cottage, haunted by the ghosts of their former selves, the Vietnam draft and the missing Fourth Musketeer, the blue-blooded sorority girl Jacy. Ever wonder what happened to her?

Richard Russo’s Chances Are. . . (Random House, digital galley) is part teasing mystery, but mostly it’s a familiar reunion novel of friendship, memory and regret. But it’s also about fathers and sons, small towns, first love, male bonding and things that go unsaid. Lincoln, Teddy and Mickey are all good guys but flawed in recognizable ways. Lincoln’s a commercial real estate broker in Nevada, happily married to his college sweetheart who contends with his tyrannical father. Solitary Teddy, who is about to lose his job as head of a small press, has a secret he’s kept so long it’s like a vital organ. Mickey seems the least changed since college — still riding a Harley and playing in a bar band up and down the Cape. All three were in love with Jacy back when, and she remains the epitome of dream girl, the rich rebel who could sing like Grace Slick.

Russo’s narrative goes down easy, helped by humor and a modicum of suspense. There’s the expected Big Chill nostalgia, and a couple of subplots involving a retired cop and a bully of a next-door neighbor. The ending’s less of a reckoning with the past than a resolution that comes second-hand. Still, this is good-hearted summer reading. Chances are you’ll like it.

I love it when I start reading a book and the next time I look up, I’m four chapters in and eager to return. That’s the way it was with Chanelle Benz’s wonderful first novel The Gone Dead (HarperCollins, digital galley), a daughter’s journey into the past to examine the circumstances of her Civil Rights-era poet father’s death. Billie, a Philadelphia grants writer, hasn’t been to small-town Mississippi in 30 years, but returns to claim the derelict cottage where her father once lived. It’s full of memories and spiders, a suitable metaphor for the web in which Billie’s soon entangled. Her relatives tell her to leave well enough, and the local law proves less than helpful. After she finds a chapter of her father’s memoir of the region’s racist history, she enlists the help of a well-known scholar and becomes involved with the wayward son of the neighboring landowner. Threats and violence stalk Billie and her dog Rufus.

Billie’s is the book’s main voice, but Benz also orchestrates a distinctive chorus that adds to the lyricism and atmosphere. Even an old juke joint, Avalon, has a say, recalling times now dead and gone. Sadly, injustice lingers as the past bleeds into the present.

You don’t have to know a PBR from an IPA, or even like beer, to like J. Ryan Stradal’s The Lager Queen of Minnesota (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is as refreshing as a cold one on a hot summer day. Stradal,  who delighted foodies and readers with his novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest, now rides the wave of enthusiasm for craft beer.

Sisters Edith and Helen are close growing up in 1950s Minnesota, until Helen convinces their father to leave her his entire farm so she can invest in her new husband’s family brewing business. The betrayal leads to a long estrangement, until Edith’s orphaned granddaughter Diana displays a talent for making craft beer that also incorporates Edith’s famed pie-making abilities. Turns out a family feud, strong women, beer and pie are just the ingredients needed for an engaging tale. Stradal’s a first-rate storyteller.

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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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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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