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Posts Tagged ‘London’

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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If you’re looking for escape from the world’s woes, look no further. Imogen Hermes Gower’s first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock (HarperCollins, digital galley), is a ribald romp through Georgian London, featuring the unlikely pairing of a middle-aged merchant and a golden-haired prostitute. They are brought together by a mermaid, actually two of them, and thereby hangs a witty, fulsome tale. Although it’s a long book at almost 500 pages, it reads fast. And it’s so good, I wished for more.

Jonah Hancock is a sedate widower who lives in the same Deptford house in which he was born, his simple wants looked after by a young maid named Brigid and his niece Suki, a bright 14-year-old. It’s 1785, and he’s waiting for one of his ships, Calliope, to come in after a long voyage to the South Seas.  Imagine his surprise when the ship’s captain shows up to say he’s sold the ship to buy a genuine mermaid — a small, wizened creature with a fearsome baby face, long fangs and a fish’s tail. Dead, yes, but it’s still a mermaid, and people will pay good money to see something so remarkable, although Hancock is initially dubious.

Meanwhile, in London’s SoHo, Mrs. Angelica Neal is contemplating her pretty face and an uncertain future. The duke who kept her the last three years has died and left her nothing in his will. Should Angelica return to Mrs. Bet Chappell’s famous bawdy house, where she grew up and learned her trade, or strike out on her own in hopes of attracting a new protector?

The wily Mrs. Chappell wants Angelica back; none of her current girls have the charms of a true courtesan. When Mr. Hancock’s mermaid becomes a popular sensation, Mrs. Chapell strikes a bargain with him. He will loan her his mermaid for a week, and she will make sure that he meets the lovely Mrs. Neal. But all comes to naught at a mermaid-themed party, where Mr. Hancock is appalled by the behavior of the gentleman in attendance, and self-involved Angelica spurns him, choosing to cast her fate with a handsome rake.

Enter a second mermaid. Not right away. Readers first encounter her through short lyrical passages, seductive siren songs of the sea. That she is very much alive only becomes apparent when Angelica jests to the now well-off Mr. Hancock that he needs to find her a second mermaid if he hopes to win her favor, and he immediately commissions an expedition to the North Sea. Magical realism meets historical realism with nary a seam showing. That a mermaid might swim in a shell-lined grotto behind a house in Greenwich seems just as possible as a prostitute marrying a merchant. Why Bel Fortescue, Angelica’s best friend, allows herself to be captured by an earl.

Gowar’s lively narrative is spiced with period cant and sparkling descriptions of life high and low in London, where birth is often destiny. She’s very good with domestic details — the houses, the fashions, the food — and populates the story with winning secondary characters: Suki, who reads Pope aloud to her uncle when she’d prefer a romantic novel; her mother Hester, for whom respectability is all; and Mrs. Chappell’s mulatto girl Polly, who discovers her own self-worth.

At one point, Angelica and Bel visit a confectionary, “a veritable temple of sugar,” with shelves of bottled liqueurs, salvers of jellies and cakes, caramels and custard tarts. “Angelica’s favourites are the millefruits, crisp clouds fragrant with orange water, their surfaces rugged with cochineal and gold leaf, almonds and angelico.”

Angelica thinks they are like jewels, “Delicious. . .I shall take some home with me.”

I suggest you do the same with The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock.

 

 

 

 

 

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Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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A serial killer is stalking the streets, his gruesome crimes apparently inspired by the works of Dante. Well-known writers team as amateur detectives to solve the case but fear they are hunting one of their own. It sounds like the plot of Matthew Pearl’s best-selling The Dante Club, and it is. But it’s also that of Pearl’s new literary thriller The Dante Chamber (Penguin Press, ARC), with the action shifting from 1865 Boston to 1870 London. A politician’s neck has been crushed by a stone etched with an inscription from the Divine Comedy, and poet Christina Rossetti enlists the help of Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson to search for her missing brother, famous artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s not necessary to have read The Dante Club to enjoy Pearl’s atmospheric follow-up, thanks to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who is still haunted by the Boston murders and who conveniently arrives in England to lend his expertise. Pearl’s own expertise is seamlessly blending fact with fiction in a fulsome narrative peopled by credible characters real and imagined. Christina Rossetti may present herself to the public as a retiring spinster, but her actions here reveal her spirited nature. Her brother Gabriel fascinates with his extravagant behavior and obsessions; his house is a library/menagerie, where armadillos and raccoons roam among the stacks of books. Browning is dashing, Tennyson is shy. Add a well-read Scotland Yard detective, a mysterious reverend, the “ghost” of a beautiful woman, a few Fenians plotting the overthrow of the government, and an ex-Pinkerton detective looking to capitalize on the lurid events. It’s a Victorian feast. Dig in.

Reading Ruth Ware’s deliciously twisty The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Scout Press, digital galley) is like driving down a country road. You think you know the way, pass some familiar landmarks, remember to turn left at the crossroads. But then you either miss a turn, or the road curves unexpectedly, and you don’t recognize a thing. You’re lost. Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Lying Game) comes up with Christie-like plots enhanced by Gothic elements. Past secrets, mistaken identities, old diaries and pictures. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is sure the letter from a lawyer announcing her grandmother’s death isn’t meant for her. For starters, her late grandmother wasn’t named Hester. Still, Hal can’t resist going to the funeral in Cornwall and the reading of the will. Ever since her single mother’s death several years ago, Hal has been on her own, forgoing university and eking out a living as a fortune teller on the Brighton pier. She doesn’t really believe in Tarot cards, but she’s good at reading people, and maybe she can pass herself off as a long-lost granddaughter long enough to benefit from the Westaway estate. With a loan shark breathing down her neck, Hal is desperate to escape Brighton. So off she goes to Trepassen House to meet her three new “uncles.” It’s a great premise, and Ware makes the most of it, even adding a creepy housekeeper, an attic bedroom, crumbling stairs and a frozen lake. Brrrr!

Would you willingly invite a serial killer to accompany you on a road trip? Me neither. What about if the serial killer is a senior citizen with dementia? Still no. What if you think your teenage sister was one of his victims? No way — are you kidding?! The unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Julia Heaberlin’s new thriller Paper Ghosts (Ballantine, digital galley) firmly believes that 61-year-old documentary photographer Carl Louis Feldman is behind the disappearance of her sister Rachel a dozen years ago. Armed with a map of Texas and some old photos, she pretends she’s Feldman’s daughter so she can check him out of the halfway house where he’s been living. Feldman, who claims no memory of killing Rachel or any other girls, doesn’t believe the narrator is his daughter but goes along for the ride, so to speak. You should, too, as improbable as it all sounds. Come on, don’t you want to know if Feldman really doesn’t  remember his career as photographer and killer? And what of the obsessive, unreliable narrator? Yes, you’ll keep reading. I did, with only a couple of pit stops to relieve the tension.

Time to catch up with some favorite series. Ann Cleeves has two going; the next entry in the Shetland series is due in the fall, while the fifth in the Vera Stanhope series, The Glass Room (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), was recently published in the U.S. for the first time. A formidable police detective and an odd duck, Vera finds herself investigating the murder of a famous writer in which her free-spirited neighbor is the prime suspect. But there are many others attending the writing workshop at the isolated country house with connections to the victim and motives aplenty. As usual, they underestimate Vera’s sharp mind, distracted by her large size and shabby clothes. Ah yes, appearances are deceiving.

I didn’t know how much I was longing for some good old South Florida noir until I read Alex Segura’s fourth Pete Fernandez novel Blackout (Polis Books, digital galley). Fernandez, a former reporter turned P.I. and a  recovering alcoholic, initially turns away a Florida politician looking for his missing son because it means returning to his hometown of Miami. Then Pete realizes that the missing man is linked to the cold case of Patty Morales, a high school classmate of Pete’s who disappeared in 1998. He and his former partner, Kathy Bentley, have tried to find Patty’s killer before, but their luck ran out when a crucial witness disappeared. Now with a chance to make amends with his past and old friends, Pete, who has been living in New York, heads for Miami, finding its familiarity both reassuring and overwhelming  Segura makes good use of Miami history — remember the Liberty City cult of Yahweh ben Yahweh? — and the surreality of Florida itself in crafting his hard-boiled tale.

Elly Griffiths takes a convoluted route in The Dark Angel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) to get her series characters from England to Italy to solve mysteries old and new. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and young daughter Kate arrive first when Ruth is asked by an Italian archaeologist to consult on a Roman skeleton at the center of a television documentary. But then the town’s priest is found murdered in a case with secrets going back to World War II. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, Ruth’s sometimes lover and Kate’s father, hears of earthquakes in the region, and flies to Italy, leaving behind his pregnant wife Michelle. She doesn’t know if Nelson is the father of her baby or if it’s the police officer with whom she had an affair. Fans of the series will find these domestic entanglements as interesting as details  of the Italian crimes. La famiglia!

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Martha Grimes’ clever Richard Jury novels take their titles from British pubs, and there have been some doozies over the years: I Am the Only Running Footman, Help the Poor Struggler, Five Bells and Bladebone. So the 24th in the series, The Knowledge (Grove Atlantic, digital galley) seems merely another curiosity. But don’t go looking for it in London. The Knowledge, which refers to the street maps that the drivers of London’s famous black cabs know by heart, is also the name of a hidden, cabbies-only pub so secret that even Scotland Yard can’t find it. The story of the pub is one of the whimsical digressions in the murder case Jury is investigating, the shooting deaths of an American astronomer and his wife on the steps of a private casino. The shooter escapes in a black cab, but the stalwart driver alerts his network and Patty Haigh, a sassy preteen Sherlock, manages to pick up his trail at Heathrow and wrangle a first-class ticket to Kenya. Jury will eventually dispatch his pal Melrose Plant on safari to find Patty, while placing antiques dealer Marshall Trueblood inside the casino to deal cards. The complicated plot involving drugs, stolen art and greedy villains, is almost an afterthought, but who cares when the gang’s all here, plus winsome newcomers. I was totally charmed. Like lovely Vivian, I can’t make up my mind between Jury and Plant, so I’ll take both, please.

The many charms of Venice are on full display in Donna Leon’s new Guido Brunetti novel, The Temptation of Forgiveness (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which is as thoughtful as it is atmospheric. Brunetti moves adroitly from vicious office politics to happy family life to investigating the case of a comatose beating victim. Turns out he is the accountant husband of a teacher whom Brunetti’s wife knows and who recently approached Brunetti about the drug problem at her son’s private school. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Meanwhile, what of the man’s elderly aunt, a Miss Havisham-like figure in a Venice apartment? The leisurely plot hinges on government corruption to no one’s surprise, this being a city long familiar with frauds of all kinds. But there’s something particularly unjust about a system that takes advantage of its most vulnerable citizens. Here’s a vision of Venice that tourists don’t see, and it’s not pretty.

Scotland Yard’s Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers return in Elizabeth George’s immersive doorstop The Punishment She Deserves (Penguin, purchased e-book), but so does their boss, Isabelle Ardery, who exists on vodka and breath mints. There’s no love lost between Lynley and Ardery, even though or because of a brief affair, but Ardery really has it in for Havers. So she takes the DS with her to Ludlow to investigate a possible case of police malfeasance, hoping Havers will go rogue and hang herself. Six weeks earlier, a church deacon suspected of pedophilia hung himself while in police custody, but the dead man’s influential parents insist he would never commit suicide. Ardery wants to make sure the original investigation was legit so as to avert any lawsuit, but Havers keeps picking at loose ends, of which there are many. Also multiple suspects, motives and red herrings. It will take Lynley’s late intervention to prove Havers right and get the case back on track but not before readers have met three college students rooming together in a rundown house, a community police officer with dyslexia, another police officer with family problems who likes to hang glide, a bar owner with an upstairs room to rent by the hour, a homeless man with a dog and claustrophobia, and Ardery’s ex, who is about to take their twin sons to live in New Zealand. There’s rather too much of Ardery and not enough Lynley to my liking, but Havers tap dances. Really.

YA crossover alert. Maureen Johnson launches an intriguing new series with Truly Devious (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), which is somewhat reminiscent of  her Shades of London series, with its boarding school setting and teenage protagonist. But Ellingham Academy was established by an eccentric tycoon in rural Vermont, and only accepts the best and the brightest, for whom tuition is free. Stevie Bell gets in because of her obsession with true crime and detecting skills, and she vows to solve an infamous cold case despite her panic attacks. Back in 1936, the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and a student died. The only clue was a nasty rhyme signed “Truly Devious.” Just as Stevie is getting used to the weirdness that is Ellingham and her fellow students, Truly Devious appears to strike again and the book ends with a cliffhanger. Johnson increases the suspense of the Christie-like case by alternating narratives between present day and 1936. Waiting for the next installment is going to be difficult, but I’ve had experience with Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Holmes  series, which continues with The Case for Jamie (HarperCollins, library hardcover). The first book, A Study in Charlotte, found Sherlock Holmes’ descendant Charlotte Holmes meeting up with Dr. Watson’s descendant Jamie Watson at an American boarding school, where they were targeted by members of the Moriarty crime family. Then events turned even darker in The Last of August, and as the third book begins, best friends Jamie and Charlotte haven’t spoken in a year. Jamie’s back at school for his senior year, with a nice girlfriend and no idea as to Charlotte’s whereabouts. He no longer trusts her after a shocking betrayal. But the Moriarty clan is apparently bent on ruining Jamie’s life so as to get to Charlotte, who is feeling guilty and driven as she tries to save him from afar. They alternate narrating chapters, often at cross-purposes until finally joining forces to defeat Lucien Moriarty or die trying, which is a real possibility. A happy ending? Not going to tell you.

 

 

 

 

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I really should stop reading creepy crime novels at bedtime if I ever want to get some sleep. Consider police detective Casey Duncan at the beginning of Kelley Armstrong’s decidedly chilly A Darkness Absolute (St. Martin’s, digital galley). Chasing a fugitive from the off-the-grid community of Rockton in the Canadian wilderness, Casey and a deputy are stranded in a cave by a fierce blizzard. Strange noises lead them to a dark pit, where a missing Rockton woman has been held captive for more than a year.  Nicki can tell them little about the mystery man who kidnapped her, but there’s no doubt he’s still a threat when the bones of other missing women turn up deep in the cave system. Casey’s investigation with prickly sheriff Eric Dalton is hindered by the unusual nature of Rockton, a safe haven for people with secrets. Casey’s was revealed in Armstrong’s 2016 City of the Lost, so you might want to read it first to avoid spoilers. Besides, it’s another atmospheric page-turner.

So is Clare Mackintosh’s I See You (Berkley Penguin, digital galley), which will have you looking over your shoulder like London commuter Zoe Walker, who routinely takes the underground Tube to her real estate job. Then one day she spots a blurry photo of herself in a tabloid ad for what appears to be an internet dating site. What? How?  She discovers that the ad runs daily, each time with the photo of a different woman — and that these women are being stalked and assaulted.  One has been murdered. Zoe takes her worries to Transport police officer Kelly Swift, whose third-person perspective on events alternates with Zoe’s first-person narrative, upping the suspense. Mackintosh displayed her suspense writing chops with last year’s I Let You Go. This book’s another thrill ride if you’re willing to ignore some improbable plot points.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at Behind Her Eyes (Flatiron Books, ARC), in which Sarah Pinborough also uses shifting perspectives to tie a love triangle in knots. Londoner Louise is surprised to learn her new boss David, a successful therapist, is the guy she made out with in a bar. Also, he’s married to beautiful Adele, who befriends Louise. Who is playing who? It’s a guessing game until the out-of-the-blue, over-the-top ending. You’ll also need to suspend disbelief with J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before (Ballantine, digital galley), which is full of coincidences about the successive attractive tenants of a control-freak architect’s custom London mansion. Neither Emma nor Jane is willing to look the gift house in the mouth, even though the rental agreement has about 200 ridiculous rules — no books, no pictures on the wall, no rugs on the floor — and also poses intrusive ethical questions. Really?

After the show-off style of so many thrillers, it’s a relief to turn to a gripping procedural. Deborah Crombie’s Garden of Lamentations (Morrow, digital galley),the 17th in her series featuring married London. detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, is one of the best, building on 2014’s To Dwell in Darkness. (Yes, you’ll want to read it, too).  While Gemma investigates the murder of a pretty nanny in a Notting Hill garden, Duncan puzzles over his recent reassignment and the cryptic comments his former boss made before he was mugged and left comatose. Duncan has his suspicions about several seemingly unrelated cases involving members of the force, and the assault on the chief super makes him think a traitor may be at work.

Judith Flanders’ clever and entertaining third mystery starring London book editor Samantha Clair, A Cast of Vultures (St. Martin’s, digital galley), benefits from its heroine’s witty narration and an engaging supporting cast. Problems at the publishing house where Sam works are overshadowed by troubles in her neighborhood, where an arson case turns up squatters and a dead body. Of course, Sam’s going to get involved, as will her cop boyfriend, her attorney mom, her elderly but reclusive neighbor, and her spunky editorial assistant. But it’s Sam who’s up a tree — literally — at Kew Gardens and hanging on for dear life while a couple of thugs down below calmly discuss her murder.

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afterthefireA friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.

The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.

womanblueAs a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.

quietneighborsNursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for  Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.

writtenredAnnie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.

keepyouThe dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.

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afteryouCertain books, movies and sad songs have been known to move me to tears — as well as parades, the national anthem and ads for greeting cards. Yep, I’m a crybaby, even when I know my emotions are being shamelessly manipulated. That’s the way I felt reading Jojo Moyes’ bestseller of several years back, Me Before You, about young caregiver/companion Louisa Clark and quadriplegic Will Traynor. If you haven’t read it, do so before reading the sequel After You (Viking Penguin, digital galley), or even the rest of this column. There be spoilers.

The story picks up 18 months after the events of the first book, but Lou isn’t living the interesting, fulfilled life that Will envisioned for her. Travel to Europe did little to assuage her grief, and now a sterile London flat and a crummy job working in an airport bar aren’t helping either. Mired in depression, a tipsy Lou ventures out on her roof one night and inadvertently falls off. A paramedic tells her she’s lucky to have survived.

Recovering in the hospital and then at her parents’ house in her childhood bedroom, Lou has a better understanding of Will’s situation and his desire to end his life, but she still is surprised that everyone seems to think she tried to commit suicide. She reluctantly joins a grief support group whose counselor talks about “moving on,” but it isn’t until troubled teenage Lily turns up at her door in London that Lou gets her skates on, after a fashion.

Moyes is an assured storyteller in the Maeve Binchy mode, offering up generous helpings of smiles and tears. After You isn’t as emotionally resonant as its predecessor because the focus is more diffuse as Moyes explores how grief reverberates in the wake of Will’s death. But it’s not all heavy going — Lou’s mother asserts her independence to the consternation of her bemused husband; Lily’s casual selfishness and vulnerability forces Lou to some decisions, as does the possibility of romance with the same paramedic who rescued her from her fall.

Still, Lou ultimately has to pick herself up, and it’s this struggle, in all its fits and starts, that Moyes chronicles with humor and compassion. She also leaves the door open to the possibility of a third book, reminding us that life is rarely tidy and loose ends make it interesting.

 

 

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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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leonDonna Leon set her first book in the stellar Guido Brunetti series, Death at La Fenice, at Venice’s famed opera house, and she returns there in her 24th, Falling in Love (Grove Atlantic, digital galley). Returning, too, is soprano Flavia Petrelli, whose performance in Tosca leads to wild applause and a rain of roses. But it’s the extravagant bouquets of yellow roses left in her dressing room and at the doorway to her apartment that frighten her and concern Brunetti, who ties the mysterious stalker to two knife attacks in the city. Leon deftly explores the psychology and escalating obsession of the stalker, then ups the suspense at the penultimate performance of Tosca, with the violent emotions of the opera mirroring the climactic events backstage. One of Leon’s best, inseparable from the magic of the real Venice. Brava!

foundlingsThe Silence of the Lambs meets an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent in Kate Rhodes’ suspenseful The Winter Foundlings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). After a missing girl’s body is left on the steps of London’s Foundling Museum, psychologist Alice Quentin, liaising with the police, meets with convicted child killer Louis Kinsella at Northwoods prison hospital. Three other girls are missing, and the kidnapper appears to be following in Kinsella’s footsteps — or following his orders. Is it a former pupil, or perhaps a member of the hospital staff? As the cunning Kinsella toys with Alice, time is running out to find the missing girls. Chapters told from one abducted girl’s perspective are interspersed with the main narrative, adding to the chilling atmosphere.

liarAn eccentric woman cries wolf in M.C. Beaton’s Death of a Liar (Grand Central, digital galley), the latest in her long-running and highly entertaining series featuring Scottish police sergeant Hamish Macbeth. After falsely claiming she was attacked, chronic liar Liz Bentley turns up dead in her Cromish vegetable patch, and Hamish suspects her murder is tied to the torture killings of a couple new to Lochdubh. But Chief Inspector Blair wants the Lochdubh murders for his own, so Hamish circumvents the official investigation, all the while dealing with his complicated love life. (He can’t believe a beautiful baker prefers the company of his rotund sidekick to his own). Still, the criminals command most of his attention  — and almost prove his undoing when he winds up in a coffin destined for burial at sea.

tombinturkeyFree-spirited Jude and worrywart Carole are longtime friends and amateur sleuths in the English village of Fetherings, but they’re on holiday in Simon Brett’s cheery The Tomb in Turkey (Severn House, digital galley). Intrigued by the offer of a free villa from Jude’s property developer pal and ex-lover Barney, the mismatched travel buddies find intrigue of a more menacing kind upon their arrival. Travel guide Nita glosses over the unwelcoming graffiti on the villa walls that suggests that Barney’s first wife died in suspicious circumstances. But then on a visit to the nearby Lycian tombs, Carole discovers Nita’s strangled corpse, which promptly disappears when she goes to get Jude. Still, Carole knows what she saw, and even Jude agrees that there’s something’s fishy in Turkey.

magpiesA book to die for. Or in this case, a manuscript. In Judith Flanders’  snappy A Murder of Magpies (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), London book editor Samantha “Sam” Clair is looking forward to reading author Kit Lovell’s new expose. But others are also after the manuscript about a recent fashion house scandal. There are several break-ins, a courier is killed and Lovell goes missing. Sam teams with her solicitor mother and a police detective to investigate, even while she ponders how to tell her best-selling novelist her new book’s a bomb and deal with back-stabbing colleagues. Flanders takes a page from Lovell, and dishes the dirt on the insular world of publishing. First in a series, we hope.

kings“The past is a different country.” No kidding. William Shaw calls up the exotic land of the Swinging Sixties in The Kings of London (Little, Brown, digital galley), the second in a trilogy that began with the very good She’s Leaving Home. DS Paddy Breen and his younger colleague Helen Tozer encounter the counterculture of drug dealers and art dealers, hippies and squatters while investigating several nasty fires. One charred corpse is eventually identified as a politician’s wayward son. Heroin is the real villain here, along with the gangs controlling its trade and the dirty cops looking the other way.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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