Posts Tagged ‘Megan Abbott’

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

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

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

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

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



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knowmeI’ve read so many books this summer focusing on the secrets lives of women and girls, I’m having trouble remembering which is which. The titles sound similar; the narrators tend to be unreliable. Still, several stand out. Megan Abbott gracefully conquers the balance beam of believability and then sticks the landing in You Will Know Me (Little, Brown, review copy), set in the competitive world of elite gymnastics. Katie and Eric Knox are totally invested in their 15-year-old daughter Devon’s Olympic dreams, but even Devon’s laser-like focus is threatened when a young man from the gym is killed in a hit-and-run. Ryan was something of a heartthrob, and his death rattles the girls — and their mothers. With much of the story told from Katie’s perspective, Abbott flexes her narrative skills. Always good  with adolescents’ roiling emotions, as in Dare Me and The Fever, she explores similar anxieties, obsessions and desires among the grown-ups. Who killed Ryan? The answer lies in the greater mystery of love and family, how we can never really know another’s hidden heart.

cabin10In Ruth Ware’s tense and intense The Woman in Cabin 10 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), travel writer Lo Blacklock is on a luxury cruise in the North Sea when she hears the sound of a body going overboard in the darkness. By the time Lo raises the yacht’s security officer, the blood smear she saw on the glass veranda has vanished, and there’s no record of any passenger in adjoining Cabin 10. But Lo saw a young woman there earlier in the evening when she borrowed some mascara. Why doesn’t anyone believe her? Is it because she drank a lot at dinner and is still nervous about a recent intruder in her London flat? Or is it because of other events in her past that a spurned boyfriend aboard decides to reveal? Ah, betrayal, deception, a disappearing body, a crime that never was. Sounds like Hitchcock. Or maybe Christie. How about Ware herself, who proved skilled at ambiguity in last summer’s In a Dark Dark Wood? Here, she misdirects readers with interspersed news stories and e-mail transcripts, but the story’s at its best when Lo’s at sea.

allmissingMegan Miranda doesn’t invent the wheel in All the Missing Girls (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), but she does put quite a spin on it by telling much of the story in reverse chronological order. High school counselor Nicolette leaves her fiance Everett in Philadelphia for a summer visit to her small North Carolina hometown, where she helps her brother ready the family home for sale. She visits her dementia-plagued father in a senior home, runs into high school boyfriend Tyler, remembers the still-unsolved disappearance of her best friend Corinne at 18. And she’s there when another girl goes missing. Each chapter reveals more details past and present, building suspense and raising more questions. Then it’s over — and you’ll probably want to read it again to try and figure out just how Miranda did it.

goodasgoneAmy Gentry also proves to be a clever reverse plotter in Good as Gone (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), which reminds me of the Elizabeth Smart case, as well as the recent BBC-America series Thirteen. Narrator Anna Davalos’ daughter Julie was abducted at 13 from her bedroom by a man with a knife, while her scared younger sister Jane peered from a closet. Eight years later, Julie reappears at the front door with a harrowing tale of captivity by drug dealers. But is Julie telling the truth? What is she hiding? And, for that matter, is she really Julie? Anna has her doubts, and so do readers as another narrative voice chimes in. As Gretchen, she’s a singer in a dive bar band. As Starr, she’s a pole dancer. She’s a runaway, a foster child, odd girl out in a group home. Was she ever good girl Julie, or someone else entirely? The final revelations, mired in a lot of rigmarole, are not entirely unexpected.

gardengirlsTwo more. Lisa Jewell uses multiple perspectives to explore the mysteries of family and friendship in The Girls in the Garden (Atria, digital galley). It begins with young Pip discovering her teenage sister bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind their London rental. Grace recalls nothing of the assault, and suspicion falls on everyone from her maybe-boyfriend to a neighborhood father to other attendees at the summer barbecue. Jewell ups the suspense by using flashbacks to flesh out her assorted characters — jealous teens, single moms, observant oldsters — and reveal many motives.

lostgirlsTwo women — one past, one present — are linked by a dark family mystery in Heather Young’s The Lost Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). Before she dies, elderly small-town librarian Lucy writes about the summer of 1935, which ended with the disappearance of her 6-year-old sister Emily at their Minnesota lake house. Lucy’s story alternates with that of her great-niece Justine, a California single mom with two young daughters, who upon learning she has inherited the lake house, uses it to escape her abusive and controlling boyfriend. Justine’s attempts to make a home in wintry and lonely Minnesota contrasts with Lucy’s account of the seemingly idyllic life of privileged summer people. Still, all the women and girls in the book are lost in one way or another, and the secrets that haunt them are sad indeed.

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thefeverIn two of her previous novels, The End of Everything and Dare Me, Megan Abbott expertly mined the secret lives of teenage girls. She does it again in The Fever (Little, Brown, digital galley), inspired by the real-life outbreak of a mysterious illness among girls at a New York high school, several of whom testified on the Today show about their persistent tics and twitches.

In The Fever, puzzlement and panic ensue when pretty Lise has a violent seizure in class. Her BFF Deenie, who witnessed the frightening event, frantically texts their other friend Gabby and later convinces her father, a teacher at the school, that she must go to the hospital to see Lise. As rumors fly through the school and community, Lise lapses into a coma and other girls, including Gabby, develop alarming symptoms — rapid blinking, fainting, dizziness, confusion. Is the lake algae toxic? Maybe it’s a tainted HPV vaccine. Or it just the result of stress, maybe eating disorders? Deenie, who has been keeping several secrets from her family and friends, wonders if she’s somehow complicit in her friends’ illness, or is it just a matter of time before she, too, is stricken?

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start — the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new amd terrifying and significant — and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you expected, or asked for.”

The mystery illness propels the story, but its depth comes from Abbott’s artful depiction of the teens’ fevered friendships and rivalries, fueled by peer pressure, paranoia and raging hormones. There’s no vaccine for high school.

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Forget the ponytails and the nail polish. Look past the lip gloss and the glitter brows. It’s just war paint. The cheerleaders in Megan Abbott’s terrific new novel, Dare Me, are really girl gladiators in training, with fierce hearts and dangerous obsessions.

“Ages fourteen to eighteen, a girl needs something to kill all that time, that endless itchy waiting, every hour, every day for something — anything — to begin.”

So says narrator Addy Hanlon, 16, as she recalls sitting on the gym floor with her BFF Beth Cassidy, who has been cheer captain since forever. Addy, four inches taller than nimble Beth, is happy to be her bad lieutenant. But then the squad gets a new coach, 27-year-old Colette French, who isn’t satisfied with sloppy chorus-line flips and pom-pom shakes. She collects the girls’ cell phones, makes them run bleacher splints, says they don’t need a captain.

Still, Beth, with her clenched jaw, isn’t one to cede power lightly. She watches as Coach drills the girls into a more precise and cohesive team, and notes how many now compete for her attention. A favored few are invited to her ranch-style house, where they meet her harried husband and toddler daughter. Addy finds herself singled out for Coach’s confidences, but her loyalties are tested when she becomes privy to the older woman’s affair with a local military recruiter. Then there’s a suicide. Or is it murder?

Addy is scared. Of what she knows and doesn’t know. And also of what manipulative Beth knows, or pretends to know. “Coach, Coach,” Addy thinks. “I wanted to be a part of your world, but I didn’t know your world was this.”

As in last year’s The End of Everything, Abbott is very good at mining the secret lives of girls, the intense friendships and rivalries, the hidden fears and vulnerabilities, the peer pressure, the paranoia.  The last half of the novel unfolds like a fevered dream.  Dare Me dares you to stop reading.

Open Book: I bought the e-book of Megan Abbott’s Dare Me (Little, Brown). The term “cheerleader noir” isn’t original; I think it goes back to the days of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And that reminds me that I don’t really like Dare Me’s cover, which is too much like HBO’s True Blood. Here’s a thumbnail of the UK cover; I like it better, even if it reminds me of the TV series Bunheads.

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Nearing the end of August, and I’m still scanning summer book lists, as if I didn’t have enough incoming on my radar. Blogging has taken a back seat to reading and napping on these slow, syrupy days. My mom’s here, and we seem to be competing as to how many books we can each finish before heading to South Carolina this weekend. We’ll drop off the library books on the way out of town.

Mom didn’t much care for Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility, not enough plot for her. But I loved this evocative period piece as Brooklyn native Katey Kontent, the 25-year-old daughter of a Russian immigrant, traverses New York society in 1938. She’s working as a secretary for a Wall Street law firm at book’s beginning, hitting small jazz clubs with her pal Eve Ross, a well-off Midwestern beauty who doesn’t want to be under anyone’s thumb.

Both girls fall into the orbit of handsome banker Tinker Grey, who influences them in unexpected ways. Moving warily among Manhattan’s smart young things, Katey is taken up by a shy millionaire who teaches her to shoot, as well as by an enigmatic widow who pushes her toward a career. By year’s end, Katey, naturally smart, also has wised to the ways of the world and the wealthy, having encountered love, ambition, betrayal and regret.

First-time Towles’ writing is lovely, and the dialogue witty, even if it is set off by distracting, pretentious dashes instead of regular quote marks.  — Why, oh why?

What I like most about Laura Lippman’s stand-alone crime novels is that they are largely character-driven and are meticulously layered as to setting, thought and emotion. By the end of The Most Dangerous Thing, I felt as if I knew the Baltimore neighborhood of Dickeyville and the wooded hills of adjoining Leakin Park.

I’d immediately recognize, too, the five middle-aged men and women who shared outdoor adventures in the mid-1970s as young teens and pre-teens. Sweet, manic Gordon, known as Go-Go, was the youngest of the three Halloran brothers. It’s his sudden death at book’s beginning that reunites the remaining quartet, all of whom are marked by a tragic summer incident they’ve kept secret for more than 30 years. Now journalist Gwen wonders if it’s time to come clean, not realizing that she knows only part of the story, and that the kids’ aging parents also have a claim to the past.

Lippman moves nimbly from one character’s perspective to another, shuttling between past and present as the chickens come home to roost, so to speak. The chapters told in the collective plural are especially effective and had me recalling my own free-range suburban childhood, when stranger-danger was relatively unknown.

A decade later, things had changed dramatically, evidenced by Megan Abbott’s haunting The End of Everything, which pivots on Lizzie Hood’s 13th summer, when her best friend Evie vanished. Lizzie was there. “I saw her, that hank of dark hair, sports socks tugged high over knees. I saw her. Evie was there, and then Evie was gone.”

Because Lizzie remembers a lurking car and maybe who was driving it, she becomes the center of attention, basking in the glow of Evie’s warm, laughing father. She’s always envied Mr. Verver’s close relationship with his daughters, especially pretty, older Dusty, who wears frothy pastel dresses on her dates and comes home to dance in the dawn. Now it’s Lizzie’s turn to be the wanted, needed one. She misses Evie, worships Dusty, adores Mr. Verver. Her heart is sick, her dreams confused. Where is Evie?

“We’re no longer two summer-brown kids with tangles of hair and jutting kid teeth. I don’t know when it happened, but it did. Lately, things have been hovering in her face, and I couldn’t fathom it. I had things too, new things twisting under my skin, but I didn’t know what they were. It felt like she knew her own zig-zagging heart, and I was just killing time.”

Open Book: I borrowed Amor Towles’ Rules of Civility (Viking) from the library, read a review copy of Laura Lippman’s The Most Dangerous Thing (Morrow), and bought a hardcover of Megan Abbott’s The End of Everything (Little, Brown). Next on my list is The Very Thought of You by Rosie Alison (Washington Square Press), a galley I’ve been saving for next week’s vacation and which Mom just finished. Her endorsement — “You’re going to like this. It’s a different World War II story” — makes me eager to start this rite-of-passage tale. Young London evacuee Anna Sands finds herself on a Yorkshire estate-turned-school run by a childless couple whose marriage is unraveling.  Ah, summer reading. I am so still there.

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