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Posts Tagged ‘Michael Parker’

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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My coffee table is going to grad school. Come Saturday, it’s relocating to my cousin Georgianna’s new apartment near the University of Central Florida.

I have mixed feelings about its departure because for the last 20 years the massive, two-tier wood-and-glass structure has served as mission control. It’s been writing desk, dining table, magazine rack, book shelf and storage unit. Mostly, it’s encouraged my packrat tendencies; I’m downsizing in hopes I’ll stop hoarding.

Cleaning it out, I found several galleys I’ve been meaning to write about, as well as several more I’m still planning to read. All have been relocated to the office/library, where I can’t get to the floor-to-ceiling shelves because of the stacks cluttering the floor. At least I can shut the door so no one has to look at the mess but me.

Now to those books that had been buried before they disappear again. Michael Parker’s The Watery Part of the World (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill) is a different kind of beach book set on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. The novel beautifully reimagines two time periods, its stories based on historical fact. In 1813, Theodora Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr, disappeared at sea while en route by schooner from South Carolina to New York. In 1970, two elderly white women and one black man were the last residents of a small Banks barrier island.

In the novel, Theodora is cast upon the isolated island by pirates, building a new life with the help of the old hermit Whaley. “Had the wind through the sea oats promised to bring her anything she wanted, she would have asked, hours before, for chocolate, books, Chopin. Now it was nails, a couple of hinges for her door, an ax, a saw, a hammer.”

The second, parallel story focuses on Theo’s descendants, sisters Maggie and Whaley, who are looked after by Woodrow Thornton, who lost his wife to Hurricane Wilma. Loss and loneliness link both tales as Parker lyrically explores the geography of the heart and the way the past impinges on the present.

Place and past events also figure in Anne Rivers Siddons’ new novel, Burnt Mountain (Grand Central), which, sadly, isn’t one of her best. Growing up in small-town Georgia, Thayer Wentworth is at odds with her social-climbing mother, being more like her free-spirited grandmother. She finds solace as a counselor at an exclusive summer camp, falling deeply in love with Nick Abrams before heartbreak ensues.  At college at Sewanee, Thayer meets and marries Irish professor Aengus O’Neill, causing yet another rift with her mother. Still, Thayer is happy until Aengus’ interest in Celtic mythology blooms into an obsession as a storyteller at a boys’ camp on Burnt Mountain. And then Nick reappears in her life.

Siddons is very good with Thayer’s emotion-tossed narrative, but the contrived plot splinters into disarray and improbability.

Felix J. Palma makes it easy to suspend disbelief in his wildly imaginative The Map of Time (Atria Books), which blends history, mystery, fantasy, science and romance into an entertaining, genre-bending mix. Several stories intertwine in Victorian London, where many are talking about H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine as if time travel is a soon-to-be reality. (Murray’s is one agency already taking bookings).

Readers meet Andrew Harrington, an aristocrat whose beloved lady of the night’s murder has left him with a death wish until he chances on time travel as a way to thwart her killer. Meanwhille, a repressed young woman longs to travel forward a century. Wells himself eventually appears on the scene, as well as a detective who believes a weapon from the future was used in a murder.

Karl Alexander offered Wells stalking Jack the Ripper in 1979’s Time After Time, still a favorite, but Palma, a best-selling Spanish author making his U.S. debut, crafts a more complicated adventure that invigorates the debate as to whether one can — or should — tamper with time and alter history. And it’s just the first book in a trilogy.

Open Book: As noted, I received galleys/ARCs from the above books’ respective publishers. I signed up for Palma’s book as part of a web promotion announced on Shelf Awareness, my favorite daily e-mail for book professionals. Now the new Shelf Awareness for Readers is available free online twice a week, and I am insanely jealous of editor Bethanne Patrick for doing what I always wanted to do at the Sentinel. Each issue  reviews the best books publishing each week, along with author interviews, book excerpts, giveaways and links to more book stories and news. Right now they’re running a contest for new subscribers. Click on the button I’ve posted on the right side of this blog under “Elsewhere on the Web.” Good luck!

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