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Posts Tagged ‘Nickolas Butler’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I can’t remember the last time I thought of H.P. Lovecraft or read one of his weird horror tales. But then Samantha Bee recently invoked Cthulhu on her TV show, displaying his tentacled visage on the screen. And then I picked up Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, digital galley), in which the peculiar Lovecraft is a central character, along with his young acolyte Robert Barlow, who lived over near DeLand. Why did the middle-aged writer spend two months in Florida in 1934 with the teen science-fiction fan and then make him his literary executor on his death two years later? Scholars and Lovecraft devotees alike have speculated for years, and La Farge slyly mixes fact and fiction in his wildly entertaining tale of obsession and identity, our need to impose stories on our lives.

In his layered telling, a posthumously published Lovecraft diary depicts a romantic and physical friendship. A hoax is suspected, but freelance writer Charlie Willett believes that the Canadian man behind the diary is actually Barlow, who must have faked his death as a suicide in 1951 in Mexico City. Charlie’s outing of Lovecraft and Barlow eventually lands Charlie in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes and disappears, supposedly drowning in a lake. This is actually the story’s beginning, because Charlie’s psychiatrist wife Marcia, who narrates The Night Ocean, doesn’t think Charlie is dead and so begins retracing his links to Lovecraft and company, fitering truth from lie. This may sound complicated, and it is, but the nesting doll-like narrative reads like a head-spinning detective story.  Oh, the twists, the turns! Still, trying to figure out this puzzle box could lead to Cthulhu — oh, the horror, the horror! Enjoy.

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale and First Impressions, writes diverting bibliomysteries that playfully blend historical fact with inspired fiction. In The Lost Book of the Grail (Viking, digital galley), a 40-year-old British academic who grew up on the tales of King Arthur has his life upended by a 26-year-old American digital librarian, a missing medieval manuscript and the possibility that the Holy Grail is hidden not in Glastonbury but in Barchester Cathedral. (Yes, Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barchester). Arthur Prescott, who quotes P.G. Wodehouse to himself, is slowly working on a visitor’s guide to Barchester and the treasures of its library, but is hampered by how little is known of its sixth-century founder, Saint Ewolde. Fortunately, Bethany Chase, who has arrived to digitize the library’s ancient manuscripts for a private foundation, turns out to be a fellow Grail enthusiast and first-rate researcher. Together, they may yet save the fortunes and future of the monastery. Onward!

Lovett intersperses their lively contemporary treasure hunt with passages about the monastery’s history and the monks charged with keeping its secrets over the ages as Christianity and then Catholicism pass in and out of favor. As Arthur and Bethany decipher clues and a tentative romance blooms, their discoveries intersect with the historical episodes. Thomas Malory and Tennyson are among those making credible cameos, and their works play into several “Aha!” moments. Nicely grounded in Lovett’s scholarship but not overburdened by it, the story feels authentic, if occasionally farfetched. Maybe it’s just a tall tale, but I’d still like to believe in The Lost Book of the Grail.

Other good novels I’ve read the last month include Kayla Rae Whitaker’s remarkable first novel The Animators (Random House, digital galley), which charts the highs and lows of the friendship between two women with opposite personalities and a shared creative passion; Elinor Lipman’s new comedy of manners On Turpentine Lane (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which juggles dysfunctional families, friends and lovers, and which made me chortle; and Nickolas Butler’s heartfelt The Hearts of Men (HarperCollins, digital galley), which introduces eventual hero Nelson Doughty as the 13-year-old bullied bugler at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp and then follows him through four decades.

Lastly, there’s Dan Chaon’s  disturbing Ill Will (Ballantine, digital galley), in which horrific crimes — the possibly ritual slaughter of a family and a series of drownings of young men — are separated by years but linked in the life of a middle-aged therapist. His wife dies of cancer and his younger son slips into heroin addiction after the death of a high school buddy. At the same time, his older brother, wrongly imprisoned for the long-ago murder, is freed, and one of his patients, an ex-cop, becomes obsessed by a phantom serial killer. So many bad things happen in Chaon’s beautifully written story that I thought at one point, “No one is getting out of here alive.”  Here’s horror.

 

 

 

 

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casebookMiles Adler-Rich, the likable teen narrator of Mona Simpson’s involving new novel Casebook (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) reminds me a bit of Harriet the Spy as he eavesdrops on the adults in his life, especially his mother Irene, “pretty for a mathematician.” Of course, he finds out more than he really wants to know, beginning with his parents’ divorce and their worries over him and his younger twin sisters. But Miles can’t stop spying, and with the help of his best friend Hector, graduates from rigging walkie-talkies and listening at open windows to tapping phones and rifling drawers. Their detective work intensifies when Irene becomes involved with the enigmatic Eli Lee, whose suspicious behavior leads Miles and Hector to a real private eye for investigative help. They also collaborate on a comic book, casting Eli as the chief villain and giving themselves superpowers to rescue incorrigible pets.

Framed as a memoir written by Miles in early 20s and footnoted by Hector, Casebook focuses on their middle and high school years in Santa Monica, the boys’ misadventures and the mystery of Eli. The conceit works for the most part; Simpson has an eye for the trenchant detail and knows her way around family dysfunction. The pacing’s uneven, and the supporting cast shadowy, but Miles’ perceptions ring true. Often funny, sometimes sad, Casebook makes for sweet dramedy.

shotgunNickolas Butler’s first novel Shotgun Lovesongs (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover) is itself a love song to small-town America and long friendships. It’s an ensemble piece, with the narrative fluidly moving back and forth in time and among five friends who grew up together in the Wisconsin farming community of Little Wing. Now in their early 30s, they’re facing that second coming-of-age where they’re starting to second-guess past choices and wondering what comes next. Hank runs his family farm with quiet competence and is a happily married husband and father. His wife Beth knows her high school sweetheart is a good man but a small piece of her heart still belongs to Leland, Hank’s best buddy who has found fame as an indie rocker. Despite his wandering, Lee keeps returning to Little Wing. Kip, a successful Chicago broker, is also back, ready to develop the closed mill into a commercial enterprise. Another friend, Ronny, was a rodeo cowboy before drink and a disabling accident sent him home to Little Wing, where his old pals can keep an eye on him at the VFW.

There are four weddings in the book, but the only funeral is for the lost dreams and missed opportunities among the group. Butler writes with lyric ease, but his characters are carrying around an awful lot of nostalgia to be so young. They may think it’s the Big Chill, but it’s really just an early frost.

sacredJulia Glass’s new novel And the Dark Sacred Night (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) takes its title from Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World.” It’s appropriate — the world Glass’s sympathetic characters inhabit is richly realized, full of both heartbreak and joy. Unemployed art historian Kit Noonan’s midlife search for his biological father animates the story, but he’s the least interesting of the main characters. The most inexplicable is his mother Daphne, who in this day and age still refuses to divulge the name of his father to Kit, although readers are soon privy to her youthful affair at a summer music camp with a character from Glass’s award-winning 2002 novel Three Junes.

Kit’s search for his father leads him first to Jasper, his former stepfather, a Vermont outdoorsman who eventually points him to Lucinda Burns, glimpsed in Three Junes. Lucinda, the patrician wife of a New England senator, is the heart of the book. As Kit’s paternal grandmother, she’s long been aware of his relationship to her family and the chance to finally acknowledge him allows her to reconcile past and present. It’s not necessary to have read Three Junes to appreciate this one, although its readers also will welcome the return of bookseller Fenno McLeod and the chance to catch up with him and his partner Walter. If only Kit was as faceted as his father . . .

byrdAddie Lockwood’s unexpected pregnancy is just the first surprise in Kim Church’s Byrd (Dzanc Books, paperback ARC), a beautifully written first novel about love, choice and chance. Growing up in a small North Carolina town in the 1980s, bookish Addie finds a soulmate in musician Roland Rhodes. They go their separate ways after high school, pursuing their own dreams with mixed results. When they briefly meet again in their early 30s, Addie becomes pregnant. She decides to have the baby — Byrd — and give him up for adoption without telling Roland. The secret will reveberate through their lives and those close to them.

Church tells her story, past and present, through vignettes, longer set pieces and several letters. The narrative seems a bit disjointed at first, but then Church’s seductive prose takes hold and doesn’t let go.

 

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