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Posts Tagged ‘novels’

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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dorothyYou just can’t keep a good ghost down, especially when she’s as smart and tart-tongued as Dorothy Parker. Ellen Meister resurrected the literary legend as a not-always-blithe spirit in 2013’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker and brings her back in a nifty follow-up Dorothy Parker Slept Here (Penguin/Putnam, digital galley). Mrs. Parker is still haunting the halls of the Algonquin Hotel, but she admits to being lonely since all her famous pals have elected to move on to the afterlife. She sets her sights on Ted Shriver, a famous writer brought down by a plagiarism scandal, who has holed up in the hotel with a brain tumor. If Mrs. Parker can get him to sign the magical guest book before he checks out, she’ll have a new drinking buddy. But bitter, irascible Shriver will have nothing to do with her or young TV producer Norah Wolfe, who desperately wants to interview him, unless, perhaps, they can help him with a few things. Shenanigans ensue in this appropriately witty and surprisingly sweet tale.

carefreeYou binge watch Girls on HBO and then you feel sort of sad. Yes, you laughed, but you also cringed at the awkward hook-ups, the intense friendships, the dramatic highs, the despairing lows. Being a veteran of Sex and the City, you also know that grown-up girls also have emotionally messy lives. The women in Katherine Heiney’s bouyant collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow (Knopf, digital galley) are more likely to be married, anxious and faithless, but they’re a fun, frank bunch. Here’s wife and mother Nina in “Blue Heron Bridge,” caught up in an affair: “Oh, it was horrible to have a teenager’s emotions and a forty year old’s body. It was humliating. It was depressing. It was degrading. It made her feel alive to the very tips of her toes.” Myra, who appears in several stories, juggles her married French boss with her longtime boyfriend and his family. Friends support one another through boyfriend crises in “The Dive Bar” and “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid.” In “Cranberry Relish,” a woman tries to sort out failed expectations. “Josie thinks that the problem with being a writer is that you miss a lot of your life wondering if the things that happen to you are good enough to use in a story, and most of the time they’re not and you have to make shit up anyway.”

actofgodJill Ciment’s Act of God: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is a stylish mix of comedy and tragedy that reminds me of a the old saying “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, etc., etc.” From the moment that 64-year-old identical twins Kat and Edith find the eerily glowing mushroom in their late mother’s Brooklyn townhouse, their lives, and those of their neighbors, quickly unravel. What turns out to be a peculiar toxic mold spawns one disaster after another, the contagion unwittingly spread by the twins, their actress landlady — who ignored Edith’s calls — and a runaway Russian au pair who was hiding in an upstairs closet. Soon, there are haz-mat units, condemned buildings, and community shelters for those who have nowhere else to go. It’s like one of those cheesy ’50 flicks where giant ants come out of the woodwork or maybe an episode of Dr. Who, but it’s also a scenario familiar from the wake of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ciment has a light touch, but the cumulative effect of her pop-culture satire is poignant and provocative.

mischiefStart your summer reading early with Susan Mallery’s The Girls of Mischief Bay (Mira, digital galley), although her three friends are hardly girls. Nicole is the youngest at 30, owns a Pilates studio in a seaside California town and is married to a wanna-be screenwriter. Almost 40, Shannon has a successful career in finance but a poor record with men and relationships. Recently turned 50, Pam is happily married but wonders if Botox might keep her more youthful. When life becomes an obstacle race for each of the three, they turn to one another for help over the hurdles. Nicole feels her husband has lost interest in her and their 5-year-old son. Shannon’s new guy comes with emotional baggage and shared custody of two kids. Pam’s life is upended by a tragedy out of the blue. The novel, the first in a new series, has more in common with the domestic drama of Mallery’s Blackberry Island trilogy than her Fool’s Gold series of romances but should satisfy readers of both with its credible characters coping with life’s changes.

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silverstarJeannette Walls writes memoirs (The Glass Castle) that read like novels and novels (Half-Broke Horses) that read like memoir. Her new book, The Silver Star (Scribner, digital galley) is billed as fiction, but the first-person narrator, 12-year-old Bean Holladay, sure resembles the young Walls of The Glass Castle. Living in California with her 15-year-old sister Liz, Bean is pragmatic about her emotionally unstable mother, Charlotte, a free spirit if there ever was one. When sometime-actress Charlotte fails to return home from one of her frequent out-of-town trips “to find herself,” Bean and Liz flee social services, buying bus tickets for Byerly, the Virginia hometown Charlotte fled long ago.
Widower Uncle Tinsley, an eccentric hoarder of sorts, is surprised by the girls’ arrival, but they soon settle into the dilapidated family home and the routines of the little mill town that the ’60s bypassed. Bean finds out about her dead father and makes friends. Lovely Liz has a harder time, especially when the bullying mill manager takes a special interest in her and Bean. Then Charlotte blows into town, planning to take the girls to New York City, and the girls’ loyalties are divided and tested.
Walls can set a scene, nail an emotion, spin a good story, but, despite references to integration and the Vietnam War, she casts Byerly in the sepia glow of older, simpler times. Plucky Bean comes off like Scout Finch’s cousin, and Charlotte’s ready-made for a Tennessee Williams play — or a Jeannette Walls’ memoir.
sisterlandThe premise of Curtis Sittenfeld’s new novel Sisterland (Random House, digital galley) sounds enticing — psychic identical twin sisters all grown up — but Kate and Vi turn out to be quite ordinary, at least from narrator Kate’s point-of-view. The devoted wife of a university professor and the mother of a toddler daughter and infant son, Kate wants to be as normal as possible. She’s frustrated that flamboyant bisexual Violet, who ekes out a living as a professional psychic, can’t be more like her. The two have gone in decidedly different directions since a middle-school slumber party, which is revealed in flashback along with other past turning points like starting school or going to different colleges.
In the here and now of 2009, Vi has announced to the world that an earthquake is going to devastate St. Louis, and Kate has a strange dream that supports Vi’s prediction. But Sittenfeld is less interested in the validity of ESP than in describing the fractures and fissures in Kate’s relationships with her nearest and dearest — Vi, her odd parents, husband Jeremy, neighbors Courtney and Hank.
The book is as intimately voiced and observed as Sittenfeld’s Prep or An American Wife, but Kate’s determination to sandpaper the edges of her character makes her dull as dishwater. I kept wondering how Vi would tell the story.

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Before I immerse myself in the 700 pages of Justin Cronin’s The Twelve, which pubs Tuesday, I thought I’d round up the rest of what I’ve been reading, going back aways.

I was surprised how much I liked Fiona Neill’s What the Nanny Saw (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley), which I thought was going to be a chick-lit beach book. Instead, the story of university student Ali Sparrow’s stint as nanny to an obscenely rich London family is an incisive and entertaining drama of the fall of the house of  Skinner during the 2008 financial crisis. Memorable characters include a controlling mom, a lusty grandfather, two troubled teens, and young twins whose “secret” language turns out to be Filipino. Ali becomes the family’s linchpin with a 360-degree view of goings-on, but how much will she eventually reveal to outsiders?

In Man in the Blue Moon (Tyndale House, e-book pdf), Michael Morris spins an engaging tale from his own family’s history in North Florida during World War I. Ella Wallace decides to risk the mortgage money paying freight charges on a box from the Blue Moon Clock Company, hoping it’s a grandfather clock that her errant husband ordered before he disappeared. She should be able to sell it for enough money to save her and her three sons from the poorhouse. Instead, long-lost cousin Lanier appears as her unlikely ally in keeping her beloved land from foreclosure at the hands of a scheming banker and his evangelical cohort who proclaims Apalachicola as the  original Garden of Eden. It may sound like a Southern tall tale, but Morris grounds it with his quirky yet credible characters and details of the hardscrabble times.

Jonathan Evison puts his indelible stamp on the lovable loser/road trip novel in The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, advance readers’ copy). Narrator Ben has lost his family, his job, his home, his hopes. Then he enrolls in a caretaking class run by a church and is assigned to Trev, a surly, horny 19-year-old with advanced muscular dystrophy. A project to make a map of backroads and wayside attractions turns into an actual journey, ostensibly to see Trev’s runaway dad. Fellow pilgrims include a chain-smoking, potty-mouthed teenage hitchhiker and a pregnant woman named Peaches. Interspersed chapters chart Ben’s memories of his own kids, whose fate is eventually revealed. The picaresque, poignant tale could have veered into sentimentality, but Evison’s humor lightens the burdens carried by his appealing characters.

Galilee Garner is the thorny flower in Margaret Dilloway’s The Care and Handling of Roses with Thorns (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley). A 36-year-old high school biology teacher with chronic kidney disease, Gal leads an isolated, highly structured life. She has one good friend, art teacher Dara, who often drives her to her regular dialysis appointments, and she has drafted one of her students to help her in her greenhouse, where she breeds hybrid roses for competition. But change is thrust upon her when her 15-year-old niece Riley arrives for an extended stay while her free-spirited mom jets to Hong Kong on business. At the same time, a fellow dialysis patient makes friendly overtures. But just as Gal begins to awkwardly relate to people, she suffers a setback where her health is concerned and a professional betrayal. It’s not the most subtle of stories, and Gal not the most  sympathetic character, but the details of rose growing prove fascinating, and Gal grows on you, too.

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