Posts Tagged ‘Robert Goolrick’

If reading were an Olympics event, I think I could qualify in fiction. Seems like I’ve been in training the last few months, racing through one novel after the next. As we like to say, “So many books, so little time.” Now the day of reckoning has arrived — writing about what I’ve read.

My favorite book of the moment, the one I keep recommending to friends, is Jess Walter’s Beautiful Ruins (HarperCollins, library hardcover). It’s a wonderfully non-linear tale of love, coincidence and fate that spans 50 years and hopscotches from a coastal village in Italy to a studio set in Hollywood, with stops in Rome, Edinburgh, London and the Pacific Northwest. It begins in 1962 with a handsome innkeeper and an American starlet, who believes she is dying, and branches out to include a veteran film producer and his young assistant, an aspiring scriptwriter, a would-be novelist, an aging rocker, and one very real British movie star. Several of these characters appear and reappear at different points in their lives, and the sprightly narrative includes their various creative efforts — an excerpt from a memoir, the synopses for a movie about the Donner Party, the first chapter of a World War II novel. I sprinted to the end to find out what happened, then went back and marveled at how Walter tied it all together. Bravo!

Silent screen star vamp Louise Brooks plays a supporting role in Laura Moriarty’s entertaining The Chaperone (Penguin, digital galley via NetGalley). The star, however, is 36-year-old Cora Carlisle, a proper Kansas matron, who agrees to chaperone the teenage Louise on a trip to New York City  from Wichita in 1922. The five weeks Cora spends trying to keep an eye on the beautiful, headstrong Louise changes Cora’s own life as she finds out more about her orphan-train parentage and embarks on a passionate affair. The summer’s reverberations continue when Cora returns to Wichita and challenges the conventions of the day. Having lived in Wichita once upon a time, I enjoyed the local color, as well as the Jazz Age atmosphere in the big city.

Also charting changing times is Liza Klaussman’s first novel, which has a striking cover and an alluring title, Tigers in Red Weather (Little Brown, digital galley via NetGalley). Lovely Nick and her cousin Helena spent their summers growing up on Martha’s Vineyard at the family estate, Tiger House, but go their separate ways at the end of World War II. Helena is off to Hollywood and marriage to older movie hanger-on, while Nick is reunited with her handsome soldier husband, Hughes, returning from war.  Some years later, the disappointed cousins return to Tiger House with their children, whose discovery of a murdered maid brings to light old secrets, desires and jealousies.  Klaussmen deftly handles five points of view to tell an involving story.

Assorted narrators and dysfunctional families feature in both Mark Haddon’s The Red House (Knopf, digital galley via NetGalley) and Maggie Shipstead’s Seating Arrangements (Knopf,  library hardcover). Both, too, have well-worn premises. Haddon’s book focuses on a well-to-do British doctor, his new wife and teenage stepdaughter vacationing with the less-affluent family of his estranged sister. The set-up guarantees conflict, and The Red House has its moments, but Haddon distances his characters from readers with his scattershot, impressionistic set pieces and with the characters’ attachment to iPods, the Internet, etc. Personal connection goes missing.

Shipstead parks her WASPy New Englanders on an island off the coast of Maine for a lavish family wedding. Perspectives shift among the 59-year-old father of the bride, who yearns for membership in the local club as well as the attention of a nubile bridesmaid; the sister of the bride, recently rejected by the son of a neighboring family; the long-suffering mother of the bride; and an old school friend of the bride, Dominque, who casts an outsider’s sardonic eye on the habits of the tribe. Embarassing misbehavior ensues. Although well-written, the whole comes off like a summer chick flick. I’d cast Steve Martin as the FOB.

I’ve read more, but I’m running out of energy if not opinions. A stranger comes to town in Robert Goolrick’s Heading Out to Wonderful (Algonquin Books, review copy), which is as wonderful in its way as Goolrick’s book-club favorite A Reliable Wife. Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley via NetGalley) is the offbeat tale of  Sunny, a pregnant astronaut’s wife hiding her baldness under a blonde wig and coping with an autistic son and a dying mother. Then Sunny’s wig comes off during a car accident, and her rocket scientist husband’s flight to the moon runs into problems, and Sunny comes to understand that being “normal” doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of things. Finally, as much as I liked Glen Duncan’s The Last Werewolf, I didn’t care for — and did not finish — the sequel, Talulla Rising (Knopf, digital galley via NetGalley). Too much graphic werewolf stuff this time around.

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I didn’t make a year-end list of recommendations for 2009 because I was too busy trying to get this blog going. (And it was the holidays, too). But now several of my favorite books from last year are out in paperback. I see that that they are all mysteries of one kind or another, but each is so different from another. Still, they all surprise.

When Will There Be Good News?  by Kate Atkinson (Little, Brown): A great title for a great literary mystery that begins with a scene of shocking violence in the English countryside, then skips ahead 30 years to catch up with the 6-year-old witness and survivor. Her happy life intersects in unusual ways with a cast of well-drawn characters, including motherless mother’s helper Reggie, police inspector Louise Monroe and the always intriguing detective Jackson Brodie.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley (Random House): Agatha Christie meets Harriet the Spy in the personage of 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, who as an aspiring chemist has a familiarity with plants, potions and poisons. But her experiments with a rash-inducing face cream for her older sister can’t compete with her discovery of  a dying stranger in the garden. When her father, the stamp-collecting Colonel, is implicated in the man’s murder, Flavia is not above picking locks, eavesdropping on her elders and figuring out clues, including a dead bird on the doorstep. Clever girl! 


The Scarecrow by Michael Connelly (Grand Central Publishing): This sequel to The Poet, one of the best serial killer novels ever, finds LA Times investigative reporter Jack McEvoy forced to not only take a buy-out but also to show the ropes to his attractive rookie replacement. The two think they’ve found a good story when a drug-dealing teen supposedly confesses to a horrific murder, but that’s just the beginning of the bloodletting as Connelly unravels a twisty tale that also pays homage to the struggling daily newspaper industry and its ink-stained wretches. Give this to your favorite reporter, or former reporter as the case may well be.

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill): In chilly 1907 Wisconsin, a wealthy widower sends for a mail-order bride, “a reliable wife.” But what he gets is a woman with her own secret agenda — and he knows it. “This begins in a lie,” he says. More lies follow, as does treachery and desire in a downright shivery novel. A good winter’s tale. 



The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton (Atria/Simon & Schuster): Combination family saga and English Gothic, Morton’s follow-up to the very good The House at Riverton reveals its secrets slowly. On her 21st birthday, Nell learns that her Australian parents adopted her as a 4-year-old left behind on a ship from England in 1913. No one ever claims the child with the small suitcase containing a few anonymous items and a book of fairy tales. Eventually, Nell travels to England’s Cornish coast and Blackhurst Manor in quest of her true identity. But it is left to her granddaughter Cassandra to finally link Nell to the mysterious Montrachet family, “the forgotten garden” and the enchanting book.

Open Book: I received a review copy of The Good Wife from the publisher, checked out The Scarecrow from the library, and bought copies of the other three.

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