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Posts Tagged ‘summer reading’

Any other August, I’d have spent the last few weeks finishing up summer reading and maybe getting a head start on fall.  But 2020 continues to be a year like no other, and I haven’t been reading much, or writing at all, because who doesn’t want to move during a pandemic? Yes, after 21 years in the same place, I’m downsizing and moving to a downtown apartment. It’s only two miles away, but that makes no difference when packing up and clearing out clutter — and books. I’m going to have to leave behind my beautiful floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall bookshelves that my friend and former colleague Don Hey built in my den. I may cry.

This will be my last post for awhile while I actually move and settle in the new digs. But before I go, some thoughts on what I did read this summer and what you might want to read, too.

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill published a trifecta of winning novels by several of my favorite authors. Jill McCorkle’s affecting Hieroglyphics focuses on an elderly couple who have moved south from New England after many years and whose lives intersect with a hard-working single mother and her quirky son. All of these characters have been shaped by loss and grief, and McCorkle gracefully weaves in backstories and memories of how each has coped. It’s reflective rather than sad, and I found myself smiling in recognition. Some years ago, author Caroline Leavitt lapsed into a long coma after the birth of her son, and she reimagines that experience in her new novel With or Without You. Stella, a nurse, and Simon, a sessions musician, have been together for 20 years when Stella accidentally mixes up some meds and falls into a coma just as Simon is getting ready to tour with his band. Now he sits beside Stella’s hospital bed, stuck out of time, wondering if he’s missing his big break and finding support from Libby, a doctor and Stella’s best friend. When Stella finally wakes up, she’s unaware of Simon and Libby’s relationship, but she feels like a different person. Her old life and job no longer fit, and she has an amazing new talent for drawing and painting. Like Leavitt’s other novels, including Cruel Beautiful World and Pictures of You, this book is wonderfully written and psychologically astute. In The Lives of Edie Pritchard, Larry Watson is at his storytelling best as he depicts the title character at three points in her life. It’s set mostly in Montana, where readers first meet Edie, an unhappily married bank teller who wonders if she should have chosen her husband’s twin brother. Men are so caught up by Edie’s good looks that they discount her smarts and strength of character. Edie’s possessive second husband makes that mistake, too, and her teenage daughter resents her. Skip forward another 20 years, and it’s 2007. Edie is 64, dealing with a rebellious granddaughter who also has boy trouble, and also with a younger man who wants to control her. No way.

In crime fiction, James Lee Burke’s A Private Cathedral (Simon & Schuster, digital galley) adds to the Dave Robicheaux mythos as the detective and his buddy Clete Purcel step into the past with warring Louisiana crime familes, star-crossed lovers and an evil assassin with paranormal abilities. This is Burke’s 40th book, the 23rd in the Robicheaux series, and Burke’s lyricism makes for a fevered dream of a book as Dave confronts new loves and old demons. Newcomer Alex Paresi goes metafictional with The Eighth Detective (Henry Holt, digital galley), a clever homage to Golden Age mysteries that is intellectually engaging but emotionally flat. Years ago, Grant McCallister came up with a mathematical formula for detective stories and wrote seven short stories to prove his point. Now, book editor Julia Hart seeks out McCallister on a secluded Mediterranean island as her company prepares to republish the collection. As she goes over the stories with the writer, she notices some inconsistencies that need explaining — and thereby hangs the tale. In Denise Mina’s standalone, The Less Dead (Little, Brown, digital galley), Glasgow doctor Margo Dunlop, in search for her biological mother, connects instead with her aunt. A former drug addict and sex worker, Nikki tells Margo that her mother Susan was murdered shortly after Margo’s birth 30 years ago. But Nikki swears she knows the killer and wants Margo to help her get the goods on the former cop. Poor Margo — she’s mourning the recent death of her biological mother, is secretly pregnant and has an erratic best friend in an abusive relationship. Then she starts getting threatening letters.  Carl Hiaasen’s hilarious Squeeze Me (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) made me forget all about the misery of moving because I was too busy turning pages. Granted, fans of the current president might not like this particular mix of mystery and political satire, but the character known as Mastadon fits right in with Hiaasen’s merry band of misfits. There’s petite Palm Beach socialite Kiki Pew Fitzsimmons who goes missing during a fundraiser at Lipid House. There’s critter removal expert Angie Armstrong who gets the call to take out the 18-foot-Burmese python with a large lump in its stomach. There are a couple of feckless thieves that steal the frozen snake from Angie’s storage locker. There’s asylum-seeker Diego Beltran who picks up a pink pebble and then is accused of killing Kiki.  There’s the first lady called Mockingbird who is very close to a certain Secret Service agent. And there’s the weirdness that is Florida, Hiaasen-style. Winner winner, python dinner.

See you in September, or maybe October. There’s an avalanche of autumn books about to fall, including new titles from Bobbie Ann Mason, Alice Hoffman, Matt Haig, Anthony Horowitz, Sue Miller and Tana French. I can already tell you to keep a lookout for One by One by Ruth Ware and The Darkest Evening by Ann Cleeves. Such good books; they kept me from packing.

 

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Emma Straub’s new novel is as bright as a new copper penny, and you should pick it up immediately.  All Adults Here (Riverhead, e-galley) — the title is ironic — reminds us that “adulting” can be challenging at any age. Astrid Strick, a 68-year-old widow, gets a wake-up call when she witnesses an empty school bus run over a long-time acquaintance in their Hudson Valley town. She reappraises some of her past choices as a parent and decides to let her family in on a secret “because there are always more school buses.” Her kids have secrets, too, as does granddaughter Cecelia, who is 13 and comes to stay with Astrid after an incident at her New York City school. Cecilia’s new friend is August, who is thinking he might really be Robin. Straub is so good at depicting teenagers, and Cecelia and August are my favorite characters, along with middle daughter Porter, who has yet to tell her mother she’s pregnant via a sperm bank. Surveying herself in a mirror, she reassures herself that she is a “grown-ass woman.” So what if she’s still fooling around with her high school boyfriend, who is very much married with children. Straub writes with wry humor, and her ensemble slice-of-life narrative flows easily. Although each of the Stricks is idiosyncratic in their ambitions and regrets, they are every family with long memories of childhood roles and rivalries.

The first wave of beach books promises sun-kissed days and sandy toes. Mary Kay Andrews’ Hello, Summer (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) mixes small-time secrets, scandals, mystery and romance into an appealing froth with interesting undercurrents. When reporter Conley Hawkins’ exciting new job in D.C. ends before it’s even begun, she backtracks from Atlanta to stay with her grandmother in her sleepy hometown  And once again she’s working for her older sister at the struggling family weekly known for its old-timey gossip column, “Hello, Summer.” But then a local congressman and war hero dies in a single-car accident, and Conley’s investigative reporting skills kick in. No fake news here.

“Fake it till you make it.” Jennifer Weiner takes on social media big-time in Big Summer (Atria, e-galley). Plus-size Instagram influencer Daphne Berg is surprised when high-school frenemy Drue Cavanaugh asks her to be her maid-of-honor at her posh society wedding to a reality star on Cape Cod. Their public falling-out went viral years ago. Still, Daphne never could resist being in beautiful Drue’s orbit, and the wedding’s a chance to up her own media profile and gain new followers. The opulence of the pre-wedding festivities is indeed picture-perfect, and Daphne does her best to ignore the tensions among the bridal party. Then she finds a dead body in a hot-tub. Shades of a Susan Isaac novel — not a bad thing, just a bit jarring as Daphne goes all Nancy Drew. Big fun.

The sudden death of literary lion Bill Sweeney shocks his three grown daughters, bringing them home to Southport, Conn.  But another surprise awaits gallery owner Liza, artist Maggie and attorney Jill — there’s a fourth Sweeney sister. Reporter Serena Tucker recently took a DNA test that revealed Bill Sweeney is also her father, although she only knew him as the famous author who was a childhood neighbor. I kept thinking that I already had read Lian Dolan’s The Sweeney Sisters (William Morrow, ARC), or seen it as a TV movie, but it was just pleasantly familiar, right down to the reading of the will and the search for a missing manuscript. Dolan does a nice job sorting out the sisters and reconfiguring their relationships, but most of the drama is in the set up. No surprise: All’s well that ends well.

 

 

 

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Riley Sager dedicates his new killer thriller Lock Every Door (Penguin Dutton, digital galley) to Ira Levin, setting up apartment-sitter Jules Larsen in the Bartholomew, an ominous Manhattan high-rise. Out of a job and a boyfriend, Jules is delighted to stay in the gargoyle-studded building overlooking Central Park where her favorite girlhood novel took place. The rules are strict to protect the privacy of the wealthy residents, but it isn’t until fellow apartment-sitter Ingrid disappears that Jules begins to probe the Bartholomew’s sinister history. As with best-sellers Final Girls and The Last Time I Lied, Sager twists familiar tropes to keep readers guessing and reading. Pages fly by.

Megan Miranda (All the Missing Girls) also knows how to twist plots and play with memory and perception, as proven by The Last Houseguest (Simon and Schuster, digital galley). In the Maine resort town of Littleport, wealthy summer visitor Sadie Loman picks local girl Avery Greer to be her bestie, which is why Avery doesn’t believe Sadie committed suicide last summer. The narrative  hopscotches between past and present, as Avery, who works as a property manager for the Lomans, fends off suspicions that she was somehow involved in Sadie’s fatal fall from the cliffs. Miranda deftly depicts class tensions and the small-town dynamics of the summer season.

A female friendship is also at the center of Nancy Thayer’s Surfside Sisters (Ballantine, digital galley), but this is leisurely beach book, no murders involved. Successful novelist Keely Green is reluctant to return to Nantucket when her widowed mother becomes ill because it means seeing her one-time best friend Isabelle. Growing up, the two both dreamed of becoming writers, but a betrayal during college set them on different paths. Thayer’s linear narrative follows Keely as she overcomes past obstacles, mainly her family’s skidding finances, and confronts new ones, like the return of her longtime crush, Isabelle’s brother Sebastian.

Queen Bee (Morrow, digital galley) is another of Dorothea Benton Frank’s winning tall tales of Lowcountry South Carolina. On Sullivan’s Island, Holly McNee Jensen works part-time at the library, tends her beloved bees and immerses herself in the lives of next-door neighbor and single dad Archie and his two young sons. This helps her escape the endless demands of her hypochondriac mother, dubbed “Queen Bee” by Holly and her married sister Leslie, who returns home when her handsome husband decides he’s into cross-dressing. There’s high drama as Archie plans to marry a snob with no use for kids, Leslie and her headstrong mother head for Las Vegas, and Holly tells all to her bees, who weaponize. Queen Bee may be implausible, but it’s also sweetly funny.

 

 

 

 

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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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The books were strong this past month. Historical novels, family sagas, literary fiction, crime novels. You can call it summer reading. I call it heaven.

In The Flight Portfolio (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Julie Orringer artfully mixes fact and fiction, transporting readers to 1940 Vichy France, where journalist Varian Fry is working for the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission to get threatened European artists and intellectuals away from the Nazis to safety in America is complicated by the personal (the return of his Harvard lover Elliott Grant), the political (closed borders, collaborators, government interference) and the moral (who decides who is “worthy” of the committee’s meager resources). The sunny countryside and port cities teem with intrigue, danger and romance on a grand scale.

Elderly narrator Vivian Morris looks back fondly to 1940 New York City in Elizabeth Gilbert’s entertaining City of Girls (Riverhead Penguin, digital galley). At 19, Vivi’s talent for not attending classes at Vassar is matched by her skill at making dresses for her classmates. When she’s asked not to return, her wealthy parents ship her off to New York and her unconventional aunt Peg Buell, who runs a struggling theater specializing in musical comedy. Vivi quickly and happily loses her innocence in the theatrical milieu, consorting with showgirls and hitting the nightclubs, but her actions have devastating consequences when she becomes embroiled in a tabloid scandal surrounding the hit musical “City of Girls.” Redemption does not come easily, as the reality of war soon changes everything, but Vivi’s witty, confessional voice charms throughout.

There’s a midsummer dreamy feel to Leah Hager Cohen’s Strangers and Cousins (Penguin Riverhead) as relatives and guests gather at Walter and Bennie’s Rundle Junction home for the wedding of eldest daughter Clem. The narrative slips smoothly through the various characters’ heads and memories, quandaries and secrets. Frail, ancient Aunt Glad carries the physical and emotional scars of her involvement in a town tragedy when she was a child. Walter and Bennie’s harmonious life is about to be upended by the arrival in Rundle Junction of a community of Orthodox Jews eager to buy property, and by an unexpected but not unwelcome addition to the family. And mercurial Clem’s elaborate plans for her wedding are soon to be upstaged by her unconventional college friends and the antics of her younger siblings.

Julia Phillips’ haunting debut of crime and connection, Disappearing Earth (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), takes place on the desolate Kamchatka peninsula in northeastern Russia, where the landscape has been shaped by earthquakes and tsunamis. The baffling disappearance of two schoolgirls at the book’s beginning reverberates through the community over the next twelve months. In chapters titled simply “April” or “June,” Phillips deftly concentrates on those individuals affected by the presumed kidnapping, from the girls’ grieving mother, to the college-student daughter of a reindeer hunter, to a policeman’s wife on maternity leave. The links of loss and longing among the characters accumulate, and revelations at a summer solstice festival lead to an unexpected conclusion.

New additions to three ongoing detective series prove more than welcome. The Scholar, (Penguin, digital galley), Dervla McTiernan’s follow-up to last year’s The Ruin, is a complex police procedural that finds Galway’s Detective Cormac Reilly investigating a sticky hit-and-run at a university research center. Researcher Emma Sweeney, Reilly’s girlfriend, finds the body, believed to be Carline Darcy, the brilliant heir apparent to Ireland’s largest pharmaceutical company. Both academic and police politics play into the plot, and suspicion undermines Reilly’s relationship with both Emma and his colleagues. A third book is on the way.

In the first entry in Elly Griffith’s sterling Ruth Galloway series, 2009’s The Crossing Place, forensic anthropologist Ruth meets DCI Harry Nelson while investigating missing girls near the Norfolk fens. Now, in the 11th book in the series, The Stone Circle (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), Ruth and Nelson are working on another missing girl case with ties to the first. Of course, they’ve other ties in common, including a 7-year-old daughter conceived during a one-night stand. Nelson’s wife Michelle knows about Kate, but not their two grown daughters. Their discovery that Kate is their half-sister, plus Michelle’s surprise pregnancy, works into the new plot, which is already complicated enough. Series fans will appreciate the recurring characters and references to the past, but newcomers may want to start with The Crossing Place.

Anthony Horowitz is his usual clever self in The Sentence is Death (HarperCollins, digital galley), the second in the meta-mystery series featuring fictional PI Daniel Hawthorne and his sidekick, author Anthony Horowitz. The conceit, of course, is that the prolific Horowitz is taking time off from penning Foyle’s War screenplays and Alex Rider novels to play Watson to Hawthorne’s Sherlock and write about it, as he did in last year’s playful The Word is Murder. The case of a divorce lawyer bludgeoned by an expensive bottle of wine turns out to be quite tricky with suspects aplenty. Horowitz provides witty insider details about the film and publishing worlds, and he as self-promotional as Hawthorne is secretive. Jolly good fun.

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I raced through Chris Pavone’s clever first thriller, The Expats, when it came out in 2012 and wished then for a sequel, but his next two books, The Accident and The Travelers, had only tenuous ties to the first book. But The Paris Diversion (Crown Archetype, digital galley) is the knotty, twisted follow-up I wanted, with expats Kate (wife, mom, spy) and day-trader Dex — returning, only to have the past catching up with them big-time.  You don’t have to have read the The Expats, as long-ago events are briefly explained, but, really, you should. Otherwise, certain revelations might not hit you like a quick punch to the gut. Pavone ups the tension by having most of the narrative unfold during one day in tourist-packed Paris, where a suicide bomber plants himself and a briefcase in the courtyard of the Louvre. The city, wounded by previous terrorist acts, is nonetheless surprised, as are a rotating cast of characters: Kate, who was planning a dinner party, dons disguises and looks over her shoulder; Dexter tries to put together a mega-deal before the markets tumble; a corporate tycoon is whisked into hiding by his security deal; assorted assassins, spies and bad actors race through alleyways and the Metro. There will be blood. Things are not what they seem. More, please.

Before she was beach book queen Mary Kay Andrews, my pal Kathy Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity mystery series, so she usually includes a mystery subplot in her summery novels like Savannah Breeze and The High Tide Club.  It might be a scam, an unexpected inheritance, long-ago family secrets.  All of these, plus a cold case murder, figure in Andrews’ new charmer, Sunset Beach (St. Martin’s, ARC), which features down-on-her-luck Drue Campbell. After her mother’s death, Drue’s long-estranged father Brice gives her a job at his personal injury law firm, where his latest wife Wendy, who went to middle school with Drue, is the office manager. It’s pretty awful, but at least Drue can live in the run-down Florida beach house she inherited from her Cuban grandparents. She might even make enough money to renovate it, or at least put in AC. Cleaning out the attic, she stumbles on the cold-case disappearance of Colleen Hicks, which links to the days when her father was a beat cop. Drue can’t resist some sleuthing; she’s already looking into the death of a resort hotel housekeeper, whose mother and young daughter badly need insurance money. Drue’s varied attempts to access the resort in search of evidence make for entertaining set pieces, while flashbacks to 40-years-ago Florida add atmosphere and suspense. And just so you remember Sunset Beach is trademark Mary Kay Andrews, Drue also makes time for decorating with cast-off treasures, deals with family drama and finds a little romance. I see a sequel.

Sarah Blake’s The Guest Book (Flatiron Books, digital galley) is one of those sprawling, multi-generational family sagas that seems designed for long, lazy days in a hammock. The writing is so lovely that it almost lulls you into forgetting that you’re reading about some of the worst aspects of the so-called “best” people. The Miltons are wealthy, white, privileged. They own a small island off the coast of Maine, bought by banker Ogden in the depths of the Great Depression to help his young wife Kitty recover from a family tragedy. This is where the Miltons summer over the years, and the book skips around in time, from Ogden’s pre-war business interests in Germany and a fateful decision on Kitty’s part; to 1959, when their three children invite outsiders, including a Jewish banker and an African-American writer-photographer, to the island retreat for what should be a celebration; to the present, when Milton granddaughter and Kitty lookalike Evie and her cousins must decide the island’s future now that fortunes have dwindled and family secrets are about to be revealed. Blake weaves issues of class, race and religion into the involving narrative as the Miltons and their connections ambitiously embody the social history of America in the 20th century. I kept thinking I’d read most of it before in summer sagas of seasons past, such as Beatriz Williams’ A Hundred Summers or Anne Rivers Siddons’ Colony. That’s okay. What’s old is new again for summer 2019.

 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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It’s no secret that I spent my vacation reading assorted crime novels, chilling out in the summer heat.  Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf, digital galley) is both a Cold War spy tale and a contemporary murder mystery. In 1979 West Berlin, young CIA recruit Helen Abell is frustrated by an old boys’ club, relegated to watching over safe houses where field agents secretly meet their sources. Then one day, she inadvertently tapes a coded conversation between two unknown men, and is warned off by her older lover, an experienced agent. Returning to the safe house, she interrupts a vicious agent “Robert” sexually assaulting a young German woman, who later turns up dead. When Helen tries to implicate Robert in the crime, she becomes a target, but two other women in the CIA offer covert help. Fesperman splices this tense tale with one playing out 35 years later on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A farmer and his wife are shot in their bed, and their developmentally disabled son Willard is arrested. His older sister Anna refuses to believe her gentle brother guilty, and hires Henry Mattick, a former Justice Department investigator who just happens to be renting the house next door.  Their search for clues to Anna’s mother’s hidden past alternates with Helen’s spy adventures, the two narratives running on parallel tracks that inevitably converge. Fesperman (The Double Game, Lie in the Dark) knows his spy stuff, and Safe Houses is a clever, intelligent thriller with a couple of neat twists. I also like how the two stories echo one another. Why did Anna’s mother hang on to a tacky Paris snowglobe? It’s also a timely book, in light of the MeToo movement and the current swampy political scene. We all want a safe house.

Rosalie Knecht’s  wry Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House Books, digital galley) also is told in two alternating narratives of almost equal interest. Growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic mother, Vera Kelly has a rough time, separated from her best girlfriend and then deemed incorrigible and sent to reform school. Ten years later, she’s a fledgling CIA spy in Buenos Aires, pretending to be a student to blend in with campus radicals with supposed Soviet ties, as well as eavesdropping on government bureaucrats. But then she’s betrayed during a coup and forced into hiding, eventually fleeing the city. Her gritty coming-of-age in  New York is what brings her to the attention of the CIA, but her early years can’t really compete with her double-life exploits in Argentina. Throughout, however, Vera Kelly is a scrappy, resourceful outsider looking for a life in which she belongs.

Venice provides the atmospheric backdrop for the latest adventures of the intrepid Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad (Bantam/Random House, digital galley). The year is 1925, and Russell is on the trail of a friend’s aristocratic aunt, who recently vanished from the Bedlam lunatic asylum with her nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, is on a secret diplomatic mission to observe the rising Fascist scene for brother Mycroft.  Mingling on the Lido with the likes of society hostess Elsa Maxwell and composer Cole Porter leads to a locked island asylum, a Mussolini-backed conspiracy and a grand costume ball. Russell commandeers a gondola, and Holmes inspires a Porter classic. A good time is had by all, except the villains, of course.

 Gatsby meets Tom Ripley meets the movie Metropolitan in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Doubleday, digital galley), a cut-glass crystal tale of obsessive friendship. Louise is a poor aspiring writer when rich socialite Lavinia decides they’ll be new best friends. Before long, Louise is caught up in the endless party of Lavinia’s life, drinking champagne under the stars and deliberately ignoring signs that’s she’s just another plaything of Lavinia’s. Besides, Louise likes Lavinia’s money and all that it buys, from the clothes to the makeovers to the glam friends with names like Athena Maidenhead. Still, all this can only end in tears. The question is whose tears and just what will be recorded for posterity on social media. Louise or Lavinia? Which one is bad, mad and dangerous to know?

Maybe I’ve read too many boarding school/secret society novels, but Elizabeth Klehfoth’s All These Beautiful Strangers (HarperCollins, digital galleys) seems overly familiar. Charlotte “Charlie” Calloway’s mother Grace Fairchild vanished when she was seven, presumed to have run away from her difficult marriage to wealthy Alistair Calloway. Rumors that Alistair might have had something to do with Grace’s disappearance were quickly squashed by his influential family. But when Charlie, now 17, begins the initiation process to become an “A,” the secret society at her New England boarding school, she discovers that the A’s history intersects with her own. Flashbacks in Grace’s voice and then Alistair’s reveal Charlie is on the right track, although her quest to discover the truth is hindered by the senior As’ sway over the school — and some ponderous and improbable plotting on the author’s part.

If you liked Riley Sager’s Final Girls — which I did, mostly — you’ll be pleased with The Last Time I Lied (Dutton, Penguin). I was, mostly. Painter Emma Davis is haunted by her short stint at Camp Nightingale 15 years ago. Her three cabin mates disappeared one night, never to be seen again, and the camp had to close. Now she paints her lost friends’ likenesses in every large canvas, but then hides the girls with brushstrokes of dark forest scenes. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, decides to reopen the camp for scholarship students, she hires Emma as a painting counselor — and puts her in Dogwood Cabin with three teenage campers. Eventually, they also disappear, and Emma’s truthfulness and mental health, then and now, is called into question. Flashbacks to her first stay at Nightingale and many games of Two Truths and A Lie show Emma to be a most unreliable narrator. Sager strikes some false notes with his summer camp setting, which is more like the camps I knew back in the day than those circa 2003. One of his supposedly big revelations is no surprise, but a later one is, as was the case with Final Girls. In the end, Sager proves adept with campfire smoke and mirrors.

 

 

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I did a lot of my summer reading back in the spring when I read and reviewed 16 books for The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Now that they have been published in the paper and online, I can write about them here and on Goodreads. My stand-alone review of Anthony Horowitz’s clever The Word is Murder ran this past Sunday, June 9, https://tinyurl.com/yb8j7a4o  The others were part of book editor Laurie Hertzel’s June 3 summer reading package, https://tinyurl.com/ycgsa9au

I wrote a full review of Kate Christensen’s  July novel The Last Cruise, short reviews of Silas House’s Southernmost, Thrity Umrigar’s The Secrets Between Us, Tatjana Solis’ The Removes and Leah Franquis’ America for Beginners; and mini-reviews of 10 more. (I’m posting all the covers.) It’s a diverse group of novels that Laurie and I came up with after much discussion, but it doesn’t include several of the season’s most anticipated books — Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, for example, or Lauren Groff’s Florida — because they’ll be covered by Laurie and other reviewers as the summer progresses. I’ll be blogging about them, too, in the near future.

It’s no secret that I liked all 15, some a bit more than others, but all worth reading. Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand affirms her reputation for riveting psychological suspense. Umrigar’s is a sequel to her best-selling The Space Between Us, although you don’t have to have read the first book to be drawn into this story of friendships forged in the Mumbai slums. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s first novel about a Muslim-American family, A Place for Us, is winning deserved raves from critics. Solis’ The Removes is an historical novel about the American West, while Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire explores the aftermath of the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed more than 100 of Atlanta’s leading citizens. Southernmost immediately plunges readers into a devastating flood in Tennessee before heading for Key West. So, plenty of pages to read this summer. Take my word for it.

 

 

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I think we’re going to need a bigger tote. Yes, tote as in tote bag to stow all this season’s beach books.  The first wave arrives this month so you can get a headstart on summer.

Anchoring my haul is the highly anticipated The High Tide Club (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) by Mary Kay Andrews, who when she isn’t wearing her beach book hat is my pal Kathy Trocheck. I’ve gotten used to her breezy novels (Savannah Blues, Beach Town) welcoming summer, but last year she skipped writing a novel to produce The Beach House Cookbook, full of scrumptious recipes. But now she’s back, offering a substantive feast of a novel spiced with intrigue, secrets, drama and romance. It’s scrumptious, too.

Readers of Save the Date may remember Brooke Trapnelle as the runaway bride who literally climbed a tree as part of her escape. In The High Tide Club, Brooke moves to the forefront, a single mom lawyer in the Georgia coastal town of St. Ann who is hired by 99-year-old Josephine Bettandorf  Warrick. The eccentric heiress wants Brooke to help her save Talisa, her 20,000-acre island estate with its crumbling pink wedding cake of a mansion, from being taken over by the state and turned into a park. She also needs Brooke to track down the heirs of the three women who were once her best friends — Ruth, Millie and Varina — back in 1941. Josephine says she needs to make amends but won’t say for what.

By flashing back to 1941 every now and then, Andrews hints at some of the secrets the past is holding, like an unsolved murder and divisions of race and class. But Brooke has a lot on her plate in the present, too, coordinating a reunion among women who have never met, untangling family histories and mysteries, taking care of rambunctious toddler son Henry, all the while trying to do her best for Josephine and Talisa. There’s a sudden death, a visit to a Savannah orphanage, a showdown in a lighthouse. You may pick up on some plot twists, and others may take you by surprise. Either way, The High Tide Club is a satisfying saga, just what the summer ordered.

The title of Nancy Thayer’s A Nantucket Wedding (Ballantine, digital galley) is a bit of a misnomer, not that it doesn’t take place on Nantucket, and not that there isn’t a wedding. But the warmhearted story of blended families is mostly about the summer before the planned fall wedding between Alison and David, both of whom have been married before. They also have grown children and young grandchildren meeting for the first time. Alison’s daughters Jane and Felicity are chalk and cheese, although both have workaholic husbands. Jane is just as absorbed in her legal career as Scott but has started to regret their mutual decision not to have kids. Easy-going Felicity wishes Noah paid as much attention to her and their two kids as his start-up business and efficient “work wife.” Stirring the pot is David’s handsome son Ethan, who can’t help being a playboy flirt. His sister Pamela is intent on taking over her father’s business but being pregnant again wasn’t in her plans. Although Alison tries to ease  tensions by being the perfect hostess and preparing delicious meals at David’s luxurious island home, she’s feeling overwhelmed while still getting to know her husband-to-be. Thayer understands the way families work — and don’t work — and if her resolutions tend toward the optimistic, that’s ok. It’s summer. On Nantucket. Go with it.

A wedding also is in the offing in By Invitation Only (Morrow, digital galley), Dorothea Benton Frank’s latest Lowcountry tale, available May 15. Shelby Cambria is the only child of a wealthy Chicago couple, while her fiance Fred’s mother Diane runs a South Carolina peach farm with her brother Floyd. Both MOG Diane and MOB Susan are guilty of making stereotypical assumptions about the other, and Frank has some fun alternating the narrative between them. Snobby Susan turns up her nose at the down-home barbecue Diane and Floyd host to celebrate the engagement, while Diane feels out of place among Susan’s society friends at a Chicago fete. Miscommunications and misunderstandings ensue, enhanced by an unexpected romance and a stunning scandal. RSVP just for the details of food and drink, whether your taste runs to caviar and champagne or peaches and a pig-pickin’.

Another of my favorite Lowcountry authors, Mary Alice Monroe, arrives at the party on May 22 with Beach House Reunion (Gallery Books, digital galley), the fifth in her occasional series about Primrose Cottage and the Rutledge family. (The book that started it all, The Beach House, has been adapted for television by the Hallmark Channel and is airing this month). In the new book, Cara Rutledge is now in her 50s and returns to the Isle of Palms with her adopted one-year-old daughter. She’s joined by her niece Linnea, a recent college graduate eager to get away from the restrictions of her proper Charleston upbringing. Ever since family matriarch and “turtle lady” Lovie lived at Primrose, the unpretentious beach house has been a retreat for troubled souls and a way station for those unsure of what’s next. Once again, the life cycle of the sea turtles reflects the characters’ search for home.

 Judy Blundell’s first novel The High Season (Random House, digital galley, May 22) proves once again that the rich are different from you and me, and it’s not just that they have more money. For community museum director Ruthie, the price for living on the North Fork of Long Island is renting out for the summer the big house she shares with her ex-husband and teenage daughter during the winter. This summer, though, wealthy widow Adeline and her spoiled stepson Lucas have taken the house for the entire season, and the Hamptons crowd “discovers” the North Fork. Everything changes for the village and Ruthie, who soon discovers her so-called friends are a fair-weather bunch of social climbers and back stabbers. I was so happy to close the book on them.

By contrast, Wendy Francis’ The Summer Sail (Touchstone, digital galley) is the pleasant story of three college roommates on a cruise to Bermuda. Abby, who is paying for the trip, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with professor husband Sam and their teenage sons. Magazine editor Caroline is hoping her longtime beau Javier will propose. Schoolteacher and single mom Lee wants to know why her college student daughter Lacey is being a brat. Actually, Lacey has a secret, and Abby has an even bigger one, so all is not smooth sailing. But pretty much.

Remember the women who renovated a Gulf Coast mansion in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road and then got their own reality TV show in subsequent books in the series? They’re back in Best Beach Ever (Berkley, digital galley, May 22), and once again they’re shoring one another up in the face of adversity. They’ve lost their TV show, Do Over, apparently for good this time, have rented out the renovated Bella Flora so as not to lose it, and have moved into cottages at the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club. Nikki is struggling with her young twins; Maddie is coping with her rock star boyfriend’s resurrected celebrity; Avery is avoiding commitment; Kyra is trying to keep her son out of the Hollywood spotlight; and Bitsy is contemplating revenge. It helps if you’ve read the other books, hardly a chore considering Wax’s sure touch with matters of home and heart.

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