Posts Tagged ‘Tana French’

I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 


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tresspasserThis time last week I was reading up a storm. That’s because Hurricane Matthew was knocking on the door, and my action plan called for a flashlight, batteries and books. (Also chocolate, but that’s another story). So, while the wind whipped the trees outside and the rain went sideways, I read and read, and then I read some more.

Like Tana French’s previous five novels in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser (Penguin, digital galley) is wonderfully immersive. Detective Antoinette Conway, who appeared in The Secret Place, takes the lead this time, telling how she and partner Steve Moran catch what appears to be a slam-dunk case of domestic murder on a frozen January dawn. Aislinn Murray, 26, looks like Dead Barbie lying on her sitting room floor, the dinner she was cooking for her new beau, Rory Fallon, still on the stove. A mild-mannered bookseller, Rory is the prime suspect, even though he insists Aislinn never answered the door when he arrived for dinner. And he sticks to this story despite intense interrogation by Conway and a more experienced detective, Breslin, brought in on the case by the chief. Conway feels pressured by Breslin to arrest Rory, even though the initial investigation turns up little evidence and a suspicion that more was going on in Aislinn’s life than her new fellow. Or is Conway, the only woman on the squad and carrying a chip on her shoulder the size of an oak tree, just being paranoid? How much does her past shape her perspective? Layered like a fancy cake, The Trespasser is a classic case of misdirection and deceit encased in a police procedural. In a recent New York Times story, French said she loved “character-based books with beautiful writing, plenty of atmosphere, secrets and mysteries.” Me, too, which is why I love Tana French.

daisyAnother writer who can make me forget the outside world is Sharon Bolton, who also has written as S.J. Bolton. The suspense is so intense in her Lacey Flynt series that I have to fight the urge to skip to the end of a book. Daisy in Chains (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a stand-alone, but it also left me breathless trying to figure out who was playing who in a very high-stakes game. Hamish Wolfe is a handsome, charming surgeon imprisoned as a serial killer. Maggie Rose is a lawyer and true-crime author who has made a reputation overturning killers’ convictions. Hamish has always proclaimed his innocence, before and after trial, and his mother and a small group of odd followers beg Maggie to take his case. Against the advice of a friendly police detective, Maggie agrees to meet Hamish in prison. It’s an unnerving experience, but Maggie is intrigued enough to do some more research on the lonely, overweight women who fell victim to a killer who disposed of their bodies in treacherous caves. Bolton intersperses the narrative with letters, police documents, e-mails, excerpts from Maggie’s drafts for a book. Clues point one way, and then another, and then another. Resist the urge to flip to the end. Expect the unexpected. Keep calm and keep reading.

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bookxmasBrowsing through the year-end “best” lists, mostly I see all the books I have not read. This is not unusual — I don’t read as much or as widely as when it was my job. Now I have the luxury of time and choice, including rereading older books. But I have spotted some of my new favorites on others’ lists: the provocative Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the fantastic The Magician’s Land by Lev Grossman, the latest crime novels from Tana French, Megan Abbott and Laura Lippman. Still, while I liked Anthony Doerr’s historical novel  All the Light We Cannot See, which is at the top of numerous lists, I didn’t love it, not the way I loved Ward Just’s American Romantic, for example, or Sadie Jones’ Fallout.

Reading is such a subjective pleasure. I enjoy recommending books I’ve enjoyed or I wouldn’t continue writing this blog (going on five years, folks), but I don’t expect everyone to like everything I like. How boring would that be? I am gratified, though, when a friend thanks me for giving her a copy of  The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, which she hadn’t heard of but liked a lot. It’s fun, too, to exchange a virtual high-five with another blogger over Sarah Waters’ atmospheric The Paying Guests.  I pore over book lists all the time in search of titles I might want to read. The year-end round-ups are icing on the cake.

luckyusSo, my TBR/Dear Santa list is long and getting longer. David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks. Richard Ford’s Let Me Be Frank with You (I’ve been crushing on Frank Bascombe since The Sportswriter). Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things. Celeste Ng’s Everything I Want to Tell You. Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke’s The Cinderella Murder. Already in hand are Michael Connelly’s Burning Room, Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress, Christopher Fowler’s Bryant & May and the Bleeding Heart, Delia Sherman’s Young Woman in a Garden: Stories. And I’m about a third of the way through Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl because as much as I like her confessional essays, I can only take them in small doses.

This TBR list doesn’t include all the ARCs and digital galleys of books to be published in 2015. Yes, I’ll start summer reading this winter. Lucky me.

Which brings me to Amy Bloom’s wonderful whirligig of a novel, Lucky Us (Random House), which came out the end of July when I was learning to walk on my new hip. My digital galley expired long ago, so I checked it out of the library a couple weeks ago. It was on some best-of-summer lists, and it has one of my favorite covers of the year. But it’s Bloom’s picaresque tale of two half-sisters, Iris and Evie, during the Depression and World War II that makes it one of my 2014 favorites. The plot pops with surprises, the setting shifts from the Midwest to Hollywood to Brooklyn to wartime London, and the cast — the sisters, their con-man father and the flamboyant friends who become part of their makeshift family — is neon-colored. I think you’ll like it.

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secretplaceTell me a story. Tell me a lie. Find me the truth.  Tana French is a terrific storyteller, and in the fifth in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Secret Place (Viking Penguin, digital galley), the detectives looking for the truth about a murdered teen face a school full of accomplished liars. The teenage girls at posh St. Kilda’s lie to their parents, their teachers, the police, their classmates and even their closest friends. They withhold information. They embroider events. They revise history. They make things up. It’s a matter of self-preservation, because as good as they are at lying, they are even better at keeping secrets. But for how long?

More than a year after the body of Chris Harper, a popular student at a neighboring boys’ school, is found on the grounds of St. Kilda’s, someone anonymously posts a photograph of Chris on a confessional bulletin board with the caption, “I know who killed him.” Holly Mackey, the 16-year-old daughter of  homicide detective Frank Mackey, surreptitiously takes the photo not to her da but to Stephen Moran, a cold case squad detective she met several years ago during an investigation. (Frank Mackey was the featured character in French’s third book Faithful Place, where Holly and Moran had secondary roles.)

Although the elder Mackey eventually makes a memorable entrance in The Secret Place, this story belongs to Moran and the original detective on the Harper case, the chip-on-her-shoulder Antoinette Conway, and to Holly and her classmates. French  structures the book from the alternating perspectives of the girls in the months preceding and following Chris’s death and that of Moran, who narrates his and Conway’s 36-hour investigation at the school. Whether writing lyrically of past events or detailing the intimacy of the present, French is spot-on at capturing the volatility of teenage friendships and romances, the hothouse aura of hormones and peer pressure. She also captures the conflicted emotions of the detectives, battling their own insecurities. Who exactly is playing who?

Moran and Conway focus their attention on eight boarding students allied in two groups of four. Holly and her three friends are closer than sisters, sharing an almost mystical bond that makes them swear off boyfriends in favor of female empowerment. Their classmates find them weird, especially the four “Daleks” headed by mean girl Joanne. The tension between the two groups is palpable, especially after it emerges that Chris had romanced at least two girls among them, passing out burner cell phones for one-on-one communication. But the sweetness of first love is tinged by betrayal, then blotted by murder.

The Secret Place is long, complex and wonderfully immersive. It reads slowly in the beginning as the characters are sorted out, and the pace lags whenever the detectives must decipher the teens’ endless texts and annoying slang. But French’s an astute psychologist, maintaining suspense throughout as to the identity of  the “Mystery Girl.” It’s no secret that I’ll read anything she writes.




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I have a doozy of a book hangover, the definition of which I posted on Facebook last week: “Inability to start a new book because you are still living in the last book’s world.”

The culprit this time is Tana French’s new novel, Broken Harbor (Viking Penguin, digital gally via NetGalley). Like French’s previous three books (In the Woods, The Likeness, Faithful Place) featuring a member of the Dublin Murder Squad, it provides addictive pyschological suspense framed as police procedural.

Forget the Florida heat; I’m still chilled by the cold wind whipping through the Irish seaside development dubbed “Brianstown,” although the old name of Broken Harbor would be more appropriate. Abandoned by the contractor during the recession, it’s more a ghost town with its half-built homes and weed-choked lots. The residents who remain in their dream homes paid more for them than they’re now worth, not that anyone is buying these days. Plus there’s blood splattered all over the Spain family kitchen, where father Patrick was stabbed to death and wife Jennifer critically injured. Upstairs, kids Emma and Jack are dead in their beds.

Veteran detective Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy and his rookie partner, Richie Curran, catch the career-building case much to Kennedy’s satisfaction, although he has a past with Broken Harbor from boyhood vacations spent there with his family. As he and eager Richie puzzle over the secrets of the Spain house — curious holes punched in the walls, oddly placed baby monitors and video cameras, the contents of the computer used by laid-off Patrick — the gory headlines out of Broken Harbor further unhinge Kennedy’s mentally unstable younger sister Dina. She begs him to stay off the case, but he’s busy questioning the Spains’ family and friends, as well as their resentful neighbors, waiting for Jennifer to wake up in the hospital.

French is a pro with hints, clues and twists. A peeping Tom, an old photograph, a child’s drawing of a dark something in a tree. All play into a troubling mystery whose menace grows with each passing page. Sure, solving the Spain case could make Kennedy’s career. But it also could bury him. Shiver.

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I was going to wait and save this book as part of a mystery round-up, but then I realized it would be a crime to wait. It’s not that often anymore that I sit down with a book and read it start-to-finish, reluctant to break for meals or other distractions. Thankfully, I finished Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones before Downton Abbey started Sunday evening.

The novel’s set in 1980s England, where private investigator Ray Lovell wakes up in a hospital partly paralysed and fuzzy about the car crash that landed him there. He’s having trouble discerning between memories and dreams — nightmares, really — and so thinks farther back to when Leon Wood hired him to find his missing daughter, Rose, who married into a Gypsy family seven years ago and then disappeared.

Ray doesn’t like missing girl cases (the reason will eventually be revealed), but he’s half-Romany and familiar with the travelers’ culture, although he grew up in “bricks.” The Jankos are a traditional, nomadic  family, living in caravans parked at sites across the English countryside.

J.J. Smith, who narrates alternating chapters, is a 14-year-old member of the small Janko clan, the youngest except for his 6-year-old cousin, Christo, disabled by a mysterious inherited disease and son of the runaway Rose and husband Ivo.

As Ray discovers and J.J. reveals, the Jankos are a historically unlucky bunch at life and love. That they also have dark secrets, even from one another, is no surprise.

I guessed most of the plot twists early on, but that’s what I do. Having a good idea of what was going to happen didn’t stop me from the pleasures of Penney’s atmospheric, myth-tinged narrative. Her writing reminds me a bit of Tana French, who has blurbed the book in glowing terms. She also warns that “you will not get anything else done till you finish the last page of this book.”

My sentiments exactly.

Open Book: I won an ARC of Stef Penney’s The Invisible Ones (Putnam) in a publisher-sponsored contest for Shelf Awareness readers. I count myself lucky indeed, and now I’m going to find a copy of Penney’s first novel, The Tenderness of Wolves.

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I’m not ready to close the book on 2010, or any other year for that matter. Perusing others’ year-end best lists, I’m gratified to see many of my own favorites (Tana French’s Faithful Place, Dennis Lehane’s Moonlight Mile, Emma Donoghue’s Room) and that President Obama is reading John le Carre and David Mitchell. But mostly I see all the books I’ve read but still haven’t written about, plus all the ones I want to read, including the lovely stack from Santa and friends.

 Just yesterday I finished Peter Robinson’s Bad Boy, which was very good, and came out six months ago. It’s the 19th in the Inspector Alan Banks series, which is hard to believe. Was In a Dry Season really 10 books back? I’d like to reread it if I can find my copy. I’m always looking for books lost in my own house, and while searching for them, I inevitably turn up others I’d like to reread — or never read in the first place. A constant chorus seems to emanate from the shelves and stacks: Pick me! I’m next! Over here!

I’m on vacation at my mom’s but can’t escape the books begging for attention. In fact, my bed is shoved up against a bookcase on one side, and I fall asleep — and wake up — eye-to-eye with a shelf of Maeve Binchy novels, a couple of Barbara Kingsolvers and some Tony Hillermans. All read and read again, still enticing. I turn my head, and the TBR stack of new volumes threatens to topple off the nightstand.

Susan Hill understands. The prolific British author, best known forThe Woman in Black — although I love her Simon Serrailler crime series — also loses books in her house. It’s why she wrote Howards End is on the Landing: A Year of Reading from Home. Looking for one elusive volume, she turned up a  dozen more she’d forgotten about. So, swearing off new books for the most part and curtailing her use of the internet, she decided to “repossess” her own books. She writes:

“A book which is left on a shelf is a dead thing but it is also a chrysalis, an inanimate object packed with the potential to burst into new life.”

Her books also turn out to be a map of her own life, and her reading journey becomes a memoir. For fellow bibliophiles, the result is as hard to resist as the title — charming, anecdotal, opinionated. The temptation to quote is endless. “No matter what the genre, good writing tells.” And, “Ah here is Muriel Spark, sharp as a pencil, cool, stylish.”

She is talking about Sparks’ novels and stories, but Hill has led a literary life, and her descriptions of her encounters with older, famous writers are just as pointed. Edith Sitwell is haughty and terrifying, but the “small man with thinning hair and a melancholy mustache” who accidentally drops a book on her foot in the London Library offers “a small flurry of exclamations and apology and demur.” As she returns the book, she finds herself looking into the watery eyes of an elderly E.M. Forster. “He seemed slightly stooping and wholly unmemorable and I have remembered everything about him for nearly 50 years.”

She notes that knowing about a writer’s life is rarely necessary to appreciate their works but makes an exception, at least for herself, where Dickens and the Brontes are concerned. As for her own life, she has published books by other authors and found it an enjoyable sideline. She loves the feel and shape of books, the smell of them, the sound of pages being turned. She’ll put money on books — real books, printed and bound — being around as long as there are readers.

When I started this blog almost a year ago, I had the ambitious idea of giving away at least one of my old books for every new one I brought home. I would even chronicle this pruning of my collection in occasional posts, “Going, going, gone.” I think I did this twice before realizing the futility of my donating books or releasing them into the wild in any organized fashion. I always have a give-away box going, but it contains mostly recent acquisitions in which I’ve lost all interest. Rarely can I survey my shelves, stacks, piles, bins, carry-alls, table-tops, etc. and see a book I think I might not want to re-read — or get around to reading for the first time. Just reading Hill’s memoir has reminded me of at least half a hundred of which I already have copies.

So that’s my plan for 2011. Not to stop reading new books; I know my limits — as well as what’s on the horizon that looks wonderful. I’m already counting the months — eight — when the sequel to Lev Grossman’s  The Magicians is supposed to be published. But I am going to make a concerted effort to “repossess” the books I have, to indulge in the companionship of old friends, to acquaint myself with new-to-me volumes. I’ll let you know how it goes, and how often whimsy wins out over the call of the current. As soon as I get home later this week, I’ll probably start with Forster. Howards End is in the white wicker chest beneath the bedroom window. I think.

Open Book: I bought my copy of Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill (Profile Books) when it was published in the U.S. in early November. It moved to the top of my TBR stack about a week ago.

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Some writers have the gift of immersing you so completely in their world that you look up from the page with a start, surprised by the reality of your living room or cafe corner, or, heaven forbid, cramped airport seat, wherever you happen to be reading. Tana French whisks you away to Ireland with not so much a brogue as a silver tongue, persuasive and beguiling. Such a lovely writer.

French has three crime novels to her credit, each quite different from the others yet linked by sense of place and character. I love them all: In the Woods, a police procedural with an unreliable narrator and a whiff of something dark and haunted in a suburban village outside Dublin; The Likeness, in which a young cop goes undercover in an old Irish country house taken over by some university friends of secret history; and Faithful Place, the new one where a middle-aged Dublin detective is pulled back to the red-brick tenements and grasping tendrils of family he thought he’d escaped for good long ago.

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was 19 and heartsick when his girlfriend Rosie Daly stood him up on the winter night they were supposed to elope to England. He left Faithful Place and didn’t look back, and over the years, Rosie’s defection has worn itself into a corner in his mind, “like a bullet lodged too deep to dig out.” But now Frank’s younger sister Jackie, the only member of his contentious family with whom he’s kept in touch, calls to tell him Rosie’s old suitcase has been found in a nearby derelict house slated for gentrification. Frank’s jerked back to Faithful Place, his old assumptions crumbling like the bones soon found in the house’s basement. Rosie’s bones.

 Neither the cops working the case nor the old Faithful Place families, his own especially, want Frank around mucking up things. His alcoholic father coughs venom, his ma goes along with the abuse like always. His siblings, who haven’t escaped the neighborhood, eye him with suspicion, resentment and envy. Then there’s another family tragedy — accident? suicide? — and Frank doesn’t believe his estranged wife when she says no one could have predicted this event. 

“Personally, I would in fact have bet on at least one member of my family coming to a sticky and complicated end…”

But Frank doesn’t forsee that what next awaits him at Faithful Place is more even more complicated and sticky with memories and betrayals. It even threatens his 9-year-old daughter Holly. And it makes him wonder where his loyalties really lie, and how will he keep the faith?

Open Book: I have a trade paperback of Tana French’s In the Woods, a hardcover of The Likeness, and the e-book of Faithful Place (Penguin Group). They’re all keepers.

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