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Jane and Sophie

impressionsIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that Jane Austen is a cottage industry, her life and six books spawning numerous prequels, sequels, mash-ups, mysteries, reimaginings, movies, mini-series and more. I recently received a lovely set of of Jane Austen postcards as a birthday gift, and at this very moment, I am leaning back on my little Jane Austen pillow, another gift. I do not yet possess a Jane Austen action figure, but Christmas is coming and a girl can dream . . .

The Austen-inspired books range from serious to silly, and some are very good, indeed, such as Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which I wrote about a year ago this month, and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberley, now adapted for PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre. I’m also happy to recommend Charlie Lovett’s First Impressions: A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen (Viking Penguin, review copy). The “novel” is important because Lovett’s book effectively blurs the lines between fact and fiction so that his parallel plots seem plausible enough, especially the historical one involving Austen. The contemporary story benefits from bibliophile Lovett’s knowledge of the antique book trade, as did his first novel, The Bookman’s Tale, about a bookseller’s obsession with an old volume annotated by William Shakespeare.

In First Impressions, recent Oxford grad Sophie Collingwood is stunned by the sudden, accidental death of her favorite uncle, who leaves her his book-filled London flat. She is even more dismayed to discover that Uncle Bertram’s collection of rare book has been sold to covers his debts, so she takes a job with an antiquarian bookseller, determined to track down and buy back as many volumes as possible. Two competing customers ask her help in tracking down an obscure old book by the Rev. Richard Mansfield.

You were wondering where Jane Austen figures in this tale? Lovett neatly alternates short chapters about Sophie with those about Jane Austen, who in 1796 Hampshire finds a kindred spirit in an elderly vicar visiting her neighbors. At the time, Jane is working on an epistolary novel tentatively titled Elinor and Marianne, while the Rev. Richard Mansfield is revising and expanding his little book of moral stories. The two offer each other advice and encouragement — the words “sense and sensibility” come up — and Jane even agrees to contribute a story to Mansfield’s book.

Back in London, Sophie is growing increasingly suspicious of the circumstances of Uncle Bertram’s death, as well as one of the customers seeking Mansfield’s books. Her sleuthing, which takes her to Oxford, Hampshire and her own family’s library, is complicated by two suitors: one an arrogant American academic who writes her wonderful letters, the other a handsome London publisher who takes her to dinner and bed. Both, it turns out, have an interest in the Mansfield book, which Sophie discovers casts in doubt the authorship of Pride and Prejudice.

Meanwhile, Jane’s writing life in Hampshire and her friendship with Mansfield is interrupted by her trip to Bath and his departure  for his Yorkshire home.

I don’t think I’m going to tell you anymore. I may already have told you too much. Suffice to say, Lovett is a clever writer and First Impressions is good sport.

Family album

someluckIf you’re of a certain age, you probably have a fat family photo album stashed in a closet. If you’re lucky, the pictures reach way back into the 20th century, stiffly-posed portraits giving way to informal photos. Mileposts — births, holidays, graduations — are documented, as well as more mundane moments: Grandmother shelling peas on the porch, little cousins squeezed in a swing, smiling teenagers leaning against a vintage Dodge, only it was shiny and new back then. Oh, this is a really old one. Black-and-white fading to sepia. Look at the long curls on that boy. Who is that again?

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the first in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, is the Langdon family album, from 1920 to 1953, each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of  Iowa farmer Walter, his wife Rosanna, and their six children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate. The Langdons are rooted in the fertile Iowa soil, but their lives are touched in various ways by the aftermath of World War I, the Depression, World War II, the McCarthy era and the beginnings of the Cold War. Change is as constant as the seasons — kerosene gives way to electricity, horse-drawn plows give way to tractors. And, of course, several of the Langdon children fly the nest, further opening up the story.

No way eldest son Frank is going to stay on the farm. Willful and determined from childhood, he escapes first in high school by living with his leftist aunt in Chicago. At Iowa State, he charms everyone with his handsome looks, easy smile, and drawling “Maybe.” He camps out in a tent to save money, woos one woman, and then another. World War II takes him to Italy. The secretive husband of his pretty sister Lillian introduces him to a covert Washington, D.C. By the time this volume ends, he’s established his home and family far from Iowa, as has Lillian.

Joe’s the brother who stays home, carrying on the farming legacy, bound not by duty but by love for the land and animals. Henry’s the bookworm, seemingly destined for academia, while Claire is a daddy’s girl who has yet to define herself. All the children emerge as indivduals from babyhood on. Rosanna even notes how each infant reacts differently to her maternal embrace. She and Walter aren’t always in accord, but they are a good match, smoothing their edges against one another through good times and bad, keeping a weather eye out. Good luck, bad luck, some luck.

Longlisted for the National Book Award, Some Luck has its Iowa-farm setting in common with Smiley’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Thousand Acres, a contemporary King Lear. But its generational sweep is more reminiscent of The Greenlanders, yet more personal. If in the beginning it is like paging through someone else’s family album, by the 1940s and ’50s, it’s more like your own, its characters known, its setting familiar. At a 1948 Thanksgiving reunion, Walter and Rosanna’s eyes meet over the dinner table: “they agreed in that instant: something had created itself from nothing — a dumpy old house had been filled, if only for this moment, with twenty-three different worlds, each of them rich and mysterious.”

Criminal cases

rosegoldIn 1967 Los Angeles, the times keep on a-changing, and Walter Mosley’s detective Easy Rawlins keeps on finding work — or rather it finds him. Not long after the events chronicled in last year’s stellar Little Green, Rose Gold (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) opens with Rawlins moving house and getting some unexpected help from the police unloading the boxes. That’s because the LAPD wants Rawlins’ help in finding a black activist boxer, who may be involved in the apparent kidnapping of Rosemary Goldsmith, the rebellious college student daughter of a weapons manufacturer. The investigation is all hush-hush — the police don’t want Rawlins talking to Rose’s family, and the FBI and State Department don’t want him on the case at all. He’s not deterred, even when shots are fired at his car, and exchanges favors with some old friends, including a veteran cop who has fallen for a missing grifter. Rawlins looks for her, as well as an abducted child, all the while trailing Rose, her faux-hippie friends and the violent black nationalist group known as Scorched Earth. Mosley mixes pointed social commentary with heart-in-your-throat action sequences, and makes it all look, well, easy. Sweet.

longwayIn Louise Penny’s Long Way Home (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), Inspector Armand Gamache has retired as Quebec’s chief of homicide and retreated to the peace of the village of Three Pines. But then neighbor and friend Clara Morrow asks for his help in finding her husband, Peter Morrow, an artist who has been overshadowed by his wife’s success. The two separated for a year, but Peter failed to turn up on the designated reunion date. Finding clues in odd paintings Peter left with a young relative, Gamache and his former colleague Jean-Guy Beauvoir trace Peter from Montreal to France to Scotland and back to Canada. Along with Clara and bookstore owner Myrna Landers, he and Beauvoir journey through the wilds of Quebec to the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, a desolate spot referred to as the “land God gave to Cain.” Readers of Penny’s previous books will appreciate the intertwining of spiritual and artistic themes and the rich description of both natural and emotional landscapes. But the narrative is unevenly paced, and a profusion of sentence fragments chop it up. And slow it down. Too bad. Really.

dwellWhen a white phosphorous grenade goes off in London’s busy St. Pancras station, killing one man and injuring bystanders, the police first suspect terrorism. This makes Deborah Crombie’s To Dwell in Darkness (Morrow/HarperCollins, digital galley) terribly timely, and tensions remain high even when the explosion is connected to a small group of protesters arguing for architectural preservation. Duncan Kincaid, recently transferred from Scotland Yard to the Camden borough homicide squad, still has a murder to solve, and the key may be a mysterious ex-soldier who was on the scene at St. Pancras. Also on the station platform that day was Melody Talbot,  a friend and colleague of Kincaid’s wife and fellow copper Gemma St. James. Soon, drama on the domestic front involving kids and pets vies with the bomb investigation for the detectives’ attention. It’s to Crombie’s credit that readers are equally invested in the competing storylines. After 16 books, we’ve been through thick and thin with Kincaid and St. James, whose lives are never dull.

distanceHelen  Giltrow delivers a gritty page-turner with her first novel, The Distance (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), about a high-tech information agent known as Karla who hides behind the identity of London socialite Charlotte Alton. Or is it the other way around? Karla’s an expert at erasing a person’s past and giving them a new identity, something she did for expert sniper Simon Johanssen after a mob hit went wrong eight years ago. Now Simon needs Karla’s help to get inside an experimental prison that’s home to his next target, a woman for whom Karla can find no record, as well as the sadistic mob boss he eluded once upon a time. It’s a  mission fraught with  obstacles and with little chance for success, and pretty much everything that can go wrong does. Be prepared for blood, torture and a high body count.

cinderellaIn Simon Brett’s entertaining The Cinderella Killer (Severn House, digital galley), veteran actor Charles Paris has to explain to American sitcom star Kenny Polizzi  that pantomime is not mime. Rather, the traditional holiday pantos are more akin to vaudeville with numerous stock characters and bits of stage business that the audience expects. Kenny, an amiable if somewhat clueless soul, has a leading role in Eastbourne’s Christmas production of Cinderella, while Charles’ part is much smaller, at least until Kenny falls off the wagon, a dancer disappears and murder makes an entrance. Then Charles plays sleuth, dealing with the inflated egos and eccentric antics of cast, crew and hangers-on. The plot’s on the slight side, but it’s always a pleasure to keep company with Charles, and the details on pantomime’s theatrical traditions are fascinating. A front-row seat on back-stage shenanigans.

 

After the fall

station11It begins with an ending. On a snowy night in Toronto, King Lear literally dies on stage when lead actor Arthur Leander is felled by a heart attack. A paramedic trainee springs from the audience to try and revive him. A child actress who witnessed Leander’s collapse is escorted from the stage. Later, fellow members of the cast and crew gather together to toast the actor.  “Of all of them there in the bar that night, the bartender survived the longest. He died three weeks later on the road out of the city.”

In Emily St. John Mandel’s remarkable fourth novel, Station Eleven (Knopf Doubleday, digital gallery), a fast-moving flu pandemic wipes out 99 percent of the world’s population, along with all borders, cities, countries, and pretty much civilization as we know it. But the novel doesn’t linger long on the horrific end times as it gracefully loops post and pre-apocalypse, linking Leander’s life as a Hollywood actor to a handful of survivors and talismans. Station Eleven thus becomes a moving mystery of memory and connections lost and found.

Twenty years into this new dark age, survivors can be found in small settlements, living off the land and scavenging useful remains — clothes, canned goods, soap — from long-abandoned houses. Kirsten Raymonde, the little girl who witnessed Leander’s death, is  an actress with the Traveling Symphony, a theatrical and musical troupe that travels by horse-drawn wagon from one community to the next. It performs Beethoven and Shakespeare because “people want what was best about the world.”  Also, as its motto states: “Survival is insufficient,” a line not from Shakespeare but an episode of Star Trek: Voyager. Kirsten has the words tattooed on her wrist, along with two black knives, and she carries worn copies of the graphic novel “Station Eleven,” that Leander gave her long ago.  The meaning of the knives is one of the small mysteries that will be revealed as the troupe moves through an increasingly hostile landscape around Lake Michigan, where a strange Prophet now holds sway. As for the comic books, we learn in a flashback that they were created by Miranda, the first of Leander’s three wives, and they take on a greater significance as Mandel deftly spins her elegiac story, intertwining her characters’ fates.

One thread follows Javeen, the paramedic who tried to save Leander, and who then took grocery carts of supplies to his disabled brother’s high-rise. Another belongs to the actor’s best friend from college days, who ends up stranded in a Michigan airport and becomes curator of the Museum of Civilization — an ever-growing collection of survivors’ useless belongings from cell phones and laptops to credit cards and high heels. When Kirsten and a companion become separated from the Traveling Symphony, they head for the previously agreed-upon meeting point — the airport. Out on the tarmac, abandoned planes have been turned into shelters except for the last plane to land, which sits apart. It chose to lock its doors in a self-imposed quarantine, dooming its passengers so others might live. Perhaps those survivors — or their children — will live long enough for the world to remake itself, for the lights to come back on.

 

 

 

 

Best interest

thechildrenBritish High Court judge Fiona Maye is known for her deliberate yet sensitive decisions in family court, ruling on difficult custody issues and the controversial case of conjoined twins. She always keeps in mind the law prioritizing the best interests of the child,  and she puts aside all distractions to concentrate on the case at hand. Maybe that’s why, as she wrestled with the fate of the twins, she failed to notice her 30-year-marriage to Jack slipping away. But now, just as she faces the case of a teenage boy refusing a life-saving blood transfusion because of his and his family’s religious beliefs, Jack accuses her of a lack of passion and asserts his right to an affair with a younger woman.

Ian McEwan’s The Children Act (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is a carefully observed and carefully constructed character study focusing on two of his recurring themes, passion and obsession. Jack is wrong in accusing Fiona of lacking passion just because they haven’t had sex in “seven weeks and a day.” It’s more that Fiona is so engaged in her work; she put off having children until it was too late, although she is an involved and affectionate aunt. She loves music too, playing the piano in her head as she walks to work to shut out the outside world, and also performing with a small circle of friends. And she loves her academic husband and the comfortable life they share. Personal ultimatums are not her style

All of this goes through Fiona’s mind as she must decide in favor of 17-year-old Adam, his parents and church, or the hospital and medical establishment. The situation is urgent; without the transfusion, Adam has just days to live. Setting aside her own crisis, Fiona visits Adam in hospital, where she finds him an articulate defender of his faith but perhaps somewhat naive about his impending fate. He is teaching himself to play the violin, and the two share an intimate musical moment. Each is convinced they understand one another. Then Fiona makes her ruling with its life-altering repercussions and unexpected consequences.

Like McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, The Children Act is short but impressive.  I read it in one afternoon and am still thinking about it days later, both its well-drawn main characters — Fiona, Adam and Jack — and secondary ones, such as the judicial colleague who is always the bearer of bad news. That he once made a patently bad ruling seems not to have affected him, while Fiona’s “good” judgment causes endless soul-searching.

The lying game

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.

 

 

 

Still summer

biglittleYikes! I’ve been gone a month. Wish I could say I’d been to Fillory via Lev Grossman’s The Magician’s Land, but that enchanted journey still awaits. But, as in Fillory, time has passed differently for me ever since I had surgery four weeks ago. Either the anesthesia’s lingering effects have played havoc with my mind and/or it’s triggered lupus brain fog. I’m having trouble remembering both what I read before the surgery and the few books I’ve managed since then. Can’t seem to concentrate, or maybe I’ve just overdosed on middle-of-the-night reruns of Frasier.   “maybe I seem a bit confused . . . Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs!”

But it’s still summer, and the wave of books continues, more than enough to carry us into fall. Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies (Putnam, digital galley) is clever escapist entertainment, constructed like a good jigsaw puzzle. Readers know from the outset that Something Terrible happened at Piriwee elementary school’s annual fundraiser. But who fell off a balcony? And  is it an accident, suicide, murder?! Moriarty takes us back six months to detail the actions of several of the school’s mothers and their assorted partners and offspring. As secrets big and little come to light, they illuminate issues of bullying, domestic abuse, snobbery and violence. It’s all good dark fun.

silkworm“Fun” is not the word to describe J.K. Rowling’s The Silkworm (Little, Brown, purchased e-book), her second Comoran Strike detective novel under the Robert Galbraith pseudonym. I read and reviewed the first one, The Cuckoo’s Calling, without knowing it was Rowling’s work, and quite enjoyed it. This time, I recognized her fingerprints — the odd names, the many literary allusions, the grotesque touches to the crime scene.  Strike and his assistant Robin make for an appealing pair; he is large and grouchy and damaged, while she is pretty, eager and engaged to someone else. Investigating the murder of a pompous author trussed and gutted like a pig, they discover motives aplenty in the back-stabbing literary world. The plot is complicated enough that I’m happy I read it before my brain got so muddled. I might need to read it again as I didn’t see the killer coming. Then again, neither did Strike until almost too late.

latescholarHave you ever wished there were more books by your favorite dead author? Jill Paton Walsh has continued the investigative adventures of Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in a stylish, pitch-perfect series. The fourth entry, The Late Scholar (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), finds Lord Peter, now the Duke of Denver, and his novelist wife returning to Oxford, which, in Sayers’ Gaudy Night, played such an important part in their lives.  So a certain nostalgia suffuses the leisurely tale as the couple meet up with old friends while trying to resolve the problem of the missing warden of St. Severin’s College, whose members are divided over the proposed sale of an ancient manuscript with ties to King Alfred. More than one visit to the Bodleian library and Blackwell’s bookstore are in order, as are apropos references to professors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis. I think Sayers would approve.

lucykyteI’m not so sure how the very private Josephine Tey would feel about Nicola Upson’s series in which Tey herself turns detective, but these traditional British mysteries offer complex plots and vivid 1930s period detail. The fifth, The Death of Lucy Kyte (HarperCollins, digital galley), is set in the Suffolk countryside, where Tey has inherited a rundown cottage from her actress godmother, Hester Larkspur. Red Barn Cottage comes complete with a  nearby notorious murder, a possible ghost and Hester’s papers, which may well reveal more secrets about the author’s life and mysterious death. Speaking of mysterious, who is Lucy Kyte, who is also named in Hester’s will, and where on earth is she?

 

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