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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?

 

Bloodlines

bookoflifeTwo years. That’s how long eager readers like myself have had to wait for Deborah Harkness’ The Book of Life (Viking Penguin, digital galley), the third volume in her All Souls trilogy, a heady mix of history, fantasy, science and romance. Happily, the saga of Diana Bishop, an American scholar with witch DNA, and Matthew Clairmont, Oxford geneticist and centuries-old vampire, picks right up where Shadow of Night ended. The star-crossed couple, now married, have returned to the present after action-packed adventures in Elizabethean England, France and Prague. Alas, the ancient alchemical manuscript, Ashmole 782, the so-called Book of Life that may explain the origins of the supernatural world and its witches, vampires and daemons, is still missing. Worse, the present-day Clairmont clan is appalled by Matthew’s marriage to a witch and the even-more astounding news that Diana is expecting twins. Impossible! The ruling Congregation has rules about the cross-mating of species!

The first part of the book is weighted by family dysfunction and the reintroduction of numerous characters from previous books. But then Harkness immerses us once again in her colorfully detailed paranormal world, which is threatened by dark historical forces and present-day politics. Diana must grow into her magical powers as a witch and Matthew must harness his inherited blood rage to make the future safe for all their supernatural kin and kind — vampire, witch, daemon and human.

thequickVampires have been almost done to death in recent paranormal fiction, while zombies, aliens and angels are coming on strong. But Lauren Owen resurrects the shivery terror of Dracula and Victorian vampires in her first novel, The Quick (Random House, digital galley), where revenants are eventually revealed both as members of a mysterious London gentlemen’s club and a shadowy rag-and-bone underclass. But before brother and sister James and Charlotte Norbury are engulfed by this dark Gothic world, Owen describes their solitary upbringing in a country manor house, after which James pursues his literary studies at Oxford before heading for London. He shares lodgings with his aristocratic friend Christopher, tries writing a play and falls in love. The year is 1892, and Oscar Wilde is much admired. But on a late-night walk to Wilde’s house, James vanishes, and Charlotte eventually makes her way to London in search of her brother. What is weird becomes thrillingly weirder.

Owen keeps interest high by discarding the linear in favor of overlapping, shifting narratives. Readers become privy to the grisly goings-on of The Aegolius Club, the valiant efforts of two vampire hunters, the plight of an American businessman, the research of  “Doctor Knife,” and the wily ways of a beggar girl. There will be blood. Oh, yes.

Life lessons

nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.

 

 

Beach-worthy

summerwindMary Alice Monroe’s The Summer Wind (Gallery Books, digital galley) is as bright and breezy as its title implies, although the three half-sisters first introduced in The Summer Girls must navigate some rough seas.  In the first book in the trilogy, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C. and confronted her wild child ways and drinking problem. Now it’s older sister Dora who needs help from the family; she’s getting a divorce, her beloved house is up for sale, her young son has autism and is acting out. For a woman who has prided herself on being the perfect wife and mother, it’s just too much. Carson helps with child care via wild dolphin therapy, younger sister Harper advises on a make-over, and Dora runs into an old flame while walking the island. But both their grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille are keeping life-changing secrets. Monroe makes the most of the picturesque lowcountry setting and writes movingly of families, children with special needs and the ongoing battle to preserve tradition and the environment as the storm clouds gather.

augustA wave of nostalgia sweeps through the pages of The Girls of August (Hachette, digital galley), the sweetly lyrical new novel of female friendship from veteran storyteller Anne Rivers Siddons. Madison, Rachel and Barbara met 20 years ago when their husbands were in med school and they continue to reminisce about the various beach houses where they vacationed every August with a fourth friend, Melinda. But then Melinda was killed in a car wreck, and her husband has remarried a sweet young thing, Baby Gaillard, who this year is hosting the annual getaway on her family’s estate on an isolated South Carolina barrier island. Madison narrates the inevitable conflicts that arise on Tiger Island as the three older women cope with Baby’s alternately winning and immature behavior, as well as their own issues. Remember the old Alan Alda movie, The Four Seasons? But at only 150 pages, the book is half as long as such previous Siddons’ novels as Outer Banks, Colony and Islands and lacks her usual depth. Still, it made me homesick for the lovingly depicted lowcountry landscape and all the times when I’ve been an August girl.

mermaidReaders first met Maddie, Avery and Nikki in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road when the three women were brought together by a dilapidated beach house on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They joined up again in Ocean Beach as they restored a South Florida mansion for their own television home show, Do Over. Now, as the first season of Do Over prepares to air, the trio heads for the Florida Keys, where they plan to turn a former rock star’s rundown estate into a bed-and-breakfast, despite the recently-out-of-rehab owner’s objections. Wendy Wax does a good job in The House on Mermaid Key (Berkley, paperback ARC) of catching readers up on her varied cast, which includes now-divorced Maddie’s grown daughter and toddler grandson. There’s tension, romance, sudden loss and satisfying details of rehabbing a resort. Yes, you must suspend disbelief to buy into the wish-fufillment relationships between the women and their perfect-for-them lovers, but hey, it’s summer. Read on, dream on.

breakwaterShelley Noble’s Breakwater Bay (HarperCollins, digital galley) finds a Newport, R.I., preservationist surprised on her 30th birthday by her boyfriend failing to propose and her beloved family revealing she’s adopted. Meri’s search for identity is aided by her smart, karaoke-singing best friend, her wise grandmother, the divorced neighbor she regards as a big brother, his unhappy teenage daughter and her understanding stepfather. Everyone’s a little-too-good to be true — except for a sniping ex-wife and a snobbish Newport couple — but the whole is predictably pleasing.

 

Lauren Willig’s That Summer (St. Martin’s Press, hardcover review copy) moves between 2009 and 1849 tothatsummer tell two intertwined stories centered on a London house. Out of the blue, New Yorker Julia Conley’s British aunt leaves her the shabby London house in Herne Hill, where she discovers a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The subject is Imogen Grantham, locked in a loveless marriage to an older man when she meets an ambitious portrait painter. Willig has a way with historical fiction (the Pink Carnation series), but I liked the contemporary storyline, which offers more surprises.

 

 

nantucketNancy Thayer’s Nantucket Sisters (Random House, digital galley), features best friends and “summer sisters” Maggie Drew and Emily Hudson. Maggie’s hardworking  mother is a local seamstress; Emily’s is a wealthy socialite who frowns on the friendship between the two girls and Emily’s attraction to Maggie’s brother Ben. Enter handsome Wall Street trader Cameron Chadwick to complicate life and love with questions of class and money.  You may think you know where the story is headed, and you may well be right, despite the requisite twist as Thayer ties up loose ends.

 

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