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In the spirit

noraIs the Honeycutt mansion haunted? The summer people who bought the old mountain place and decided to stay for Christmas are beginning to think so. Their fake pink Christmas tree decorated with sea shell and flamingo ornaments keeps keeling over when no one’s around. Best ask neighbor Nora Bonesteel for help. After all, the old woman has the “sight” — she can foretell deaths and commune with ghosts.

Sharyn McCrumb’s holiday novella Nora Bonesteel’s Christmas Past (Abingdon Press, digital galley), takes place in the same East Tennessee town of her popular Ballad series and brings back several familiar characters. While Nora remembers long-ago holidays — and one young soldier in particular — Sheriff Spencer Arrowood and Deputy Joe LeDonne are driving up the mountain on Christmas Eve. They have to arrest an elderly man charged with the hit-and-run of a politician’s car. Still, a winter storm is coming, and the man won’t leave his wife alone in a cabin with no firewood and a broken window.

McCrumb’s gently humorous tale is replete with nostalgia. Nora vividly remembers simpler times gone by, when people were poorer but rich with friends, family and traditions.

hollyroadSheila Roberts has a knack for warm-hearted holiday tales that are sweet without being sappy. I’m especially fond of The Nine Lives of Christmas, which was made into a Hallmark movie this year. There’s a lot of wishin’ and hopin’ going on in picturesque Icicle Falls, the setting for The Lodge on Holly Road (Harlequin, digital galley).

Single mom Missy Monroe brings her two children to the lodge hoping to give them the kind of traditional Christmas she never had, although she knows she can’t fulfill their wishes for a dog and a grandmother. Enter Santa Claus, sort of — Brook Claussen kidnaps her widowed father, James, from his department store Santa job, hoping that a visit to the lodge will cure his grumpy blues. But she didn’t count on Olivia Wallace, the pretty widow who runs the place with her grown son, Eric. Brook thinks Olivia has designs on her dad, and she’s not wrong. But insufferable Eric scolds her for interfering. Among the other guests are a good-guy accountant who plans to propose to his snooty girlfriend, two old friends with opposite natures, a couple of bored teenagers and a prodigal son. What could possibly go wrong?

Roberts gets everything right in this romance — and even includes a recipe for Olivia’s gumdrop cookies.

jerusalemI always like to reread several holiday books from Christmases past. One year it might be Lee Smith’s The Christmas Letters, or Barbara Robinson’s The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, or Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’ Certain Poor Shepherds. Last year it was Mary Kay Andrews’ Blue Christmas, in preparation for its sequel, Christmas Bliss. This year, I reached back 30 years to Martha Grimes’ mystery Jerusalem Inn, with Richard Jury and Melrose Plant investigating a sudden death in wintry northern England. The atmosphere’s a bit melancholy and a whole lot mysterious, and it’s one of my favorites in the Jury series. I’m a longtime admirer of the Scotland Yard detective with the devastating smile, still single after all these years.

Sweet dreams and happy holidays.

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.

Scare tactics

forgersA friend was trying to remember the title of an old P.D. James novel. “Y’know, the one with the hands.” Actually, no hands. Unnatural Causes opens with a memorably creepy sentence: “The corpse without hands lay in the bottom of a small sailing dinghy drifting just within sight of the Suffolk coast.”

Severed hands also figure in two chilly new crime novels. In Bradford Morrow’s artful The Forgers (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), rare book collector Adam Diehl is found murdered in his Montauk home surrounded by the ruins of valuable signed books and manuscripts. That Adam’s hands are missing leads narrator Will to speculate that Adam, the beloved brother of his girlfriend Meghan, was killed and mutilated because he was a secret forger. Will knows something about the subject because he was once a forger, too — specializing in Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry James, among others — but he has spent years working his way back into the book world’s good graces. Now he verifies the authenticity of  the handwriting in books’ inscriptions and in old letters for other collectors, occasionally recalling the thrill of faking the perfect signature. His suspicions about Adam, which he keeps from Meghan, are heightened when he begins receiving expertly forged letters from dead authors that hint at more secrets about the unsolved murder and Will’s past. Aha! The game is afoot — or is it at hand? Will makes for an eloquent and informed — if unreliable — narrator, and readers will appreciate the inside details about bibliophiles, obsession and books to die for.

nextdoorThe severed hands are skeletal in Ruth Rendell’s The Girl Next Door (Scribner, digital galley), found in a tin box by construction workers. The tabloids are fascinated by the mystery of the two hands — one male, one female — and the news reunites a group of childhood friends who 60 years ago played in the subterranean tunnel where the box was found. Alan, long-married to one of the playmates, Rosemary, finds himself attracted to another, widowed Daphne, once “the girl next door.”  Michael decides to contact his ancient father, whose abuse drove away Michael’s mother in 1944. Others  also find their lives upended by the police investigation. Rendell moves between the present and past, stringing readers along with a deft hand skilled at misdirection. The book reminded me of A Fatal Inversion, a long-ago novel Rendell wrote under her Barbara Vine pseudonym, although its characters are decades younger than those in the new book. Both tales, though, explore how past choices play out in present lives, often with exquisite irony.

killernextIt’s not just hands that are severed in Alex Marwood’s grisly The Killer Next Door (Penguin, library paperback), her follow-up to the Edgar Award-winning The Wicked Girls. I liked that book a lot, but I had a harder time with this new thriller as the killer murders, dismembers and tries to mummify women living in a rundown boarding house in South London. Ick. But the main story of the diverse people living on the margins of society and slowly realizing that one of them is a killer kept me turning pages. I wanted to know why Collette fled her old life and changed her name, and what has turned young Cheryl into a shoplifter. What embarrassing secrets is Gerard hiding, and why is Thomas lying about his job? Is Hossein really a political refugee? The penny-pinching landlord has been feuding with basement resident Vesta for years. To what lengths will he go to oust her from her rent-controlled apartment? A bizarre accident brings together the boarders to orchestrate a cover-up with unforseen and surprising consequences.

brokenA time-traveling serial killer stalked the pages of Lauren Beukes’  The Shining Girls, and she again adds a whiff of the supernatural to Broken Monsters  (Little, Brown, digital galley). A killer dubbed “the Detroit Monster” introduces himself to the city with a grotesque corpse, half-boy, half-deer.  Det. Gabrielle Versado catches the case and tries to keep the most sensational details out of the press. But this is the age of the internet, and citizen journalist Jonno sees the story as his ticket to fame. Meanwhile, Versado’s 15-year-old daughter is playing a dangerous online game with a sexual predator and ends up at an inner city art installation that hides another horrific creation. A rookie cop goes missing. Then there’s TK, whose checkered past brings him into contact with the homeless, the friendless and the deranged. The fragmented storylines converge in an abandoned factory warehouse where little is what it seems.

Treats

skullI’m late to the party when it comes to fall books. I missed Halloween and most of the last month due to a series of unfortunate events. Books went unread, blog posts unwritten, e-mails unanswered. Now we’re catching up: Three books aimed at kids with crossover appeal for teens and grown-ups.

The Screaming Staircase, the first entry in Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co. series about teen ghost detectives, was both frighteningly funny and wickedly smart. The follow-up, The Whispering Skull (Disney, digital galley) is all that and more, offering some genuine chills as Anthony, George and narrator Lucy pursue malignant spirits and evil grave robbers in an alternate London. The teens have the necessary psychic abilities — along with swords, silver chains and flash powder — to battle their supernatural foes, but they compete for business with larger, more established firms such as the Fittes agency. The rivalry is exacerbated when Scotland Yard puts both Lockwood and Fittes on the case of the mysterious “bone mirror,” stolen from the corpse of a Victorian doctor who tried to communicate with the dead. The doctor supposedly met a grisly end in a roomful of rats, but such rumors don’t explain the bullet hole in his head, nor the power of the mirror, which strikes such fear in onlookers that they go mad or die on the spot. While George researches the case, Anthony contacts an unusual source and Lucy tries to discern if a skull in a jar ever speaks the truth. Action and adventure ensue as the trio infiltrates a museum, eavesdrops on a midnight auction, leaps from rooftops and crawls through crypts. Don’t miss it.

sisterhoodI bet Julie Berry had fun writing The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place (Roaring Brook Press, library e-book), even with her tongue planted firmly in cheek. I certainly chuckled my way through this madcap murder mystery set in a Victorian boarding school for girls. The seven students, from Dear Roberta to Dour Elinor, are shocked and dismayed when their skinflint headmistress and her no-good brother both drop dead at Sunday dinner. They’re not so worried about a killer on the loose as the prospect of the school being closed and the girls sent home. Then Smooth Kitty proposes a scheme whereby they’ll cover up the murders, bury the bodies in the garden and run the school themselves. One lie leads to another as nosy neighbors keep dropping by, and before long Stout Alice is impersonating the late headmistress while her classmates go sleuthing. So clever. Such fun.

witchboyThe title character in Kelly Barnhill’s coming-of-age fantasy The Witch’s Boy (Algonquin, review copy) is also known as Ned, “the wrong boy,” because his mother’s magic saved him from drowning with his twin brother, Tam, and then bound their two souls together. Ned believes Tam should have been the one who lived; he grows up awkward, shy and unsure himself. In a nearby kingdom, the girl Aine is also suffering from the choices her father — the Bandit King — has made. Ned and Aine’s lives are linked by an ancient prophecy — “The wrong boy will save your life, and you will save his” — as well as by her father’s scheme to steal his mother’s magic. Assertive Aine and quiet Ned make for unlikely friends as they begin a quest to discover the secret of nine stone giants and prevent a devastating war. Barnhill’s lyrical language and use of classic fairy tale elements gives her involving story a magic all its own.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

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