A 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.
The 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.
It’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.
A 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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged Alex Marwood. The Killer Next Door, Barbara Vine, Bradford Morrow, Broken Monsters, crime novels, Lauren Beukes, psychological suspense, Ruth Rendell, The Forgers, The Girl Next Door, thrillers | Leave a Comment »
I’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.
I 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.
The 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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged detective fiction, fairy tales, fantasy, ghosts, Jonathan Stroud, Julie Berry, Kelly Barnhill, Lockwood & Co., middle grade, teens, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, The Whispering Skull, The Witch's Boy | Leave a Comment »
It’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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged Charlie Lovett, Death Comes to Pemberley, Fiction, First Impressions, Jane Austen, Longbourne, Pride and Prejudice, rare books, Sense and Sensibility, The Bookman's Tale | Leave a Comment »
If 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.”
Posted in Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged A Thousand Acres, family saga, Iowa, Jane Smiley, Some Luck, The Last Hundred Years trilogy | 1 Comment »
In 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.
In 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.
When 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.
Helen 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.
In 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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged Charles Paris, crime fiction, Deborah Crombie, Dwell in Darkness, Easy Rawlins, Helen Giltrow, Inspector Gamache, Louise Penny, Rose Gold, Simon Brett, The Cinderella Killer, The Distance, The Long Way Home, Walter Mosley | Leave a Comment »
It 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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged Emily St. John Mandel, Fiction, pandemic, post-apocalypse, Shakespeare, Station Eleven, Traveling Symphony | 3 Comments »
British 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.
Posted in Fiction, Reviews, Thoughts on Books, Uncategorized, Writing and Reading | Tagged British law, Fiction, Ian McEwan, The Children Act | Leave a Comment »