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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.

 

Home fires

arsonistWho is burning down the houses of summer people in the New Hampshire village of Pomeroy? This question passes for a mystery in Sue Miller’s The Arsonist (Doubleday/Knopf, digital galley), but it’s just an excuse for Miller to explore the familiar territory of home and family. Well-crafted and thoughtful, the novel isn’t as good as Miller’s best — Family Pictures and While I Was Gone are my favorites — but it’s much. much better than, say, The Distinguished Guest, even while exploring similar themes.

Frankie Rowley, burned out as an aid worker in East Africa after 15 years, returns to her parents’ summer home, where they have decided to retire. Her mother Sylvia is squashing her doubts, distressed by her husband Alfie’s increasing memory loss that she can no longer attribute to his being the absent-minded professor. Frankie’s sister Liz, her hands full with husband and children, is happy for Frankie to take on their parents’ problems. Frankie, uncertain about her own future, is pulled out of her introspection by the rash of fires that threaten the town’s sense of community and by her attraction to local newspaper editor Bud, another outsider.

Miller’s writing is elegant and detailed (sometimes too detailed) as she depicts the risks, rewards and responsibilities of family love, the meaning of home. As Alfie declines into dementia, Sylvia realizes she has been unhappily married for a long time; she feels life closing in on her. By contrast, Frankie faces the possibility of a new, more permanent kind of middle age. The story takes place largely over the course of one summer in the mid-1990s, with Miller making a few references to the future near the end, of the “years later, he would see” kind of thing. It’s an unnecessary tidying up of loose ends by a writer who knows that the messiness of real life is what makes it real. Still, I liked the story’s hopeful heart.

likethisHope is rewarded in Bret Anthony Johnston’s first novel Remember Me Like This (Random House, digital galley) when an abducted son is returned to his south Texas family after four years. Although life has stood still for the Campbells in some ways since the day Justin walked out the house with his skateboard, it has moved forward, too. Eric, a history teacher, is having a half-hearted affair with a local surgeon’s wife, while his wife Laura finds solace as a volunteer monitoring a sick dolphin at a nearby marine lab. Son Griffin is 13 now, the age Justin was when he disappeared. He’s into skateboarding and his first girlfriend. Having Justin home, with all the accompanying questions about what happened to him in the interim, complicates family life in unforseen ways.

The police have arrested a Corpus Christi man who turns out to be the son of an acquaintance of Justin’s grandfather, Cecil. Although Cecil declares Justin’s return has been a boom to his pawn shop business, he is enraged when the alleged abductor is released on bail. Eric takes to spying on the man’s house and joins his dad in plotting revenge. Laura tries to hold the family together and make sure Justin goes to counseling. Griffin gets into a fight defending Justin at the skateboard park. As for Justin, he sleeps during the day and keeps to himself at night.

Johnston is a psychologically astute writer who charts the family’s shifting dynamics with sensitivity. Even the secondary characters are well-drawn, especially Griffin’s girlfriend Fiona, whose bohemian looks and clothes can’t hide a tender soul.  But the only family member whose life isn’t unsettled by Justin’s return is the Labrador retriever Rainbow. She’s just happy he’s home.

Going viral

thefeverIn two of her previous novels, The End of Everything and Dare Me, Megan Abbott expertly mined the secret lives of teenage girls. She does it again in The Fever (Little, Brown, digital galley), inspired by the real-life outbreak of a mysterious illness among girls at a New York high school, several of whom testified on the Today show about their persistent tics and twitches.

In The Fever, puzzlement and panic ensue when pretty Lise has a violent seizure in class. Her BFF Deenie, who witnessed the frightening event, frantically texts their other friend Gabby and later convinces her father, a teacher at the school, that she must go to the hospital to see Lise. As rumors fly through the school and community, Lise lapses into a coma and other girls, including Gabby, develop alarming symptoms — rapid blinking, fainting, dizziness, confusion. Is the lake algae toxic? Maybe it’s a tainted HPV vaccine. Or it just the result of stress, maybe eating disorders? Deenie, who has been keeping several secrets from her family and friends, wonders if she’s somehow complicit in her friends’ illness, or is it just a matter of time before she, too, is stricken?

“You spend a long time waiting for life to start — the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new amd terrifying and significant — and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you expected, or asked for.”

The mystery illness propels the story, but its depth comes from Abbott’s artful depiction of the teens’ fevered friendships and rivalries, fueled by peer pressure, paranoia and raging hormones. There’s no vaccine for high school.

Most wanted

furstDecember, 1937. The snow is falling in New York City as a lawyer visiting from Paris looks over his shoulder to see  if he is being followed. It’s also snowing in Madrid as a middle-aged museum curator waits nervously to be questioned by the authorities. The two men’s fates are soon linked in the atmospheric Midnight in Europe (Random House, digital galley), in which Alan Furst once again illuminates ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times as Hitler’s shadow looms ever larger. Here, the Spanish Civil War serves as a precursor of what is to come, and Spanish emigre Christian Ferrar, who works for an international law firm in Paris, agrees to help the Spanish Republic obtain much-needed arms to fight Franco’s fascists. There is an eye-opening train journey through industrial Germany in the company of an arms dealer wanted by the Gestapo, and later a more harrowing trip to Odessa and Poland in which a train is hijacked. Moments of heart-in-your-throat terror alternate with scenes in Paris nightclubs and bedrooms that whisper of betrayal and romance. No one is better than Furst at evoking this midnight hour before war plunges Europe into darkness.

twisted

Readers of S. J. Bolton’s gripping Lacey Flint novels know that the secretive London detective rarely goes with the flow. In A Dark and Twisting Tide (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), she’s again risking life and limb, first by “wild-swimming” in the Thames, where’s she’s living on a houseboat, and then by going after a serial killer who is leaving the shrouded, drowned corpses of young women for her to find. She’s also risking her heart, growing closer to cop Mark Joesbury, whose undercover work takes him away for days at a time. Lacey goes undercover, too, disguising herself as an Afghan refugee to try and find out more about a possible human-trafficking ring targeting the tight-lipped immigrant community. Old friends and new enemies complicate matters, and then a nightmare comes true when she finds herself once again at the mercy of the river and a relentless pursuer who swims like a mermaid and attacks like a shark.

alldayAlafair Burke’s complex new thriller All Day and a Night (HarperCollins, digital galley) takes it title from prison lingo for a life sentence with no parole. That’s what presumed serial killer Anthony Amaro has been serving the last 18 years, which gives him a solid alibi for the murder of a Brooklyn psychotherapist. But because the body has the signature of Amaro’s old kills, it leads to the D.A. and police ordering a “fresh look” at his case. Is a copycat at work or was Amaro wrongfully convicted in the first place? As Amaro’s celebrity lawyer argues to get him released, Burke’s series detective Ellie Hatcher and her partner begin an investigation that takes them back two decades to the murder of a handful of prostitutes in Utica. Also investigating, but for Amaro’s side, is young lawyer Carrie Blank, whose half-sister Donna was one of the victims. Both Ellie and Carrie have conflicted feelings that spill over into their personal lives as old secrets come to light and loyalties are tested. Coincidences abound, but Burke keeps tensions high until almost the very end.

vertigo

How well do you know Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo? You might want to refresh your memory before starting Martha Grimes’ clever Vertigo 42 (Scribner, digital galley), in which Scotland Yard’s Richard Jury makes some dizzying connections between murders old and new. After meeting widower Tom Williamson at Vertigo 42, a London bar atop a financial-district high-rise, Jury takes off for Devon to look into the death of Williamson’s wife Tess 17 years ago. Did she fall — as the police think — or was she pushed — as her husband believes? And what, if anything, does childless Tess’s death have to do with the death five years earlier of a schoolgirl who fell into the country estate’s empty swimming pool while her pals were playing hide-and-seek? Meanwhile, Jury’s visit to his pal Melrose Plant’s country home presents him with the puzzle of a lost dog and the death of a young woman who fell from a nearby tower. Grimes juggles the surfeit of plots and the quirky cast with her usual ease, tipping her hat to Hitchcock and to previous Jury tales (there are 22) while readers’ heads spin.

strangerDetective constable Maeve Kerrigan often finds her brilliant boss, DI Josh Derwent, crude and rude. But no way she thinks he’s a murderer. Still, in Jane Casey’s sterling The Stranger You Know (St. Martin’s digital galley), Kerrigan’s  on the inside in the investigation of a serial killer who kills attractive young women in their homes, but Derwent’s shut out by their superiors. Not only does he fit the profile of a trustworthy stranger a woman might invite in her home, he also was the prime suspect in the long-ago, unsolved murder of his classmate Angela Poole. The new crime scenes have an uncanny similarity to Angela’s. Still loyal to Derwent, a wary Maeve continues the search for the “Gentleman Killer,” even as a stalker from her past reappears. Or has the killer targeted her?

someoneBrian McGilloway returns to Derry, Northern Ireland for the second Lucy Black thriller to be published in this country this year, after Little Girl Lost. In Someone You Know (HarperCollins/Witness Impulse, digital galley), Lucy’s assignment to the public protection squad again brings her into a murder investigation when an at-risk teen is killed, her body tied to the railroad tracks. If the train hadn’t been delayed, it would have destroyed the crime scene, and the death slated as a suicide. But someone is preying on Derry’s girls, even as they escape their dysfunctional homes to party with their friends, unaware just how close the enemy lurks. The daughter of two cops — one her chief superintendent boss, the other now suffering from dementia — Lucy has an affinity for the vulnerable that serves her well. A third book is on its way.

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