Family matters

goldenageThanksgiving, 1948, and Iowa farmer Walter Langdon and his wife Rosanna’s eyes meet over the crowded 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.”

That lovely moment occurs in Jane Smiley’s novel, Some Luck, the first in her Last Hundred Years trilogy. When I wrote about the book last fall, I compared it to a fat family photo album, one spanning the years from 1920 to 1953, with each chapter a snapshot of a year in the life of Walter, Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspectives — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — make for a saga both epic and intimate.

The same is true of the second installment, Early Warning, which arrived in the spring. Still, it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

By the time Early Warning ends, we’re emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan, as familiar and frustrating as your own kin. Whatever will they do next? Which brings us to the saga’s finale Golden Age (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), in which life continues rich and mysterious — as well as messy and random.

By now, it’s 1987, and there are four-going-on-five generations of Langdons. The family tree at the beginning is a necessity. Even so, some cousins fall by the wayside, moving to other parts of the country, staying in touch with birth announcements, long-distance phone calls, maybe showing up for weddings or funerals. Still, enough Langdons move to the forefront to pull at the emotions as they are touched by history — the Reagan years, 9/11, Wall Street shenanigans, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that only occasionally feels schematic. Smiley is skilled at melding the personal with the political, everyday life with grand themes,  so it’s not especially surprising that a Langdon great-grandson and Iraq war veteran has a problem with meth, or that his great aunt finally rids herself of a controlling husband in favor of a quiet, kindly man from her hometown. Twins Michael and Richie remain fierce rivals in business and politics, and revenge is, indeed, served cold. Their sister Janet continues to hate her father Frank from faraway, seeking solace in California and training horses.

But Frank, eldest of the original Langdon offspring, surprises by mellowing in his later years and reconciling with ethereal Andy, who turns out to be made of sterner stuff when dealing with a devious son and a domineering daughter-in-law. Frank’s younger brother Henry, a gay history professor, ends up in Washington, D.C., becoming an adoptive father in old age, while brother Joe and his son Jesse struggle to hang on to the family farm back in Iowa.

About the farm. Agribusiness, climate change, genetically modified seeds. The near-future is not kind to the Langdon acres, or, indeed to America as a whole. The post-Obama years trend toward the dystopian. No wonder some Langdons wonder if they’ve already lived through their golden age. But while elderly Claire finds a sheen to her closely held memories of hearth and home, there are young Langdons looking out and ahead. The sun also rises. Did anyone say farm to table?

Peculiar treat

librarysoulsRansom Riggs’ main characters aren’t funny peculiar but peculiar Peculiar with a capital P — children and young people with special gifts and odd attributes who live in time loops where days repeat and they don’t age. This much we learned in Riggs’ fantastic first book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, in which American teen Jacob Portman explored his grandfather’s past at a decrepit orphanage in Wales and discovered his own talent for discerning the monstrous Hollowghasts that devour Peculiars’ souls.

The exciting second book, Hollow City, picked up right where the first left off, with Jacob and his small band of friends fleeing the isolated island time loop and ending up in World War II Britain. Superstrong Bronwyn carried a trunk on her back containing their beloved teacher Miss Peregrine, changed into bird form. Fending off enemies right and left in the middle of the London Blitz, Jacob and company sought the still-human Miss Wren with help from some peculiar pigeons at St. Paul’s Cathedral. They also found some more peculiar kids and animals, but the “hollows” and their minions, the “wights,” were in hot pursuit. Time was running out to turn Miss Peregrine back into her human form.

And that brings us to the third, and presumably final Peculiar tale, Library of Souls (Quirk Books, library hardcover), which builds on everything that has gone before and goes deeper and darker before coming full circle to a satisfying finale. But first Jacob must learn how to control the hollows, and he and his flame-throwing girlfriend Emma must rescue not only Miss Peregrine but also their bartered friends. Victorian London, here they come! The fate of all Peculiardom hangs in the balance.

Odd vintage photographs again enhance the atmosphere and Riggs’ world-building. Wouldn’t the Peculiars make a great Tim Burton movie? We’ll find out in spring 2016.



Burning bright

cityonfire“Big as life.” That’s the kind of novel that Georgia native Mercer hopes to write when he moves to New York in the mid-1970s to teach at a girls’ prep school. But Mercer is distracted by the bright lights, big city, and especially by his boyfriend, William Hamilton-Sweeney, who prefers art, punk music and heroin to his wealthy uptown family’s financial empire. No wonder Mercer, already struggling with his identity as a gay black Southerner, is overwhelmed by the rich pageant stretching from the East Village to the Upper West Side. “In his head, the book kept growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it.”

Garth Risk Hallberg evokes the heck out of real life in his ambitious doorstop of a novel, City on Fire (Knopf, digital galley). It has length (900 plus pages), complexity (dozens of intersecting characters), extras (photos, documents, coffee-stained manuscript) and a youthful exuberance that doesn’t know when to stop. So, yes, it’s digressive, excessive, over-the-top, and also sort-of-amazing. Hallberg is only 36 and yet he nails the gritty, glittering milieu like a modern-day Dickens with some Richard Price thrown in. His book made me remember what a rush New York was back then. I found myself  humming Patti Smith’s “Because the Night” while I was reading; now it’s an earworm I don’t regret.

Although City on Fire has flashbacks and flash forwards, it begins in December 1976 and continues through mid-July of ’77, culminating in the infamous blackout after a lightning strike brought down the city’s electric grid. The blackout comes across as almost apocalyptic in the novel, but it’s also where Hallberg brings together the many plotlines and characters spiraling out from the shooting of Long Island teenager Samantha in Central Park on New Year’s Eve. Mercer finds her after coming from a ritzy Hamilton-Sweeney party he went to without William and where he meets William’s estranged sister Regan for the first time. She and her husband Keith have recently separated and she’s moved to Brooklyn with their two kids. It turns out that Keith knows Sam, now lying in a coma in a hospital, while a detective grills Mercer at the police station and Sam’s pal, awkward asthmatic Charlie, searches for her friends from a punk band headed by the anarchist Nicky Chaos, who knows William as drummer Billy Three-Sticks.

Got that? Because there are many, many more characters with overlapping stories and lives, like Sam’s father, who oversees a family fireworks business, and the magazine writer, who profiles the father and knows the detective and lives next to the gallery assistant who works for the dealer who was once William’s mentor. And so on. You may remember the old TV drama tagline: “There are eight million stories in the naked city. This has been one of them.” Hallberg would like to tell a million or more with few degrees of separation.

Happily, Hallberg can really write in a take-no-prisoners, eat-my-dust style, and my eyes only glazed while reading some of Nicky Chaos’ rants or trying to decipher Sam’s zine writings. Sure the book could be shorter. Possibly it would be better, and more people would read it. Still, New York, New York. The good old bad old ’70s. Sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll. What a rush.

Moving on, maybe

afteryouCertain books, movies and sad songs have been known to move me to tears — as well as parades, the national anthem and ads for greeting cards. Yep, I’m a crybaby, even when I know my emotions are being shamelessly manipulated. That’s the way I felt reading Jojo Moyes’ bestseller of several years back, Me Before You, about young caregiver/companion Louisa Clark and quadriplegic Will Traynor. If you haven’t read it, do so before reading the sequel After You (Viking Penguin, digital galley), or even the rest of this column. There be spoilers.

The story picks up 18 months after the events of the first book, but Lou isn’t living the interesting, fulfilled life that Will envisioned for her. Travel to Europe did little to assuage her grief, and now a sterile London flat and a crummy job working in an airport bar aren’t helping either. Mired in depression, a tipsy Lou ventures out on her roof one night and inadvertently falls off. A paramedic tells her she’s lucky to have survived.

Recovering in the hospital and then at her parents’ house in her childhood bedroom, Lou has a better understanding of Will’s situation and his desire to end his life, but she still is surprised that everyone seems to think she tried to commit suicide. She reluctantly joins a grief support group whose counselor talks about “moving on,” but it isn’t until troubled teenage Lily turns up at her door in London that Lou gets her skates on, after a fashion.

Moyes is an assured storyteller in the Maeve Binchy mode, offering up generous helpings of smiles and tears. After You isn’t as emotionally resonant as its predecessor because the focus is more diffuse as Moyes explores how grief reverberates in the wake of Will’s death. But it’s not all heavy going — Lou’s mother asserts her independence to the consternation of her bemused husband; Lily’s casual selfishness and vulnerability forces Lou to some decisions, as does the possibility of romance with the same paramedic who rescued her from her fall.

Still, Lou ultimately has to pick herself up, and it’s this struggle, in all its fits and starts, that Moyes chronicles with humor and compassion. She also leaves the door open to the possibility of a third book, reminding us that life is rarely tidy and loose ends make it interesting.




place1962. It was Frosted Flakes, the Texaco star, Andy and Opie Taylor, Gunsmoke and Lawrence Welk. But it was also the Cold War, duck-and-cover drills, fallout shelters, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Susan Carol McCarthy’s new novel A Place We Knew Well (Bantam, digital galley), set in Central Florida in the fall of  1962, is a curious mix of documentary and daytime soap, American Experience meets Search for Tomorrow.

McCarthy is very good at specifying the details of the era, from B-52 bombers lumbering overhead to U-2 spy planes, looking like “a cluster of fantastic dragonflies,” parked at McCoy Air Force Base. Orlando gas station owner and World War II vet Wes Avery and his teenage daughter Charlotte are viewing the planes through binoculars when an MP asks them to return to their car and move away from the restricted area.

The Averys — Wes, Charlotte and mom Sarah — are the major players in McCarthy’s story as the nation is gripped by the thought of long-range Russian missiles parked off Florida’s front porch. Cuba is just 90 miles from Key West, and missiles could reach Central Florida in eight to 10 minutes. Wes, who saw the aftermath of Hiroshima from the air, has no patience with local “Bombworshippers,” and is dismayed when a local insurance company salesman gives him dogtags for Charlotte as preparation for “a worst-case scenario.” Charlotte, meanwhile, is a typical teen worried that the crisis might disrupt homecoming at Edgewater High and her first date with Emilio, a teenage “Pedro Pan,”  sent to the U.S. by his aristocratic parents after the Cuban revolution.

Meanwhile, Sarah, depressed after a recent hysterectomy, is coming apart at the seams, popping uppers and downers as she works with the local women’s civil defense league, overseeing the stocking of public bomb shelters. She totally disapproves of Charlotte’s date with Emilio, even though the handsome teen works for her husband. As tensions mount about possible nuclear war, an estranged family member turns up and long-held secrets are exposed. The subsequent fallout changes the Averys’ lives forever.

A Place We Knew Well begins slowly but eventually builds some suspense. Still, the ending can’t help but be anticlimactic, and a final letter to McCarthy from a character strikes a false note. Overall, the book doesn’t have the dramatic impact of McCarthy’s first novel, Lay That Trumpet In Our Hands, another family story inspired by real events in Central Florida. But it is set a decade earlier, in 1951, when the KKK terrorized the black community. McCarthy deserves credit for her research and her reimagining of an historical turning point, but her fictional characters just aren’t as interesting as the times or the place in which they lived.


Mysteries and more, part II

zigzagSo many mysteries the last month or so. A popular author kicks off a new series, while another chooses to end a longtime favorite. Star turns by trusted detectives, past crimes leading to present-day puzzles, procedurals, capers, a serial killer — or two.

Elly Griffiths, whose Ruth Galloway series is known for its engaging characters, introduces another memorable cast in The Zig Zag Girl (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), set in 1950 Brighton. Police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto both served in a special ops/disinformation group known as the Magic Men during World War II and reteam as sleuths when someone starts killing people by restaging famous magic tricks. Atmospheric, clever and appropriately tricky. Encore, please.

longlandWith the evocative Long Upon the Land (Grand Central, library hardcover), Margaret Maron brings her long-running Deborah Knott series to a close by circling back to Deborah’s complicated family history as bootlegger Kezzie Knott’s daughter. She marries a contemporary mystery about a dead man found on Kezzie’s North Carolina farm to one with roots in World War II, when Deborah’s mother Susan befriended both a young soldier and widower Kezzie. In both cases, Deborah needs answers from her many older brothers, her aunt and her father, as well as others with long memories. Sweet and bittersweet.

raggedLand is also at the heart of Last Ragged Breath (St. Martin’s Minotaur, advance reading copy), Julia Keller’s fourth entry in her excellent series featuring prosecutor Bell Elkins. A native of the hardscrabble West Virginia mountain town of Acker’s Gap, Elkins is familiar with the area’s history, even if the disastrous 1972 Buffalo Creek flood was before her time. Royce Dillard was only two when he survived the rushing waters that claimed the lives of his parents and more than a hundred other souls, but now the solitary dog-lover’s life is imperiled once again. He is on trial for the murder of an outside developer on his land. The circumstantial evidence points to Dillard, but Elkins has her doubts, well aware of the passions aroused by the dead man and his plans that could forever change Acker’s Gap. Like her protagonist, Keller knows the landscape and its residents. Unlike Elkins, though, she also knows dogs. I fell hard for Goldie.

natureofA boy cries wolf once too often in Louise Penny’s The Nature of the Beast (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), a stunning addition to her Inspector Gamache series. I was disappointed by the last one (choppy writing, digressive plot), but this one took my breath away as the isolated Quebec village of Three Pines is invaded by suspicion and betrayal with far-reaching moral consequences. All the familiar characters are on hand, including Henri the dog and Rosa the duck, as Gamache resists peaceful retirement in his search for answers. What little Laurent finds in the woods is real and fearsome.

xgraftonThe only problem with Sue Grafton’s X (Penguin Putnam, digital galley) is that it means we’re nearing the end of her alphabetically titled series starring PI Kinsey Millhone. As always, it’s a treat to watch Kinsey using the old-fashioned tools of the trade circa 1989 to catch criminals. Here, knocking on doors, using library reference books and looking at public records in person has Kinsey figuring out frauds large and small, even as the private files of a late colleague lead to a trail of missing women and a serial killer. Yikes! The colorful characters include a wily divorcee, a slick sociopath and annoying new neighbors for Kinsey and her elderly landlord Henry.

susansThe plot of Julia Heaberlin’s thrilling Black-Eyed Susans (Random House/Ballantine, digital galley) reminds me of an episode of Criminal Minds but minus most of the gory details. In 1995, 16-year-old Tessa was found buried alive under a blanket of black-eyed Susans in a Texas wheat field that served as a grave for three other girls. Tessa, who only has flashes of memory of her traumatic experience, nevertheless testified at the trial of the presumed killer, who was sent to Death Row. Now, with his execution only days away, Tessa reluctantly agrees to help a defense attorney and a forensics expert trying to free the condemned man by finally identifying the other victims. Heaberlin alternates between past and present, piling on the red herrings, and Tessa struggles to recover her memory. The ending’s a bit muddled and unevenly paced, but Heaberlin’s third book will keep you up all night.

marrykissWith its snappy dialogue and cinematic scenes, Marry Kiss Kill (Prospect Park Books, digital galley) reads like a rom-com caper TV movie — no surprise since author Anne Flett-Giordano’s writing and producing credits include Frasier and Hot in Cleveland. With the glitzy Santa Barbara film festival as backdrop, police detective Nola MacIntire and her partner, Tony Angellotti, try to solve the case of a murdered street artist while also looking into the suspicious death of a wealthy businessman. Nothing especially original here, but appealing characters and a spritz of name-dropping make for fast-paced fun.

pargeterKeeping up with so many series means I hardly ever run out of new mysteries to read. A shout-out to the Witness Impulse imprint that introduced me to several excellent writers from across the pond, including Brian McGilloway, whose Lucy Black series is set in Northern Ireland; Mari Hannah, whose Kate Daniels series takes place in Northumbria; and Alison Bruce, whose Gary Goodhew procedurals are set in Cambridge. I also count on British publisher Severn House for witty new tales from Simon Brett, who writes the Charles Paris series and the Mrs. Pargeter books. Severn also publishes new mysteries from American writers (and Facebook friends) Clea Simon and Sarah Shaber.  Recommended all.


Mysteries and more

So many mysteries the last month or so. A popular author kicks off a new series, while another chooses to end a longtime favorite. Star turns by trusted detectives, past crimes leading to present-day puzzles, procedurals, capers, a serial killer — or two.

Attention: The above was prematurely published when a cat took over the laptop. I apologize on his behalf. The complete version appears in the next post.



Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 195 other followers