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Shore things

I think we’re going to need a bigger tote. Yes, tote as in tote bag to stow all this season’s beach books.  The first wave arrives this month so you can get a headstart on summer.

Anchoring my haul is the highly anticipated The High Tide Club (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) by Mary Kay Andrews, who when she isn’t wearing her beach book hat is my pal Kathy Trocheck. I’ve gotten used to her breezy novels (Savannah Blues, Beach Town) welcoming summer, but last year she skipped writing a novel to produce The Beach House Cookbook, full of scrumptious recipes. But now she’s back, offering a substantive feast of a novel spiced with intrigue, secrets, drama and romance. It’s scrumptious, too.

Readers of Save the Date may remember Brooke Trapnelle as the runaway bride who literally climbed a tree as part of her escape. In The High Tide Club, Brooke moves to the forefront, a single mom lawyer in the Georgia coastal town of St. Ann who is hired by 99-year-old Josephine Bettandorf  Warrick. The eccentric heiress wants Brooke to help her save Talisa, her 20,000-acre island estate with its crumbling pink wedding cake of a mansion, from being taken over by the state and turned into a park. She also needs Brooke to track down the heirs of the three women who were once her best friends — Ruth, Millie and Varina — back in 1941. Josephine says she needs to make amends but won’t say for what.

By flashing back to 1941 every now and then, Andrews hints at some of the secrets the past is holding, like an unsolved murder and divisions of race and class. But Brooke has a lot on her plate in the present, too, coordinating a reunion among women who have never met, untangling family histories and mysteries, taking care of rambunctious toddler son Henry, all the while trying to do her best for Josephine and Talisa. There’s a sudden death, a visit to a Savannah orphanage, a showdown in a lighthouse. You may pick up on some plot twists, and others may take you by surprise. Either way, The High Tide Club is a satisfying saga, just what the summer ordered.

The title of Nancy Thayer’s A Nantucket Wedding (Ballantine, digital galley) is a bit of a misnomer, not that it doesn’t take place on Nantucket, and not that there isn’t a wedding. But the warmhearted story of blended families is mostly about the summer before the planned fall wedding between Alison and David, both of whom have been married before. They also have grown children and young grandchildren meeting for the first time. Alison’s daughters Jane and Felicity are chalk and cheese, although both have workaholic husbands. Jane is just as absorbed in her legal career as Scott but has started to regret their mutual decision not to have kids. Easy-going Felicity wishes Noah paid as much attention to her and their two kids as his start-up business and efficient “work wife.” Stirring the pot is David’s handsome son Ethan, who can’t help being a playboy flirt. His sister Pamela is intent on taking over her father’s business but being pregnant again wasn’t in her plans. Although Alison tries to ease  tensions by being the perfect hostess and preparing delicious meals at David’s luxurious island home, she’s feeling overwhelmed while still getting to know her husband-to-be. Thayer understands the way families work — and don’t work — and if her resolutions tend toward the optimistic, that’s ok. It’s summer. On Nantucket. Go with it.

A wedding also is in the offing in By Invitation Only (Morrow, digital galley), Dorothea Benton Frank’s latest Lowcountry tale, available May 15. Shelby Cambria is the only child of a wealthy Chicago couple, while her fiance Fred’s mother Diane runs a South Carolina peach farm with her brother Floyd. Both MOG Diane and MOB Susan are guilty of making stereotypical assumptions about the other, and Frank has some fun alternating the narrative between them. Snobby Susan turns up her nose at the down-home barbecue Diane and Floyd host to celebrate the engagement, while Diane feels out of place among Susan’s society friends at a Chicago fete. Miscommunications and misunderstandings ensue, enhanced by an unexpected romance and a stunning scandal. RSVP just for the details of food and drink, whether your taste runs to caviar and champagne or peaches and a pig-pickin’.

Another of my favorite Lowcountry authors, Mary Alice Monroe, arrives at the party on May 22 with Beach House Reunion (Gallery Books, digital galley), the fifth in her occasional series about Primrose Cottage and the Rutledge family. (The book that started it all, The Beach House, has been adapted for television by the Hallmark Channel and is airing this month). In the new book, Cara Rutledge is now in her 50s and returns to the Isle of Palms with her adopted one-year-old daughter. She’s joined by her niece Linnea, a recent college graduate eager to get away from the restrictions of her proper Charleston upbringing. Ever since family matriarch and “turtle lady” Lovie lived at Primrose, the unpretentious beach house has been a retreat for troubled souls and a way station for those unsure of what’s next. Once again, the life cycle of the sea turtles reflects the characters’ search for home.

 Judy Blundell’s first novel The High Season (Random House, digital galley, May 22) proves once again that the rich are different from you and me, and it’s not just that they have more money. For community museum director Ruthie, the price for living on the North Fork of Long Island is renting out for the summer the big house she shares with her ex-husband and teenage daughter during the winter. This summer, though, wealthy widow Adeline and her spoiled stepson Lucas have taken the house for the entire season, and the Hamptons crowd “discovers” the North Fork. Everything changes for the village and Ruthie, who soon discovers her so-called friends are a fair-weather bunch of social climbers and back stabbers. I was so happy to close the book on them.

By contrast, Wendy Francis’ The Summer Sail (Touchstone, digital galley) is the pleasant story of three college roommates on a cruise to Bermuda. Abby, who is paying for the trip, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with professor husband Sam and their teenage sons. Magazine editor Caroline is hoping her longtime beau Javier will propose. Schoolteacher and single mom Lee wants to know why her college student daughter Lacey is being a brat. Actually, Lacey has a secret, and Abby has an even bigger one, so all is not smooth sailing. But pretty much.

Remember the women who renovated a Gulf Coast mansion in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road and then got their own reality TV show in subsequent books in the series? They’re back in Best Beach Ever (Berkley, digital galley, May 22), and once again they’re shoring one another up in the face of adversity. They’ve lost their TV show, Do Over, apparently for good this time, have rented out the renovated Bella Flora so as not to lose it, and have moved into cottages at the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club. Nikki is struggling with her young twins; Maddie is coping with her rock star boyfriend’s resurrected celebrity; Avery is avoiding commitment; Kyra is trying to keep her son out of the Hollywood spotlight; and Bitsy is contemplating revenge. It helps if you’ve read the other books, hardly a chore considering Wax’s sure touch with matters of home and heart.

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Pages of April

Gods and monsters, heroes and mortals. I’ve always loved the stories of the Greeks, from Homer to Edith Hamilton to Mary Renault. Madeline Miller joined the list several years ago with her novel The Song of Achilles, and now casts a spell with Circe (Little Brown, digital galley). You may remember Circe as the sorceress who seduced Odysseus and turned his sailors into pigs, but Miller gives us her own epic story so  she becomes a woman for the ages. The neglected daughter of the god of the sun, Helios, young Circe displays little aptitude at being a nymph among many. But when she turns her rival Scylla into a sea monster, she is banished to an island where she hones her skill as a witch, using herbs to heal and taming wild animals. Zeus, Prometheus, Medea, Odysseus, and the Minotaur all play a part, but Circe is the glittering but sympathetic star. You go, girl!

 

Meg Wolitzer didn’t know about the #MeToo movement when she was writing The Female Persuasion (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley), but it’s a frat boy’s unwanted sexual advances that motivate shy college freshman Greer Kadetsky to speak up at noted feminist Faith Frank’s guest lecture. That the boy essentially got away with his brutish behavior is what so frustrates Greer, whom Faith singles out after her speech. Several years later, Greer will go to work for Faith and eventually discover the compromises her mentor made along the way, of how time can temper ideals. Intertwined with Greer and Faith’s lives are those of Greer’s boyfriend, whose promising career is derailed by a family tragedy, and of her college roommate, whom she will betray so as to keep Faith’s attention on herself. It’s an absorbing and well-told story, one I liked but didn’t love. I had the same experience with Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Both books are like clothes I admire in a store window, thinking that’s just my style, but then I try them on and they don’t suit somehow. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Three very different first novels captured my attention. Christine Mangan’s atmospheric Tangerine (HarperCollins, digital galley) owes a lot to Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. Fragile Alice Shipley is living quietly in 1956 Tangier with her obtuse husband John McAlister when her former Bennington College roommate Lucy Mason arrives on her doorstep. Intrigue past and present unfold, as Mangan switches between Alice and Lucy as narrators. Whereas Alice is overwhelmed by the crowded heat of Tangier, Lucy embraces its exoticism and suspects John of having married Alice for her money. What happens is pretty predictable, but the finale still chills. In Stray City (Custom House, review copy), Chelsey Johnson charms with her coming-out and coming-of-age tale. Narrator Andrea escapes the tyranny of her straitlaced Nebraska family to be a part of the “Lesbian Mafia” in 1990s Portland. After a bad break-up and a lot to drink, she hooks up with a male friend Ryan and becomes pregnant. The second half of the book is set 10 years later, when Andrea’s daughter Lucia wants to know about her father. Lots of nostalgia here for being young and finding your tribe. Sally Franson’s A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out (Dial Press,  review copy) finds an English lit grad whose star is rising at a trendy boutique ad agency. I reviewed it for the Minneapolis-Star Tribune,  https://tinyurl.com/y79yyd9r

 

Mystery plus

Martha Grimes’ clever Richard Jury novels take their titles from British pubs, and there have been some doozies over the years: I Am the Only Running Footman, Help the Poor Struggler, Five Bells and Bladebone. So the 24th in the series, The Knowledge (Grove Atlantic, digital galley) seems merely another curiosity. But don’t go looking for it in London. The Knowledge, which refers to the street maps that the drivers of London’s famous black cabs know by heart, is also the name of a hidden, cabbies-only pub so secret that even Scotland Yard can’t find it. The story of the pub is one of the whimsical digressions in the murder case Jury is investigating, the shooting deaths of an American astronomer and his wife on the steps of a private casino. The shooter escapes in a black cab, but the stalwart driver alerts his network and Patty Haigh, a sassy preteen Sherlock, manages to pick up his trail at Heathrow and wrangle a first-class ticket to Kenya. Jury will eventually dispatch his pal Melrose Plant on safari to find Patty, while placing antiques dealer Marshall Trueblood inside the casino to deal cards. The complicated plot involving drugs, stolen art and greedy villains, is almost an afterthought, but who cares when the gang’s all here, plus winsome newcomers. I was totally charmed. Like lovely Vivian, I can’t make up my mind between Jury and Plant, so I’ll take both, please.

The many charms of Venice are on full display in Donna Leon’s new Guido Brunetti novel, The Temptation of Forgiveness (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), which is as thoughtful as it is atmospheric. Brunetti moves adroitly from vicious office politics to happy family life to investigating the case of a comatose beating victim. Turns out he is the accountant husband of a teacher whom Brunetti’s wife knows and who recently approached Brunetti about the drug problem at her son’s private school. Is there a connection? Perhaps. Meanwhile, what of the man’s elderly aunt, a Miss Havisham-like figure in a Venice apartment? The leisurely plot hinges on government corruption to no one’s surprise, this being a city long familiar with frauds of all kinds. But there’s something particularly unjust about a system that takes advantage of its most vulnerable citizens. Here’s a vision of Venice that tourists don’t see, and it’s not pretty.

Scotland Yard’s Thomas Lynley and Barbara Havers return in Elizabeth George’s immersive doorstop The Punishment She Deserves (Penguin, purchased e-book), but so does their boss, Isabelle Ardery, who exists on vodka and breath mints. There’s no love lost between Lynley and Ardery, even though or because of a brief affair, but Ardery really has it in for Havers. So she takes the DS with her to Ludlow to investigate a possible case of police malfeasance, hoping Havers will go rogue and hang herself. Six weeks earlier, a church deacon suspected of pedophilia hung himself while in police custody, but the dead man’s influential parents insist he would never commit suicide. Ardery wants to make sure the original investigation was legit so as to avert any lawsuit, but Havers keeps picking at loose ends, of which there are many. Also multiple suspects, motives and red herrings. It will take Lynley’s late intervention to prove Havers right and get the case back on track but not before readers have met three college students rooming together in a rundown house, a community police officer with dyslexia, another police officer with family problems who likes to hang glide, a bar owner with an upstairs room to rent by the hour, a homeless man with a dog and claustrophobia, and Ardery’s ex, who is about to take their twin sons to live in New Zealand. There’s rather too much of Ardery and not enough Lynley to my liking, but Havers tap dances. Really.

YA crossover alert. Maureen Johnson launches an intriguing new series with Truly Devious (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), which is somewhat reminiscent of  her Shades of London series, with its boarding school setting and teenage protagonist. But Ellingham Academy was established by an eccentric tycoon in rural Vermont, and only accepts the best and the brightest, for whom tuition is free. Stevie Bell gets in because of her obsession with true crime and detecting skills, and she vows to solve an infamous cold case despite her panic attacks. Back in 1936, the founder’s wife and daughter were kidnapped and a student died. The only clue was a nasty rhyme signed “Truly Devious.” Just as Stevie is getting used to the weirdness that is Ellingham and her fellow students, Truly Devious appears to strike again and the book ends with a cliffhanger. Johnson increases the suspense of the Christie-like case by alternating narratives between present day and 1936. Waiting for the next installment is going to be difficult, but I’ve had experience with Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Holmes  series, which continues with The Case for Jamie (HarperCollins, library hardcover). The first book, A Study in Charlotte, found Sherlock Holmes’ descendant Charlotte Holmes meeting up with Dr. Watson’s descendant Jamie Watson at an American boarding school, where they were targeted by members of the Moriarty crime family. Then events turned even darker in The Last of August, and as the third book begins, best friends Jamie and Charlotte haven’t spoken in a year. Jamie’s back at school for his senior year, with a nice girlfriend and no idea as to Charlotte’s whereabouts. He no longer trusts her after a shocking betrayal. But the Moriarty clan is apparently bent on ruining Jamie’s life so as to get to Charlotte, who is feeling guilty and driven as she tries to save him from afar. They alternate narrating chapters, often at cross-purposes until finally joining forces to defeat Lucien Moriarty or die trying, which is a real possibility. A happy ending? Not going to tell you.

 

 

 

 

Novel trio

In the fleet The Flight Attendant (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Chris Bohjalian  puts some polish on that old chestnut of waking up next to a dead body. Flight attendant and binge drinker Cassie Bowden has only vague memories of her one-night stand with first-class passenger and American hedge fund manager Alex Sokoloff.  She recalls a business associate of Alex’s called Miranda showing up in his Dubai hotel room with more vodka. Then Miranda left and Cassie was going to leave, too, only now Cassie’s awake, and Alex is dead beside her with his throat cut. She clears out quickly, not at all sure she didn’t kill him with the broken glass she takes with her to discard, and makes her flight to New York, hangover and all. What she doesn’t know is that a Russian assassin is already regretting her decision not to kill Cassie and that the hotel security cameras were working. Cue the FBI. It’s a great set-up, although Cassie tries to drown her childhood memories and her present predicament with more regret drinking, and her addiction threatens the thrills of the espionage plot. But then Bohjalian pilots the book out of a dive with a couple of quick stunts. Fasten your seatbelts, please.

First-time author Clarissa Goenawan explores love and loss in Rainbirds (Soho Press, purchased hardcover), which mingles mystery with a touch of magical realism. When Japanese grad student Ren Ishida’s older sister Keiko is murdered, he travels to the small town where she had been living to collect her ashes. But Ren realizes that most of what he knew of Keiko has to do with his childhood, when she mothered him, and he has little idea of who she became after leaving home. He ends up taking over her teaching job at a prep school and even moves into the room she rented from a wealthy politician and his invalid wife. After he learns details of her stabbing death on a rainy night, he finds the street where it happened and lies down to reimagine her last lonely hours. He has recurring dreams of a pig-tailed girl, tries to help a shoplifting student and can’t find the knife he gave to Keiko. He does find her birth control pills. As Ren tries to discover Keiko’s secrets and come to terms with his own guilt and grief, he connects with  other people — fellow teacher Honda, the politician’s silent wife, the troubled student, a former lover. Rainbirds, with its images of goldfish, its memories and dreams, is quiet and disquieting, reminiscent of Haruki Murakami. Haunting.

New Yorker Nora Nolan has what you might call first world problems, although her college-age daughter is quick to note that no one says that anymore. Still, in Anna Quindlen’s thoughtful new novel, Alternate Side (Random House, digital galley) Nora, a museum director, and her investment banker husband Chip enjoy the privileges of life in an Upper West Side townhouse on a rare dead-end street. She really doesn’t want to live anywhere else. Sure, neighbor George is an officious busybody, and Jack next-door has a terrible temper, but it’s a real community with holiday parties, dogs on  leashes, a small parking lot for residents of long-standing, and shared handyman Ricky. Then Jack takes a golf club to Ricky’s van — and Ricky — in a parking dispute, and the incident winds up in the tabloids with neighbors split as to the rights and wrongs of the situation. Even Nora and Chip disagree, which prompts Nora to take a long look at her marriage and what she wants for the rest of her life. I suppose Alternate Side is a comedy of manners, but only if you think of the human comedy and not the laugh-aloud kind. There’s wit and satire, of course, but also probing questions of race and class, privilege and empathy. In her memoir, Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake, Quindlen writes of how we come to understand our lives retrospectively. “The life lessons came not from what we had but from whom we loved, and from the failures perhaps more  than the successes.”

Criminal behavior

Laura Lippman’s new stand-alone Sunburn (Morrow/HarperCollins, digital galley) is a slow burn noir set in a scruffy Delaware town on the way to the beach from Baltimore. It’s 1995, which means Polly Costello and Adam Bosk can’t Google each other when they meet at the High-Ho diner. Their secrets are layered and many; that Polly has just walked away from her husband and daughter, and that Adam is a private investigator is only the beginning. Lippman’s homage to James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice works wonderfully as she twists the classic conventions to her own ends. Redheaded, hard-to-read Polly is not your usual femme fatale, and Adam more than a good-looking lunk. The waitress and the short-order cook begin an affair, but neither counts on falling in love. There’s a suspicious death and possible arson. Deceit, betrayal, unexpected revelations. Who is playing a long game, whose motives are mixed? The suspense is exquisite, the end to die for.

Kelley Armstrong’s atmospheric Rockton novels are set in an off-the-grid community in the Canadian wilderness, an isolated haven for people with pasts and secrets. Armstrong introduced police officer Casey Duncan in 2016’s City of the Lost, following up with last year’s An Absolute Darkness. Now, in the equally gripping This Fallen Prey (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Rockton’s town council agrees to house accused killer Oliver Brady against the advice of Sheriff Eric Dalton. His and Casey’s misgivings are affirmed by Brady, who tries to charm his way out of his makeshift prison and divides the townspeople as to his guilt or innocence. Tempers flare, violence threatens, and then Brady escapes into the wilderness with inside help. Finding him means braving the fierce Yukon elements, as well as figuring out the identity of the traitor(s) and the exact nature of Brady’s past crimes. The romantic relationship between Eric and Casey ups the ante, as does the fact that Eric’s brother is a member of the nomadic survivalists in the area who have a tenuous truce with Rockton’s residents. Remember, there are killers among them who have paid dearly for their pasts to be forgotten, if not sins forgiven.

Scorching heat and drought plagued an Australian community in The Dry, Jane Harper’s first thriller featuring Aaron Falk, a Federal police agent. His hands still bear the burn scars from that last case in Force of Nature (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), although this time pervasive cold and damp hinder his search for a woman missing in the Giralong mountain range. Falk and his partner Carmen Cooper are working a financial fraud case, and the missing woman is their informant Alice Russell. She and four other women from a Melbourne accounting firm were on a team-building corporate retreat when they got lost and separated. Harper alternates between scenes of the current search and the past actions of the women, not only on the hike but also in their personal lives. Two women have teenage daughters; several went to the same private school; two are sisters. Harper adds an extra frisson by having Falk recall that this is the same area where a serial killer stalked his prey twenty years ago. That man is dead, but there’s an eerie similarity to this new case. Harper eventually ties up the loose ends for a satisfactory conclusion, but the harrowing story reminded me why I traded in camping for glamping. Leaky tents, wet clothes, blistered feet — and one of your fellows could be a killer. I’ll just read the book, thank you.

Precocious girl detective Flavia de Luce, kicked out the Girl Guides for an excess of high spirits and recently booted out of boarding school, is truly depressed at the beginning of Alan Bradley’s The Grave’s a Fine and Private Place (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley). In the wake of a tragedy at the crumbling family home Buckshaw, devoted servant Dogger proposes a boating holiday for 12-year-old Flavia and her two older sisters. Flavia perks up a bit when they pass near the church where a vicar once poisoned the communion wine with cyanide, thus ridding  himself of three pesky parishioners, and she’s downright delighted to next discover a dead body floating in the river. When the corpse man is identified as the vicar’s troubled son Orlando, Flavia has the opportunity to investigate crimes old and new. The landlady at the inn is full of gossipy information, a coffin-maker’s son provides further insight, and Dogger is an able and invaluable assistant when Flavia runs afoul of local law enforcement. They just don’t recognize her genius, poor souls. After nine previous books, readers know better.

A few more recommendations. Inspired by the Ted Bundy case, Meg Gardiner’s chilling Into the Black Nowhere (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley) finds rookie FBI profiler Caitlin Hendrix on the trail of a serial killer, who is also a charming psychopath. This UNSUB, kidnapping and killing young women in central Texax,  uses some of Bundy’s tactics — pretending to need help, for example — to lure his victims into his car, where he snaps on the handcuffs. He also manages a daring escape at one point, as did Bundy. But Gardiner adds some twists of her own invention, and Caitlin has enough flaws to make her an interesting continuing character. Laura Powell’s The Unforgotten (Gallery Books) has a retro vibe and reminded me of the 1987 British film Wish You Were Here, in which Emily Lloyd played a teenager willingly seduced by an older man. In this story set in a seaside community in 1956 Cornwall, 15-year-old Betty is drawn to one of the out-of-town reporters staying at the Hotel Eden, run by her unhappy and unbalanced mother. In the news is the search for “the Cornwell Cleaver,” who is murdering young women in lurid circumstances. This storyline alternates with one 50 years later, where an older woman named Mary is intent on reconnecting with someone from that long-ago summer. The title character of Lexie Elliot’s involving debut The French Girl is the beautiful and enigmatic Sabine. After insinuating herself with a group of British students vacationing in the French countryside, she inexplicably disappeared. Ten years later, her remains are discovered, upsetting the lives of five of the former friends, especially legal recruiter Kate. Realizing that her jealousy of Sabine makes her a prime suspect, obsessive Kate begins to wonder how well she knew the others, including her ex-lover Seb and his cousin Tom. Neil Olson’s The Black Painting (Hanover Square/Harlequin, digital gallery) features such Gothic elements as a creepy old house, a tyrannical patriarch, and a stolen painting that supposedly carries a curse. Alfred Arthur Morse’s body is discovered by his granddaughter Therese, who along with her cousins, has been summoned to his Connecticut coastal home where they spent childhood summers. The last time they were all there, the painting by Goya that hung in Morse’s library was stolen. It still has not been recovered, although the accused thief recently got out of prison. There’s enough weirdness going on that one of Morse’s sons hires PI Dave Webster to uncover the truth about the theft, and he is soon enmeshed in sordid family secrets. An unlikely but entertaining tale.

 

 

Once upon times

If you like your fairy tales on the dark side, then don’t miss Melissa Albert’s beautifully creepy debut The Hazel Wood (Flatiron Books, digital galley).  Teenager Alice Proserpine and her mother Ella lead a nomadic life dogged by bad luck. But then Ella receives word that her estranged mother Althea, the reclusive author of a book of disturbing stories, Tales from the Hinterlands, has died and declares herself “free.” Not so fast. When Ella is kidnapped, Alice and her Althea-obsessed classmate Ellery, head for upstate New York and the one place Ella warned her against — Althea’s home, the Hazel Wood, birthplace of the mysterious Hinterlands. Albert intersperses Alice’s adventures with her grandmother’s thorny stories, adding to the magical, menacing atmosphere. Are the Hinterlands a real place? Do the stories we tell ourselves have a life of their own? Curiouser and curiouser, as another Alice might say. Into the woods we go.

In 2016’s Every Heart a Doorway, which scooped up awards right and left, Seanan McGuire introduced Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children for kids who return from the rabbit hole or the yellow brick road or the other side of the sun. They all have a hard time readjusting to life after fantasy, outsiders waiting for the day when their doorways will reopen and they can  go home to whatever magical world they belong. In the series’ enchanting third book, Beneath the Sugar Sky (TOR, library e-book), Cora, whose plumpness was an asset when she was a mermaid, is sitting by the pond when another girl falls from the sky with a splash. Rini is looking for her mother Sumi and is dismayed to learn of her death years before. In order to save herself from disappearing bit by bit,  Rini needs the help of Cora and several other misfits to resurrect Sumi and restore her to her rightful world of Confection. So off they go on a perilous quest, eventually ending up in the gingerbread castle of the ill-tempered Queen of Cakes. McGuire has a marvelous time envisioning the nonsense realm with its strawberry soda sea, graham cracker sands and candy corn fields, all under the guiding hand of the Baker. But her characters’ fears and longings feel real enough, and the atmosphere is bittersweet because not all dreams come true.

On his job application to teach history at a London school, youthful looking Tom Hazard admits to being 41.  Actually, he’s more than 400, having been blessed (or cursed) with a condition in which he ages incredibly slowly. Matt Haig’s  How to Stop Time (Viking, digital galley) is entertaining historical fiction with a time travel twist. In present-day London, Tom follows the rules of the secret Albatross Society, which is made up of other “Albas” who change their identities and locales every eight years and never, ever fall in love with “Mayflies,” mere mortals. Tom still mourns the loss of his wife centuries ago and is looking for his daughter, another Alba, as flashbacks tell of his past adventures: playing the lute for Shakespeare’s troupe; sailing with Captain Cook; drinking cocktails with Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald.  Then a pretty French teacher claims to recognize Tom, and the head of the Albatross Society insists he recruit an old friend, and Tom finds himself at a crossroads. How is he going to live the rest of his life?

“Half science, half magic — entirely fantastic” reads the banner on the cover of The Philosopher’s Flight (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), an exuberant tale from ER doctor turned novelist Tom Miller. In his alternate history of the World War I era, Montana teenager Robert Weekes is that rare thing — a male practitioner of empirical philosophy, a complicated magical science dominated by strong, talented women. Working with his war hero mom, Robert proves talented enough at sigilry — managing the natural elements by signing — that he wins a scholarship to all-female Radcliffe College. There, he must prove himself again and again to his classmates and professors even as he dreams of joining a flying corps of military medics working in France. He also falls in love with political activist Danielle, who is helping defend empirical philosophers from violent attacks by  fervent conservatives known as Trenchers. It’s all wonderfully funny and complicated, although Robert’s “aw shucks” narration gets old. (His boyhood nickname is the embarrassing Boober). It also comes to a screeching halt before Robert can detail his wartime adventures, so here’s hoping there’s a follow-up.

Time-traveling librarian Irene Winters returns in The Lost Plot (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley), the fourth entry in Genevieve Cogman’s clever Invisible Library series. The search for rare books takes Irene and her handsome apprentice Kai to all sorts of worlds and times through the vast Library’s myriad portals. As a Library employee, Irene has to remain neutral in the ongoing political power struggle between the Fae and the Dragons, both of whom can assume human form. But Kai is a Dragon prince, and when his family needs help in a Jazz Age New York, he and Irene face two warring factions, mobsters, bootleggers and cops, once again putting their lives on the line for the not-always-understanding Library. Kogman again excels at atmosphere and action, and the slow-burn attraction between Irene and Kai flares anew.  In previous books, they’ve time-hopped to Victorian London, as well as alternate Russia and Venice, so no telling where they’ll wind up next.

Past matters

A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.