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.


Summer’s last call

unlikelySure, some of you are headed back to school and work, and you have my sympathy. But others are headed out to the pool or back to the beach to savor what has been a summer for the books. There have been so many that I actually lost track of what I’ve reviewed. I wonder what I was doing in June that was so important that I forgot to write about Judy Blume’s  In the Unlikely Event (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a novel that thoughtfully explores the impact of a series of plane crashes on the townspeople of Elizabeth, N.J., in the winter of 1951-52. As usual, Blume’s writing is assured and accessible, her sympathetic characters flawed in familiar ways. The story is studded with period details: hats and gloves, wood-paneled rec rooms, cocktails and cigarettes. I quite liked it.

darkdarkMaybe I was distracted by a couple of thrillers I read back-to-back, S.J. Watson’s Second Life (HarperCollins, digital galley) and S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins (Grand Central, digital galley). Watson’s follow-up to Before I Go to Sleep features a woman who goes on an online dating sight in attempt to solve the murder of her sister and becomes caught up in an erotic affair. I remember reviews commenting on the surprise ending. Didn’t surprise me. Neither did Tremayne’s implausible tale of a grieving mother on a remote island puzzled as to the true identity of her surviving twin daughter. For some eerie psychological suspense, I recommend Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), in which a crime writer tries to remember the events of a girls’ weekend at the secluded Glass House after waking up in a hospital. There was snow. And there was blood.

lakeroadWare’s writing reminded me of Sophie Hannah when she’s at the top of her game. Alas, Hannah’s latest, Woman With a Secret (Morrow, digital galley), is kind of a mess, with an unreliable narrator narrating too much of the story of a murder of a controversial columnist. Detectives Waterhouse, Zailler and crew have a difficult time sorting out all the many unpleasant suspects, and the narrative is stuffed with tiresome e-mails, Twitter exchanges and online rants. Really didn’t care for Naughty Nicki and her secret cyber affairs. Secrets from the past, of course, are a staple of beach books. In Karen Katchur’s atmospheric The Secrets of Lake Road (St. Martin’s digital galley), a missing girl at a lakeside resort stirs up Jo’s carefully guarded memories of her high school boyfriend’s drowning 16 years ago. But Jo’s daughter, 12-year-old Caroline, about to leave childhood behind, steals every scene she narrates. Wendy Wax temporarily abandons her beachside setting in A Week at the Lake (Berkeley, review copy), but she’s still writing about female friendships, loyalty and betrayal. Emma, Mackenzie and Serena all have show-business connections and secrets, which give their story a glossy, dishy patina.

moviestarReal stars, including Clark Gable and Martina Dietrich, appear in Peter  Davis’ first novel of 1930s Hollywood, Girl of My Dreams (Open Road, review copy), but the focus is on a young screenwriter in love with a glamorous actress — the improbably named Palmyra Millevoix — who is also pursued by a studio tycoon. The tale of this triangle unreels with an overlay of nostalgia for celluloid dreams. Feel free to speculate as to which contemporary stars inspired celebrity memoirist Hilary Liftin’s Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper (Viking Penguin, digital galley). It’s to Liftin’s credit that this faux memoir is more than tabloid fodder as young Lizzie recounts her courtship and marriage to mega-star Rob Mars, whose attachment to a cult-like spiritual group interferes with their relationship. Living a seemingly luxurious life for all the world to see, Lizzie has to decide if she’s going to become the heroine of her own story.

lawyerSometimes in summer, a girl just wants to have fun, which is when I read Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold fluffy romances. She offered a trilogy this year: Hold Me (Harlequin, digital galley), in which secret singer Destiny and Olympic skier Kipling work search-and-rescue together; Kiss Me (Harlequin, digital galley), the love story between city girl Phoebe and cowboy Zane; and Thrill Me (Harlequin, digital galley), where Maya returns to town and runs into former flame Del.  Court and spark. But the book I fell hard for was Lee Robinson’s engaging Lawyer for the Dog (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), in which 49-year-old Charleston attorney Sally Baynard is appointed by a family court judge — also her ex-husband — to represent a miniature schnauzer in a custody dispute between a divorcing couple. Trying to figure out what’s best for adorable Sherman also means Sally has to figure out what’s best for her dementia-afflicted mother and for her own heart. Will it be the ex-husband, the Johns Island vet, or maybe a dog all her own? There’s real substance beneath the fluff; call this one more than puppy love.

Still August

localgirls“August came to Florida every year, but it felt like the end of the world every time because of how empty the streets and sidewalks became — everyone stayed inside. It got so bad that you started to blame the heat on other things — the palm trees and the beach and the sunsets and the sand — because heat that unpleasant had to be blamed on something. It surely wasn’t benign.”

That’s from Caroline Zancan’s first novel Local Girls (Riverhead, purchased hardcover), in which she not only nails the August hothouse that is Central Florida, but also the restlessness of teenage girls, the intensity of female friendships and our culture’s obsession with celebrity. Maggie, Nina and Lindsay grew up together in a working-class town stranded between Orlando and the beach. At 19, they’ve put high school behind them, and college isn’t on the agenda. After a day working dead-end jobs at the local mall, they head for their favorite dive bar, the Shamrock, where owner Sal turns a blind eye to their underage drinking and their ongoing feud with the country club college girls across the room.

Maggie, who suspects she’s pregnant, tells the story, beginning with the August night the trio spots movie star Sam Decker alone at the Shamrock drinking away what turns out to be the last night of his life. She seamlessly splices scenes of Sam buying drinks for the girls with those from their shared past, back when Lila Tucker was part of their group before her dad struck it rich and moved the family to a classier subdivision. Nina was their leader back then, as she is now. The conversations among Sam and the girls, who test their knowledge gleaned from celebrity magazines against the real thing, provide enough material for a good stand-alone story. But thehgradual revelations of the girls’ backstories — the sleepovers, the meet-ups at abandoned real estate projects, the escalating “prank wars” involving smart prepster pal Max — turn it into something more moving and rewarding. The girls may be local, but Zancan invests them with recognizably universal emotions of loss and longing. Orlando in August — hard to tell the sweat from the tears.

KitchensMy other favorite first novel this summer is J. Ryan Stradal’s Kitchens of the Great Midwest (Viking Penguin, digital galley), which is not a cookbook, although it does include a few recipes. But it is the kind of book you devour, or at least I did, even as I wanted to savor every last word.

The novel is about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, beginning with her chef father Lars who introduces her to the taste of a Moonglow heirloom tomato as a baby.  Poor Lars. His waitress wife Cindy leaves him and Eva, and then he collapses while lugging the hated lutefisk up the stairs for Christmas dinner.

Eva grows up in Minnesota and Iowa with her aunt and uncle, the kind of smart kid who writes her vocabulary sentences in iambic pentameter to make homework interesting. By age 11, she’s raising hydroponic chile plants in her closet, supplying local restaurants with her exotic peppers and also using them to exact revenge on the classmates who bully her because of her awkward height. Her college cousin Braque takes her in when she runs away, and the two scam chili-eating contestants at local bars. Then there’s the high school guy who falls hard for Eva, introducing her to the wonders of grilled walleye. She’s goes from restaurant intern to sous chef, arousing jealousy in a supper club member who can’t deny that Eva’s succotash is superior.

A later chapter finds Eva as a successful pop-up chef and judge at a gourmet baking contest, where county fair winner Pat Prager and her peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies. But not by Eva, who compliments her on her bars and looks “at Pat in a strange but warm way, as if Pat were a letter from home with money inside.”

The peanut butter bars reappear in the last chapter, as do other ingredients and people from Eva’s life. It’s a satisfying ending to a delicious tale. Yum.

Absolutely fabulous

watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

Killer summer

brushbackThe heat is on, so I’m hibernating in the AC under the ceiling fans. But I really can’t complain about summer. There’s almost always a baseball game on TV, a friend just brought me one of her delicious peach pies and I’ve been binging on crime novels. Sara Paretsky knocks it out of the park with the aptly named Brush Back (Putnam’s, digital galley), No. 18 in her V.I. Warshawski series. Never one to be intimidated, Vic is only encouraged by the threats she receives after taking a case in her old South Side Chicago neighborhood. Her 80-year-old client even takes a swing at her, and that’s before she begins digging up secrets about a 25-year-old murder case that possibly implicates her late cousin, Boom-Boom, a star player for the Blackhawks. Finding the real culprits leads Vic to rigged construction sites, corrupt politicians, local fixers and territorial cops, as well as to the bowels of Wrigley Field. Real inside baseball, tense and action-packed.

speakingbonesKathy Reichs’ involving Speaking in Bones (Bantam, digital galley) is also the 18th novel featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan who, this go-round, follows the lead of a websleuth on a cold case. Brennan is initially skeptical of Hazel “Lucky” Strike’s claim that the remains found in rural North Carolina are those of young Cora Teague, whose ultra-religious family thinks ran off with her boyfriend. But it’s the delusions of true believers that prove especially dangerous for Brennan and her colleagues.

murderdcFor more nitty-gritty city crime, check out Neely Tucker’s Murder D.C. (Viking, digital galley), set in the nation’s capital, and Ingrid Thoft’s Brutality (Putnam, library hardcover), set in Boston. In Tucker’s follow-up to The Ways of the Dead, metro reporter Sully Carter’s investigation into an apparent drug-related death has him dealing with low-life power wielders  and high-up power brokers. Street-smart dialogue and details boost a plot complicated by race, class and money.


brutalityThoft’s Fina Ludlow, investigator for her family’s infamous law firm, takes on a case of her own in the third book in the series. When Liz Barone, a former collegiate soccer player, is assaulted in her kitchen and left with life-threatening injuries, her mother hires Fina with the grudging consent of Liz’s husband. Fina, as snarky as ever and downing more junk food than Brenda Johnson of The Closer, suspects the attack on Liz may have been motivated by her lawsuit against New England University, where Liz played soccer and now works as a researcher. She’s not wrong, but many people have a stake in Liz’s allegations that her recent memory loss resulted from playing soccer with a concussion.

PrettyisWhen it comes to novels about kidnap survivors, Laura Lippman’s 2010 I’d Know You Anywhere is the gold standard for me. But Maggie Mitchell’s first novel Pretty Is (Henry Holt, digital galley) captured my attention with its insights about the secret life of girls and female friendship. When Carly May and Lois are 12, they are kidnapped by a handsome stranger they call Zed and are held for two months in a remote mountain cabin before being rescued. Some 20 years later, spelling bee champ Lois is a college professor and junior beauty queen Carly May has become Hollywood actress Chloe Savage. They are eventually reunited after Lois writes a thriller about two kidnapped girls, and Chloe accepts the part of a detective in the movie based on Lois’ book. Before that, though, a creepy student stirs up Lois’ memories about that summer, while Chloe dwells on the differences between Lois’s book — part of which is embedded in Pretty Is — and what she remembers. But it isn’t until they are together again that they are forced to confront the truth of their shared experience.

bradstreetThe slippery nature of memory also is explored in Robin Kirman’s lushly written Bradstreet Gate (Crown, digital galley), in which the murder of a Harvard student affects three of her classmates and the professor who becomes the prime suspect. Yes, it did remind me a bit of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but Kirman apparently was inspired by the 1998 murder of Yale student Suzanne Jovin. The victim in her story is Julie Patel, and the history professor Julie challenged in class is Rufus Storrow,  a Virginia aristocrat and West Point grad with a background in military intelligence. Georgia Calvin is the beautiful, privileged student who has a furtive affair with Storrow. Charlie Flournoy, who struggles to bury his working-class roots, has a crush on Georgia and regards Storrow as a mentor. Their brilliant and fierce friend Alice Kovac, the daughter of Serbian immigrants, is the unpredictable, secretive outsider. Kirman concocts a heady mix of youthful ambition, desire and deceit, following her characters in the decade after the murder as suspicion shadows their lives in surprising ways.


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