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Tea and mystery

afterthefireA friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.

The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.

womanblueAs a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.

quietneighborsNursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for  Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.

writtenredAnnie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.

keepyouThe dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.

Reads like summer

weekendersBeyonce hasn’t cornered the market on lemonade. Riley Nolan Griggs of Mary Kay Andrews’ new beach-ready novel The Weekenders (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) is batting at lemons as soon as she sets foot on the ferry for North Carolina’s Belle Isle. Her soon-to-be ex-husband Wendell has missed the boat again and isn’t answering his texts. This Memorial Day weekend was when they were going to tell their 12-year-old daughter Maggy that they’re divorcing, maybe break the news to Riley’s formidable mother Evelyn, who dotes on the son-in-law who now runs the family real estate business. Then, right in front of everybody — Riley’s best friend Parrish, her little brother Billy, the gossipy neighbor known as Belle Isle Barbie, old flame Nate — a process server shoves an envelope in Riley’s hands. And more lemons await — a foreclosed house, family secrets, financial scandal, hurricane warnings. And murder! Really.

Andrews packs The Weekenders with all the requisite romance, drama and breezy wit readers want, but she also includes some heavy-duty stuff they might not expect. But before she began writing under the Andrews pseudonym, Kathy Hogan Trocheck wrote the Callahan Garrity series of mystery novels, and she knows how to balance dark times with lighter moments and hopeful hearts. Her well-drawn characters help, especially former TV reporter Riley, dealing with a cheating husband, a manipulative daughter and screwball relatives (talking about you, Aunt Roo), all the while trying to remain true to herself and her dreams. A highlight is her stint as the host of an online video show where she has to wear clothes provided by sponsor Floozy and interview hucksters promoting breast augmentations and colon cleanses. But Riley discovers she’s adept at turning lemons into lemonade, maybe mixing it with some limoncello for added oomph. Just what you want for the beach. Tart and sweet.

summerdays“Summer loving had me a blast…” The whole time I was reading the stories in the stellar anthology Summer Days and Summer Nights (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), I kept singing under my breath the song from Grease. You know: “Summer sun, something’s begun/ But oh, oh, these summer nights.” Editor Stephanie Perkins has gathered contemporary love stories by a dozen authors with YA cred, and their tales range from realistic to fantastic, funny to serious while capturing the ups and downs of first love.

The teens in these stories find love and romance at summer camp, summer school, a mountain park, a spooky carnival and a haunted resort. Nina LaCour’s “The End of Love,” has narrator Flora re-meeting the girl of her dreams while coping with her parents’ divorce. In  Jennifer E. Smith’s “A Thousand Ways This Could All Go Wrong,” a day-camp counselor’s crush helps her understand an autistic boy. Francesca Lia Block strikes a wistful note in “Sick Pleasures,” while Libba Bray goes full-out zombie war in “Last Stand at the Cinegor.” Lest you think that’s weird, check out Leigh Bardugo’s lyrical fairy tale mash-up of mermaids and monsters, and revel in the darkly comic magic of Cassandra Clare’s “Brand New Attraction.” My favorite is the final tale, Lev Grossman’s “The Map of Tiny Perfect Things,” in which two teens are caught up in a time loop, repeating the events of August 4 every day a la Groundhog Day, apparently forever until the reason reveals itself.  “Summer days, drifting away. . ”

War crime

 

 

letterwriterNew York City, 1942. The war overseas plays out in the homeland, too. The very day Woodrow Cain, a former North Carolina cop with a tarnished reputation, takes a job with the NYPD, the luxury liner Normandie burns on the waterfront. There’s a black smudge on the skyline, and Cain feels his new life is “as full of loss and betrayal as the one he’d left behind.”

Betrayal, of course, is the very stuff of spy fiction, and Dan Fesperman expertly meshes crime and espionage, corruption and conspiracy in The Letter Writer (Knopf, paperback galley). An unidentified body in the Hudson has Cain stymied until a mysterious man calling himself Danzinger directs him to the city’s “Little Deutschland” of Nazi sympathizers. Danzinger is the title character, an older, well-educated immigrant fluent in five languages, who deals in information while translating and writing letters for his fellow immigrants on the Lower East Side. Over the last few months, he has become increasingly aware of the peril looming overseas as his clients’ secrets darken and more of their letters go unanswered. Cain initially resists Danzinger’s help, but he has trouble trusting anyone in New York, including his colleagues at the 14th precinct and the wealthy, well-connected father of his ex-wife.

The plot is wonderfully complicated, but Fesperman’s crisp scenes reveal one secret after another, both those involving the murder investigation, and personal back stories. Cain’s young daughter arrives in New York, and he begins seeing a woman he meets through Danzinger. The war breeds “creative alliances” — as Danzinger puts it — and offers new opportunities for the Mob. Cain’s encounters with real-life gangsters Albert Anastasia and Meyer Lansky bristle with tension and suspense. Still, danger rises from an unexpected quarter. Bullets find a target.

Despite the high-wire action near end, The Letter Writer is more like Danzinger, a thoughtful, learned risk-taker holding secrets close. My kind of thriller.

cityofsecretsJerusalem, 1945. Jossi Brand, a Latvian Jewish refugee who survived the Nazi death camps, drives a taxi through the winding streets. He tries to be casual at British checkpoints as he hands over his forged identity papers, supplied, like his name and car, by the Jewish underground. A member of a small cell tied to the Haganah, he is haunted by his past and memories of his lost family, including his beloved wife Katya. By day, he drives tourists from one historic sight to another. At night, he chauffeurs the widow Eva, a fellow cell member, to her assignations. When it rains, he still can smell the blood in the backseat leftover from the unknown man he ferried to the Belgian hospice under cover of darkness.

Stewart O’Nan takes a noir turn in his compact new novel, City of Secrets (Viking, review copy), which is taut as a trip wire. Although narrow in scope, it is morally complex as Brand is further drawn into the Zionist resistance and his missions become more dangerous and potentially violent. Questions are discouraged, paranoia flourishes. Brand learns how to use explosives. He comes under suspicion as an informer. The British crack down on suspected illegal refugees, sending them by bus to detention camps. The militant Irgun retaliate by planning an attack that will have profound consequences for the future of Palestine. Brand wonders if this is any way to live.

O’Nan provides some historical context in an afterwards, but it helps if you’ve heard of the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel, or at least have read Leon Uris’ Exodus. But while I’m sure his research was meticulous, the names of the streets aren’t what give the book its authenticity. It’s the way O’Nan gets inside his characters’ heads. In his last novel, West of Sunset, it was F. Scott Fitzgerald. In Songs for the Missing, it was the family of a missing teen, and in Last Night at the Lobster, the workers at a closing chain eatery. Here it is Brand, a survivor who drifts into terrorism, a  man who has lost everything but hope. “He wanted the revolution — like the world — to be innocent, when it had never been.”

Inside story

wildelake“When my brother was eighteen, he broke his arm in an accident that ended in another young man’s death.”

If the first line of Laura Lippman’s new novel Wilde Lake (Morrow, review copy) reminds you of the first line of Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, you’re not wrong. Lippman’s layered story of family mystery and mythology, past crimes and present consequences, was inspired by Lee’s classic, and it works as both a reimagining and homage.

We don’t usually think of  To Kill a Mockingbird as a crime novel, but of course it is: A white woman, Mayella Ewell, accuses a black man, Tom Robinson, of rape, and a white lawyer, Atticus Finch, defends Robinson in 1930s small-town Alabama. But there is so much more to the book as young Scout Finch narrates the events of three years, especially her adventures with older brother Jem and visiting neighbor Dill as regards the reclusive Boo Radley.

There are recognizable counterparts to all of these characters in Wilde Lake, but the time frame has been updated — present day, with flashbacks to the late 1970s — and the setting moved to the Maryland town of Columbia, a planned community. Lippman braids an even tighter and more complicated story than Lee, shifting between past and present, as narrator Luisa “Lu” Brant, the new state’s attorney for Howard County, discovers a surprising link between the murder case she is trying now and the tragic events of the fall of 1980. That’s when a family friend was accused of a crime, her older brother AJ broke his arm and a man died. Lu has always thought she knew what happened then, having overheard her father Andrew Brant, who was state’s attorney at the time, question AJ and his friends. Race and class weren’t really part of it, Lu thought as a child. But the truth is more elusive than Lu ever imagined, and once known, can’t be unknown.

Most of this unraveling takes part in the book’s last third, and it’s the most emotionally involving and suspenseful section because Lippmann abandons the familiar confines of Mockingbird, making the source material her own. Not that the earlier part isn’t interesting: Lippman artfully meshes scenes inspired by Lee’s story with the one Lu tells. Like Scout before her, Lu adores her father, tags after her brother, wonders about her mother, pesters the housekeeper. She gets sent to her room for questioning a classmate’s table manners. She watches neighbor Miss Maud’s house burn down. It makes perfect sense that she grows up to be a fiercely competitive lawyer who, after the early death of her husband, moves back in with her father and calls on housekeeper Teensy to help care for her young twins. She is good at compartmentalizing, even managing a secret liaison once or twice a month. When a homeless man with mental issues is accused of breaking into an apartment and killing the middle-aged woman who lives there, Lu sees a a case she can win handily.

Lippman wrote Wilde Lake before Lee’s Go Set a Watchman was published last year. I didn’t care for Watchman, but not because of Lee’s version of grown-up Scout and a racist Atticus. Rather, it read like an unedited first novel, lacking Mockingbird’s all-of-a piece quality. No such problem with Wilde Lake. It is carefully wrought, an arresting crime novel that explores changing attitudes about race and sex and mental illness, about the nature of truth, the fallibility of heroes. Inspired storytelling.

Spring mix

tuesdaysThe books are busting out all over, and I’m desperately trying to keep up with the reading and writing. I should have posted about Molly Prentiss’ first novel, Tuesdays Nights in 1980 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), a month ago when I first read it. Happily, Prentiss’ atmospheric portrait of the burgeoning New York art scene circa the early ’80s is seared in my memory. In pre-gentrification SoHo, three lives intersect and combust. James Bennet is an art critic whose synesthesia gives him an edge when it comes to describing color and feeling; Raul Engales, a painter who has left behind Argentina’s Dirty War, is poised to become the next big thing; and Lucy, the beautiful and naive young woman straight off the bus from Idaho, is in love with the city and its artists, its passion and possibility. Never mind the squalor, Lucy downs a drink that tastes like “poison and sunshine,” does a little modeling, and becomes Raul’s muse until a tragic accident upends lives and dreams. Prentiss’ writing has the rush of a fevered, impressionistic dream.

thenestCynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s first novel, The Nest (Ecco, library hardcover), has been riding a wave of publicity, and this New York-centric tale of family dysfunction offers voyeuristic entertainment. The four Plumb siblings, now middle-aged, have counted on inheriting their mutual trust fund to cover all their first-world debts and expenses, but elder son Leo’s latest escapade has depleted “the Nest.” Right out of rehab, charming Leo promises to repay the funds, but Beatrice, who can’t finish her novel, and Jack, who has lied to his partner about the solvency of his antiques business, and Melody, who faces a high mortgage and college tuition for her twin daughters, doubt their brother’s assurances, considering his ex-wife’s demands. It’s hard to sympathize with the siblings as they run around like chickens missing their heads, but I did like Leo’s on-and-off girlfriend Stephanie, determined but tenderhearted, and Melody’s adventurous twins, who gleefully outwit her stalking by app.

allofusNow the Rockwell family really knows how to put the “fun” in dysfunction in Bridget Asher’s sprightly novel All of Us and Everything (Bantam, review copy), a spring selection of the SheReads online book club. Augusta Rockwell always told her three daughters that their absent father was an international spy away on secret missions. That outrageous story has echoed through the years until, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a mysterious box of letters surfaces and the three grown sisters — Esme, Liv, Ru — return to their childhood home to help their mother and survey the damage. Also on the scene are Esme’s newly fatherless teenage daughter Atty, with a serious Twitter addiction; the longtime housekeeper, who knows more than she lets on; and a prodigal neighbor who had a crush on Liv as a teenager and was the subject of Ru’s first screenplay. Asher manages the ensuing antics with ease, but takes quirkiness to the extreme. (Taxidermy squirrels). Still, Augusta’s memories of the love of her life — she met him on a bus during a snowstorm — are affecting, as are later scenes of reconnection and resolution. All in all, a memorable and messy family reunion.

whodoyouFirst love and second chances. Jennifer Weiner puts a spin on this classic premise and comes up a winner with Who Do You Love (Washington Square Press, review copy), now out in paperback and another SheReads spring pick. Eight-year-old Rachel Blum is recovering from heart surgery when she escapes from her hospital room to the ER one night and meets fellow eight-year-old Andy Landis, alone with a broken arm. They don’t expect to meet again, but serendipity and circumstances bring them together again — and again. In alternating chapters, Weiner focuses on Rachel and Andy, mostly apart but always on the verge of getting back together. Can true love conquer all? Maybe, maybe not, when families, social class and issues such as alcoholism, addiction and adultery get in the way. Thirtysomething years pass quickly with more than one surprise, but it’s the credible characters and small moments that touch the heart. Yes, those are tears in your eyes.

The Cincinnati Bennets

eligibleI wonder what it would be like to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Random House, digital galley) without first having read Jane Austen’s classic. What to make of the Bennets and their five unmarried daughters transported from the English countryside of two centuries ago to a Tudor house in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood? Would it be just another chick-lit tale of family dysfunction, with late thirty-something Jane and Lizzy returning home from New York when their father has heart surgery and their shopaholic matchmaking mother can’t cope? Would you appreciate the humor of having flighty still-at-home Kitty and Lydia obsessed with Cross-Fit, or pontificating Mary taking online classes for her third master’s degree? Can you buy Chip Bingley as a former reality TV star, and his best bud Fitzwilliam Darcy as an uptight neurosurgeon? When Mr. Bennet tells Mary, “Oh, put a sock in it,” do you laugh?

Alas, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times, I’ll never know. I think Eligible could stand on its own as a comedy of manners, but its sparkle comes from the ways in which Sittenfeld chooses to update the tale so the familiar becomes fresh. I love that she’s set the story in her hometown of Cincinnati with its Grater’s ice cream and Skyline chili. Many of her choices are inspired — that stuffy Mr. Collins is now a nerdy — and wealthy — tech guru; that sweet yoga instructor Jane has been having secret IVF treatments because she wants a baby; that the daft Bennets don’t have health insurance so crushing medical debts are about to render them homeless. Other tweaks feel strained — that Mrs. Bennet is both a racist and a homophobe so Lizzy hires a gay, black real estate agent; that the cad Wickham has become two characters: Lizzy’s married lover Jasper Wick, and Lydia’s latest, hunky gym owner Ham; that “hate sex” leads to love. There’s plenty of wit here but not enough romance. Sometimes Sittenfeld seems to be having more fun than the reader, and the book’s charms fray at almost 500 pages.

Eligible is the fourth entry in the the Austen Project, which pairs each novel with a contemporary writer. I found Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility ho-hum, but I enjoyed Val McDermid’s satirical Northanger Abbey, with its young heroine fascinated by paranormal stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma had its moments but not as many as the movie Clueless. In Eligible’s  “The Bachelor”-like TV show, a kiss on the lips means a contestant is still in the running, while a kiss on the cheek sends the girl home. I enjoyed Eligible’s company, but it’s a kiss on the cheek for me. I’m going back to the original.

 

Favorite sleuths

murderofmaryYes, there’s a pool of blood. Yes, Mary Russell, the intrepid young wife of Sherlock Holmes, is missing. Yes, housekeeper Clara Hudson smells gunsmoke. No, I don’t believe that Mary is dead, despite the title of Laurie R. King’s latest installment in her long-running series, The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam, digital galley).

Still, King leaves readers in suspense and Mary’s fate up in the air shortly after she confronts an Australian visitor to her farmhouse claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s long-lost son. Mrs. Hudson returns home from shopping to discover an empty house, a broken cup, gunsmoke, blood and no Mary. From there, King jumps back to give us Mrs. Hudson’s complicated and surprising history, beginning with the unlikely romance between her Scottish mother and seafaring father. Said dad is a charming con man and grifter, and, growing up in Australia, little Clarissa is his most apt pupil. Her talent for disguises and playacting helps her in her quest to make something of herself, despite her father and spoiled younger sister. Eventually, too, she crosses paths in London with a young Sherlock Holmes and transforms into Mrs. Hudson. But what about Mary? Soon, back at the farm, Holmes is on the case with Mrs. Hudson’s help, and Mary herself is doing her cunning best to stay alive.

Longtime fans of the series will be especially entertained by King’s take on Mrs. Hudson, and a neat little twist near book’s end hints that she’s still keeping secrets.

londonrainNicola Upson has forged a nice career as a mystery writer with her series featuring real-life mystery writer and playwright Josephine Tey. Set in the 1930s and replete with period detail, they have the atmosphere of the Golden Age mysteries of Agatha Christie and Tey herself.

In London Rain (HarperCollins, digital galley), it’s the summer of 1937, and the capital city is readying for the coronation of King George VI. Tey is in London to sit in on rehearsals at Broadcast House for the BBC radio adaptation of one of her plays. She meets Vivienne Beresford, an editor at Radio Times, and soon witnesses her public humiliation when her husband, famed announcer Anthony Beresford, is revealed to be having an affair with a well-known actress. On air during the coronation, Beresford is felled by a gunshot, and his wife is the obvious suspect. Josephine’s friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is handling what appears to be an open-and-shut case. But then a jailed Vivienne asks to see Josephine, a second corpse is discovered and Josephine’s theatrical connections and detecting skills come into play. Throughout, too, Josephine’s private life is complicated by her lover, actress Marta Hallard.

Upson’s psychologically astute novels make me want to go back and reread my favorite Tey mysteries: The Daughter of Time, The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar. Talk about some twists.

 

 

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