Vacation ho!

littleblack  Beach books, thrillers, family dramas, a little romance. We’ve got you covered. Go Fourth!

Everybody lies. It’s what Dr. House used to say, and it’s certainly something to keep in mind with Sharon Bolton’s edgy stand-alone thriller, Little Black Lies (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). The tale of guilt, revenge and murder unfolds from the perspective of three flawed residents of the Falkland Islands, whose rocky cliffs provide a foreboding backdrop. Sealife conservationist Catrin, consumed with grief over the accidental death of her two young sons, is drawn into the search for a missing child, as are her ex-lover Callum, a soldier with PTSD, and Rachel, Catrin’s former best friend whom she holds responsible for her son’s deaths. The discovery of human remains links the case of the missing boy to two previous disappearances, and emotions run high as the tight-knit community searches for a killer and/or scapegoat. Mixed motives, false confessions, surprise betrayals. And lots and lots of lies.

luckiestAni FaNelli, narrator of Jessica Knoll’s Luckiest Girl Alive (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), is an accomplished liar and pretentious fake who thinks the lie of a life she’s created in New York — glamorous magazine job, designer duds, blue-blooded fiance — is going to make up for her hidden, wounded past. When she was 14 and a newcomer to Bradley, a prestigious private school on Philadelphia’s Main Line, she was involved in a violent incident that has acquired its own mythos over the last 15 years.  Now, the making of a documentary film and the reappearance of Ani’s favorite high school teacher are forcing her to confront her darkest secrets. Knoll builds suspense by alternating Ani’s present life as her Nantucket wedding approaches with chapters recounting her harrowing experiences at Bradley. The title, in case you haven’t figured it out, is ironic. I can’t remember a more self-loathing character.

singleladiesLet’s go from dark to lite. Dorothea Benton Frank’s chatty and cheery All the Single Ladies (Morrow/HarperCollins, digital galley) features three women of a certain age brought together by the death of a friend. After narrator Lisa loses her rental apartment, she ends up sharing an Isle of Palms beach house with new gal pals Carrie and Suzanne, as well as Suzanne’s feisty 99-year-old grandmother. There’s a bit of a mystery as they try to track down their late friend Kathy’s family members while dealing with her light-fingered landlady. Romance arrives when Lisa meets a great new guy, and drama ensues involving ex-husbands, rebellious kids and manipulative mothers. Best of all, Frank provides a heaping helping of local color, Charleston-style, with lots of glorious food and sinful drinks. All the Single Ladies makes me think I could solve the world’s problems — or at least mine — given a beach house on IOP.

blueprintsA mother-daughter relationship falls apart and needs rebuilding in Barbara Delinsky’s new novel Blueprints (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). Caroline MacAfee, a master carpenter, and her architect daughter Jamie work for a successful New England construction company and co-host a local home renovation show with the unappealing name of Gut It. They are best friends, too, until Caroline’s ex-husband connives with the show’s producers to demote Caroline and promote Jamie as chief host, a betrayal that Caroline blames on Jamie. Even as Jamie tries to mend fences with her mom, her personal life turns upside down when she suddenly finds herself taking care of an orphaned toddler after a family accident. Her fiance doesn’t like instant fatherhood, but another guy/single parent is at the ready with all kinds of support. Caroline also finds romance with a longtime friend. The family relationships vie for attention with the construction company’s woes, but, happily, the humans are more interesting than the houses. As much as I like HGTV, I found reading about corbels and beams and blueprints about as much fun as watching paint dry.

ideaoflovePatti Callahan Henry sets her engaging new novel The Idea of Love (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in a coastal South Carolina town she calls Watersend, but it reminds me of Beaufort and she’s borrowed Walterboro’s marketing slogan, “the Front Porch of the Lowcountry.”  Never mind. Watersend makes a charming backdrop for a romance between two wounded romantics. Hunter is a Hollywood screenwriter with a broken marriage and two recent flops to his credit. Now he’s pretending to be a travel writer in hopes of turning some stranger’s love story into his next screenplay, which is how he meets pretty Ella. She’s a recent widow and wedding dress designer whose devoted husband was killed in a tragic boating accident. She wishes. Her husband dumped her for her best friend’s sister and she sells satin shoes at at a local salon. As one lie leads to another, that tangled web turns into a knot of misunderstandings, but retired bookseller Mimi hits on the truth when she advises Ella to forget about her hound-dog husband returning home: “You can’t wait for someone else to give you permission to chase your life.”

mansellJill Mansell writes fun, flirty British chick lit, and Making Your Mind Up (Sourcebooks, digital galley) is a merry-go-round of messy relationships. Single mom Lottie feels sparks with her new American boss, Tyler, but several obstacles present themselves — his longtime girlfriend, who comes for a visit, and Lottie’s two kids, who take an instant dislike to Tyler. They much prefer Lottie’s other suitor, Seb, who seems kind of perfect — or is he? Subplots include Lottie’s friend Cressida’s attachment to her ex-husband’s daughter with his second wife, aging Freddie, who searches for people from his past with mixed results, and Lottie’s ex Mario, determined not to cheat on his new girlfriend. It’s all kind of wildly improbable, but expect happy endings.

After Charleston

palmettodoveThis was going to be a different post when I started writing it last week. It was called “Summer Lowdown,” and it was about how I was homesick for the South Carolina Lowcountry — family, friends, food — after reading four beach books set in my favorite part of the world. But that was before nine people were shot in a downtown Charleston church, leaving me heartsick that such a hate crime could happen in this day and age in the United States, especially in a city I hold dear.

Many people have written many things about Charleston in the week since the tragedy, and I’ve read news accounts, blog posts, editorials and essays in an attempt at understanding. I’ve heard the powerful words of forgiveness from the victims’ families. I’ve talked with friends who are as surprised and saddened as I am about the ignorance and racial antagonism still showing up on social media. I grew up in the Carolinas and have lived in the South most of my life. My grandmother told me how her mother remembered being a child and her daddy — my great-great grandfather — coming home from the Civil War, walking down the dirt road to their lowcountry farm. I went to college with classmates who had Confederate flag beach towels.

I’m not posting the reviews of the four books today. They’re all good escapist fiction, and I’ll wrap them up with other summer reading picks in the weeks ahead. But if you want something good to read and think about, I’ll make two recommendations. One is something Josephine Humphreys wrote about growing up in the segregated South and posted to Facebook last night. You can use this link to where I shared it on my timeline: Charleston

Humphreys writes about what changed her. To Kill a Mockingbird started the change in me. My aunt gave me Harper Lee’s novel when I was in the fifth grade, and it’s been a favorite ever since, read so many times I know passages by heart. I was planning on a reread before Go Set a Watchman comes out next month. I think I’ll start now.



Series of crimes

sometimesMy favorite TV series are in reruns — oh, Elementary, I think I miss you most of all — and it’s a couple weeks before a new True Detective airs. No worries, though. Many of my favorite crime writers have stepped up with new series entries, so I’m binge reading. First up, Walter Mosley’s And Sometimes I Wonder About You (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the fifth in the Leonid McGill series. I like the New York ex-pugilist PI almost as much as his West Coast counterpart, Easy Rawlins, and for sure you want him on your side in a fight. McGill’s cases tangle with his personal life: a femme fatale he’s sleeping with claims her ex-fiance wants the engagement ring back; his son is caught up with a Fagin-like figure running drugs from the city’s underground tunnels; his long-lost activist father turns up to befriend McGill’s wife in a mental ward; and then the client he turned away is murdered. The street-smart detective uses both brain and brawn so all’s well that ends well, at least until the next time he meets a pretty woman on a train.

ghostfieldsElly Griffith’s absorbing The Ghost Fields (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) takes its title from the abandoned World War II air bases on England’s Norfolk coast. When a downed U.S. military plane is unearthed at a construction site, forensic anthropologist Ruth Galloway discovers the skeletal pilot in the cockpit doesn’t belong. DNA identifies him as the black son of the prominent Blackstock family, MIA since the war. Ruth and DCI Harry Nelson’s investigation takes them to secluded Blackstock Hall, to a pig farm on an old ghost field, and to a family pet cemetery, but their findings are complicated by a documentary film company, more human remains, and a storm so fierce that the sea threatens to engulf the land. Then there’s their rocky personal relationship, which dates back some six years to a one-night stand that resulted in 5-year-old Kate. Griffith neatly mixes fascinating history with puzzling mystery, the seventh in the series. Another winner.

birchesAfter 21 previous books in Katherine Hall Page’s Faith Fairchild series, the 22nd, The Body in the Birches (Morrow/Harpercollins, digital galley) has the familiarity of a reunion. But while caterer Faith, her minister husband Tom and their two kids are all on hand for a summer vacation at a Maine island resort, much of the focus is on the neighboring Proctor/McAllister family. The extended clan — including the Fairchild’s former babysitter Sophie Proctor — has gathered after the death of Great-Aunt Priscilla to learn who will inherit the island cottage/estate known as the Birches. This recipe for disaster soon results in a sudden death and then a murder, drawing Faith into the fray. But the suspenseful unmasking of the villain may well surprise you.

rockwingsAnne Hillerman picked up the pen of her late father Tony Hillerman in 2013’s Spider Woman’s Daughter, carrying on the adventures of married Navajo tribal police officers Bernie Manuelito and Jim Chee, and Chee’s mentor Lt. Joe Leaphorn. In Rock with Wings (HarperCollins, digital galley), Leaphorn is still sidelined after being grievously injured in a previous case, but he’s the one who points the others in the right direction in solving two crimes. While Chee is detailed to provide protection for a movie production company filming on the reservation, Bernie’s routine stop of a speeding car leads to a company that wants to install solar panels on the scenic landscape. A mysterious gravesite and several boxes of dirt also figure in the twisty but exposition-heavy plot.

sandfordI was predisposed to really like John Sandford’s Gathering Prey (Putnam/Penguin, review copy) because I’m a longtime Lucas Davenport fan and because this 25th in the series promised to send the Minnesota detective in a new direction. But I’m just lukewarm about this choppy chase narrative that touches down in California, South Dakota,Wisconsin and Michigan as it tracks a murderous gang headed by the enigmatic Pilate. This infamous crook inspires a cult-like devotion in his followers, who deal in drugs and prostitution, and just for the fun of it, prey on the nomadic homeless known as the Travelers. Davenport’s adopted daughter Letty meets two Travelers busking in San Francisco and later learns that one of them has disappeared. Readers know by then that the missing gentle soul has met a terrifying end, described in gruesome detail. There’s more violence but little suspense as Davenport then tries to stop the state-hopping serial killer and company, even if it means going maverick.

soulsA couple weeks ago, I characterized Toni Morrison’s new novel as “easy to read, hard to forget.” The same can be said of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night (Knopf, digital galley), as slim as Morrison’s but otherwise quite different, written with a quiet eloquence, no words wasted. I read it easily in one afternoon’s sitting, then felt guilty for consuming it so quickly, knowing that Haruf wrote it in the months before he died last November at age 71. He knew he didn’t have long to live, but every day he wrote another short chapter. It’s the last gift from the author who already has given us the trilogy made up of Plainsong, Evenside and Benediction, set in the fictional Colorado town of Holt.

Our Souls at Night is also set in Holt, and even though we haven’t previously met the widow and widower at novel’s heart, they seem familiar from the first sentence on: “And then there was the day when Addie Moore made a call on Louis Waters.” Without much ado, and only a little stammering, Addie gets to the point of her visiting a neighbor she has seen around for years but doesn’t really know. Would Louis like to come over to her place and spend the night? No, not sex, she says, but lying warm beside each other, talking in the dark.

Louis, who is as lonely in his empty house as Addie, eventually agrees to her proposition and arrives at her back door at evening, his pajamas in a paper sack. Neither is sure how this instant intimacy is going to go, but Addie tells Louis to use the front door the next time he comes. At 70, she’s tired of worrying what other people think and there’s nothing disgraceful about their friendship. They reveal themselves to one another by sharing stories of their pasts — the death of Addie’s daughter, the long-ago affair Louis had with a fellow teacher, his wife’s long illness, her husband’s sudden heart attack in church.

Of course, it doesn’t take long for the town grapevine to get going, and some folks are scandalized, although Addie’s octagenarian next-door neighbor Ruth tells her to have fun. Louis’ grown daughter who lives out of town is initially shocked but firmly tells a gossipy friend to mind her own business. Addie’s shy, 6-year-old grandson Jamie arrives for the summer while his parents work out their marital problems, and Louis quickly wins the boy over. His and Addie’s nighttimes continue, but now there are daytime activities as well — watching a baseballl game, going on a picnic, adopting a shelter dog.

The snake in the grass turns out to be Gene, Addie’s controlling son, who whisks away a sobbing Jamie and starts throwing out ultimatums. (As a reader, I wanted to kick Gene’s selfish butt.) His mother and Louis may seem like gentle souls, but they’re not ready to give up on life and go quietly into the good night. They like holding hands and talking in the dark.

Ready, set, summer!

beachtownSun, sand, salt air. All of Mary Kay Andrews’ beach-worthy novels — from Savannah Blues to Summer Rental — have a sure sense of place. But setting is absolutely essential in Beach Town (St. Martin’s Press, advance review copy) because location scout/manager Greer Hennessey needs a picture-perfect coastal hideaway for a bullying Hollywood director’s next big film. No planned communities or condo high-rises need apply, which pretty much rules out Florida’s panhandle. Then Greer finds Cypress Key, the beach town time forgot after the toxic paper plant left town. It has the requisite beach and palm trees, as well as a shabby fishing pier, an aging motel and crumbling casino/dance hall. Greer figures the locals will love having a movie crew in town, but she hasn’t counted on Cypress Key’s mayor and jack-of-all trades Eben Thibadeaux, who wants to revitalize his hometown without exploiting it.

The sparks between Greer and Eben and the ensuing fireworks when the production hits town could be entertainment enough, but Andrews turns Beach Town into a summer blockbuster with a colorful supporting cast and complications galore. Greer’s long-estranged dad, a former Hollywood stunt driver, now lives in Florida. Eben’s rebellious teenage niece is enamored with movies and with this film’s star, a spoiled bad-boy rapper right out of rehab. A local heiress could be friend or foe, depending on how much money is involved. Add in paparazzi, palmetto bugs and portable potties, and you’ve got a hot mess that Andrews sorts out with her usual flair. Beach Town is a whole lot of fun with a side of serious. Bring it on.

summersendSeeing that Mary Alice Monroe’s The Summer’s End (Gallery, digital galley) is the concluding volume of her Lowcountry Summer trilogy about three half-sisters, a little catching up is in order.  In the first book, The Summer Girls, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C., and confronted her wild-child ways and drinking problem. In the second, The Summer Wind, older sister Dora needed the family as she coped with divorce and her autistic son. But both her grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille were keeping life-changing secrets revealed at book’s end.

Now in the third entry, younger sister Harper moves to the forefront as she tries to write a novel and separate herself from her controlling mother. A former Marine with PTSD  captures her heart, but the fate of the family home, Sea Breeze, hangs in the balance and all three sisters face decisions about their respective futures. Monroe’s environmental subplots about wild dolphins, a depressed shrimping industry and the threat posed by development give the books substance, but her characters give them heart. The verbal duel between feisty Mamaw and Harper’s snobbish English grandmother is an entertaining battle between two strong women who want the same thing — family happiness.

guestcottageSophie Anderson and Trevor Black meet cute in Nancy Thayer’s The Guest Cottage (Ballantine, digital galley) when both single parents accidentally rent the same beach house on picturesque Nantucket Island. Still, what follows is as much about family as romance. Sensible Sophie, blindsided by her architect husband’s request for divorce so he can marry a younger colleague, is more worried about her kids — Lacey, 10, and Jonah, 15 — than the demise of her marriage. She isn’t looking for a fling with a younger man like Trevor, the widower father of 3-year-old Leo, who misses his actress mom. It’s really for the kids’ sake that Sophie and Trevor decide to share the conveniently large cottage, and after some initial missteps, the arrangement proves comfortable and comforting. As for the grown-ups’ mutual attraction, it’s tested by romantic opportunities with other interesting parties and some thoughtless behavior. Sure, it’s all as predictable as the tides and light as a beach ball, but hey, it is summer.



Prize writers

godhelp“What you do to children matters. And they might never forget.” That’s the simple but hard-won message of Toni Morrison’s God Help the Child (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Lula Ann Bridewell, the blue-black daughter of a light-skinned mother, remembers that Sweetness could hardly bear to touch her. This physical rejection stays with her even after she grows up to be a California style maven called Bride, who wears only white clothes to accentuate her midnight beauty and has no need of the cosmetic line she has developed and branded.

Bride is living the good life — driving a white Jaguar, hanging with rappers, drinking champagne — but she can’t escape her past after an encounter with a woman just out of prison and the sudden departure of her lover, Booker. She goes searching for Booker, who is haunted by the murder of his beloved brother when they were children, but crashes her car in the desert. A hippie couple take her in, and she finds a kindred spirit in their adopted daughter Rain, who was abused by her prostitute mother.

Although this is a contemporary novel, Morrison endows it with the timeless, lyric air of a fairy tale, with a chorus of distinct, musical voices. Into the woods we go. There’s even a touch of magical realism as Bride feels herself reverting to her little-girl body. Memory both burns and heals as everyone tries to make peace with the shape-shifting past. God Help the Child is easy to read, hard to forget.

earlywarningBack in the fall, I compared Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, the first volume in The Last Hundred Years trilogy, to a fat album of family photos. The book spanned 1920 to 1953, and each chapter was a snapshot of a year in the life of Iowa farmer Walter Langdon, his wife Rosanna and their five children. The shifting perspective — sometimes close-up, sometimes wide-angle — made for a saga both epic and intimate. I liked it very much. Ditto for the second book, Early Warning (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), although it’s less the family album and more like home movies. Some scenes blur, especially in the beginning, as the Langdon family goes forth and multiplies. It takes awhile to become reacquainted with the characters from the last book, even as more arrive. But Smiley doesn’t pause. The action picks up where Some Luck left off, with the 1953 death of patriarch Walter and the family’s reactions to his loss. Again, change is as constant as the seasons.

Matriarch Rosanna still has a part to play, eventually deciding it’s time she learned to drive a car and not just a horse and wagon. Son Joe, who has stayed on the farm with wife Lois and their son Jesse, keeps an eye on her. Meanwhile, elder son Frank ascends the business ladder in New York, while his wife Andy uses alcohol and psychoanalysis to escape from her rambunctious brood of children. Their daughter Janey prefers visiting her cousins in Washington, D.C., where Frank’s sister Lillian seems to run the perfect suburban household. But her husband Arthur’s CIA job will cause family conflict. Elder son Tim will go to fight in Vietnam, and his sister Debbie will march against it. Janey’s bid for independence will take her to California and the People’s Temple pre-Jonestown. Before that, though, Langdon daughter Claire will marry a controlling doctor, and her handsome brother Henry, pursuing his academic career in Chicago, will acknowledge that he’s gay.

Historic milestones and social issues flash by — the Cuban missile crisis, the Cold War, the Kennedy assassinations, Kent State, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis. Smiley details the outward trappings of the Mad Men era even as she illuminates the Langdon’s interior lives. The effect is cumulative. Once again, readers are emotionally invested in the sprawling Langdon clan. They are as familiar — and sometimes as frustrating — as your own kin. What will they do next? We’ll find out in the fall when the third book arrives.

Ruth Rendell

rendellSometime back in the 1980s, I called Ruth Rendell “a literary Hitchcock,” and the phrase stuck. It was picked up in blurbs on paperbacks, sometimes attributed to me at the Orlando Sentinel, sometimes to other papers — the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Chicago Tribune — where my reviews also ran. I repeated it myself, or variations thereof, as in this 1989 review of  The House of Stairs, written under her Barbara Vine pseudonym: “Again we see how Rendell/Vine has become the Hitchcock of the literary thriller, approaching her subjects from unexpected angles and finding the odd twist that throws readers for a loop.”

Oh, I’m going to miss her. Ruth Rendell died Saturday in London, age 85. She wrote more than 60 books, both traditional detective stories featuring Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford, and chilling novels of psychological suspense. She wrote the latter under the Rendell name, and she further transcended the genre with the Vine books. The first was A Dark Adapted Eye in 1986, and she once told me in an interview that she knew from the beginning which book would be a Ruth Rendell and which a Barbara Vine. “Barbara,” she said, “was more serious,” and the crimes depicted were more sensational, the kind that captured public attention and might result in a dramatic trial or a family scandal.

All of her novels were intricately plotted, less interested in the “whodunit” and  more in the how and why. I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all, including the collections of short stories and the frosty novella Heartstones. Many of her characters were outsiders, perhaps mentally disturbed or caught up in strange obsessions. She was interested in questions of identity, especially in the Vine novels, and her narrators tended toward the unreliable. She wasn’t afraid of the sordid, the grotesque, the downright creepy.

In person, Rendell was pleasant and thoughtful, somewhat reserved. She took her writing seriously, she said, but not herself, and she had more ideas than time to write. Her most recent Rendell was The Girl Next Door, which I wrote about in the post “Scare Tactics” in November of last year. Its mystery centered on a pair of severed, skeletal hands — one male, one female — found in a tin box by construction workers. The last Wexford was 2013’s No Man’s Nightingale, in which the aging detective  came out of retirement to investigate the murder of a vicar. But this is no armchair cozy, I wrote, because the strangled vicar is a single mother, whose race, gender and progressive views divided her congregation. (After 2004’s The Babes in the Woods, the 19th Wexford, Rendell told me she thought it might be the last unless she had a really good idea. She then wrote five more Wexfords).

Vine wasn’t quite as prolific as Rendell. There are just 13, including 2013’s The Child’s Child, a book within a book. I wrote that whenever Rendell assumes her Vine pseudonym, I think of a snake in a figure eight swallowing its tail or of matryoshkas, the Russian nesting dolls. The Vine novels still can surprise me on rereading because I never can remember all the secrets of The Minotaur, say, or Asta’s Book (published in the U.S. as Anna’s Book).

The New York Times obituary states that Rendell’s final book, Dark Corners, is to be published in October. I don’t know if it’s a Wexford, a Rendell stand-alone or a Vine. I know I can’t wait to read it, and that I’m sorry it will be the last.


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