Feeds:
Posts
Comments

November surprises

smokeMystery writers are magicians of sorts, constructing clever puzzles, misdirecting our attention, dazzling us with their verbal sleight of hand. They also juggle characters and clues, and, sometimes, different series. Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway series, introduced the “Magic Men” mysteries with last year’s clever The Zig Zag Girl. The follow-up, Smoke and Mirrors (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), captivates as police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto hunt for a killer in early 1950s Brighton. It’s December, and the crime scene is straight out of Hansel and Gretel, with a trail of broken candy leading to the snow-covered corpses of young Annie and her best pal Mark. The fairy tale connections continue as Edgar learns that talented Annie liked to write plays based on Grimm for her classmates to perform, and other clues link to the pantomime Aladdin, in which Max is starring. The frantic holiday vibe, the theatrical backdrop, the colorful characters and the bleak weather add up to a moody mystery. Abracadabra, indeed!

wrongsideMichael Connelly takes a walk on the noir side in his new Harry Bosch novel, beginning with the title The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, digital galley). Then Harry, now retired from the LAPD and working part-time as a PI, goes calling on money — wealthy aviation tycoon Whitney Vance, 85 and in failing health. He wants Harry to find out what happened to the Mexican teen he got pregnant when he was a USC student 65 years ago and who then vanished. Is Vibiana still living and did she have the baby? Does he have a heir? Sworn to secrecy, Harry begins a dogged search for possible Vance descendants, a hunt that takes him to a one-time home for unwed mothers and his own past as a Vietnam vet. Meanwhile, Harry, who is also a reserve police officer for the city of San Fernando, is on the case of the “Screen Ripper,” a serial rapist with an unusual m.o. The parallel stories don’t intersect, except that Harry’s time and loyalties are divided between the two cases, both of which offer surprises and coincidences. Nice work.

mistletoeHere’s an unexpected treat: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Knopf, digital galley) brings together four previously uncollected short stories by the great P.D. James, who died in 2014. In the stellar title tale, an elderly writer remembers a memorable wartime Christmas, when a fellow houseguest — an antiques dealer — was bludgeoned to death. The conclusion of this  cold case is a chilling twist. Two of the stories feature detective Adam Dalgliesh and pay homage to Christie and Holmes. In the wry “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh’s godfather asks him to investigate the source of family money — did Great Aunt Allie really poison her elderly husband and get away with it? “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” involves a young Dalgliesh showing local coppers how he’d solve a case. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is less Golden Age mystery and more of a creepy Hitchcockian tale as a voyeur spies on his neighbor’s illicit trysts, which end in murder. Oh, I miss P.D. James.

lostboySwedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg’s The Lost Boy (Pegasus, digital galley) combines a solid police procedural with a haunting backstory in a shivery tale of murder, drugs, grief and ghosts. Detective Patrik Hedstrom and his true-crime writer wife, Erica, should be enjoying their infant twin sons. But Erica’s sister’s loss of a baby has plunged her into months-long depression, and misfortune seems to fog the very air of Fjallbacka. Then the financial officer of soon-to-open hotel-spa is murdered, and his death leads to secrets from his past in Stockholm, shocking his elderly parents and his childhood sweetheart fleeing her abusive husband. Also in play are a couple of con artists, a violent biker gang, drug dealers high and low, and an island of ghosts. Really.

Extra, extra!

newsoftheworldI wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of  Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).

In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him  a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.

Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.

Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.

The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.

tresspasserThis time last week I was reading up a storm. That’s because Hurricane Matthew was knocking on the door, and my action plan called for a flashlight, batteries and books. (Also chocolate, but that’s another story). So, while the wind whipped the trees outside and the rain went sideways, I read and read, and then I read some more.

Like Tana French’s previous five novels in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser (Penguin, digital galley) is wonderfully immersive. Detective Antoinette Conway, who appeared in The Secret Place, takes the lead this time, telling how she and partner Steve Moran catch what appears to be a slam-dunk case of domestic murder on a frozen January dawn. Aislinn Murray, 26, looks like Dead Barbie lying on her sitting room floor, the dinner she was cooking for her new beau, Rory Fallon, still on the stove. A mild-mannered bookseller, Rory is the prime suspect, even though he insists Aislinn never answered the door when he arrived for dinner. And he sticks to this story despite intense interrogation by Conway and a more experienced detective, Breslin, brought in on the case by the chief. Conway feels pressured by Breslin to arrest Rory, even though the initial investigation turns up little evidence and a suspicion that more was going on in Aislinn’s life than her new fellow. Or is Conway, the only woman on the squad and carrying a chip on her shoulder the size of an oak tree, just being paranoid? How much does her past shape her perspective? Layered like a fancy cake, The Trespasser is a classic case of misdirection and deceit encased in a police procedural. In a recent New York Times story, French said she loved “character-based books with beautiful writing, plenty of atmosphere, secrets and mysteries.” Me, too, which is why I love Tana French.

daisyAnother writer who can make me forget the outside world is Sharon Bolton, who also has written as S.J. Bolton. The suspense is so intense in her Lacey Flynt series that I have to fight the urge to skip to the end of a book. Daisy in Chains (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a stand-alone, but it also left me breathless trying to figure out who was playing who in a very high-stakes game. Hamish Wolfe is a handsome, charming surgeon imprisoned as a serial killer. Maggie Rose is a lawyer and true-crime author who has made a reputation overturning killers’ convictions. Hamish has always proclaimed his innocence, before and after trial, and his mother and a small group of odd followers beg Maggie to take his case. Against the advice of a friendly police detective, Maggie agrees to meet Hamish in prison. It’s an unnerving experience, but Maggie is intrigued enough to do some more research on the lonely, overweight women who fell victim to a killer who disposed of their bodies in treacherous caves. Bolton intersperses the narrative with letters, police documents, e-mails, excerpts from Maggie’s drafts for a book. Clues point one way, and then another, and then another. Resist the urge to flip to the end. Expect the unexpected. Keep calm and keep reading.

A chill in the air

reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

Book a stay at the Metropol

moscowOh, I have such a crush on the title character of Amor Towles’ new novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, digital galley). Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may be a Former Person to the Bolsheviks who have sentenced him to permanent house arrest in 1922 at Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel, but he’s my new book boyfriend. Like the marvelous tale he inhabits, he has substance and style, intelligence and wit, elegance and charm. Forgive me while I swoon.

Rostov makes the best of his forced relocation from his luxury suite to a cramped attic room, paring down his possessions to the necessities. Still he worries the walls may soon close in on him like a biscuit tin. His solution is to make himself even more at home in the hotel, dining in its restaurants, receiving visitors in the grand lobby, making a standing Tuesday appointment with the hotel barber. He also forges strong ties with hotel chef Emile and maitre d’ Andrey, uniting with them against the conniving Party plant working his way up the hotel’s management hierarchy. A famous actress invites Rostov to her room, and thus begins a discreet affair.

But but before that is Rostov’s mentoring friendship with young Nina, the lively daughter of a bureaucrat temporarily living at the Metropol. Nina has a passkey, and she introduces him to the hotel’s secret storerooms and hidden closets. They eavesdrop on visitors and guests from the ballroom balcony, and when Nina finally leaves, she presents Rostov with an invaluable gift. She will return as a grown woman requesting a favor that will change his life forever.

All credit to Towles, who wrote the splendid The Rules of Civility, for crafting another layered period piece, this one suffused with a Russian sensibility studded with references to history, culture and literature. A Gentleman in Moscow is both expansive and intimate as it covers and compresses decades. Imagine a kaleidoscopic combination of  Casablanca and Chekhov, with a little bit of Eloise.

Almost all of the book takes place inside the Metropol — Rostov will be shot if he ventures over its threshold — but there is one heart-stopping hospital run, and another character makes a clandestine trip to Paris. The Metropol is in Theatre Square, near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, so the outside world can be glimpsed from the windows, as when the mourners line the streets for Stalin’s funeral. And politics play out in the hotel itself; Khruschev is a dinner guest at an important meeting. There is intrigue and suspense, especially as the book nears its end.

I didn’t want it to end, to have to check out of the Metropol and bid farewell to Rostov and company. That being said, the finale was all I’d hoped it would be.

 

 

 

 

another“This is memory.”  So says the narrator of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), her first novel for adults in 20 years. As haunting as her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award for YA literature last year, it reads like a prose poem. Narrator August spins her story of girlhood, friendship and loss in a series of  lyrical vignettes that slip dreamily through time and memory.

“Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.

This is narrator August in the first chapter, looking back 20-some years to the 1970s, when her father uprooted her and younger brother from Tennessee and brought them to a Bushwick apartment. Now an anthropologist who researches funeral customs in different countries, she is back in Brooklyn to help her brother bury their father. A chance encounter with a girlhood friend sends her on an odyssey into the past, but not before she elliptically foreshadows some of its darkness.

At 11, August and her three friends function almost as a single entity, braving the watchful eyes of neighborhood boys and men, shrugging off the private griefs of family. They listen to Al Green, trade clothes, share hopes and secrets. They laugh, and they reassure one another about their looks and their futures. Gigi wants to be an actress. Angela can dance, really dance. Sylvia’s father wants her to be a lawyer. August wants to be Sylvia, beautiful and brilliant.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.”

Their Brooklyn has disabled Vietnam vets, drug addicts, working girls who lose their children to social services, a rapist in a basement stairwell who catches Gigi when she is 12. She doesn’t tell anybody but her girls, saying her mama would just put the blame on her.  The foursome try to hold on to childhood, playing jacks and running after the ice cream truck. But then the teenage boys come, stealing kisses in the dark and wanting more. First love is “terrifying and perfect.” Betrayal is a wound. Memory is a bruise.

Woodson’s time-shifting narrative is compact and compressed, years invoked and imagined in a few vivid sentences. I loved every word.

 

We were golden

brightdaysTime marches on, both for Jay McInerney, who is never going to escape the aura of  1984’s Bright Lights, Big City, and for his characters, golden couple Russell and Corrine Calloway. They first appeared in his 1992 fourth novel, Brightness Falls, set against the the financial turmoil of the late 1980s, and returned in 2006’s The Good Life, coping with the aftermath of 9/11. Now, McInerney picks up their story in Bright, Precious Days (Knopf, digital galley), chronicling the years 2006-2008, when Art and Love again collide with Power and Money.

Although the Calloways have always seen themselves as belonging to the first category, they’ve hung around enough with those in the second that lines have blurred. Literary editor and publisher Russell rues that they can’t afford to buy the $6 million Tribeca loft that’s going condo on them, while Corrine, who works part-time for a non-profit food bank, has to wear one of two or three same-old-things to the charity galas they attend with friends’ tickets. Then there are the 11-year-old twins’ private school fees, and the borrowed summer house in the Hamptons is on the market.

That sounds a bit snarky, and I don’t mean to be, at least not much. The Calloways may be older — in their 50s — but they’re not especially wiser, and I still enjoy their company, despite and because of their flaws, as well as the voyeuristic appeal of their glittery New York life. Russell’s feeling overshadowed by the hot young writer he’s edited and mentored, while Corrine is again attracted to her former lover, multimillionaire Luke, who first showed up in The Good Life. Corrine’s younger sister Hilary pops up in unexpected places, detonating one family secret and covering up another. Everyone misses writer Jeff Pierce, who succumbed to drugs a long, long time ago, but whose reputation is being resurrected by a new generation.

The story may feel soapy and the writing a bit cliched, but on the whole it’s still engaging.  There’s substance as well as style, wit and wistfulness, irony and nostalgia. McInerney goes Tom Wolfe every now and then, what with the ladies who lunch and gossip, and does Fitzgerald too, with Russell’s yearnings and Corrine remembering what it was like to be 22. The title Bright, Precious Days suits the book. In the end I liked it, so much so that I asked for a copy for my upcoming birthday. Yep, time marches on, but some books I want to hold on to.