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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.

 

knowmeI’ve read so many books this summer focusing on the secrets lives of women and girls, I’m having trouble remembering which is which. The titles sound similar; the narrators tend to be unreliable. Still, several stand out. Megan Abbott gracefully conquers the balance beam of believability and then sticks the landing in You Will Know Me (Little, Brown, review copy), set in the competitive world of elite gymnastics. Katie and Eric Knox are totally invested in their 15-year-old daughter Devon’s Olympic dreams, but even Devon’s laser-like focus is threatened when a young man from the gym is killed in a hit-and-run. Ryan was something of a heartthrob, and his death rattles the girls — and their mothers. With much of the story told from Katie’s perspective, Abbott flexes her narrative skills. Always good  with adolescents’ roiling emotions, as in Dare Me and The Fever, she explores similar anxieties, obsessions and desires among the grown-ups. Who killed Ryan? The answer lies in the greater mystery of love and family, how we can never really know another’s hidden heart.

cabin10In Ruth Ware’s tense and intense The Woman in Cabin 10 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), travel writer Lo Blacklock is on a luxury cruise in the North Sea when she hears the sound of a body going overboard in the darkness. By the time Lo raises the yacht’s security officer, the blood smear she saw on the glass veranda has vanished, and there’s no record of any passenger in adjoining Cabin 10. But Lo saw a young woman there earlier in the evening when she borrowed some mascara. Why doesn’t anyone believe her? Is it because she drank a lot at dinner and is still nervous about a recent intruder in her London flat? Or is it because of other events in her past that a spurned boyfriend aboard decides to reveal? Ah, betrayal, deception, a disappearing body, a crime that never was. Sounds like Hitchcock. Or maybe Christie. How about Ware herself, who proved skilled at ambiguity in last summer’s In a Dark Dark Wood? Here, she misdirects readers with interspersed news stories and e-mail transcripts, but the story’s at its best when Lo’s at sea.

allmissingMegan Miranda doesn’t invent the wheel in All the Missing Girls (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), but she does put quite a spin on it by telling much of the story in reverse chronological order. High school counselor Nicolette leaves her fiance Everett in Philadelphia for a summer visit to her small North Carolina hometown, where she helps her brother ready the family home for sale. She visits her dementia-plagued father in a senior home, runs into high school boyfriend Tyler, remembers the still-unsolved disappearance of her best friend Corinne at 18. And she’s there when another girl goes missing. Each chapter reveals more details past and present, building suspense and raising more questions. Then it’s over — and you’ll probably want to read it again to try and figure out just how Miranda did it.

goodasgoneAmy Gentry also proves to be a clever reverse plotter in Good as Gone (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), which reminds me of the Elizabeth Smart case, as well as the recent BBC-America series Thirteen. Narrator Anna Davalos’ daughter Julie was abducted at 13 from her bedroom by a man with a knife, while her scared younger sister Jane peered from a closet. Eight years later, Julie reappears at the front door with a harrowing tale of captivity by drug dealers. But is Julie telling the truth? What is she hiding? And, for that matter, is she really Julie? Anna has her doubts, and so do readers as another narrative voice chimes in. As Gretchen, she’s a singer in a dive bar band. As Starr, she’s a pole dancer. She’s a runaway, a foster child, odd girl out in a group home. Was she ever good girl Julie, or someone else entirely? The final revelations, mired in a lot of rigmarole, are not entirely unexpected.

gardengirlsTwo more. Lisa Jewell uses multiple perspectives to explore the mysteries of family and friendship in The Girls in the Garden (Atria, digital galley). It begins with young Pip discovering her teenage sister bloody and unconscious in the community garden behind their London rental. Grace recalls nothing of the assault, and suspicion falls on everyone from her maybe-boyfriend to a neighborhood father to other attendees at the summer barbecue. Jewell ups the suspense by using flashbacks to flesh out her assorted characters — jealous teens, single moms, observant oldsters — and reveal many motives.

lostgirlsTwo women — one past, one present — are linked by a dark family mystery in Heather Young’s The Lost Girls (HarperCollins, digital galley). Before she dies, elderly small-town librarian Lucy writes about the summer of 1935, which ended with the disappearance of her 6-year-old sister Emily at their Minnesota lake house. Lucy’s story alternates with that of her great-niece Justine, a California single mom with two young daughters, who upon learning she has inherited the lake house, uses it to escape her abusive and controlling boyfriend. Justine’s attempts to make a home in wintry and lonely Minnesota contrasts with Lucy’s account of the seemingly idyllic life of privileged summer people. Still, all the women and girls in the book are lost in one way or another, and the secrets that haunt them are sad indeed.

Dog days

jonathanDante is a smart Border Collie. Sissy is a sweet Cocker Spaniel. Jonathan is a daydreaming Almost Grown-up who appears to be on the right track to adulthood: New York apartment, ad agency job, college sweetheart now fiance. But appearances, of course, are deceiving. The apartment is an illegal sublet, the job is soul-deadening, the fiance is all wrong for him. Still, it isn’t until Dante and Sissy enter Jonathan’s life that the recent arts school grad begins to question his chosen path. “Jonathan came home one day from work to find the dogs talking about him.”

That’s the first line of Meg Rosoff’s rom-com Jonathan Unleashed (Viking, review copy), but this isn’t a talking dog book. Actually, it would be easier for Jonathan if Dante and Sissy conversed like humans. Then Jonathan would know what’s wrong with the pair of canines left in his keeping while his brother is in Dubai for six months. Because Jonathan is sure the dogs are depressed and dissatisfied with life in New York City. He takes them to see the vet Dr. Clare. Doesn’t she think Dante looks angry? Doesn’t Sissy look sad? The vet, herself a dogowner, assures him his dogs are fine. “Dogs tend towards happiness. That’s why humans choose to live with them.”

But this is Jonathan she’s talking to, and it’s going to take him awhile to realize he’s projecting his own mixed feelings on Dante and Sissy. After all, he’s the kind of guy who can wonder about a clam’s inner emotional life, or who upon meeting a pretty cafe owner immediately envisions their marriage and names their three children. He draws comic books in his head. And then he somehow agrees to having his wedding to Julie live-streamed by a bridal magazine.

All this is fine fodder for a romp of a book, and Rosoff pulls it off, despite some unlikely contrivances and coincidences. Dante and Sissy turn out to be rescue dogs extraordinaire, the kind who save humans from themselves. Ah, who’s a good dog?

miracleElizabeth Kelly’s engaging The Miracle on Monhegan Island (Norton, digital galley) really is a talking dog book in that it’s ably narrated by a three-year-old Shih Tzu named Ned. He finds himself a member of the wildly dysfunctional Monahan family when black sheep son Spike plucks him from the back seat of a Mercedes and carries him home to Maine as a gift for his 12-year-old son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in several years.

In short order, Ned is introduced — and introduces us — to Spike’s father Pastor Ragner, who has his own religious sect; his artistic brother Hugh; and to young Hally, whose vision of a Woman in White on the cliffs causes further family upheaval. Pastor Ragner immediately thinks that Hally has seen the Virgin Mary, and uses this news to attract new followers. But Spike is afraid that Hally’s vision signals the onset of the mental illness that afflicted his mother after he was born and is aghast as throngs are drawn to the island. Add in a stalker with murder in mind, and the story becomes darker.

Kelly, however, is an insightful and witty writer — The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of my favorites. By having Ned observe and chronicle events, she can explore such weighty issues as family, faith and mental illness with a light touch. Her canine narrator makes for quite a canny tale.

 

 

 

 

 

Beach-worthy

beachbagBeach books traditionally fall into two categories — those as light and bright as a beach ball, or else a doorstop saga that doubles as a beach towel anchor. But a recent essay in the The New Yorker concludes that in this age of e-readers, a beach book can be whatever we want it to be. Ok, then, I want my beach books to make me think I’m on vacation, to immerse me in story and character and place so I forget it’s a 100 sultry degrees outside, that my neighbors have tackled a noisy renovation, and that the haters have taken over the internet. Genre doesn’t matter, and neither does length. Just take me away. Please.

 

invincibleLove, love, love the cover and title of Invincible Summer (Little Brown, digital galley). Alice Adams’ first novel is pretty good, too. The title — a quote from Camus — refers to the summer of 1997 when four English college pals look forward to bright, shiny futures. Eva, who pines for playboy Lucien, heads to London to become an investment banker, while her best friend Sylvie, who is also Lucien’s sister, seems destined for artistic success. Benedict sets aside his crush on Eva to continue his studies as a physicist. Lucien is a natural as a concert promoter, aka drug dealer. Adams follows the course of their friendship as it ebbs and flows over the next 20 years against a backdrop of boom and bust, missed opportunities and wrongheaded decisions. It reminded me a bit of David Nicholl’s novel One Day, the way in which Adams catches one or more of her characters at specific moments in time. Smart, playful, poignant storytelling.

beforefallI’m not much on airplane crash books, and even less so when the crash happens at the story’s beginning and the narrative then flashes back to the lives of the doomed passengers. But television producer and screenwriter Noah Hawley deftly creates suspense in his new thriller, Before the Fall (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley). Just minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard on a foggy summer night, a private jet carrying 11 people goes down in the sea. Artist Scott Burroughs survives and also saves 4-year-old JJ, son of the wealthy TV network executive who chartered the flight. Scott becomes the hero of a media circus, but then is cast as a villain out for financial gain. Meanwhile, a determined investigator works to discover the cause of the crash and who on board might have been a target or culprit. I might not have read Before the Fall except that it’s a summer selection of the trusted She Reads online book club. Buckle up for surprises amidst the turbulence.

doctorknoxI’m currently crushing on Dr. Adam Knox, the wry narrator of Peter Spiegelman’s noirish Dr. Knox (Knopf, digital galley), which I hope is the first in a series. Knox, who cast aside his patrician pedigree to work for an NGO in Africa, now runs a “Skid Row-adjacent” health clinic in LA, treating junkies, prostitutes, illegal immigrants and the homeless. To keep the business afloat, he and his Special Ops buddy Ben Sutter make after-hours calls to criminals and celebrities willing to pay big bucks to buy his silence. Knox’s quest to do the right thing got him into trouble overseas, and when he tries to find the mother of a young boy left at his clinic, he runs up against Russian mobsters and corporate crooks who dabble in human trafficking. Still, Knox is not about to abandon his white horse or his doctor’s bag, even though he’s risking his life, as well as the lives of those closest to him. Lots of grit and a few grins — just what the good doctor ordered.

onedressLove Actually meets The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants in the charmer Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen (Doubleday, digital galley). An “LBD” — a little black dress made by 90-year-old Morris Siegel for designer Max Hammer — is the dress of the season as soon as new model Sally Ann steps on the runway. But she’s just the first of nine women (and the men in their lives) who will be transformed by the LBD, which is sold on Bloomingdale’s third floor.  In fact, Bloomies salesgirl Natalie borrows the dress when she acts as a beard for movie star Jeremy, who has mistakenly been outed as gay. Then there’s fifty-something Felicia, who is secretly in love with her widowed boss, as well as Andi, a private detective who puts the skills she learned in her divorce to good use. A recent college grad becomes a social media sensation, while a Muslim teen envisions a less traditional life when she tries on the dress after a suitcase mixup. The snappy set pieces build on each other and link in satisfying ways, making the whole a perfect fit for summer.

forgotyouFans of Terry McMillan since the Waiting to Exhale days will welcome the strong, complicated and sexy women of the upbeat I Almost Forgot About You (Crown, digital galley). Foremost among them is 54-year-old optometrist Georgia Young, adrift in her career and with two failed marriages behind her. Upon hearing that her college sweetheart has died, Georgia decides she needs to backtrack and catch up on old lost loves. She’s also ready to sell her house, give up her job and take a long train trip through Canada during which she’ll figure out what comes next. But the demands of family and friends thwart her plans to reinvent herself as she becomes caught up in their dramas. Still, Georgia does discover that life can offer second chances and that the possibility of something new exists at every age. “Sometimes you know in your heart it’s time for a change.” Yes ma’am.