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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.

Bookish diversions

bookaneerAhoy, my mateys, here’s a literary thriller worthy of  a bottle of rum. In the swashbuckling The Last Bookaneer (Penguin, digital galley), Matthew Pearl spins the tale of late 19th-century book pirates seeking unpublished manuscripts before worldwide copyright laws put them out of business. Operating in a flourishing literary underworld, Pen Davenport and his sidekick Edgar Fergins set off from England for Samoa, where a sickly Robert Louis Stevenson is penning his final manuscript, worth a fortune in America. Davenport, disguised as a travel writer so as to gain access to the famous author, finds himself pitted against rival bookaneer Belial, disguised as a missionary. He also contends with cannibals, German colonials, prison and an astounding betrayal. Pearl frames the digressive narrative, replete with flashbacks, as an “as told by” story, with Fergins, an aging bookseller in New York, recounting his adventures to a black railway porter, Clover. This makes for a slow beginning but a humdinger of an ending, with Clover sailing the high seas to solve the mystery of the last bookaneer.

fifthheartThe game’s afoot again in Dan Simmons’ lively The Fifth Heart (Little, Brown, library hardcover), in which writer Henry James plays Watson to Sherlock Holmes after the two meet in Paris in 1893. Both men are depressed; James after the death of his sister and a downbeat in sales of his books, and Holmes, on his Great Hiatus after his presumed death at Reichenbach Falls, has discovered he may be a fictional character. That’s just one of the head-spinning conceits that Simmons pulls off with aplomb as Holmes and James set off for Washington, D.C., to delve into the death of Clover Adams, wife of Henry Adams. Although the death was determined to be a suicide, Holmes thinks it might be a murder connected to the Adams’ literary salon known as the Five Hearts. Real-life figures of the Gilded Age, including President Grover Cleveland and Washington hostess Clara Hayes, mingle with characters from the Holmes canon such as Moriarty and Irene Adler in a case with international implications. Readers need to know their Arthur Conan Doyle and Gilded Age history to truly appreciate Simmons’ playful, tongue-in-cheek tale. Anything but elementary.

emmaEmma is still clueless in Alexander McCall Smith’s witty Emma: A Modern Retelling (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), which is both the charm and the problem with the third entry in the Austen Project. McCall Smith moves the setting to Scotland (as did Val McDermid in her recent Northanger Abbey) and reimagines Jane Austen’s Regency heroine as a 21st-century recent college grad who fancies herself as matchmaker/ms. fix-it. He updates the plot with cell phones and Mini-Coopers, and appropriately modernizes the original characters. Emma’s poor and pretty friend Harriet is  no longer a love child but the product of a single mother and a sperm donor. Vicar Philip Elton’s new bride is a TV talent show contestant. George Knightley is still the neighbor and family friend who dares to call out bossy Emma when she’s behaving badly. McCall Smith’s social commentary is on point, and his droll humor a good match for Austen’s. Still, his Emma seems overly familiar, not so much from Austen’s tale as Amy Heckerling’s 1995 movie Clueless. Actress Alicia Silverstone set the bar high as a contemporary Emma,  Beverly Hills teen queen Cher Horowitz, and I keep picturing her as McCall Smith’s Emma. Not a bad thing, just been there, done that.

booksellerWith its “what if’?” premise, Cynthia Swanson’s engaging first novel The Bookseller HarperCollins, review copy) reminds me of another movie, the 1998 romantic comedy Sliding Doors. In 1962 Denver, Kitty Miller goes to sleep in her apartment as a 38-year-old single woman who runs a bookstore with her longtime friend Frieda. But when Kitty wakes up, she’s living in a suburban Denver split level as Kathryn Andersson, married to Lars and mother of three. When she wakes up again in her apartment, Kitty is perplexed by her realistic dream of Kathryn’s life, especially when she dreams it again, with more detail, the next night, and the next. Even as Kitty increasingly looks forward to her alternate life as Kathryn, she investigates the intersection with her own — a personal ad she placed several years ago and Lars’ reply. But Lars never showed up for their first date. Visiting the neighborhood where Kathryn lives, Kitty finds only an empty lot, but her life as Kathryn continues to take on a more solid and complicated reality. Swanson makes both lives perfectly plausible with attention to period detail. Books, clothes and hairstyles serve as touchstones in both lives, and their overlap helps Kitty/Kathryn resolve the mystery.

 

Secret history

littlelifeOh, my. I can’t remember when I last read a book so immersive as A Little Life (Doubleday, digital galley), the kind that makes you oblivious to the world around you because the story becomes your reality.  Hanya Yanagihara’s beautifully written second novel is both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the way in which the past impinges on the present. Unafraid of the dark, it can be as hard to read as it is to put down.

Four culturally diverse college roommates relocate to New York City after graduation to pursue their separate ambitions while still sustaining their bonds. J.B. is the Haitian-American artist who finds success painting portraits of his friends. Malcolm, the bi-racial son of wealthy professionals, searches for love and happiness as an architect. Willem, kind and compassionate since his boyhood on a Montana ranch, works as a waiter until his talents as an actor are recognized. Then there’s enigmatic Jude, who begins his brilliant ascent as an attorney, and who has never talked about his past nor the trauma that left him physically disabled. Willem, with whom he shares a shabby apartment, is both flattered and perplexed when he overhears Jude saying he tells Willem everything because it just isn’t true.

“In more generous, wondering moments, he imagined Jude as a magician whose sole trick was concealment, but every year, he got better and better at it, so now he only had to bring one wing of the silken cape he wore before his eyes and he would become instantly invisible, even to those who knew him best.”

Skilled at deflecting personal questions and setting boundaries, Jude eventually can’t hide all his secrets, the demons haunting him. He wears long sleeves — always — because he cuts himself, although those scars aren’t nearly as deep as the ones on his back, or the burn mark on his hand. Jude’s horrific childhood of physical and sexual abuse is gradually revealed in heart-wrenching bits and pieces, much in the way memory works. His doctor, Andy, knows some things, and his mentor, Harold, knows others. Willem, whose feelings for Jude intensify over time, witnesses his bouts of extreme pain, the nights when he forsakes bed for the solace of a razor blade. More and more, A Little Life is about Jude, and the love and loyalty he inspires among his friends who struggle to help him.

As a reviewer, I can tell you there are things wrong with this book. At 700-plus pages, it is overly long and sometimes repetitious. Female characters get short shrift; one of the four friends practically disappears from the narrative. On occasion, the perspective shifts abruptly, and time passes with little reference to outside events. I also can tell you, how as a reader, none of this mattered. I love this book.

Once upon a time

darkestOnce upon a time — actually, the last few months  — I’ve been leading a double life. By day, I’m reading literary fiction and crime novels, but by night I escape to the paranormal via YA novels. Oh, the adventures I have among ghosts and witches, heroes and villains, changelings and dreamwalkers.

High school student Hazel is also leading a double life in Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest (Little, Brown, library hardcover). Hazel wonders why she’s so tired in the mornings, unaware that her nighttime dreams  of being a warrior in the service of a fairy king are true. It’s part of a bargain she made to help her musically gifted brother Ben. Both Hazel and Ben are fascinated by the glass coffin in the forest near the town. Inside resides a sleeping fairy prince, a tourist attraction in a land where humans and fae warily co-exist. But then the coffin is destroyed, the prince disappears, and this already odd world falls out of kilter. As in her vampire novel, The Coldest Girl in Coldtown, Black excels at mixing the ordinary  (school, parents, teenage crushes) with the extraordinary (changelings, unicorns, curses). She transforms fairy tale tropes with modern, snarky charm.

nightbirdAlice Hoffman’s many adult novels are suffused with a lyrical magical realism, which also informs her new novel for younger readers, Nightbird (Random House, digital galley). In the small Massachusetts town of Sidwell, residents hold an annual pageant about the town’s long-ago witch. But 12-year-old Twig and her mother, a talented baker, never attend, continuing to lead an isolated life in an old house, where Twig’s older brother James hides inside. Only Twig knows that James comes out at night, unfurling the black wings he’s had since birth, the result of the Sidwell witch having cursed the male side of the family. Twig is afraid someone is going to discover James on one of his nighttime flights; already there are whispers of a shadowy, flying monster. When a new family moves in down the road, Twig makes a good friend and James falls in love, but all is complicated by strange graffiti in town, a mysterious boy, and a woods full of small, endangered owls. Hoffman’s light touch casts a memorable spell. In Sidwell, even the library and the apple trees appear enchanted.

shadowcabMaureen Johnson left fans hanging on the edge of a cliff two years ago with The Madness Underneath, the second book in her enthralling Shades of London series, when she apparently killed off a major character. But never fear; she’s not Veronica Roth, thank goodness (yes, I am still bitter about Allegiant). In The Shadow Cabinet (Penguin Young Readers, purchased e-book), American student Rory Devereaux and her secret London ghost-busting colleagues have the mad skills to save one of their own. Maybe. While team leader Stephen hovers between life and death, Rory and squad members Boo and Callum try to find Charlotte, a student apparently kidnapped by her crazed therapist Jane, who hopes to resurrect the two leaders of a 1970s cult. But that’s just part of a hair-raising plot that also includes the disappearance of 10 other girls, a mass murder and a conspiracy threatening London at large. Readers who like Ben Aaronovitch’s adult Rivers of London series will appreciate the similarities in tone as Johnson leavens the scary with the humorous. Super supernatural.

mimeSamantha Shannon kicked off a projected seven-book series in 2013 with The Bone Season, a wonder of intricate world-building and spirited adventure. I wouldn’t attempt reading the series’ second book, The Mime Order (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), without reading the first, so detailed is this futuristic London ruled by the corporation Scion, peopled by a thriving underworld of outlawed clairvoyants, and threatened by the otherworldly race known as the Rephaim. Having escaped from the Oxford prison colony controlled by the Rephaim, dreamwalker Paige Mahoney is the most-wanted fugitive in London. She’s rebels against the quasi-protection of the manipulative mime-lord Jaxon, a Fagin-like figure, but really runs into trouble when she encounters the Warden, the enigmatic Rephaite who was both her captor and mentor in Oxford. Scion seeks both of them, and unless Paige can carry out a complex scheme to become a mime-queen, they’re doomed. Five more books? Really?

wallsaroundNova Ren Suma’s The Walls Around Us (Algonquin Young Readers, digital galley) stuns with its intertwining narratives of mean girls, ghost girls and aspiring  ballerinas. Amber is an inmate at a secure juvenile detention center, imprisoned for having killed her stepfather. Violet is a talented ballet dancer headed for Juilliard. Their stories unfold in alternating chapters, three years apart, but are linked by Ori, who becomes Amber’s cellmate after Violet testifies against her in the murder of two dancers on a hot summer night. Secrets abound, and the revelations are all the more disturbing for the lyricism of the writing. What really happened the night the prison doors opened as if by magic? Shiver.

 

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