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Super book

birdsinskyLots of buzz for All the Birds in the Sky (Tor, library hardcover) for lots of reasons. Author Charlie Jane Anders is editor of ios9.com, the influential SF/fantasy pop culture website, as well as a journalist, performance artist and short story writer. One of her stories, “Six Months, Three Days,” won a Hugo award a couple of years back and is being developed as a TV series for NBC. Word was that Anders’ first SF novel was going to be epic. Or maybe it’s a fantasy novel. How about both?

All the Birds in the Sky turns out to be one of those genre-defying books that mixes a coming-of-age dystopian story with elements of SF, fantasy and magical realism, which is only appropriate as magic and science battle to see which one will save the world — or maybe destroy it.

Patricia and Laurence meet as middle-school misfits, both of them bullied by classmates and misunderstood by truly awful parents. Birds once told nature-loving 6-year-old Patricia that she is a witch, and she believes them, although nothing mysterious happens to her for years. Then she meets techno-geek Laurence, who has invented a two-second time machine and is working on an AI computer project. Both come to the attention of the world’s creepiest guidance counselor whose plans for their future include death and apocalypse, but then Laurence freaks when Patricia tells him about talking to her cat and he’s shipped off to military school before he can make up with her. Patricia is bereft until she’s tapped for a special boarding school where she’ll be trained in both Healing and Trickster magic.

Skip ahead 10 years to near-future-imperfect San Francisco, where water is rationed and both hipsters and techies depend on their super-smart Caddy devices to interpret their emotions and lead them to meet-ups of like-minded people. Patricia, moonlighting as a waitress while doing covert magic missions, runs into Laurence, who is working for a secretive start-up and has a chic girlfriend. And they keep running into each other, until the day Laurence loses an employee during an anti-gravity experiment and calls on Patricia for help. From there, things get really complicated as Anders deftly juggles magic and science, curses and wormholes, earthquakes and colony collapse. People die. Hearts break. Good intentions pave the way to something terrible known as the Unraveling.

Hmmm. All the Birds in the Sky reminded me at times of China Meiville, David Gates, Kelly Link. There’s a bit of Harry Potter and some of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians by way of Dr. Who. It’s uneven at times, and the plot can feel forced. But it’s also smart and arch and wonderfully weird, which is what can happen when you play with fantasy and science fiction. There — up in the sky — is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s a high-flying hybrid. It’s super book.

 

 

 

 

Big chills

evendogsOld friends and foes reunite in Ian Rankin’s Even Dogs in the Wild (Little Brown, library hardcover), the 20th novel featuring maverick Edinburgh copper John Rebus. A month into his latest retirement, Rebus gets drawn into a case with detectives Siobhan Clarke and Malcolm Fox when someone takes a potshot at Big Ger Cafferty, a local crime boss well known to the detectives. Cafferty grudgingly reveals to Rebus that he’d received a handwritten death threat, which looks like a tie to the recent murder of elderly Lord Minton, which Clarke is investigating. Meanwhile, Fox is seconded to a unit of cops from Glasgow keeping an eye on gangster Joe Stark, who may be trying to expand his territory. When Stark’s son and heir apparent is offed, suspicion falls on Cafferty and his rival, Dennis Christie. But appearances are deceiving.

It’s a puzzle, all right, one eventually incorporating the death of a lottery winner and the dark history of Acorn House, a now-closed juvenile detention home. A side story finds Fox, a former internal complaints cop, suspicious of the Glasgow crew but pulled away to his dying father’s bedside. Still, the relationships among the characters, especially the wary respect between Rebus and Cafferty, power the novel. They’re a couple of old dogs used to being lone wolves. Don’t count them out.

exAlafair Burke blends legal procedural and domestic drama in her compulsively readable The Ex (HarperCollins, digital galley), giving it an extra spin for good measure. Olivia Randall is a smart, strong-willed New York City defense attorney, but she vividly remembers what it’s like to be young and in love when teenage Buckley Harris asks for help. It’s not Buckley who’s in trouble, but her father Jack, a successful author who is now a suspect in a triple homicide. He’s also Olivia’s ex-fiance, and because she’s the one who dumped him and broke his heart, she figures she owes him. Besides, the nice guy she once knew couldn’t possibly be a killer.

At first, it looks like she’s right about Jack. The evidence is circumstantial, although his reason for being in the vicinity is admittedly far-fetched. Then it turns out Jack has ties to one of the victims. Three years ago, Jack’s wife Molly was killed in a mass shooting at Penn Station; the gunman was a disturbed teen, whose father had refused to get him psychiatric help. The father is now dead, and there’s gunshot residue on Jack’s shirts. Olivia’s growing doubts collide with her memories, which Burke parcels out piecemeal. I may have recognized a plot twist from an old Law and Order episode, but The Ex still kept me flipping pages.

evendeadBenjamin Black’s 1950s Dublin pathologist Quirke is a moody fellow at the best of times, but he’s more melancholy than usual in Even the Dead (Henry Holt, digital galley). But he has good reason as the city swelters in a summer heat wave. Coming off a long convalescence at the home of his adoptive brother Mal, Quirke is intrigued when he determines the death of a young man in a burning car was not an accident. Then a young woman claiming to be pregnant with the dead man’s child contacts Quirke’s daughter Phoebe for help, then vanishes. Quirke and his old pal Inspector Hackett pick at several old threads before unraveling a case leading back to the great and the good, church and state. It also carries echoes of the murder of Christine Falls, the subject of the first Quirke novel.

The past continues to cast long shadows over Quirke’s life, and Black — a pen name of writer John Banville — is at his best evoking the aging doctor’s intimations of mortality even as a new love enters his life.

Haunted

splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

Anticipation

brokenwheelNew year, new books. I’m snowed by publishers’ suggestions for winter reading, titles perfect for fireside reading on long, cold nights. But I’m in the South, where winter might last a weekend, so my expectations don’t change with the seasons. I just want well-told tales. Happily, there appear to be plenty of new and forthcoming books that meet my criteria.

I began the year, appropriately, with a book about books, The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend (Sourcebooks, digital galley) by Kristina Bivald. In this engaging first novel, unemployed bookstore clerk Sara travels from her Swedish home to visit her pen pal Amy in Iowa for two months. But she arrives in the depressed town of Broken Wheel right after  Amy’s funeral –the older woman hadn’t told Sara she was even sick — and the townspeople encourage her to stay in Amy’s house because that’s what Amy would have wanted. Sara spends one night, and then another, meeting Amy’s quirky friends she has described in her letters. Then she looks at Amy’s massive book collection and decides to open a bookstore in an abandoned storefront next to the hardware store. Before long, the bookstore is the talk of the town — and the envy of its more prosperous neighbors.

Bivald intersperses the narrative with the chatty missives Amy sent Sara, and literary references abound as the readers of Broken Wheel begin to realize books can change lives, whether you’re a recovering drunk missing his long-gone daughter, or a spinster church lady giving into an unlikely love. Then there’s Amy’s hardworking nephew Tom, who doesn’t read books but is good at reading people, except himself.  Finally, Sara has a shelf in the bookstore devoted to books with happy endings when you need them. This book would fit right in.

My virtual bookshelves are filled with digital galleys I’ll be reading this winter.oppositeallthebirdsjanesteelestudyletterwriterdoubters

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queen

ladyvioletI dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting themselves with the Crawley family, upstairs and downstairs, certain that writer Julian Fellowes can be counted on to deliver the requisite drama.

Indeed, Downton Abbey has been rife with love, loss, scandal and the challenges posed by a changing world, or as the New York Times listed in a quiz about the characters: Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Forbidden Desire, Child Tribulations, Devastating Betrayal, Physical Misery, Blackmail Travails. Most of the main characters have been beset by multiple woes.

lakehouseDownton Abbey is like a good novel, and not surprisingly, it has been good for publishing, not only with the popularity of official companion volumes, but with the renewed interest in family sagas set in World War I or post-war Britain. I’ve recommended many over the last five years, but the only novel I’ve read recently that sort of falls in that category is Kate Morton’s The Lake House (Atria, digital galley). In 1930s Cornwall, the wealthy Edevane family is visited by tragedy when their youngest child, 11-month-old Theo, vanishes from the nursery during a midsummer’s eve party. The case is never solved, and in 2003, disgraced young police detective Sadie Sparrow, stumbles on the abandoned manor house while visiting her grandfather in Cornwall. She’s intrigued by the case and also by the fact that famous mystery novelist Alice Edevane, a child when her brother disappeared, is still alive but has never returned to Cornwall. Morton shifts the story between past and present as Sadie investigates the cold case and as Alice recalls in vivid detail the events of that fateful summer. It’s a Downton-kind of saga, evoking a bygone time and many family secrets.

turnerhouseBut the Brits are not the only ones who write family sagas. If what interests you is how generations of a flawed family are torn and bound by secrets over time, then check out Angela Flournoy’s absorbing first novel, The Turner House (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which was a National Book Award finalist. The house on Yarrow Street on Detroit’s East Side is about as far away from Downton as you might imagine, but for 50 years it was the home of Francis and Viola Turner and their 13 children. In the 1940s, the neighborhood was a comfortable one for a working-class black family, but by 2008, the recession has wrecked the East Side. The house is nowhere near its mortgaged value, and the clan must make some decisions. Flournoy focuses on three of the Turner offspring — truck driver Cha-Cha, young police officer Troy, and baby sister and gambling addict Lelah — and also includes flashbacks tracing Francis and Viola’s migration from the South. Social history, family history, American history. Also, Shattering Heartbreak, Money Trouble, Child Tribulation, Devastating Betrayal, etc., etc

Once more to Downton

I dined today with Lady Violet. Not really, but I did have Sunday dinner with my mother and several of her friends, all of whom now are of the age the Dowager Countess was back then, in 1925. All were looking forward, too, to the sixth and final season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run on PBS’s Masterpiece Theatre tonight. Although they’ve already bid farewell to Downton Abbey in the UK, with the finale airing Christmas Day, but none of the ladies I was with went looking for spoilers on Google beforehand. Not that they don’t know their way around an iPad or a laptop, thank you very much. But they are anticipating the pleasures of reacquainting

Rats — another case of premature publication. I will return with the rest of this pos

It’s a wrap

bookwrapComing  up with a year-end list of favorite books is a piece of cake for me. They’re the same books I’ve been wrapping up as presents for my favorite people. Fa la la la!

One is my 2014 top book — Emily St. John Mandel’s beautifully written Station Eleven, now out in paperback. A dystopian novel, for sure, but also a hopeful one. I gave it 5 stars — “amazing” –on Goodreads, something I rarely do. This year, for example, my only 5-star rating went to Hanya Yanagihara’s  novel A Little Life, which was both tragic and triumphant in its depiction of friendship over time, the ways in which the past impinges on the present. Dark and immersive, it was often as hard to read as it was to put down. I first read it as a digital galley, so I’m giving it to myself for Christmas. (Last year, I gave myself Station Eleven).

littlelifeAs to what books I’m giving to others, one of my friends from Maryland gets Anne Tyler’s latest Baltimore novel, A Spool of Blue Thread. Gently comic, it recounts the story of the Whitshank family, whose members charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life. Tyler has such a gift for illuminating ordinary lives so they seem extraordinary.

I’m giving J. Ryan Stradal’s wonderful first novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest to a friend who knows her way around a kitchen and also appreciates fine fiction. It’s about young chef Eva Thorvald, and “about” is the operative word. Each chapter reads like a short story told from the perspective of someone linked to Eva, including her chef spoolfather, a high school boyfriend, a jealous member of her supper club, and a woman whose peanut butter bars are snubbed by foodies but not by Eva. A few delicious-sounding recipes are included but it’s the words you’ll devour. I did.

Another friend who’s already read Stradal’s novel is going to get The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra, who wrote A Constellation of Vital Phenomenon. This collection of interwoven stories is just as lyrical and poignant. It begins in the 1930s with a Russian artist working as  a censor under Stalin, who becomes obsessed with a painting of a prima ballerina. The ballerina appears in a later story, while others feature soldiers, prisoners, brothers connected by places or Kitchensphotographs, families and memories, and one particular painting. The book came out in October, but I’m just getting to it. I can’t read everything, you know, which is why I always read other year-end lists, looking for what I might want to read next. Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, which is a favorite of many, including President Obama, is next on my list.

Back to wrapping. The magical fairy tale of a novel, Uprooted by Naomi Norvik, will go to a fantasy fan, and I’ll also tell her about Sarah Prineas’ Ash & Bramble, another once-upon-a-time retelling I read recently. Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules is the first in a series called Prisoners of Peace, and will appeal to readers of The Hunger Games and Divergent.

tsaruprootedI read so many good mysteries and thrillers this year that I could wrap into the New Year. Terrific new series entries from Laura Lippman, Walter Mosley, James Lee Burke, Sue Grafton and Sara Paretsky, plus stand-alones from Karin Slaughter and Paula Hawkins. I began the year with Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train and I’m ending it on another high note with Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May and the Burning Man, both funny and timely.

And time to wrap this up. Oh, so many books, so little time. Wishing you book-filled holidays. Fa la la la–la la la!

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