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kimcrossKim Cross made me cry. Or rather her book did. What Stands in a Storm (Atria Books, digital galley) is subtitled “Three Days in the Worst Superstorm to Hit the South’s Tornado Alley,” but I read it in hours, gripped from the very beginning:

“3:44 p.m., Wednesday, April 27, 2011 — Smithville, Mississippi

Patti Parker watched the dark funnel grow until it filled the whole windshield, blackening the sky. Its two-hundred-mile-per-hour winds were furious enough to blast the bark off trees, suck the nails out of a two-by-four, and peel a road right off the earth, and it was charging at sixty miles per hour toward everything she loved most in the world — her children, her husband, their home. She was racing behind the massive storm, down the seven-mile stretch of rural highway between her and the life she knew.”

My tears came later, when after reading through part one, “The Storm,”  I found out what happened to everyone in parts two and three — “The Aftermath” and “The Recovery.” By everyone I mean the people huddled in basements and bathtubs, the seasoned meteorologists who saw the storms coming, the college students crouched in stairwells, the dispatcher who stayed at her post, the motel clerk with the friendly smile, the stormchasers trying to decide to turn left or right, the passengers in the cars and the drivers of the semis beneath the highway overpasses, the staff at the threatened hospitals, the firefighters with the flattened trucks. As Rick Bragg notes in his introduction, Cross puts the human face on the drama and makes the numbers real: the 358 tornadoes that ripped through 21 states in three days, seven hours, eighteen minutes; 348 people killed, $11 billion in damage.

Now an editor-at-large at Southern Living and a freelance writer based in Birmingham, Cross is a superb reporter who cloaks the tick-tock frame with a specificity of detail and imagery. The ugly greenish sky is “the color of fear,” a family collapses in a huddle of “elbows and tears.” Trucks cartwheel through whipping debris and crumple like soda cans. “At the Wrangler plant, a flock of blue jeans launched into flight, flapping like denim birds.”

The response and reaction is heart-wrenching and heart-warming. Phones ring in the terrible silence. Neighbors help neighbors and strangers. Volunteers serve plate after plate of soul food. A wedding goes on without the maid of honor. A memory quilt is found because of a Facebook posting. A father with “kind, sad” eyes sits for five days next to the slab of the apartment building that buried his college student son. A trained black German shepherd named Cinco and a honey-colored retriever mix named Chance help find the body. People from all over send clothes, supplies, cash. “Japan sent Alabama eight thousand blankets, a thank-you gift for all the help Americans had sent in the wake of the March tsunami.”

These days it seems that natural disasters strike all too frequently: an earthquake in Mexico, a tsunami in Japan, a hurricane in the South Pacific, forest fires and mudslides and tornadoes. It’s possible that you might not be able to separate the Tuscaloosa tornado from the storm that struck Joplin, Missouri, in May of that year, or the one that hit Moore, Oklahoma, in May 2013. There’s a forthcoming book by Holly Bailey about the Moore tornado, The Mercy of the Sky. I’m going to read that one, too.

Tornadoes scare me because they are so random and indiscriminate. What Stands in a Storm brings that home with a terrible immediacy. I was going to back into this post, begin with the years I spent in Kansas and tell you how funnel clouds still haunt my dreams. I was going to tell you about how I can look at a cloud bank like a bruise on the horizon and predict the sirens going off, about hunkering down and hoping and praying. But my experiences are puny compared to those I read about in What Stands in a Storm. What a powerful and poignant book. You might cry, too.         Continue Reading »

Spring mix

dorothyYou just can’t keep a good ghost down, especially when she’s as smart and tart-tongued as Dorothy Parker. Ellen Meister resurrected the literary legend as a not-always-blithe spirit in 2013’s Farewell, Dorothy Parker and brings her back in a nifty follow-up Dorothy Parker Slept Here (Penguin/Putnam, digital galley). Mrs. Parker is still haunting the halls of the Algonquin Hotel, but she admits to being lonely since all her famous pals have elected to move on to the afterlife. She sets her sights on Ted Shriver, a famous writer brought down by a plagiarism scandal, who has holed up in the hotel with a brain tumor. If Mrs. Parker can get him to sign the magical guest book before he checks out, she’ll have a new drinking buddy. But bitter, irascible Shriver will have nothing to do with her or young TV producer Norah Wolfe, who desperately wants to interview him, unless, perhaps, they can help him with a few things. Shenanigans ensue in this appropriately witty and surprisingly sweet tale.

carefreeYou binge watch Girls on HBO and then you feel sort of sad. Yes, you laughed, but you also cringed at the awkward hook-ups, the intense friendships, the dramatic highs, the despairing lows. Being a veteran of Sex and the City, you also know that grown-up girls also have emotionally messy lives. The women in Katherine Heiney’s bouyant collection of short stories, Single, Carefree, Mellow (Knopf, digital galley) are more likely to be married, anxious and faithless, but they’re a fun, frank bunch. Here’s wife and mother Nina in “Blue Heron Bridge,” caught up in an affair: “Oh, it was horrible to have a teenager’s emotions and a forty year old’s body. It was humliating. It was depressing. It was degrading. It made her feel alive to the very tips of her toes.” Myra, who appears in several stories, juggles her married French boss with her longtime boyfriend and his family. Friends support one another through boyfriend crises in “The Dive Bar” and “Thoughts of a Bridesmaid.” In “Cranberry Relish,” a woman tries to sort out failed expectations. “Josie thinks that the problem with being a writer is that you miss a lot of your life wondering if the things that happen to you are good enough to use in a story, and most of the time they’re not and you have to make shit up anyway.”

actofgodJill Ciment’s Act of God: A Novel (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley) is a stylish mix of comedy and tragedy that reminds me of a the old saying “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, etc., etc.” From the moment that 64-year-old identical twins Kat and Edith find the eerily glowing mushroom in their late mother’s Brooklyn townhouse, their lives, and those of their neighbors, quickly unravel. What turns out to be a peculiar toxic mold spawns one disaster after another, the contagion unwittingly spread by the twins, their actress landlady — who ignored Edith’s calls — and a runaway Russian au pair who was hiding in an upstairs closet. Soon, there are haz-mat units, condemned buildings, and community shelters for those who have nowhere else to go. It’s like one of those cheesy ’50 flicks where giant ants come out of the woodwork or maybe an episode of Dr. Who, but it’s also a scenario familiar from the wake of natural disasters like Superstorm Sandy and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Ciment has a light touch, but the cumulative effect of her pop-culture satire is poignant and provocative.

mischiefStart your summer reading early with Susan Mallery’s The Girls of Mischief Bay (Mira, digital galley), although her three friends are hardly girls. Nicole is the youngest at 30, owns a Pilates studio in a seaside California town and is married to a wanna-be screenwriter. Almost 40, Shannon has a successful career in finance but a poor record with men and relationships. Recently turned 50, Pam is happily married but wonders if Botox might keep her more youthful. When life becomes an obstacle race for each of the three, they turn to one another for help over the hurdles. Nicole feels her husband has lost interest in her and their 5-year-old son. Shannon’s new guy comes with emotional baggage and shared custody of two kids. Pam’s life is upended by a tragedy out of the blue. The novel, the first in a new series, has more in common with the domestic drama of Mallery’s Blackberry Island trilogy than her Fool’s Gold series of romances but should satisfy readers of both with its credible characters coping with life’s changes.

Spies and lies

berlinJoseph Kanon is one of my favorite writers of historical espionage, right up there with Alan Furst in evoking the spy’s world of shadows, way more than fifty shades of gray. Last year’s Istanbul Passage was a layered tale of the crossroads of East and West in 1945. Now, in Leaving Berlin (Atria, digital galley), Kanon’s back in divided post-war Germany in the rubble-strewn Soviet sector during the blockade of 1948-49.

Alex Meier is a Berlin native and novelist who escaped the city for California before the war. Standing up to the McCarthyites earns him a job with the CIA in lieu of deportation or prison. If he’ll spy on his fellow cultural emigres in East Germany, he can return to the States and the young son living with his ex-wife. Alex isn’t too happy with the arrangement, especially when he finds out his old flame is the consort of his main target, a Russian major. His life becomes infinitely more complicated when her brother escapes from a POW labor camp and needs to get medical help in the West, and when the East German police insist he become an informer. His loyalties will be tested more than once; betrayal lurks in every dark corner. There’s a shoot-out early on, then a murder and a cover-up, but the story’s less concerned with action than with discerning the traitors on all sides. The characters, with their varying backstories, are believable, even if Alex can’t believe what they say.

knivesOlen Steinhauer signals what he’s up to at the very beginning of his clever All the Old Knives (St. Martins/Minotaur Books, paperback ARC) when CIA agent Henry Pelham discusses the state of contemporary spy fiction with a fellow airline passenger. She’s reading an old Len Deighton. “They just don’t make stories like this anymore. … You knew who the bad guys were back then.”

Actually, they do still write traditional spy novels — see Joseph Kanon, above — and Steinhauer’s new book isn’t as different as one might suppose, despite its up-to-the-minute terrorist-flavored plot and its unconventional framework. Almost all of it takes place over dinner at a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., where Henry is meeting former lover and agent Celia Favreau for the first time in five years. Both were stationed in Vienna during the catastrophic takeover of a passenger plane by a radical Islamic group. Celia left within months after the debacle to marry an older man and start a family. Ostensibly, Henry just happens to be in her neck of the woods and Celia is catching him up on her two small children, but much more is revealed in their conversation and in flashbacks. Henry’s involved in an inquiry about the hijacking — there’s lingering suspicion that a mole tipped off the terrorists — and he wants Celia’s version of events. Of course, it’s all in the official report. Or is it?

Halfway through the book, Steinhauer switches perspectives from Henry to Celia, and while her memories overlap his, they also differ on crucial points. So, who are you going to believe? Both are well-trained liars and unreliable witnesses. The narrative switches back and forth as dinner progresses. Wine flows. Delicious food consumed. The veal hardly needs a knife, but the talk becomes more pointed. In the end, a good spy tales turns on deceit and betrayal. All the Old Knives is very good indeed.

dreamingspiesLaurie R. King’s novels mix atmosphere, history and intrigue, whether she’s writing suspense novels like 2013’s The Bones of Paris or one of her entries in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, say, 2012’s Garment of Shadows, which started out in in 1920s Morocco. Her latest, Dreaming Spies (Bantam/Random House, digital galley) finds Mary and Sherlock on a steamer bound for 1924 Japan, where they disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims as part of a secret mission to help the royal family. It all stems from a meeting aboard ship with a young Japanese woman, who turns out to be economist, acrobat and real-life ninja, and an English lord who turns out to be a blackmailer. The leisurely narrative, stuffed with all sorts of fascinating cultural asides, is occasionally punctuated by action scenes, but it’s Mary and Sherlock’s wits that make the story so entertaining. Their Japan adventure is only partially resolved, however, and there’s more mystery a year later when their Japanese friends and foes come calling in Mary’s beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires.”

After Arthur

buriedCamelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.

Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?

But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”

This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.

Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.

Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.

The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?

 

Murder in mind

hushPrivate investigator Tess Monaghan was once dubbed “an accidental detective” by the Baltimore paper where she had worked as a reporter. Now, in Laura Lippman’s 12th book in the award-winning series, Hush Hush (Morrow, digital galley and ARC), Tess is a seasoned pro at the detective stuff but worries she’s “an accidental mother.” She adores her willful three-year-old Carla Scout but thinks her parenting skills aren’t as good as her boyfriend Crow’s. She’s also still figuring out the balancing act between family and work.

Both Tess’s vulnerabilities and strengths as a mom are integral to Hush Hush as she reluctantly takes on Melisandre Harris Dawes as a client. More than a decade ago, Melisandre left her infant daughter to die in a locked car but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, specifically postpartum psychosis. She then gave up custody of her two other daughters to her ex-husband and moved  to Europe. Now, however, the wealthy Melisandre is back in Baltimore with a documentary filmmaker and plans to reunite with her estranged teenagers, 17-year-old Alanna and 15-year-old Ruby. Tess and her new partner, Sandy Sanchez, are hired to assess her security. Death threats, a poisoning incident and a murder further involve Tess in the case of the manipulative mother, as does a stalker who knows way too much about Tess and Carla Scout.

Lippman cleverly shifts perspectives among the major players and includes revealing transcripts from interviews for the documentary. And as in previous Tess books (The Sugar House) and stand-alones (Every Secret Thing), she proves once again how well she knows the wiles and worries of teenage girls. Alanna and Ruby, living with their father and his  new wife and baby son, are a tangle of mixed emotions as they react to the prospect of  their mother’s return. Lippman also portrays the relationship between Tess and Carla Scout with a sure hand, as when the toddler throws a tantrum in the supermarket or berates her mother for saying a bad word. These interactions don’t distract from the story but enhance it, and it’s no accident that clues to its serious puzzles are found in the color of crayons, worn children’s books and the trans fat content of certain name-brand cookies.

carrierSophie Hannah’s domestic suspense procedurals feature married British cops Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. But the duo is almost lost in the byzantine plots of The Carrier (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), and they’re overshadowed by the unpleasantness of the other characters, all of whom are caught up in dysfunctional relationships of one kind or another.

Where to begin? Hannah starts off with smart, sophisticated tech developer Gaby having to endure the company of provincial, grammar-deficient Lauren after their flight from Germany to England is canceled by bad weather. But when Lauren lets slip something about an innocent man in prison for murder and then flees their grimy airport hotel, Gaby begins to suspect that meeting Lauren is no accident. The innocent man turns out to be Gaby’s lost love Tim, who has confessed to killing his invalid wife Francine but won’t say why. Gaby, who has been living with another man, is so certain Tim is lying that she walks out on her current lover and inserts herself into the investigation. Simon and Charlie are also perplexed by the “Don’t Know Why Killer,” even though Tim’s confession is backed up by his best friends, as well as by Lauren, who is Francine’s caregiver, and her thuggish husband.

Complicated enough for you? Now consider that victim Francine was a thoroughly despicable woman who separated poetry-loving Tim from Gaby and trapped him in a loveless marriage. Why he stayed with her is a puzzle to everyone. Several kinds of crazy are apparently at work here because supposedly brilliant people like Gaby and Tim behave stupidly.

Hannah is relentless in mining everyone’s motives and mindsets, and fans who stick with the story will be rewarded with a conclusion that makes sense in retrospect. I think.

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A blizzard of books

firstfrostMy friends in Massachusetts and Maine are snowed in this Valentine’s Day. I hope they have lots of good books to keep them company. Here in Florida, I’m snowed under with books — library books, review copies, digital galleys, recent gifts, new purchases. Call it book love in a warm climate.

The only problem is finding enough time to read and write. So I’m going to let the writing part go for a few more days, but here’s a  glimpse of what I’ve read and what I’m reading in the meantime. Let it snow . . . books, that is.

 

 

findmehush carefreebaxter unbecomingwildaloneliarunexpectedkingsstarfallcarriermimedarkestshadowtriggerkellylinkdreamingspiesfunnygirlsunshine

In this house

spoolThe Whitshank home on Baltimore’s Bouton Road is a clapboard family house, “plain-faced and comfortable .  . . Tall sash windows, a fieldstone chimney, a fanlight over the door. But best of all, that porch: that wonderful full-length porch.”

This house is at the heart of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, e-galley), a novel as comfortable and welcoming as that gigantic porch. With characteristic ease, Tyler draws readers in to meet the Whitshank clan, which like all families, thinks itself special, spinning its own mythology out of shared history and stories. One story is how Junior, a self-made contractor out of the West Virginia mountains, built the house for another family in the mid-1930s but eventually moved into it with wife Linnie Mae, daughter Merrick and son Red. Another concerns how Merrick schemed to get away from the house by stealing another girl’s rich boyfriend.

Tyler assures us the Whitshanks are ordinary folk. Their talent for pretending everything is fine isn’t just a quirk. “Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Methinks Tyler doth protest too much. Tyler has made a career — this is her 20th novel — of illuminating the ordinary so it becomes extraordinary. Her characters both charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life, which Tyler depicts as both rich and interesting. Readers will recognize the familiar territory, relish the generous details. Here is Breathing Lessons grown old.

The book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the present-day Whitshanks. Laconic Red and effusive Abby are in their 70s, and their four grown children can no longer pretend that everything is fine at the house on Bouton Road. Red has slowed down significantly since a recent heart attack, and Abby has memory slips. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie, both married to men named Hugh, concur with youngest son Stem that he and his family will move in to look after Red and Abby. Then prodigal slacker son Denny, who has dropped in and out of family life for years, moves home, announcing that he will take care of things and why does everyone think he is unreliable, anyway? The list is so long as to afford chuckles if not for the long-held rivalries and secrets bubbling to the surface. An accident changes everything, and the Whitshanks begin to unravel.

Tyler abruptly time-shifts to July of 1959 and “the beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning” when teens Abby and Red begin their courtship at the Whitshank house. The family is preparing for Merrick’s wedding, and as Abby helps usually quiet Linnie Mae in the kitchen, she learns a surprising fact about her future in-laws. It’s a hint of what’s to come in part three, another extended flashback, this time to Junior and Linnie Mae’s early days in Baltimore. Fascinating stuff, and it goes a long way toward explaining Junior’s attachment to the house.

In the end, Tyler returns to present-day, tying up loose ends at the Whitshank house. It’s almost Halloween so the porch is decorated, as always, with a row of six ghosts made of rubber balls tied up in gauzy white cheesecloth that wafts in the breeze. “The whole front of the house took on a misty, floating look.”

It’s one of those indelible images that Tyler is so good with. Another finds the Whitshanks on their annual trip to the beach, where they observe the next-door neighbors year after year and how they change as time marches on. Abby has yet to venture into the water this vacation. “In her skirted pink swimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake.”

And then there’s Junior, who, after he finally gets the house of his dreams, starts beginning every sentence with “In this house.”

“In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not have possibly started out Episcopalian. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.”

 

 

 

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