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Spring mix

tuesdaysThe books are busting out all over, and I’m desperately trying to keep up with the reading and writing. I should have posted about Molly Prentiss’ first novel, Tuesdays Nights in 1980 (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), a month ago when I first read it. Happily, Prentiss’ atmospheric portrait of the burgeoning New York art scene circa the early ’80s is seared in my memory. In pre-gentrification SoHo, three lives intersect and combust. James Bennet is an art critic whose synesthesia gives him an edge when it comes to describing color and feeling; Raul Engales, a painter who has left behind Argentina’s Dirty War, is poised to become the next big thing; and Lucy, the beautiful and naive young woman straight off the bus from Idaho, is in love with the city and its artists, its passion and possibility. Never mind the squalor, Lucy downs a drink that tastes like “poison and sunshine,” does a little modeling, and becomes Raul’s muse until a tragic accident upends lives and dreams. Prentiss’ writing has the rush of a fevered, impressionistic dream.

thenestCynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s first novel, The Nest (Ecco, library hardcover), has been riding a wave of publicity, and this New York-centric tale of family dysfunction offers voyeuristic entertainment. The four Plumb siblings, now middle-aged, have counted on inheriting their mutual trust fund to cover all their first-world debts and expenses, but elder son Leo’s latest escapade has depleted “the Nest.” Right out of rehab, charming Leo promises to repay the funds, but Beatrice, who can’t finish her novel, and Jack, who has lied to his partner about the solvency of his antiques business, and Melody, who faces a high mortgage and college tuition for her twin daughters, doubt their brother’s assurances, considering his ex-wife’s demands. It’s hard to sympathize with the siblings as they run around like chickens missing their heads, but I did like Leo’s on-and-off girlfriend Stephanie, determined but tenderhearted, and Melody’s adventurous twins, who gleefully outwit her stalking by app.

allofusNow the Rockwell family really knows how to put the “fun” in dysfunction in Bridget Asher’s sprightly novel All of Us and Everything (Bamtam, review copy), a spring selection of the SheReads online book club. Augusta Rockwell always told her three daughters that their absent father was an international spy away on secret missions. That outrageous story has echoed through the years until, in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, a mysterious box of letters surfaces and the three grown sisters — Esme, Liv, Ru — return to their childhood home to help their mother and survey the damage. Also on the scene are Esme’s newly fatherless teenage daughter Atty, with a serious Twitter addiction; the longtime housekeeper, who knows more than she lets on; and a prodigal neighbor who had a crush on Liv as a teenager and was the subject of Ru’s first screenplay. Asher manages the ensuing antics with ease, but takes quirkiness to the extreme. (Taxidermy squirrels). Still, Augusta’s memories of the love of her life — she met him on a bus during a snowstorm — are affecting, as are later scenes of reconnection and resolution. All in all, a memorable and messy family reunion.

whodoyouFirst love and second chances. Jennifer Weiner puts a spin on this classic premise and comes up a winner with Who Do You Love (Washington Square Press, review copy), now out in paperback and another SheReads spring pick. Eight-year-old Rachel Blum is recovering from heart surgery when she escapes from her hospital room to the ER one night and meets fellow eight-year-old Andy Landis, alone with a broken arm. They don’t expect to meet again, but serendipity and circumstances bring them together again — and again. In alternating chapters, Weiner focuses on Rachel and Andy, mostly apart but always on the verge of getting back together. Can true love conquer all? Maybe, maybe not, when families, social class and issues such as alcoholism, addiction and adultery get in the way. Thirtysomething years pass quickly with more than one surprise, but it’s the credible characters and small moments that touch the heart. Yes, those are tears in your eyes.

The Cincinnati Bennets

eligibleI wonder what it would be like to read Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (Random House, digital galley) without first having read Jane Austen’s classic. What to make of the Bennets and their five unmarried daughters transported from the English countryside of two centuries ago to a Tudor house in Cincinnati’s Hyde Park neighborhood? Would it be just another chick-lit tale of family dysfunction, with late thirty-something Jane and Lizzy returning home from New York when their father has heart surgery and their shopaholic matchmaking mother can’t cope? Would you appreciate the humor of having flighty still-at-home Kitty and Lydia obsessed with Cross-Fit, or pontificating Mary taking online classes for her third master’s degree? Can you buy Chip Bingley as a former reality TV star, and his best bud Fitzwilliam Darcy as an uptight neurosurgeon? When Mr. Bennet tells Mary, “Oh, put a sock in it,” do you laugh?

Alas, I’ve read Pride and Prejudice so many times, I’ll never know. I think Eligible could stand on its own as a comedy of manners, but its sparkle comes from the ways in which Sittenfeld chooses to update the tale so the familiar becomes fresh. I love that she’s set the story in her hometown of Cincinnati with its Grater’s ice cream and Skyline chili. Many of her choices are inspired — that stuffy Mr. Collins is now a nerdy — and wealthy — tech guru; that sweet yoga instructor Jane has been having secret IVF treatments because she wants a baby; that the daft Bennets don’t have health insurance so crushing medical debts are about to render them homeless. Other tweaks feel strained — that Mrs. Bennet is both a racist and a homophobe so Lizzy hires a gay, black real estate agent; that the cad Wickham has become two characters: Lizzy’s married lover Jasper Wick, and Lydia’s latest, hunky gym owner Ham; that “hate sex” leads to love. There’s plenty of wit here but not enough romance. Sometimes Sittenfeld seems to be having more fun than the reader, and the book’s charms fray at almost 500 pages.

Eligible is the fourth entry in the the Austen Project, which pairs each novel with a contemporary writer. I found Joanna Trollope’s Sense and Sensibility ho-hum, but I enjoyed Val McDermid’s satirical Northanger Abbey, with its young heroine fascinated by paranormal stories like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Alexander McCall Smith’s Emma had its moments but not as many as the movie Clueless. In Eligible’s  “The Bachelor”-like TV show, a kiss on the lips means a contestant is still in the running, while a kiss on the cheek sends the girl home. I enjoyed Eligible’s company, but it’s a kiss on the cheek for me. I’m going back to the original.

 

Favorite sleuths

murderofmaryYes, there’s a pool of blood. Yes, Mary Russell, the intrepid young wife of Sherlock Holmes, is missing. Yes, housekeeper Clara Hudson smells gunsmoke. No, I don’t believe that Mary is dead, despite the title of Laurie R. King’s latest installment in her long-running series, The Murder of Mary Russell (Bantam, digital galley).

Still, King leaves readers in suspense and Mary’s fate up in the air shortly after she confronts an Australian visitor to her farmhouse claiming to be Mrs. Hudson’s long-lost son. Mrs. Hudson returns home from shopping to discover an empty house, a broken cup, gunsmoke, blood and no Mary. From there, King jumps back to give us Mrs. Hudson’s complicated and surprising history, beginning with the unlikely romance between her Scottish mother and seafaring father. Said dad is a charming con man and grifter, and, growing up in Australia, little Clarissa is his most apt pupil. Her talent for disguises and playacting helps her in her quest to make something of herself, despite her father and spoiled younger sister. Eventually, too, she crosses paths in London with a young Sherlock Holmes and transforms into Mrs. Hudson. But what about Mary? Soon, back at the farm, Holmes is on the case with Mrs. Hudson’s help, and Mary herself is doing her cunning best to stay alive.

Longtime fans of the series will be especially entertained by King’s take on Mrs. Hudson, and a neat little twist near book’s end hints that she’s still keeping secrets.

londonrainNicola Upson has forged a nice career as a mystery writer with her series featuring real-life mystery writer and playwright Josephine Tey. Set in the 1930s and replete with period detail, they have the atmosphere of the Golden Age mysteries of Agatha Christie and Tey herself.

In London Rain (HarperCollins, digital galley), it’s the summer of 1937, and the capital city is readying for the coronation of King George VI. Tey is in London to sit in on rehearsals at Broadcast House for the BBC radio adaptation of one of her plays. She meets Vivienne Beresford, an editor at Radio Times, and soon witnesses her public humiliation when her husband, famed announcer Anthony Beresford, is revealed to be having an affair with a well-known actress. On air during the coronation, Beresford is felled by a gunshot, and his wife is the obvious suspect. Josephine’s friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is handling what appears to be an open-and-shut case. But then a jailed Vivienne asks to see Josephine, a second corpse is discovered and Josephine’s theatrical connections and detecting skills come into play. Throughout, too, Josephine’s private life is complicated by her lover, actress Marta Hallard.

Upson’s psychologically astute novels make me want to go back and reread my favorite Tey mysteries: The Daughter of Time, The Franchise Affair and Brat Farrar. Talk about some twists.

 

 

Down in the valley

millvalleyWhen she’s 11 and selling corn from a roadside stand, Mimi Miller knows her place in the world — the same small farm in Pennsylvania her family’s owned for 200 years. The flood-prone area is even known as Miller’s Valley. But only a few years later, Mimi already is missing the girl she used to be. “Getting older wasn’t working out so well for me.” Her best friend Donald has moved away, and so has her oldest brother, Edward. Her other brother, charming Tommy, has joined the Marines, gotten a local girl in trouble, been sent to Vietnam, gotten into drugs. Rumors that the government is going to flood the valley under a water-management plan are firming into facts. The ground even feels soggier. Mimi’s father lives in a state of denial and keeps the sump pumps running. Her mother refuses to get involved. “Let the water cover the whole damn place,” she says. About the only thing that hasn’t changed is that Aunt Ruth, her mother’s sister, still  refuses to leave the small house at the back of the Millers, even when floodwaters send her to the attic.

Anna Quindlen’s emotionally resonant new novel, Miller’s Valley (Random House, digital galley), is a coming-of-age novel distinguished by the intimate voice of narrator Mimi and a specificity of detail and image. The fog can lie “as thick as cotton candy” on the valley floor, a neighbor woman is remembered for “her lavender smell and warm pies.” When Tommy comes home, he has “a tough little barking laugh. . . a mean second cousin to a real laugh.” But Tommy also warns Mimi not to get sidetracked by her boyfriend, an older construction worker with whom she’s in love and lust. Tommy wants Mimi to concentrate on getting out of Miller’s Valley. “Don’t get stuck.” Mimi’s good grades and a college scholarship are going to be her way out, until a family crisis throws up a roadblock.

Families, friends, first loves, old secrets. Quindlen’s story flows like the rising river, moving faster as it nears the end. A mystery surfaces unexpectedly, and Mimi must decide whether to pursue it or to let it go, even as she tries to find traction on the slippery slope of change, at home in a world both familiar and strange.

 

Brilliant disguise

travelersRemember TV doctor House’s mantra: Everybody lies? It’s something to keep in mind while reading Chris Pavone’s brisk, globe-trotting thriller, The Travelers (Crown, digital galley). Will Rhodes, a writer for classy magazine Travelers, is reporting on American expats when he’s lured into a honey trap by an Australian blonde calling herself Elle. Before he can say “I’m married,” Will finds himself involved in covert operations as a CIA asset. At least that’s what case officer Elle tells him. Meanwhile, readers are introduced to Will’s boss, secretive Malcolm Somers, who has a hidden office and unknown agenda that includes Will’s wife Chloe, whose cell phone keeps going to voicemail. Will dodges danger in Dublin, Paris, aboard a yacht in the Mediterranean, back home in Brooklyn, and on a lonely road in Iceland. The action is cinematic — twists, turns, lies, spies. As in his previous novels, The Expats and The Accident, Pavone proves himself an assured and entertaining tale-teller. Sure, The Travelers hurtles over the top, but who cares? Bring your parachute. And a lie detector.

passengerWho is Tanya DuBois? That’s the question that runs throughout Lisa Lutz’s fast-paced The Passenger (Simon & Schuster, digital galley), an accomplished departure from her comic Spellman Files series. When introduced, Tanya’s husband Frank has just taken a header down the stairs, and Tanya figures the Wisconsin police will finger her for the crime. After all, it’s happened before. Huh?! Soon, Tanya’s called in a favor from the mysterious Mr. Oliver, who provides her with a new identity as Amelia, and she’s on the lam. In Austin, she falls in with a bartender called Blue, who is hiding from an abusive husband. Or so she says. When he comes looking for her, and two of Mr. Oliver’s henchman come after Amelia, the two women make a Strangers on a Train kind of pact, and Amelia becomes schoolteacher Debra in small-town Wyoming. But big trouble’s on her trail, and narrator Tanya/Amelia/Debra is again switching up IDs, dying her hair and hitting the road, this time to upstate New York. She lives off the grid, wondering when her luck is going to run out. Winter is coming. Lutz intersperses her resourceful heroine’s story with e-mails between someone named Jo and a man from her past, Ryan, which adds to the intrigue. I couldn’t put The Passenger down. What a ride.

allthingsA farmhouse in the upstate New York town of Chosen is the scene of crime and tragedy in Elizabeth Brundage’s chilly All Things Cease to Appear (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). In 1978, failing dairy farmer Calvin Hale and wife Ella commit suicide in their upstairs bedroom, leaving three sons to grow up with relatives nearby. A local real estate agent –“purveyor of dreams and keeper of secrets” — later sells the picturesque farmhouse to college professor George Clare, his pretty wife Catherine and toddler daughter Franny. Catherine, unhappy in her marriage, senses the house is haunted, not realizing that her teenage handyman and babysitter Cole Hale used to live there. When George discovers Catherine brutally murdered in their bedroom, both he and Cole come under suspicion, as do others, but the crime remains unsolved for years. The real mystery here is not the killer’s identity, but how people react to circumstances, and how appearances deceive. Brundage, a precisely lyrical writer, knows her characters inside and out, including the psychopath at story’s center.

janesteele“Reader, I murdered him.” Yes, you read that right. This is not Jane Eyre who married him, but rather Jane Steele, the title heroine of Lyndsay Faye’s clever homage to the Bronte classic. Jane Steele (Penguin Putnam, digital galley) reads like a Victorian thriller as its plucky protagonist, a Jane Eyre fan, takes up her pen to recount her adventures. Orphaned as a young girl, Jane Steele is at the mercy of penny-pinching Aunt Patience and her loathsome son, who soon meets his fate at the bottom of a ravine. Jane is then shipped off to a Dickensian boarding school whose students are routinely starved by the tyrannical headmaster. Jane escapes to London, eventually learning that her aunt has died and that Highgate House — Jane’s rightful inheritance — is in the hands of Mr. Charles Thornfield, who is in need of a governess. Jane, of course, applies for the position. Faye, author of several historical thrillers, subverts Bronte’s plot enough to keep readers wondering what her self-professed serial killer will do next. Thornfield and his Sikh butler have secrets aplenty left over from the Anglo-Indian wars, but Jane fears her own “dark heart” and past misdeeds will thwart any romance or road to happiness. Hmmm. What would Jane Eyre do?

redcoatIn The Girl in the Red Coat (Melville House, digital galley), British author Kate Hamer uses child abduction to write both a psychological thriller and a moving exploration of the bonds between mother and daughter. Single mom Beth has always had a premonition that she will lose her dreamy daughter, Carmel. Then one day at an outdoor festival, the eight-year-old wanders away in the fog and is rescued by an older man who claims to be her grandfather. Convinced that her mother has been in a bad accident, Carmel goes with the man to a secluded cottage where his female companion awaits with other children. Frantic Beth and the authorities mount a massive search, but Carmel is gone. Hamer alternates the perspectives between Beth and Carmel, both of whom struggle to hold on to their memories as the years go by. Taken to the United States by her fake grandparents, Carmel has a rag-tag childhood with the itinerant faith healers, while Beth keeps the faith back home even as her life changes. A far-fetched premise, perhaps — the American scenes are sketchy — but the pages practically turn themselves.

Counting clues

watersEven though I haven’t been to Venice in years, it takes only a few pages of one of Donna Leon’s police procedurals featuring Guido Brunetti to transport me back to that singular city of water and stone. The 25th book in the series, The Waters of Eternal Youth (Grove/Atlantic, digital galley), strikes me as especially atmospheric and poignant. Reminders are everywhere that Venice is sinking into the sea, and historic preservation is much on the mind of several characters, including an influential contessa who asks Brunetti a favor. Fifteen years ago, her then-teenage granddaughter Manuela suffered brain damage after almost drowning in a canal. A drunken bystander who rescued the girl said a man had pushed her, but he forgot even saying that by the next day. Manuela, now locked in eternal childhood, apparently remembers nothing. Brunetti does not expect to find anything so many years later, but a murder lends urgency to the leisurely investigation. Brunetti’s literature professor wife Paola looks up from Henry James to offer her opinions; fellow detective Claudia Griffonio befriends Manuela and reveals something of her own past; and internet expert Signorina Elletra runs interference when Brunetti’s boss becomes too interested in the case. Venice, of course, enchants.

devonshireLaura Childs’ cozy Tea Shop mysteries have such evocative, tea-flavored titles — Death by Darjeeling, Chamomile Mourning, Scones and Bones. But her new one may be my favorite: Devonshire Scream (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley). Theodosia Browning’s Indigo Tea Shop in downtown Charleston, S.C. also caters special events, such as a trunk show at her friend Brooke’s jewelry store. But a smash-and-grab heist interrupts the event and Brooke’s niece is killed by flying glass. The police suspect an international gang of thieves who have pulled similar jobs in other cities and worry that the display of a real Romanov egg at an upcoming charity event may be the real target. In between serving delicious meals at the tea shop — cranberry scones, anyone? — Theo snoops among old Charlestonians and social-climbing arrivistes, picking up gossip and trailing possible suspects. She even dons a valuable gem for the gala, hoping the thieves will find it irresistible. They do. Irresistible recipes at book’s end are the icing on the tea cake.

nurseThe title of M.C. Beaton’s latest Hamish Macbeth tale — Death of a Nurse (Grand Central Publishing, review copy) — tells us the victim, but I knew from first sighting that Gloria Dainty was doomed. That’s because the flirty nurse to elderly James Harrison has agreed to a dinner date with Hamish, and Lochdubh’s red-headed police officer has notorious bad luck with women. Sure enough, Gloria fails to appear at the appointed hour, and the irascible Harrison says she’s done a flit. Four days later, Hamish finds her body at the bottom of a beachside cliff. His investigation is hindered by interference from higher-ups and from locals who fancy themselves detectives. Meanwhile, Hamish’s current assistant, clumsy Charlie, is winning hearts right and left, to Hamish’s dismay. Fans of the witty series will be amused by the return of familiar characters and local  color, but newcomers may have trouble keeping up with characters and clues.

skeletonMystery writer Marty Wingate transplants Texas gardener Pru Parke to an English country estate in The Skeleton Plot (Alibi, digital galley), where she digs up old bones and the remains of a Nazi fighter plane left over from World War II. Surprisingly, the bones are not those of the pilot, and Pru and her police officer husband’s quest to find out the identity of the skeleton is complicated by the new murder of a villager. The plot, though, isn’t as engaging as the quirky characters — especially Pru’s hacker nephew and her standoffish cook — and the details of the gorgeous gardens and village life. Excerpts from old letters between a WWII land girl and her soldier sweetheart add atmosphere and a sense of history. A green thumbs-up.

bunniesClea Simon has two new mysteries this month. When Bunnies Go Bad (Poisoned Pen Press, digital galley) is the sixth Pet Noir tale featuring animal behaviorist and pet psychic Pru Marlowe. As for the bunnies, there’s a visiting ski bunny whose gangster boyfriend may have stolen the valuable “Bunny in the Sun” painting, and a wild rabbit named Henry who is illegally residing with an 84-year-old woman. After the gangster is murdered, Pru becomes involved in the investigation despite her cop boyfriend’s disapproval as she works with ski bunny Ginger’s pampered spaniel and tries to communicate with wild Henry. The Ninth Life (Severn House, digital galley) is another color cat altogether, and not the cozy I was expecting. It’s narrated by Blackie, who wakes up from a near-drowning to discover he’s a cat rescued by a homeless teen known as Care. I’m not much on animal narrators, but Blackie’s voice offers a unique perspective on dark street life, where throwaway kids are at the mercy of drug dealers and worse.

promurderFlorida actor and playwright Ned Averill-Snell puts his experience with small professional theaters to good use in his first self-published mystery, Small Professional Murder (paperback review copy). Tall, gangly Suzanne answers to “Spriz” (rhymes with showbiz) as head of props for a small repertory theater in the Florida town of Galilee. She’s one of the few people who can tolerate leading man Brandon Wishart, and when the actor is killed by a falling flat, she takes it upon herself to find the friendless man’s heirs. She and her costumer pal Tommy road-trip the backroads of Florida, stopping at the little theaters and playhouses where Brandon once worked. Sadly, several have fallen victim to the recent recession, and that fact, coupled with the realization that Brandon was murdered, means Spriz and Tommy need to look closer to home. Averill-Snell’s backstage tale reminded me of Simon Brett’s witty Charles Paris mysteries, and theater fans will be entertained by the antics of cast and crew. But too many props — or descriptions thereof — tend to clutter the narrative.

 

 

 

studyincharlotteOh, my. Holmes and Watson are being framed for murder. But it’s not elementary, my dears, but high school. In Brittany Cavallaro’s clever A Study in Charlotte (HarperCollins, digital galley), Charlotte Holmes, the great-great-great-granddaughter of the famous Sherlock Holmes, and Jamie Watson, the great-great-great grandson of John Watson, end up at the same New England prep school. Their initial run-in doesn’t portend a happy partnership, however.

Brilliant Charlotte, tutored in deductive skills since childhood, has been helping Scotland Yard since she was 10. Rumor has it that some unfortunate incident has landed her at Sherringford, where she keeps mostly to herself, plays the violin, conducts experiments in her own lab and has a bit of a drug habit. Narrator Jamie, a rugby player and aspiring writer, is nevertheless intrigued by Charlotte’s prickly persona. When a student they both disliked is killed a la speckled band — as in one of their ancestors’ most famous cases — Charlotte enlists Jamie’s help to solve the crime before the police put them in jail. But the wily killer isn’t finished yet, and an attack on another student again points to Holmes and Watson. Is there a member of the Moriarty crime family lurking nearby?

Cavallaro knows the Arthur Canon Doyle canon, and everything about this first novel — plot, pace, writing — is witty and assured. Charlotte and Jamie both have issues with their respective families, roommates and teachers, and they are credible teens with just the right amount of ambition, angst and attitude. A Study in Charlotte is the first in a trilogy, so expect to see more Holmes and Watson adventures before too long. Meanwhile, the publisher has put up a classy promotional trailer on YouTube. You can check it out here. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SjIJFW8Uetw

 

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