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South toward home

From the deck of his big new house on Brushy Mountain Road, JJ Ferguson can look down at the rooftops of the North Carolina community where he grew up as a foster child. The view is even better at night when lights twinkle in the darkness that hides Pinewood’s shabbiness and depressed economy.

If this scene from Stephanie Powell Watts’ involving first novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, digital galley), recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s no surprise. The publisher is billing the book as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic with African-American characters and a Southern setting, but that’s not the whole story. While Gatsby may echo through its pages, No One Is Coming to Save Us — a great title — stands on its own as it explores the nature of family and home, the currents of change, the persistence of dreams.

Watt moves fluidly among the perspectives of her memorable characters. JJ — “Call me Jay” — returns to Pinewood after a 15-year-absence, hoping to rekindle a romance with childhood friend Ava, desperate to be a mother after several miscarriages. She’s married to handsome underachiever Henry, who is keeping a big secret from her. Ava’s mother Sylvia, close to retirement, has her own disappointments and sorrows, including a lost son and her estranged husband Don. The latter, the baby of his family and “always a good time,” now lives with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter but keeps showing up at Sylvia’s. And no wonder. Sylvia is a woman of substance — literally — who nurtures people and her garden. She finds solace in accepting the calls of a young man in prison she’s never met. She realizes that JJ is looking for family and “to be the hero of his own story.” So do they all, that recognition of worth dignifying their busted lives. They beat on. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

Soon after Landon Cooper moves into the downstairs of an old rental house in south Birmingham, she meets Abi, her lively upstairs neighbor, who tells her she’s going to love living on this street.  “Really, we’re like a family. I didn’t mean to pry when I asked you what your story was. It’s just that most of Mr. Kasir’s tenants have a story.”

What those stories are and how they intertwine is the premise of Vicki Covington’s perceptive novel Once in a Blue Moon (John F. Blair, digital galley).  As Barack Obama campaigns for president in 2007 and 2008, Covington’s diverse characters are marked by hope and cope with change. Just moving is a jolt for Landon, a recently divorced psychologist who has her own mental health issues. She meets many of her new neighbors when a drunken stranger passes out in her living room and they rally to her screams. Abi’s the country girl trying to escape her rural roots by taking college courses. Roy’s the athlete with big dreams who deals weed on the side. Jet’s a former prostitute who recently discovered the surprising identity of her birth mother. Their landlord, Abraham Kasir, lives “over the mountain” but keeps a fatherly eye on his tenants as he trains his young grandson Jason to take over the property business.

It’s pure pleasure to read a new novel from Covington, an assured chronicler of the contemporary South at turning points. Night Ride Home, for example, takes place just as World War II begins, while The Last Hotel for Women calls up 1961 Birmingham and the era of Bull Connor. Now with Once in a Blue Moon, Covington gently reminds us of when hope and change brought people together.

Other good Southern books to put on your reading list include Bren McLain’s One Good Mama Bone: A Novel (University of South Carolina Press, review copy), about a hardscrabble 1950s South Carolina widow, the boy she is raising who is not her own, and a mama cow with a strong personality; Taylor Brown’s The River of Kings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which combines family history and adventure as two brothers journey down Georgia’s Altamaha River to scatter their father’s ashes; and Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields (Crown, digital galley), a coming-of-age saga of father and son in a small Appalachian town. All three were recent Okra Picks chosen by Southern indie booksellers.

Page-turners

I really should stop reading creepy crime novels at bedtime if I ever want to get some sleep. Consider police detective Casey Duncan at the beginning of Kelley Armstrong’s decidedly chilly A Darkness Absolute (St. Martin’s, digital galley). Chasing a fugitive from the off-the-grid community of Rockton in the Canadian wilderness, Casey and a deputy are stranded in a cave by a fierce blizzard. Strange noises lead them to a dark pit, where a missing Rockton woman has been held captive for more than a year.  Nicki can tell them little about the mystery man who kidnapped her, but there’s no doubt he’s still a threat when the bones of other missing women turn up deep in the cave system. Casey’s investigation with prickly sheriff Eric Dalton is hindered by the unusual nature of Rockton, a safe haven for people with secrets. Casey’s was revealed in Armstrong’s 2016 City of the Lost, so you might want to read it first to avoid spoilers. Besides, it’s another atmospheric page-turner.

So is Clare Mackintosh’s I See You (Berkley Penguin, digital galley), which will have you looking over your shoulder like London commuter Zoe Walker, who routinely takes the underground Tube to her real estate job. Then one day she spots a blurry photo of herself in a tabloid ad for what appears to be an internet dating site. What? How?  She discovers that the ad runs daily, each time with the photo of a different woman — and that these women are being stalked and assaulted.  One has been murdered. Zoe takes her worries to Transport police officer Kelly Swift, whose third-person perspective on events alternates with Zoe’s first-person narrative, upping the suspense. Mackintosh displayed her suspense writing chops with last year’s I Let You Go. This book’s another thrill ride if you’re willing to ignore some improbable plot points.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at Behind Her Eyes (Flatiron Books, ARC), in which Sarah Pinborough also uses shifting perspectives to tie a love triangle in knots. Londoner Louise is surprised to learn her new boss David, a successful therapist, is the guy she made out with in a bar. Also, he’s married to beautiful Adele, who befriends Louise. Who is playing who? It’s a guessing game until the out-of-the-blue, over-the-top ending. You’ll also need to suspend disbelief with J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before (Ballantine, digital galley), which is full of coincidences about the successive attractive tenants of a control-freak architect’s custom London mansion. Neither Emma nor Jane is willing to look the gift house in the mouth, even though the rental agreement has about 200 ridiculous rules — no books, no pictures on the wall, no rugs on the floor — and also poses intrusive ethical questions. Really?

After the show-off style of so many thrillers, it’s a relief to turn to a gripping procedural. Deborah Crombie’s Garden of Lamentations (Morrow, digital galley),the 17th in her series featuring married London. detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, is one of the best, building on 2014’s To Dwell in Darkness. (Yes, you’ll want to read it, too).  While Gemma investigates the murder of a pretty nanny in a Notting Hill garden, Duncan puzzles over his recent reassignment and the cryptic comments his former boss made before he was mugged and left comatose. Duncan has his suspicions about several seemingly unrelated cases involving members of the force, and the assault on the chief super makes him think a traitor may be at work.

Judith Flanders’ clever and entertaining third mystery starring London book editor Samantha Clair, A Cast of Vultures (St. Martin’s, digital galley), benefits from its heroine’s witty narration and an engaging supporting cast. Problems at the publishing house where Sam works are overshadowed by troubles in her neighborhood, where an arson case turns up squatters and a dead body. Of course, Sam’s going to get involved, as will her cop boyfriend, her attorney mom, her elderly but reclusive neighbor, and her spunky editorial assistant. But it’s Sam who’s up a tree — literally — at Kew Gardens and hanging on for dear life while a couple of thugs down below calmly discuss her murder.

Novel novels

I can’t remember the last time I thought of H.P. Lovecraft or read one of his weird horror tales. But then Samantha Bee recently invoked Cthulhu on her TV show, displaying his tentacled visage on the screen. And then I picked up Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, digital galley), in which the peculiar Lovecraft is a central character, along with his young acolyte Robert Barlow, who lived over near DeLand. Why did the middle-aged writer spend two months in Florida in 1934 with the teen science-fiction fan and then make him his literary executor on his death two years later? Scholars and Lovecraft devotees alike have speculated for years, and La Farge slyly mixes fact and fiction in his wildly entertaining tale of obsession and identity, our need to impose stories on our lives.

In his layered telling, a posthumously published Lovecraft diary depicts a romantic and physical friendship. A hoax is suspected, but freelance writer Charlie Willett believes that the Canadian man behind the diary is actually Barlow, who must have faked his death as a suicide in 1951 in Mexico City. Charlie’s outing of Lovecraft and Barlow eventually lands Charlie in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes and disappears, supposedly drowning in a lake. This is actually the story’s beginning, because Charlie’s psychiatrist wife Marcia, who narrates The Night Ocean, doesn’t think Charlie is dead and so begins retracing his links to Lovecraft and company, fitering truth from lie. This may sound complicated, and it is, but the nesting doll-like narrative reads like a head-spinning detective story.  Oh, the twists, the turns! Still, trying to figure out this puzzle box could lead to Cthulhu — oh, the horror, the horror! Enjoy.

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale and First Impressions, writes diverting bibliomysteries that playfully blend historical fact with inspired fiction. In The Lost Book of the Grail (Viking, digital galley), a 40-year-old British academic who grew up on the tales of King Arthur has his life upended by a 26-year-old American digital librarian, a missing medieval manuscript and the possibility that the Holy Grail is hidden not in Glastonbury but in Barchester Cathedral. (Yes, Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barchester). Arthur Prescott, who quotes P.G. Wodehouse to himself, is slowly working on a visitor’s guide to Barchester and the treasures of its library, but is hampered by how little is known of its sixth-century founder, Saint Ewolde. Fortunately, Bethany Chase, who has arrived to digitize the library’s ancient manuscripts for a private foundation, turns out to be a fellow Grail enthusiast and first-rate researcher. Together, they may yet save the fortunes and future of the monastery. Onward!

Lovett intersperses their lively contemporary treasure hunt with passages about the monastery’s history and the monks charged with keeping its secrets over the ages as Christianity and then Catholicism pass in and out of favor. As Arthur and Bethany decipher clues and a tentative romance blooms, their discoveries intersect with the historical episodes. Thomas Malory and Tennyson are among those making credible cameos, and their works play into several “Aha!” moments. Nicely grounded in Lovett’s scholarship but not overburdened by it, the story feels authentic, if occasionally farfetched. Maybe it’s just a tall tale, but I’d still like to believe in The Lost Book of the Grail.

Other good novels I’ve read the last month include Kayla Rae Whitaker’s remarkable first novel The Animators (Random House, digital galley), which charts the highs and lows of the friendship between two women with opposite personalities and a shared creative passion; Elinor Lipman’s new comedy of manners On Turpentine Lane (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which juggles dysfunctional families, friends and lovers, and which made me chortle; and Nickolas Butler’s heartfelt The Hearts of Men (HarperCollins, digital galley), which introduces eventual hero Nelson Doughty as the 13-year-old bullied bugler at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp and then follows him through four decades.

Lastly, there’s Dan Chaon’s  disturbing Ill Will (Ballantine, digital galley), in which horrific crimes — the possibly ritual slaughter of a family and a series of drownings of young men — are separated by years but linked in the life of a middle-aged therapist. His wife dies of cancer and his younger son slips into heroin addiction after the death of a high school buddy. At the same time, his older brother, wrongly imprisoned for the long-ago murder, is freed, and one of his patients, an ex-cop, becomes obsessed by a phantom serial killer. So many bad things happen in Chaon’s beautifully written story that I thought at one point, “No one is getting out of here alive.”  Here’s horror.

 

 

 

 

lonesomeI’m rereading Larry McMurtry’s epic Western Lonesome Dove. I’ve been wanting to for some time, and then I decided to review Paulette Jiles’ News of the World for my book club Friday, so I reread that. And then I reread an old novel about Texas homesteaders, The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman, that I’ve loved since high school.

I had to hunt for it among my books, which took awhile, but fortunately, the old blue library binding stood out on a top shelf. So then I had to move a stack of books on the floor, so I could get to the stool, also piled with books. It’s time for a big clearing out. Past time. So I have that on my list, along with Lonesome Dove.

greebgirlI may be gone awhile. Also my laptop is on the fritz, my printer won’t work, and I need to do my taxes. I’m writing this on my tablet, which is kind of a pain and taking forever. But before I say adios for awhile, my new book recommendation is The Girl in Green by Derek Miller (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley). Don’t be misled by the title. It’s not a gone-girl-on-train kind of thing. It’s sort of a war novel set in Iraq during Desert Storm, then jumps ahead to “peacetime” Iraq, circa 2013. Isis is just getting going, and there are refugees everywhere. Even though horrible things happen in the story, it is often funny and ironic. As one character says, “We are just trying to do the best for each other when the world is doing its worst.”

Reality check

wrongtodaysIt’s about time. Really. In addition to having a wonderfully apt title, Elan Mastai’s first novel All Our Wrong Todays (Dutton Penguin, digital galley) is a wonderfully entertaining and timely tale of alternate realities.

Narrator Tom Barron lives in a 2016 Toronto that resembles the techno-utopia imagined by cheesy SF novels and shows of the 1950s, all flying cars and helpful robots and synthetic food. As every schoolchild knows, this was all made possible by the 1965 invention of the Goettreider Engine, which generates clean energy. Tom’s father, an overbearing research scientist, has finally built the world’s first time machine and plans to send ace chrononaut (time traveler) Penelope Weschler back to 1965 to observe the debut of the Goettreider. But then Tom falls in love with perfection-obsessed Penelope, which leads to disastrous consequences that are further compounded when he travels back to 1965. As every time traveler knows, you don’t mess with things in the past or you risk messing up the timeline and life as we know it  Oh dear. Tom’s arrival in 1965 means the Goettreider Engine fails in spectacular fashion, and when Tom is catapulted back to 2016, he finds himself in our 2016, all fossil-fueled and climate-change challenged.

It’s a clever conceit, that we are living in the dystopia, but Mastai has more tricks to play. Parts of Tom’s life are better in this second 2016. His dad is a happy science teacher, and his literature-loving mom is still alive. He has a sister and a career as successful architect. Still, when Tom starts trying to tell everyone about his time travels, they think he has suffered a head injury and is just talking about the novel he was going to write. Even his new love, bookstore owner Penny, doubts him. To prove he’s not crazy, Tom goes in search of the real-life creator of the Goettreider Engine, journeying to San Francisco and Hong Kong, and eventually back to 1965 again. Oh dear. Messing with that timeline.

All Our Wrong Todays reminded me of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, with its witty tone and provocative ideas. It also wears its knowledge lightly — like The Big Bang Theory — so that even those who’ve forgotten high school physics or aren’t into science fiction can enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s kind of out there, but so much is these days. I was pleased to know that even in alternate realities, people still read Dickens’ Great Expectations. So read All Our Wrong Todays. It’s a good time.

Someplace else

magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

Wintry mix

sleepwalkerWho knew sleep sex was a thing? Actually, it’s part of the sleep disorder that afflicts wife and mother Annalee Ahlberg in Chris Bohjalian’s The Sleepwalker (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), which will keep you up all night flipping pages. When Annalee vanishes into the Vermont night while husband Warren is away on a business trip, her elder daughter Lianna fears Annalee’s parasomnia has again led her to the nearby river. But it’s not just the river hiding the secrets to Annalee’s disappearance, as Lianna discovers when she begins questioning her father, her teenage sister Paige, her mom’s closest friends, her therapist, and one detective who knows all too much about Annalee’s history. Bohjalians’ plotting is so clever that I didn’t see the ending coming.

hockadayInspired by true events, Susan Rivers’ first novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday (Algonquin, digital galley), is a fascinating collage of Civil War history and mystery told through letters and diary entries. Placidia — Dia — is 17 when she marries Confederate major Gryffth Hockaday after a brief acquaintance. Two days later, he is recalled to battle and Dia is left to run his South Carolina farm and care for his young son from his first marriage. Two years later, Gryffth returns to the scandalous news that his wife has given birth and the child has died. Accused of adultery and murder, Dia refuses to explain her actions, which are gradually revealed, along with long-held family secrets. Rivers doesn’t skirt the everyday brutality against women and slaves, nor does she sensationalize it. Dia, Gryffth, the slave Achilles, little Charles — all come across as complex, credible characters.

thedryThe small Australian town of Kiewarra bakes in the sun, parched by a long drought, its family farms teetering on bankruptcy. It’s enough to drive a man crazy, which is why the townspeople think the shocking shotgun deaths of Luke Hadler, his school aide wife Karen and their 10-year-old son Billy are a murder-suicide. But in Jane Harper’s evocative novel of crimes past and present, The Dry (Flatiron Books, digital galley), Luke’s father asks federal agent Aaron Falk to investigate when he returns to his hometown for the funeral of his best childhood mate. Aaron’s reluctant, but he owes Luke and his family. Back in high school, they alibied one another in the suspicious drowning death of classmate Ellie Deacon. Harper uses flashbacks to illuminate the town’s secrets, and her shifting narrative takes on an urgency as hostilities reach fever pitch. Most of the revelations don’t come as a surprise, but the detailed atmosphere keeps things interesting.

strangetideIn addition to reading the three stand-alones above, I checked out new entries in several series over the holidays. Boston investigator and junk food lover Fina Ludlow returns for the fourth time in Duplicity (Putnam Penguin, digital galley), looking into an evangelical church’s cult-like hold on its members and again contending with her black sheep older brother. You’ll appreciate the story more if you’ve read the previous books, especially 2015’s Brutality. Val McDermid’s stellar Out of Bounds (Grove Atlantic, digital galley) marks the third book featuring Scottish cold case detective Karen Pirie, and pivots on the surprising results of a DNA test on an accident victim. And speaking of Scotland, Ian Rankin’s Rather Be the Devil (Little, Brown, digital galley) finds veteran Edinburgh copper John Rebus drawn out of semi-retirement to work a 1978 cold case that also involves his nemesis/frenemy, Big Ger Cafferty. The 21st book in the award-winning series will be published the end of the month. And it’s lucky 13 for the Peculiar Crimes Unit in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May: Strange Tide (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley), even if it looks as if ancient Arthur Fowler is losing his mind trying to solve the mysterious drowning of a young woman in the Thames. A fiendishly fun puzzle.