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As time goes by

There’s something comfortably reassuring about Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance (Knopf, digital galley), like turning down a road in your old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed. The tree on the corner may be taller, but the neighbor’s house still needs a lick of paint. It’s all familiar — the gray cat crossing the yard, the light slanting across the front porch, the geraniums on the steps. You can’t help but smile.

So why is there a giant cactus on the cover? That’s not something you see every day in Baltimore, Tyler’s home turf and the setting of such well-loved novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Not to worry. Instead of having a character leave Baltimore in search of adventure, Tyler has Willa Drake departing her Arizona home for a shabby street in blue-collar Baltimore.

But before this we meet Willa at significant intervals in her life: as a 1967 schoolgirl whose mother has apparently walked out on the family; as a 1977 college student on a plane with her new fiance; as a 1997 widow, her controlling husband dead in a road rage accident. Skip forward 20 years, and Willa has remarried and is living in an Arizona golf neighborhood. While stuffy husband Peter golfs, Willa, having given up her teaching job, wiles away the time on mundane tasks. She’s actually sorting headbands when she gets a phone call bidding her to come to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise’s 9-year-old daughter Cheryl. Denise has been hospitalized with a stray bullet in her leg, and Willa has been mistaken for the grandmother who will drop everything and take care of a child she’s never met. Goodness!

Now Tyler’s cooking, and Willa comes into her own, getting to know the oddball neighbors, finding a kindred spirit in self-possessed Cheryl, listening to Denise fret about her shattered love life, and gracefully shuffling Peter to the background. There really are no villains in a Tyler novel. Some people are obtuse, even selfish, but the true enemy is time, ticking away the moments. Tyler, with her generous view of human nature and an affinity for illuminating what might be considered ordinary lives, alerts us to the moments and how they add up. Clock Dance is a very nice book in our not-so-nice times.

 

 

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So many secrets

It’s no secret that I spent my vacation reading assorted crime novels, chilling out in the summer heat.  Safe Houses by Dan Fesperman (Knopf, digital galley) is both a Cold War spy tale and a contemporary murder mystery. In 1979 West Berlin, young CIA recruit Helen Abell is frustrated by an old boys’ club, relegated to watching over safe houses where field agents secretly meet their sources. Then one day, she inadvertently tapes a coded conversation between two unknown men, and is warned off by her older lover, an experienced agent. Returning to the safe house, she interrupts a vicious agent “Robert” sexually assaulting a young German woman, who later turns up dead. When Helen tries to implicate Robert in the crime, she becomes a target, but two other women in the CIA offer covert help. Fesperman splices this tense tale with one playing out 35 years later on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. A farmer and his wife are shot in their bed, and their developmentally disabled son Willard is arrested. His older sister Anna refuses to believe her gentle brother guilty, and hires Henry Mattick, a former Justice Department investigator who just happens to be renting the house next door.  Their search for clues to Anna’s mother’s hidden past alternates with Helen’s spy adventures, the two narratives running on parallel tracks that inevitably converge. Fesperman (The Double Game, Lie in the Dark) knows his spy stuff, and Safe Houses is a clever, intelligent thriller with a couple of neat twists. I also like how the two stories echo one another. Why did Anna’s mother hang on to a tacky Paris snowglobe? It’s also a timely book, in light of the MeToo movement and the current swampy political scene. We all want a safe house.

Rosalie Knecht’s  wry Who is Vera Kelly? (Tin House Books, digital galley) also is told in two alternating narratives of almost equal interest. Growing up in the 1950s with an alcoholic mother, Vera Kelly has a rough time, separated from her best girlfriend and then deemed incorrigible and sent to reform school. Ten years later, she’s a fledgling CIA spy in Buenos Aires, pretending to be a student to blend in with campus radicals with supposed Soviet ties, as well as eavesdropping on government bureaucrats. But then she’s betrayed during a coup and forced into hiding, eventually fleeing the city. Her gritty coming-of-age in  New York is what brings her to the attention of the CIA, but her early years can’t really compete with her double-life exploits in Argentina. Throughout, however, Vera Kelly is a scrappy, resourceful outsider looking for a life in which she belongs.

Venice provides the atmospheric backdrop for the latest adventures of the intrepid Mary Russell and husband Sherlock Holmes in Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad (Bantam/Random House, digital galley). The year is 1925, and Russell is on the trail of a friend’s aristocratic aunt, who recently vanished from the Bedlam lunatic asylum with her nurse. Holmes, meanwhile, is on a secret diplomatic mission to observe the rising Fascist scene for brother Mycroft.  Mingling on the Lido with the likes of society hostess Elsa Maxwell and composer Cole Porter leads to a locked island asylum, a Mussolini-backed conspiracy and a grand costume ball. Russell commandeers a gondola, and Holmes inspires a Porter classic. A good time is had by all, except the villains, of course.

 Gatsby meets Tom Ripley meets the movie Metropolitan in Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature (Doubleday, digital galley), a cut-glass crystal tale of obsessive friendship. Louise is a poor aspiring writer when rich socialite Lavinia decides they’ll be new best friends. Before long, Louise is caught up in the endless party of Lavinia’s life, drinking champagne under the stars and deliberately ignoring signs that’s she’s just another plaything of Lavinia’s. Besides, Louise likes Lavinia’s money and all that it buys, from the clothes to the makeovers to the glam friends with names like Athena Maidenhead. Still, all this can only end in tears. The question is whose tears and just what will be recorded for posterity on social media. Louise or Lavinia? Which one is bad, mad and dangerous to know?

Maybe I’ve read too many boarding school/secret society novels, but Elizabeth Klehfoth’s All These Beautiful Strangers (HarperCollins, digital galleys) seems overly familiar. Charlotte “Charlie” Calloway’s mother Grace Fairchild vanished when she was seven, presumed to have run away from her difficult marriage to wealthy Alistair Calloway. Rumors that Alistair might have had something to do with Grace’s disappearance were quickly squashed by his influential family. But when Charlie, now 17, begins the initiation process to become an “A,” the secret society at her New England boarding school, she discovers that the A’s history intersects with her own. Flashbacks in Grace’s voice and then Alistair’s reveal Charlie is on the right track, although her quest to discover the truth is hindered by the senior As’ sway over the school — and some ponderous and improbable plotting on the author’s part.

If you liked Riley Sager’s Final Girls — which I did, mostly — you’ll be pleased with The Last Time I Lied (Dutton, Penguin). I was, mostly. Painter Emma Davis is haunted by her short stint at Camp Nightingale 15 years ago. Her three cabin mates disappeared one night, never to be seen again, and the camp had to close. Now she paints her lost friends’ likenesses in every large canvas, but then hides the girls with brushstrokes of dark forest scenes. When Francesca Harris-White, the wealthy owner of Camp Nightingale, decides to reopen the camp for scholarship students, she hires Emma as a painting counselor — and puts her in Dogwood Cabin with three teenage campers. Eventually, they also disappear, and Emma’s truthfulness and mental health, then and now, is called into question. Flashbacks to her first stay at Nightingale and many games of Two Truths and A Lie show Emma to be a most unreliable narrator. Sager strikes some false notes with his summer camp setting, which is more like the camps I knew back in the day than those circa 2003. One of his supposedly big revelations is no surprise, but a later one is, as was the case with Final Girls. In the end, Sager proves adept with campfire smoke and mirrors.

 

 

Fated in Florida

A Central Florida woman recently took a video of her son playing with an inflatable alligator on a Slip ‘n Slide in their backyard. It wasn’t until she replayed the video a few minutes later that she saw an alligator lurking in the shadow of a lawn chair just a few feet away.

This sense of menace in paradise, the feeling that you are being watched by someone or something — gator, snake, rapist — is pervasive in Lauren Groff’s new collection of short stories, Florida (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley). The nameless narrator of the first story, “Ghosts and Empties,” is both watcher and watched as she tries to walk off her anger and frustration by pacing through her gentrifying neighborhood in the early evening. She witnesses snippets of others’ lives through lit windows, “domestic aquariums,” even as she is seen by feral cats and singing frogs, a shy homeless lady, a man who hisses by a bodega’s barred window.

This same woman, or one much like her, a writer with a husband and two young sons, concerned about climate change and the future, appears in several other stories.  She also seems like a stand-in for Groff herself, who has lived in Gainesville for the last 10 years. In the book’s ending story, the woman and her boys escape a Florida August for a disappointing vacation in France, where she realizes she doesn’t belong, despite having once been an exchange student enthralled by Guy de Maupassant. “Of all the places in the world, she belongs in Florida. How dispiriting, to learn this of herself.”

Maybe not. In her acknowledgements, Groff thanks Florida, “sunniest and strangest of states.” It has long been fertile territory for writers, too, from naturalist William Bartram — invoked in Groff’s “The Flower Hunters” — to contemporary crime writers, both gothic and noir. Groff and her characters dwell in sun and shadows, “a dangerous Eden,” where a concussed woman imagines herself a panther (“The Midnight Zone”) or two little girls abandoned on an island stave off hunger by eating cherry-flavored ChapStick (“Dogs Gone Wild”). The allusion to Hansel and Gretel is deliberate, but other stories also read like dark fairy tales. A widow who decides to stay in her house during a hurricane (“Eyewall”) is visited by the spirits of lost loves as the storm smashes down like a fist. In “Snake Stories,” there’s this once-upon-a-time sentence: “On the day I found the girl, the robins were migrating and the crape myrtles flashed with red.”

I like Groff’s stories for her gorgeous writing, but also because they remind me of when I first moved to Florida, 33 years ago this week. It wasn’t entirely unfamiliar. I grew up in the Carolinas and visited cousins in Central Florida both before and after Disney. I knew heat and humidity, palmetto bugs and Spanish moss. But after a few years in the Midwest, I found Florida’s jungle-like lushness exotic and overwhelming. I arrived in the midst of a frog-strangling thunderstorm in what turned out to be one of the wettest summers on record. Plants grew like Jack’s beanstalk, mosquitoes thrived, snakes sought higher ground. I saw my first wolf spider crawling up the wall behind me while looking in the bathroom mirror and fled the house in terror. Hurricane Elena taunted Florida that August, and a tree fell over in the parking lot but missed my car. Then came the sinkholes. And it wasn’t just nature that was disturbing. It was the summer six-year-old Regina Mae Armstrong went missing from her babysitter’s yard a few miles away. Her remains weren’t found until several years later, her killer never has been.

I feel at home in Florida these days, but every now and then I’m caught up short by its fierce beauty or its mundane weirdness, like the plane last week that was delayed by the alligator lumbering across the runway. Groff’s stories, with their indelible images and air of unease, reminded me Florida’s a place like no other, a state of mind, sunny and oh so strange.

 

Paging summer

I did a lot of my summer reading back in the spring when I read and reviewed 16 books for The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Now that they have been published in the paper and online, I can write about them here and on Goodreads. My stand-alone review of Anthony Horowitz’s clever The Word is Murder ran this past Sunday, June 9, https://tinyurl.com/yb8j7a4o  The others were part of book editor Laurie Hertzel’s June 3 summer reading package, https://tinyurl.com/ycgsa9au

I wrote a full review of Kate Christensen’s  July novel The Last Cruise, short reviews of Silas House’s Southernmost, Thrity Umrigar’s The Secrets Between Us, Tatjana Solis’ The Removes and Leah Franquis’ America for Beginners; and mini-reviews of 10 more. (I’m posting all the covers.) It’s a diverse group of novels that Laurie and I came up with after much discussion, but it doesn’t include several of the season’s most anticipated books — Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, for example, or Lauren Groff’s Florida — because they’ll be covered by Laurie and other reviewers as the summer progresses. I’ll be blogging about them, too, in the near future.

It’s no secret that I liked all 15, some a bit more than others, but all worth reading. Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand affirms her reputation for riveting psychological suspense. Umrigar’s is a sequel to her best-selling The Space Between Us, although you don’t have to have read the first book to be drawn into this story of friendships forged in the Mumbai slums. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s first novel about a Muslim-American family, A Place for Us, is winning deserved raves from critics. Solis’ The Removes is an historical novel about the American West, while Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire explores the aftermath of the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed more than 100 of Atlanta’s leading citizens. Southernmost immediately plunges readers into a devastating flood in Tennessee before heading for Key West. So, plenty of pages to read this summer. Take my word for it.

 

 

Crime wave

A serial killer is stalking the streets, his gruesome crimes apparently inspired by the works of Dante. Well-known writers team as amateur detectives to solve the case but fear they are hunting one of their own. It sounds like the plot of Matthew Pearl’s best-selling The Dante Club, and it is. But it’s also that of Pearl’s new literary thriller The Dante Chamber (Penguin Press, ARC), with the action shifting from 1865 Boston to 1870 London. A politician’s neck has been crushed by a stone etched with an inscription from the Divine Comedy, and poet Christina Rossetti enlists the help of Robert Browning and Alfred Tennyson to search for her missing brother, famous artist and writer Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It’s not necessary to have read The Dante Club to enjoy Pearl’s atmospheric follow-up, thanks to Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, who is still haunted by the Boston murders and who conveniently arrives in England to lend his expertise. Pearl’s own expertise is seamlessly blending fact with fiction in a fulsome narrative peopled by credible characters real and imagined. Christina Rossetti may present herself to the public as a retiring spinster, but her actions here reveal her spirited nature. Her brother Gabriel fascinates with his extravagant behavior and obsessions; his house is a library/menagerie, where armadillos and raccoons roam among the stacks of books. Browning is dashing, Tennyson is shy. Add a well-read Scotland Yard detective, a mysterious reverend, the “ghost” of a beautiful woman, a few Fenians plotting the overthrow of the government, and an ex-Pinkerton detective looking to capitalize on the lurid events. It’s a Victorian feast. Dig in.

Reading Ruth Ware’s deliciously twisty The Death of Mrs. Westaway (Scout Press, digital galley) is like driving down a country road. You think you know the way, pass some familiar landmarks, remember to turn left at the crossroads. But then you either miss a turn, or the road curves unexpectedly, and you don’t recognize a thing. You’re lost. Ware (In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Lying Game) comes up with Christie-like plots enhanced by Gothic elements. Past secrets, mistaken identities, old diaries and pictures. Harriet “Hal” Westaway is sure the letter from a lawyer announcing her grandmother’s death isn’t meant for her. For starters, her late grandmother wasn’t named Hester. Still, Hal can’t resist going to the funeral in Cornwall and the reading of the will. Ever since her single mother’s death several years ago, Hal has been on her own, forgoing university and eking out a living as a fortune teller on the Brighton pier. She doesn’t really believe in Tarot cards, but she’s good at reading people, and maybe she can pass herself off as a long-lost granddaughter long enough to benefit from the Westaway estate. With a loan shark breathing down her neck, Hal is desperate to escape Brighton. So off she goes to Trepassen House to meet her three new “uncles.” It’s a great premise, and Ware makes the most of it, even adding a creepy housekeeper, an attic bedroom, crumbling stairs and a frozen lake. Brrrr!

Would you willingly invite a serial killer to accompany you on a road trip? Me neither. What about if the serial killer is a senior citizen with dementia? Still no. What if you think your teenage sister was one of his victims? No way — are you kidding?! The unnamed 24-year-old narrator of Julia Heaberlin’s new thriller Paper Ghosts (Ballantine, digital galley) firmly believes that 61-year-old documentary photographer Carl Louis Feldman is behind the disappearance of her sister Rachel a dozen years ago. Armed with a map of Texas and some old photos, she pretends she’s Feldman’s daughter so she can check him out of the halfway house where he’s been living. Feldman, who claims no memory of killing Rachel or any other girls, doesn’t believe the narrator is his daughter but goes along for the ride, so to speak. You should, too, as improbable as it all sounds. Come on, don’t you want to know if Feldman really doesn’t  remember his career as photographer and killer? And what of the obsessive, unreliable narrator? Yes, you’ll keep reading. I did, with only a couple of pit stops to relieve the tension.

Time to catch up with some favorite series. Ann Cleeves has two going; the next entry in the Shetland series is due in the fall, while the fifth in the Vera Stanhope series, The Glass Room (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover), was recently published in the U.S. for the first time. A formidable police detective and an odd duck, Vera finds herself investigating the murder of a famous writer in which her free-spirited neighbor is the prime suspect. But there are many others attending the writing workshop at the isolated country house with connections to the victim and motives aplenty. As usual, they underestimate Vera’s sharp mind, distracted by her large size and shabby clothes. Ah yes, appearances are deceiving.

I didn’t know how much I was longing for some good old South Florida noir until I read Alex Segura’s fourth Pete Fernandez novel Blackout (Polis Books, digital galley). Fernandez, a former reporter turned P.I. and a  recovering alcoholic, initially turns away a Florida politician looking for his missing son because it means returning to his hometown of Miami. Then Pete realizes that the missing man is linked to the cold case of Patty Morales, a high school classmate of Pete’s who disappeared in 1998. He and his former partner, Kathy Bentley, have tried to find Patty’s killer before, but their luck ran out when a crucial witness disappeared. Now with a chance to make amends with his past and old friends, Pete, who has been living in New York, heads for Miami, finding its familiarity both reassuring and overwhelming  Segura makes good use of Miami history — remember the Liberty City cult of Yahweh ben Yahweh? — and the surreality of Florida itself in crafting his hard-boiled tale.

Elly Griffiths takes a convoluted route in The Dark Angel (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) to get her series characters from England to Italy to solve mysteries old and new. Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway and young daughter Kate arrive first when Ruth is asked by an Italian archaeologist to consult on a Roman skeleton at the center of a television documentary. But then the town’s priest is found murdered in a case with secrets going back to World War II. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, Ruth’s sometimes lover and Kate’s father, hears of earthquakes in the region, and flies to Italy, leaving behind his pregnant wife Michelle. She doesn’t know if Nelson is the father of her baby or if it’s the police officer with whom she had an affair. Fans of the series will find these domestic entanglements as interesting as details  of the Italian crimes. La famiglia!

Shore things

I think we’re going to need a bigger tote. Yes, tote as in tote bag to stow all this season’s beach books.  The first wave arrives this month so you can get a headstart on summer.

Anchoring my haul is the highly anticipated The High Tide Club (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) by Mary Kay Andrews, who when she isn’t wearing her beach book hat is my pal Kathy Trocheck. I’ve gotten used to her breezy novels (Savannah Blues, Beach Town) welcoming summer, but last year she skipped writing a novel to produce The Beach House Cookbook, full of scrumptious recipes. But now she’s back, offering a substantive feast of a novel spiced with intrigue, secrets, drama and romance. It’s scrumptious, too.

Readers of Save the Date may remember Brooke Trapnelle as the runaway bride who literally climbed a tree as part of her escape. In The High Tide Club, Brooke moves to the forefront, a single mom lawyer in the Georgia coastal town of St. Ann who is hired by 99-year-old Josephine Bettandorf  Warrick. The eccentric heiress wants Brooke to help her save Talisa, her 20,000-acre island estate with its crumbling pink wedding cake of a mansion, from being taken over by the state and turned into a park. She also needs Brooke to track down the heirs of the three women who were once her best friends — Ruth, Millie and Varina — back in 1941. Josephine says she needs to make amends but won’t say for what.

By flashing back to 1941 every now and then, Andrews hints at some of the secrets the past is holding, like an unsolved murder and divisions of race and class. But Brooke has a lot on her plate in the present, too, coordinating a reunion among women who have never met, untangling family histories and mysteries, taking care of rambunctious toddler son Henry, all the while trying to do her best for Josephine and Talisa. There’s a sudden death, a visit to a Savannah orphanage, a showdown in a lighthouse. You may pick up on some plot twists, and others may take you by surprise. Either way, The High Tide Club is a satisfying saga, just what the summer ordered.

The title of Nancy Thayer’s A Nantucket Wedding (Ballantine, digital galley) is a bit of a misnomer, not that it doesn’t take place on Nantucket, and not that there isn’t a wedding. But the warmhearted story of blended families is mostly about the summer before the planned fall wedding between Alison and David, both of whom have been married before. They also have grown children and young grandchildren meeting for the first time. Alison’s daughters Jane and Felicity are chalk and cheese, although both have workaholic husbands. Jane is just as absorbed in her legal career as Scott but has started to regret their mutual decision not to have kids. Easy-going Felicity wishes Noah paid as much attention to her and their two kids as his start-up business and efficient “work wife.” Stirring the pot is David’s handsome son Ethan, who can’t help being a playboy flirt. His sister Pamela is intent on taking over her father’s business but being pregnant again wasn’t in her plans. Although Alison tries to ease  tensions by being the perfect hostess and preparing delicious meals at David’s luxurious island home, she’s feeling overwhelmed while still getting to know her husband-to-be. Thayer understands the way families work — and don’t work — and if her resolutions tend toward the optimistic, that’s ok. It’s summer. On Nantucket. Go with it.

A wedding also is in the offing in By Invitation Only (Morrow, digital galley), Dorothea Benton Frank’s latest Lowcountry tale, available May 15. Shelby Cambria is the only child of a wealthy Chicago couple, while her fiance Fred’s mother Diane runs a South Carolina peach farm with her brother Floyd. Both MOG Diane and MOB Susan are guilty of making stereotypical assumptions about the other, and Frank has some fun alternating the narrative between them. Snobby Susan turns up her nose at the down-home barbecue Diane and Floyd host to celebrate the engagement, while Diane feels out of place among Susan’s society friends at a Chicago fete. Miscommunications and misunderstandings ensue, enhanced by an unexpected romance and a stunning scandal. RSVP just for the details of food and drink, whether your taste runs to caviar and champagne or peaches and a pig-pickin’.

Another of my favorite Lowcountry authors, Mary Alice Monroe, arrives at the party on May 22 with Beach House Reunion (Gallery Books, digital galley), the fifth in her occasional series about Primrose Cottage and the Rutledge family. (The book that started it all, The Beach House, has been adapted for television by the Hallmark Channel and is airing this month). In the new book, Cara Rutledge is now in her 50s and returns to the Isle of Palms with her adopted one-year-old daughter. She’s joined by her niece Linnea, a recent college graduate eager to get away from the restrictions of her proper Charleston upbringing. Ever since family matriarch and “turtle lady” Lovie lived at Primrose, the unpretentious beach house has been a retreat for troubled souls and a way station for those unsure of what’s next. Once again, the life cycle of the sea turtles reflects the characters’ search for home.

 Judy Blundell’s first novel The High Season (Random House, digital galley, May 22) proves once again that the rich are different from you and me, and it’s not just that they have more money. For community museum director Ruthie, the price for living on the North Fork of Long Island is renting out for the summer the big house she shares with her ex-husband and teenage daughter during the winter. This summer, though, wealthy widow Adeline and her spoiled stepson Lucas have taken the house for the entire season, and the Hamptons crowd “discovers” the North Fork. Everything changes for the village and Ruthie, who soon discovers her so-called friends are a fair-weather bunch of social climbers and back stabbers. I was so happy to close the book on them.

By contrast, Wendy Francis’ The Summer Sail (Touchstone, digital galley) is the pleasant story of three college roommates on a cruise to Bermuda. Abby, who is paying for the trip, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with professor husband Sam and their teenage sons. Magazine editor Caroline is hoping her longtime beau Javier will propose. Schoolteacher and single mom Lee wants to know why her college student daughter Lacey is being a brat. Actually, Lacey has a secret, and Abby has an even bigger one, so all is not smooth sailing. But pretty much.

Remember the women who renovated a Gulf Coast mansion in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road and then got their own reality TV show in subsequent books in the series? They’re back in Best Beach Ever (Berkley, digital galley, May 22), and once again they’re shoring one another up in the face of adversity. They’ve lost their TV show, Do Over, apparently for good this time, have rented out the renovated Bella Flora so as not to lose it, and have moved into cottages at the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club. Nikki is struggling with her young twins; Maddie is coping with her rock star boyfriend’s resurrected celebrity; Avery is avoiding commitment; Kyra is trying to keep her son out of the Hollywood spotlight; and Bitsy is contemplating revenge. It helps if you’ve read the other books, hardly a chore considering Wax’s sure touch with matters of home and heart.

Pages of April

Gods and monsters, heroes and mortals. I’ve always loved the stories of the Greeks, from Homer to Edith Hamilton to Mary Renault. Madeline Miller joined the list several years ago with her novel The Song of Achilles, and now casts a spell with Circe (Little Brown, digital galley). You may remember Circe as the sorceress who seduced Odysseus and turned his sailors into pigs, but Miller gives us her own epic story so  she becomes a woman for the ages. The neglected daughter of the god of the sun, Helios, young Circe displays little aptitude at being a nymph among many. But when she turns her rival Scylla into a sea monster, she is banished to an island where she hones her skill as a witch, using herbs to heal and taming wild animals. Zeus, Prometheus, Medea, Odysseus, and the Minotaur all play a part, but Circe is the glittering but sympathetic star. You go, girl!

 

Meg Wolitzer didn’t know about the #MeToo movement when she was writing The Female Persuasion (Riverhead/Penguin, digital galley), but it’s a frat boy’s unwanted sexual advances that motivate shy college freshman Greer Kadetsky to speak up at noted feminist Faith Frank’s guest lecture. That the boy essentially got away with his brutish behavior is what so frustrates Greer, whom Faith singles out after her speech. Several years later, Greer will go to work for Faith and eventually discover the compromises her mentor made along the way, of how time can temper ideals. Intertwined with Greer and Faith’s lives are those of Greer’s boyfriend, whose promising career is derailed by a family tragedy, and of her college roommate, whom she will betray so as to keep Faith’s attention on herself. It’s an absorbing and well-told story, one I liked but didn’t love. I had the same experience with Wolitzer’s The Interestings. Both books are like clothes I admire in a store window, thinking that’s just my style, but then I try them on and they don’t suit somehow. Oh, well. Maybe next time.

Three very different first novels captured my attention. Christine Mangan’s atmospheric Tangerine (HarperCollins, digital galley) owes a lot to Patricia Highsmith and Daphne du Maurier. Fragile Alice Shipley is living quietly in 1956 Tangier with her obtuse husband John McAlister when her former Bennington College roommate Lucy Mason arrives on her doorstep. Intrigue past and present unfold, as Mangan switches between Alice and Lucy as narrators. Whereas Alice is overwhelmed by the crowded heat of Tangier, Lucy embraces its exoticism and suspects John of having married Alice for her money. What happens is pretty predictable, but the finale still chills. In Stray City (Custom House, review copy), Chelsey Johnson charms with her coming-out and coming-of-age tale. Narrator Andrea escapes the tyranny of her straitlaced Nebraska family to be a part of the “Lesbian Mafia” in 1990s Portland. After a bad break-up and a lot to drink, she hooks up with a male friend Ryan and becomes pregnant. The second half of the book is set 10 years later, when Andrea’s daughter Lucia wants to know about her father. Lots of nostalgia here for being young and finding your tribe. Sally Franson’s A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out (Dial Press,  review copy) finds an English lit grad whose star is rising at a trendy boutique ad agency. I reviewed it for the Minneapolis-Star Tribune,  https://tinyurl.com/y79yyd9r