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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.

Late and soon

commonGenerally, I enjoy reading and/or  watching year-in-review stories and programs. This year –with Santa harnessing flying pigs to his sleigh — not so much. The last 12 months were studded with improbabilities, loss and disappointment. November was especially dismal, and I kept quoting Wordsworth: “The world is too much with us; late and soon.” These are anxious times.

Thank goodness for books. As I’ve disconnected from cable news and social media, reading has provided escape and comfort. Mysteries, fantasies, literary fiction, memoirs, new releases, old favorites. One after another, chain reading, a books binge. I just finished Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth (HarperCollins, digital galley) for the second time, finding this story of a blended family over five decades even more moving and wise. It’s the book I’m giving myself in hardcover and is one of my three favorites of 2016, joining Amor Towles’ A Gentleman in Moscow and Paulette Jiles’ News of the World.

fannieOther books I’ve bought as keepers this past year include Kate DiCamillo’s Raymie Nightingale (Candlewick), about a girl who enters the Little Miss Central Florida Tire Contest in a bid to get her absentee father’s attention; Jacqueline Woodson’s lyrical Another Brooklyn; Genevieve Cogman’s fabulous fantasy The Invisible Library and its sequels The Masked City and The Burning Page (ROC, digital galley); and Lee Smith’s lovely memoir Dimestore (Algonquin, digital galley). I gave the latter to Cousin Meg for her birthday, and for Christmas, she and Cousin Gail are getting Fannie Flagg’s new chatty charmer The Whole Town’s Talking (Random House), about the founding of the small Missouri town of Elmwood Springs, the setting for previous Flagg stories. This time, the town cemetery has a starring role. I’m sending a copy to Cousin Paulette, too.

insunlightI’ve given away multiple copies of Anne Tyler’s retelling of Shakespeare’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” Vinegar Girl, and managed to pick up my own copy a long the way. I tend to buy books for friends that I want myself, so I put Lawrence Block’s In Sunlight or In Shadow (Pegasus) at the top of my Dear Santa list. An anthology of stories inspired by the works of Edward Hopper, it showcases writers such as Lee Child, Megan Abbott, Joyce Carol Oates and Stephen King with full-color reproductions of the Hopper works they chose as muses. As both a fan of Hopper — I have a framed “Sunday Morning” above a bookcase — and crime fiction, this book was pure catnip for me. Another treasure is the late Pat Conroy’s  A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life (Doubleday, digital galley). Oh, I miss Pat, who died in March, one of many losses I hold against 2016.

cruelI’ve read some good fiction recently — Colson Whitehead’s harrowing The Underground Railroad (Doubleday, digital galley), Brit Bennett’s first novel The Mothers (Riverhead, digital galley), Alice Hoffman’s poignant Faithful (Simon and Schuster). Still, the striking title, cover and contents of Caroline Leavitt’s novel about two sisters following their hearts in the late 1960s/early 1970s really hit home for me this fall: Cruel Beautiful World (Algonquin, digital galley). When high school student Lucy Gold runs off with her English teacher, she has no idea how her impulsive decision will play out for her, her sensible older sister Charlotte, and for elderly Iris, who raised the girls. Leavitt’s writing is tender, tough and incisive as she spins a tale of love and loss, loyalty and second chances. It’s not always a happy book, but it is a hopeful one. So let’s end this year on that note.

 

November surprises

smokeMystery writers are magicians of sorts, constructing clever puzzles, misdirecting our attention, dazzling us with their verbal sleight of hand. They also juggle characters and clues, and, sometimes, different series. Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway series, introduced the “Magic Men” mysteries with last year’s clever The Zig Zag Girl. The follow-up, Smoke and Mirrors (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), captivates as police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto hunt for a killer in early 1950s Brighton. It’s December, and the crime scene is straight out of Hansel and Gretel, with a trail of broken candy leading to the snow-covered corpses of young Annie and her best pal Mark. The fairy tale connections continue as Edgar learns that talented Annie liked to write plays based on Grimm for her classmates to perform, and other clues link to the pantomime Aladdin, in which Max is starring. The frantic holiday vibe, the theatrical backdrop, the colorful characters and the bleak weather add up to a moody mystery. Abracadabra, indeed!

wrongsideMichael Connelly takes a walk on the noir side in his new Harry Bosch novel, beginning with the title The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, digital galley). Then Harry, now retired from the LAPD and working part-time as a PI, goes calling on money — wealthy aviation tycoon Whitney Vance, 85 and in failing health. He wants Harry to find out what happened to the Mexican teen he got pregnant when he was a USC student 65 years ago and who then vanished. Is Vibiana still living and did she have the baby? Does he have a heir? Sworn to secrecy, Harry begins a dogged search for possible Vance descendants, a hunt that takes him to a one-time home for unwed mothers and his own past as a Vietnam vet. Meanwhile, Harry, who is also a reserve police officer for the city of San Fernando, is on the case of the “Screen Ripper,” a serial rapist with an unusual m.o. The parallel stories don’t intersect, except that Harry’s time and loyalties are divided between the two cases, both of which offer surprises and coincidences. Nice work.

mistletoeHere’s an unexpected treat: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Knopf, digital galley) brings together four previously uncollected short stories by the great P.D. James, who died in 2014. In the stellar title tale, an elderly writer remembers a memorable wartime Christmas, when a fellow houseguest — an antiques dealer — was bludgeoned to death. The conclusion of this  cold case is a chilling twist. Two of the stories feature detective Adam Dalgliesh and pay homage to Christie and Holmes. In the wry “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh’s godfather asks him to investigate the source of family money — did Great Aunt Allie really poison her elderly husband and get away with it? “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” involves a young Dalgliesh showing local coppers how he’d solve a case. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is less Golden Age mystery and more of a creepy Hitchcockian tale as a voyeur spies on his neighbor’s illicit trysts, which end in murder. Oh, I miss P.D. James.

lostboySwedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg’s The Lost Boy (Pegasus, digital galley) combines a solid police procedural with a haunting backstory in a shivery tale of murder, drugs, grief and ghosts. Detective Patrik Hedstrom and his true-crime writer wife, Erica, should be enjoying their infant twin sons. But Erica’s sister’s loss of a baby has plunged her into months-long depression, and misfortune seems to fog the very air of Fjallbacka. Then the financial officer of soon-to-open hotel-spa is murdered, and his death leads to secrets from his past in Stockholm, shocking his elderly parents and his childhood sweetheart fleeing her abusive husband. Also in play are a couple of con artists, a violent biker gang, drug dealers high and low, and an island of ghosts. Really.

Extra, extra!

newsoftheworldI wanted to be a cowboy when I was little. Or a pioneer, or a rider for the Pony Express. These career choices were influenced by my love of horses, the Little House on the Prairie books and the many TV westerns that underscored my girlhood. But if I had known there was a living in riding from town to town reading newspapers to interested folks, I would have signed on for that job, too. My role model would be Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd of  Paulette Jiles’ heartfelt new novel, News of the World (HarperCollins, digital galley).

In 1870 north Texas, the captain is a 71-year-old war veteran, widower, father of two grown daughters. He once owned a printing press, but now he rides from one frontier community to another reading aloud the news to people willing to pay 10 cents to hear about politics in Washington, scandals in Europe and failed expeditions to the Arctic. In Wichita Falls, a cargo hauler offers him  a $50 gold piece to take a 10-year-old girl to her surviving relatives near San Antonio. Johanna Leonberger was taken captive four years ago by the Kiowa, who recently traded her back to an Indian agent for “fifteen Hudson’s Bay four-stripe blankets and a set of silver dinnerware.” If the captain is reluctant to take the blue-eyed girl with taffy hair on a 400-mile-journey south through the Texas Hill Country, the girl, “Cicada,” is even less enthusiastic. She remembers little of her former life, doesn’t speak English and runs away at the first opportunity.

Still, the gradual, growing bond between the two is intensified by the obstacles they face on their bumpy road trip. For Johanna, it’s civilization embodied by dresses, shoes and bathtubs. For the captain, it’s some brothers who think the newspaper stories should be about their exploits. For both of them, there are the hardships of the trail — finding food, fording rivers — and the attack by outlaws intent on killing Kidd and selling Johanna into white slavery. Johanna proves to be a practical, practiced fighter, although the captain has to stop her from scalping the villains.

Jiles depicts their adventures with an assured ease and a poetic feel for the harsh and lovely landscape, the customs of the time. Readers of Jiles’ Enemy Women and The Color of Lightning will find a similar sensibility of time and place, affecting but unsentimental. Still, the relationship between the captain and Johanna is at book’s heart, and knowing that there must be a reckoning at road’s end caused mine to ache. These two belong together.

The News of the World is a deserved finalist for the National Book Award. But don’t just read all about it. Read it.

tresspasserThis time last week I was reading up a storm. That’s because Hurricane Matthew was knocking on the door, and my action plan called for a flashlight, batteries and books. (Also chocolate, but that’s another story). So, while the wind whipped the trees outside and the rain went sideways, I read and read, and then I read some more.

Like Tana French’s previous five novels in the Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser (Penguin, digital galley) is wonderfully immersive. Detective Antoinette Conway, who appeared in The Secret Place, takes the lead this time, telling how she and partner Steve Moran catch what appears to be a slam-dunk case of domestic murder on a frozen January dawn. Aislinn Murray, 26, looks like Dead Barbie lying on her sitting room floor, the dinner she was cooking for her new beau, Rory Fallon, still on the stove. A mild-mannered bookseller, Rory is the prime suspect, even though he insists Aislinn never answered the door when he arrived for dinner. And he sticks to this story despite intense interrogation by Conway and a more experienced detective, Breslin, brought in on the case by the chief. Conway feels pressured by Breslin to arrest Rory, even though the initial investigation turns up little evidence and a suspicion that more was going on in Aislinn’s life than her new fellow. Or is Conway, the only woman on the squad and carrying a chip on her shoulder the size of an oak tree, just being paranoid? How much does her past shape her perspective? Layered like a fancy cake, The Trespasser is a classic case of misdirection and deceit encased in a police procedural. In a recent New York Times story, French said she loved “character-based books with beautiful writing, plenty of atmosphere, secrets and mysteries.” Me, too, which is why I love Tana French.

daisyAnother writer who can make me forget the outside world is Sharon Bolton, who also has written as S.J. Bolton. The suspense is so intense in her Lacey Flynt series that I have to fight the urge to skip to the end of a book. Daisy in Chains (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a stand-alone, but it also left me breathless trying to figure out who was playing who in a very high-stakes game. Hamish Wolfe is a handsome, charming surgeon imprisoned as a serial killer. Maggie Rose is a lawyer and true-crime author who has made a reputation overturning killers’ convictions. Hamish has always proclaimed his innocence, before and after trial, and his mother and a small group of odd followers beg Maggie to take his case. Against the advice of a friendly police detective, Maggie agrees to meet Hamish in prison. It’s an unnerving experience, but Maggie is intrigued enough to do some more research on the lonely, overweight women who fell victim to a killer who disposed of their bodies in treacherous caves. Bolton intersperses the narrative with letters, police documents, e-mails, excerpts from Maggie’s drafts for a book. Clues point one way, and then another, and then another. Resist the urge to flip to the end. Expect the unexpected. Keep calm and keep reading.

A chill in the air

reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

Book a stay at the Metropol

moscowOh, I have such a crush on the title character of Amor Towles’ new novel A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, digital galley). Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov may be a Former Person to the Bolsheviks who have sentenced him to permanent house arrest in 1922 at Moscow’s grand Metropol hotel, but he’s my new book boyfriend. Like the marvelous tale he inhabits, he has substance and style, intelligence and wit, elegance and charm. Forgive me while I swoon.

Rostov makes the best of his forced relocation from his luxury suite to a cramped attic room, paring down his possessions to the necessities. Still he worries the walls may soon close in on him like a biscuit tin. His solution is to make himself even more at home in the hotel, dining in its restaurants, receiving visitors in the grand lobby, making a standing Tuesday appointment with the hotel barber. He also forges strong ties with hotel chef Emile and maitre d’ Andrey, uniting with them against the conniving Party plant working his way up the hotel’s management hierarchy. A famous actress invites Rostov to her room, and thus begins a discreet affair.

But but before that is Rostov’s mentoring friendship with young Nina, the lively daughter of a bureaucrat temporarily living at the Metropol. Nina has a passkey, and she introduces him to the hotel’s secret storerooms and hidden closets. They eavesdrop on visitors and guests from the ballroom balcony, and when Nina finally leaves, she presents Rostov with an invaluable gift. She will return as a grown woman requesting a favor that will change his life forever.

All credit to Towles, who wrote the splendid The Rules of Civility, for crafting another layered period piece, this one suffused with a Russian sensibility studded with references to history, culture and literature. A Gentleman in Moscow is both expansive and intimate as it covers and compresses decades. Imagine a kaleidoscopic combination of  Casablanca and Chekhov, with a little bit of Eloise.

Almost all of the book takes place inside the Metropol — Rostov will be shot if he ventures over its threshold — but there is one heart-stopping hospital run, and another character makes a clandestine trip to Paris. The Metropol is in Theatre Square, near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, so the outside world can be glimpsed from the windows, as when the mourners line the streets for Stalin’s funeral. And politics play out in the hotel itself; Khruschev is a dinner guest at an important meeting. There is intrigue and suspense, especially as the book nears its end.

I didn’t want it to end, to have to check out of the Metropol and bid farewell to Rostov and company. That being said, the finale was all I’d hoped it would be.