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Novel summer

The title of Rachel Khong’s pithy first novel, Goodbye, Vitamin (Henry Holt, digital galley) doesn’t make sense until you read the book, and then it makes perfect sense. So do the neon-colored lemons floating on the cover. They’re as unexpected as this darkly funny story in which a daughter tries to make sense of her life even as her beloved and brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. Ruth, a 30-year-old medical sonographer recently jilted by her fiance, returns home for Christmas, and her frustrated mother asks her to stay for a year and help out with her father. An admired history professor, Howard Young is on a forced leave of absence from teaching because of his dementia, and he knows what’s going on — except when he doesn’t. Then he wanders off, throws plates against the wall, tosses pillows in the neighbor’s pool.  In a chronological series of vignettes, Ruth narrates events, everything from fixing nutritious meals full of cruiciferous vegetables (Howard calls them “crucified”) to joining with Howard’s grad students to convince him he’s still teaching a seminar. Brief excerpts from the journal Howard kept when Ruth was a little girl add smiles and depth. It’s a happy/sad story, heartfelt, semi-sweet. Not your usual summer book, perhaps, but one of my new favorites. “What imperfect carriers of love we are, and what imperfect givers.”

Superheroes play an integral part in Joshilynn Jackson’s eighth novel The Almost Sisters (William Morrow, review copy), which cements Jackson’s rep as a Superwriter. She knows how to pack a plot with quirky characters, realistic emotions and thoughtful observations on the Old South and the New. Here, self-confessed dork and successful graphic artist Leia Birch Briggs has a one-night stand with a costumed Batman at a comic-con and two months later realizes she’s pregnant. Just when she’s getting ready to tell her very Southern family that a bi-racial baby is on the way, her perfect stepsister Rachel’s marriage falls apart in Virginia and her 90-year-old grandmother Birchie reveals to her Alabama small town that she has full-blown dementia. With her teenage niece in tow, Leia heads to Birchville to size up the situation with Birchie and Wattie, her lifelong best friend and daughter of the family’s black housekeeper. It’s not good, and things get worse when old bones turn up in an attic trunk and the law comes calling. Then Batman reappears. Class, privilege, racism, family history, small-town norms: Jackson connects them all with panache. Superbook, and a summer selection of the SheReads online book club.

A summer camp in the Berkshires provides the setting for Mandy Berman’s first novel, Perennials (Random House, digital galley), billed as an evocative coming-of-age tale. Rachel Rivkin and Fiona Larkin bond as campers at Camp Marigold, although Rachel is a city girl who lives with her single mom, and Fiona’s the middle child of a well-off suburban couple. Their friendship flourishes in the freedom of summer, but by the time they return as counselors after their freshman year, secrets have come between them. As to those secrets, Berman chooses to disclose them in flashback chapters told from different perspectives, including Rachel’s mother, Fiona’s younger sister and the middle-aged camp director who still sees himself as a young man. Then there’s an incident at book’s end that undercuts the credibility of the whole. Too bad. Berman is good at depicting the roiling emotions of teenagers and the rituals of summer camp, but the linked short story structure doesn’t work, and Perennials is somewhat less than the sum of its parts.

Five years ago, both first novelists Claire McMillan and Francesca Segal channeled Edith Wharton, with McMillan reinventing The House of Mirth in Cleveland, Ohio with her Gilded Age, and Segal transporting the plot of The Age of Innocence to a Jewish community in London via The Innocents. Their second novels find them moving in different directions, although there’s a distinct whiff of Wharton in McMillan’s entertaining The Necklace (Touchstone, library hardcover). In 2009, Portland lawyer Nell Quincy Merrihew arrives at the Quincy family home in Cleveland after her Great Aunt LouLou’s death. She and her cousins are surprised to find that the matriarch has made Nell her executor and also left her a gaudy necklace from India. When the necklace turns out to be a valuable antique that hints at an old family scandal, Nell has to fight for her rights as a true Quincy. In alternating chapters set in the Jazz Age, the Quincy family history unfolds with a doomed love triangle at its heart. The Necklace is fast-paced and fascinating, and I read it in one sitting. Segal’s The Awkward Age (Riverhead, digital galley) may borrow the name of a Henry James novel, but it’s a thoroughly modern drama of a blended London family. Julia and James are blissfully in love despite the resistance of Julia’s 16-year-old daughter Gwen, who can’t stand James nor his snarky 17-year-old son Nathan. Julia’s former in-laws and James’ first wife further complicate the new marriage, but they can’t compete with the storm of emotions unleashed when Gwen and Nathan hook up. Awkward, to say the least, but it makes for a good story.

Chillers, thrillers

 

I needed a night light after reading Meg Gardiner’s scary good UNSUB (Dutton, digital galley), which was inspired by the infamous Zodiac Killer. This “unknown subject” was dubbed the Prophet when he first terrorized the Bay Area 20 years ago with a series of grisly killings, mutilating 11 corpses with the sign of Mercury. When he vanished before being caught, he also claimed Detective Mack Hendrix’s sanity and career. But now, when new bodies with the Mercury sign are discovered in an Alameda cornfield, Mack’s daughter Caitlin gets herself reassigned from narcotics to homicide. She may be the rookie on the squad investigating the case, but her resolve and research prove invaluable when the Prophet strikes again. Or is this a copycat? The narrative moves swiftly as the detectives try to discern the cryptic clues left for them, and it’s to Gardiner’s credit that the fast pace continues once a pattern emerges. Caitlin may know the Prophet’s playbook, but that doesn’t stop the killer from toying with her and those closest to her. The countdown to the finale is a nail-biting nightmare. There will be blood. But also a sequel, so keep the lights on.

Young men for whom money has never been a problem discover otherwise in Christopher Bollen’s silky The Destroyers (HarperCollins, digital galley), which brings to mind both Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley novels and Agatha Christie’s Evil Under the Sun. A shocking prologue kicks off the action, but then Bollen moves into a more digressive mode. Disinherited by his father, Ian Bledsoe skips out on the funeral, helps himself to some family funds and flees to the Greek island of Patmos, where his childhood pal Charlie Konstantinou, heir to a shipping fortune, is living with his movie star girlfriend and other hangers-on. It takes Ian a few hedonistic days in the hot glare to realize Patmos has its dark side: A monastery whose monks hold silent sway over the tourists and pilgrims; religious hippies on the beach who take in wide-eyed wanderers; the blackened remains of a taverna near the ferry dock, where a springtime bomb killed two Americans. Charlie hires Ian as an assistant for his island-hopping yacht business, then disappears. Many people come looking for Charlie, including his older brother. There’s a fatal accident, and then a murder. The police take more than a polite interest. Ian reflects on his shared past with Charlie and the boyhood game where they concocted perilous scenarios and risky escape plans. He is distracted by his college girlfriend, on vacation in Patmos before law school. He still can’t find Charlie. Look for The Destroyers to be a movie.

Looking for a tricksy plot and an unreliable narrator, something like Gillian Flynn or Megan Miranda might cook up? Then check out Riley Sager’s Final Girls (Dutton, digital galley), a well-constructed thriller whose title comes from the old horror film trope where one girl survives a mass murder. In Sager’s tale, Quincy Carpenter has rejected the tabloid moniker and moved on in the years since her college friends were massacred in a cabin in the Pennsylvania woods. She has a successful baking blog and a live-in lawyer boyfriend, and it helps that she has almost no memory of the murders and appeases her survivors’ guilt by regularly checking in with Coop, the cop who saved her life. But then another Final Girl — Lisa, who survived a sorority house attack — is found dead, believed to be a suicide — and Samantha Boyd, who fought off a mass murderer in a Florida motel, shows up at Quincy’s door. As troubled Sam provokes Quincy to tap into her buried anger and memories, interspersed chapters flash back to the fateful Pine Cottage weekend, generating menace and suspense. Readers may think they know where the story is headed, and maybe they do, but they also may be in for a shock. Quincy sure is.

The first buried secret that propels Fiona Barton’s  new novel of domestic intrigue, The Child (Berkley, digital galley), is an infant’s skeleton found by workers tearing down London houses. Barton quickly connects four women to the old bones and then alternates perspective among them. Kate Roberts is the seasoned reporter who writes the initial story, “Who is the Building Site Baby?” Emma is the book editor who struggles with depression and who used to live on the street where the bones were found. Both she and her narcissistic mother Jude, still looking for Mr. Right after all these years, see the story, as does Angela, whose baby was stolen from the maternity ward years ago. She’s convinced the skeleton is her daughter, Alice, but she’s been wrong before. As Kate diligently tracks clues to the baby’s identity, more secrets surface, leading to the book’s other question: How long can you live with a lie that has shaped your life in untoward ways? Like Barton’s previous novel The Widow, this one offers interesting answers.

Remember when “active shooter” wasn’t part of our everyday vocabulary? I didn’t think I was up for Laurie R. King’s new standalone Lockdown (Bantam, digital galley), no matter how timely, having seen way too much of the real thing on the evening news. But King delivers more than a tick-tock countdown of Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School, which begins with the high hopes principal Linda McDonald has for her diverse student body. The school bubbles with “hormones and suppressed rage, with threats all around it,” and is currently troubled by a murder trial involving student gang members and the mysterious disappearance of a seventh-grade girl. Readers are aware of a more ominous hazard headed toward the school — a heavily armed white van — but not who is driving. As the minutes go by, King switches among many perspectives — various students and teachers, the principal, her husband, the school janitor, a cop on duty at the school, parents preparing to participate in career day — and a number of backstories emerge. Perhaps there are too many, given that several could have made books on their own. Still, by the time the action really begins, readers are invested in a handful of sympathetic characters who may not survive lockdown.

Hallie Ephron goes Southern Gothic in You’ll Never Know, Dear (William Morrow, advance copy), disguising the Lowcountry South Carolina town of Beaufort as Bonsecours, where the Spanish moss-draped live oaks hide dark secrets from the past. The reappearance of a homemade porcelain doll may hold the clue to the 40-year-old kidnapping of a 4-year-old girl. Her mother, dollmaker Miss Sorrell, has always believed Janey would come home, and when Janey’s long-lost doll turns up, she just knows Janey will be next. Her daughter Lis and her next-door neighbor and fellow dollmaker Evelyn, are not so easily convinced, but then a kiln explosion sends Miss Sorrell and Lis to the hospital, and Lis’s grad student daughter Vanessa returns home to help out and do some detecting. Coincidences pile on, complications ensue, plausibility departs. Oh, dear.

Beachward ho!

Beatriz Williams Cocoa Beach (William Morrow, digital galley) has sun, sand, mangroves and mosquitoes, as well as mystery and romance. And it’s appropriately steamy — no AC in 1922, which is when Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in Cocoa with her toddler daughter to inherit her estranged husband’s estate and shipping business. She met British Army surgeon Simon while an ambulance driver in World War I France, and the narrative toggles between the two timelines: Even as Virginia motors to Miami Beach with her sister-in-law, her backstory is played out in New York, France and Cornwall. (Readers of Williams’ A Certain Age will recognize Virginia as the sister of that book’s heroine, Sophie Fortescue). Not one to play the little widow, Virginia is soon asking about Simon’s death in a fire at his seaside villa and poking into his business affairs, much to the dismay of his enigmatic brother Samuel. Everybody, even Virginia, has secrets in this exotic Prohibition Era setting, where fortunes are made by rum-runners, and rogues are more than ready to sell swampland to unwary dreamers.

If you can’t buy happiness, perhaps you can rent it? Artist Heather Wyatt is hoping she can at least find some peace at Primrose, a quaint cottage on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms, while she carries out a commission to paint shorebirds for a series of postage stamps. Perhaps the solitude will cure her crippling social anxiety. But when cottage owner Cara Rutledge suffers a terrible loss, she wants to return to Primrose, and shy Heather winds up sharing space with an unwanted roommate.  And then there’s the handsome guy building a new deck on the cottage. In Beach House for Rent (Gallery Books, digital galley), Mary Alice Monroe returns to a favorite setting and familiar theme: Primrose as a safe haven where the wonders of nature help heal troubled souls. Although it’s one in an occasional series, the book is a pleasing stand-alone that begs to be read beach-side, where you can hear the gulls and watch the pelicans and sandpipers.

The Whitaker family mansion in seaside Connecticut was a once-famous artists’ colony, and Issy loved growing up there with her grandparents. But her family is a hot mess, and in Shelley Noble’s The Beach at Painter’s Cove (William Morrow, digital galley), she’s left to pick up the pieces when her selfish sister Viv drops off her three kids  with ailing grandmother Leo and disappears. Eccentric Aunt Fae can’t be counted on, and Issy’s mother, film actress Jillian, is off in Europe with her latest lover. Noble heaps cascading troubles on the Whitakers like sand in a bucket. Issy discovers Leo’s bank account has been emptied, bills are outstanding, and the house and its contents are in danger of being sold. A penniless Jillian arrives on the scene to contribute to the chaos. Leo is apparently losing her mind, living largely in the past, which also haunts Fae. The plot follows a predictable path, but the Whitakers, especially insecure and imaginative 12-year-old Steph, win you over, and you really hope they’ll win the day.

With its picturesque Cornwall setting, gentle good humor and a cast of engaging characters, many of them in the autumn of their years, Marcia Willett’s new novel Indian Summer (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) reminds me of a Rosamunde Pilcher favorite, Winter Solstice. Famous actor and director Sir Mungo Springer loves his country retreat, part of the family farm run by his brother Archie and his wife Camilla. When his old friend Kit visits, she brings with her memories of good times shared and of other old pals, including a troubled actress. One of the book’s running jokes is the presence of an aspiring novelist, who spies on the locals and concludes they’re a dull bunch. Little does he realize that a young Army wife is on the brink of a dangerous affair, that two old men once buried a body in the orchard, that Kit is contemplating a second chance with her long-ago lover Jake, and that Mungo will do most anything to keep safe his family and friends. I’m getting this one for my mom.

My mom and cousins also will be happy to hear about Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bonfire (Henery Press, digital galley), the sixth in the lighthearted series featuring P.I. Liz Talbot, who tied the knot with her partner Nate Andrews in Lowcountry Bordello. Their client Tammy Sue Lyerly, after receiving proof that her mechanic husband Zeke was cheating on her, sets fire to his favorite possessions in his favorite car. She claims she had no idea Zeke’s body was in the trunk. Liz and Nate are about the only ones on the little South Carolina island of Stella Maris who believe her. Determined to prove Tammy’s innocence, they start digging into Zeke’s colorful and mysterious past, which supposedly included stints as a DEA agent and a NASCAR driver. Seems trouble may have started at a bonfire on the beach back in the spring, although the mystery is almost overshadowed by all the lowcountry talk, atmosphere and food. Fine with me. I want to move in with Liz, Nate and their golden retriever Rhett.

Speaking of food — always a good idea, IMHO — fans of Mary Kay Andrews’ best-selling beach books (Savannah Blues, Deep Dish, Beach Town) and the Callahan Garrity mysteries she originally penned as Kathy Hogan Trocheck (Heart Trouble, Homemade Sin) know her characters eat well and that she sometimes tosses in recipes for food mentioned in the stories. For example, you can find the recipe for Beyond the Grave Chicken Salad in Little Bitty Lies and now in The Beach House Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), which is what she wrote for  this summer instead of a new novel. It’s a treat, full of themed meal plans and recipes, plus anecdotes and pictures from Ebb Tide, her Tybee Island beach house. I need to note that Kathy is a longtime friend and a fabulous cook, and I can personally vouch for the chicken salad, the lemon cream cheese poundcake, the pimento cheese made with Duke’s and other goodies. Shrimp and grits. Crab cakes. Peach and berry cobbler. Trust me, the woman can start with a bag of Fritos and whip up a casserole, an appetizer or a gooey dessert.  Beach-alicious!

 

 

 

 

 

Riddle me this

Did she fall or was she pushed? Did he fall or was he pushed? The first mystery concerns the death of the housekeeper of the manor house Pye Hall. The second refers to the author of the novel in which the housekeeper dies. Coincidence? Maybe, maybe not.  Readers get to don their sleuthing caps in Anthony Horowitz’s Magpie Murders (HarperCollins, digital galley), a clever tale within a tale that pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing.

When London editor Susan Ryeland sits downs with best-selling author Alan Conway’s latest manuscript, she’s expecting another 1950s English village mystery a la Agatha Christie starring series detective Atticus Pund. But as she reads of the death of the Pye Hall housekeeper followed soon after by the decapitation of her employer Sir Magnus Pye, then Pund’s arrival to question the widow, the gardener, the vicar, the estranged sister and all the usual suspects, Susan begins to read between the lines. Then, suddenly and maddeningly, there are no more lines — the manuscript is incomplete. Even worse, the troublesome author is not around to answer questions, having fallen from the rooftop terrace of his country house, a presumed suicide. How very strange. Soon Susan’s search for the last chapters turns into a hunt for a killer. How entertaining!

Horowitz is an accomplished  literary ventriloquist, whose many credits include teleplays for Foyle’s War and Midsomer Murders, the Alex Ryder thrillers for young readers, the Holmes homages The House of Silk and Moriarty, and the James Bond pastiche Trigger Mortis. With Magpie Murders, he out-Christies Christie, constructing a classic puzzle of red herrings and dead-ends inside a witty modern mystery of misdirection. Keep up, people! The game’s afoot and tea is served. One lump or two?

Given it’s kind of cozy title, Matthew Sullivan’s first novel Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore (Scribner, digital galley) is darker than you might think. Denver bookstore clerk Lydia Smith is shocked when one of her favorite customers, troubled young ex-con Joey Molina, kills himself on the bookstore’s third floor. And she’s puzzled why Joey would leave her his few belongings, including a box of books from the store’s shelves, their pages defaced with tiny holes, and an old photograph. The latter is especially mystifying as it’s a picture of Lydia’s 10th birthday party, which occurred not long before the notorious Hammerman murders. The 20-year-old cold case cost a little girl and her parents their lives, but Lydia, spending the night at their house, survived by hiding under the kitchen sink.

Seeking connections between Joey’s past and her own, Lydia realizes Joey has left her coded messages among his books. She consults another homeless man, Lyle; her childhood friend Raj, who just happens to turn up again; and also the retired detective who worked the Hammerman case and always suspected Lydia’s eccentric dad of the crime.  So many questions. So many coincidences. But Sullivan, a former bookseller, knows the world he writes about, and his obvious love of books and his affection for his quirky characters shine off pages that practically turn themselves.

Forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway is digging up old bones again in Elly Griffith’s The Chalk Pit (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), the ninth in this fascinating series. This time, the bones are found in one of the old chalk mining tunnels that wind underneath the city of Norwich, and the architect excavating the site hopes the remains won’t stop his next trendy restaurant. Ruth gets to deliver the bad news — the bones aren’t that old and, moreover, exhibit signs of cannibalism. Ick.

Meanwhile, DCI Nelson, the father of Ruth’s young daughter Kate, has been looking for a missing homeless woman at the behest of one of her homeless friends, later found stabbed on the steps of a church. The separate investigations are complicated when a local housewife also goes missing amid rumors of an underground community of homeless in the claustrophobic tunnels. Complicated, too, is the relationship between Ruth and Nelson, whose wife knows about Kate but has not told their teen-age daughters. Griffiths is a pro at weaving the various strands into a tightly plotted tale that foreshadows a change in Ruth’s life. Next book, please.

Come spy with me

The Russia of Joseph Kanon’s Defectors (Atria, digital galley via NetGalley) is the Soviet Union circa 1961, gray and grim as the Cold War. Even the Party faithful have to wait in long lines for food and depend on the black market for basic amenities. Simon Weeks has often wondered why his older brother Frank, a CIA golden boy, chose to defect in 1949. Was it money, ideology, gamesmanship? Now Frank has written his KGB-approved memoirs and asks Simon, who became a publisher after his brother’s defection ended his State Department career, to edit the manuscript. Simon discovers his brother is as charming and wily as ever, even though he is accompanied everywhere by a minder, and the restricted, isolated lifestyle has turned his beautiful wife Joanna into an alcoholic. They consort only with other defectors, from famous figures like Guy Burgess to anonymous research scientists. A recent death in the group is presumed a suicide. When Frank begins to show his hand, Simon senses something is up and must fall back on old tradecraft. Betrayal is in the air, murder in a cathedral.

Kanon, who has written spy thrillers set in Istanbul, Berlin and Los Alamos, is at the top of his game. Defectors offers suspense and atmosphere galore, but it also explores the perplexing nature of a double agent, as well as enduring questions of loyalty to family and country. A timely tale.

I didn’t know much about World War I spies beyond Mata Hari until I read Kate Quinn’s compelling The Alice Network (HarperCollins, digital galley via edelweiss). The title comes from the name of a real-life group of female agents who operated in France during the Great War. American college student Charlie St. Clair first learns about the network in 1947 when she tries to find her cousin Rose, who disappeared in Nazi-occupied France during the more recent war. Eve Gardiner, a reclusive, ill-tempered alcoholic and former Alice spy living in London, initially resists Charlie’s entreaty for help — she draws a gun on her — before setting out for France in her vintage roadster driven by charming ex-con Finn.

Quinn expertly propels parallel storylines, alternating between the 1947 road trip with its twists and dead ends, and Eve’s recruitment as a spy in 1915 and her dangerous work for the Alice network. Both stories, which eventually connect, are absorbing adventures, although Eve’s is the more harrowing as she becomes the unwilling mistress of a powerful German sympathizer. Still, Charlie also proves to be a resourceful, conflicted character with a not-so-little problem. Suspense increases as secrets come to light in both narratives. The Alice Network is sad and heart-breaking but also hopeful and redemptive.

In Mark Mills’ deft cat-and-mouse game of a thriller, Where Dead Men Meet (Blackstone Audio, digital galley via NetGalley), someone is trying to kill Luke Hamilton. Or it could be a case of mistaken identity in 1937 Paris, where Hamilton is assigned to the British Embassy. He is grieving at the news of the murder in England of Sister Agnes, the nun who took him in as an abandoned baby 25 years ago. Readers already know Sister Agnes’ murder is connected to the attempt on Luke’s life, but it is the appearance of the mysterious Bernard Fautrier who warns Luke he is in real danger.  The race — to escape the killers and to find out their motives — takes Luke to Nazi Germany, to neutral Switzerland, to enigmatic Venice. There are moments of exquisite tension, although the resolution of the main mystery comes a little too early. Still, complications ensue as table turns. Revenge is cold and deadly.

Gone reading

I’m on summer vacation, and it’s lovely, with family weddings, old friends, South Carolina peaches, and books, books, books.

Oh, The Essex Serpent (HarperCollins, digital galley). I first was captivated by the stunning cover with its intricate William Morris-inspired design, then seduced by the contents. Sarah Perry’s sweeping Victorian tale with its Gothic shadings reminded me of John Fowles’ The French Lieutenant’s Woman by way of A.S. Byatt’s Possession and Angels and Insects. Also Bronte, Hardy, Dickens, Stoker. And yet this novel of ideas, of science and superstition, love and friendship, is also imaginative and original.

In 1893 London, Cora Seaborne makes for an unconventional 19th-century heroine, a well-off widow whose independent spirit and intellectual curiosity were suppressed by an abusive older husband. Now she gleefully exchanges widow’s weeds for a man’s tweed coat and boots, the better for tramping the marshy Essex coast in search of fossils. She’s also intrigued by rumors of the return of the Essex Serpent, a mythical winged beast that villagers blame for recent drownings, missing livestock and ruined crops. Cora dreams of discovering a lost species, some kind of dinosaur, but the local vicar, William Ransome, dismisses the serpent as pure superstition and sermonizes against it. The two strike up a passionate friendship despite their differences and Ransome’s devotion to his consumptive wife and three children. Perry excels in evoking the wonders of the natural world, and breathes life in all of her characters, from a cantankerous codger to a brilliant surgeon to Cora’s autistic son and his socialist nanny. It is the latter who wisely states, “There are no ordinary lives.” Oh, what an extraordinary book!

At one point in Gail Godwin’s pensive new novel Grief Cottage (Bloomsbury, digital galley), 11-year-old Marcus sees a boy his own age coming toward him. He is startled that the sturdy, suntanned youth is his own mirrored reflection, and no wonder. He is no longer the pale, bookish orphan sent to stay with his great-aunt on a South Carolina island after his mother’s sudden death. Not that Marcus isn’t still haunted by grief and loss, and also, perhaps, by the ghost of a boy who disappeared during a hurricane 50 years ago. Marcus senses his presence in the ruin of Grief Cottage, which has been immortalized in Aunt Charlotte’s atmospheric paintings. She is laconic, solitary, prickly and drinks to ward off her own demons, and she seems an unlikely guardian for a growing boy. But the two come to depend on one another, especially after an accident turns Charlotte into a temporary invalid unable to paint. Marcus is also befriended by an island old-timer who restores antique cars, the head of the local sea-turtle watch, and the wealthy widow next-door mourning the loss of her grown son.

Although set in the early years of this century, Grief Cottage glints with nostalgia for lost people and times. Part of it is the past-haunted Lowcountry setting; Godwin borrows from Pawley’s Island and Isle of Palms to create her own island, where the shifting sands thwart developers. Part of it, too, is an undercurrent of mystery. Who is Marcus’s father? Why did Aunt Charlotte leave home long ago? What happened to Grief Cottage’s inhabitants when Hurricane Hazel howled ashore? Such questions animate this haunting summer story.

 

First wave

The summer books are beginning to roll in, offering diversion for the long, hot months ahead. If you were a fan of Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train, you’re no doubt longing to dive into her new one, Into the Water (Penguin, purchased hardcover). Alas, I found it a bit of slog, with too many narrators muddying the waters. One even says as much: “How is anyone supposed to keep track of all the bodies around here? It’s like Midsomer Murders, only with accidents and suicides and grotesque historical misogynistic drownings instead of people falling into the slurry or bashing each other over the head.” The most recent victim is Nel Abbott, a single mother who loved swimming and was writing a book about Beckford village’s “Drowning Pool,” where “troublesome women” have perished since the days of witch hunts. Did Nel fall or was she pushed from the cliffs?  It’s not clear, unlike the obvious suicide of schoolgirl Katie, which her grief-stricken mother Louise somehow blames on Nel. Pretty much every one in Beckford has an opinion. The rotating chorus of voices includes, just for starters,  Nel’s teenage daughter, her estranged sister, a secretive copper, his mousy wife, a high school teacher and an elderly psychic. Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine did this Hitchcockian style of suspense and misdirection very well, Hawkins not so much. At least not yet.

Scott Turow is a pro at writing substantive legal thrillers, and Testimony (Grand Central Publishing, digital galley) is further proof as middle-aged Midwest attorney Bill ten Boom heads to the Hague. The rumors of a heinous war crime have circulated for years: In 2004, 400 Romas — Gypsies — living in a Bosnian refugee camp all vanished one night never to be seen again. Now, more than a decade later, a surviving witness has come forward to testify to the circumstances, and it’s up to Boom and a Belgian investigator to determine the truth of his testimony. Were the masked men with guns who herded the villagers into trucks Serb paramilitary, or were they from a nearby American base? The complicated case takes Boone to Bosnia and elsewhere in Europe, and he encounters such fascinating characters as a femme fatale Roma lawyer, a retired American general and a ruthless war criminal with blood on his hands and more murder in mind. Befitting the intricacy of the house-of-cards plot, the pace is mostly measured, even slow, the exception being a heart-stopping kidnapping scene. Things are not what they seem, and so things do not go as planned. But as in the masterful Presumed Innocent, Turow doesn’t miss a trick.

Now for the fun stuff. The late Michael Crichton’s recently discovered and newly published Dragon Teeth (HarperCollins, digital galley) combines the historical suspense of The Great Train Robbery with the ancestors of the featured creatures in Jurassic Park. That’s right, these dinosaurs are dead — fossilized, in fact — and fought over by real-life paleontologists during the “Bone Wars” in frontier America. Fictional Yale student and tenderfoot William Johnson signs on with a dinosaur-digging expedition in the summer of 1876. Left behind in Cheyenne by one eccentric professor,  he joins a rival group going to Montana and encounters gunslingers, buffalo and enough Wild West adventure to fill a book.

Dorothea Benton Frank writes vacations in a book. In Same Beach, Next Year (Morrow, review copy), two couples’ 20-year-friendship is cemented by joint summer visits at Wild Dunes resort in lowcountry South Carolina, but is threatened by jealousy on both sides.  Eliza, who shares narration with husband Adam, knows that Eve, now married to handsome doctor Carl, and Adam were high school sweethearts. What she doesn’t know is that Eve’s witch of a mother, Cookie, drove the young lovers apart, and that sparks still fly between the old flames. Still, the see-saw plot often takes a backseat to the descriptions of the lush landscape, both in the lowcountry and on the Greek island of Corfu, and the delicious dishes concocted by sassy Eliza. (Eve is a terrible cook).

You don’t have to have read Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians and China Rich Girlfriend to be entertained by his new novel. Rich People Problems (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). Kwan catches us up quickly on the major characters — Nick Young, who risked disinheritance to marry less well-off Rachel, and his cousin Astrid, desperate to get out of her marriage, and Kitty Pong, insanely jealous of her fashionista stepdaughter Colette. All these people be crazy rich, but the richest of all is Su-Yi, Nick’s grandmother and matriarch of the Shang-Long clan. When it appears that Su-Yi is on her deathbed, family members from near and far rush to her massive Singapore estate, where they can share their rich people problems while waiting to share in the family fortune. It’s all over the top and wildly funny: the people, the clothes, the jewelry, the food, and, yes, even the footnotes.