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A few good books

Read any good books lately? Of course you have. Me too, and you know which ones if you’ve been reading this blog. But that hasn’t stopped me from reading others’ year-end lists to see where we overlap or disagree or what I should add to my TBR.

This holiday, as usual, I’m wrapping up books as gifts for friends and family. My top pick this year is Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which is as gorgeous inside as out, a sweeping Victorian tale with Gothic shadings. Then there’s Moshin Hamid’s Exit West, an imaginative, moving novel of love, war and refugees: “We are all migrants in time.” Rachel Khong’s Goodbye, Vitamin is the darkly funny story of a young woman trying to make sense of her life at the same time that her brilliant father is losing his mind and memories. John le Carre’s A Legacy of Spies echoes with old lies and loves as George Smiley’s protege Peter Guillam revisits the long-ago case that was the centerpiece of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

In crime fiction, Anthony Horowitz’s clever Magpie Murders pays homage to the cozy Golden Age detective story and the cutthroat world of contemporary publishing. In Bluebird, Bluebird, Attica Locke explores race and justice when a black Texas Ranger becomes involved in two murders in East Texas. Michael Connelly jump-starts a new series with The Late Show, and Sleep No More collects six short stories by the late P.D. James. Australian writer Jane Harper made her debut last winter with the thrilling The Dry, and follows up with Force of Nature this coming February.

I read nonfiction mostly in newspapers and magazines, which then leads me to good books such as David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI. I also can recommend Monica Hesse’s American Fire: Love, Arson and Life in a Vanishing Land.  Up next for me is Tina Brown’s The Vanity Fair Diaries, which came out a few weeks ago and which a good friend has put under my Christmas tree.

Then there are the several books I’ve read recently but haven’t had time to write about.  Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak (Penguin, digital) follows a dysfunctional British family with two grown daughters and plenty of secrets quarantined over Christmas because one of them has been exposed to an Ebola-like virus. The plot stretches credibility, but the characters are appealing and the ending was unexpectedly moving. Jane Austen fans will appreciate Katherine Reay’s clever The Austen Escape (Thomas Nelson, digital galley), in which Austin, Texas engineer Mary joins estranged friend Isabel on a holiday to Bath, England. There they stay at a manor house and dress up in Regency clothing with other Austen fans, and all is well and good until Isabel has a mental lapse and thinks she really is a Jane Austen character. Finally, the new Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery, Bryant and May: Wild Chamber by Christopher Fowler (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) finds the two aging, eccentric police detectives tracking a possible serial killer knocking off victims in London parks. Lots of funny business, witty writing and a killer ending.

Happy holidays, everyone. May your days be merry and bright with many, many books.

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Past crimes

P.D. James’ The Mistletoe Murders was an unexpected holiday treat last year. This year, it’s Sleep No More (Knopf, digital galley), which collects six more tales from the late writer best known for her Adam Dalgliesh detective novels. No Dalgliesh in these stories, but readers will recognize James’ artful scene setting, elegant prose and ironic twists. “The Murder of Santa Claus” is a classic locked-room mystery told with a sly wink as writer Charles Mickledore looks back to Christmas 1939, when he was a lonely schoolboy shipped off to a relative’s country house. His tyrannical host lords it over his assorted guests until he is murdered shortly after making his post-midnight rounds as Santa. In “The Victim,” we know whodunit as a milk-toast librarian confesses to taking revenge on the new husband of his beautiful ex-wife. But the ending may surprise, as do those of “The Yo-Yo” and “A Most Desirable Resident,” in which murder is also seen as a means to an end.  In “Mr. Millcroft’s Birthday,” a conniving octogenerian in a senior home turns the tables on his greedy heirs. And in the creepy “The Girl Who Loved Graveyards,” an orphan’s shadowy memories of her late father and grandmother are intertwined with her affinity for cemeteries. I guessed where this one was going, but the devil’s in the details. Brrrr…

Clea Simon immerses readers and her new series sleuth,  music journalist Tara Winton, in the 1980s Boston club scene in the noir-tinged World Enough (Severn House, ARC). Tara once covered the city’s punk rock bands for fanzines that paid little but gave her needed access. Now working in a dull corporate communications job, Tara is drawn back to the heady, long-ago times when her former editor asks her to write a piece on Boston bands for his glossy city magazine. The assignment coincides with the accidental death of musician Frank Turcotte, although Tara wonders if her old friend, sober for 20 years, really just fell down the stairs. And could his death be connected to that of once rising star Chris Crack back in the day? She soon discovers that digging into the past can prove dangerous, but letting go just isn’t in her nature. Once a reporter, always a reporter. Simon knows what’s she writing about.

Actress Krysten Ritter is well-known for her roles on TV’s Breaking Bad and Marvel’s Jessica Jones, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her playing the lead in a film adaptation of Bonfire (Crown, Archetype, digital galley). After all, Ritter wrote the book, and it’s easy to picture her as Chicago environmental lawyer Abby Williams, who returns to her Indiana hometown after 10 years to investigate its most influential employer. But looking into Optimal Plastics’ possible pollution of Barrows’ water supply and its ties to local government means Abby must confront her own past. Snubbed in high school by the popular set, Abby is rattled by her old classmates. The boy she once crushed on is now an Optimal spokesman, a former cheerleader is an assistant high school principal, a bad-boy slacker has become a responsible single dad. And then there’s Kaycee, Abby’s sometimes childhood friend, who was always at the center of things before she suddenly disappeared. Inevitably, Abby’s questions about Optimal lead to questions about Kaycee, but Ritter generates suspense and an air of immediacy with her present-tense narrative. Don’t wait for the movie.

So what are the chances of two crime novels being published within a month of each other, both featuring small-town police detectives named Gemma, each investigating the murder of a high school teacher? Nor do the similarities between Emily Littlejohn’s A Season to Lie (St. Martin’s/Minotaur, digital galley) and Sarah Bailey’s The Dark Lake (Grand Central, digital galley) end there. Both Gemmas have live-in boyfriends with whom they have a child, both face on-the-job challenges, both are attractive, determined and flawed. And both deal with bad weather, although that means different things to the detectives. Gemma Monroe (A Season to Lie) battles blizzards in Cedar Valley in Colorado, while Gemma Woodstock (The Dark Lake) has to worry about a Christmas heat wave and wildfires in the Australian town of Smithson.  A Season to Lie is the second outing for Monroe, who was six months pregnant in Littlejohn’s Inherit the Bones. Now that baby Grace is three months old, her mom is hoping to ease back into work, but on her first night back, she and her partner discover a murdered man on the snowy campus of a private high school. The victim is famous author Delaware Fuente, a visiting lecturer using an alias while at Valley Academy. Fuente has other secrets, as do the close-knit townspeople who are split over the question of development by outsiders. There’s also an anonymous bully known as Grimm, who is terrorizing the academy students. And does another death mean a serial killer is at work? It’s a neatly plotted procedural. The Dark Lake, Bailey’s first novel, is more intricate in its secret-keeping. Gemma Woodstock went to high school with beautiful Rosalind Ryan, the popular drama teacher whose drowned body is found after opening night of her modernized version of Romeo and Juliet. Past collides with present as Gemma recalls the suicide of her high school boyfriend, whose younger brother is playing Romeo. Gemma also is juggling an affair with her married partner and her homelife with staid boyfriend Scott and toddler son Ben. Bailey alternates present-day events with Gemma’s flashbacks to high school and her rivalry with Rosalind. The time jumps make for an uneven pace as the investigation unfolds, but a nail-biting showdown atop a water tower offers a killer ending.

 

 

 

 

History meets mystery

Infamous Cambridge spy Guy Burgess had a cameo earlier this year in Joseph Kanon’s Cold War novel Defectors, but he practically steals the show in John Lawton’s excellent new Inspector Troy tale, Friends and Traitors (Grove/Atlantic, library e-book). It’s the eighth book in the crime series where history regularly meets mystery as Scotland Yard’s Frederick Troy dodges bombs in World War II London (Black Out), or protects Khruschev on a 1956 UK visit (Old Flames), or is tangled in the political scandals of the  early ’60s (A Little White Death).

In this entry, Lawton plays the long game, beginning with police cadet Troy first meeting Burgess at a family dinner in 1935. Both his Russian emigre/press baron father and his older brother warn him that the charming Burgess is bad news, “queer as a coot,” a notorious gossip, a possible spy. Still, Troy is intrigued by Burgess, who keeps showing up at various venues and times before, during and after the war. Then in 1951, Burgess and Donald MacLean defect to the Soviet Union, and their betrayal, along with that of Kim Philby, upends the British intelligence community for years. And that’s still the case in 1958 when a sad and pathetic Burgess approaches Troy during a family trip to Europe and says he wants to return to England. The ensuing imbroglio in Vienna results in the shooting of an MI5 agent, and Troy must defend himself against charges of murder and treason. All of this plays out in a string of atmospheric set pieces and charged exchanges of dialogue among the well-drawn cast of friends, family, lovers and spies.

The Troy books can be read out of order as stand-alone thrillers, but you run the risk of finding out the fate of characters and cases featured in other stories. Sudden death and reversals of fortune mark Troy’s complicated professional and private life, but that just makes the series all the more rewarding.

In 1939 Prague, with the Nazis on the doorstep, a woman named Otylie hopes to save her most treasured possession — an inherited musical manuscript of unknown authorship — by tearing it into three pieces. One movement of the sonata goes to her best friend Irena, the second goes to her husband in the Resistance, and the third she keeps for herself as she flees the country. Some 60 years later, Meta, a young musicologist who trained as a concert pianist, chances on one of the sonata’s movements and sets out to find the missing pieces and reunite them with their rightful owner. She also must prove the manuscript’s authenticity and perhaps discover who authored the haunting composition.  Bach? Beethoven? Maybe Mozart or Salieri?

Bradford Morrow details Meta’s daunting quest in his new historical novel The Prague Sonata (Grove Atlantic, digital galley), and I do mean details.  The premise is fascinating, the characters interesting, the plot hopscotches in time and place — Prague, London, New York, Nebraska. But the pace is uneven, the transitions often jarring, and the narrative so weighted with detail that it tested my will to read on. Students of music and history may well be enthralled, and I was at times because Morrow is an accomplished storyteller.  (I love Trinity Fields, thought The Forgers was clever and entertaining). But, at least in this case, too much of a good thing was still too much.

Nicola Upson’s detective series featuring real-life mystery writer Josephine Tey just keeps getting better as she artfully mixes history and fiction. Fear in the Sunlight played out against the set of an Alfred Hitchcock film, while London Rain‘s backdrop was the 1937 coronation of King George VI. In the seventh book, Nine Lessons (Crooked Lane Books, digital galley), Upson draws on the real-life crimes of the Cambridge Rapist, although she has him terrorizing women in 1937 Cambridge. Josephine is house-sitting for her lover, actress Marta Hallard, who is away on business. The tension and unease in town and at the colleges is palpable as the attacks on women escalate to include murder.

At the same time, Josephine’s great friend, Scotland Yard detective Archie Penrose, is investigating a gruesome murder in a London graveyard. The trail eventually leads him to Cambridge, a college choir and a long-ago death. What makes this second story especially chilling is the discovery that the London murder is tied to a series of ghost stories by M.R. James, who taught at Cambridge. The vengeful killer takes cruel delight in replicating disturbing details of James’ spooky tales. Then there’s the big secret that Josephine is keeping from Archie that could profoundly alter their relationship.

 

 

 

 

 

Witch book?

Halloween is coming, and I’m in the mood for something mysterious and magical and kind of marvelous, something by Alice Hoffman, like Blackbird House or Seventh Heaven or Practical Magic. Fortunately (now there’s a suitable word), Hoffman returns this month with The Rules of Magic (Simon and Schuster, digital galley), a prequel to Practical Magic and featuring the potion-brewing, spell-casting Owens sisters. Not the younger ones, Gillian and Sally, from the first book, but their aunts Franny and Jet, depicted here as teens and young women growing up in 1960s and ’70s New York City with a magnetic and musical younger brother, Vincent. Although their mother Susanna forbids black clothes, red shoes, Ouija boards and the cats and candles that might speak to their Owens’ heritage, the siblings know they are different. How else to explain Franny’s way with birds, or Jet’s reading others’ thoughts, or Vincent levitating small objects?

When Franny turns 17, the three go to spend the summer with Aunt Isabelle in Massachusetts, absorbing the rules of magic as handed down from their Salem witch ancestor Maria Owens. But it’s not all black soap and moonlight potions and secret books; there’s also a curse that spells doom for those they dare to love. There has to be a way around that, the siblings think, but a tragedy soon after they return home has them reconsidering the future. Still, as the Vietnam War incites their generation to make love not war, Franny, Jet and Vincent all tempt fate in their own ways and learn to live with the consequences.

Hoffman’s writing is as luminous and lyrical as ever; the story, bittersweet. Ah, The Rules of  Magic. “What is meant to be is bound to happen, whether or not you approve.” I approve.

Other treats and/or tricks suited to the season include Jonathan Stroud’s The Empty Grave (Disney Press, library hardcover), the rousing fifth book in the Lockwood & Co. series, in which our favorite London ghostbusters uncover a conspiracy that takes them to the shivery Other Side, where spirits linger.  Narrator Lucy has a sinking feeling. Although written for the middle-grade set, Stroud’s witty adventures are for anyone who likes good ghost stories. Creepy good fun.

 

Maggie Stiefvater spins YA magical realism in All the Crooked Saints (Scholastic, advance reading copy), set in 1962 Colorado and centering on the miracle-working Soria cousins. But the pilgrims who venture under the desert stars for a cure find the young saints can only do so much when it comes to inner darkness. When elder cousin Daniel interferes with a miracle, he also falls prey to the dark by way of a family curse, and it’s up to Beatriz, Joaquin and their friend Pete to rescue him, perhaps via pirate radio. Readers of Stiefvater’s fabulous Raven Boys cycle will recognize similar themes and signature style.

 

Naomi Alderman’s dystopian The Power (Little Brown, digital galley) looks back to the early days of a female-centric society when teenage girls first awoke to a tingling in their arms. At first, it’s a thrill for the girls to shock boys’ bad behavior, but then they discover their taser-like power can also kill. Furthermore, they can ignite the power in older women. Girls rule! Still, the role reversal is more than a one-trick pony plot as Alderman cleverly explores the ways in which women wield power, not always to the benefit of humankind. It’s speculative fiction that provokes and entertains.

Windfalls

When Hurricane Irma made a mess in Central Florida last month, I ran away to the Circus. Cambridge Circus, that is, headquarters for John le Carre’s legendary British Secret Service and spies like George Smiley. In A Legacy of Spies (Viking Penguin, hardcover gift), Smiley, long retired, haunts the memory of  his protege Peter Guillam, called out of his retirement in Brittany for a reckoning with the past. Remember Alec Leamas, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold? He had a son, now grown, who blames the Circus for his father’s betrayal in the long-ago Operation Windfall, which Smiley oversaw at Control’s behest. A new generation with little or no memory of the Cold War and the Berlin Wall demands Guillam revisit the mission and its old files with the intention of erasing any embarrassment or responsibility. Guillam reluctantly complies, and le Carre artfully unlocks the puzzle of past and present, of old lies and loves, an agent called Tulip. It’s vintage le Carre, with references to Smiley’s nemesis Karla and the search for the mole detailed in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but also the silky prose, the mordant wit, the moral ambiguity clouding the whole in every shade of gray. And, finally, Smiley — “grown into the age he had always seemed to be.” By George, it’s good to see him.

There were other windfalls. Celeste Ng’s new novel Little Fires Everywhere (Penguin Press, purchased hardcover) begins with a two-story house in picture-perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio, going up in flames, then goes back in time to chronicle the events leading up to the conflagration. Ng has talent to burn — read her Everything I Never Told You — and is a mesmerizing storyteller. When free-spirited artist Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl move into a modest rental house owned by the affluent Richardsons, the two families’ lives intertwine. Quiet Pearl is soon enamored by teenagers Lexie, Trip and Moody, their seemingly carefree wealth, and admires their mother, organized reporter Elise. But the youngest Richardson, unruly Izzie, is drawn to Mia’s unconventionality and reticence about her past. Then the proposed adoption of a Chinese-American baby by friends of the Richardsons divides loyalties and reveals secrets. Sides are chosen, boundaries crossed. What does it mean to be a mother? Little Fires Everywhere takes place in the Clinton ’90s, but the issues it raises and the emotions it evokes are timely and timeless.

Just thinking about Robin Sloan’s Sourdough (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) makes me smile. Rich with whimsy, deliciously odd, it reminds me of nothing so much as Sloan’s first novel, the endearingly quirky Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Sloan fused books and technology and a touch of magic in that book. In this one, food combines with the tech world of robotics; as for the magic, that would be the sourdough starter that software engineer Lois Clary inherits from two immigrant chefs forced to leave San Francisco because of visa problems. Lois isn’t much of a baker, but even her first attempts with this starter taste wonderful. The cracks in the crust seem to smile, and Lois realizes the starter itself burbles melodically. It soon will change her routine life as her bread gains her entry first to the company cafeteria and then to an odd farmers’ market. Can she teach a robotic arm to bake? Or will the starter revolt?  Talk about wonder bread!

I generally veer away from “how-to” books, favoring fiction over DIY.  So it’s ok that Victoria Henry’s How to Find Love in a Bookshop (Viking Penguin, digital galley) doesn’t actually give directions to finding romance among the shelves. This sweetly predictable novel of books connecting hearts is just the ticket for escape. Nightingale Books enjoys a central location in a lovely English village, which makes it prey for real estate developers. Emilia Nightingale, who suddenly inherits the bookshop when her father dies, has to figure out a way to keep the little store going or watch it turn into a parking lot. Fortunately, the town’s book lovers band together to keep the shop open, and several of them discover love in the process, including Emilia — maybe. The object of her affection, an old family friend, is otherwise engaged, but a charming single father is definitely interested. Other would-be couples include the terminally shy caterer who has a crush on the cheesemaker, the famous visiting author who recognizes an old flame at his book signing, the stay-at-home mom with business skills who suspects her commuter husband of having an affair. Then there’s Sarah, the wealthy older women with a secret. Nightingale Books is well worth a visit.

Salman Rushdie’s satirical, Gatsby-like novel of New York City during the Obama Years, The Golden House (Random House, digital galley), is like an extravagantly rich cake. The main characters — wealthy patriarch Nero Golden, his three grown sons, the supermodel second wife, the observant narrator, the crass politician — are larger-than-life, and it’s as if Rushdie has written the whole with a Bedazzler. It was all too much, and I only read about half before setting it aside. I may get back to it one of these days, maybe not.

I was all too happy to finish to Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (Riverhead, digital galley), a beautifully written book about an ugly subject. Martin Alveston, a disturbed survivalist, physically and sexually abuses his 14-year-old daughter Turtle, who is desperate to please him. She intimidates her middle-school classmates and scorns those who might help her, then meets high school student Jacob. The promise of friendship leads her to question the value system instilled in her by Martin and will ultimately end with a violent reckoning.

Jennifer Egan’s  Manhattan Beach (Scribner, digital galley) is quite different from her award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad, being a more traditional historical novel.  It has the expanse and depth of an ocean as Egan details the story of Anna Kerrigan, who becomes a civilian diver at the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II, seeks answers to her bagman father’s disappearance, and becomes involved with gangster Dexter Styles. While still working as a machinist at the Navy Yard, Anna visits a nightclub with a girlfriend, who asks her if she’s an angel. “Anna was aware of the rattle of fall leaves over the pavement, the gardenia smell of Nell’s perfume. No one had ever asked her that question before. Everyone simply presumed that she was. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not an angel.’ “

Stranger things

The solar eclipse was cool, wasn’t it? Even if you saw only a partial, like what we experienced here in Central Florida, it was memorable. The light was strange, darker but still somehow bright, and the temperature dropped in the shadow of the moon. It was lovely and odd, an exclamation point in a long, hot summer.

I like books that arrive like an eclipse, turning things off-kilter, punctuating the ordinary scheme of things. Natasha Pulley’s new novel The Bedlam Stacks (Bloomsbury, digital galley) has the air of an 19th-century historical adventure, one where explorers search for lost cities and/or fabled treasure in the Amazonian wilds  In 1859, smuggler Merrick Tremayne travels from England to Peru for the East India Company, which is in need of quinine to combat malaria. Merrick finds the rare trees that are its source high in the Andes, but he also encounters dangers and secrets: an enigmatic priest, mysterious moving statues, clockwork lamps, illuminated pollen, a village carved out of volcanic glass and rock next to a border of salt and bone. It’s all quite wonderful and weird, the lines between reality and imagination cunningly and plausibly blurred. There’s also  a tenuous connection with Pulley’s whimsical first novel, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street, another tale of fate and friendship touched with subtle magic.

With Meddling Kids (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), Edward Cantero pays gleeful tribute to H.P. Lovecraft, Enid Blyton, Scooby-Doo, Escape to Witch Mountain and other 20th-century pop culture touchstones. It’s a lot of fun finding the Easter eggs in the careening narrative, but the madcap adventures of  the Blyton Summer Detective Club keep you plenty busy. In 1977, the four kids and their dog made headlines for unmasking the identity of the Sleepy Lake Monster. But 13 years later, tomboy fugitive Andy convinces biologist/bartender Kerri, her mentally unstable cousin Nate and her Weimaraner Tim (descendant of original dog Sean) to reconvene in the small Oregon mining town, scene of their past triumph. Teen movie star Peter is with them in spirit, having presumably committed suicide several years ago. Something strange is still  going on in Sleepy Lake, and legends linger of lost treasure at the old Deboen Mansion. It’s time to lay the ghosts or whatever to rest. The story moves along at quite a clip, including a terrifying chase through the old mine tunnels before a thrilling show-down with a powerful alchemist plotting the apocalypse. E-ticket ride, for sure. With tentacles.

If you’re a fan of Fargo, movie and TV series, then check out The Blinds (HarperCollins, purchased hardcover), Adam Sternbergh’s third novel. The title refers to Caesura, a small West Texas community whose residents are all either criminals or crime victims who’ve had their memories voluntarily zapped by an experimental institute. No one knows who’s who. Allowed to pick new names from lists of movie stars and vice presidents, the 50 or so citizens live without interacting with the outside world — no cell phones, mail or internet — although there is a TV in the makeshift laundromat. The institute delivers groceries and supplies to the general store, and life is humdrum and safe under the watchful eye of sheriff Cal Cooper. Until there is a suicide, and then a murder, and outside suits come to investigate. Meanwhile, Fran Adams, mother of the town’s only child, eight-year-old Isaac, is having disturbing memory flashbacks, and a new resident has a message for a notorious serial killer. Sternberg weaves issues of guilt, innocence and redemption into his involving story, but contrivances cut down on the suspense. The body count multiplies as secrets are revealed and identities recovered.  I liked The Blinds — except for the coydog massacre — but I think I like Kelley Armstrong’s City of the Lost series more, which has a similar premise minus the memory tampering.

I’m taking my time reading The Clockwork Dynasty (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), the new novel from Robopocalypse author Daniel H. Wilson. It’s a complicated but engaging tale of intricate and lifelike automatons living among us, their origins dating back to the courts of the tsar. Chapters alternate between June, fascinated since childhood by antique automatons, and Peter, a clockwork man with a curious history and a mission. Lucy Keating’s Literally (HarperCollins, digital galley) is nifty YA metafictional romance  as a  high school senior’s life is upended when she discovers she’s a character in her creative writing teacher’s new novel. Will Annabelle ever figure out how to wrest control of her life from clever Lucy Keating? I thought Rachel Caine was wrapping up the Great Library series with the third volume, Ash and Quill (Berkley/Penguin, digital galley), but it looks as if there will be at least a fourth book of the adventures of book smuggler Jess Brightwell and his cohorts trying to save the Great Library of Alexandria even as they rebel against it. Having escaped from Alexandria and London, they’re now imprisoned in a frontier Philadelphia, controlled by the Burners. Lots of action and atmosphere, as in Ink and Bone and Paper and Fire, and another cliffhanger ending.

The heat is on

I’m still recovering from Karin Slaughter’s gripping Pretty Girls in 2015, and now here’s The Good Daughter (William Morrow, digital galley) to give me nightmares. In the prologue, teenage sisters Samantha and Charlotte are kidnapped and terrorized at gunpoint in the north Georgia woods. They still carry the scars — physically and emotionally — 28 years later when they are uneasily reunited by a school shooting in their hometown. Their infamous defense attorney father Rusty is set to defend the vulnerable schoolgirl left holding the gun until he is stabbed in his driveway.  Charlie’s also a lawyer, but she actually witnessed the crime’s immediate aftermath, so it it falls to New York patent lawyer Sam to call on her courtroom skills. As tensions seethe, old secrets are revealed, new conflicts arise and the sisters clash. Tense and intense.

It’s hail and farewell to intrepid Eygyptologist and sleuth Amelia Peabody in The Painted Queen (William Morrow), which beloved series creator Barbara Mertz, writing as Elizabeth Peters, left unfinished at her death four years ago. Her good friend and fellow mystery writer Joan Hess was able able to step in and complete this last adventure that’s true to the spirit of Peabody and her brilliant archaeologist husband Radcliffe Emerson. In 1912 Cairo, the duo are readying for a return expedition to Amarna when a monocled would-be assassin surprises Peabody in her hotel bath. Someone really doesn’t want her investigating the disappearance of a German archaeologist, apparently tied to the forgery of a stolen bust of Queen Nefertiti. Fans will appreciate the ensuing romp replete with colorful characters and overall good humor. Newcomers should immediately seek out Crocodile on the Sandbank, first in the series. What a treat.

Margaret Maron, who wrapped up her award-winning Deborah Knott series with last year’s Long Upon the Land, returns with what she has said will be the last entry in her Sigrid Harald series, Take Out (Grand Central, digital galley). In mid-1990s New York City, police detective Harald is dealing with her grief over the recent death of her lover, famous artist Oscar Nauman, by helping organize a posthumous exhibit and settle his estate. On the work front, the murder of two homeless men, who shared poisoned takeout on a park bench, first leads Harald to the widow of a retired mobster and then to her neighbor, a former opera star. Even as she tries to figure out the tangled connections between the dead men, and who wanted who dead, she is surprised by the appearance of a man claiming to be Nauman’s son. It’s a thoroughly satisfying mystery on several levels, a fitting farewell to a storied career.

One of my favorite detectives, British copper Maeve Kerrigan, returns in Let the Dead Speak (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), the seventh in Jane Casey’s estimable series. This time, unreliable witnesses and a missing body complicate what appears to be the murder of a single mom. Returning early from a weekend visit with her father, teenager Chloe Emery finds blood everywhere in her Putney home but not her mom Kate. Kerrigan and DI Josh Derwent, known for not playing well with others, are stymied by Chloe, a pretty girl with mental deficits staying temporarily with neighbors. The Norrises aren’t very nice neighbors, though. Parents Oliver and Eleanor are ardent evangelicals who disapprove of Kate’s male visitors. Their son Morgan is a lout, and young daughter Bethany appears to know more than she’s telling. Suspicion also falls on a neighborhood kid with a rap sheet. And what really happened to poor Kate? The answers make surprising if awful sense.

Once a rising star, young police detective Rene Ballard was exiled to the Hollywood station’s night shift after losing a sexual harassment complaint against her boss. Not a good career move for Ballard, but a perfect one for crime novelist Michael Connelly, who launches a new series with The Late Show (Little Brown, digital galley). Ballard and her partner typically hand off night-time crimes to the day shift for further investigation, but a nightclub shooting upsets the routine. Ballard is with a badly beaten transgender prostitute at the hospital when she is detailed to the arrival of a waitress fatally wounded at the shooting. While other detectives are all over the four other victims, Ballard tries to find out more about the comatose prostitute and confronts a sadistic killer. Then the death of another cop draws her into the nightclub investigation. The relentless pace is relieved by glimpses into Ballard’s lonely life. A surfer since childhood, she lives mostly out of her van, spending days at the beach with her rescue dog, sleeping in a tent. You thought Harry Bosch had issues.