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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Ballard and Bosch. Sounds like an accounting firm, or maybe a couple of interior designers. Actually, Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch are two of Michael Connelly’s most appealing and complex series detectives. Introduced in last year’s The Late Show, Ballard works the night shift at Hollywood Station, camping on the beach with her dog during the day. Bosch, the veteran cop of 20-plus books, now works cold cases for the San Fernando P.D., and in the deft procedural Dark Sacred Night (Little Brown, library hardcover), he teams with Ballard to investigate the disappearance of teen Daisy Clayton. The narrative focus alternates between the two rule-benders, both of whom are sidetracked by their own cases. A heist from a dead woman’s house, a porno movie studio operating out of the back of a van, and a run-in with a vicious gang leader tied to Mexican drug dealers end up linking to the cold case and a serial killer. Ballard and Bosch — BOLO for their next adventure.

An English country house during a sultry summer, unreliable narrators harking back to past events, a pair of mysterious lovers, an outsider yearning to belong. Claire Fuller’s involving Bitter Orange (Tin House Books, digital galley) reminds me of one of Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine’s serpentine  suspense novels. In 1969, Frances Jellicoe, an unsophisticated 39, spies on the private lives of couple Peter and Cara when they end up sharing quarters in a derelict mansion owned by an American millionaire. Things are not what they seem, to say the least, and there’s a creeping dread as Frances recalls that summer from a hospital bed years later. There will be blood. And a body.

Speaking of English country houses, Liane Moriarty cheerfully channels Agatha Christie in Nine Perfect Strangers (Flatiron Books, purchased hardcover), although she subs a posh Australian health resort for the requisite house. Romance writer Frances Welty, whose career and love life are trending downward, is among the nine people hoping to transform their lives in 10 days. Others taking part in the regimen of diets, meditation, facials, etc. include an aging jock, a divorced mom, a grieving midwife and her schoolteacher husband. All have their secrets and all have their say, as does the mysterious Masha, the Russian executive running  things. For a long time, not much happens except a lot of mindful living, but then the plot takes a turn. In fact, it goes completely off the rails, but I kept on flipping pages so fast I got a paper cut, although not as bad as the one Frances suffers from early on.

V.I. Warshawski is all in for friends and family in Sara Paretsky’s Shell Game (HarperCollins, digital galley). First, the Chicago detective’s friend Lottie asks for help with her great-nephew Felix, a Canadian-born engineering student who is mixed up in the murder of a man of Middle Eastern descent. Then, Harmony Seale, the niece of Warshawski’s ex-husband, attorney Richard Yarborough, shows up from Portland looking for her missing sister Reno. Richard had helped Reno find a job with a sleazy pay-day lender, but claims to know nothing about her present whereabouts. The intrepid sleuth doesn’t take kindly to slammed doors and unsubtle hints to mind her own business, which is why she’s soon sorting out corporate intrigue, insurance scams, Russian mobsters, ISIS supporters and the blackmarket trade in priceless antiquities and artwork. The case is complicated and timely; both the pace and detective are relentless.

First, a young curator at a Colorado history museum vanishes on an overnight camping trip. Next, a valuable historical diary disappears from the same museum before a fund-raising gala. Then there’s a murder at the museum after hours. Detective Gemma Malone stays more than busy in Emily Littlejohn’s satisfying third mystery, Lost Lake (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley). A new mother, Malone continues to be an appealing character as she untangles a family’s secret history and the rumored curse of the icy, isolated lake.

 

If you’re looking for a taut legal thriller, you won’t find it in John Grisham’s The Reckoning (Doubleday, digital galley). There is some courtroom drama, but this is one of Grisham’s slice-of-life Southern sagas set in Clanton, Miss., place-centered and character-driven. In 1946, war hero and family man Pete Banning walks into a church and shoots the pastor dead. “I have nothing to say,” Banning tells the sheriff, and he stubbornly refuses any explanation to family, friends, judge and jury. It takes years — and flashbacks to World War II and the town’s history — before Grisham allows a reckoning with the truth.

 

Lou Berney’s noir-tinged November Road (HarperCollins, digital galley) is a crime novel, a road novel and a love story, all taking off from the November 1963 Kennedy assassination. Frank Guidry is a New Orleans mob fixer on the run from a hired killer when he stops to help Oklahoma housewife Charlotte Roy and her two kids heading for a new life in California. Stopping is Frank’s first mistake, falling for Charlotte is his second. Don’t  make a mistake and miss this one.

 

 

 

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Sarah Perry follows up her fabulous 2016 novel The Essex Serpent with a lush literary Gothic, Melmoth (Custom House/HarperCollins, digital galley), which thrills in a more haunting and somber manner. In 2016, middle-aged British translator Helen Franklin leads an austere life in Prague, apparently to atone for an undisclosed incident in her past. But then her friend Karel disappears after having given her a strange, confessional manuscript whose stories are tied together by the spectral figure of Melmoth. The latter is a creature out of folklore and myth, doomed to wander the world in solitude as she witnesses acts of betrayal throughout history. She appears to those lonely souls consumed by guilt and complicity who have given into despair, and then bids them follow her. She is so lonely. Why, then, is she watching Helen? Or is it just Helen’s fevered imagination, inspired by the manuscripts’s chilling stories, perhaps her own suppressed guilt? Helen’s tale is full of portents like chattering jackdaws, but it’s what she — and the reader — witness in the manuscript that imprints on the memory: crimes of war, suffering and exile. “Look!” is Perry’s imperative throughout. Witness the heartache but also the hope of forgiveness. Given Perry’s way with words, it’s hard to look away.

 

Dale Bailey’s In the Night Wood (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) is a clever and chilling novel of marriage, grief, obsession and Something Mysterious. American college professor Charles Hayden and his wife Erin take up residence at the secluded English estate that was once home of the Victorian writer Caedmon Hollow, author of a strange, fanciful book, “In the Night Wood.” The recent death of their young daughter Lissa haunts both Charles and Erin. She has given up her law career and numbs her grief with pills and drink, while Charles tries to escape his by researching Hollow’s tragic life. At different times, both glimpse a sinister horned man in the encroaching woods who figured in Hollow’s book. Further research and a series of coincidences has Charles believing that there is fact in the fiction of the pagan god Herne the Hunter. A little girl from the village has disappeared in the wood; her body has not been found. Bailey is adept at building a menacing atmosphere, although numerous literary allusions tend to overload his prose and sap the magic.

Witches, vampires and demons intermingle with mere mortals in Deborah Harkness’ popular All Souls Trilogy, which began with A Discovery of Witches (now a British TV series). With Time’s Convert (Viking Penguin, digital galley), Harkness returns to that world, bringing back many familiar characters, including witch Diana Bishop and vampire Matthew de Clermont, now married and parents of young twins. But the main characters are Matthew’s son Marcus Whitmore, who became a vampire while a field doctor in the American Revolution, and 23-year-old human Phoebe Taylor, who is about to become a vampire in Paris and marry Marcus. Harkness moves back and forth between centuries and exotic locales to chronicle the mental and physical struggles the pair undergo separately to satisfy the demands of tradition. Readers familiar with Harkness’s previous works will appreciate the further adventures of her characters and the elaboration on customs. The twins Becca and Philip are already showing signs of having inherited their parents’ magical talents. Philip, in fact, has a new play pal — a griffin called Apollo.

With Dracul (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), Dacre Stoker, a descendant of Dracula creator Bram Stoker, teams with writer J.D. Barker to come up with a prequel to the classic vampire novel, and Bram himself is a main character. Readers are introduced to him as a terrified 21-year-old in 1868, waiting alone in a tower at night. As Something lurks outside the locked door, Bram writes of his family’s history in Ireland, primarily his own sickly childhood. He was miraculously saved from death by his nursemaid Ellen Crone, who then disappeared. Some years later, Bram’s sister Matilda reports from Paris that she has seen Ellen, and so begins a quest leading to the revelation that Ellen is a Dearg-Due, a bloodsucking creature of Irish folklore but subject to a more powerful master. (I’m not giving the story away — readers will be aware that Ellen is some sort of vampire from the get-go). Dracul is too over-the-top to provide the genuine chills of the original Dracula, but it’s an entertaining tale nonetheless.

 

An English country house. A missing diamond. A sepia photograph. A star-crossed romance. A children’s story. A plucky orphan. A disappearance. A drowning. A ghost. . . The ghost plays a major role in Kate Morton’s new saga, The Clockmaker’s Daughter (Atria Books, review copy), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The review hasn’t been published yet, but as soon as it does, I’ll post it on Facebook and Goodreads and provide a link here. Happy Halloween!

 

 

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I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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At 656 pages, the hardcover version of Lethal White could well be a lethal weapon. Happily, I bought the e-book of the fourth Cormoran Strike tale by Robert Galbraith aka J.K. Rowling, so it only robbed me of a weekend’s worth of reading. And I found it time well spent, similar to binge-watching the Cinemax mini-series of the first three books. Strike is still large, grouchy and damaged, but he has rehired his assistant, Robin Ellacott, and elevated her to partner in the London detective agency. The two pursue a complicated case of blackmail, murder and past secrets involving the dysfunctional family of government minister Jasper Chiswell (pronounced “Chizzle”), the pervy husband of another minister, and socialist rabble-rouser Jimmy Knight and his mentally ill brother Billy. The cast is Dickensian, the plot smartly tangled and digressive, the writing detailed and atmospheric. Throughout, Robin contends with panic attacks left over from her serial killer encounter, as well as her selfish jerk of a husband. Meanwhile Strike deals with girlfriends past and present, all the while mulling over his attraction to Robin. Just when you think they’re about to get sorted, something or someone intervenes, and there goes another hundred pages. Still, I hope it’s not another three years before the next book. Cormoran Strike is as addictive as Harry Potter.

There’s good news and sad news about Wild Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Ann Cleeves’ eighth entry in her stellar Shetland Island series. The sad news is that Cleeves says this is the last Shetland book, the good news being that police detective Jimmy Perez finishes strong. When the body of a nanny is found hanging in the Fleming family’s barn, suspicion falls on the Flemings, outsiders with an autistic son. But then designer Helena Fleming reveals that she has found disturbing sketches of a gallows, and the dead girl turns out to have a complicated past and local romantic entanglements. Speaking of which, Perez’s boss and occasional lover, Willow Reeves, arrives from Inverness to head the investigation. When another murder occurs, Cleeves crafts the village equivalent of an atmospheric locked-room mystery — the closed-community puzzle. The few suspects all have means and motives, and your guess is as good as mine. Oh, I’m going to miss Shetland.

 

A Forgotten Place (HarperCollins, digital galley) is a truly memorable installment of Charles Todd’s series about spirited British nursing sister Bess Crawford. World War I may be over, but many soldiers are still reliving the horrors of the trenches, including the Welsh vets Bess first meets at a hospital in France. Once hardworking miners, the amputees face such a bleak peacetime future that they prefer death. Hoping to help avert more suicides, Bess uses leave to check up on Capt. Hugh Williams, who is staying with his widowed sister-in-law in a back-of-beyond village in South Wales. She ends up stranded among hostile villagers when her driver takes off in his car in the middle of the night. The Gothic atmosphere is thick with suspicion and rumors, and Bess observes several mysterious events, including the secret burial of an unidentified body washed up on the beach. There’s a dark secret at the village’s heart, one that goes back decades, a secret some are willing to kill to keep.

 

Other recent crime novels worthy of recommendation vary widely in subject and style. In Karin Slaughter’s riveting stand-alone, Pieces of Her (HarperCollins, digital galley), Andrea Cooper discovers her mother Laura has been hiding her real identity for 30 years. Her desperate road trip to find the truth of her heritage alternates with flashbacks to Laura’s harrowing past that endangers them both. In Caz Frear’s assured first novel Sweet Little Lies (HarperCollins, digital galley), the spotlight’s on a father-daughter relationship. London DC Cat Kinsella is investigating the murder of a unidentified woman when DNA provides the link to the 1998 disappearance of an Irish teen. Cat has always known her charming, philandering father lied about his connection to the teen back then, but she now fears he may be lying about murder. She sifts through both family history and present-day evidence for the answers. Stephen Giles goes Gothic with his twisty psychological chiller The Boy at the Keyhole (Hanover Square Press, digital galley) set in 1961 Britain. In an old country house, 9-year-old Samuel worries that his widowed mother, who left on a business trip while he was asleep, has been gone too long and isn’t coming home. Despite assurances from housekeeper Ruth, imaginative Samuel begins to suspect that Ruth has murdered his mother and hidden her body. Creepy.  Agatha Christie fans should be pleased by Sophie Hannah’s third Hercule Poirot novel, The Mystery of Three Quarters (HarperCollins, digital galley). The clever puzzle begins with someone pretending to be Hercule Poirot sending letters to four people accusing them of murder. But elderly Barnabas Pandy accidentally drowned in his bathtub, didn’t he? Or was it murder? Poirot’s little gray cells get quite the workout, as does his appetite for cake. On the even lighter side, actor Charles Paris plays sleuth again in The Deadly Habit (Severn House, digital galley). Alcoholic and middle-aged, Paris is surprised to get a part in a new West End production starring Justin Grover, an actor with whom he worked long ago but who has since become rich and famous. Although he’s trying not to drink so as to get back with his estranged wife Frances, Charles falls off the wagon at an inopportune moment, stumbling over a dead body backstage, then making a quick exit. Now he’s got to find a murderer before he becomes prime suspect or the next corpse.

 

 

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If you’re looking for escape from the world’s woes, look no further. Imogen Hermes Gower’s first novel, The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock (HarperCollins, digital galley), is a ribald romp through Georgian London, featuring the unlikely pairing of a middle-aged merchant and a golden-haired prostitute. They are brought together by a mermaid, actually two of them, and thereby hangs a witty, fulsome tale. Although it’s a long book at almost 500 pages, it reads fast. And it’s so good, I wished for more.

Jonah Hancock is a sedate widower who lives in the same Deptford house in which he was born, his simple wants looked after by a young maid named Brigid and his niece Suki, a bright 14-year-old. It’s 1785, and he’s waiting for one of his ships, Calliope, to come in after a long voyage to the South Seas.  Imagine his surprise when the ship’s captain shows up to say he’s sold the ship to buy a genuine mermaid — a small, wizened creature with a fearsome baby face, long fangs and a fish’s tail. Dead, yes, but it’s still a mermaid, and people will pay good money to see something so remarkable, although Hancock is initially dubious.

Meanwhile, in London’s SoHo, Mrs. Angelica Neal is contemplating her pretty face and an uncertain future. The duke who kept her the last three years has died and left her nothing in his will. Should Angelica return to Mrs. Bet Chappell’s famous bawdy house, where she grew up and learned her trade, or strike out on her own in hopes of attracting a new protector?

The wily Mrs. Chappell wants Angelica back; none of her current girls have the charms of a true courtesan. When Mr. Hancock’s mermaid becomes a popular sensation, Mrs. Chapell strikes a bargain with him. He will loan her his mermaid for a week, and she will make sure that he meets the lovely Mrs. Neal. But all comes to naught at a mermaid-themed party, where Mr. Hancock is appalled by the behavior of the gentleman in attendance, and self-involved Angelica spurns him, choosing to cast her fate with a handsome rake.

Enter a second mermaid. Not right away. Readers first encounter her through short lyrical passages, seductive siren songs of the sea. That she is very much alive only becomes apparent when Angelica jests to the now well-off Mr. Hancock that he needs to find her a second mermaid if he hopes to win her favor, and he immediately commissions an expedition to the North Sea. Magical realism meets historical realism with nary a seam showing. That a mermaid might swim in a shell-lined grotto behind a house in Greenwich seems just as possible as a prostitute marrying a merchant. Why Bel Fortescue, Angelica’s best friend, allows herself to be captured by an earl.

Gowar’s lively narrative is spiced with period cant and sparkling descriptions of life high and low in London, where birth is often destiny. She’s very good with domestic details — the houses, the fashions, the food — and populates the story with winning secondary characters: Suki, who reads Pope aloud to her uncle when she’d prefer a romantic novel; her mother Hester, for whom respectability is all; and Mrs. Chappell’s mulatto girl Polly, who discovers her own self-worth.

At one point, Angelica and Bel visit a confectionary, “a veritable temple of sugar,” with shelves of bottled liqueurs, salvers of jellies and cakes, caramels and custard tarts. “Angelica’s favourites are the millefruits, crisp clouds fragrant with orange water, their surfaces rugged with cochineal and gold leaf, almonds and angelico.”

Angelica thinks they are like jewels, “Delicious. . .I shall take some home with me.”

I suggest you do the same with The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock.

 

 

 

 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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