Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

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.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

 

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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.

 

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »