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I can’t remember the last time I thought of H.P. Lovecraft or read one of his weird horror tales. But then Samantha Bee recently invoked Cthulhu on her TV show, displaying his tentacled visage on the screen. And then I picked up Paul La Farge’s new novel The Night Ocean (Penguin Press, digital galley), in which the peculiar Lovecraft is a central character, along with his young acolyte Robert Barlow, who lived over near DeLand. Why did the middle-aged writer spend two months in Florida in 1934 with the teen science-fiction fan and then make him his literary executor on his death two years later? Scholars and Lovecraft devotees alike have speculated for years, and La Farge slyly mixes fact and fiction in his wildly entertaining tale of obsession and identity, our need to impose stories on our lives.

In his layered telling, a posthumously published Lovecraft diary depicts a romantic and physical friendship. A hoax is suspected, but freelance writer Charlie Willett believes that the Canadian man behind the diary is actually Barlow, who must have faked his death as a suicide in 1951 in Mexico City. Charlie’s outing of Lovecraft and Barlow eventually lands Charlie in a psychiatric hospital, from which he escapes and disappears, supposedly drowning in a lake. This is actually the story’s beginning, because Charlie’s psychiatrist wife Marcia, who narrates The Night Ocean, doesn’t think Charlie is dead and so begins retracing his links to Lovecraft and company, fitering truth from lie. This may sound complicated, and it is, but the nesting doll-like narrative reads like a head-spinning detective story.  Oh, the twists, the turns! Still, trying to figure out this puzzle box could lead to Cthulhu — oh, the horror, the horror! Enjoy.

Charlie Lovett, author of The Bookman’s Tale and First Impressions, writes diverting bibliomysteries that playfully blend historical fact with inspired fiction. In The Lost Book of the Grail (Viking, digital galley), a 40-year-old British academic who grew up on the tales of King Arthur has his life upended by a 26-year-old American digital librarian, a missing medieval manuscript and the possibility that the Holy Grail is hidden not in Glastonbury but in Barchester Cathedral. (Yes, Anthony Trollope’s fictional Barchester). Arthur Prescott, who quotes P.G. Wodehouse to himself, is slowly working on a visitor’s guide to Barchester and the treasures of its library, but is hampered by how little is known of its sixth-century founder, Saint Ewolde. Fortunately, Bethany Chase, who has arrived to digitize the library’s ancient manuscripts for a private foundation, turns out to be a fellow Grail enthusiast and first-rate researcher. Together, they may yet save the fortunes and future of the monastery. Onward!

Lovett intersperses their lively contemporary treasure hunt with passages about the monastery’s history and the monks charged with keeping its secrets over the ages as Christianity and then Catholicism pass in and out of favor. As Arthur and Bethany decipher clues and a tentative romance blooms, their discoveries intersect with the historical episodes. Thomas Malory and Tennyson are among those making credible cameos, and their works play into several “Aha!” moments. Nicely grounded in Lovett’s scholarship but not overburdened by it, the story feels authentic, if occasionally farfetched. Maybe it’s just a tall tale, but I’d still like to believe in The Lost Book of the Grail.

Other good novels I’ve read the last month include Kayla Rae Whitaker’s remarkable first novel The Animators (Random House, digital galley), which charts the highs and lows of the friendship between two women with opposite personalities and a shared creative passion; Elinor Lipman’s new comedy of manners On Turpentine Lane (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley), which juggles dysfunctional families, friends and lovers, and which made me chortle; and Nickolas Butler’s heartfelt The Hearts of Men (HarperCollins, digital galley), which introduces eventual hero Nelson Doughty as the 13-year-old bullied bugler at a Wisconsin Boy Scout camp and then follows him through four decades.

Lastly, there’s Dan Chaon’s  disturbing Ill Will (Ballantine, digital galley), in which horrific crimes — the possibly ritual slaughter of a family and a series of drownings of young men — are separated by years but linked in the life of a middle-aged therapist. His wife dies of cancer and his younger son slips into heroin addiction after the death of a high school buddy. At the same time, his older brother, wrongly imprisoned for the long-ago murder, is freed, and one of his patients, an ex-cop, becomes obsessed by a phantom serial killer. So many bad things happen in Chaon’s beautifully written story that I thought at one point, “No one is getting out of here alive.”  Here’s horror.

 

 

 

 

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lonesomeI’m rereading Larry McMurtry’s epic Western Lonesome Dove. I’ve been wanting to for some time, and then I decided to review Paulette Jiles’ News of the World for my book club Friday, so I reread that. And then I reread an old novel about Texas homesteaders, The Edge of Time by Loula Grace Erdman, that I’ve loved since high school.

I had to hunt for it among my books, which took awhile, but fortunately, the old blue library binding stood out on a top shelf. So then I had to move a stack of books on the floor, so I could get to the stool, also piled with books. It’s time for a big clearing out. Past time. So I have that on my list, along with Lonesome Dove.

greebgirlI may be gone awhile. Also my laptop is on the fritz, my printer won’t work, and I need to do my taxes. I’m writing this on my tablet, which is kind of a pain and taking forever. But before I say adios for awhile, my new book recommendation is The Girl in Green by Derek Miller (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley). Don’t be misled by the title. It’s not a gone-girl-on-train kind of thing. It’s sort of a war novel set in Iraq during Desert Storm, then jumps ahead to “peacetime” Iraq, circa 2013. Isis is just getting going, and there are refugees everywhere. Even though horrible things happen in the story, it is often funny and ironic. As one character says, “We are just trying to do the best for each other when the world is doing its worst.”

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wrongtodaysIt’s about time. Really. In addition to having a wonderfully apt title, Elan Mastai’s first novel All Our Wrong Todays (Dutton Penguin, digital galley) is a wonderfully entertaining and timely tale of alternate realities.

Narrator Tom Barron lives in a 2016 Toronto that resembles the techno-utopia imagined by cheesy SF novels and shows of the 1950s, all flying cars and helpful robots and synthetic food. As every schoolchild knows, this was all made possible by the 1965 invention of the Goettreider Engine, which generates clean energy. Tom’s father, an overbearing research scientist, has finally built the world’s first time machine and plans to send ace chrononaut (time traveler) Penelope Weschler back to 1965 to observe the debut of the Goettreider. But then Tom falls in love with perfection-obsessed Penelope, which leads to disastrous consequences that are further compounded when he travels back to 1965. As every time traveler knows, you don’t mess with things in the past or you risk messing up the timeline and life as we know it  Oh dear. Tom’s arrival in 1965 means the Goettreider Engine fails in spectacular fashion, and when Tom is catapulted back to 2016, he finds himself in our 2016, all fossil-fueled and climate-change challenged.

It’s a clever conceit, that we are living in the dystopia, but Mastai has more tricks to play. Parts of Tom’s life are better in this second 2016. His dad is a happy science teacher, and his literature-loving mom is still alive. He has a sister and a career as successful architect. Still, when Tom starts trying to tell everyone about his time travels, they think he has suffered a head injury and is just talking about the novel he was going to write. Even his new love, bookstore owner Penny, doubts him. To prove he’s not crazy, Tom goes in search of the real-life creator of the Goettreider Engine, journeying to San Francisco and Hong Kong, and eventually back to 1965 again. Oh dear. Messing with that timeline.

All Our Wrong Todays reminded me of Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, with its witty tone and provocative ideas. It also wears its knowledge lightly — like The Big Bang Theory — so that even those who’ve forgotten high school physics or aren’t into science fiction can enjoy the ride. Sure, it’s kind of out there, but so much is these days. I was pleased to know that even in alternate realities, people still read Dickens’ Great Expectations. So read All Our Wrong Todays. It’s a good time.

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magicland“Sometimes you read fiction just because you want to be someplace else.”

That was President Barack Obama talking recently to The New York Times about what books mean to him. He reads widely, both fiction and nonfiction, for all the usual reasons: information, enlightenment, connection, comfort. “And then there has been the occasion where I just want to get out of my own head.” Hence, fiction.

I am so there these days about being someplace else. And I don’t just want fictional, I want fantastical. Narnia. Middle Earth. Camelot. Fillory. The latter is found in Lev Grossman’s The Magicians trilogy and is sort of a mash-up of those famous magical kingdoms and other classic fairy-tale realms. The second season of the TV adaptation of the books begins airing tonight on the SyFy Channel, so I recently reread the third book, The Magician’s Land, to get ready. I’m not sure it will make any difference. The TV series is itself a stylish if choppy mash-up of Grossman’s books, changing some characters and events. The first season was disconcerting at times, but I still liked it. Fillory forever!

bearIf you’re looking for deep-winter magic, Katherine Arden’s richly imagined first novel The Bear and the Nightingale (Random House, digital galley) is all once-upon-a-time in medieval Russia, where a spirited heroine embraces the old myths. Vasya Petrovna, whose mother died at her birth, defies custom, her stepmother and a young priest so as to save her village, which has turned its back on the traditional spirits of the house and woodlands. Arden casts a spell with her lyrical writing, evoking Russian fairy tales and folklore, putting her own spin on the chilling story of the blue-eyed demon Frost.

wintersongS. Jae Jones sets her first YA novel, Wintersong (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in 19th-century Bavaria, drawing on German legend, Greek myth and Christina Rossetti’s famous poem “Goblin Market.”  It’s narrated by 19-year-old Elisabeth, the innkeeper’s eldest daughter, who has always looked after her younger siblings, including a musically talented brother and a beautiful, foolish sister. When the mysterious Goblin King chooses the sister for his bride, Elisabeth, who is strongly attracted to the eldritch stranger and who composes music, sets out to rescue her. Read the book as a fairy tale or as romantic fantasy, but by all means go back and reread Rossetti’s poem, still as irresistible as the luscious apples and quinces hawked by the goblin men.

hangingPerhaps urban fantasy is more to your liking, in which case you probably know Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series. Like its predecessors, The Hanging Tree (DAW, digital galley) is another wild and witty paranormal police procedural. Police officer and junior wizard Peter Grant and his mentor Nightingale investigate the overdose of a teenage girl, who may have been practicing illegal magic. The case swiftly involves them in the lives of the river goddess Lady Tyburn and her extended family, as the villainous Faceless Man has returned. This is the sixth book in the series, and it’s rife with references to current pop culture and past books. Aaronovitch, a screenwriter for Doctor Who, neatly straddles the real and unreal worlds. More, please.

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sleepwalkerWho knew sleep sex was a thing? Actually, it’s part of the sleep disorder that afflicts wife and mother Annalee Ahlberg in Chris Bohjalian’s The Sleepwalker (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), which will keep you up all night flipping pages. When Annalee vanishes into the Vermont night while husband Warren is away on a business trip, her elder daughter Lianna fears Annalee’s parasomnia has again led her to the nearby river. But it’s not just the river hiding the secrets to Annalee’s disappearance, as Lianna discovers when she begins questioning her father, her teenage sister Paige, her mom’s closest friends, her therapist, and one detective who knows all too much about Annalee’s history. Bohjalians’ plotting is so clever that I didn’t see the ending coming.

hockadayInspired by true events, Susan Rivers’ first novel, The Second Mrs. Hockaday (Algonquin, digital galley), is a fascinating collage of Civil War history and mystery told through letters and diary entries. Placidia — Dia — is 17 when she marries Confederate major Gryffth Hockaday after a brief acquaintance. Two days later, he is recalled to battle and Dia is left to run his South Carolina farm and care for his young son from his first marriage. Two years later, Gryffth returns to the scandalous news that his wife has given birth and the child has died. Accused of adultery and murder, Dia refuses to explain her actions, which are gradually revealed, along with long-held family secrets. Rivers doesn’t skirt the everyday brutality against women and slaves, nor does she sensationalize it. Dia, Gryffth, the slave Achilles, little Charles — all come across as complex, credible characters.

thedryThe small Australian town of Kiewarra bakes in the sun, parched by a long drought, its family farms teetering on bankruptcy. It’s enough to drive a man crazy, which is why the townspeople think the shocking shotgun deaths of Luke Hadler, his school aide wife Karen and their 10-year-old son Billy are a murder-suicide. But in Jane Harper’s evocative novel of crimes past and present, The Dry (Flatiron Books, digital galley), Luke’s father asks federal agent Aaron Falk to investigate when he returns to his hometown for the funeral of his best childhood mate. Aaron’s reluctant, but he owes Luke and his family. Back in high school, they alibied one another in the suspicious drowning death of classmate Ellie Deacon. Harper uses flashbacks to illuminate the town’s secrets, and her shifting narrative takes on an urgency as hostilities reach fever pitch. Most of the revelations don’t come as a surprise, but the detailed atmosphere keeps things interesting.

strangetideIn addition to reading the three stand-alones above, I checked out new entries in several series over the holidays. Boston investigator and junk food lover Fina Ludlow returns for the fourth time in Duplicity (Putnam Penguin, digital galley), looking into an evangelical church’s cult-like hold on its members and again contending with her black sheep older brother. You’ll appreciate the story more if you’ve read the previous books, especially 2015’s Brutality. Val McDermid’s stellar Out of Bounds (Grove Atlantic, digital galley) marks the third book featuring Scottish cold case detective Karen Pirie, and pivots on the surprising results of a DNA test on an accident victim. And speaking of Scotland, Ian Rankin’s Rather Be the Devil (Little, Brown, digital galley) finds veteran Edinburgh copper John Rebus drawn out of semi-retirement to work a 1978 cold case that also involves his nemesis/frenemy, Big Ger Cafferty. The 21st book in the award-winning series will be published the end of the month. And it’s lucky 13 for the Peculiar Crimes Unit in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May: Strange Tide (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley), even if it looks as if ancient Arthur Fowler is losing his mind trying to solve the mysterious drowning of a young woman in the Thames. A fiendishly fun puzzle.

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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