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Archive for the ‘Writing and Reading’ Category

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

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

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

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

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

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“On a Tuesday in May, in her thirty-fifth year, Rachel shot her husband dead.”

That’s the humdinger first line of the prologue to Since We Fell (Ecco, digital galley), Dennis Lehane’s new thrill ride of a novel that is as slick and unexpected as black ice. It reads almost like two books, with the first charting Rachel Childs growing up with a bitter single mother who refuses to divulge her father’s identity. After her mother dies when she’s in college, Rachel continues to look for her father, even as she becomes a successful TV news reporter in Boston and marries her producer. Then comes an on-air meltdown while on assignment in Haiti, and Rachel loses her career and her marriage. Debilitating anxiety attacks turn her into a shut-in until a chance encounter with a one-time private investigator she had briefly hired. Brian Delacroix is now a successful businessman who understands Rachel like no one else. She falls hard for him, and he for her. They marry and everything is going well, with Rachel gradually making solo trips into the city. It’s on one such foray that she spots Brian across the street in the rain. But Brian is on a flight to London. Isn’t he?

Uh-oh. This is a Dennis Lehane novel, after all. Remember Mystic River? Shutter Island? Gone, Baby, Gone? The reversals of fortune can make your head spin and your heart ache, and Since We Fell is no exception. Reflective Rachel must give way to action-figure Rachel as she finds herself caught in a conspiracy where nothing is what it seems. Nothing and no one. Trust me.

Megan Miranda’s The Perfect Stranger (Simon & Schuster, digital galley) is another of those twisty thrillers pivoting on questions of identity and appearances. Reporter Leah Stevens has to resign her newspaper job after her sources are questioned in a story about college suicides. She fortuitously runs into her former roommate, Emmy Grey, who suggests Leah accompany her to rural Pennsylvania for a fresh start as a high school teacher. Then a woman who resembles Leah is found bludgeoned at a nearby lake, and Emmy goes missing. Questioned by a police detective, Leah admits to being stalked by a fellow teacher and is drawn into the investigation, especially when she realizes how little she really knows of Emmy and how much of it is lies. Miranda, author of the very good All the Pretty Girls, gets a bit bogged down in Leah’s back story and a few too many coincidences, but this is smartly written psychological suspense.

So many more mysteries and thrillers out there. Don’t miss Fallout (HarperCollins, digital galley), in which Sara Paretsky sends the intrepid V.I. Warshawski and her golden retriever to Kansas on the trail of a young fillmmaker and an aging black actress. In Lawrence (where Paretsky grew up), V.I. finds evidence of long-ago crimes seeping into the present, both in the university town and a in nearby decommissioned missile silo. Agatha Christie fans will appreciate the locked-room aspects of G.M. Maillet’s Devil’s Breath (St. Martin’s Press), even though the room in this case is a luxury yacht. British spy-turned-Anglican priest Max Tudor comes on board after the body of a glamorous actress washes ashore. Everyone, it seems, had a motive for murder. Plum Sykes launches a comic murder series set in 1980s Oxford with Party Girls Die in Pearls (HarperCollins, digital galley), featuring freshman sleuth Ursula Flowerbottom and her new BFF, American Nancy Feingold. Ursula’s discovery of the body of a fashionable classmate sends the duo on a round of parties where they can look their best while looking for a killer. Supremely silly fun and clothes to die for. In the surprising Long Black Veil (Crown, digital galley), Jennifer Finney Boylan offers a secretive leading character on a collision course with the past after the bones of a former classmate are discovered on the eerie grounds of an abandoned prison. And old bones also turn up in Sycamore (HarperCollins, digital galley), Bryn Chancellor’s interesting but overworked first novel. When word gets out about the skeletal remains found in a wash outside a small Arizona town, residents immediately think of 17-year-old Jess Winters, who disappeared 18 years ago. Chancellor moves back and forth in time and among various voices to explore the mystery of Jess herself and how her disappearance affected the town. Chancellor nails her teenagers but is less successful with the older characters, turning them elderly before their time.

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The crime’s the thing — and so’s the cover-up — in M.L. Rio’s audaciously entertaining If We Were Villains (Flatiron Books, digital galley). Imagine Donna Tartt’s The Secret History set at an elite arts conservatory in Illinois, where the acting students are obsessed with all things Shakespeare. By the fall of 1997, the seven fourth-year students — all bright, young things — know each other so well they can predict who will play what roles in an upcoming production of Julius Caesar. What they cannot predict is that their onstage parts soon will spill over into real life: lovers will fight one another, friends will betray friends, someone will end up dead.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First-time author and former actor Rio structures her literary thriller like a five-act Shakespearean drama, beginning with a prologue as former student Oliver Marks is released from prison after serving 10 years for murder. Waiting for him is the retired detective who initially worked the case and who wants to hear what really happened after the cast party a decade ago. Oliver then unfolds in flashback a story of love and friendship, obsession and deceit, with passions and secrets worthy of a Shakespearean tragedy.

For theater nerds and Shakespeare fans, the book is enthralling. An account of the three witches scene from Macbeth staged lakeside on Halloween night offers midnight magic. A production of King Lear features a set of mirrors reflecting the constellations of the night sky. Still, Rio is so well-versed in the plays that the students often speak to each other in pertinent quotes, and there’s no stopping for footnotes. Here’s Henry V, Pericles, A Winter’s Tale, Troilus and Cressida. One moment leading man Richard is spouting  “How many fond fools serve mad jealousy” from A Comedy of Errors, and in the next, seductive Meredith is running to the lake proclaiming “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank” from The Merchant of Venice.

It’s a credit to Rio’s writing style that these bits of poetry and prose enhance the narrative for the most part, that it seems normal for Oliver to think of Hamlet upon the discovery of a classmate’s body. These kids live and breathe Shakespeare, and all the world’s their stage. “One sin, I know, another doth provoke; Murder’s as near to lust as flame to smoke.”

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From the deck of his big new house on Brushy Mountain Road, JJ Ferguson can look down at the rooftops of the North Carolina community where he grew up as a foster child. The view is even better at night when lights twinkle in the darkness that hides Pinewood’s shabbiness and depressed economy.

If this scene from Stephanie Powell Watts’ involving first novel, No One Is Coming to Save Us (Ecco, digital galley), recalls F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, it’s no surprise. The publisher is billing the book as a contemporary re-imagining of the classic with African-American characters and a Southern setting, but that’s not the whole story. While Gatsby may echo through its pages, No One Is Coming to Save Us — a great title — stands on its own as it explores the nature of family and home, the currents of change, the persistence of dreams.

Watt moves fluidly among the perspectives of her memorable characters. JJ — “Call me Jay” — returns to Pinewood after a 15-year-absence, hoping to rekindle a romance with childhood friend Ava, desperate to be a mother after several miscarriages. She’s married to handsome underachiever Henry, who is keeping a big secret from her. Ava’s mother Sylvia, close to retirement, has her own disappointments and sorrows, including a lost son and her estranged husband Don. The latter, the baby of his family and “always a good time,” now lives with a woman young enough to be his granddaughter but keeps showing up at Sylvia’s. And no wonder. Sylvia is a woman of substance — literally — who nurtures people and her garden. She finds solace in accepting the calls of a young man in prison she’s never met. She realizes that JJ is looking for family and “to be the hero of his own story.” So do they all, that recognition of worth dignifying their busted lives. They beat on. “Haven’t we always done this trick? If you can’t get what you want, want something else.”

Soon after Landon Cooper moves into the downstairs of an old rental house in south Birmingham, she meets Abi, her lively upstairs neighbor, who tells her she’s going to love living on this street.  “Really, we’re like a family. I didn’t mean to pry when I asked you what your story was. It’s just that most of Mr. Kasir’s tenants have a story.”

What those stories are and how they intertwine is the premise of Vicki Covington’s perceptive novel Once in a Blue Moon (John F. Blair, digital galley).  As Barack Obama campaigns for president in 2007 and 2008, Covington’s diverse characters are marked by hope and cope with change. Just moving is a jolt for Landon, a recently divorced psychologist who has her own mental health issues. She meets many of her new neighbors when a drunken stranger passes out in her living room and they rally to her screams. Abi’s the country girl trying to escape her rural roots by taking college courses. Roy’s the athlete with big dreams who deals weed on the side. Jet’s a former prostitute who recently discovered the surprising identity of her birth mother. Their landlord, Abraham Kasir, lives “over the mountain” but keeps a fatherly eye on his tenants as he trains his young grandson Jason to take over the property business.

It’s pure pleasure to read a new novel from Covington, an assured chronicler of the contemporary South at turning points. Night Ride Home, for example, takes place just as World War II begins, while The Last Hotel for Women calls up 1961 Birmingham and the era of Bull Connor. Now with Once in a Blue Moon, Covington gently reminds us of when hope and change brought people together.

Other good Southern books to put on your reading list include Bren McLain’s One Good Mama Bone: A Novel (University of South Carolina Press, review copy), about a hardscrabble 1950s South Carolina widow, the boy she is raising who is not her own, and a mama cow with a strong personality; Taylor Brown’s The River of Kings (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which combines family history and adventure as two brothers journey down Georgia’s Altamaha River to scatter their father’s ashes; and Phillip Lewis’ The Barrowfields (Crown, digital galley), a coming-of-age saga of father and son in a small Appalachian town. All three were recent Okra Picks chosen by Southern indie booksellers.

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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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