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Come spy with me

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.

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Gone reading

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.

 

First wave

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.

“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.

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.”

South toward home

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.

Page-turners

I really should stop reading creepy crime novels at bedtime if I ever want to get some sleep. Consider police detective Casey Duncan at the beginning of Kelley Armstrong’s decidedly chilly A Darkness Absolute (St. Martin’s, digital galley). Chasing a fugitive from the off-the-grid community of Rockton in the Canadian wilderness, Casey and a deputy are stranded in a cave by a fierce blizzard. Strange noises lead them to a dark pit, where a missing Rockton woman has been held captive for more than a year.  Nicki can tell them little about the mystery man who kidnapped her, but there’s no doubt he’s still a threat when the bones of other missing women turn up deep in the cave system. Casey’s investigation with prickly sheriff Eric Dalton is hindered by the unusual nature of Rockton, a safe haven for people with secrets. Casey’s was revealed in Armstrong’s 2016 City of the Lost, so you might want to read it first to avoid spoilers. Besides, it’s another atmospheric page-turner.

So is Clare Mackintosh’s I See You (Berkley Penguin, digital galley), which will have you looking over your shoulder like London commuter Zoe Walker, who routinely takes the underground Tube to her real estate job. Then one day she spots a blurry photo of herself in a tabloid ad for what appears to be an internet dating site. What? How?  She discovers that the ad runs daily, each time with the photo of a different woman — and that these women are being stalked and assaulted.  One has been murdered. Zoe takes her worries to Transport police officer Kelly Swift, whose third-person perspective on events alternates with Zoe’s first-person narrative, upping the suspense. Mackintosh displayed her suspense writing chops with last year’s I Let You Go. This book’s another thrill ride if you’re willing to ignore some improbable plot points.

Speaking of which, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at Behind Her Eyes (Flatiron Books, ARC), in which Sarah Pinborough also uses shifting perspectives to tie a love triangle in knots. Londoner Louise is surprised to learn her new boss David, a successful therapist, is the guy she made out with in a bar. Also, he’s married to beautiful Adele, who befriends Louise. Who is playing who? It’s a guessing game until the out-of-the-blue, over-the-top ending. You’ll also need to suspend disbelief with J.P. Delaney’s The Girl Before (Ballantine, digital galley), which is full of coincidences about the successive attractive tenants of a control-freak architect’s custom London mansion. Neither Emma nor Jane is willing to look the gift house in the mouth, even though the rental agreement has about 200 ridiculous rules — no books, no pictures on the wall, no rugs on the floor — and also poses intrusive ethical questions. Really?

After the show-off style of so many thrillers, it’s a relief to turn to a gripping procedural. Deborah Crombie’s Garden of Lamentations (Morrow, digital galley),the 17th in her series featuring married London. detectives Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James, is one of the best, building on 2014’s To Dwell in Darkness. (Yes, you’ll want to read it, too).  While Gemma investigates the murder of a pretty nanny in a Notting Hill garden, Duncan puzzles over his recent reassignment and the cryptic comments his former boss made before he was mugged and left comatose. Duncan has his suspicions about several seemingly unrelated cases involving members of the force, and the assault on the chief super makes him think a traitor may be at work.

Judith Flanders’ clever and entertaining third mystery starring London book editor Samantha Clair, A Cast of Vultures (St. Martin’s, digital galley), benefits from its heroine’s witty narration and an engaging supporting cast. Problems at the publishing house where Sam works are overshadowed by troubles in her neighborhood, where an arson case turns up squatters and a dead body. Of course, Sam’s going to get involved, as will her cop boyfriend, her attorney mom, her elderly but reclusive neighbor, and her spunky editorial assistant. But it’s Sam who’s up a tree — literally — at Kew Gardens and hanging on for dear life while a couple of thugs down below calmly discuss her murder.