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Posts Tagged ‘Elinor Lipman’

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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penthouseYou know how characters in rom-coms meet cute? The likeable threesome in Elinor Lipman’s The View from Penthouse B (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley) live cute. After Margot loses her divorce settlement to Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi-scheme, she asks her widowed sister Gwen-Laura to share expenses in her Greenwich Village penthouse. To economize even further, they then rent out the maid’s room to Anthony, a gay man in his 20s who has lost his job at Lehman Bros. and makes wonderful cupcakes. All three have man trouble: Margot’s ex, a fertility doc who went to prison in an infamously sleazy fraud case, is paroled and moves into a studio in their building; Gwen cautiously re-enters the dating world via online sites with decidedly mixed results; and Anthony’s on the lookout for a good guy after his current boyfriend moves on.  Some of the antics, especially Gwen’s online dating woes, have a been-there, done-that Sex in the City feel, but Lipman’s writing sparkles and her characters charm.

mercycloseI suppose I could include Marian Keyes’ The Mystery of Mercy Close (Viking, digital galley) in a crime fiction column, but the mystery’s just the excuse for Keyes to write another “Walsh sister” tale. (Previous include Rachel’s Holiday, and Anybody Out There?) Helen is the fifth of the five sisters, a pragmatic private detective with a sharp wit and past issues with depression. Now that Ireland’s suffering post-Celtic Tiger blues, Helen’s PI business is on the skids; she’s lost her office and now her flat, and facing more unpaid bills, moves back home at 33 with intrepid Mammy Walsh. Her ex-boyfriend Jay, promoting a reunion concert of the once-famous boy band The Laddz, hires her to find band member Wayne, who has disappeared from his Mercy Close house four days before the concert. Looking for Wayne hither and yon, Helen gets help from her current lovely boyfriend Artie, a divorced cop with three kids, and Harry, a mobster who leaves her cryptic messages. Mammy Walsh is also on hand, especially when Helen tries to get in touch with Decker, the Laddz member who went on to pop star fame and fortune a la Bono. A mostly good time is had by all, even as Helen copes with a depressive cycle that seriously threatens her well-being. All of the Walsh sisters are head cases to a degree, but I think quirky, self-deprecating Helen may be my favorite.

whileAre you and your friends still discussing the fate of poor Matthew on the last episode of Downton Abbey? Then you’ll no doubt identify with the four residents of an historic Atlanta high-rise who star in Wendy Wax’s While We Were Watching Downton Abbey (Berkeley, paperback galley). Concierge Edward arranges the screenings, which bring together married-to-old-money Samantha, blocked writer Claire and unhappy divorcee Brooke. As they mull over the upstairs-downstairs lives of the TV characters during its second season, they face their own troubles with a new resolve. I can’t imagine anyone who doesn’t watch Downton Abbey “getting” this book, but we don’t know any of them, do we?! Fans of Wax’s Ten Beach Road and Ocean Beach know Wax knows what breaks and makes friendships.

tableFriendships and marriages are stressed to the breaking point in Whitney Haskell’s Table for Seven (Random House, digital galley), which follows a supper club from its inception on New Year’s Eve through the next 12 months. Here’s what Haskell does well — the mouth-watering menus at the beginning of each chapter; Will and Fran coping with their rebellious teen daughter; Jaime dealing with her tennis prodigy stepdaughter and her thoughtless husband; and everything about elderly widower Leland. Not-so-well is the predictable off-again-on-again affair between widowed Audrey and sexy bachelor Coop, and Fran’s fantasies of leaving Will for Coop. If my supper group — the Cheese Club of Grater Orlando — was this dysfunctional trying to out-gourmet one another, we wouldn’t have lasted for 15-plus years.

whatshewantsIn Sheila Roberts’ light-hearted What She Wants (Harlequin, digital galley), poker buddies hit on a truly novel idea to improve their love lives. At a library book sale, former high school nerd Jonathan picks up a copy of a best-seller by romance writer Vanessa Valentine, ostensibly for his sister. But peeking at the pages, he discovers good advice for getting high school crush Lissa to pay attention to him at their upcoming reunion. At first, his friends laugh, but soon vertically challenged Kyle and befuddled Adam, whose wife kicked him out, are also reading Vanessa Valentine. Readers of Roberts’ Icicle Falls series (Better than Chocolate), will recognize local landmarks and references to familiar characters, but it’s Roberts channeling Vanessa Valentine that steals the show.

whimseyKaye Wilkinson Barley’s Whimsey: A Novel (self-published, review copy from author) takes its name from a  fictional artists’ colony on a Georgia sea-island founded by the late, legendary Elizabeth Calhoun. Now, her great-niece Emma, an Atlanta  jewelry designer who thinks her talent has deserted her, is resisting her Aunt Zoe’s invitation to become a resident artist at her new upscale gallery on Whimsey. Emma knows going home will mean coming to terms with her childhood best friend Olivia, her girlhood love Eli, and the ghosts of her past, including the opinionated, cigar-smoking Great-Aunt Elizabeth who materializes at both opportune and inappropriate moments. Barley’s fanciful, Southern-flavored tale also includes a chatty imaginary friend named Madeline and a high-heeled pixie named Earlene, which is perhaps two too many supernatural characters.  The imaginative story entertains, but it could use a strong editor.

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