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Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

 

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.

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Beatriz Williams Cocoa Beach (William Morrow, digital galley) has sun, sand, mangroves and mosquitoes, as well as mystery and romance. And it’s appropriately steamy — no AC in 1922, which is when Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in Cocoa with her toddler daughter to inherit her estranged husband’s estate and shipping business. She met British Army surgeon Simon while an ambulance driver in World War I France, and the narrative toggles between the two timelines: Even as Virginia motors to Miami Beach with her sister-in-law, her backstory is played out in New York, France and Cornwall. (Readers of Williams’ A Certain Age will recognize Virginia as the sister of that book’s heroine, Sophie Fortescue). Not one to play the little widow, Virginia is soon asking about Simon’s death in a fire at his seaside villa and poking into his business affairs, much to the dismay of his enigmatic brother Samuel. Everybody, even Virginia, has secrets in this exotic Prohibition Era setting, where fortunes are made by rum-runners, and rogues are more than ready to sell swampland to unwary dreamers.

If you can’t buy happiness, perhaps you can rent it? Artist Heather Wyatt is hoping she can at least find some peace at Primrose, a quaint cottage on South Carolina’s Isle of Palms, while she carries out a commission to paint shorebirds for a series of postage stamps. Perhaps the solitude will cure her crippling social anxiety. But when cottage owner Cara Rutledge suffers a terrible loss, she wants to return to Primrose, and shy Heather winds up sharing space with an unwanted roommate.  And then there’s the handsome guy building a new deck on the cottage. In Beach House for Rent (Gallery Books, digital galley), Mary Alice Monroe returns to a favorite setting and familiar theme: Primrose as a safe haven where the wonders of nature help heal troubled souls. Although it’s one in an occasional series, the book is a pleasing stand-alone that begs to be read beach-side, where you can hear the gulls and watch the pelicans and sandpipers.

The Whitaker family mansion in seaside Connecticut was a once-famous artists’ colony, and Issy loved growing up there with her grandparents. But her family is a hot mess, and in Shelley Noble’s The Beach at Painter’s Cove (William Morrow, digital galley), she’s left to pick up the pieces when her selfish sister Viv drops off her three kids  with ailing grandmother Leo and disappears. Eccentric Aunt Fae can’t be counted on, and Issy’s mother, film actress Jillian, is off in Europe with her latest lover. Noble heaps cascading troubles on the Whitakers like sand in a bucket. Issy discovers Leo’s bank account has been emptied, bills are outstanding, and the house and its contents are in danger of being sold. A penniless Jillian arrives on the scene to contribute to the chaos. Leo is apparently losing her mind, living largely in the past, which also haunts Fae. The plot follows a predictable path, but the Whitakers, especially insecure and imaginative 12-year-old Steph, win you over, and you really hope they’ll win the day.

With its picturesque Cornwall setting, gentle good humor and a cast of engaging characters, many of them in the autumn of their years, Marcia Willett’s new novel Indian Summer (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) reminds me of a Rosamunde Pilcher favorite, Winter Solstice. Famous actor and director Sir Mungo Springer loves his country retreat, part of the family farm run by his brother Archie and his wife Camilla. When his old friend Kit visits, she brings with her memories of good times shared and of other old pals, including a troubled actress. One of the book’s running jokes is the presence of an aspiring novelist, who spies on the locals and concludes they’re a dull bunch. Little does he realize that a young Army wife is on the brink of a dangerous affair, that two old men once buried a body in the orchard, that Kit is contemplating a second chance with her long-ago lover Jake, and that Mungo will do most anything to keep safe his family and friends. I’m getting this one for my mom.

My mom and cousins also will be happy to hear about Susan M. Boyer’s Lowcountry Bonfire (Henery Press, digital galley), the sixth in the lighthearted series featuring P.I. Liz Talbot, who tied the knot with her partner Nate Andrews in Lowcountry Bordello. Their client Tammy Sue Lyerly, after receiving proof that her mechanic husband Zeke was cheating on her, sets fire to his favorite possessions in his favorite car. She claims she had no idea Zeke’s body was in the trunk. Liz and Nate are about the only ones on the little South Carolina island of Stella Maris who believe her. Determined to prove Tammy’s innocence, they start digging into Zeke’s colorful and mysterious past, which supposedly included stints as a DEA agent and a NASCAR driver. Seems trouble may have started at a bonfire on the beach back in the spring, although the mystery is almost overshadowed by all the lowcountry talk, atmosphere and food. Fine with me. I want to move in with Liz, Nate and their golden retriever Rhett.

Speaking of food — always a good idea, IMHO — fans of Mary Kay Andrews’ best-selling beach books (Savannah Blues, Deep Dish, Beach Town) and the Callahan Garrity mysteries she originally penned as Kathy Hogan Trocheck (Heart Trouble, Homemade Sin) know her characters eat well and that she sometimes tosses in recipes for food mentioned in the stories. For example, you can find the recipe for Beyond the Grave Chicken Salad in Little Bitty Lies and now in The Beach House Cookbook (St. Martin’s Press, review copy), which is what she wrote for  this summer instead of a new novel. It’s a treat, full of themed meal plans and recipes, plus anecdotes and pictures from Ebb Tide, her Tybee Island beach house. I need to note that Kathy is a longtime friend and a fabulous cook, and I can personally vouch for the chicken salad, the lemon cream cheese poundcake, the pimento cheese made with Duke’s and other goodies. Shrimp and grits. Crab cakes. Peach and berry cobbler. Trust me, the woman can start with a bag of Fritos and whip up a casserole, an appetizer or a gooey dessert.  Beach-alicious!

 

 

 

 

 

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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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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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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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another“This is memory.”  So says the narrator of Jacqueline Woodson’s Another Brooklyn (HarperCollins, purchased e-book), her first novel for adults in 20 years. As haunting as her memoir in verse, Brown Girl Dreaming, which won a National Book Award for YA literature last year, it reads like a prose poem. Narrator August spins her story of girlhood, friendship and loss in a series of  lyrical vignettes that slip dreamily through time and memory.

“Somehow, my brother and I grew up motherless yet halfway whole. My brother had the faith my father brought him to, and for a long time, I had Sylvia, Angela, and Gigi, the four of us sharing the weight of growing up Girl in Brooklyn, as though it was a bag of stones we passed among ourselves saying, Here. Help me carry this.

This is narrator August in the first chapter, looking back 20-some years to the 1970s, when her father uprooted her and younger brother from Tennessee and brought them to a Bushwick apartment. Now an anthropologist who researches funeral customs in different countries, she is back in Brooklyn to help her brother bury their father. A chance encounter with a girlhood friend sends her on an odyssey into the past, but not before she elliptically foreshadows some of its darkness.

At 11, August and her three friends function almost as a single entity, braving the watchful eyes of neighborhood boys and men, shrugging off the private griefs of family. They listen to Al Green, trade clothes, share hopes and secrets. They laugh, and they reassure one another about their looks and their futures. Gigi wants to be an actress. Angela can dance, really dance. Sylvia’s father wants her to be a lawyer. August wants to be Sylvia, beautiful and brilliant.

“Everywhere we looked, we saw people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.”

Their Brooklyn has disabled Vietnam vets, drug addicts, working girls who lose their children to social services, a rapist in a basement stairwell who catches Gigi when she is 12. She doesn’t tell anybody but her girls, saying her mama would just put the blame on her.  The foursome try to hold on to childhood, playing jacks and running after the ice cream truck. But then the teenage boys come, stealing kisses in the dark and wanting more. First love is “terrifying and perfect.” Betrayal is a wound. Memory is a bruise.

Woodson’s time-shifting narrative is compact and compressed, years invoked and imagined in a few vivid sentences. I loved every word.

 

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jonathanDante is a smart Border Collie. Sissy is a sweet Cocker Spaniel. Jonathan is a daydreaming Almost Grown-up who appears to be on the right track to adulthood: New York apartment, ad agency job, college sweetheart now fiance. But appearances, of course, are deceiving. The apartment is an illegal sublet, the job is soul-deadening, the fiance is all wrong for him. Still, it isn’t until Dante and Sissy enter Jonathan’s life that the recent arts school grad begins to question his chosen path. “Jonathan came home one day from work to find the dogs talking about him.”

That’s the first line of Meg Rosoff’s rom-com Jonathan Unleashed (Viking, review copy), but this isn’t a talking dog book. Actually, it would be easier for Jonathan if Dante and Sissy conversed like humans. Then Jonathan would know what’s wrong with the pair of canines left in his keeping while his brother is in Dubai for six months. Because Jonathan is sure the dogs are depressed and dissatisfied with life in New York City. He takes them to see the vet Dr. Clare. Doesn’t she think Dante looks angry? Doesn’t Sissy look sad? The vet, herself a dogowner, assures him his dogs are fine. “Dogs tend towards happiness. That’s why humans choose to live with them.”

But this is Jonathan she’s talking to, and it’s going to take him awhile to realize he’s projecting his own mixed feelings on Dante and Sissy. After all, he’s the kind of guy who can wonder about a clam’s inner emotional life, or who upon meeting a pretty cafe owner immediately envisions their marriage and names their three children. He draws comic books in his head. And then he somehow agrees to having his wedding to Julie live-streamed by a bridal magazine.

All this is fine fodder for a romp of a book, and Rosoff pulls it off, despite some unlikely contrivances and coincidences. Dante and Sissy turn out to be rescue dogs extraordinaire, the kind who save humans from themselves. Ah, who’s a good dog?

miracleElizabeth Kelly’s engaging The Miracle on Monhegan Island (Norton, digital galley) really is a talking dog book in that it’s ably narrated by a three-year-old Shih Tzu named Ned. He finds himself a member of the wildly dysfunctional Monahan family when black sheep son Spike plucks him from the back seat of a Mercedes and carries him home to Maine as a gift for his 12-year-old son Hally, whom he hasn’t seen in several years.

In short order, Ned is introduced — and introduces us — to Spike’s father Pastor Ragner, who has his own religious sect; his artistic brother Hugh; and to young Hally, whose vision of a Woman in White on the cliffs causes further family upheaval. Pastor Ragner immediately thinks that Hally has seen the Virgin Mary, and uses this news to attract new followers. But Spike is afraid that Hally’s vision signals the onset of the mental illness that afflicted his mother after he was born and is aghast as throngs are drawn to the island. Add in a stalker with murder in mind, and the story becomes darker.

Kelly, however, is an insightful and witty writer — The Last Summer of the Camperdowns is one of my favorites. By having Ned observe and chronicle events, she can explore such weighty issues as family, faith and mental illness with a light touch. Her canine narrator makes for quite a canny tale.

 

 

 

 

 

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