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Posts Tagged ‘Fiction’

Santa isn’t the only one keeping a list. Everybody and her brother who has read a book this year has opinions to share. I don’t mind because I’m always looking for recommendations to add to my TBR tower. I do mind labeling lists “Best,” because who has read everything?! So I’ll just say the following are my favorites from what I read in 2018, the books I’ll buy for myself and friends, the ones I’ll reread in the years to come. All of them except one I’ve reviewed on the blog this year. I missed Rebecca Makkai’s remarkable third novel The Great Believers (Penguin, digital galley) when it came out in June. But on a recent weekend I was transported by this chronicle of the fallout of the AIDS epidemic told in two intertwining narratives, one from 1985 Chicago, the second in Paris 30 years later. Now I can’t stop caring about Makkai’s characters, both those whose lives were cut short and those who survived and loved them. Absent friends, a lost generation. Thanks to whoever first put this on their best list. Now it’s on mine. (Credit: “A Woman Reading in Bed” by Frederick Serge).

My 2018 favorites, in no particular order:

 

 

 

 

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I spy a new novel by Kate Atkinson — Transcription (Little Brown, digital galley). Even if her name wasn’t on the cover, the tricksy writing style and off-center characters are so Atkinsonian. The setting — World War II London and after — is also familiar from Life After Life and A God in Ruins. But mostly it’s the sly subversion of genre expectations and unexpected plotting, as in the Jackson Brodie crime novels (Case Histories, etc.). Atkinson has her own GPS and trusts us to follow her lead; it’s so like her to start at the end. In 1981 London, a 60something woman is struck by a car while crossing the street, closing her eyes  as she murmurs, “This England.”

The story then neatly shuttles back and forth between 1950, when Juliet Armstrong is working as a BBC radio producer, and 1940, when she is an 18-year-old MI5 secretary transcribing audio recordings of German sympathizers who think they are talking to an undercover Gestapo agent. Actually, owlish Mr. Toby — picture Alan Guinness as George Smiley — works for MI5, which is why it’s so strange in 1950 that he denies knowing Juliet when she hails him in the park. Juliet begins noticing other oddities at the BBC that appear connected to her past. In addition to her transcription work in Dolphin Square during the war, she also spied on a society matron, learning undercover tradecraft and that “actions have consequences.”

Still, Atkinson is as devious as any secret agent, and nothing, then and now, is quite what it seems. Her touch is light, ironic, as she unfolds Juliet’s transformation from a naive teen with a crush on her gay boss to a seasoned pro who allows her flat to be used as a safe house after the war. As always, the historical aspects are well-researched — be sure to read the afterword — and if Juliet remains something of an enigma, isn’t that in the way of spies, hiding true identities, blending in? I read Transcription straight through, caught my breath, shook my head, then started again at the beginning disguised as the end.

Unsheltered (HarperCollins, digital galley) is the perfect title for Barbara Kingsolver’s timely and involving new novel, a tale of two families living in uncertain times and on the same corner a century and half apart. In 2016, the brick house at the corner of Plum and Vine in the New Jersey town of Vineland is falling apart. Willa Knox, an out-of-work magazine journalist, and her college professor husband, Iano Tavoularis, who lost his tenured job when his college closed, have moved into the inherited house with their grown daughter Tig and Iano’s ailing father Nick. It’s Willa who gets the bad news about the leaking roof and faulty foundation while Iano’s at his new job as an adjunct teacher at a nearby college. Not long after, there’s more bad news when son Zeke and his infant son must also move in the deteriorating structure. Hoping that the house has some historic significance and would qualify for a grant for necessary repairs, Willa begins researching its history in between changing diapers and taking cantankerous Nick to the doctor.

In the 1870s, the house on the corner is falling apart, too, because of mistakes made during construction. Science teacher Thatcher Greenwood has recently moved into the home with his new wife, her younger sister and his widowed, social-climbing mother-in-law who inherited the house from her family. Vineland was designed as a utopian community, but it’s really a company town for its bullying founder. Greenwood butts heads with him and the sanctimonious head of the school over the teaching of evolution and his championing of Charles Darwin, a correspondent of his brilliant neighbor Mary Treat (a real-life scientist). Greenwood’s friendship with Mary and a maverick newspaper editor also threatens his marriage and standing in the community. So not much good news there.

Still, Kingsolver is such a warm and witty writer that her pointed social commentary on crumbling dreams doesn’t get in the way of her very human story. Idealistic Tig is hiding a secret heartbreak, and the family is tender with profanity-spouting Nick, even when he tunes the radio to right-wing diatribes. Both families are vulnerable to the tides of change, “unsheltered” in the world. At least, Kingsolver leaves room for hope.

Most people who talk of skeletons in family trees are speaking metaphorically. But there’s an actual skeleton in the old wych elm tree at the Hennessey family home in Dublin. Who is it? How long has it been there? And what does it have to do with Toby, the nice-guy narrator of Tana French’s intricate and beguiling new stand-alone, The Witch Elm (Viking, review copy)?

That the skeleton isn’t discovered until a third of the way through the 500-page novel testifies to French’s talent at immersing readers in mysteries that go beyond those of old bones. Having written six layered police procedurals in the Dublin Murder Squad series, French now switches the perspective from police to crime victim.

I reviewed The Witch Elm for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. You can read the full review here https://tinyurl.com/y7k7ttbk 

 

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An Iron Age mummy found in a Jutland peat bog inspires Anne Youngson’s epistolary novel Meet Me at the Museum (Flatiron Books, ARC), an appealing story of friendship and second chances. Celebrated in a poem by Seamus Heaney, the perfectly preserved Tollund Man has long fascinated English farmwife Tina Hopgood. She always thought she’d visit Denmark’s Silkeborg Museum, but an early marriage and three children intervened, and now 40 years have gone by. Then a letter from Tina about Tollund Man inadvertently crosses the desk of museum curator and widower Kristian Larsen, who writes her back. A correspondence develops, and then a relationship, although the two have yet to meet. When Tina’s letters and e-mails suddenly stop, Kristian fears the worst. For fans of Jessica Brockmole’s Letters from Skye and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Beatriz Williams again uses her winning formula for beachy historical fiction with The Summer Wives (Morrow, digital galley). Set on Winthrop Island in Long Island Sound, the story toggles between 1951, when 18-year-old Miranda’s mother marries into the wealthy Fisher family on Winthrop, and 1969, when Miranda is a famous actress reluctantly returning to the island. The events of 1951, including her relationship with islander Joseph Vargas and a murder that divided them, are eventually revealed, as are secrets with present-day reverberations. Suspend disbelief and go with the flow. For fans of Williams’ A Hundred Summers and Lisa Klausmann’s Tigers in Red Weather.

It’s the time of year on campuses across the country when the Greeks recruit new members. Lisa Patton’s entertaining Rush: A Novel (St. Martin’s Press, ARC) goes behind-the-scenes at a fictional Ole Miss sorority where tradition clashes with modern mores. Miss Pearl is the longtime and beloved Alpha Delt housekeeper who is in line for a promotion, but not if influential alum Lilith Whitmore has anything to do with it. But Lilith’s own daughter, another pledge hopeful with a secret, and Miss Pearl’s “girls” in the sorority have their own ideas about how their house should face the future. It’s a coming-of-age story mixed with mother-daughter drama and social commentary. For fans of The Help and Anne Rivers Siddons’ Heartbreak Hotel. (My favorite Southern sorority novel remains Babs H. Deal’s 1968 The Walls Came Tumbling Down).

Marcia Willetts’ British charmer Summer on the River (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) centers on a large family house in the picturesque village of Dartmouth. Recent widow Evie Fortescue inherited the house from her late husband, somewhat to the consternation of her London stepson Charlie’s wife. Charlie and his family still come for holidays, like the annual regatta, and this year, his cousin Ben, a photographer going through a divorce, is also in residence. When Ben introduces Charlie to a new friend, and Evie confides a secret to her old pal Claude, things get complicated. For fans of Willett’s Indian Summer and Rosamunde Pilcher’s The Shell Seekers.

 

 

 

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Wait, wait — hold the pumpkin spice! It’s still summer, and I’ve got the books to prove it. Buzz for Stephen Markley’s first novel Ohio (Simon & Schuster) has been building for months, and it’s more than worth the wait. On a summer night in 2013, four former high school classmates converge on their hometown in northeast Ohio a decade or so after graduation. Having come of age in the post-911 era and the subsequent recession, they confront their shared history, their lost loves, deferred dreams, secrets and regrets. Bill Ashcraft, the substance-abusing rebel idealist, drives from New Orleans with a mysterious package. But before he can deliver it, he’s downing a few drinks and looking to score drugs. Afghanistan vet Dan Eaton has a date with the girl he left behind, while doctoral candidate Stacey Moore faces off with her high school lover’s homophobic mother. Emotionally scarred Tina Ross is finally ready to deal with the jock who abused her in high school. Those years, Markley writes, provide “stories of dread and wonder,” which he artfully interweaves with his realistic portrait of Rust Belt corrosion and disillusionment. It’s a big, ambitious book as Markley gets into the heads and hearts of his characters, writing with a lyric rush that pulls readers along. Ohio reminds me a bit of Nickolas Butler’s Shotgun Lovesongs and Ethan Canin’s early works. Grand storytelling.

Joanna Cannon’s 2017 first novel The Trouble with Ghosts and Sheep was a quirky tale featuring two 10-year-old girls on the trail of a neighborhood mystery during the British heatwave of 1976. Her new book, Three Things About Elsie (Scribner, digital galley) has a similar oddball charm, although its heroine is 84-year-old Florence, who has fallen in her room at the Cherry Tree Home for the elderly. She can’t get up, so while waiting for rescue, she reflects on the events of the last few weeks, which have made her think she might be losing her mind. Her lifelong best friend Elsie has assured her that isn’t the case, but Florence wants to know why small objects in her room have been rearranged. Mostly, though, she wants to find out why the new resident calling himself Gabriel Price is a dead ringer for Ronnie Butler, who drowned in 1953. Flo and Elsie like “to explore pockets of the past. Favourite stories were retold, to make sure they hadn’t been forgotten. Scenes were sandpapered down to make them easier to hold….It’s the great advantage of reminiscing. The past can be exactly how you wanted it to be the first time around.”

From the real to the surreal. Another August novel I liked a lot is Laura van den Berg’s The Third Hotel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley and ARC), which I reviewed for the Minneapolis Star-Tribunehttps://map.tinyurl.com/ycnmvlty. Reading this disquieting novel is like walking out of a dark movie theater into bright sunlight. Part of you is still living in a cinematic dreamscape. The real world is what’s imaginary. Set mostly in Havana, the novel has the premise of a thriller as a woman thinks she sees her husband outside a museum — five weeks after he died in New York. Has her grief conjured a ghost, or is this a case of mistaken identity?

If you’re looking for charm with a bit of grit, Dear Mrs. Bird by A. J. Pearce (Scribner, digital galley) is just the ticket. In 1940 London, perky, 22-year-old Emmeline Walker dreams of being a Lady War Correspondent. Instead, she gets a job assisting Henrietta Bird, the the old-fashioned advice columnist of an old-fashioned women’s magazine. Mrs. Bird, rigid and overbearing, is of the stiff-upper lip school and doesn’t want to hear complaints about the war, life on the homefront, marriage and sex. Such missives are discarded — until Emme gets holds of them and starts mailing off replies under Mrs. Bird’s forged signature. She’s all good intentions, of course, but there will be consequences for Emme and her best friend Bunty; war doesn’t play favorites. Still, Pearce’s droll humor and Emme’s “carry on” attitude carry the day.

Delia Owens’ first novel Where the Crawdads Sing (Putnam, digital galley) is a somewhat awkward mix of nature writing, coming-of-age fable, murder mystery and courtroom drama. Kya Clark is known as the “Marsh Girl” because she has mostly raised herself in the wilds outside a small North Carolina community. In 1969, when the body of good-looking Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya becomes the prime suspect. Although she has the support of shrimper’s son Tate Walker, who taught her to read before going off to college, Kya must stand trial. The writing about the natural world is lovely and lush, but the characters are not nearly as realized, and implausibilities abound.

 

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There’s something comfortably reassuring about Anne Tyler’s new novel Clock Dance (Knopf, digital galley), like turning down a road in your old neighborhood and seeing that not much has changed. The tree on the corner may be taller, but the neighbor’s house still needs a lick of paint. It’s all familiar — the gray cat crossing the yard, the light slanting across the front porch, the geraniums on the steps. You can’t help but smile.

So why is there a giant cactus on the cover? That’s not something you see every day in Baltimore, Tyler’s home turf and the setting of such well-loved novels as The Accidental Tourist and Breathing Lessons. Not to worry. Instead of having a character leave Baltimore in search of adventure, Tyler has Willa Drake departing her Arizona home for a shabby street in blue-collar Baltimore.

But before this we meet Willa at significant intervals in her life: as a 1967 schoolgirl whose mother has apparently walked out on the family; as a 1977 college student on a plane with her new fiance; as a 1997 widow, her controlling husband dead in a road rage accident. Skip forward 20 years, and Willa has remarried and is living in an Arizona golf neighborhood. While stuffy husband Peter golfs, Willa, having given up her teaching job, whiles away the time on mundane tasks. She’s actually sorting headbands when she gets a phone call bidding her to come to Baltimore to take care of her son’s ex-girlfriend Denise’s 9-year-old daughter Cheryl. Denise has been hospitalized with a stray bullet in her leg, and Willa has been mistaken for the grandmother who will drop everything and take care of a child she’s never met. Goodness!

Now Tyler’s cooking, and Willa comes into her own, getting to know the oddball neighbors, finding a kindred spirit in self-possessed Cheryl, listening to Denise fret about her shattered love life, and gracefully shuffling Peter to the background. There really are no villains in a Tyler novel. Some people are obtuse, even selfish, but the true enemy is time, ticking away the moments. Tyler, with her generous view of human nature and an affinity for illuminating what might be considered ordinary lives, alerts us to the moments and how they add up. Clock Dance is a very nice book in our not-so-nice times.

 

 

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I did a lot of my summer reading back in the spring when I read and reviewed 16 books for The Minneapolis Star Tribune. Now that they have been published in the paper and online, I can write about them here and on Goodreads. My stand-alone review of Anthony Horowitz’s clever The Word is Murder ran this past Sunday, June 9, https://tinyurl.com/yb8j7a4o  The others were part of book editor Laurie Hertzel’s June 3 summer reading package, https://tinyurl.com/ycgsa9au

I wrote a full review of Kate Christensen’s  July novel The Last Cruise, short reviews of Silas House’s Southernmost, Thrity Umrigar’s The Secrets Between Us, Tatjana Solis’ The Removes and Leah Franquis’ America for Beginners; and mini-reviews of 10 more. (I’m posting all the covers.) It’s a diverse group of novels that Laurie and I came up with after much discussion, but it doesn’t include several of the season’s most anticipated books — Anne Tyler’s Clock Dance, for example, or Lauren Groff’s Florida — because they’ll be covered by Laurie and other reviewers as the summer progresses. I’ll be blogging about them, too, in the near future.

It’s no secret that I liked all 15, some a bit more than others, but all worth reading. Megan Abbott’s Give Me Your Hand affirms her reputation for riveting psychological suspense. Umrigar’s is a sequel to her best-selling The Space Between Us, although you don’t have to have read the first book to be drawn into this story of friendships forged in the Mumbai slums. Fatima Farheen Mirza’s first novel about a Muslim-American family, A Place for Us, is winning deserved raves from critics. Solis’ The Removes is an historical novel about the American West, while Hannah Pittard’s Visible Empire explores the aftermath of the 1962 Paris plane crash that killed more than 100 of Atlanta’s leading citizens. Southernmost immediately plunges readers into a devastating flood in Tennessee before heading for Key West. So, plenty of pages to read this summer. Take my word for it.

 

 

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I think we’re going to need a bigger tote. Yes, tote as in tote bag to stow all this season’s beach books.  The first wave arrives this month so you can get a headstart on summer.

Anchoring my haul is the highly anticipated The High Tide Club (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) by Mary Kay Andrews, who when she isn’t wearing her beach book hat is my pal Kathy Trocheck. I’ve gotten used to her breezy novels (Savannah Blues, Beach Town) welcoming summer, but last year she skipped writing a novel to produce The Beach House Cookbook, full of scrumptious recipes. But now she’s back, offering a substantive feast of a novel spiced with intrigue, secrets, drama and romance. It’s scrumptious, too.

Readers of Save the Date may remember Brooke Trapnelle as the runaway bride who literally climbed a tree as part of her escape. In The High Tide Club, Brooke moves to the forefront, a single mom lawyer in the Georgia coastal town of St. Ann who is hired by 99-year-old Josephine Bettandorf  Warrick. The eccentric heiress wants Brooke to help her save Talisa, her 20,000-acre island estate with its crumbling pink wedding cake of a mansion, from being taken over by the state and turned into a park. She also needs Brooke to track down the heirs of the three women who were once her best friends — Ruth, Millie and Varina — back in 1941. Josephine says she needs to make amends but won’t say for what.

By flashing back to 1941 every now and then, Andrews hints at some of the secrets the past is holding, like an unsolved murder and divisions of race and class. But Brooke has a lot on her plate in the present, too, coordinating a reunion among women who have never met, untangling family histories and mysteries, taking care of rambunctious toddler son Henry, all the while trying to do her best for Josephine and Talisa. There’s a sudden death, a visit to a Savannah orphanage, a showdown in a lighthouse. You may pick up on some plot twists, and others may take you by surprise. Either way, The High Tide Club is a satisfying saga, just what the summer ordered.

The title of Nancy Thayer’s A Nantucket Wedding (Ballantine, digital galley) is a bit of a misnomer, not that it doesn’t take place on Nantucket, and not that there isn’t a wedding. But the warmhearted story of blended families is mostly about the summer before the planned fall wedding between Alison and David, both of whom have been married before. They also have grown children and young grandchildren meeting for the first time. Alison’s daughters Jane and Felicity are chalk and cheese, although both have workaholic husbands. Jane is just as absorbed in her legal career as Scott but has started to regret their mutual decision not to have kids. Easy-going Felicity wishes Noah paid as much attention to her and their two kids as his start-up business and efficient “work wife.” Stirring the pot is David’s handsome son Ethan, who can’t help being a playboy flirt. His sister Pamela is intent on taking over her father’s business but being pregnant again wasn’t in her plans. Although Alison tries to ease  tensions by being the perfect hostess and preparing delicious meals at David’s luxurious island home, she’s feeling overwhelmed while still getting to know her husband-to-be. Thayer understands the way families work — and don’t work — and if her resolutions tend toward the optimistic, that’s ok. It’s summer. On Nantucket. Go with it.

A wedding also is in the offing in By Invitation Only (Morrow, digital galley), Dorothea Benton Frank’s latest Lowcountry tale, available May 15. Shelby Cambria is the only child of a wealthy Chicago couple, while her fiance Fred’s mother Diane runs a South Carolina peach farm with her brother Floyd. Both MOG Diane and MOB Susan are guilty of making stereotypical assumptions about the other, and Frank has some fun alternating the narrative between them. Snobby Susan turns up her nose at the down-home barbecue Diane and Floyd host to celebrate the engagement, while Diane feels out of place among Susan’s society friends at a Chicago fete. Miscommunications and misunderstandings ensue, enhanced by an unexpected romance and a stunning scandal. RSVP just for the details of food and drink, whether your taste runs to caviar and champagne or peaches and a pig-pickin’.

Another of my favorite Lowcountry authors, Mary Alice Monroe, arrives at the party on May 22 with Beach House Reunion (Gallery Books, digital galley), the fifth in her occasional series about Primrose Cottage and the Rutledge family. (The book that started it all, The Beach House, has been adapted for television by the Hallmark Channel and is airing this month). In the new book, Cara Rutledge is now in her 50s and returns to the Isle of Palms with her adopted one-year-old daughter. She’s joined by her niece Linnea, a recent college graduate eager to get away from the restrictions of her proper Charleston upbringing. Ever since family matriarch and “turtle lady” Lovie lived at Primrose, the unpretentious beach house has been a retreat for troubled souls and a way station for those unsure of what’s next. Once again, the life cycle of the sea turtles reflects the characters’ search for home.

 Judy Blundell’s first novel The High Season (Random House, digital galley, May 22) proves once again that the rich are different from you and me, and it’s not just that they have more money. For community museum director Ruthie, the price for living on the North Fork of Long Island is renting out for the summer the big house she shares with her ex-husband and teenage daughter during the winter. This summer, though, wealthy widow Adeline and her spoiled stepson Lucas have taken the house for the entire season, and the Hamptons crowd “discovers” the North Fork. Everything changes for the village and Ruthie, who soon discovers her so-called friends are a fair-weather bunch of social climbers and back stabbers. I was so happy to close the book on them.

By contrast, Wendy Francis’ The Summer Sail (Touchstone, digital galley) is the pleasant story of three college roommates on a cruise to Bermuda. Abby, who is paying for the trip, is celebrating her 20th anniversary with professor husband Sam and their teenage sons. Magazine editor Caroline is hoping her longtime beau Javier will propose. Schoolteacher and single mom Lee wants to know why her college student daughter Lacey is being a brat. Actually, Lacey has a secret, and Abby has an even bigger one, so all is not smooth sailing. But pretty much.

Remember the women who renovated a Gulf Coast mansion in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road and then got their own reality TV show in subsequent books in the series? They’re back in Best Beach Ever (Berkley, digital galley, May 22), and once again they’re shoring one another up in the face of adversity. They’ve lost their TV show, Do Over, apparently for good this time, have rented out the renovated Bella Flora so as not to lose it, and have moved into cottages at the Sunshine Hotel and Beach Club. Nikki is struggling with her young twins; Maddie is coping with her rock star boyfriend’s resurrected celebrity; Avery is avoiding commitment; Kyra is trying to keep her son out of the Hollywood spotlight; and Bitsy is contemplating revenge. It helps if you’ve read the other books, hardly a chore considering Wax’s sure touch with matters of home and heart.

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