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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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At the beginning of her cunning first novel, The Ruin (Penguin, purchased e-book), Dervla McTiernan writes that in Irish, “Ruin means something hidden, a mystery, or a secret, but the word also has a long history as a term of endearment.” She teases out all these meanings in a layered procedural set in in a 2013 Galway thick with mist and misdirection. Police detective Cormac Reilly, recently transferred from Dublin, feels sidelined working cold cases until Jack Blake dies in a fall from a bridge. Neither Jack’s estranged sister Maude, who has been living in Australia, nor his girlfriend, a surgical resident, think it’s suicide, but the police are reluctant to investigate further.  Reilly remembers when he was a rookie in 1993 and removed 15-year-old Maude and 5-year-old Jack from a falling-down house in Kilmore after their mother died from a heroin overdose. When higher-ups turn their attention to Maude, who had motive and secrets, his suspicions are aroused. That the police unit itself is rife with rumors just adds to his unease. McTiernan follows Reilly, Maude and Aishling as they pursue mysteries old and new involving missing persons, drugs, rape and child abuse. It’s Ireland, so family loyalties and the church are also involved.  Count me in for next year’s second in the series.

Two dark moments of Florida history — Ted Bundy and the Dozier School for Boys — shadow Lori Roy’s modern Gothic, The Disappearing (Dutton/Penguin, digital galley). The residents of little Waddell in rural North Florida refer to a serial killer who took his last victim, a teenage girl, from their town years ago as “Ted.” These days, out-town-reporters keep showing up as former students of the now-closed Fielding School report crimes of abuse and even murder. Former headmaster Neil Harding, sliding into dementia in his historic home, has nothing to say. His long-suffering wife shields him from outsiders; his grown daughter Lane, recently divorced, has reluctantly moved home with her two daughters. She remembers when she was a girl and used to leave food outside for boys running away from the reform school. She also remembers being shunned in high school after an incident involving a runaway. When a Florida State student disappears, Waddell wonders if a serial killer like Ted has returned. But when Lane’s older daughter Annabel vanishes, too, Lane fears a connection to her father and the school’s tainted history. Roy, who has won two Edgar Awards for her previous books, uses multiple perspectives to tell her story: Lane, her younger daughter Talley, fretful Erma, and an odd handyman, Daryl, who spies on Waddell’s young girls. It’s all suitably complicated and creepy, doubly so for Floridians familiar with the real-life crimes that inspired Roy.

A true crime case — that of Britain’s notorious Lord Lucan — acts as touchstone for Flynn Barry’s nimble A Double Life (Viking, digital galley).  Narrator Claire is a London doctor whose real name is unknown to her colleagues and friends. She’s actually Lila Spenser, daughter of Colin Spenser, the Eton-educated lord who vanished when she was a child after being accused of attacking her mother and killing the nanny. Many believe that Spenser’s wealthy friends helped him escape, and he supposedly has been sighted in a number of countries over the last quarter century. Claire always has had trouble reconciling her childhood memories of her handsome father with her mother Faye’s account of her unhappy marriage. Mostly, she wants to find him, obsessively following Internet forums tracking the case and privately stalking his old friends. Barry mixes past and present to good effect, but the thrills really begin when Claire travels to Croatia on an apparent wild-goose chase. Maybe it is. Maybe not.

Belinda Bauer’s Snap (Atlantic Monthly, digital galley) has been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker prize. A story in The Guardian noted that one judge thinks it transcends the crime genre, while another thinks it bends the form in new ways.  Ok. I think it’s a clever puzzler that reminds me of a Ruth Rendell standalone or one of Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels as it presents several disparate stories before connecting the plots. First up are 11-year-old Jack and his younger sisters Merry and Joy, whose pregnant mother goes off for help when their car breaks down. She never returns, the victim of an unsolved murder. Three years later, Jack’s still in charge, keeping the siblings together in their old house after their grieving father walks out. He’s become an accomplished cat burglar, stealing food and necessities,  along with pricier goods he sells to his friendly neighborhood fence.  In another part of town, pregnant Catherine While wakes up to an intruder in the house and later finds a knife by her bed with the menacing note: “I could have killed you.” Not wanting to make a “hoo-ha,” she doesn’t tell her husband or call the police. The latter are busy trying to catch the Goldilocks burglar, although Chief Inspector John Marvel longs for a good murder case. Bauer has some fun snapping the puzzle pieces in place, and Jack is a character to care about as he tries to find his mother’s killer.

Three more for your reading pleasure. Lawrence Osborne does an elegiac Raymond Chandler in Only to Sleep (Crown, digital galley), which finds Philip Marlowe mostly retired in Mexico in 1988. With silver sword cane in hand, the aging detective investigates an insurance scam involving a dead American businessman and his lovely young widow. Nicely written and achingly familiar, this sunset stroll should please Marlowe fans. William Shaw set his terrific Kings of London crime trilogy in the 1960s, and in Salt Lane (Little Brown, digital galley), Det. Sgt. Alexandra Cupidi links her modern-day murder case in Kent to the 1980s peace protests. Opioid addiction, the immigrant crisis and homelessness also figure in the nifty plot, and prickly outsider Cupidi, introduced in last year’s The Birdwatcher, makes for an interesting protagonist. In The Last Thing I Told You (Morrow, digital gallery), Emily Arsenault plays the unreliable narrator card with aplomb. A quiet New England town that was once shocked by a mass shooting at a retirement home is again rattled by the murder of a well-liked therapist. Police detective Henry Peacher methodically investigates, but another voice — that of former patient Natalie Raines — commands attention as she recounts her therapy sessions when she was a troubled high school student. Is it just coincidence that Natalie is back in town for the murder? Mmmm. I didn’t think so…

 

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binchywinterSure, and it was sad news when Irish writer Maeve Binchy died last summer at 72.  At the time, I went back and reread several of my favorite novels — Light a Penny Candle, Firefly Summer, Circle of Friends — and mourned that there would be no more. Not so fast. Binchy left her readers one last novel, A Week in Winter (Knopf, digital galley), and a grand winter’s tale it is, with a vintage ensemble cast.

What ties these disparate, flawed characters togther is Stoneybridge, a village on Ireland’s west coast. Chicky left home at 19 to go to New York with a young American; years later, she returns with a story of having been widowed but with enough money to turn Miss Queenie’s decaying mansion into a tourist hotel. The naysayers are many, but Chicky enlists the help of bad boy Rigger, and the job of handyman turns out to be the making of him. Chicky’s niece Orla leaves her London job and flash lifestyle to lend her business skills. And so Stone House is ready to welcome its first guests for a week in winter.

As in novels like The Copper Beech and Silver Wedding, Binchy rotates chapters among the characters, filling in back stories as the guests meet up in the cozy lounge with its roaring fire and black-and-white cat. Winnie, a newly engaged nurse, arrives with her fiance’s glamorous mother, reluctant to let go of her son or her youth. A famous American actor checks in under an assumed name, hoping no one will recognize him in this backwater. A pair of married doctors seeks solace after a trauma. A middle-aged couple addicted to entering contests aren’t happy that their holiday is second-prize to a Paris trip. A retired schoolteacher is her own worst enemy, spreading doom and gloom wherever she goes. And then there’s the psychic with a broken heart.

“It’s a funny old world,” one character remarks early on, and it’s just that in Binchy’s books. Her readers know that happy endings aren’t guaranteed, that life is both sunshine and shadows. Still, things have a way of working out, although not necessarily the way one wished. Ah, Maeve Binchy, we’ll miss you. How bittersweet it is.

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Sure and don’t you know we’re all Irish on St. Patrick’s Day? I feel that way, too, whenever I read one of Maeve Binchy’s pillowy novels, which are stuffed with all manner of people and stories and all things Irish.

At the center of Binchy’s newest, Minding Frankie, is Noel Lynch, a late-20s, hard-drinking no-hoper who is suddenly informed by a one-night stand that he’s about to become a father. Pragmatic Stella is not only pregnant but also dying of cancer, and she wants to leave the care of the daughter she will never know to Noel.

Reluctance is as natural to Noel as the drink, but he’s convinced by his parents, his American cousin Emily and the other working-class Dubliners of St. Jarlath’s Crescent that he’ll be a grand single dad. So Noel goes to AA, starts taking business classes so he can move up the ladder at work, and finds lots of help when it comes to minding Frankie. The only person who thinks Frankie would be better off in foster care is humorless social worker Moira, who is just waiting for Noel to fall off the wagon so she can whisk the baby away.

Readers of sunch previous Binchy novels as Quentins, Scarlet Feather, and Heart and Soul, will recognize some familiar flawed characters, all with a connection to Frankie, in the large supporting cast. Each has his or her own story — an unrequited love, a terminal illness, a lost job, a new-found son. It can sometimes be a bit confusing. Is it Kathy who is Noel’s platonic roommate Lisa’s sister and who wants a baby of her own, or is that Carla, the daughter of a nurse at St. Brigid’s? Is Dingo a guy and Hooves a dog, or is it the other way around?

Over the course of the year leading up to Frankie’s first birthday, there will be dramas small and large, smiles all around, and a few tears. It’s very Binchy.  Make yourself a cuppa and settle in.

Open Book: I bought a hardcover copy of Maeve Binchy’s Minding Frankie (Knopf Doubleday) so I could share it with my mother (known as Frankie to her grandchildren). We’ve been reading and rereading Binchy’s books since Light a Penny Candle. Wouldn’t miss one.

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Some writers have the gift of immersing you so completely in their world that you look up from the page with a start, surprised by the reality of your living room or cafe corner, or, heaven forbid, cramped airport seat, wherever you happen to be reading. Tana French whisks you away to Ireland with not so much a brogue as a silver tongue, persuasive and beguiling. Such a lovely writer.

French has three crime novels to her credit, each quite different from the others yet linked by sense of place and character. I love them all: In the Woods, a police procedural with an unreliable narrator and a whiff of something dark and haunted in a suburban village outside Dublin; The Likeness, in which a young cop goes undercover in an old Irish country house taken over by some university friends of secret history; and Faithful Place, the new one where a middle-aged Dublin detective is pulled back to the red-brick tenements and grasping tendrils of family he thought he’d escaped for good long ago.

Back in 1985, Frank Mackey was 19 and heartsick when his girlfriend Rosie Daly stood him up on the winter night they were supposed to elope to England. He left Faithful Place and didn’t look back, and over the years, Rosie’s defection has worn itself into a corner in his mind, “like a bullet lodged too deep to dig out.” But now Frank’s younger sister Jackie, the only member of his contentious family with whom he’s kept in touch, calls to tell him Rosie’s old suitcase has been found in a nearby derelict house slated for gentrification. Frank’s jerked back to Faithful Place, his old assumptions crumbling like the bones soon found in the house’s basement. Rosie’s bones.

 Neither the cops working the case nor the old Faithful Place families, his own especially, want Frank around mucking up things. His alcoholic father coughs venom, his ma goes along with the abuse like always. His siblings, who haven’t escaped the neighborhood, eye him with suspicion, resentment and envy. Then there’s another family tragedy — accident? suicide? — and Frank doesn’t believe his estranged wife when she says no one could have predicted this event. 

“Personally, I would in fact have bet on at least one member of my family coming to a sticky and complicated end…”

But Frank doesn’t forsee that what next awaits him at Faithful Place is more even more complicated and sticky with memories and betrayals. It even threatens his 9-year-old daughter Holly. And it makes him wonder where his loyalties really lie, and how will he keep the faith?

Open Book: I have a trade paperback of Tana French’s In the Woods, a hardcover of The Likeness, and the e-book of Faithful Place (Penguin Group). They’re all keepers.

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