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Posts Tagged ‘Lauren Willig’

A couple weeks ago I noted on Facebook that I was temporarily abandoning the palace intrigue of Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury for Robert Harris’ new novel Munich (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley). There I was met on the first page with this: “He had listened to it on the BBC as it was delivered. Metallic, remorseless, threatening, self-pitying, boastful. . . it had been punctuated by the thumps of Hitler’s hands on the podium and by the roar of fifteen thousand voices shouting their approval. The noise was inhuman, unearthly. It seemed to well up from some subterranean river and pour out of the loudspeaker.”

It’s September of 1938, and Hitler is threatening to invade Czechoslovakia. We know that he was dissuaded by British PM Neville Chamberlain at a last-minute meeting in Munich calling “for peace in our time.” Although this policy of appeasement didn’t sit well with many and only delayed World War II by not even a year, history acknowledges that the intervening months gave the Allies the crucial time to prepare for war. Knowing that Munich almost didn’t happen and the talks threatened to fall apart moment to moment doesn’t detract from Harris’ sleek and suspenseful narrative. Hugh Legat and Paul von Hartmann were friends together at Oxford. Now, Hugh is an aide with the British foreign office, and Paul, a German nationalist, is one of the civil servants and military officers plotting Hitler’s demise in Berlin. The two need to meet long enough in Munich for Paul to pass a message to British intelligence, but he is being watched by Hitler’s henchmen. Harris sustains the tension throughout, and his fictional characters have the solidity of the historical figures who come to life in the fast-moving pages.  A thriller of diplomacy and espionage, Munich’s a book for our times.

Seen from above, a garden maze is a miracle of symmetry and relatively easy to traverse. But when you’re in the maze, navigating the intricate loops proves more difficult. Oh, for a map! Gregory Blake Smith’s The Maze at Windermere is a miracle of symmetry from any perspective, an artfully constructed historical novel in which five stories are superimposed, one on top the other through time, in Newport, R.I. We begin in 2011, with a poor but handsome tennis pro romancing several women, one an heiress with cerebral palsy. In 1896, a closeted man-about-town woos a wealthy widow who owns the Windermere estate. Thirty years earlier, a young Henry James aspires to be a writer by observing Newport society. During the American Revolution, a manipulative British soldier plots to seduce the beautiful daughter of a Jewish merchant. And in 1692, a young Quaker woman feels she must marry after her father is lost at sea.

Smith nimbly braids these distinct narratives loosely at first, then tighter as the book progresses. Similar themes of race and class, love and money emerge and then converge. Past is prism and palimpsest. A familiarity with Henry James — Portrait of a Lady, The Wings of the Dove, The Heiress — deepens appreciation, but there’s nothing fusty or longwinded about The Maze at Windermere. Each character is true to his or her time and speaks accordingly. Still, it is the young James who seems to sum up their thoughts when he writes, “We each of us strive to understand who we are, why we are here, to love and be loved, and for all that striving, we are each of us lost in the mystery of our own heart.” I got lost in The Maze at Windermere and loved every page.

It’s been a good month for historical novels. One of my other favorites is Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s Peculiar Ground (Harper, review) which I reviewed for the Minneapolis StarTribune. (https://tinyurl.com/yc4mmrze). It’s the sprawling saga of a walled English estate depicted in gorgeous prose at specific points in the 17th century and then again in the 20th. In Fools and Mortals (Harper, digital galley), Bernard Cornwell takes a break from the Saxons and turns to Shakespeare, expertly evoking Elizabethan times. His adventure tale focuses on Shakespeare’s handsome younger brother Richard, an actor in Will’s troupe who is charged with retrieving the original script of A Midsummer’s Night Dream after it is stolen by a rival theatrical company. Enter complications pursued by hi-jinks. Seriously, it’s quite good. Rachel Rhys’ Dangerous Crossing (Atria, library hardcover)  pays homage to Agatha Christie as young Englishwoman Lily Shepherd, a former housemaid, books passage to Australia in the summer of 1939. There’s shipboard romance and intrigue as Lily’s fellow travelers include an amiable brother and sister with health issues, a Jewish schoolteacher who has fled her home in Vienna, a mysterious and wealthy American couple, an embittered spinster, a bullying bigot, a nervous mother and her teenage daughter, and a naive housemaid.  Lauren Willig’s a pro at romantic suspense, and sets her entertaining The English Wife (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) in Gilded Age New York. Janie Van Duyvil uncovers family secrets when her older brother Bayard is murdered at a fancy dress ball and his English wife Annabelle disappears. A parallel narrative introduces readers to the music halls of London and a beautiful singer who calls herself George. Janie’s a shy, somewhat tiresome character in the beginning, but she finds confidence (and love) when a tabloid reporter joins her in a quest for answers.

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summerwindMary Alice Monroe’s The Summer Wind (Gallery Books, digital galley) is as bright and breezy as its title implies, although the three half-sisters first introduced in The Summer Girls must navigate some rough seas.  In the first book in the trilogy, middle sister Carson returned to her grandmother’s home on Sullivan’s Island, S.C. and confronted her wild child ways and drinking problem. Now it’s older sister Dora who needs help from the family; she’s getting a divorce, her beloved house is up for sale, her young son has autism and is acting out. For a woman who has prided herself on being the perfect wife and mother, it’s just too much. Carson helps with child care via wild dolphin therapy, younger sister Harper advises on a make-over, and Dora runs into an old flame while walking the island. But both their grandmother, Mamaw, and housekeeper Lucille are keeping life-changing secrets. Monroe makes the most of the picturesque lowcountry setting and writes movingly of families, children with special needs and the ongoing battle to preserve tradition and the environment as the storm clouds gather.

augustA wave of nostalgia sweeps through the pages of The Girls of August (Hachette, digital galley), the sweetly lyrical new novel of female friendship from veteran storyteller Anne Rivers Siddons. Madison, Rachel and Barbara met 20 years ago when their husbands were in med school and they continue to reminisce about the various beach houses where they vacationed every August with a fourth friend, Melinda. But then Melinda was killed in a car wreck, and her husband has remarried a sweet young thing, Baby Gaillard, who this year is hosting the annual getaway on her family’s estate on an isolated South Carolina barrier island. Madison narrates the inevitable conflicts that arise on Tiger Island as the three older women cope with Baby’s alternately winning and immature behavior, as well as their own issues. Remember the old Alan Alda movie, The Four Seasons? But at only 150 pages, the book is half as long as such previous Siddons’ novels as Outer Banks, Colony and Islands and lacks her usual depth. Still, it made me homesick for the lovingly depicted lowcountry landscape and all the times when I’ve been an August girl.

mermaidReaders first met Maddie, Avery and Nikki in Wendy Wax’s Ten Beach Road when the three women were brought together by a dilapidated beach house on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They joined up again in Ocean Beach as they restored a South Florida mansion for their own television home show, Do Over. Now, as the first season of Do Over prepares to air, the trio heads for the Florida Keys, where they plan to turn a former rock star’s rundown estate into a bed-and-breakfast, despite the recently-out-of-rehab owner’s objections. Wendy Wax does a good job in The House on Mermaid Key (Berkley, paperback ARC) of catching readers up on her varied cast, which includes now-divorced Maddie’s grown daughter and toddler grandson. There’s tension, romance, sudden loss and satisfying details of rehabbing a resort. Yes, you must suspend disbelief to buy into the wish-fufillment relationships between the women and their perfect-for-them lovers, but hey, it’s summer. Read on, dream on.

breakwaterShelley Noble’s Breakwater Bay (HarperCollins, digital galley) finds a Newport, R.I., preservationist surprised on her 30th birthday by her boyfriend failing to propose and her beloved family revealing she’s adopted. Meri’s search for identity is aided by her smart, karaoke-singing best friend, her wise grandmother, the divorced neighbor she regards as a big brother, his unhappy teenage daughter and her understanding stepfather. Everyone’s a little-too-good to be true — except for a sniping ex-wife and a snobbish Newport couple — but the whole is predictably pleasing.

Lauren Willig’s That Summer (St. Martin’s Press, hardcover review copy) moves between 2009 and 1849 tothatsummer tell two intertwined stories centered on a London house. Out of the blue, New Yorker Julia Conley’s British aunt leaves her the shabby London house in Herne Hill, where she discovers a Pre-Raphaelite painting. The subject is Imogen Grantham, locked in a loveless marriage to an older man when she meets an ambitious portrait painter. Willig has a way with historical fiction (the Pink Carnation series), but I liked the contemporary storyline, which offers more surprises.

nantucketNancy Thayer’s Nantucket Sisters (Random House, digital galley), features best friends and “summer sisters” Maggie Drew and Emily Hudson. Maggie’s hardworking  mother is a local seamstress; Emily’s is a wealthy socialite who frowns on the friendship between the two girls and Emily’s attraction to Maggie’s brother Ben. Enter handsome Wall Street trader Cameron Chadwick to complicate life and love with questions of class and money.  You may think you know where the story is headed, and you may well be right, despite the requisite twist as Thayer ties up loose ends.

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lightruinsWhat do you mean school starts this week?! Not that I’m going, but summer’s not over, and I have a towering TBR list to prove it. But before I can get to Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, which is as twisted as Twin Peaks, or to Samantha Shannon’s futuristic The Bone Season, which she wrote when she was a 19-year-old Oxford student, I need to catch up on assorted other books read but not yet blogged.
Love and revenge play out in Chris Bohjalian’s absorbing The Light in the Ruins (Knopf/Doubleday, digital galley), part WWII saga, part police procedural. In 1943 Tuscany, the aristocratic Rosatis are coerced into welcoming a German archaelogist and Nazi soldiers to the family villa. But that’s just the half of it. Ten years later, Florence police detective Seraphina Bettini follows a serial killer targeting the surviving Rosatis, and the trail leads her back to the war and her own past as a young partisan. I’m not much on the interspersed short chapters from the bloodthirsty killer’s point-of-view. Not only are they redundant, but they also give away the assassin’s identity.
butterflysisterAmy Gail Hansen spins an intriguing, coincidence-studded first novel, The Butterfly Sister (Morrow, digital galley). Ruby Rousseau mistakenly receives a suitcase belonging to her former Tarble College classmate Beth Richards, then learns that Beth has gone missing. A copy of a Virginia Woolf book among Beth’s possessions suggests to Ruby that Beth was entangled with campus lothario and professor Mark Suter, who broke Ruby’s heart and led to her attempting suicide. Returning to the women’s college near Chicago for a convenient reunion, Ruby, supposedly on assignment for a small newspaper, finds that another student has been hospitalized because of an aborted suicide. Complications ensue, encompassing campus politics, plagiarism and sexual harassment, as well as the shades of Woolf, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Sylvia Plath. Then again, Ruby may not be the most reliable narrator.
skyeJessica Brockmole skirts sentimentality with Letters from Skye (Random House, digital galley), a novel of love and war told entirely in letters. The first correspondents are Scottish poet Elspeth Grant and American student David Graham. He sends her a fan letter in 1912, and the ensuing exchange charts their relationship through the first World War, as Elspeth’s young husband goes off to the front lines and David becomes an ambulance driver in France. Do their paths ever intersect? Years later, Elspeth’s daughter Margaret writes to her estranged uncle and her fiance about her quest to find out more about her father, whom Elspeth wouldn’t talk about. You might think you know where the story is going, but Brockmole surprises with her missives, scattering clues here and there. Read between the lines.
spearWhat are the chances of two authors, each taking a break from an established series, setting their new novels in the same exotic locale? We’re off to 1920s Kenya with disgraced socialite Delilah Drummond in Deanna Raybourn’s A Spear of Summer Grass (Harlequin, digital galley). The dissolute expat milieu would seem to be the perfect place for vain Delilah, but her romance with the dashing Ryder White and her experiences with the Kikuyu tribe show her to made of stronger stuff as she pursues a new life.
willigThere’s also romance, adventure and scandal in Lauren Willig’s The Ashford Affair (St. Martin’s, review ARC), which intertwines the story of Manhattan attorney Clemmie with that of her 99-year-old grandmother Addie. Addie’s tale, which reaches back to World War I London and then post-war Kenya, is the more interesting, tied as it is to her rich cousin Bea’s exploits and affairs. Clemmie’s research of the family tree yields secrets and surprises.

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