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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

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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smokeMystery writers are magicians of sorts, constructing clever puzzles, misdirecting our attention, dazzling us with their verbal sleight of hand. They also juggle characters and clues, and, sometimes, different series. Elly Griffiths, best known for her Ruth Galloway series, introduced the “Magic Men” mysteries with last year’s clever The Zig Zag Girl. The follow-up, Smoke and Mirrors (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), captivates as police detective Edgar Stephens and magician Max Mephisto hunt for a killer in early 1950s Brighton. It’s December, and the crime scene is straight out of Hansel and Gretel, with a trail of broken candy leading to the snow-covered corpses of young Annie and her best pal Mark. The fairy tale connections continue as Edgar learns that talented Annie liked to write plays based on Grimm for her classmates to perform, and other clues link to the pantomime Aladdin, in which Max is starring. The frantic holiday vibe, the theatrical backdrop, the colorful characters and the bleak weather add up to a moody mystery. Abracadabra, indeed!

wrongsideMichael Connelly takes a walk on the noir side in his new Harry Bosch novel, beginning with the title The Wrong Side of Goodbye (Little, Brown, digital galley). Then Harry, now retired from the LAPD and working part-time as a PI, goes calling on money — wealthy aviation tycoon Whitney Vance, 85 and in failing health. He wants Harry to find out what happened to the Mexican teen he got pregnant when he was a USC student 65 years ago and who then vanished. Is Vibiana still living and did she have the baby? Does he have a heir? Sworn to secrecy, Harry begins a dogged search for possible Vance descendants, a hunt that takes him to a one-time home for unwed mothers and his own past as a Vietnam vet. Meanwhile, Harry, who is also a reserve police officer for the city of San Fernando, is on the case of the “Screen Ripper,” a serial rapist with an unusual m.o. The parallel stories don’t intersect, except that Harry’s time and loyalties are divided between the two cases, both of which offer surprises and coincidences. Nice work.

mistletoeHere’s an unexpected treat: The Mistletoe Murder and Other Stories (Knopf, digital galley) brings together four previously uncollected short stories by the great P.D. James, who died in 2014. In the stellar title tale, an elderly writer remembers a memorable wartime Christmas, when a fellow houseguest — an antiques dealer — was bludgeoned to death. The conclusion of this  cold case is a chilling twist. Two of the stories feature detective Adam Dalgliesh and pay homage to Christie and Holmes. In the wry “The Boxdale Inheritance,” Dalgliesh’s godfather asks him to investigate the source of family money — did Great Aunt Allie really poison her elderly husband and get away with it? “The Twelve Clues of Christmas” involves a young Dalgliesh showing local coppers how he’d solve a case. “A Very Commonplace Murder” is less Golden Age mystery and more of a creepy Hitchcockian tale as a voyeur spies on his neighbor’s illicit trysts, which end in murder. Oh, I miss P.D. James.

lostboySwedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg’s The Lost Boy (Pegasus, digital galley) combines a solid police procedural with a haunting backstory in a shivery tale of murder, drugs, grief and ghosts. Detective Patrik Hedstrom and his true-crime writer wife, Erica, should be enjoying their infant twin sons. But Erica’s sister’s loss of a baby has plunged her into months-long depression, and misfortune seems to fog the very air of Fjallbacka. Then the financial officer of soon-to-open hotel-spa is murdered, and his death leads to secrets from his past in Stockholm, shocking his elderly parents and his childhood sweetheart fleeing her abusive husband. Also in play are a couple of con artists, a violent biker gang, drug dealers high and low, and an island of ghosts. Really.

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reckoningCable TV shows — Motive, Murder in the First, Major Crimes — got me through the summer, and now it’s back to the books. A flurry of new crime novels last month soon turned into a bit of a blizzard. That’s fine — it’s still hot and steamy here in Florida, and I appreciate the chill of ice and snow, if only on the page.

Winter is not just coming, it’s fast upon the Quebec village of Three Pines in Louise Penny’s A Great Reckoning (St. Martin’s Press, library hardcover). Former Chief Inspector Armand Gamache comes out of retirement to whip the national police academy into shape, searching for long-rooted corruption. An old map literally found in the walls of Three Pines figures into the expertly plotted puzzle, as does the murder of an authoritarian professor, Gamache’s interest in a fierce young cadet, and the almost forgotten lives of World War I soldiers. Loss shrouds the winter-haunted village, but also the possibility of forgiveness. This is my new favorite in the series, right up there with the piercing How the Light Gets In.

brinded-catBooted from boarding school in Canada, intrepid girl detective Flavia de Luce is delighted to be returning home to her crumbling English home Buckshaw in time for Christmas. But what should be a joyous homecoming in Alan Bradley’s clever Thrice the Brinded Cat Hath Mewed (Ballantine/Random House, digital galley) turns bleak when Flavia learns her beloved father, the Colonel, is in hospital with pneumonia. Unable to be at his bedside, Flavia tears off on an errand aboard her trusty bicycle Gladys and comes upon the body of a woodcarver hanging upside down from his bedroom door. “It’s amazing what the discovery of a corpse can do for one spirits,” thinks Flavia, seizing on the unusual clue of famous children’s books in the dead man’s possession. The curious cat also on the scene may be the companion of a rumored witch across the road, and that’s just beginning of a curious mystery in need of Flavia’s detecting skills.

sorrowJulia Keller writes atmospheric mysteries set in the mountains of West Virginia, and Acker’s Gap, the hardscrabble hometown of prosecutor Bell Elkins, is practically a character in the series. Sorrow Road (St. Martin’s Minotaur, digital galley) is as chilly as its eye-catching cover, with several snowstorms impeding Bell’s investigation of a law school colleague’s death on an icy road, as well as her daughter Carla’s oral history project for the library. A nursing home where many of the residents have dementia ties several plot points together, including the murder of a staff member and the questionable deaths of several patients. Keller intersperses the present story with a past one about three local boys going off to fight World II and being together on D-Day.

 

wishtrueI grew up in a Charlotte, N.C. subdivision very like fictional Sycamore Glen in Marybeth Mayhew Whalen’s The Things We Wish Were True (Lake Union, digital galley), and I can almost smell the chlorine at the neighborhood pool. It’s the social hub during sultry summer days, kids cannon-balling off the diving board, mothers trading suntan lotion and gossip, young teens hanging out. In Whalen’s story, told from multiple points-of-view, an accident at the pool disturbs the seemingly placid surface of Sycamore Glen, revealing secret undercurrents. It’s not a conventional mystery but rather a domestic/neighborhood drama with elements of suspense. Think Liane Moriarty (Truly Madly Guilty) or Lisa Jewell (The Girls in the Garden), only in an all-American small-town. Zell is the middle-aged empty nester who keeps an eye on the single dad next door and knows more than she’s letting on about his runaway wife. Jencey, hunted by a stalker in high school, returns 15 years later, her country-club life in ruins. Her former best friend Bryte is now happily married to Jencey’s high school boyfriend. Then there’s Cailey, the young girl who lives in a rental house, and the older single man across the street who takes care of his elderly mother. Whalen deftly weaves their lives together, and if some events are predictable, others surprise. Things are not what they seem in The Things We Wish Were True, the September selection of the She Reads online book club.

darkestBe happy you weren’t invited to philandering land developer Sean Jackson’s 50th birthday party, which ended in disaster when Coco, one of his three-year-old twins, mysteriously vanished into the night, never to be seen again. This was in 2004, and now in the present day, Mila Jackson, 27, receives word of her estranged father’s scandalous death. All the houseguests at the ill-fated weekend will be at the funeral, except for her stepmother, Claire, who asks Mila to take teenage Ruby, the surviving twin. In The Darkest Secret (Penguin, library paperback), Alex Marwood skillfully uses flashbacks to tease out and eventually reveal (perhaps) what actually happened to young Coco. So readers do wind up at the scene of the crime, so to speak, privy to the bickering between narcissistic Sean and insecure Claire, and where the self-involved adults plan how to keep the handful of kids quiet while they party into the wee hours.  It’s not pretty, nor is the funeral gathering, where someone else ends up dead.

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splitfoot“All stories are ghost stories,” says one of the characters near the beginning of Samantha Hunt’s Mr. Splitfoot (Houghton Mifflin, digital galley), a mysterious, and sometimes mystifying, novel of abandoned children, missing mothers, con men, cult members and angel voices. Two parallel narratives twist like the serpent on the cover, echoing the story of upstate New York’s Fox sisters, 19th-century charlatans who pretended to be mediums guided by “Mr. Splitfoot.”

Ruth and Nat, as close as sisters, communicate with the spirit world to the fascination of their motley fellows at the Love of Christ! Foster Home, Mission and Farm, presided over by the parsimonious and fanatical “Father.” Think Charles Dickens by way of Flannery O’Connor, except this is rural New York in the late 20th-century. A traveling con man, Mr. Bell, shows scarred Ruth and fragile Nat how to cash in on their spiritualist talents, even as a sinister local tries to buy Ruth to be his bride.

This is rich and strange enough, but Hunt compounds the book’s oddities with the uncoiling story of Ruth’s pregnant niece Cora, who, 14 years later, accompanies the now-mute Ruth on a walking odyssey to the Adirondacks. Why Cora continues on a seeming wild-goose chase is a question even Cora can’t answer satisfactorily, but Hunt teases out the puzzle by shifting back and forth between Ruth/Nat and Ruth/Cora. Contemporary gothic? Picaresque coming-of-age? Haunting hybrid? Best keep in mind: “All stories are ghost stories.”

crookedThe ghost of a young teenager named Esme haunts the memory of a young woman called Alison in Christobel Kent’s atmospheric The Crooked House (FSG, purchased e-book), and no wonder — Alison used to be Esme. That was before her mother and siblings were murdered in their isolated house near the village of Saltleigh, and traumatized Esme was whisked away by an aunt in Cornwall. Now working as an accountant at a London publishing firm, Alison keeps her past private, and her older boyfriend Paul is reserved as well.  But when Paul invites Alison to his former girlfriend’s wedding in Saltleigh, Alison forces herself to return to her hometown, hoping she can piece together the fragmented memories of the night her family died. Surely, no one will recognize her after all these years. Ha! One after another, the close-knit villagers tumble to Alison’s real identity — her former best friend, the old pub mate of her dad, the surfer who once kissed her, her older brother’s pals. Even as Alison seeks out the kind police detective who handled the infamous case, she is determined to keep her secrets from Paul. Then an accidental death turns out to be murder, and again the victim connects to Alison/Esme.

The Crooked House reminded me of Shirley Jackson’s brilliant We Have Always Lived in the Castle, with the shades of Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie hovering nearby. That’s fine, and The Crooked House is mostly entertaining and suspenseful. Still, Kent heaps on so many coincidences and plot twists as to defy credibility. All fall down.

spiderEmily Arsenault’s The Evening Spider (Morrow, digital galley) is as creepy-crafty as its title. In the present day, history teacher and new mom Abby worries that her old New England house is haunted when she hears a peculiar shushing noise in the nursery and notices a strange bruise on baby Lucy. Researching the house’s history, she obtains an old recipe book and journal circa 1880 belonging to another young mother, Frances, who lived in the house. While Abby, suffering from nightmares and sleeplessness, tries to find out more about Frances, readers are treated to a confessional monologue from Frances in the Northampton lunatic asylum in 1885. Turns out she was fascinated by a sensational murder of the time, which Abby reads about in newspaper accounts and other documents. Abby reaches out to both an elderly archivist and a woman claiming to be a medium as she wonders what “unspeakable crime” preoccupied Frances.

Inspired by a real-life 1879 murder and trial, Arsenault mixes grisly details of autopsies and early forensics with the domestic routines of young mothers living 125 years apart. Frances worries that her attorney husband finds her distracted behavior around baby Martha hysterical, while Abby knows she’s losing it when she unwittingly wears her pajama bottoms to the public library. The late, great Barbara Michaels did this kind of ghost story very well, and so does Arsenault.

 

 

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unlikelySure, some of you are headed back to school and work, and you have my sympathy. But others are headed out to the pool or back to the beach to savor what has been a summer for the books. There have been so many that I actually lost track of what I’ve reviewed. I wonder what I was doing in June that was so important that I forgot to write about Judy Blume’s  In the Unlikely Event (Knopf Doubleday, digital galley), a novel that thoughtfully explores the impact of a series of plane crashes on the townspeople of Elizabeth, N.J., in the winter of 1951-52. As usual, Blume’s writing is assured and accessible, her sympathetic characters flawed in familiar ways. The story is studded with period details: hats and gloves, wood-paneled rec rooms, cocktails and cigarettes. I quite liked it.

darkdarkMaybe I was distracted by a couple of thrillers I read back-to-back, S.J. Watson’s Second Life (HarperCollins, digital galley) and S.K. Tremayne’s The Ice Twins (Grand Central, digital galley). Watson’s follow-up to Before I Go to Sleep features a woman who goes on an online dating sight in attempt to solve the murder of her sister and becomes caught up in an erotic affair. I remember reviews commenting on the surprise ending. Didn’t surprise me. Neither did Tremayne’s implausible tale of a grieving mother on a remote island puzzled as to the true identity of her surviving twin daughter. For some eerie psychological suspense, I recommend Ruth Ware’s In a Dark, Dark Wood (Gallery/Scout Press, digital galley), in which a crime writer tries to remember the events of a girls’ weekend at the secluded Glass House after waking up in a hospital. There was snow. And there was blood.

lakeroadWare’s writing reminded me of Sophie Hannah when she’s at the top of her game. Alas, Hannah’s latest, Woman With a Secret (Morrow, digital galley), is kind of a mess, with an unreliable narrator narrating too much of the story of a murder of a controversial columnist. Detectives Waterhouse, Zailler and crew have a difficult time sorting out all the many unpleasant suspects, and the narrative is stuffed with tiresome e-mails, Twitter exchanges and online rants. Really didn’t care for Naughty Nicki and her secret cyber affairs. Secrets from the past, of course, are a staple of beach books. In Karen Katchur’s atmospheric The Secrets of Lake Road (St. Martin’s digital galley), a missing girl at a lakeside resort stirs up Jo’s carefully guarded memories of her high school boyfriend’s drowning 16 years ago. But Jo’s daughter, 12-year-old Caroline, about to leave childhood behind, steals every scene she narrates. Wendy Wax temporarily abandons her beachside setting in A Week at the Lake (Berkeley, review copy), but she’s still writing about female friendships, loyalty and betrayal. Emma, Mackenzie and Serena all have show-business connections and secrets, which give their story a glossy, dishy patina.

moviestarReal stars, including Clark Gable and Martina Dietrich, appear in Peter  Davis’ first novel of 1930s Hollywood, Girl of My Dreams (Open Road, review copy), but the focus is on a young screenwriter in love with a glamorous actress — the improbably named Palmyra Millevoix — who is also pursued by a studio tycoon. The tale of this triangle unreels with an overlay of nostalgia for celluloid dreams. Feel free to speculate as to which contemporary stars inspired celebrity memoirist Hilary Liftin’s Movie Star by Lizzie Pepper (Viking Penguin, digital galley). It’s to Liftin’s credit that this faux memoir is more than tabloid fodder as young Lizzie recounts her courtship and marriage to mega-star Rob Mars, whose attachment to a cult-like spiritual group interferes with their relationship. Living a seemingly luxurious life for all the world to see, Lizzie has to decide if she’s going to become the heroine of her own story.

lawyerSometimes in summer, a girl just wants to have fun, which is when I read Susan Mallery’s Fools Gold fluffy romances. She offered a trilogy this year: Hold Me (Harlequin, digital galley), in which secret singer Destiny and Olympic skier Kipling work search-and-rescue together; Kiss Me (Harlequin, digital galley), the love story between city girl Phoebe and cowboy Zane; and Thrill Me (Harlequin, digital galley), where Maya returns to town and runs into former flame Del.  Court and spark. But the book I fell hard for was Lee Robinson’s engaging Lawyer for the Dog (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), in which 49-year-old Charleston attorney Sally Baynard is appointed by a family court judge — also her ex-husband — to represent a miniature schnauzer in a custody dispute between a divorcing couple. Trying to figure out what’s best for adorable Sherman also means Sally has to figure out what’s best for her dementia-afflicted mother and for her own heart. Will it be the ex-husband, the Johns Island vet, or maybe a dog all her own? There’s real substance beneath the fluff; call this one more than puppy love.

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brushbackThe heat is on, so I’m hibernating in the AC under the ceiling fans. But I really can’t complain about summer. There’s almost always a baseball game on TV, a friend just brought me one of her delicious peach pies and I’ve been binging on crime novels. Sara Paretsky knocks it out of the park with the aptly named Brush Back (Putnam’s, digital galley), No. 18 in her V.I. Warshawski series. Never one to be intimidated, Vic is only encouraged by the threats she receives after taking a case in her old South Side Chicago neighborhood. Her 80-year-old client even takes a swing at her, and that’s before she begins digging up secrets about a 25-year-old murder case that possibly implicates her late cousin, Boom-Boom, a star player for the Blackhawks. Finding the real culprits leads Vic to rigged construction sites, corrupt politicians, local fixers and territorial cops, as well as to the bowels of Wrigley Field. Real inside baseball, tense and action-packed.

speakingbonesKathy Reichs’ involving Speaking in Bones (Bantam, digital galley) is also the 18th novel featuring forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan who, this go-round, follows the lead of a websleuth on a cold case. Brennan is initially skeptical of Hazel “Lucky” Strike’s claim that the remains found in rural North Carolina are those of young Cora Teague, whose ultra-religious family thinks ran off with her boyfriend. But it’s the delusions of true believers that prove especially dangerous for Brennan and her colleagues.

murderdcFor more nitty-gritty city crime, check out Neely Tucker’s Murder D.C. (Viking, digital galley), set in the nation’s capital, and Ingrid Thoft’s Brutality (Putnam, library hardcover), set in Boston. In Tucker’s follow-up to The Ways of the Dead, metro reporter Sully Carter’s investigation into an apparent drug-related death has him dealing with low-life power wielders  and high-up power brokers. Street-smart dialogue and details boost a plot complicated by race, class and money.

 

brutalityThoft’s Fina Ludlow, investigator for her family’s infamous law firm, takes on a case of her own in the third book in the series. When Liz Barone, a former collegiate soccer player, is assaulted in her kitchen and left with life-threatening injuries, her mother hires Fina with the grudging consent of Liz’s husband. Fina, as snarky as ever and downing more junk food than Brenda Johnson of The Closer, suspects the attack on Liz may have been motivated by her lawsuit against New England University, where Liz played soccer and now works as a researcher. She’s not wrong, but many people have a stake in Liz’s allegations that her recent memory loss resulted from playing soccer with a concussion.

PrettyisWhen it comes to novels about kidnap survivors, Laura Lippman’s 2010 I’d Know You Anywhere is the gold standard for me. But Maggie Mitchell’s first novel Pretty Is (Henry Holt, digital galley) captured my attention with its insights about the secret life of girls and female friendship. When Carly May and Lois are 12, they are kidnapped by a handsome stranger they call Zed and are held for two months in a remote mountain cabin before being rescued. Some 20 years later, spelling bee champ Lois is a college professor and junior beauty queen Carly May has become Hollywood actress Chloe Savage. They are eventually reunited after Lois writes a thriller about two kidnapped girls, and Chloe accepts the part of a detective in the movie based on Lois’ book. Before that, though, a creepy student stirs up Lois’ memories about that summer, while Chloe dwells on the differences between Lois’s book — part of which is embedded in Pretty Is — and what she remembers. But it isn’t until they are together again that they are forced to confront the truth of their shared experience.

bradstreetThe slippery nature of memory also is explored in Robin Kirman’s lushly written Bradstreet Gate (Crown, digital galley), in which the murder of a Harvard student affects three of her classmates and the professor who becomes the prime suspect. Yes, it did remind me a bit of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, but Kirman apparently was inspired by the 1998 murder of Yale student Suzanne Jovin. The victim in her story is Julie Patel, and the history professor Julie challenged in class is Rufus Storrow,  a Virginia aristocrat and West Point grad with a background in military intelligence. Georgia Calvin is the beautiful, privileged student who has a furtive affair with Storrow. Charlie Flournoy, who struggles to bury his working-class roots, has a crush on Georgia and regards Storrow as a mentor. Their brilliant and fierce friend Alice Kovac, the daughter of Serbian immigrants, is the unpredictable, secretive outsider. Kirman concocts a heady mix of youthful ambition, desire and deceit, following her characters in the decade after the murder as suspicion shadows their lives in surprising ways.

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speculationFortune-tellers and floods, mermaids and mysteries, a traveling carnival and a tumble-down house threatening to fall into the sea. Erika Swyler packs all these and more into her first novel The Book of Speculation (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), which both fascinates and frustrates with its alternating narratives. In the present, reference librarian Simon Watson lives in the family house slowly sliding into the Long Island Sound where his mother — a circus mermaid — curiously drowned when he and his sister Enola were children. Simon looked after Enola while their grief-stricken father withered away, but six years ago, she ran off with their mother’s tarot cards and no plans to ever return. But then Simon receives a mysterious, water-damaged old book in the mail, and Enola calls to say she’ll be home in July. Simon is alarmed because the book — the logbook of a traveling carnival — shows generations of the women in his family all drowning on July 24th.   In the past storyline, a mute boy known as Amos is adopted by carnival owner, apprenticed to a Russian fortune-teller and is captivated by Evangeline, who may be a mermaid and is possibly a murderess. That the two storylines will eventually converge is a foregone conclusion, but the “how” makes for the suspense. Still, the novel’s rickety underpinnings sag under the weight of so many coincidences, romances and misfortunes that its magic begins to wane. The Book of Speculation ends up being both too much and too little. But I did like the horseshoe crabs.

dayshiftReaders of Charlaine Harris’s Midnight Crossing know that strangers to the dusty Texas town of Midnight are not nearly as strange as its residents. Phone psychic Manfredo Bernardo learned that when he moved to Midnight and discovered his neighbors included a witch, a shape-shifter, a couple of angels and a vampire. Still, things have taken a turn for the really strange in Harris’ follow-up, the entertaining Day Shift (Penguin Berkley, review copy). For starters, Manfredo is suspected of murder after one of his clients drops dead, and then the Reverend, who tends the little church and adjacent pet cemetery, takes in a young boy who grows taller — really taller — every day. Beautiful Olivia Channing is keeping all kinds of secrets while her vampire gentleman friend Lemuel is away. But what’s really weird is that a mysterious corporation is supposedly turning the abandoned Midnight Hotel into a luxury resort but also has relocated some indigent Las Vegas seniors to the premises. And just to keep things interesting, Harris brings in a couple of characters from her Sookie Stackhouse series as strange events come to a head under a full moon. Some mysteries are resolved, but others only deepen. A third book, please?

boneyardIslands have a certain magic, some more than others.  In author Susan M. Boyer’s mind, the fictional South Carolina island of Stella Maris is located a hop, skip, a couple of bridges and a ferry ride from Charleston. The picturesque beach community is also home base for PI Liz Talbot, although her hunky partner Nate wants her to move upstate in Lowcountry Boneyard (Henery Press, digital galley). As readers of the previous two books in this perky series know, Liz has a secret tie to the island in the shape of a ghostly guardian angel, her late best friend, Colleen, who conveniently pops up to warn of danger or gather clues in the spirit world. This time, Liz is searching for missing Charleston heiress Kent Heyward whom the police consider a rich-girl runaway. After meeting Kent’s family — including her stern father, matriarch Abigail and creepy twin uncles — Liz thinks Kent may have had good reason to leave town, but Kent’s chef boyfriend Matt and her BFF Ansley assure her otherwise. Dangerous surprises await when Liz goes poking around in a local cemetery and digging up family secrets in the lowcountry and upstate, but Colleen can’t come to the rescue if Liz is too far away from Stella Maris. Not to give anything away, but the fourth book in the series is due in the fall.

mysteriousElizabeth George, best known for her Inspector Thomas Lynley series, has a high old time with The Mysterious Disappearance of the Reluctant Book Fairy (Mysterious Press/Open Road, digital galley), her contribution to the Press short story series Bibliomysteries. At just under 50 pages, it’s a tale easily consumed in one sitting, true escapist reading a la Jasper Fforde. Janet Shore, the sickly youngest child in a boisterous Washington state family, perfects the art of escaping into a book at an early age. Literally. “Given a heart rending scene of emotion (Mary Ingalls going blind!), a thrilling adventure in a frightening cave (Tom, Huck, and Injun Joe!), a battle with pirates (Peter Pan and Captain Hook!), and our Janet was actually able to transport herself into the scene itself. And not as a passive observer, mind you, but rather as a full participant in the story.” Janet first entertains herself and classmates with book traveling, but gives it up when she grows older and has her heart broken. Then her best childhood friend Monie conspires to get Janet — now Annapurna — a job at the local library, where the overbearing Mildred Bantry sees a way to make money by setting up a book tourism company, Epic!, with Annapurna as chief tour guide. George has a lot of fun with this conceit, as will readers who can only imagine the joys of escaping into the pages of a favorite book or Greek myth. As for Annapurna/Janet’s choice of the perfect pages in which to get lost, let me just say that I’ll happily join her some gaudy night.

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