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Posts Tagged ‘Oxford’

afterthefireA friend is off to Great Britain for a couple of weeks and another is already there, posting lovely pictures on Facebook. Meanwhile, I am muttering, “Oh, to be in England,” drinking tea and reading a stack of atmospheric mysteries that make me think I’m there — almost.

The London where police detective Maeve Kerrigan works isn’t a tourist attraction, and Murchison House isn’t a stately home. Rather, it’s a concrete tower on a rundown public housing project that turns into a deathtrap for some poor souls when a fire breaks out. In Jane Casey’s After the Fire (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley), Maeve and her fellow coppers discover mysteries among the victims. What was a conservative anti-everything MP doing there in the first place? Are the two unidentified women victims of human trafficking and murder? Why is the hospitalized mother living under an assumed name? Casey writes an absorbing procedural, but her sympathetic characters propel the series, especially Maeve, who is determined to stop the stalker who keeps her up at nights, and DI Josh Derwent, who doesn’t play well with others.

womanblueAs a forensic archaeologist, Ruth Galloway is usually concerned with old bones. But she is drawn into a current case in the picturesque medieval town of Walsingham when her old friend Hilary, an Anglican priest, reveals she has been getting threatening letters from someone against women in the clergy. Meanwhile, DCI Harry Nelson, the father of Ruth’s 5-year-old daughter, is investigating the murder of a young woman in a white dress and blue cloak whose body is discovered a day after the druid Cathbad thinks he has seen a vision of the Virgin Mary in the nearby churchyard. The plot of Elly Griffth’s clever The Woman in Blue (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) pivots on the past, linking to both long-ago foster children and a missing religious relic. The personal relationships among the characters are just as complex, with Nelson dismayed to find a crack in his longtime marriage, and he and Ruth continuing to deny their mutual attraction.

quietneighborsNursing a broken heart and fearing she may be implicated in a crime, librarian Jude flees London for a Scottish village. There, she finds refuge working in a dusty bookstore presided over by eccentric Lowell Glen, who also offers her housing in the tiny gravedigger’s cottage nearby. Catriona McPherson’s new standalone Quiet Neighbors (Midnight Ink, digital galley) is awash in busybody villagers, old secrets and suspicion. Jude doubts that pregnant Eddy, who turns up out of the blue, is really Lowell’s longlost daughter, and is disconcerted that Eddy has her own suspicions about Jude’s motives. Neither has much use for gossipy Mrs. Hewston, who worked as a nurse for  Lowell’s father, old Dr. Glen, but what of the troubling postscripts left in old books by gravedigger Todd Jolley? A threatening letter and a fire in the night have Jude looking over her shoulder, even as her past comes calling. McPherson’s twisty tale is not as cozy as its quaint setting and quirky characters suggest, but I’d love to get lost in Lowell’s bookstore.

writtenredAnnie Dalton introduced Anna Hopkins and her dog Bonnie in last year’s The White Shepherd, and they return in Written in Red (Severn House, digital galley). Also back are the dogwalking friends Anna met during a murder investigation, vibrant young Tansy and retired Oxford professor Isabel Salzman. When professor James Lowell is attacked at the college where Anna works as an administrative assistant, she and Tansy are surprised at how devastated Isabel is at the news. Turns out she and James were part of the Oxford Six back in the mid-1960s, recruited as anti-communist spies by the manipulative Tallis. The unsolved murder of glamorous Hetty led to the group’s dissolution back then but not the secrecy surrounding it. Anna, still emotionally fragile from a family trauma, comes to Isabel’s aid when the older woman is assaulted, even as she makes plans for Christmas and time spent with Jake, the American soldier who rescued Bonnie in Afghanistan. It’s a busy, somewhat uneven book, but Dalton still leaves room for a third in the series. More dogs, please.

keepyouThe dreaming spires of Oxford take on a nightmare cast in Lucie Whitehouse’s psychological thriller Keep You Close (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley). Rowan Winter hasn’t seen her best childhood friend, Oxford artist Marianne Glass, since a misunderstanding drove them apart 10 years ago. Still, she doesn’t believe Marianne’s fatal fall from the rooftop of the Glass family home was an accident, and her suspicions are heightened when she receives a one-sentence letter from Marianne mailed before her death: “I need to talk to you.” So Rowan returns to Oxford from London and begins piecing together Marianne’s recent past and last days, talking to her nearest and dearest, from her gallery owner fiance to a controversial artist who was painting her portrait. Whitehouse reminds me of Ruth Rendell in the way she artfully withholds information and misdirects readers. The result is suspenseful and unsettling.

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watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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berlinJoseph Kanon is one of my favorite writers of historical espionage, right up there with Alan Furst in evoking the spy’s world of shadows, way more than fifty shades of gray. Last year’s Istanbul Passage was a layered tale of the crossroads of East and West in 1945. Now, in Leaving Berlin (Atria, digital galley), Kanon’s back in divided post-war Germany in the rubble-strewn Soviet sector during the blockade of 1948-49.

Alex Meier is a Berlin native and novelist who escaped the city for California before the war. Standing up to the McCarthyites earns him a job with the CIA in lieu of deportation or prison. If he’ll spy on his fellow cultural emigres in East Germany, he can return to the States and the young son living with his ex-wife. Alex isn’t too happy with the arrangement, especially when he finds out his old flame is the consort of his main target, a Russian major. His life becomes infinitely more complicated when her brother escapes from a POW labor camp and needs to get medical help in the West, and when the East German police insist he become an informer. His loyalties will be tested more than once; betrayal lurks in every dark corner. There’s a shoot-out early on, then a murder and a cover-up, but the story’s less concerned with action than with discerning the traitors on all sides. The characters, with their varying backstories, are believable, even if Alex can’t believe what they say.

knivesOlen Steinhauer signals what he’s up to at the very beginning of his clever All the Old Knives (St. Martins/Minotaur Books, paperback ARC) when CIA agent Henry Pelham discusses the state of contemporary spy fiction with a fellow airline passenger. She’s reading an old Len Deighton. “They just don’t make stories like this anymore. … You knew who the bad guys were back then.”

Actually, they do still write traditional spy novels — see Joseph Kanon, above — and Steinhauer’s new book isn’t as different as one might suppose, despite its up-to-the-minute terrorist-flavored plot and its unconventional framework. Almost all of it takes place over dinner at a quiet restaurant in Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif., where Henry is meeting former lover and agent Celia Favreau for the first time in five years. Both were stationed in Vienna during the catastrophic takeover of a passenger plane by a radical Islamic group. Celia left within months after the debacle to marry an older man and start a family. Ostensibly, Henry just happens to be in her neck of the woods and Celia is catching him up on her two small children, but much more is revealed in their conversation and in flashbacks. Henry’s involved in an inquiry about the hijacking — there’s lingering suspicion that a mole tipped off the terrorists — and he wants Celia’s version of events. Of course, it’s all in the official report. Or is it?

Halfway through the book, Steinhauer switches perspectives from Henry to Celia, and while her memories overlap his, they also differ on crucial points. So, who are you going to believe? Both are well-trained liars and unreliable witnesses. The narrative switches back and forth as dinner progresses. Wine flows. Delicious food consumed. The veal hardly needs a knife, but the talk becomes more pointed. In the end, a good spy tales turns on deceit and betrayal. All the Old Knives is very good indeed.

dreamingspiesLaurie R. King’s novels mix atmosphere, history and intrigue, whether she’s writing suspense novels like 2013’s The Bones of Paris or one of her entries in the Mary Russell-Sherlock Holmes series, say, 2012’s Garment of Shadows, which started out in in 1920s Morocco. Her latest, Dreaming Spies (Bantam/Random House, digital galley) finds Mary and Sherlock on a steamer bound for 1924 Japan, where they disguise themselves as Buddhist pilgrims as part of a secret mission to help the royal family. It all stems from a meeting aboard ship with a young Japanese woman, who turns out to be economist, acrobat and real-life ninja, and an English lord who turns out to be a blackmailer. The leisurely narrative, stuffed with all sorts of fascinating cultural asides, is occasionally punctuated by action scenes, but it’s Mary and Sherlock’s wits that make the story so entertaining. Their Japan adventure is only partially resolved, however, and there’s more mystery a year later when their Japanese friends and foes come calling in Mary’s beloved Oxford with its “dreaming spires.”

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nancyadamsMost of us consider ourselves experts on high school — we’ve been there, after all. But how would that experience help or hurt us if we went back 20 years later, not as a student but as a teacher?

In Larry Baker’s smart and entertaining new novel The Education of Nancy Adams (Ice Tea Books, paperback ARC), Nancy, valedictorian of the class of ’77, returns to Kennedy High School as a first-year teacher 20 years after graduation. A widow with no children, she’s as surprised as anyone to be living in her late parents’ home on the St. Johns River in northeast Florida, but her favorite high school teacher, Russell Parsons, has lured her back. He’s the popular principal at Kennedy now, married with two daughters, but Nancy is still emotionally drawn to him. Once school starts, however, she has more on her mind than rekindling her schoolgirl crush.

Baker, author of Flamingo Rising, a terrific coming-of-age novel, creates a colorful microcosm populated with familiar yet credible characters. Nancy, who narrates, has students who are high-flyers, misfits, bullies, rebels, nerds. The perplexing Dana may be the smartest of them all, but she’s struggling to make up classes after having a baby. Nancy can’t figure her out. But she’s also contending with her fellow teachers: the veteran who helped integrate the faculty, the prissy by-the-book newcomer, the charismatic basketball coach, the guidance counselor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Over the course of a schoolyear, replete with surprises, Nancy learns from them all about what being a teacher really means.

Baker’s book is in tune with the times — the mid 1990s — and thoughtfully explores issues of racial prejudice, sexual harassment, school violence and school-board politics. But mostly it’s a good story about mostly good people making their way in a changing world. I’m giving it an “A.”

flyingshoesIf you are the kind of person who alphabetizes your books, color-codes your closets and likes stories with a clear beginning, middle and end, bookstore owner Lisa Howorth’s first novel, Flying Shoes (Bloomsbury, digital galley) is likely to drive you plum crazy. How appropriate it kicks off with Mary Byrd Thornton throwing a cheap plate on the heart-pine kitchen floor of her Oxford, Miss., home. The shards of faux-china explode all over the place, just like the pieces of Mary Byrd’s story. It’s a credit to Howorth’s often-glorious writing that you’re willing to pick through the mess.

Really, plot is the least of it, although Mary Byrd throws the plate after getting the news that the 1966 unsolved case of her murdered little brother in Richmond, Va., is being reopened after 30 years and Mary Byrd needs to come home. This will eventually result in her hitching a ride with a trucker and outrunning the ice storm that paralyzes Oxford, but not before her housekeeper Eva’s daughter is accused of murdering her abusive husband. And then there’s Mary Byrd’s husband Charles and their children, her gay best friend Hubbard, the homeless but resourceful vet Teever, and gallivanting flirt Jack Ernest. They all have their stories, which intertwine with Mary Byrd’s like the ragged vines in her overgrown garden. The past tale of the murdered brother is overwhelmed by the casual chaos of  Mary Byrd’s present, the very randomness of the everyday. Best go with the flow, or you can always fling a plate.

 

 

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realmagicIf you want to be a fairy princess when you grow up, or are considering clairvoyancy as a career path, two new books likely will change your mind. They may, however, encourage you to try your hand at fantasy writing. Warning: the field is quite crowded, and these two first-timers set the bar quite high.
The cover and title of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (Viking/Pamela Dorman, digital galley) made me think it was going to be some light paranormal fantasy, but happily I was proved wrong. Barker’s debut is a well-thought-out epic referencing literature and fairy tales and reminds me of works by Deborah Harkness and Robin McKinley.
Grad student Nora Fischer, disappointed in love and academia, goes AWOL from a friend’s mountain wedding and wanders through a portal into an alternate world, although it takes her awhile to realize the Gatsbyesque land with all the beautiful people is an illusion created by the Faitoren, a fairy people.
Thoroughly bewitched by dashing Prince Raclan and his manipulative mother Ilissa, Nora’s finally rescued by powerful, enigmatic magician Arundiel and must adapt to a strange medieval world in which neither educated women nor good hygiene are particularly valued. Stuck in Arundiel’s isolated castle, Nora eventually convinces her grim host to teach her magic, hoping that this skill will get her farther in the divided kingdom, or at least closer to home, than peeling potatoes and milking cows. But she’s still a mere beginner when war breaks out, and Nora’s well-meaning actions could cost lives.
After a sluggish beginning, Barker imagines a convincing world that’s familiar from fairy tales but different enough to surprise. There be dragons. And ice demons. It’s 500-plus plus pages of magic and intrigue, with a hint of romance and an ending sufficient to the day. I’m hoping for a sequel.
boneseasonWe already know there’s going to be a sequel to Samantha Shannon’s enthralling The Bone Season (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), which she began writing as a 19-year-old student at Oxford (all of two years ago) and is the first in a projected seven-book series. That may sound daunting, but Shannon’s world-building is phenomenal and seductive.
In 2059, Great Britain is ruled by the totalitarian corporate body known as Scion, which has it all over Big Brother in the enforcement department, hunting down clairvoyants of all stripes. Paige, a rare dreamwalker, has allied herself with the criminal underworld and when she is captured by Scion after killing an underguard, she expects torture and execution in the Tower. Instead, she awakens after five days of hellish hallucinations in the Lost City of Oxford and discovers that she is a prisoner of the Rephaim, otherworldly humanoids who need Scion’s voyants to fight off flesh-eating creatures who rampage through the aether. The stern blood-consort Warden Arcturus becomes Paige’s “keeper,” but her existence is precarious at best as she tries to contact old friends in London and make new ones among her fellow prisoners.
Intricate, provocative and richly imagined, The Bone Season is meaty dystopian fiction. More, please.

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