To a portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, this historical novel adds two grand fictional passions: one beginning in Switzerland in 1900, the other in the Bahamas in 1941, both involving a ginger-haired Brit named Thorpe.
The first scene of Williams' (The Summer Wives, 2018, etc.) latest novel introduces the resourceful and wonderfully articulate Lulu Randolph Thorpe, "a pedigree twenty-five-year-old feline, blessed with sleek, dark pelt and composure in spades." A columnist for an American women's magazine stationed in the Bahamas in the early 1940s, Lulu reports on the doings of the former Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson—scrupulously avoiding all mention of the thicket of political corruption and racial tension that surrounds them. But to us, Lulu tells all, going back to how she dispensed with her first husband, the problematic Mr. Randolph, and continuing through her current mission—to spring her second husband, British undercover agent Benedict Thorpe, from a German prison camp. A second narrative set 40 years earlier focuses on Elfriede von Kleist, a new mother from rural Westphalia with postpartum depression so severe she has attempted suicide, causing her husband, the Baron, to dispatch her to a clinic in Switzerland. There she meets a young Londoner named Wilfred Thorpe, interrupting his grand tour of the continent to recover from pneumonia—but never to recover from meeting Elfriede. The portrait of wartime Bermuda and the awful Windsors, observed and reported by Lulu, is original and fascinating. Lulu herself is an excellent creation, tough, smart, sexy, and ruthless. While the secondary Elfriede plot adds interesting complications to the historical puzzle, it doesn't have quite as much verve.
A fresh take on the WWII love story, with a narrator who practically demands Myrna Loy come back to life to play her in the movie.
Troubled psychologist Cyrus Haven has to evaluate a girl without a past while finding out who killed a rising young figure skater.
Evie Cormac is an enigma. No one knew who she was when she was found in a secret room in a north London home, weighing less than a child half her age, which was determined to be 11 or 12. Only a few feet from her hiding place was the decomposing body of a man who had been tortured to death. Given a new name, she ended up in Nottingham’s Langford Hall, a high security children’s home, after a series of foster homes. Now, six years later, she’s eager to be declared an adult, so Cyrus must evaluate her for possible release. Evie is rude, unruly, self-destructive, prone to occasional violence, heartbreakingly naïve, and very, very broken. She also seems to be able to tell, with remarkable consistency, when someone is lying. This intrigues Cyrus, who wrote a thesis on human lie detectors, aka “truth wizards.” When Cyrus makes an impulsive choice to temporarily foster Evie, it brings a basket of challenges to his already complicated life. Meanwhile, Cyrus is assisting his mentor, Chief Inspector Lenny Parvel, in the investigation of the suspicious death and possible rape of 15-year-old Jodie Sheehan, who was called the “golden girl of British skating.” Some shocking revelations lead Cyrus and the police down a rabbit hole of dark family secrets, and Evie can’t help but involve herself in the investigation. It’s the careful and often poignant interplay between Cyrus and Evie that elevates this consistently stellar yarn. Cyrus’ parents and sisters were murdered when he was just a boy, and by all accounts Evie's childhood was nothing short of a hellscape. Trauma unites them, but Robotham (The Secrets She Keeps, 2017, etc.) seeks to show that together, they might begin to heal. Readers will adore the brilliant hot mess that is Evie, and more than a few moments are breathtakingly sad, such as Evie’s confusion about her wrinkly fingers during a long bath…because she’s never in her life had one.
Robotham is a master plotter at the top of his form, and readers will surely hope to see more of his complicated new characters.
In these 44 stories and a novella, Orner (Underground America, 2017, etc.) concentrates on small perceptual moments, especially those involving knotty problems in relationships.
Orner’s stories range from one paragraph to several pages, so he scarcely gives himself enough time to develop conflict and character. Instead, he focuses our attention on small epiphanies and suggests that these moments of insight, if they come, might be all we can expect in this circumscribed world. Orner tends to direct our attention to both domestic and family relationships, both of which are found wanting. In “Visions of Mr. Swibel,” the narrator explains the communication strategy of his taciturn mother: “She didn’t bother to speak to my father any more than absolutely necessary. Words were energy and she was storing them up for another life.” A couple in therapy in “Rhinebeck” goes to a theater after their sessions and sits through any movie that happens to be playing, “all the way through the credits when there are no more names to thank and the whole deal stops....Anything not to go home.” A tone of wistful and often comic nostalgia pervades many of the stories, for Orner has a sharp eye for absurdity and a discerning ear for dialogue. The narrator of “The Captain” finds himself “thinking about peripheral people in my life, people I hardly knew”—people, in other words, like the title character, a drug dealer who dresses up like Captain Kangaroo. The longest piece here is Walt Kaplan Is Broke: A Novella, but even here Orner breaks his narrative into 30 chapters, using a small but recurring cast of characters in his microfictive world.
Insightful, rueful, and often humorous, this collection holds a mirror to contemporary life and gives the reader much to reflect on.
An intruder upends the life of a young mother and paleobotanist, prompting her to recalibrate her relationships with her family, her work, and, most importantly, herself.
One evening, with her husband out of town and her kids’ babysitter gone for the day, Molly hears a noise. It could be the footsteps of an intruder…or her own fears intruding on the cozy life of her family. Molly, a paleobotanist who has recently made some especially unusual finds at the defunct gas station adjacent to a fossil quarry in which she works, sometimes hears danger in the quotidian. For instance, she’ll mistake the wail of a passing ambulance for that of her infant son or the groan of a cabinet hinge for her 4-year-old daughter’s “impatient pre-tantrum sigh.” Unsure if the threat is real or imagined, Molly scoops up her children and retreats to a corner of a bedroom, huddling in the dark, carefully considering how to protect her progeny and restore the chaotic tranquility of her home. What Molly ultimately discovers—unexpectedly emerging from the toy chest that doubles as a coffee table in her living room—propels her on a surreal adventure in which she must (rather literally) confront herself and contend with her apprehensions and strengths, limitations and capabilities as a mother. Phillips’ fuguelike novel, in which the protagonist’s tormentor may be either other or self, is a parable of parenting and the anxieties that prey on mothers and fathers, amplified by exhaustion, sleeplessness, the weight of responsibility, and shifting identities and roles. It is also a superbly engaging read—quirky, perceptive, and gently provocative. Molly may be losing her marbles, but we can’t help rooting for her to find herself. While Phillips’ exquisitely existential The Beautiful Bureaucrat (2015) found humanity, love, and hope in a dark, dystopian world, this novel locates them in the routine aspects of child-rearing, capturing not only the sense of loss and fear that often attends parenting, but also the moments of triumph and bliss.
Suspenseful and mysterious, insightful and tender, Phillips’ new thriller cements her standing as a deservedly celebrated author with a singular sense of story and style.
In a spectacular Las Vegas show, Elvis Presley (1935-1977) revived his flagging career.
Entertainment journalist Zoglin (Hope: Entertainer of the Century, 2014, etc.) uses Elvis’ 1969 comeback to recount a history of Las Vegas from 1931, when Nevada became the first state to legalize gambling, to its current iteration as a vacation destination boasting lavish, theme park–like hotels, designer shops, gourmet restaurants, blockbuster performers (Celine Dion, Elton John, and Lady Gaga, to name a few), and high-tech, hugely expensive extravaganzas, such as Cirque du Soleil. Before focusing on Elvis, the author reprises stories about “the boozing, macho Rat Pack” and many other headliners who drew crowds at the city’s glitziest hotel, the Sands. “Sinatra was the king,” Zoglin writes, “Vegas’s undisputed Most Valuable Player,” selling out his shows and attracting wealthy gamblers to the casinos. The 1960s, though, saw a “seismic shift, in music as well as in the rest of the culture”; along with the advent of rock ’n’ roll and the Beatles, tumultuous political events such as Vietnam, anti-war protests, and civil rights activism all affected the Vegas strip. Elvis, too, had gone through “a rough decade…in many ways a disastrous one.” His early trajectory to fame had been interrupted by two years of military service. When he returned in 1960, at the advice of his domineering manager Col. Tom Parker, he gave up live performing, instead appearing in a spate of lackluster movies. By 1969, writes the author, both Elvis and Parker agreed that he needed to return to the concert stage—beginning with Vegas. Drawing on scores of interviews, Zoglin paints a vibrant picture of Elvis’ thrilling, electrical presence: “everyone was dumbstruck,” one woman said. “It was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.” Elvis’ performance, writes the author, “set a new standard for Las Vegas. The star was now his own spectacle.” Sadly, success proved brief: Less than a decade later, the star was dead.
A memoir of sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll that’s long on wry humor and short on—well, sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll.
North Carolina–raised Folds describes himself, with a kind of literary crooked smile, as the sort of person who’s likely to be seen pacing around in his boxer shorts in his front yard, coffee cup in hand, working out the lyrics or melody to one of his songs. A master of the short story in song—see “Army” on the 1999 album The Unauthorized Biography of Reinhold Messner—Folds writes of growing up obsessed by music and bursting with creativity, which landed him in a psychologist’s office in a blue-collar South in which “ ‘artsy’ things would normally have been written off as being ‘for queers.’ ” A fierce advocate and ally was his mother, who, with his father, indulged him “as I terrorized the household with painfully long sessions of repeated phrases at the piano or snare drum.” Clearly gifted, he enrolled in an alternative high school with patient music teachers. Later in the book, the author encourages his fellow musicians to take up the cause of music teachers “unless you really believe you learned nothing from them,” in which case, he gamely ventures, they should take up the cause of reforming anti-marijuana laws. There are nice notes throughout the text, including an early pledge to himself not to perform anyone’s songs but his own and the excitement of releasing his first album, which, he writes, might not be a masterpiece but still found his band, Ben Folds Five, giving their all: "From then on we would only do exactly what felt right.” What felt right led him to a kind of cult-classic status, to say nothing of friendships with the likes of Neil Gaiman and William Shatner, the latter of whom provides some entertaining anecdotes. Ultimately, Folds delivers an amiable and low-key memoir without the tawdry pyrotechnics of most rock biographies.
A pleasure for fans and encouragement for novices to tune in.
When one girl goes missing, another slides into her place in Smith’s hauntingly gorgeous debut novel.
At 14, Cindy Stoat lives with her two older brothers in rural Pennsylvania, “basically feral” since, a few months ago, their mother last floated out of their lives. And it is during this bleak summer that Jude Vanderjohn, the sometime girlfriend of Cindy’s brother, Virgil, goes missing. Cindy has been fascinated by Jude for years: Jude is older and cooler than she is and better off, the daughter of a professor, and the only black person in school (“well, mixed, but in Greene County that meant basically the same thing”). In the weeks after her disappearance, it is Virgil who takes on the role of caretaker for Jude’s ailing, alcoholic mother, Bernadette. Cindy’s presence at Bernadette’s is, at first, a fluke, a way to escape the oppressive reality of her own life at home. Until, one night, Bernadette, in her state, mistakes Cindy for Jude, and Cindy slowly slips into the role. “I wasn’t trying to become Jude. Not exactly. But I wanted to disappear, and she had left a space,” she explains. “When I stepped into that space, I vanished from my senses. It changed me into someone who didn’t have my actual mind.” As Jude, Cindy becomes, for the first time, somebody’s daughter, even if it’s a delusion. Alone together, the two share a tenuous dreamlike existence where Jude isn’t lost and Cindy is loved. And it’s a kindness, isn’t it, to spare Bernadette from unthinkable pain? This is how Cindy justifies it to herself, anyway—how she keeps justifying it even after she’s crossed lines that can’t be uncrossed. It sounds overwrought; it isn’t. Smith, who never insults her characters by pitying them, captures this unstable world with matter-of-fact poetry, spare and sensual and surprisingly funny.
Bleak and vivid; Smith’s characters are as rich as her prose.
A hugely successful writer for TV, movies, and comics makes his debut as a memoirist with a stunning chronicle of survival.
Straczynski grew up in a destructive family, subjected to “the worst kinds of physical, psychological, and emotional torture” by an alcoholic, violently abusive father, a lifelong admirer of Nazis; a depressed mother, repeatedly institutionalized, who once dropped her young son from a roof; and a grandmother who tried to sexually abuse him. The family was rootless, moving 21 times in 19 years, often fleeing in the middle of the night and “roaring cross-country in an alcohol-fueled haze of drunken violence” to take up residence somewhere else. In one unheated apartment, ill with pneumonia, the author slept in front of an open oven door all night for warmth. He suffered corporal punishment at a Catholic school run by angry nuns and was victimized by bullies elsewhere. Comics, and especially Superman, provided Straczynski with escape and hope. Morally upright, patient, gentle, and powerful, the valiant hero became his model. A bright spot in his dismal childhood occurred in his senior year of high school, when two teachers saw his potential and invested “time, effort, and belief” in him, praising his writing and encouraging him. The author recounts his rocky start as a writer, sending short stories to magazines and collecting rejection slips; getting a gig as a humor columnist for a college newspaper; taking creative writing classes; and submitting reviews, feature articles, screenplays for sitcom pilots, and scripts. He wrote tirelessly and obsessively, not eating or sleeping, until finally some of his efforts bore fruit. Successes, which seemed like miracles, often were followed with spectacular failures. Although he encourages young writers to work hard and follow their passion, the viciously competitive and capricious entertainment industry, as he portrays it, is not for the faint-hearted. Besides recalling professional challenges, Straczynski admits personal struggles resulting from emotional wounds: “social awkwardness” and “compulsive self-reliance” that made him unable to form lasting relationships.
Candid, often sordid, and definitely a page-turner.
A family inheritance tears two Minnesota sisters apart—but years later, they might get a chance to reunite.
Edith Magnusson never expected to be famous for anything, let alone her pies. But the pies she makes at her humble nursing-home job put the place on the map, and soon people are traveling from all over to try a slice. At 64 years old, it seems she’s starting a new life...but Edith doesn’t know what’s in store for her future. Although she remains a talented baker, the years to come leave her widowed, underemployed, and taking care of her teenage granddaughter, Diana. The two of them manage to barely scrape by, but Edith often wonders how her life would have been different if she’d received her portion of the inheritance from her family’s farm after her father died. Instead, Edith’s younger sister, Helen, convinced their father to give her the entire inheritance so she could build a successful brewery with her husband. Helen made good on her promise, turning Blotz beer into one of the country’s most prominent brands, but it comes at a cost. Edith stops speaking to Helen, and Helen doesn’t reach out to fix the rift. Many years later, by coincidence, Diana ends up working in a brewery. She shows both an interest and skill in making beer, and soon she’s a rising star in the world of brewing. As Diana’s career takes off, she needs all the help from her family she can get—which just might mean a chance for Edith and Helen to reconnect. Stradal’s (Kitchens of the Great Midwest, 2015) writing is sharp and funny while still managing to treat each character with warmth and respect. His women are complicated and interesting people who find fulfillment in hard work—and, perhaps most refreshingly, he never mocks the career hopes of older women. Although the characters' lives are full of loss—Edith of her husband, Diana of her parents, all of them of various unfulfilled dreams—the story doesn’t wallow in grief or indulge in despair. Instead, this is an ultimately hopeful and heartwarming story that never feels sentimental or trite. Readers will love watching these truly original characters overcome their challenges and take care of each other.
An absolutely delightful read, perfect for a summer day with a good beer and a piece of pie.
Fictional characters come to life—both literally and figuratively—in New Zealand writer Parry’s bookish debut.
Rob Sutherland’s younger brother, Charley, wakes him in the middle of the night with a panicked phone call. “Uriah Heep’s loose on the ninth floor...and I can’t catch him.” Fans of Charles Dickens will know Uriah Heep as the scheming villain from David Copperfield, and that is, in fact, the same Uriah Heep Charley is worried about. Besides being a wunderkind who blazed through a Ph.D. at Oxford as a teenager, Charley is a “summoner”: He is able to make storybook characters appear in the real world, reading them out and then back into the pages of their books. His tendency to produce characters, from the kindly Sherlock Holmes to the more devious Heep, has caused stress for his family as they try to keep his talent a secret. Rob is also struggling with feelings of resentment toward his genius, magical brother, who has always made him feel painfully average and ordinary by comparison. Then, when the brothers find a magically hidden Victorian-era street, they meet Millie Radcliffe-Dix—the protagonist of a girl-detective adventure series sort of like Nancy Drew crossed with Indiana Jones—and a whole host of other characters who’ve been living there in secret. It seems that Charley’s strange gift is not unique, and somewhere out there is another summoner who has a malicious interest in Charley. Many have tried and some have succeeded in writing mashups with famed literary characters, but Parry knocks it out of the park. She plays with the canon without trying to imitate it, all the while spinning a truly heartfelt story about the strained but powerful love between Rob and Charley. An appreciation for Dickens and a passing knowledge of literary theory will provide extra enjoyment, but a lack thereof is no excuse to miss this page-turning fantasy.
An even more propulsive follow-up to emergency physician Miller’s imaginative debut, The Philosopher’s Flight (2018).
Alternative history is endlessly malleable because you don’t have to rewrite the whole thing—just change one element and the way the world plays out is completely different. Here, the difference is Miller’s concept of “empirical philosophers,” nearly all women who practice a kind of magic that employs glyphs and sigils penned with silver chloride, not to mention a few more complicated potions, to enable healing, smoke summoning, and, most importantly, flight. Imagine Quidditch on steroids plunged into the First World War and you’ll get an idea of what to expect here. Once again, our storyteller is 19-year-old Robert Canderelli Weekes, who has broken decades of tradition to become a “sigilwoman” in the U.S. Sigilry Corps on the eve of WW1, working in the Rescue and Evacuation Division in a tough outfit full of misfits and hard cases. His job should be simple: fly in, stabilize wounded warriors, and fly them back to an aid station. But things go a bit sideways when he’s recruited by Gen. Tomasina Blandings to become part of a secret faction that Blandings intends to use for armed offense against the Germans, violating wartime codes of conduct. “I don’t need to tell you how they punish those crimes during wartime,” Blandings warns Weekes. Miller has accomplished something really grand here: Despite its lone fantasy element, this is a visceral war novel that blends into a twisty spy novel with brief interludes of heated romance between Weekes and his beloved Danielle Hardin, not to mention the quiet yearnings of Weekes’ best friend, Essie Stewart, who secretly loves him. The combat is incredibly tense, the palpable tension between characters is genuinely authentic, and the character arc that changes Weekes from an eager young soldier to a hardened veteran is truly compelling.
A fantastic example of worldbuilding on a grand scale that combines cinematic action with historical accuracy to great effect.
A disgraced attorney encounters a threatening stranger who demands that he join a multimillion dollar insurance scam.
“I deserve better than this misery,” says Virginia attorney Kevin Moore in Clark’s (The Jezebel Remedy, 2015, etc.) entertaining legal thriller. But that’s not entirely true. Kevin has earned his trouble after a three-month cocaine and booze binge that led him to cheat on his wife with a stripper and land in the middle of a police raid. Now he’s sober, on probation, facing divorce and disbarment, and making sandwiches in a cut-rate sub shop. One day a stranger shows up and urges him to participate in a multimillion dollar legal swindle. When Kevin refuses, the threats begin, and soon he’s arrested on new (and trumped-up) charges. As if that’s not grim enough, he suffers a stroke. But Kevin isn’t about to become a victim, and he can wield the law like a weapon, so he puts a plan for payback in motion. The author of four other clever, amusing legal novels, Clark is not nearly as well known as he should be. A retired Virginia circuit court judge, he knows his way around the system, using the law as a foundation for novels that never rely too heavily on action or courtroom pyrotechnics. Instead, he explores the rural South and the people who live there. He writes with hilarious insight about subjects that include but are not limited to the legal and medical professions, trucks with “Southern by birth, Rebel by the Grace of God” bumper stickers, and the impossibility of the presumption of innocence for anyone who has ever been arrested. “Once you make a single mistake, everything else you do is viewed through a warped lens,” Kevin laments.
After a mistake, revenge is deeply satisfying—and so is this book.