His father’s past both unsettles and entices Rusty Harry in Doig’s latest loving portrait of Montana and its crusty inhabitants (Work Song, 2010, etc.).
Some of Doig’s best work (English Creek, 1984; The Whistling Season, 2006) has been narrated by young adolescents; the inquisitive perspective of boys puzzling out adult ways seems to suit an author with a sharp eye for the revealing particulars of everyday human behavior. Twelve-year-old Rusty is no exception, and the air vent in the back room of his father Tom’s saloon, the Medicine Lodge, gives him an earful of grown-up goings-on in the town of Gros Ventre. But it’s outsiders who really stir things up in the summer of 1960. First to arrive is Zoe, daughter of the local restaurant’s new owners, who quickly becomes Rusty’s best friend and, after they see a vividly described outdoor production of As You Like It, his fellow aspiring thespian. Next is Delano Robertson, an oral historian who wants Tom to help him gather reminiscences at the forthcoming reunion of workers from the New Deal’s Fort Peck dam project—a period in his past the bartender does not seem anxious to recollect. We learn why (readers of Bucking the Sun, 1996, will already have guessed) at the reunion, where Tom is stunned by the appearance of Proxy, a taxi dancer at the wide-open bar he ran back then, who announces the existence of a daughter from their one-time fling. Disheveled Francine needs a refuge and a profession, so Tom agrees to let her learn his trade at the Medicine Lodge, while Rusty anxiously wonders if Proxy might be his long-gone mother. Doig expertly spins out these various narrative threads with his usual gift for bringing history alive in the odysseys of marvelously thorny characters.
Possibly the best novel yet by one of America’s premier storytellers.
In his debut about 1943 Berlin, Gillham uses elements common to the many previous movies and books about World War II—from vicious Nazis to black marketeers to Jewish children hiding in attics to beautiful blond German women hiding their sexuality inside drab coats—yet manages to make the story fresh.
The blond beauty is Sigrid, a stenographer living alone with her unpleasant mother-in-law while her husband, Kaspar, serves on the eastern front. Sigrid’s Berlin is a grim city full of suspicious, fearful citizens barely coping with shortages and almost nightly air raids, people not above turning each other over to the Gestapo for unpatriotic behavior. But Sigrid is mostly consumed in pining not for Kaspar but for Egon, the Jewish black markeeter with whom she carried on a passionate affair before he went into hiding. At first, Sigrid resists when Ericha, a rebellious teenager living in her building, involves her in an underground network hiding Jews, but iconoclast Sigrid soon finds that her experience as Egon’s occasional “bagman” serves her well as she delivers supplies and humans to a safe house. At the same time, she befriends new neighbors, two sisters and their wounded-officer brother, Wolfram, whose impeccable German credentials are not what they seem. Sigrid finds herself wondering if a particular Jewish woman with two daughters in hiding might be Egon’s wife. But when Egon reappears in her life, she doesn’t bring up her suspicions. Instead she hides him in her neighbors’ apartment, an awkward situation given that she has recently begun what she considers a purely sexual affair with Wolfram. The wounded and embittered Kaspar’s return only complicates the situation. With her underground activities as intricate as her love life, Sigrid can trust no one, yet must trust a dangerously wider circle of acquaintances until the hold-your-breath suspense ending.
Wiesel takes us on a journey through dream, memory and especially storytelling in his latest novel, which concerns Shaltiel Feigenberg, who in 1975, is captured and imprisoned for 80 hours in a basement by two captors.
Feigenberg is politically unimportant and practically unknown before his capture, but soon thereafter he becomes front-page news, though his plight is reported in wildly different ways by the world press. His captors represent divergent political realities. One, Luigi, is an Italian political revolutionary with no particular animus against Jews, while the second, Ahmed, is a passionate advocate for Palestine with an intense hatred for the “Zionist cause.” Perhaps predictably, a “bad cop–good cop” dynamic develops as they tend to Feigenberg, Luigi gradually freeing him from restraints while Ahmed rails with fanatic fervor against all that Feigenberg represents to him. Luigi and Ahmed are motivated by “humanitarian” concerns—they demand that three Palestinian prisoners be freed in exchange for Feigenberg’s freedom—rather than materialistic ones. Feigenberg is mystified by his captivity, for he’s simply a professional storyteller with a special fondness for spinning his tales to children and the elderly. This forced period of darkness ironically provides him with an extended period of enlightenment, as he has time to reflect on his life—the death of his grandmother at Auschwitz, his frequently absent but observant father, his initial meeting with Blanca (the woman who eventually becomes his wife), and the growing Communist sympathies of his older brother. He begins to frame the narrative of his life in much the same way he frames the stories he makes up to entertain others. Even the Israeli government—a government that notoriously does not negotiate with terrorists—gets involved in trying to track down the elusive captive.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Wiesel continues to remind us of the brilliant possibilities of the philosophical and political novel.
A tough prosecutor who’s trying to make a difference in the lives of West Virginians suddenly finds her own life in shambles.
Whatever plans Bell Elkins made for herself as a child growing up near the town of Acker’s Gap ended when her older sister killed their father. From that point on, Bell was brought up in various foster homes. After intelligence and determination got her through law school, she and her husband, fellow attorney Sam Elkins, found high-paying jobs in Washington until Bell, tired of their shallow lifestyle, returned with their daughter Carla to West Virginia. When Carla, who’s changed from a delightful little girl to a sulky teen, witnesses the murder of three old men at a local fast-food joint, her love-hate relationship with Bell becomes worse, especially since she recognizes the killer as someone she saw at an alcohol- and drug-laced party she can’t mention to her mother. Bell and her longtime friend Sheriff Nick Fogelsong have been fighting a losing battle against the drug kingpin whose dealers are feasting on the misery of the poor and often-desperate population. So it’s only natural that they suspect these killings are drug-related. In addition, Bell has to decide if she wants to prosecute a mentally challenged young man accused of killing a child he often played with. Even with her own life in danger, Bell won’t back down.
A fictional debut for a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, born and raised in West Virginia, whose love for the state, filled with natural beauty and deep poverty, pervades a mystery that has plenty of twists and turns and a shocking conclusion.
The miraculous arrival of a child in the life of a barren couple delivers profound love but also the seeds of destruction.
Moral dilemmas don’t come more exquisite than the one around which Australian novelist Stedman constructs her debut. Tom Sherbourne returns to Australia emotionally scarred after distinguished service in World War I, so the solitary work of a lighthouse keeper on remote Janus Rock is attractive. Unexpectedly, Tom finds a partner on the mainland, Isabel; they marry and hope to start a family. But Isabel suffers miscarriages then loses a premature baby. Two weeks after that last catastrophe, a dinghy washes ashore containing a man’s body and a crying infant. Isabel wants to keep the child, which she sees as a gift from God; Tom wants to act correctly and tell the authorities. But Isabel’s joy in the baby is so immense and the prospect of giving her up so destructive, that Tom gives way. Years later, on a rare visit to the mainland, the couple learns about Hannah Roennfeldt, who lost her husband and baby at sea. Now guilt eats away at Tom, and when the truth does emerge, he takes the blame, leading to more moral self-examination and a cliffhanging conclusion.
A polished, cleverly constructed and very precisely calculated first novel.
Hints of time travel haunt this historical and philosophical novel set in early-20th-century Boston and Europe.
In 1898, Weezie Putnam returns to the States from a memorable trip to Vienna with three things: a manuscript, a ring and a journal. The manuscript lauds the genius of Mahler, and she publishes it pseudonymously under the name “Jonathan Trumpp.” The ring she sells for $5,000, an enormous sum, to provide seed money for future investments. And the journal—the most precious artifact of all—was written in the future and thus provides her with a window into major 20th-century events. One might also add that she returns with a new name, Eleanor, and thus with a new persona. Because of the information provided in the journal, she knows her destiny and starts ensuring it comes about. As predicted, Eleanor marries a prominent banker, Frank Burden and begins a series of investments that initially seem questionable, though her foreknowledge assures her of their inevitable exorbitant worth. She hires a man named T. Williams Honeycutt, because the journal has informed her that he will be important in the success of her business life, but he has a cousin with the same name, so it’s problematic whether she’s hired the right one. She takes her largest risk with a young Viennese intellectual named Arnauld Esterhazy, who becomes the father of her son and who seems to have died at the battle of Caporetto in 1917, but the journal has predicted a long life for him, one intricately interwoven with Eleanor’s. She’s so convinced of the journal’s truth that she makes a dangerous trek to postwar Europe to find him, and she succeeds. He’s shellshocked, and she takes him to Jung’s clinic in Zurich to recover. Throughout the novel, Edwards skillfully intertwines Eleanor’s predestined fate with her relationships to Freud, Jung, J. P. Morgan, William James and other historical figures.
Set in early-20th-century Washington state, Coplin’s majestic debut follows a makeshift family through two tragic decades.
“You belong to the earth, and the earth is hard,” 9-year-old Talmadge heard from his mother, who brought him and his sister Elsbeth to Washington in 1857 to cultivate an apple orchard after their father was killed. Their mother died three years later, and Elsbeth vanished five years after that, leaving Talmadge with a load of guilt that grew alongside his orchards. So when two starving, heavily pregnant teenage girls, Jane and Della, turn up on his land in 1900, he feels protective toward them even before he learns their history. They have run away from Michaelson, a monstrous opium addict who stocks his brothel with very young girls whom he sexually and physically abuses. When he turns up shortly after the girls have given birth, a shocking scene leaves only Della and Jane’s baby, Angelene, alive to be nurtured by Talmadge and his close friend Caroline Middey, an herbalist who warns him that Della is likely to disappear as his sister did. Sure enough, Della soon heads off for a peripatetic life of hard drinking and aimless wandering, driven by the hatred and fear instilled by her youth with Michaelson. Angelene grows up devoted to Talmadge and the orchard, worried by the knowledge that he still pines for Della and Elsbeth. Della sees her erstwhile tormentor being led off in handcuffs when Angelene is 13, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events that engulfs Talmadge and everyone he cares for. “Why are we born?” wonders Della, a question that haunts all the characters. Coplin offers no answers, only the hard certainties of labor and of love that are seldom enough to ease a beloved’s pain. Yet the novel is so beautifully written, so alive to the magnificence of the land and the intricate mysteries of human nature, that it inspires awe rather than depression.
Superb work from an abundantly gifted young writer.
Dirty doings Down Under as Australian superthief Wyatt (Wyatt, 2011, etc.) returns to steal something he wishes he hadn’t.
He’s endlessly cool, enormously competent, a man who notices everything. But the eternal verities of Wyatt’s larcenous world are shifting. Cops, for instance, can no longer be depended upon to be the honest plods that made them predictable adversaries. Robbers, fences and pretty women are developing unforeseeable vagaries. Most troubling of all, however, is the dereliction of Frank Jardine, Wyatt’s old friend and job-planner. Jardine and Wyatt had had a good thing going, but suddenly Jardine’s not what he once was, and as a result, Wyatt’s life has become less comfortable. Consulting the floor plans Jardine has supplied to a plush Sydney mansion points him unerringly to the safe he intends to loot of $50,000, split down the middle between Jardine and himself. He finds the safe with no problem. It’s what he finds in addition, without any caveat from Jardine, that turns out to be a problem. The diamond-encrusted butterfly is gorgeous, and Wyatt unhesitatingly adds it to his bag of swag. What he doesn’t know, what he feels he should have been warned about, is that the butterfly has already been stolen. And that numerous hard guys will kill to get it back.
To Disher’s usual brisk pacing, add heaps of noir. The result is not for everyone but is a banquet for those who like it uncut and unsparing.
The Grand Canyon provides a stunningly scenic backdrop for murder.
Even though she’s still terrified of water years after her brother drowned, forensic geologist Em Hansen has agreed to accompany her new husband, Fritz Calder, and his son, Brendan, on a raft trip down the Colorado River. Em is gingerly attempting to establish a relationship with 13-year-old Brendan, who’s thrilled by the chance to spend more time with his father. The trip is a wedding present from Fritz’s pal, Tiny, whose accident leaves Fritz as team leader. It’s immediately clear that the 15th member of the party, casually invited at the last minute by Tiny, is going to be trouble. Wink Oberley is an experienced, but much disliked, river runner with his own boat. He claims to be a former Army Ranger who’s currently working on a Ph.D. in geology at Princeton. Despite having a wife and children, he’s also a womanizer and a bully who picks on Brendan. Oberley is earning some extra cash by conducting an educational program for the group right behind them on the river, a religious group that denies geological evidence of how the canyon was created. He ruffles many feathers, but when he vanishes after a night of heavy drinking, Fritz, assuming that he’s drowned, simply reports him missing, and the trip continues. Once Oberley is found murdered, the park rangers who are investigating take Fritz as their prime suspect, forcing Em to use all her skills to find the real killer.
Geologist Andrews enhances Em’s adventures (Dead Dry, 2005, etc.) with expert detail. A challenging mystery with the added fillip of evocative descriptions of the canyon.
George’s Pittsburgh cops (Hideout, 2011, etc.) investigate a robbery-murder that’s a lot less routine and more sordid than it looks.
Gubernatorial hopeful Michael Connolly can’t keep his hands off Cassie Price, a new paralegal in his father’s law firm. But as he tells Todd Simon, his campaign manager, his need to maintain a squeaky-clean family image means that he can’t acknowledge her either. So Simon takes Cassie out for a margarita to find out how dangerous she is. By next morning, she’s no danger at all, because she’s been killed in the house she’s been fixing up in the low-income neighborhood of Oakland. Witness accounts and other evidence send Detectives Coleson and McGranahan to Cal Hathaway, the son of the Connolly housekeeper. Damaged as a child by a concussion and subject to blackouts, Cal seems tailor-made for the role of Cassie’s killer, and after hours of interrogation, he says he did it, or he didn’t, or he can’t remember. That’s good enough for the cops, who lock him up and get ready to move on. But Cmdr. Richard Christie, dissatisfied with the case against Cal, keeps playing devil’s advocate, urging that Detectives John Potocki and Colleen Greer look at other scenarios and other suspects. As they painstakingly build a second case against an unsurprising suspect, Cal makes friends and enemies in jail, raising the distinct possibility that even if the police arrest someone else, his vindication will be posthumous.
George’s all-too-familiar story is so richly observed, subtly characterized, precisely written—her syncopated paragraphs are a special delight—and successful in its avoidance of genre clichés that you’d swear you were reading the first police procedural ever written.
Hurwitz demonstrates his mastery of the thriller genre.
Nate Overbay stands on an 11th-story building ledge as gunshots erupt inside. Curiosity overcomes his suicide plan as he looks through the bank window and witnesses a robbery in progress. He climbs back inside, shoots five criminals dead and saves the day. Thus, instead of splattering himself on top of a Dumpster, Nate becomes an unwilling hero. He suffers from ALS and simply wants to spare himself the agonizing end that is only months away. The trouble is, now he has angered Pavlo, the Ukrainian mobster who had directed the heist. Pavlo is an unusually sadistic sort who plans to make Nate pay in the worst possible way—through Nate’s daughter. The book opens as dramatically as a reader could hope for and doesn’t relent. That Nate must die is inevitable, given his fatal illness. The question is whether he dies on his own terms. Nate's been a hero once before, but he’s also been weak. Now he must protect and re-bond with his estranged family in the face of vengeful monsters. Hurwitz’s writing is crisp and economical, and he steers clear of hackneyed phrases and one-dimensional characters—Nate’s and Pavlo’s back stories are well-crafted, although the ghost of Nate’s dead friend Charles seems inspired by a James Lee Burke novel.
A fine thriller that succeeds on every level. How often do you read about a hero who just wants to die in peace?
The three women personifying the complicated relationship between France and Senegal in French-born NDiaye’s tripartite novel, winner of France’s Prix Concourt in 2009, need all the strength they can muster as they struggle to survive.
The novel opens with 38-year-old lawyer, Norah. Half-Sengalese, she was raised in France by her French working-class mother after her businessman father returned to his native Senegal, taking with him her beloved younger brother, Sony. When her once-powerful father asks her to visit, she drops everything to return to Senegal, where she finds him a seemingly broken man. Sony is in prison, charged with murdering the old man’s newest wife, the mother of two small girls he keeps locked in a room with a nursemaid named Khady. Soon, Norah’s Parisian live-in lover, whom she no longer trusts, shows up in Dakar with Norah’s little daughter, Lucie, and Norah is increasingly overwhelmed by conflicting pulls and loyalties. In the second section, Fanta is a Senegalese woman seen only through her French husband Rudy’s eyes. Rudy’s father ran a Senegalese vacation resort, possibly with Norah’s father, although the timeline and specifics remain vague. A bookish intellectual, Fanta was a successful teacher in Dakar before they married, but she has moved with him to France, where she finds herself unemployable. NDiaye follows Rudy, an emotionally damaged, abusive husband (not unlike Norah’s father and not unsympathetically drawn), through a disastrous day that shows the precarious position into which he has placed Fanta and their child as immigrants. The third section focuses on Khady. No longer caring for Norah’s nieces and suddenly widowed after a short marriage, Khady is forced to live with her in-laws. They don’t want her and pay a stranger to get her headed to France, supposedly to live with her cousin, Fanta. On the overland trip to the boat that will supposedly take her overseas, Khady faces one calamity after another. She thinks she has found a protector in a young man, but his desperation to escape Senegal proves greater than his affection or loyalty.
Unrelenting in its anger, pain and sorrow, but hard to put down.
Alternative literary history—the conceit here is that Florence Nightingale and Gustave Flaubert, both of whom traveled to Egypt in 1850, met on the voyage and developed an ardent friendship.
In 1850, Flaubert had not yet written Madame Bovary and Florence Nightingale was still looking for an outlet for a personality that identified with the suffering of the world and had yet found no proper channel for her empathy. Flaubert is traveling with Maxime du Camp, and both are worldly men, having frequented whorehouses over several continents. In fact, Flaubert is currently enamored with Kuchuk Hanem, whose sultry beauty he recalls with lascivious fondness—and this while having temporarily left his mistress, Louise Colet, back in France. In contrast, Nightingale is traveling with Charles and Selina Bracebridge, friends who also serve as chaperones, and she is trying to escape both a family that tries to rein in her assertive personality and a broken engagement to Richard Monckton Milnes, the English man of letters. Although Flaubert’s English is spotty, the language barrier is more than made up for by Nightingale’s excellent French. He begins addressing her as “My dear Rossignol [Nightingale],” and their conversation becomes increasingly intimate, as does their physical contact, the sensual novelist helping to loosen up the strait-laced Nightingale. Although they never consummate their relationship, the sexual energy increases dramatically when they take a caravan trip across the desert. By the end of the novel, Flaubert and Nightingale split up wistfully, neither overly nostalgic for what might have been.
By weaving her own imaginative constructions in with actual journal entries of both Flaubert and Nightingale, Shomer skillfully combines historical plausibility and historical truth.
Beneath the surface placidity of Swiss life, undercurrents of spiritual turmoil and existential despair charge this powerful collection of provocative stories.
Renowned in European literary circles, Switzerland’s Stamm didn’t achieve his stateside critical breakthrough until his last novel (Seven Years, 2011, etc.). This story collection is even better, with pieces that read like the Zurich equivalent of Camus or Kafka, occasionally laced with a bit of Ibsen or Ingmar Bergman. Not a lot happens in these stories and what does mainly takes place internally, in the psyches of characters who don’t seem to have much control over their destinies or understanding of their motives and whose essential mysteries—to themselves and to the reader—could be described as the human condition. The American publication combines two separate story collections, the first published in 2008, the second in 2011, yet the stories themselves are timeless, like fables or parables, with the plainspoken translation reinforcing the stark, spare essence of the fiction. Some of these stories deal with the awkwardness of adolescence and sexual initiation, but the protagonists of many more are innocents as well. In “Children of God,” the longest story here, a minister navigates between sin and divinity as he falls in love with a young girl who insists that her pregnancy is an immaculate conception. In the process, he consults a doctor, one who was “not even an atheist, he believed in nothing, not even that there was no God.” The following story, “Go Out into the Fields...,” concerns a landscape artist—identified in the second person as “you”—who learned to paint when “you learned to see,” who “kept painting dusks, as if you wanted to stop time, to escape the certainty of death,” and who approaches his work with “a passionate indifference.” Another protagonist, a young girl who lives “In the Forest,” survives through “alert indifference.” Such a perspective might be considered Zurich Zen, and Stamm is its master.
For those who have an affinity for metaphysical fiction written with a surgeon’s precision, this collection will spur readers to seek out everything else by its author.
A prior’s murder takes Quebec’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache and his sidekick, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, inside the walls of the monastery of Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loupes.
The Gilbertine order, long extinct except for the two dozen brothers who live on an island apart from the rest of the world, enforces silence on its members. In the absence of speech, a raised eyebrow or averted gaze can speak intense hostility. Now someone has found a new way to communicate such hostility: by bashing Frère Mathieu, the monastery’s choirmaster and prior, over the head. Gamache and Beauvoir soon find that the order is devoted heart and soul to Gregorian chant; that its abbot, Dom Philippe, has recruited its members from among the ranks of other orders for their piety, their musical abilities and a necessary range of domestic and maintenance skills; and that an otherworldly recording the brothers had recently made of Gregorian chants has sharply polarized the community between the prior’s men, who want to exploit their unexpected success by making another recording and speaking more widely of their vocation, and the abbot’s men, who greet the prospect of a more open and worldly community with horror. Nor are conflicts limited to the holy suspects. Gamache, Beauvoir and Sûreté Chief Superintendent Sylvain Françoeur, arriving unexpectedly and unwelcome, tangle over the proper way to conduct the investigation, the responsibility for the collateral damage in Gamache’s last case (A Trick of the Light, 2011, etc.), and Beauvoir’s loyalty to his two chiefs and himself in ways quite as violent as any their hosts can provide.
Elliptical and often oracular, but also remarkably penetrating and humane. The most illuminating analogies are not to other contemporary detective fiction but to The Name of the Rose and Murder in the Cathedral.
Joining the burgeoning genre of novels concerning famous people's unknown subordinates, Fields (The Middle Ages, 2003, etc.) offers a fictionalized account of Edith Wharton’s troubled love life in large part through the eyes of her former governess and lifelong secretary, Anna Bahlmann.
By age 45, Edith has found literary success with the publication of The House of Mirth, but is miserably unhappy in a sexless, lifeless marriage. Teddy Wharton is a simple man, totally unsuited to Edith, although 60-year-old Anna has always admired and been secretly a little in love with him herself. During their annual winter in Paris in 1908, Edith meets and falls headlong in love with Morton Fullerton, a Harvard-educated journalist. More than one literary acquaintance warns Edith that Morton has a licentious reputation—that he has been one of Henry James’ “favorites” should be warning enough—but Edith, elated by her new sense of herself as a desirable woman, pursues Morton as much as he pursues her. Witnessing the growing infatuation, Anna is torn between her devotion to Edith and her loyalty to Teddy, who sinks into a severe depression, a harbinger of the madness to come. Anna’s moral disapproval irritates Edith’s own guilty discomfort, and she sends Anna temporarily away. With Morton, Edith discovers sexual passion (in some excellent erotic writing) but is frustrated by his emotional slipperiness. Meanwhile, Anna has her own, much quieter romantic adventure, although her first commitment remains with Edith. Fields does not simplify their relationship; they call themselves friends, but Edith often treats Anna as a servant, a role Anna accepts with a sanguinity modern women may not appreciate. As in life, fictional Anna never becomes more than a foil to the fictional powerhouse that is Edith. Teddy is a tragic figure, his basic decency eroded by Edith’s understandable inability to appreciate him. Morton remains the mystery, neither his motives nor his charms made quite clear enough.
One doesn’t have to be an Edith Wharton fan to luxuriate in the Wharton-esque plotting and prose Fields so elegantly conjures.
Inspector Konrad Sejer’s latest quarry is a prankster whose pranks are callous, cruel and ultimately lethal.
Lily Sundelin feels magically connected to her baby Margrete, but that doesn’t prevent someone from pouring blood over the little girl as she sleeps in her pram just outside Lily’s kitchen. In short order, some trickster—the same person?—places a premature obituary for Gunilla Mørk, dyes one of Sverre Skarning’s sheep orange, calls the Memento funeral home to come pick up the body of Helge Landmark, ravaged by ALS but very much alive, and summons Evelyn Mold to Central Hospital, where her teenage daughter Frances has not been brought after an accident on her bike. Nor is Sejer himself left out. A note slipped under his door announces: “Hell begins now.” Fossum (Bad Intentions, 2011, etc.), who has little interest in playing whodunit, hints early and often that the jokester is delinquent Johnny Beskow, seething with resentment over his alcoholic mother’s neglect of him, hungry for the love of his grandfather Henry, and determined to harm Henry’s neighbor Else Meiner, who turns out to be one resourceful girl. Instead, the focus is on the frustrated Johnny and the widening circle of calamity he spreads (two of his victims are hospitalized as collateral damage).
As in Ruth Rendell’s books as Barbara Vine, readers are invited to watch helplessly as things go from bad to much, much worse for an unlucky group of basically nice people. If that’s your pleasure, you could hardly do better.
Hot, contemporary “opposites attract” romance hits the emotional high notes as two struggling people find themselves and each other.
Grace Barrett is forced by circumstances to accept a short-term home in Jackson Hole, Wyo., where she intends to keep to herself; not hard for the unemployed, purple-haired, prickly makeup artist who’s been exiled from Hollywood and is biding her time in the small town until a new job starts in Vancouver. Or so she thinks. Faced with her red-hot neighbor, Cole Rawlins, a born-and-bred Wyoming cowboy, Grace enters into a scorching-hot affair, determined to keep her emotions strictly off-limits. Cole is anything but the Wild West equivalent of a dumb jock, and he knows he’s playing with fire with his new city-girl neighbor. He’s spent time in Tinsel Town and experienced firsthand its shiny facade and its uglier underbelly. At first wary of Grace’s hard-edged persona, he’s still attracted to her in spite of himself, and he falls into her bed to distract himself as he heals from a potentially life-altering injury. Both Grace and Cole tell themselves—and each other—that it’s all about the sex, but it doesn’t take Cole long to figure out Grace’s diamond-hard exterior is simply a protective shell for a fragile emotional history, and he finds himself intrigued by and protective of the sensitive woman behind the hard-core image. When Grace takes a job with an area photographer that turns into an opportunity as a location scout, it opens her future in unexpected ways but sets up a collision of two worlds and confrontations from the past and the present for Grace and Cole.
Rising romance star Dahl delivers with this sizzling contemporary romance. (Warning: Steamy situations and straightforward sexual descriptions are well-done and integral to the plot, but some scenes are pretty graphic for a mainstream romance.)
The amnesiac ghost of a World War II pilot could be just what Alex Nolan needs.
The third in Kleypas’ (Rainshadow Road, 2012, etc.) Friday Harbor series follows the fortunes of the youngest Nolan brother. Emotionally starved by his alcoholic parents, Alex learned to trust no one. When his wife, Darcy, asks for a divorce, Alex doesn’t even ask why, because, of course, it was only a matter of time before she realized the extent of the damage to him. The breakup coincides with a steep economic downturn, which torpedoes his real estate development project, driving Alex to seek comfort in a bottle of Jack Daniels every night. Erasing himself bit by bit, Alex nonetheless begins helping his brother, Sam, renovate a beautiful home on Rainshadow Road. The moment Zöe Hoffman walks in the door with a plate of blueberry muffins, however, Alex realizes he is in trouble. Zöe is the gorgeous chef at a local inn, and, like Alex, she has sworn off love after a heartbreaking divorce and years of being seen as nothing more than a pinup girl. Abandoned by her parents, Zöe was raised by her loving grandmother, who will soon need round-the-clock assistance and a home with some serious renovations, which Alex could do well. Alex and Zöe are clearly meant for each other and predictably try to deny their obvious attraction. Luckily, Alex has also met the ghost, who has lived in the old house for over 60 years. Yet the moment Alex sees him, the ghost becomes instantly anchored to him, an unwilling witness to Alex’s alcoholic binges, an eager investigator of his own shadowy past and a believer in true love. Surprisingly, the ghost character works, allowing other magical events in the novel to seem less contrived.
A little magic, a lot of romance and well-drawn characters make a satisfying read.
In Cristofano’s (The Girl She Used to Be, 2009) latest, an all-American suburban family stumbles upon Mafioso justice in New York City’s Little Italy.
Arthur, Lydia and Melody McCartney only want breakfast. What they find is the bloody aftermath of Don Tony Bovaro settling a score with Jimmy "the Rat." The family flees, but 10-year-old Jonathan, the Don’s son, idly copies their car’s license plate number and naively relays it to the police, who come questioning. The McCartney family enters the Federal Witness Security Program. Meanwhile, an empire is endangered, and its emperor is in peril. The murder case is dismissed on a technicality, but the McCartneys become a target of revenge. Thus begins Edgar Award nominated Cristofano’s psychological thriller; a tale of vengeance and love. Spurred by mob-logic, the job eventually falls to Jonathan, a mission made relatively simple by the mob’s manipulation of a gambling-addicted government computer specialist with the capacity to trace the McCartney’s whereabouts. Initially, Jonathan and his cousin are dispatched to Wisconsin to eliminate the McCartneys, but for reasons he cannot fully understand, Jonathan cannot kill Melody, even as he tries but cannot prevent his cousin’s murder of her parents. He is sent after her again, and again, but instead of killing Melody, he becomes her protector, soon comprehending her innocence and fragility, loneliness and vulnerability. A love grows that he cannot admit. Cristofano gives veracity to crime-family life while creating protagonists as cinematic characters; Melody in her beauty and vulnerability, John in his duality, his propensity for violence contrasted against a passion both redemptive and fraught with hope that he might escape the bloody norms of crime-family life. To suggest the novel is The Godfather rendered by Nicholas Sparks does it no justice, for Cristofano can ratchet up dramatic tension and then send readers off on a tangent, only to once again draw nail-biting scenes.
Unique premise, empathetic characters, believable villains, all beautifully played out as a tale of the limits of love and loyalty.
A deadly long-shot mission gives a disgraced secret agent a chance at redemption.
Isolated pieces—the dissolution, in Tunisia a generation ago, of the marriage of Jean-Marc Daumal and wife Celine over his affair with nanny Amelia Weldon; the present-day murder of elderly Parisians Philippe and Jeannine Malot on a Cairo street; the kidnapping of a target nicknamed HOLST by one Akim Errachidi and his team—precede the introduction of dissolute Thomas Kell, waking up in a hotel room with another hangover eight months after his surgical dismissal, after two decades of service, from Britain's MI6. A call from his old pal, Jimmy Marquand, sobers Kell immediately. The new MI6 chief-designate, Amelia Levine, has gone missing before even assuming the job. Kell knew Amelia well, and he leaps at the chance to be back in the game. He checks files, Amelia's car and her room, noting that the signs indicate abduction. He questions veteran agents Bill and Barbara Knight, pictures of concern and cooperation with Kell...until he leaves, and their manner turns conspiratorial, and they hint at allegiances other than MI6. Using Amelia's Blackberry as a guide, Kell follows her movements over the previous two weeks. Cumming flashes back to Amelia for the same period; when she's found by Kell, it's just the beginning of a complicated cat-and-mouse game stretching back to the trio of prologue events and weaving together personal and political tangles.
Cumming's sixth thriller (The Trinity Six, 2011, etc.) is smart and intricate, with a large cast of cool characters and an authentic feel.
85 more snapshots of the tenants of 44 Scotland Street and their friends and lovers.
Now that crime kingpin Lard O’Connor has been taken out of the deck (The Unbearable Lightness of Scones, 2010, etc.), life moves on a more even keel for the citizens of Edinburgh. Pregnant ex-schoolteacher Elspeth Harmony and her bridegroom Matthew, owner of the Something Special Gallery, look at a bigger and much more expensive flat in Moray Place. Anthropologist Domenica Macdonald’s friend Antonia Collie invites Domenica and their mutual friend, painter Angus Lordie, to share her villa in the Tuscan hills. Surveyor Bruce Anderson, who’s broken many hearts already, gets engaged to Lizzie Todd, his boss’ daughter, but a scheme Lizzie’s friend Diane concocts to test Bruce’s motives backfires spectacularly. Matthew’s ex-employee and ex-girlfriend, art history student Pat Macgregor, informs him that her part-time replacement, the beautiful Kirsty, is a member of Women’s Revenge—he must fire her but dares not. Most of these plotlines are slender stuff; some are wound up with featherweight insouciance or not at all. By far, the most rewarding pages are devoted to Bertie Pollock, the matter-of-fact 6-year-old who hatches a plan to take his baby brother Ulysses in for show and tell. A pair of climatic voyages yield very different results. Antonia, finally face to face with the treasures of the Uffizi Gallery, comes down with Stendhal Syndrome; Bertie, who yearns in vain to turn 7 and earn some measure of respect, is graced with a magical fishing trip with his put-upon father.
Another charming demonstration that it’s better to travel hopefully than to arrive—a motto that might stand for every soap opera ever written.
Prohibition, the Ku Klux Klan, unions, Mother Jones—the early-20th century would be a tough world for anyone. Orphan, unwed mother, widow, midwife—Patience Murphy is a worthy adversary.
Following her acclaimed memoirs (Arms Wide Open: A Midwife’s Journey, 2011, etc.), Harman offers her debut novel, tracing the life of a midwife in Appalachia. Yet Patience Murphy is no ordinary midwife. Indeed, much of society would question whether she meets the primary qualification for midwives in early-20th-century America: good moral character. Orphaned at the age of 14, Patience is sent to live first with a kind widow and then to Saint Mary’s House of Mercy Orphanage. She makes good use of herself, reading to the younger children and working in the laundry. Eventually, Patience escapes her drudgery to become a chorus girl, lying about her name and age to secure the job. There she falls in love with Lawrence, a scene designer. Soon pregnant, Patience loses her child when Lawrence is killed in a train wreck. Yet Patience’s tribulations and adventures have only begun. She becomes a professional wet nurse, an accidental thief and a fugitive from a would-be rapist. She is welcomed on the fringes of society by union agitators and midwives—until a violent workers’ strike brings her world crashing down. After fleeing to Appalachia, Patience finds herself hiding her past while trying to gain some professional respect—a difficult goal, given that midwives could not legally perform internal exams on their patients. Threading these events together are the fascinating birth stories.
Midwives are warriors in this beautifully sweeping tale.
Everyone hopes that love will last forever, that only other people’s loves will fail. But what if the unthinkable happens to you?
Ringwald's (Getting the Pretty Back, 2010) debut novel employs a series of interlaced stories with a constellation of characters at different stages of life facing varied obstacles (many self-created) in the path of love. Among the characters fumbling to understand their own behavior and bewildered by the consequences of their actions is Greta. She and Phillip have built a secure, happy marriage, one that helps her endure the indignities of a third round of fertility injections and the difficulties of raising their energetic 6-year-old daughter, Charlotte. When Phillip confesses he has cheated on her with Theresa, Charlotte’s 19-year-old violin teacher, Greta is staggered. She returns to her mother, Ilsa, who faces her own challenges in love, including her plan to take in Greta’s drug-addicted nephew, Milo—Milo, who is so difficult that his own mother has run away to join a New-Age yoga practice. Ilsa challenges Greta: Doesn’t everyone deserve a second chance? But Greta cannot forgive Phillip. As she tries to repair her life, Greta embarks on a relationship with the much younger Peter. Estranged from Greta, Phillip forges a friendship with Marina, whose son, Oliver, is a friend of Charlotte’s. Oliver, however, likes to dress up in Charlotte’s clothes, which leads to his being attacked by older boys. Ringwald deftly weaves together the threads of these stories, creating a tapestry that captures the emotional landscape of both young and well-worn relationships. Amid the dust of that landscape lies a sort of letter to Theresa, a letter that exposes the myriad emotions swirling in the aftermath of a betrayed love.
This is a beautiful exploration of how the heart’s irrational responses to love and betrayal can stand in the way of forgiveness.
Scenes from the last months in the life of Ho Chi Minh, as imagined by Vietnamese novelist Huong (Paradise of the Blind, 1993, etc.).
In the mountain fastness of northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is cold—and who would have thought that the jungly mountains of that country could possibly be “frigid and foggy”? He is there, and not in Hanoi, because a very subtle coup d’état has taken place even as Ho’s People’s Republic is struggling in its bloody war against the Americans (“Did you not see what happened when Thang’s soldiers ran into the minefield?” asks one combat veteran of another. “Eighteen guys altogether and yet it took the vultures only two days to clean them out.”) Much of Huong’s story centers on Ho, who, though embittered at the turn of events, is also quietly grateful for the chance to read, meditate and get away from it all; other episodes shift to members of Ho’s family, the soldiers surrounding him, their families and, by extension, just about everyone who ever called Ho Chi Minh “the great father of the land.” Huong’s tone is somber, even exalted, her language formal without being stilted or stiff, her approach sometimes didactic; only rarely are there flashes of that strange language called Translationese, as, for example, this passage: “If he dared speak so boldly, what would keep him from insulting her to her face in a rude and cruel manner when he learned that she had gone all the way to Khoai Hamlet?” Huong’s lyrical narrative, developed at a deliberate pace, is sometimes reminiscent of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, that classic 1945 novel that imagined, from the ruins of Europe, the early years of the Roman Empire from the point of view of someone not quite at the center of power who stands in the presence of those who control it absolutely. On that note, it also has undertones of Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (1987), whose story switched back and forth from the oppressed man in the Moscow street to the Boss, Josef Stalin, himself. And that’s altogether fitting, for Ho was said to be the most Stalinist of all of Stalin’s heirs, even if Huong manages to find glimmers of humanity within him.
A complex, politically daring story, much of which will be unfamiliar to Western readers—and that demands to be read for that very reason.