Ask a Librarian

Nancy Pearl, noted National Public Radio (NPR) commentator and former librarian, mentioned her search for plot heavy books and fast-moving stories to read over the summer.  Summer is over where Nancy lives, but it never goes away here, and my need for plot driven books just surfaced.

Reviewing Nancy Pearl’s list for NPR, I found three books.  Only one is in my library system, but I sent away for all three, on my couch potato internet shopping spree (I bought cookies and nuts too).  I hope all meet my expectations.

The books:

shoppingThe first is a murder mystery – Design for Dying by Renee Patrick

In 1937, a young woman named Lillian Frost comes to Hollywood to make her fortune. She’s very beautiful, and like many girls at that time, she wants to be discovered by some famous director who sits next to her at a soda fountain. Then, one of her former roommates is found dead wearing a dress that has been stolen from the Paramount Studios. Lillian recognizes the dress and decides to take on the job of finding out whodunit.

Pearl promises “great fun” as the detectives meet movie stars in their youth – Bob Hope and Barbara Stanwyck among the classic movie greats.  Although the book was published last year, the second in this series, Dangerous to Know, has already been published

Unknown  The second is Lions by Bonnie Nazdam.

Pearl hooked me with her comment: …”fans of Kent Haruf’s novels will find this novel to their liking…”  Although Robert Redford playing Louis Waters,  Haruf’s character lead in the movie version of one of his best books, Our Souls at Night, may have some merit,  I miss Haruf’s writing, and I missed this book when it was published last year.

Lions is the story of the last 11 people who live in a Colorado town; the story focuses on Gordon, and his longtime girlfriend, Leigh, who have for years planned to go away to school and escape the town.  Sounds deliciously ironic.

shopping-1  And finally, a new novel just published and the one hardback in the group, The Widow Nash by Jamie Harrison

When Dulcy’s father dies in 1904, he takes the secret of where his wealth is stashed with him.  Posing as his widow, she sets off on an adventure in Montana to find his fortune.

Pearl says: “What keeps you reading is not just the quality of the writing…but also to find out: Is she going to do this? Can this be successful? Or is she going to be found out? ”   Jean Zimmerman for the New York Times lists The Widow Nash as one of the new novels “depicting valiant women of old America.”

Nancy Pearl says – “I want the pages to turn…”  so do I…and the time to fly…

Related Review:  Our Souls At Night

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The Fall Guy

9780393292329_198   James Lasdun’s The Fall Guy is a psychological thriller with the same eerie flavor as Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs.  With astute observations of those around him,  Lasdun’s unreliable narrator is as literate as he is lethal and downright creepy.

When Matthew, an out of work chef, accepts an invitation from his wealthy cousin Charlie, a recently dismissed hedge fund manager, to spend the summer at his luxurious mountainside retreat, their cohabitation seems relatively peaceful at first.  Matthew occupies the guest house and cooks the meals, while Charlie and his wife, Chloe, while away the days swimming, reading, and practicing yoga. Their conversations are friendly yet reserved, with an underlying vein of Matthew’s unrequited love for his cousin’s wife and his jealousy of Charlie’s success. Charlie is overbearing and entitled (he has a million and a half dollars in cash in his home safe), while he vacillates between being the gracious savior of Matthew’s moneyless circumstances and acting as the overlord expecting undue fealty for his benevolence.

As the story slowly unveils secrets in the characters’ past, Lasdun’s descriptions of Matthew’s gourmet meals are mouth-watering, with exquisite attention to detail.  This detail continues with Chloe’s project of photographing county mailboxes and creating gardens around the house, lulling the reader into thinking nothing bad will happen after all.  Matthew’s private rants about his bad luck growing up without a father who disappeared after making bad investments, his private schooling abruptly interrupted by being caught dealing drugs, and his unsuccessful forays into the restaurant business, all seem innocuous – the quiet despair of a depressed person, not the festering revenge of a psychopath.

When Matthew decides to secretly follow Chloe on one of her photographing expeditions, and discovers she is having a secret affair with another man, the narrative quickly turns into a Hitchcockian drama. To reveal too much would spoil the plot; Lasdun uses clever twists and red herrings to draw the reader into the maze of deception, revealing more past history as possible motives for the characters’ actions.  The denouement is unexpected – I backtracked to reread pages, thinking I must have missed something because the sudden change in the action took me by surprise – not at all what I had been led to expect.  The ending is a little rattling, but the murderer (did I tell you there’s a murder?) is caught.

Lasdun includes a few phrases worth remembering. One easy to apply to the next person you meet who is pretentiously cheerful –

…”a hypocrite in whom dissembling graciousness had become habit…”

I read the book from the library, but I couldn’t help thinking how well the book would play on Audible with Matthew’s British accent.  The beginning is a little slow, but once the action starts, it would be hard to fall asleep listening.

 

 

Ordinary Grace

9781451645859_p0_v4_s192x300    A coming of age story with power and sentiment, William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace follows the summer of a thirteen year old boy as he reflects on the circumstances that formed his character as an adult.

Frank Drum, and his brother, Jake, romp through the summer days in the Minnesota countryside, jumping into the cool quarry waters, playing ball with their friends, dangling their feet over the railroad trestle, and surreptitiously listening in on adult conversations.  Their carefree summer suddenly turns into drama, when they find a an old Sioux leaning over a dead body below the railroad tracks.  As Frank tells the story, he warns of more deaths to come that summer in the early 1960’s, yet the flavor of the plot and dialogue remains unexpectedly normal as everyone continues with their uneventful lives.

Krueger, the author of the Cork O’Conner series about a former Chicago cop living in the Minnesota woods, is a master of mystery, and he does include three deaths and a murder with red herrings to distract from the real killer, who is eventually revealed.  With a mix of anticipation and tension, Krueger paces the story with the evenness of the boys’ lives as they live through the idyllic summer that forces them to grow up.

Krueger has created a cast of compelling characters (young and old), each in his or her own way searching for something, including the narrator’s father, the town’s Methodist pastor.  Frank’s father,  having changed careers from being a promising trial attorney after he survived the horrors of war, carries the novel’s theme of basic goodness despite the world’s misery and genuinely bad things happening to good people.  But Krueger is never preachy, and his minister’s thoughtful comments seem more philosophical than religious.  Frank and his brother grow up with him as their model, facing life and death with his perspective:

“Loss,” says Frank toward the novel’s end, “once it’s become a certainty, is like a rock you hold in your hand … you can use it to beat yourself or you can throw it away.”

Despite its moral compass constantly pointing North and its tangential bucolic descriptions of the Minnesota woods in summer, Ordinary Grace is a compelling coming-of-age novel, exploring events propelling its characters from childhood to adulthood.  Although the ending is somewhat predictable, some of the characters’ words will stay with you:

“My heart had simply directed me in a way that my head couldn’t wrap its thinking around…”

“It’s hard to say goodbye and almost impossible to accomplish this alone and ritual is the railing we hold to, all of us together, that keeps up upright and connected until the worst is past.”

I found this book on a friend’s book club list for next year.  The author of Ordinary Grace includes a a few topics for book club discussion at the back of the book, but one seems to summarize the book’s intent:

How do small moments help deal with larger-than-life trouble?

 

Cocoa Beach

Unknown   Despite Beatriz Williams’ complicated plots with murder, deceit, and harrowing escapes, she always delivers a happy ending, and Cocoa Beach is no exception.  With American volunteers in London during World War I, wealthy aristocrats in Cornwall, and rumrunners at a posh plantation in Florida during the Prohibition, the varied settings add to the historical context of a fast-paced melodrama of romance and intrigue.

Virginia Fortesque, young American volunteer ambulance driver, meets Simon Fitzwilliam, the tall dashing British doctor, and, of course, they fall in love as she drives him across the battlefields.  Their lives are complicated by their families.  She has a wealthy father who has been imprisoned for murdering her mother; he has a wife and son, with a huge debt attached to the ancestral home.

When the war ends, he divorces his wife, marries Virginia, and leaves to make his fortune at the downtrodden family investment in Cocoa Beach, Florida, while she returns to her family in New York.  When he dies suddenly, she and their two year old daughter travel to Florida to settle the estate.  And so the real story begins.

Williams cleverly changes tacks frequently, as she alternates between the war years and the present in 1922.  No one is who they seem, and the intrigue hardens into murder for greed, with lies about everything.  The reader is never sure who is telling the truth until the end.

Virginia remains the only character who is decent and true, the victim of the villains surrounding her.  If you read Williams’ A Certain Age, you may remember her as a minor character whose father is accused of killing his wife, Virginia’s mother.  Williams fleshes out her story in Cocoa Beach, with her usual successful combination of romance, mystery and murder, adding a dash of prohibition and infidelity, and the compelling formula of distracting foils and dangerous tension.

Fun and compelling – Cocoa Beach is a great beach read.

Review: A Certain Age

The Trouble with Goats and Sheep

225x225bb     In telling the story of a small community overrun by gossip, prejudice, and secrets, Joanna Cannon humorously reveals the dangers of obstinate righteousness through the voices of two ten year old girls.  In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, a series of mishaps and strange occurrences threaten to upset the quiet row of British country houses in a small neighborhood – small enough that every knows every one else’s business, and if they don’t, they are willing to create their own versions of reality.

The driving focus of the story is Mrs. Cleasy’ s sudden disappearance.  As the search for her continues throughout the story, Cannon introduces a series of related incidents as possible clues to the mystery through the voice of ten year old Grace.  Mrs. Cleasy’s disappearance could be simply escape from her life or something more sinister.  The neighbors fear she may have uncovered a secret that could expose their past shameful action.  Ignorant of the adults’ trepidation,  Grace, a resourceful 10-year-old convinces herself and her loyal friend, Tilly, that everything might go back to normal if only they can find God.

Posing as Brownies seeking badges, Grace and her friend Tilly, pursue their own investigation, and as they interview each neighbor they slowly uncover the neighborhood’s secret – an insidious plot against one resident that happened nine years earlier.

The title refers to a biblical verse:

“…He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left…he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire…”

The trouble, Grace discovers as she interviews her neighbors,  is deciding who are the goats and who are the sheep.  Under the guise of a quiet existence, each has a secret misery:  Dorothy, bullied by her husband, Eric; Brian, who cannot escape his overbearing mother; John Creasy, husband of the missing woman, who fears his wife has discovered what he has done. Each character is concealing a secret, but not necessarily the one you suspect.  In addition, two unexplained scandals lurk in the air – a kidnapped baby and a house fire – as well as the neighbors anxiety and anger over two who do not fit into their expectations – an Indian family newly moved in and a bachelor with long hair who likes to take photographs.

With so many diversions, the story may seem overwhelming.  Cannon’s wry humor, however, manages to expose human frailty while cautioning the reader to beware of making assumptions.  Her diversion into a creosote stain on a drainpipe that looks like Jesus is hilarious, with the neighbors keeping watch and fighting over the placement of lawn chairs to keep vigil.   In her review for the New York Times last year, Samantha Hunt noted:

Jesus’ manifestation births a driveway vigil, a Chautauqua of folding chairs and a struggle. Who sits closest to Jesus? This caldron of neighbors grows hot. At what temperature will community boil over into mob violence? Fear is contagious in small spaces… What belongs where? Who owns what? And what hollow treats will be developed to distract us from the real crimes committed in the name of safety?

Joanna Cannon is a psychiatrist, privy to many secret fears; she has said her book was inspired by her patients and by the story of Christopher Jefferies,  the retired teacher and landlord who was falsely implicated in the murder of Joanna Yeates in Bristol in 2010, and later won libel damages for the way he was portrayed in some newspapers.

In The Trouble with Goats and Sheep, Cannon may be sharing her insights about inner miseries and hypocrisies,  and their manifestations on others – and perhaps, cautioning that we may not know our neighbors as well as we think.

Although a friend recommended this book a year ago, I returned my library copy unread – just could not get to it.  I was reminded of it recently from an interview on By the Book, and glad I read it – a book full of humor and profound moments worth thinking about and discussing.

Cannon has another book due to be published in January – Three Things About Elsie.  This time I’ve preordered it.