Summer Books – Not All Are Beach Reads

With the help of my friends, I found a list of easy books to capture my attention.

9780062562647  Carol Goodman, one of my favorite Gothic mystery writers, always adds a literary flavor to her stories as she maintains the suspense.  Her latest book – The Other Mother – had me reading through the night.  Daphne Marist and Laurel Hobbes, new mothers suffering from post-partum depression, meet in a support group and become best friends.  As Goodman develops the tale, I wasn’t sure which one had been murdered, if one had assumed the other’s identity, or even if there were really two women.  It’s a gripping page-turner and so much fun to read.

518SwKZGkdL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_ Joanna Trollope’s modern version of Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility is easier to follow if you know the original story, and Janeites may know Austen’s novels well enough to predict exactly what will happen next.  Whether or not you are familiar with the plot (from Austen’s book or the movie with Emma Thomspon), this updated story  will make you want to read to the happy ending of Trollope’s version.

contentAfter avoiding her books for so long, I finally read the first in Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache novels – Still Life.  I enjoyed it more than I had expected. In Still Life, Penny establishes the setting in Three Pines. Her description of this fictional town near Montreal made me want to book a flight to find it.  Gamache is introduced as the brilliant investigator who speaks fluent French as well as Cambridge educated English, and he starts each investigation with a croissant and a coffee – a civilized approach to murder.

Next on my agenda are two easy reads: a paperback I found buried in my stash – To Capture What We Cannot Keep – a nineteenth century romance by Scottish writer Beatrice Colin – set in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower construction; and Mary Alice Munroe’s beach read – appropriately titled Beach House Reunion.

Waiting in the wings:

  1. William Trevor’s Last Stories
  2. Frances Mayes’ Women in Sunight
  3. Madeleine Miller’s Circe

A great start to the summer…

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The Child Finder and Elizabeth Smart

61JqRLhUD5L._AC_US218_Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder reminded me of  the 2002 kidnapping of Elizabeth Smart, a story I had heard on the news. I had avoided reading Smart’s account of her nine months in captivity in her book, “My Story,”  but this fictionalized tale of a young girl  stolen in the woods, abducted by a trapper who had once been a victim himself, revealed the horror and strength of missing children.  Fiction can be as true as fact.

In 2002, fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was taken from her home in the middle of the night, kept chained and repeatedly raped. In Denfeld’s The Child Finder, a young girl, Madison, gets lost in a snowy wood in Oregon when she and her family are looking for the perfect Christmas tree to cut down.  A deaf trapper finds her, almost dead from the cold, and hides her in the dirt cellar of his cabin in the woods.  Madison survives by telling herself remembered folktales, and imagines she is now someone else, outside her own self and in the body of the Snow Girl, a fairytale she knows from before she was taken.  Denfeld masks the horror of the sexual abuse and the beatings with the girl’s stories;  her resilience and determination shine through the misery and offer hope for a rescue.

After years of fruitless searching, Madison’s parents hire Naomi, an acclaimed investigator and tracker with a reputation for finding lost children.  Naomi, who escaped her abductors as a child, struggles with her own demons – a haunting past she only remembers in nightmares.  As she pursues clues leading her to finding Madison, Naomi searches not only for the lost girl but also for her own lost identity.

Elizabeth Smart is the real life embodiment of a Naomi, transformed from victim to advocate.  After her rescue in 2003, she rejoined her family and continues to work to restore her life.  I look forward to meeting her soon at a book reading.

The Child Finder is not an easy read, but Denfeld uses her own experience as a Portland-based journalist and private investigator, as well as the adoptive mother of three foster children, to create a powerful and disquieting novel.

The Black Painting

When I visited the Prada museum in Madrid, the focus was Diego Valazquez’s intricate “Las Meninas,”  but the image of one of Goya’s “Black Paintings” – the disturbing portrait of  Saturn Devouring His Son  is hard to forget.  Neil Olson imagines a mysterious missing addition to the famous collection the seventy year old artist painted on his walls – a self-portrait of Goya which hangs in the study of a wealthy collector, who uses it to control his family in the story of The Black Painting.

51jz+yvAOjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_  The power of art to evoke personal epiphanies is one of Olson’s themes as he weaves a complicated tale of greed and anxiety in The Black Painting.  The painting covered the wall behind the locked door of the Morse patriarch’s study, and was rumored to cause death and madness.  The famous painting was long ago stolen, when the grandchildren were young,

Before he dies, the family is summoned to Owl’s Point to hear Alfred Arthur Morse’s conditions for distributing his wealth – the mansion as well as an extensive art collection.  When she arrives at the mansion, Teresa, a student of art history,  finds her grandfather dead, his face contorted in an expression of horror and his gaze fixed on the spot where the Goya painting once hung,   The mystery of its thief and the patriarch’s diabolic intentions for his progeny create a thrilling story of deceit, corruption, and dark family secrets.

Olson cleverly allows the reader’s imagination to fill in the creepy details of the Goya painting , which is never actually described in any detail—a device that allows the reader to create a personal image of horror.  A gripping tale you will read in a sitting…

 

 

It Happened in Monterey

I miss chatting with bookstore owners who are avid readers. With only one independent bookstore on the island (BookEnds in Kailua) and a perfunctory Barnes and Noble at the mall, the pickings are slim in Hawaii. On a recent trip to the Monterey Peninsula, I found four independent bookstores within a five mile radius, and with booksellers happy to share their favorites. Of course, I could not get out of a store without buying a book or two.  img_4298

At Bookworks in Pacific Grove, I found two books: an older (2012) Donna Leon mystery I had not read, with my favorite sleuth, Commissario Guido Brunetti – “Beastly Things,” and Joanna Trollope’s “Sense and Sensibility” (2013), her modernized version of the Jane Austen classic.

At Old Capitol Books in Monterey, I found myself scanning the stacks of old used books, some rare editions, checking off those I had read. Looking for favorite authors, I found an Amy Bloom book I had not read (at least I don’t remember reading it) – “Lucky Us.”

In Pilgrim’s Way, the charming bookstore connected to a garden in Carmel, I decided on “The Green Thoreau” and Scottish author Beatrice Colin’s “To Capture What We Cannot Keep.”

Chatting with the proprietor led me to another independent bookstore not far away – River House Books. There I found the first of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Armand Gamache books – “Still Life” – recommended by a good friend, and Amy Bloom’s new book – “White Houses.” The bookseller commisserated about “Manhattan Beach” – like me, she had not been able to finish it – but I plan to try again. And her recommendation for the best page-turner she had read recently – “The Dry” – went to the top of my to-read list.

With this stack, Laura Lippman’s “Sunburn” on my iPhone and Navin’s “Only Child” on audible, I am ready for a long flight – unless, of course, the movie selection has an Oscar nominee to distract me.

Mystery at the Spa – Keep Her Safe

4124dC61QCL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Sophie Hannah was chosen to continue the legacy of Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot in two novels following the grand Dame’s style, and when you finish Keep Her Safe, you will understand why.  Murder, kidnapping, a distraught pregnant British mum, an arrogant American former prosecutor/talk show host, and a few policemen – set in a posh Arizona spa – come together to offer an entertaining mystery, Agatha Christie style.

Several plot lines intersect to keep the reader off balance but the main focus targets the murder of a young girl whose body has never been found.  The girl is spotted at the luxury spa after a flustered hotel clerk hands out the wrong room key to a jet-lagged British customer who not only becomes the instigator for the search of the girl but also becomes a victim.  As the story goes in and out of the possibilities, Hannah has the characters dancing in a complicated and sometimes confusing maze.  I lost patience with long pages of letters, interview transcripts, and descriptions of towels and pools at the luxury spa worthy of a marketing ad.    When the action finally picks up, the flashbacks, journals and court documents come together in a clever reveal of the true villain.

Just as Agatha Christie neatly summed up the action, laying bare the motivations of all the characters in her last chapter, so does Hannah.  Just in case the reader lost the thread of who did what to whom, she clearly explains it all in the end, exposing the villains and restoring faith in the system.  Except – there is an added surprise – leaving the ending with an uncomfortable and shocking revelation.

Although mystery books are not the best focus for a book club discussion, Sophie Hannah’s twists and surprise ending in Keep Her Safe might make the exception.  The ending would be worth discussing.  If you’ve read it, let me know how you feel about the ending.

 

Review of The Monogram Murders