The Mountains Wild by Sarah Stewart Taylor: Set in Ireland and America, Sarah Stewart Taylor’s slowly simmering The Mountains Wild is the first entry in a new series featuring homicide detective Maggie D’arcy. A divorced mother of one living on Long Island, Maggie earned her investigative bona fides by solving a case involving a notorious serial killer that the FBI couldn’t crack. Maggie originally felt called to become a detective after her cousin, Erin, vanished in the woods of Wicklow, Ireland, in the 1990s. At the age of 23, Maggie traveled there to look for Erin, but neither she nor the Irish police force, the Gardaí, could find her. Decades later, Maggie remains haunted by her cousin’s disappearance. After Erin’s scarf is found by investigators searching for a woman named Niamh Horrigan, Maggie returns to Ireland—and reenters a maze of painful memories—to do some sleuthing. The authorities fear that a serial killer is at work and that Niamh may be latest his hostage. Upon arriving in Dublin, Maggie meets up with her old friend Roly Byrne, a good-natured detective inspector, and becomes a temporary member of his investigative team. Together, they race to connect the pieces of the intricate mystery behind Niamh’s disappearance. The case becomes even more complicated when Maggie gets involved with former flame Connor Kearney, who was friends with Erin and may know more about her disappearance than he let on when he was originally questioned. Taylor takes her time in unspooling the strands of the mystery, keeping the reader on edge all the while. Through transportive details of Dublin pubs and the Wicklow wilderness and a wonderful command of Irish history, she fashions an immersive setting for the narrative, which moves nimbly through the decades, flashing back to Maggie’s first trip to Ireland and providing glimpses of her friendship with Erin. Featuring a memorable cast that includes cheeky Irish Gardai, sinister suspects and a not-to-be-messed-with female lead, The Mountains Wild makes for perfect summer reading. Maggie is a first-class protagonist–an ace investigator and appealing everywoman with smarts and heart. Suspense fans will welcome her to the crime scene.
Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Talia Hibbert is quickly becoming a contemporary romance powerhouse. Her return to the adventures of the Brown siblings with Take a Hint, Dani Brown is an easy contender for best book of the year. Zafir Ansari and Dani Brown couldn’t be more different. Zaf is a former rugby player turned security guard whose weakness is reading romance and who has a passion for destigmatizing mental illness. Dani is more tightly wound—a Ph.D. student who can barely stop working long enough to eat a decent meal. She certainly doesn’t have time for romance. Friends with benefits? Surely, but nothing that requires careful cultivation and patience navigating emotional bombshells. After a fire drill goes haywire, Zaf’s gallant rescuing of Dani becomes a viral sensation and both realize they can use the situation to their mutual benefit. Dani can get her friends with benefits scenario with hunky Zaf, and Zaf can get closer to his crush, Dani, while using the exposure to help his sports nonprofit for children, Tackle It. What seems like a win-win scenario quickly becomes messier; in romance, fake dating rarely stays fake for long. Hibbert knows how to deepen and complicate her characters, meticulously peeling back layer upon layer as the story goes on. Zaf’s past includes a devastating personal tragedy that changed his life and set him on a course to advocate for athletes experiencing mental health issues. Dani’s more than just a flighty commitmentphobe; her passionate studiousness comes from fear, because she’s never known love and career to exist harmoniously. What makes Take a Hint, Dani Brown a superlative example of the romance genre as a whole, and not just a gem in the contemporary category, is that Hibbert gets to the essence of what a happily-ever-after means. It’s not about love as the antidote to a couple’s problems, but love becoming a foundation on which the couple understand one another better and a soft place to land when times are tough. While they’re quick to tumble into bed, Dani and Zeb are both guarded, but through lovely, stick-to-your-ribs home cooking on Zaf’s part and Dani’s ability to make those around her feel like they can achieve anything, they fall in love little by little. It’s not a romance of grand gestures, but a slow burn made up of small, simple moments. Fans who loved the first book in the Brown Sisters series, Get a Life, Chloe Brown, may feel that it’s a tough act to follow. Fear not. Take a Hint, Dani Brown possesses the same amount of charm, grit and, certainly sex appeal as its predecessor. Zaf is the emotionally competent, buff hero of our dreams. Dani is the heroine we all aspire to be: confident, feminist, sex-positive and driven. Read this romance immediately, and then read it again.
The Mist by Ragnar Jonasson (available as an e-book on the Axis 360 app): The Mist is the third and final book in Ragnar Jonasson’s electrifying Hidden Iceland series, which features Hula Hermannsdottir, detective inspector with the Reykjavik Police Department. Like its predecessors, The Darkness and The Island, Jonasson’s latest is a labyrinthine murder mystery set against the bleak backdrop of Iceland. It’s Christmas 1987, and Erla and Einar Einarsson, who run a farm in the highlands—“the edge of the inhabited world”—are preparing for the holiday. In their part of Iceland, winter days don’t begin to brighten until 11 a.m., brutal blizzards are a regular occurrence and skiing is easier than walking or driving. The two receive few visitors and don’t have a television. In the midst of a pummeling snowstorm, a stranger named Leó shows up at the farm looking for shelter. Leó claims to have become lost during a hunting trip with friends, but Erla doesn’t believe his story. She’s frightened of him from the start, and her fears worsen after the electricity goes out, leaving the farmhouse in darkness. As Erla tries to find out what Leó is after, the novel moves headlong toward a terrifying climax. Two months later, Hulda, recently returned from personal leave after a tragedy involving her teenage daughter, is asked to look into a pair of murders that occurred at the farm. Although she struggles to keep her emotions in check, Hulda moves into detective mode, bringing her brisk, efficient investigative style to a sinister crime scene. But the circumstances at the farm are more complex than they appear, and Hulda soon discovers that the murders may be linked to the disappearance of a young woman named Unnur. Jonasson turns the tension up to a nearly unendurable degree as the novel unfolds. His complete–and complex–narrative design isn’t revealed until late in the book, when the story’s multiple threads coalesce in a surprising conclusion. With this no-frills thriller, he continues to map Iceland’s outlying regions and to develop Hulda’s character, adding a new chapter to her story that followers of the series will savor. Masterfully plotted and paced, The Mist is atmospheric, haunting and not for the faint of heart.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark: Julie Clark’s The Last Flight is a delicious thrill ride of a read. It’s got swapped identities, minute-by-minute suspense, shadowy figures, murder mystery and enough twists and coincidences to make things exciting yet frighteningly realistic. Clark’s two protagonists, Eva James and Claire Cook, take turns narrating their separate lives before and after they decide, together, to abandon them. When Claire fell in love with her husband, Rory, a handsome and wealthy would-be senator from a powerful family, it was almost a relief. While she’d excelled at Vassar and had a great job at Christie’s, she was still devastated by the deaths of her mother and sister. Rory was charming, with a glittering life—and, Claire realized not long after they wed, a penchant for control and abuse. She longs to escape, and knows she’s got to do it just right; she has a bad feeling about the untimely demise of Rory’s previous girlfriend. She puts a plan in motion, only to encounter a major last-minute problem. And then, as she muses on her options in a JFK airport bar, Eva joins her and shares her desire for a new, better life. After a few tentative jokes about the movie Freaky Friday, the women decide to do a swap of their own. They exchange clothes, phones and tickets, with Eva taking Claire’s place on a flight to Puerto Rico, and Claire boarding Eva’s flight to California. Upon touchdown in Oakland, Claire is shocked by the TV news: the Puerto Rico flight crashed, presumably leaving no survivors—and suddenly, she has more choices than she did before. Alas, assuming Eva’s identity has its own set of problems, as it turns out she, too, was at the mercy of dangerous men. The Last Flight is a suspenseful, timely tale about smart, strong women who support one another in their determination to not just survive, but also thrive, uncertainty and risk…Who cares?
These Women by Ivy Pochoda: Anyone who has lived in Southern California for more than six months will already have heard–or will soon hear–a dad joke about its seasons: fire, flood, earthquake and that other one. Sometimes it’s drought, sometimes mudslide, but it’s never something cheery like spring. In some ways, this is the ironic underbelly of the Hollywood-starlet face that Los Angeles presents to the world. While the myth of Los Angeles stretches from the surfer-magnet shores of Malibu to the Hollywood sign and the last tie-dyed hippie enclave of Laurel Canyon, it is also a city that bears a scar: Western Avenue, which runs LA’s length until it crashes into Los Feliz Boulevard. This is where Ivy Pochoda, author of 2017’s mesmerizing Wonder Valley, set her latest stem-winder of a thriller, These Women. If you drive along that avenue in West Adams, you might not suspect that, nestled among the likes of Antique Stove Heaven and the Barack Obama Global Preparation Academy, there’s a whole other economy devoted to every manner of vice that can be exploited for a buck, from chop shops to no-tell motels and bars that double as drug emporiums. It is in this milieu that “these women”—a restaurateur, a vice cop, a young “dancer,” an aspiring performance artist and her mother—all ply their trades. Suddenly, a string of murders intertwines these women’s lives in unexpected ways. Is it possible that this latest spree is related to a similar one that stopped mysteriously a decade and a half earlier? Pochoda buttresses her narrative with a distinct and empowered group of women, and it is refreshing to see women in a thriller all acting with agency. Even the dancer is cognizant of her choices and acts only through the compulsion of her history, not controlled by some man. Not since Kem Nunn’s Tapping the Source (or perhaps Pochoda’s own Wonder Valley) has a mystery author so successfully and unflinchingly delved beneath the surface of a Southern California subculture to render a portrait that readers will find arresting–no matter the season.
Friends and Strangers by J. Courtney Sullivan: As problems go, a surfeit of money is a nice one to have. Some might argue, however, that wealth is like a set of weights: Those who have it will likely be stronger than those who don’t But mishandle it, and the self-imposed strains can be painful. The clash between rich and poor animates Friends and Strangers. J. Courtney Sullivan’s quietly perceptive new novel about two women on different sides of America’s economic divide: a new mother and the college-age nanny she hires for her son. Elisabeth Ronson, a former New York Times journalist and author of two bestselling books, has moved from Brooklyn to upstate New York with her husband, Andrew, and Gil, their baby conceived through in vitro fertilization. The move was precipitated by the fellowship Andrew received from a nearby college to develop a solar-powered grill. Elisabeth won’t accept money from her rich, philandering father and insists that her needy sister, Charlotte, eager to build a lifestyle brand on Instagram, do the same. As Sullivan skillfully shows, family is not Elisabeth’s only problem. Another is loneliness in her suburban neighborhood of stay-at-home mothers. Elisabeth also needs help caring for Gil as she struggles to write a third book, so she hires Sam, a senior at the town’s women’s college, to watch him. Sullivan does a fine job depicting Elisabeth’s and Sam’s respective dilemmas, as Elisabeth learns to live on less money and Sam deals with her family’s meager finances. Among the well-drawn supporting characters are Clive, Sam’s English boyfriend who’s a decade her senior, and whom Elisabeth suspects may be taking advantage of her; George, Elisabeth’s father-in-law, who rails against the inequities of society; and the poorly paid staff at the college kitchen where Sam also works. The tension sometimes wanes, but Friends and Strangers is at its best when Sullivan emphasizes the widening class difference in America between people who can afford $46 peony-scented hand soaps and those worried about meeting basic needs. Sullivan dares to further complicate her narrative by showing that financial security doesn’t guarantee happiness. The result is a poignant look at the biases of modern society.
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager: We’ve all heard the saying “You can’t go home again,” but Maggie Holt decides to do it anyway in Riley Sager’s supernatural haunted-house thriller, Home Before Dark. The 30-year-old interior designer’s father, Ewan, recently died and, to her surprise, left her a house she didn’t realize he still owned: Baneberry Hall, a beautiful Victorian manse located in the woods of Vermont. Twenty-five years ago, Maggie’s parents bought the house for a song because of its tragic and violent history. They optimistically set out to make happy memories there together but after 20 days in the house they fled in terror. Unfortunately, Ewan’s bestselling memoir about their traumatic experiences achieved massive fame and notoriety that have been dogging and defining Maggie ever since. Renovating and selling the gothic mansion seems like an excellent opportunity for her to reckon with her past and put Baneberry Hall behind her at last—especially since she doesn’t remember the events Ewan wrote about (and is highly skeptical that they ever happened in the first place). Sure, her father made her promise to never return to the house, but if you don’t believe in ghosts, they can’t scare or harm you, right? Sager fans know better, of course, and therein lies the fun. As in his previous bestselling thrillers (Final Girls, The Last Time I Lied and Lock Every Door), the author puts a fresh, clever spin on horror tropes, this time with echoes of The Amityville Horror and “The Haunting of Hill House.” And he amps up the tension by alternating chapters of Ewan’s book with Maggie’s musings, thus putting the past and present on a collision course that readers can, but our heroine cannot, see. Home Before Dark is a compelling and layered mix of taut psychological suspense, genuinely scary haunted-house terrors and the vagaries of memory, capped off with an inventive and satisfyingly wild ending.
Daring and the Duke by Sarah MacLean (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Sarah MacLean wraps up her Bareknuckle Bastards series with the ultimate story of revenge and redemption. Fans of the first two books will enjoy seeing the series villain, Ewan, the Duke of Marwick, brought to his knees (literally and figuratively) by the strong-willed Grace. A long time ago, Grace considered Ewan to be her first love, until he betrayed her and his brothers and forced them to live on the streets. Since then, Grace has built herself up to be a ruler in Convent Garden’s seedy underworld. Ewan’s love for Grace has never wavered, even in spite of his deceptive actions. For years, he thought she was dead, her memory driving him into madness. But once he discovers she’s not dead at all, but is instead the very successful owner of a ladies’ club, he fights to win back her heart. Unfortunately, Grace’s first instinct is to seek revenge rather than reconciliation. Can Ewan fully redeem himself and become worthy of Grace’s love and affection? In the end, the answer is yes, but you’ll get no spoilers from me on Ewan’s path to redemption. It’s something readers really do need to experience for themselves. When Grace and Ewan reconnect, there is more pull than push. It’s obvious they both still love one another and their relationship becomes less of a fight against attraction and more of a healing journey to right past wrongs. If you expect fireworks of antagonism, you may be disappointed; this is a tender second-chance romance between two people who have known a life full of pain and abandonment. It’s emotional and heart-wrenching, as both Grace and Ewan are characters who experience their emotions strongly and earnestly. Think of this as more of a slow simmer than a rolling boil. Daring and the Duke will crush your heart and then slowly and carefully piece it back together. It’s the epitome of catharsis. Though Daring and the Duke offers enough exposition for newcomers to dive right in, readers will miss the nuance of the hero and heroine’s history and how it informs their behavior without reading the previous two romances in the series. And honestly, it’s a grave disservice to your reading enjoyment to not start from the beginning with MacLean’s charming cast of characters. I can’t think of a better weekend activity than powering through the entire trilogy!
The Only Good Indians by Stephen Graham Jones (available as an e-book/e-audiobook on the Axis 360 and Libby apps): Stephen Graham Jones pulls off an interesting feat in his new novel, The Only Good Indians. He makes you question whether you should root for the four Native American friends who shot and killed a family of elk on a hunting trip or for the spirit of the elk as it seeks revenge against them. Ten years ago, while hunting on land designated for use by their tribal elders, Ricky, Lewis, Gabe and Cass opened fire on a small elk herd with reckless abandon, killing far more than they should have, including one that was pregnant. The now 30-something men have moved off of the Blackfeet reservation, but the incident still haunts Lewis, who has always felt guilty about the deed as well as about having turned his back on his culture. When Lewis sees a vision of the elk’s calf in his living room, his guilt begins to consume him. He suspects the elk’s spirit has taken the form of a friend, Shaney, and he sets a grisly trap for her. But Lewis’ irrational fears continue, and before long, he suspects the entity has switched forms again, this time taking on that of his wife, Peta. Confused by Lewis’ actions at first, Gabe and Cass soon begin to experience the wrath of the elk’s spirit as well, leading up to a frantic finale. Borrowing a bit from his previous novel, Mongrels, which explored the mindset of a family of werewolves, Jones’ latest novel dips into the elk’s perspective in several chapters. As a result, the reader is torn as to which faction–men or beast–is more deserving of empathy. The Only Good Indians unfolds at a slow and steady pace that offers ample opportunities for sharp commentary on history, past choices and the identity crises of a group of Native American men. It toys with impending doom, then slaps you in the face with violence.
A Sky Painted Gold by Laura Wood: Seventeen-year-old Lou has always been drawn to the grand but empty house just across the causeway from her own home–so drawn, in fact, that when she discovered an open window in the house’s library, she went in and made herself comfortable. When the house’s owners, the Cardew siblings, return for the summer of 1929, they invite Lou into their circle and introduce her to their intoxicating, glamorous world. But what lies hidden beneath the opulent surface of their lives? In a moment when Lou is feeling hemmed in by the pressures of life in her small Cornish town–pressures to grow up and settle down–her summer with the Cardews may be just what she needs to find out what she really wants. Middle grade novelist Laura Wood’s first YA novel is dazzling in every way, starting with its gorgeous prose. From Lou’s small and plain but bustling family home, to the luxurious quiet of a Sunday afternoon at the Cardew house, to the glitz of one of their many Gatsby-esque parties, Wood creates atmospheres that readers can dive into headfirs. Lou’s perspective—smart and capable but a little naive and utterly in awe of the new world she’s suddenly part of—enables readers to get swept up in it completely, with no sense of pretense or feeling that we’re stuck on the outside, looking in. Lou’s relationships with the Cardew siblings—Lou and Caitlin quickly form a fast friendship, while she and Robert develop the best kind of budding attraction, masked by constant barbs and banter—bring these larger-than-life characters into sharp focus, making them just as grounded and human as Lou herself. Tinted with an undercurrent of magic, A Sky Painted Gold will resonate with readers who love the glamour of The Great Gatsby or Jane Austen’s sharp, will-they-won’t-they romances and fierce female friendships, or with any reader who has ever longed to step into a life grander than their own, even just for a moment.
The Vapors by David Hill: Those of us who are fans of gangster stories have been saturated (oversaturated, perhaps?) in the Lucky-Bugsy-Meyer saga, rooted in New York but with memorable offshoots in Havana, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. Well, here’s a fresh cast and venue: the casino crows of Hot Springs, Arkansas, arguably America’s gambling capital until it all came crashing down in the mid-1960s. Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky do make cameos in The Vapors: A Southern Family, the New York Mob, and the Rise and Fall of Hot Springs, America’s Forgotten Capital of Vice, David Hill’s true crime narrative of the spa resort town from the ’30s through the ’60s. But the big players are the less-remembered mobster Owney Madden, casino boss Dane Harris and a raft of crooked homegrown pols, judges and cops–with a fleeting appearance by Hot Springs resident Virginia Clinton and her promising son Bill. It’s still astonishing how open Hot Springs’ vice industry was, with city leaders acting as an integral part of the criminal establishment. Madden was the mob’s guy in town, but he quickly assimilated to the local landscape. Harris, the son of a bootlegger, had aspirations of respectability; he’s the Michael Corleone of the story. He wanted the clubs, led by his gang of Vapors, to be glossy entertainment palaces. Harris did his best with payoffs and vote-buying, but internecine fighting that featured bomb explosions and pressure from Bobby Kennedy’s Department of Justice ended his dream. The history is fascinating, but what makes The Vapors a compelling–and ultimately heartwrenching–book is the author’s account of his own family, who lived in Hot Springs during the casino heyday. His grandmother Hazel Hill landed there as a teen, drifted into casino work after leaving her violent, alcoholic husband and neglected her sons as she feel into her own sad addictions. Hill tells the hard truth of her life with compassion and context. Amid all this mayhem, one person in the book emerges as a beacon of decency: Jimmy Hill, Hazel’s youngest son and the author’s father. Intelligence, hard work, athletic talent and loyal friends led him to a better life. Dane Harris should have been so lucky.
The Color of Air by Gail Tsukiyama: In Gail Tsukiyama’s eighth novel, a small Japanese community on Hawaii’s Big Island is thrown into chaos in 1935 when the town’s golden boy, Daniel Abe, returns home after several years away on the mainland. His homecoming coincides with the eruption of Mauna Loa, a portentous omen, as the locals have long viewed its seismic activity as the manifestation of the mercurial moods of Pele, the goddess of volcanoes and fire and the creator of the Hawaiian Islands. As Daniel works to resettle into his former home and make peace with a tragedy that occurred while working as a doctor in Chicago, dormant secrets and sins of the past come bubbling up. Tensions rise further when he and the villagers learn that the lava flow from Mauna Loa is headed directly for them. With The Color of Air, Tsukiyama revisits themes that have been constant over the course of her 20-year career, tenderly exploring the complicated web of family and the resilient nature of the human spirit, while also shedding light on an important period of Asian history, this time the indentured servitude of Asian people on the sugar plantations that were once Hawaii’s lifeblood. As always, Tsukiyama’s storytelling is deeply compassionate, undoubtedly buoyed by her personal ties to the material (her father was Japanese American by way of Hawaii), which lends a quiet and sincere intimacy to the proceedings. There is plenty of interpersonal drama in this twisting tale of love and loss, but the novel’s true joy and beauty come from the intensely atmospheric writing. Tsukiyama’s prose is lush and sensual, fully immersing the reader in this pocket of paradise and bringing the island’s spirits to life. She elevates Hawaii from a simple setting to a character as dynamic and vital as its human inhabitants. An intoxicating blend of historical events and fiction, The Color of Air is a richly rewarding reading experience perfect for fans of Lisa See or Isabel Allende, or anyone looking for a magical love story that transcends time.
Or What You Will by Jo Walton: Due to an unintended quirk of timing, I read Or What You Will, Jo Walton’s latest novel, immediately after Sofia Samatar’s magnificent, book-obsessed fantasy A Stranger in Olondria, so perhaps I was primed for a book about books. Or a fantasy novel about novelists forced to live in an all-too-flawed reality, or a meditation on mortality or a meta-literary escape to a near-mythical elsewhere. The fact that Walton uses a reference to Samatar’s masterpiece as an emotional level only heightens the connection between the two works. But this is not a review of Olondria. And although there is a concrete relationship between the two books, Walton’s story of an imaginary friend concerned for the incipient demise of his progenitor, bestselling author Sylvia Harrison (also referred to as the owner of his “bone cave,” in a somewhat distressing allusion to David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks), and seeking a route to mutual immortality deserves its own evaluation. Or What You Will, like the cuisine at the Teatro del Sale in Firenze (Walton steadfastly refuses to call the city “Florence,” citing a preference for its Italian name), begs to be devoured slowly, in courses that may be individually savored and committed to memory. Walton’s prose is kin to chef Fabio Picchi’s carrots, or maybe the porcini mushroom soup: excellence wrought from the most prosaic of elements. It even includes something like Maria Cassi’s political comedy: There are anecdotes about the abstract nature of Victorian women’s legs, Canadian threats and biblical inerrancy. A rather lengthy paragraph on the Canadian emigration system is especially, ah…poignant. But for those (like me) who have only experienced Firenze in books, this is likely not the most effective route to explain this book. Let me try again. Walton’s nameless, chameleonic, probably mostly imaginary narrator says he (and he is, by his own admission, an indisputably and irrevocably male aspect of fantasy novelist Sylvia’s mind) “will ask you to do nothing but read, and remember, and care.” He then spends the full length of Or What You Will weaving the brutal reality of Harrison’s long life with a melange of Renaissance apocrypha, Shakespearean comedy and Greek mythology. Throughout, he dodges between narrating the negotiations of the creative process, narrating the creation itself and playing his part in Sylvia’s latest book, all the while slowly unfolding his plot to save Sylvia’s life (and his own). Walton’s snark keeps any potential mawkishness at bay, and the result is a thoroughly memorable story about magic, meddling gods, learning to love properly and all the ways the world we create can save us in the ones we’re born into. It’s a worthwhile reminder that creativity has value and that the proper standard of value is rarely monetary. Or What You Will is the literal manifestation of escapism, but it also may be among escapism’s most effective champions. Walton’s Firenze is an island of charming dysfunction in a world whose dysfunction more often frightens, and its fictional analogue, Thalia, is a theatrical idyll. Walton’s narrator is equal parts Melpomene and the archangel Michael, though he denies the latter. It is fantastical, but tangible all the same, less escapist than transporting, and suffused with joy and the tacit hope that maybe, just maybe, the salvation Sylvia finds in crafting her books might be attainable for the reader as well.
Utopia Avenue by David Mitchell: David Mitchell has written some of the most innovative novels of the past 20 years, from the post-apocalyptic Cloud Atlas to Slade House, a ghost tale about a mysterious residence “that only blinks into existence one night every nine years.” His latest, Utopia Avenue, is a journey into new territory and a return to earlier themes. One of the biggest surprises here is that an author who has built a reputation for creating original worlds now seeks originality in a seemingly familiar milieu: a British rock band’s brief moment of fame in the psychedelic heyday of the late 1960s. It’s 1967, and impresario Levon Frankland, on the lookout for fresh talent, spots bass guitarist Dean Moss, a 23-year-old “long-haired lout” who’s desperate for a gig and a place to live. Soon, Dean joins a band that includes drummer Peter “Griff” Griffin, no stranger to having bottles thrown at him during a set, and lead singer Elf Holloway, formerly half of a folk duo with her Australian ex-boyfriend, a man who isn’t above using thievery and unfaithfulness to achieve his goals. So far, so familiar, but this being a Mitchell novel, a wrinkle is not too far off. This novel’s wrinkle involves lead guitarist Jasper de Zoet, a man who, ever since an afternoon on the cricket pitch during his youth in the Netherlands, has heard a persistent knocking in his head. The knocking has now returned, as has the message tapped out by this foreign entity inside his brain: “Life and liberty . . . De Zoet must die.” Utopia Avenue is more ramshackle than Mitchell’s earlier works. Some plot elements, including episodes of revenge, jealousy and blackmail, are exactly what one might expect to find in a story of newly celebrated musicians. Mitchell fans, however, will welcome the continuation of flourishes from such earlier works as The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet and The Bone Clocks, including the reemergence of characters from those novels and the neologisms that made Mitchell’s previous works such mind-bending experiences. Mitchell’s song may be different, but readers will recognize the tune.
Sex and Vanity by Kevin Kwan: The title of bestselling author Kevin Kwan’s blazingly fun new novel is a bit of a misnomer: There’s very little sex. But that’s not what we go to the author of Crazy Rich Asians for, is it? What Kwan consistently delivers–and does so again in Sex and Vanity–are fantastic tales of the over-the-top wealthy, written with just enough empathy to make us care about young, beautiful trust-fund billionaires. Meet Lucie Tang Churchill. She’s the beautiful daughter of a Mayflower descendant and a Chinese American from Seattle. On her lily-white paternal side, Lucie has always been the outcast. Although she’s a born-and-bred New Yorker, her patrician grandmother still calls her an offensive slang term for a subservient Chinese woman. When Lucie travels to Italy for the extravagant wedding of a childhood friend, she meets George Zao, a handsome surfer from Hong Kong. Lucie and George get caught in a compromising position at the wedding, and they sheepishly go their separate ways. Fast-forward five years, and Lucie is a successful art consultant engaged to Cecil Pike, a Texas oil heir and a “GQ-handsome bon vivant.” But Lucie’s family looks down their noses at Cecil’s new money, and Cecil’s family looks right back at Lucie the same way. It’s clear Lucie and Cecil are an odd match—to everyone except Lucie and Cecil. And when George reemerges, Lucie begins to question everything she thought she wanted. Sex and Vanity is a deliciously fun romp from Capri to Manhattan and East Hampton. Kwan is in fine form, gleefully name-dropping luxury brands and socialites as he spins a heartfelt, satirical tale that observes the price of fame, fortune and following your heart.
What You Wish For by Katherine Center: Katherine Center, reigning queen of comfort reads, returns with an exuberant new novel that will have readers rejoicing. What You Wish For is a bona fide explosion of happiness packaged in book form. Ensconced in the free-spirited island town of Galveston, Texas, Samantha Casey is living the life of her dreams. Working as a school librarian, Sam is like a second daughter to the Kempner School’s founders, Max and Babette, and she feels like she’s finally found the family she’s always craved. However, when Max tragically dies, Sam’s personal and professional life is thrown into complete upheaval. Then Max’s replacement is announced, and Sam can’t decide what’s worse: that her unrequited crush, Duncan Carpenter, is back in her life and is now her boss, or that this new Duncan is nothing like the man she remembers. Gone is the sweet, goofy man with an infectious joie de vivre. Duncan 2.0 is an authoritarian killjoy who is obsessed with safety and intent on transforming Kempner into a glorified prison. Sam decides to fight for her school and her students, launching a “joy offensive” on Duncan to help him remember who he used to be. If she happens to lose her heart to him all over again in the process—well, that’s a risk she’ll have to take. A compassionate story of grief and resilience, What You Wish For is also a vital reminder that joy is not just something that happens to us but also something we have the power to choose. As Max always told Sam, we must “never miss a chance to celebrate,” even when things get tough. Ultimately, that is what Center has created for her readers: a quirky confection that celebrates life in all its imperfect glory and delivers a much-needed dose of optimism.
The Daughters of Foxcote Manor by Eve Chase (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Set in mysterious and witchy woods, The Daughters of Foxcote Manor is the perfect read for mystery lovers who prefer thrills without gore and violence. Author Eve Chase embarks on a deep character study of two women, both of whom are entangled in the tragic events of one summer day in 1971. Live-in nanny Rita is sent off to Foxcote Manor in the Forest of Dean to care for precocious Teddy and troubled teen Hera while their socialite mother, Jeannie, recovers after the stillbirth of a child. Awkward, shy and utterly devoted to her charges, Rita struggles to balance Jeannie’s depressive episodes with the family’s paranoid patriarch’s demands that Rita act as a spy. When Hera finds an infant abandoned in the forest and Jeannie wants to keep her, Rita is forced into even more lies. All the while, the forest around them feels claustrophobic and menacing. From the strange arrival of the baby to moved objects to suddenly unlocked gates, Rita feels as if Foxcote Manor is being visited by some sort of supernatural presence. As the culmination of family secrets comes to a boil in 1971, London makeup artist Sylvie is struggling in present day. Her mother is comatose after a fall, and her teenage daughter is harboring a secret. When Sylvie finds newspaper clippings in her mother’s house about an abandoned infant and a mysterious murder in the Forest of Dean nearly 50 years ago, Sylvie realizes she knows nothing about her family. The Daughters of Foxcote Manor draws its intensity from the secrets of its main characters, and as the summer of 1971 draws to a close, Chase builds a frenetic momentum. The slightly gothic atmosphere of Foxcote Manor and the surrounding woods adds an element of fear to an already fraught environment. While all the violence happens off-page, the galloping pace and dangers faced by both Rita and Sylvie keep this mystery from ever feeling cozy.
The Year of the Witching by Alexis Henderson (available as an e-book on the Libby app): Witchcraft has lost some of its bite in the last hundred years. From nose-twitching Samantha to teenage wizards roving the halls of Hogwarts, witchcraft has moved from a dark threat to a childish fantasy. Alexis Henderson’s debut novel, The Year of the Witching, abandons this trend, plunging readers headlong back into a world where magic is a thing to be dreaded and feared. Despite its dark promise, The Year of the Witching opens with scenes of relative innocence. Immanuelle Moore has always been relegated to the outskirts of Bethel society due to her family’s checkered history and biracial heritage, but she is, all things considered, relatively happy. Even if her very birth was an affront to the Prophet and cast her family into disgrace, she is able to go on Sabbath picnics with her best friend and tend her flock of sheep in the relative safety of Bethel’s fields. But a darker side to Bethel lurks beneath the surface. When Immanuelle stumbles into the Darkwood while chasing a rogue ram, a pair of witches give her a piece of contraband that will change her life forever: her dead mother’s journal. Although its very existence puts Immanuelle’s life and freedom in jeopardy, she is loathe to give up the only connection she has to a woman and a history she never knew. But as she digs deeper into the journal’s pages, Immanuelle discovers a secret about herself that threatens to lead her to ruin–and Bethel towards a reckoning. Alexis Henderson’s novel is heavy, and not because of its page count. The Year of the Witching explores issues of identity, patriarchy and life under a totalitarian theocracy, all of which would be terrifying in their own right. But Henderson introduces us to this world, equal parts The Handmaid’s Tale and 1690s Salem, gently. She allows readers to slowly see for themselves the cracks in Bethel’s pious facade before bringing down the full weight of its horror. That horror necessitates a warning to the faint of heart: This is not the book for you if you even border on squeamish. The Year of the Witching revels in a sort of rich macabre tone, describing scenes of blood and horror so vividly that you can almost smell the putrid flesh of the witches of the Darkwood and feel the harsh stone of the Prophet’s altar. For the wrong reader, The Year of the Witching will fail to do anything but nauseate. But for the right reader–a reader who loves historical fiction and the cold feeling of text-induced terror–this book is a perfect read, certain to terrify, disturb and intrigue from beginning to end.