Books can offer pleasant surprises, tempting mysteries, old favorites reborn


Book reviewing is a bit of a dance. I want to provide enough information so you can decide if it’s a book you want to read. But, I don’t want to give too much of the plot away. I hate that.
Too many reviewers today (of books and movies) lay the plot out in detail. I like being surprised. Maybe as you get older, it’s harder to be surprised so it’s pleasant when it happens. I find that book club books are often a surprise because I usually didn’t pick the book. That’s probably why we like mysteries and thrillers so much. Who knows what might happen next? Or, who did it?
“Some Kind of Fairy Tale” (2012) by Graham Joyce is an interesting look at people, how they change and what we do to, and for, those we love. When Tara Martin disappears from the woods near her home in England. It has serious ramifications for her parents, her brother Peter and his best friend and Tara’s boyfriend, Richie, who the police suspect of killing her.
But, life moves on, and when Tara reappears 20 years later, not looking much older than when she left, with an unbelievable story about where she’s been, it will cause upheaval for those who loved her all over again. This is a book where I don’t want to give too much away. Joyce gets to the heart of the matter: “Twenty years is, after all, a long time. We are not the same people we were. Old friends, lovers, even family members … are strangers who happen to wear a familiar face.”
“Silence for the Dead” (2014) by Simone St. James. I liked “The Haunting of Maddy Clare,” and searched out another book by St. James. This one has ghosts, too, and is set at Portis House, a big mansion near the marshes on the coast in England. It’s 1919, and the house is a hospital for men who have come back from the war shell-shocked or mentally unfit.
In those days it was a disgrace to be a “coward,” which these men were considered to be. Kitty Weekes is on the run from her past and takes a job at the remote Portis House pretending to be a nurse. But, she will find new ghosts to join those from her past – only these are real ghosts and the patients are getting worse. Can Kitty, with the help of one special patient, solve the mystery and save all the inhabitants?
“The Darcys of Pemberley” (2011) by Shannon Winslow is a continuation of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen. Yes, I know. The first reaction is “Another one?” But, I enjoyed this one. It’s pretty laidback for the first half and simply a picture of Lizzy and Darcy’s life at Pemberley a year into their marriage. Jane and Bingley move closer, Lizzy’s mother is mostly missing (thank goodness), and Lydia and Wickham don’t cause problems until the final quarter of the novel. But, you knew that was coming, didn’t you? And, everything ends satisfactorily. Winslow really has a feel for the period and Austen’s language. An enjoyable read.
“The Lake House” (2015) by Kate Morton is a mystery that shuttles back and forth between the 1930s and 70 years later. What happened at the Edevanes’ lake house in Cornwall on Midsummer Night’s Eve in 1933 when their 2-year-old son disappeared never to be seen again?
The story follows members of the Edevane family back and forth in time, along with Sadie Sparrow, a London police detective who finds herself in Cornwall on an enforced leave and becomes obsessed with the cold case. It’s a nice mix of mystery (actually two mysteries), romance, history and character psychology, with some interesting twists. This is Kate Morton’s best book yet.
“The Dressmaker” (2015) by Rosalie Ham. When Tilly Dunnage returns to her hometown of Dungatar in Australia, your first reaction is “Why?” Why would a beautiful, talented designer and seamstress want to leave Paris for a town of hateful, narrow-minded jerks? But, despite the awful things she endured there, Tilly wants to check on her mother. Rosalie Ham has created a quirky, satirical town, from the butcher, Reginald Blood, and Sgt. Farrat, who knows almost as much about fashion as Tilly, to Councilor Evan Pettyman, a sexual deviant.
There’s a slapstick quality to some of the humor – from Miss Dimm, the teacher who refuses to wear her glasses, tumbling down the hill on which Tilly and her mother Mad Molly live, to Mr. Almanac, the chemist, whose advancing Parkinson’s disease causes him to totter around, bouncing off people and furniture like a pinball. This is a difficult book to categorize (it’s got romance, revenge, gorgeous fashions), and you can quibble about some of the plot points, but it’s eminently enjoyable, especially for a first novel. And, the characters’ names are such a hoot.
“Angle of Repose” (1971) by Wallace Stegner is a novel as big (over 500 pages) as the West Stegner writes about. This one is about three marriages – in the past and the present (1970). Lyman Ward, a historian and professor who is partially paralyzed after an amputation, has retreated to the California home of his grandparents’, Oliver and Susan Ward. There, he is researching and writing their story. Oliver was a civil engineer who worked on mines in the West, and Susan was an author and illustrator for magazines on the East Coast. When she gives up the culture and civilization of New York City and her family in Massachusetts to go West with Oliver, how will it work out? The story alternates between Lyman’s life and research and Oliver and Susan’s life, as told through letters to her best friend Augusta in New York City. Stegner has a firm picture of the West, its complex people and its rhythms. And, he makes it come alive for the reader.
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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.