“Y is for Yesterday” by Sue Grafton

Y is for Yesterday“P” is for penultimate. The end is near for private investigator Kinsey Millhone, who has been entertaining readers for 35 years now. (Z is for Zero is scheduled to come out in 2019, 37 years after the publication of A is for Alibi; Kinsey herself will just be turning 40, since the books have all been set in the 1980s.)

So there are a lot of expectations for the final books in this series, which will tie up the long-running saga. The once-slim volumes that could be read in an afternoon or two now weigh in at around 500 pages, which might be comforting to fans who want to prolong their pleasure as long as possible.

One thing I’ve appreciated about Sue Grafton is that she never phones it in—unlike many series writers, her books have never been formulaic or lazily plotted. Y fits in well with the rest of the volumes she’s published in the past decade or so; it’s an enjoyable read, though perhaps not one of the all-time greats. Millhone’s sleuthing in Y is actually a little subpar. Cracking this particular case turns out to be more a matter of luck than investigative skill.

The “yesterday” of the title is 1979, 10 years before the “present day” of 1989. A group of high school kids have made a sex tape, featuring a couple boys having their way with Iris, a drunk, passed-out 14-year-old, while a couple others watched but did not participate. (Unlike “sex tapes” you hear about in the Internet age, this was, of course, a literal VHS tape.) A decade later, the tape continues to have repercussions. One person was killed, one of Iris’s rapists went to jail for the murder, and the others are still affected in various ways.

Kinsey is hired by the parents of Fritz McCabe, the boy who was locked up for killing his classmate Sloan, the ex-girlfriend of one of the participants in the filmed assault. Tried as a juvenile, Fritz served his time at California Youth Authority; upon his release, his wealthy parents received a copy of the tape in the mail, along with a demand for $25,000 “or this goes to the district attorney.” Since that could trigger new charges against Fritz of rape and sexual assault, his mother Lauren wants Kinsey to find out who is making the threat, without getting the police involved.

I read Y over the course of a week, and wished I had jotted down some notes on the characters and their relationships to one another. We get to know them in flashbacks to 1979 and in present day when Kinsey interviews them over the course of her investigation. It’s complicated, keeping straight which teens dated, how they’re related today (Iris, the girl in the tape, is now engaged to the dead girl’s stepbrother), etc. Meanwhile, in the B-plot, Kinsey is being stalked by a madman who first turned up in X, and there are various dramas involving her friends and acquaintances, such as the homeless couple and their vicious dog who have set up camp on Kinsey’s landlord’s property (with his permission—Henry’s a soft touch—but Kinsey disapproves).

Grafton will be 79 when Z is published, and for years now, she’s jokingly promised that she’ll arrive at signings and events in a pink ambulance when the final book reaches stores. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple years ago and she seemed like an energetic and lively person, so here’s hoping she’ll be able to savor the success of her extraordinary achievement.

Advertisements

“The Color of Fear” by Marcia Muller and “Seven Days of Us” by Francesca Hornak

Yesterday, I received an email from NetGalley, the service that provides me with some of my review copies, chock-full of Christmas fiction. Did I want to read Christmas at Two Love Lane? How about Pride and Prejudice and Mistletoe or The Rancher’s Christmas Song (“Ella and Beckett come from two different worlds, and it might take a Christmas miracle to finally bring them together”)?

My theory is that these books, along with the ubiquitous Hallmark Channel Christmas movies like “A Bramble House Christmas” and “Snow Globe Wishes,” are so popular because most people’s holidays fall short of picture-perfect perfection, and cozying up with a seasonally appropriate book or movie is more fun than arguing with your Trump-loving uncle or rehashing old grievances with your siblings.

The Color of FearMarcia Muller’s The Color of Fear is only tangentially a Christmas book, but it does take place during the holiday week, and features lots of the conspicuous consumption that has made me a little bit fed up with this series lately. Between the Christmas shopping and obligatory references to Sharon McCone’s “buttery leather furnishings,” Muller’s long-running P.I. tackles a case that hits close to home: the seeming hate crime that has put her Native American father into a coma. The issue of racism in the liberal Bay Area has been in the news (the SF Weekly outed a San Francisco Klansman, while the so-called “alt-right” thinks this is a fun place to hold rallies), so this novel, though probably written in the pre-Trump era, is surprisingly timely.

I did enjoy The Color of Fear more than most recent entries in the McCone series—I’m always a sucker for “This time it’s personal!” narratives in mystery novels—but I do find myself missing the young, scrappy and hungry private eye of old. Still, even if half the text of future volumes is devoted to loving descriptions of Sharon and Hy’s rooftop garden and art collection, I’m never going to quit reading these books. McCone has been a part of my life for too long to give up on her now.

Seven Days of UsI read an advance copy of Seven Days of Us a couple of months ago when I was down with a cold and was looking for something easy and light. Despite the fact that it was July, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, and I’m sure it will be even more fun for readers who pick it up when it actually ’tis the season. A dysfunctional-family novel that is extremely heavy on coincidences, this Christmas romp is set in a British country estate and features a large cast of characters.

Olivia is a doctor who has been ordered to stay in quarantine due to her recent work in a disease-plagued African nation—and her whole family’s locked in with her. Phoebe, the antithesis of her serious physician sister, is obsessed with her upcoming wedding. Their parents, Emma and Andrew, have problems of their own, and no idea that a few family secrets are about to come to light and wreak havoc during their period of supposed isolation (naturally, not everyone in the family’s orbit manages to stay outside those four walls, despite the danger).

Seven Days of Us may sometimes strain credibility, but it’ll go down easy after a few glasses of eggnog. The ending may even coax a tear or two.

Note: Seven Days of Us will be published on Oct. 17, 2017. Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for the review copy.

“The Widow” by Fiona Barton

The Widow by Fiona BartonI have had it up to here with thrillers featuring unreliable narrators and crazy plot twists. I was fully prepared to swear off such books for a while, but my friend Vallery recommended I read Fiona Barton’s The Widow, and I’m very glad I did. This is a first-rate work of psychological suspense.

The novel moves back and forth in time, beginning in 2010, shortly after Jean Taylor became a widow. Her husband Glen was run over by a bus. Just a tragic accident. So why is Jean being relentlessly pursued by the press?

Through flashbacks, we gradually learn that Glen was the chief suspect in the disappearance of Bella Elliott, an adorable toddler who vanished without a trace from her garden while her single mom was briefly busy indoors. Bella becomes a national obsession in Britain—and if you think the attention paid to her case is too over-the-top, I urge you to Google Madeleine McCann—and eventually, Glen is put on trial for abducting her, despite the fact that no body was ever found. He and Jean become pariahs, and making things even more difficult for Jean is the fact that the couple was unable to have children of their own.

I don’t want to give away too much, but The Widow is a refreshingly straightforward combination of psychological suspense and good old-fashioned police procedural, as we get to know the detectives working on the case (and how it becomes an all-out fixation for one of them). It’s also an indictment of journalism as practiced in the U.K., which is all the more interesting considering that Fiona Barton worked for the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph and Mail on Sunday. Reporters in the U.S. can be aggressive, but there seems to be a special breed of newsmen and women in England who will stop at nothing to get an exclusive. As The Widow proves, however, sometimes the subject of a story can bite back and use the press to her own advantage. In Jean, Barton has created a complex and fascinating character.

“George & Lizzie” by Nancy Pearl and “Mrs. Saint and the Defectives” by Julie Lawson Timmer

George & Lizzie by Nancy PearlWhen I heard that the woman known as “America’s Librarian” had written a novel, I’ll admit I may have had a few preconceived notions. Nancy Pearl is famous for providing recommendations on NPR and as the model for the first-ever Librarian Action Figure. I assumed the 72-year-old Pearl’s fiction debut would be something genteel along the lines of a Seattle-based Anne Tyler. I would not have guessed it begins with a teenage girl resolving to have sex with every starter on her high school’s entire football team, and then following through. As a longtime listener to Dan Savage’s sex-advice podcast, it takes a lot to shock me, but… yeah, that’s not quite what I was expecting.

Lizzie Bultmann is the only child of two professors of psychology who view her as little more than a living case study. (When she discusses the sleep-with-the-team plan with her best friend, Lizzie states that rather than grounding her for life if they found out, her parents would “want to watch. Maybe they’d bring along a grad student or two to take notes.”) “She wanted them to be curious about her, to want to know what went on below her polished surface… Maybe if they did find out… it would wake them up enough to finally see her.”

As it turns out, Lizzie’s “Great Game” doesn’t much affect her relationship with her parents, but it does have a hugely negative effect on her psyche. In college, she falls madly in love with a fellow student named Jack, who finds out about her high school exploits through an article her parents wrote for Psychology Today. When he leaves town and she never hears from him again, Lizzie is obsessed with finding him, even after she marries a perfectly wonderful dentist named George. Every time she’s in a new town, she can’t help checking the phone books to see if Jack’s listed. (This habit makes a certain degree of sense in the early chapters of the book, set in the late 80s and early 90s, but for goodness’ sake, the Internet made it almost ridiculously easy to find people by the end of the century; Google was around in the late 90s, and Facebook by the mid-2000s.)

I can sympathize with the pessimistic, book-obsessed Lizzie—temperamentally, I’m quite a bit like her, while my own husband is more of a George—but by the end, which seemed awfully abrupt, I was somehow left wanting more. However, the book, with its many short chapters, is a quick and easy read, and I enjoyed the way that Pearl namedrops a lot of authors, poets and book titles throughout.


Mrs. Saint and the DefectivesFor some reason, I kept wanting to read the title of this book as Mrs. Saint and the Deplorables, but no, this is not a novel about a group of Trump supporters. Mrs. Saint is the next-door neighbor of Markie, a beleaguered mom trying to make a new start in a new town after splitting from her unfaithful husband (who, it turns out, had also driven the family deep into debt). Markie pulls her teenage son out of his fancy private school and moves into a modest rental home, hoping to keep her head down and recover from her emotional wounds. She definitely does not want to get to know her nosy neighbor, an elderly French-Canadian woman who serves as something of a den mother to a group of misfits whom she’s hired to do various odd jobs around her house.

While Markie constantly tries to tell Mrs. Saint that she wants to be left alone, the neighbor always seems to be popping up, offering a basket of muffins (burnt, since they were baked by her inept cook), or asking Markie if she can babysit the young daughter of another one of her “defectives.” Eventually, Markie grows curious about Mrs. Saint, who seems to be all up in everyone else’s business but is a rather mysterious figure herself. She’s apparently rich, and yet she lives in a smallish house, surrounded by people who seem to both help her out and also depend on her. If asked a personal question, she just pretends she didn’t hear it.

Naturally, by the end of the book, all will be revealed, lessons are learned, etc. This is a charming, life-affirming novel in the mold of Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove, which also featured a curmudgeon whose life is changed by his neighbors (though in this case, the younger woman is the cranky loner).

“Munch” by Steffen Kverneland

Munch by Steffen KvernelandSFMOMA is currently displaying a major exhibit on the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1863-1944). The exhibition does not include his most famous painting, The Scream, which is one of those rare works (along with American Gothic, the Mona Lisa, and a handful of others) that has become a pop culture icon. I would imagine that the guards at SFMOMA are tired of people asking them where The Scream is. It doesn’t travel; you have to go to Oslo to see it.

As a Swede, I was of course familiar with other works from Munch’s oeuvre; Stockholm’s Thielska Galleriet has a large collection, including the painting Despair, which is on loan to SFMOMA for its exhibit and is a close cousin to The Scream. What kind of life experience would lead an artist to paint works like The Scream, Despair and numerous depictions of sick and dying people? I thought it might be interesting to read a biography of Munch, and then I saw that Norwegian cartoonist Steffen Kverneland had written a graphic novel about him. Coming in at almost 300 pages, this is a pretty hefty volume and really gives you a lot of information about his life, work and background.

Panel from MunchThe book takes a non-linear approach, beginning with his 1892 sojourn to Berlin, where he created quite an uproar. His works “were perceived as a direct insult to art, an anarchistic provocation… Munch was viewed as a living example of what would happen to a German painter if he allowed himself to be influenced by the hedonistic French impressionism.” Munch relished the controversy, and quickly became a much talked-about figure. He met Swedish playwright and artist August Strindberg, who becomes a major character in Munch’s life, as well as in this book. I really love the way Kverneland draws Strindberg, all harsh angles and dark shadows. The two Scandinavians developed a friendship, “even though Strindberg was also difficult, obstinate and distrustful… Munch told a friend that Strindberg ‘had the habit of suddenly tripping me, so that I lay flat on my back in the street.'”

We don’t get into Munch’s early life until the midpoint of the book, where we learn his mother died when Edvard was only 5. His father, a physician, became “a disheartened religious zealot” after his wife’s death. “Disease and insanity and death were the black angels that stood by my cradle,” wrote Munch. “A mother who died early—gave me the seed of consumption—a distraught father—piously religious, verging on madness—gave me the seeds of insanity.” To make matters worse, Munch’s sister Sophie, older than Edvard by only a year, died of tuberculosis at the age of 14. Her death became a recurring motif in Munch’s art, including the Sick Child paintings displayed at SFMOMA. By this point, it should be pretty clear why much of his work is so disturbing.

The creation of The Scream is the novel’s climax; Kverneland depicts himself along with his pal Lars as they go in search of the exact location that served as the vantage point for the painting. Then there’s a fun little interlude about the theft of the painting from the Munch Museum in 2004, with the burglars drawn as the Beagle Boys from the Donald Duck comic books.

Panel from MunchPeriodic detours like that ensure that Munch is far from a typical biography, but by the end, I felt I had learned a ton about the artist and I thoroughly enjoyed Kverneland’s stunning artwork. This is an excellent companion piece to the SFMOMA show, and like that exhibition, proves that Edvard Munch deserves to be celebrated for his whole body of work and not just his most famous painting.

“The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

the seven husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid“Who was the love of Evelyn’s life???” That’s the big question… Seven husbands. Which one did she love the best?

Monique Grant is a young journalist who manages to snag the story of a lifetime: a no-holds-barred interview with Evelyn Hugo, bombshell actress of the 50s and 60s who captivated millions with her beauty, talent (she’s an Oscar winner) and dramatic personal life. Now 79, Hugo has outlived all seven of her husbands and wants to tell the truth about what really happened behind the scenes.

Besides “who was her great love,” there’s one huge underlying mystery that is teased from the very beginning of this novel: why Monique? Out of all the journalists in the world, why insist on working with a relative newbie who has worked at Vivant (a Vanity Fair-type glossy magazine) for less than a year? By the end of this spectacularly juicy book, everything has been revealed.

When you think of gorgeous, multi-married Hollywood stars, of course Elizabeth Taylor is the first name that springs to mind, and Hugo may bear some resemblance to Liz, but only superficially. Reid has done a great job of constructing an alternate history of Hollywood, taking us from the old studio system to the French new wave, up through the sorts of family dramas that won Oscars in the 1980s.

The novel is divided into sections named after each of Hugo’s husbands; her first-person recollections are interspersed with chapters about Monique, who is herself in the process of splitting up from her spouse. Of course, compared to the goings-on in Hollywood, Monique’s own story is fairly tame, but the “what is her connection to Evelyn” question really helps power the narrative. (Lest you think it’s anything as prosaic as Evelyn being her long-lost mom, Reid sneaks in some dialogue between Monique and her mother early on that makes it clear that is not the case.)

Considering that we’re still in an era where women directors are vanishingly rare and actresses routinely make far less money than their male counterparts, I loved reading about a powerful, flawed-but-fascinating woman who controlled her own destiny every step of the way, even if that meant using each of those seven husbands to get something she wanted. “Do yourself a favor and learn how to grab life by the balls, dear,” Evelyn instructs Monique. “Don’t be so tied up trying to do the right thing when the smart thing is so painfully clear.”

“Emma in the Night” by Wendy Walker

Emma in the NightOver the past few years, I have had the misfortune of dealing with a couple of people who I’m pretty certain have narcissistic personality disorder, the subject of Wendy Walker’s new thriller Emma in the Night. These are truly toxic individuals who can ruin the lives of those close to them. For those of us further out in their orbits, the best thing to do is just disengage.

In the novel, Cassandra Tanner is the victim of her mother’s noxious parenting style, which frequently pitted her against her older sister Emma. After her parents’ divorce, 11-year-old Cass made the mistake of asking to live with her father, which sealed her fate: “Don’t ever call me Mother again! To you, I’m Mrs. Martin!” her mom raged. And so Cass “became the outsider… all [she] could do was watch from a distance.”

A few years later, both Emma and Cass disappeared. Until one day, Cass returned alone, recounting how she and Emma had been living on an isolated Maine island with a couple who essentially kept them prisoner. Then Cass drops the bombshell that Emma had been pregnant when they left home, and that she had given birth on the island. The childless couple began to raise the infant as their own, despite Emma’s protestations. Finally, after months of planning and scheming, Cass was able to escape, but unfortunately, she has no idea where the island was located or how to find it. The couple were using fake names. How can she figure out how to get back and save her sister and the child?

First-person chapters narrated by Cass alternate with third-person chapters told from the point of view of Abigail Winter, an FBI agent working on Cass’ case. As it turns out, Abby also grew up with a narcissistic mother, so she identifies deeply with the girl. There are strong hints, however, that Cass is that old thriller standby: the unreliable narrator. Abby needs to figure out which of her tales are true, and which are pure fiction, in order to solve the case and find Emma.

This book should appeal to the many thriller readers out there who love twists, but I found it somewhat hampered by pedestrian prose; Abby’s mind “was spinning… round and round like a dog chasing his tail,” or Cass “just raised the stakes in a game [her mother] didn’t even know she was playing.” Or, “Evil can dress up as love so convincingly that it blinds you to the truth.” That’s not bad writing, just not terribly fresh or insightful. Perhaps it’s more noticeable because a lot of readers (me included) will turn back to the beginning and reread portions of the book once all has been revealed, to see if Walker played fair. I believe she did; the clues are all there, if you look closely enough.