“The Cutaway” by Christina Kovac

The CutawayI never thought I’d be spending Inauguration Day reading a book set in Washington, D.C. However, The Cutaway is more of a novel that happens to be set in Washington than it is a “Washington novel.” There is a brief scene set during the White House Correspondents’ Dinner, but otherwise, it’s safe to pick up even if you’re suffering from political overload.

The Cutaway tells the story of Virginia Knightly, a TV news producer investigating the disappearance of Evelyn Carney, a young attorney working at a prestigious D.C. law firm. Evelyn had been dining with her husband, who had recently returned from a lengthy military deployment, when she abruptly stormed out—and vanished. Virginia feels that the lawyer’s mysterious disappearance from affluent Georgetown will make a killer story, and decides to pursue it.

Complicating matters for Virginia is her station’s new news director, who seems to have it out for her, and is intent on slashing the budget, possibly breaking up Virginia’s loyal team of behind-the-scenes and on-air talent. There’s also the fact that Virginia has a rocky romantic history with the new commander of Criminal Investigations, who is actively involved in the missing-persons case.

Christina Kovac herself has a long history in TV news, so she brings an insider’s perspective to her first novel. There are also some very nicely written passages about Virginia’s fraught relationship with her dying father. However, Kovac does fall into the trap of sending her heroine into a deserted and dangerous place to search for clues—anyone who has read a zillion mysteries, as I have, will be tempted to shout “NOOOO!” at that point in the book. There are a couple other places where I felt I was a step ahead of Virginia (particularly one involving a bugged cell phone), but Kovac’s strengths as a prose stylist and plotter are enough to outweigh the rookie missteps.

Note: The Cutaway will be published on March 21, 2017. Thanks to Atria Books and NetGalley for the review copy.

“After You” by Jojo Moyes

After YouSequels are seldom as good as the originals, but it’s hard to resist them because the lure of revisiting a favorite character is just too strong. As soon as I finished Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You, I knew I wanted to read After You. Louisa was such a compelling heroine that it’s not surprising Moyes wanted to continue her story.

After You is fine, and it’s fun to see what’s occurred in the lives of Louisa and her family (as well as Will’s parents) since the ending of Me Before You. Fans who hoped that Lou would realize her full potential may be disappointed to find out that she’s working a crappy job in an Irish-themed airport bar (where she’s forced to wear a synthetic wig and sexy-Celtic-dancing-girl costume) and living in a spartan London flat. She’s also joined a self-help group for people who have recently lost a loved one.

Then 16-year-old Lily bursts into her life, claiming to be Will’s long-lost daughter. (Will’s college girlfriend, whom he’d broken up with, never told him she was pregnant.) This is the sort of plot twist that may cause many readers to roll their eyes, but troubled, wild-child Lily does at least shake up Lou’s sad and lonely life, and provides a way to bring Will back, in a sense, as Lou tries to impart to his daughter what he was like.

Complications and misunderstandings ensue, and ultimately Louisa has to make a choice: does the responsibility she feels toward Will’s daughter outweigh her own hopes and dreams for the future? And can she open her heart to a new romantic relationship? After You may not be as extraordinary (or as emotionally moving) as its predecessor, but it’s enjoyable enough to recommend to fans of the first book.

“The Bookshop on the Corner” by Jenny Colgan and “The Book That Matters Most” by Ann Hood

The Bookshop on the CornerRecently, I’ve read two books which were dedicated to… ME! I’m so flattered!!

OK, so maybe they weren’t exactly dedicated to me personally. But Jenny Colgan’s The Bookshop on the Corner states, “…the entire book is dedicated to you: the reader,” and Ann Hood’s The Book That Matters Most begins, “This is for you.”

To say that Colgan’s protagonist, Nina Redmond, loves books is putting it mildly. She’s a shy librarian whose greatest joy in life is matching a person with his or her perfect book. Then one day, her library is closed down due to government cutbacks, and Nina is out of a job—and because there’s no room for all those books at the new, centralized location (with its emphasis on computers), most of the inventory is likely to be pulped.

Nina brings home boxes of library discards, much to the chagrin of her roommate Surinder, who’s had just about enough of Nina and her ever-growing library. The best thing to do with all those books (along with the others she’s accumulated over the years) would be to sell them, but opening a shop would be too costly. But perhaps she could open a mobile bookstore in a van? “I don’t see what’s stopping me from just traveling around selling books,” she muses.

As it turns out, quite a few things conspire to stop her, including bad old government bureaucracy, but eventually her dream becomes a reality. The original name of the book when it was published in Britain (Colgan is a Scot) was The Little Shop of Happy Ever After, which is what Nina names her mobile store. It’s a much better title than The Bookshop on the Corner, because her van won’t necessarily be parked at a corner; she sells books at fairs and markets. Maybe the title was deemed too twee, although twee titles seem to be a Colgan stock-in-trade (her other books include The Loveliest Chocolate Shop in Paris, Little Beach Street Bakery and Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe).

I found the book more charming than cutesy, though. I chose the book as a palate cleanser after reading two mysteries with sky-high body counts, and it was exactly what I needed. In fact, I started the book around 7:30 one evening, and the next thing I knew, several hours had passed and I was turning page 300. If you’re in the mood for some escapist fare with a touch of romance, step inside Colgan’s Bookshop.

The Book That Matters MostHood’s book takes us through a year in the life of a Providence, RI, book club, focusing on new recruit Ava. At first, Ava seems like the world’s worst member—after begging to be admitted to the group (which is restricted to 10 people, so the only way to get in is if somebody moves or dies), she doesn’t even bother to read the first selection, Pride and Prejudice, opting instead to watch the movie adaptation. And she doesn’t even watch the good one, with Colin Firth as Darcy, but the newer, Keira Knightley version!

Ava, who is still reeling after her husband of 25 years left her for another woman, does eventually start reading the books, which revolve around the theme “the book that matters most”: each member selects the volume that has proved to be the most significant one in his or her life. Everyone’s picks are fairly predictable (The Great Gatsby, Anna Karenina, The Catcher in the Rye), but then Ava chooses a little-known novel that’s so far out of print that it’s not even available online. She read the book the summer after her sister died in an accident, and it took on even more meaning after her mother committed suicide shortly thereafter.

Meanwhile, Ava’s daughter Maggie, who has struggled with drug addiction in the past, is supposedly spending a year abroad studying in Florence. She quickly escapes to Paris, where she shacks up with an older man and begins shooting up heroin. Despite her daughter’s history, Ava seems oddly unconcerned about Maggie, seemingly convinced that she must be OK because she periodically posts stock photos of European sights on Instagram.

As someone who has spent half my life as a book club member, I found the discussions recounted in the book to be disappointingly pedestrian. The Great Gatsby proves that “the American dream is illusory.” Anna Karenina is “all about the importance of family.”  To Kill a Mockingbird reveals that “hatred and prejudice and ignorance are a threat to innocent people everywhere.” Ideally, this novel should make me want to read or reread all those classics, but instead, it just made me happy that I belong to a better book group than Ava’s.

“The Silence of the Sea” by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The Silence of the SeaI’ve always been fascinated by missing-person cases—is it possible for someone to just disappear without a trace? In real life, of course, many of these mysteries are never solved, which is why novels about missing people are so satisfying. By the end, you always find out what happened, and why.

In the case of The Silence of the Sea, you have several missing people: the crew and passengers aboard a luxury yacht that was making its way from Portugal to Iceland. The yacht had been repossessed after the owner went bankrupt; it was expected to land in Iceland with seven people aboard. Ægir, a member of the resolution committee working to reclaim the valuable asset, was on board, along with his wife and twin daughters. However, when it crashed into the harbor, it soon became apparent that not a single soul was on the yacht.

Reykjavik lawyer Thora Gudmundsdóttir is hired by Ægir’s parents, Margeir and Sigridur, who were babysitting their toddler granddaughter while their son took the rest of his family to Lisbon. It seemed like a great opportunity for a getaway; Ægir would take care of the business involving the yacht while his wife and daughters enjoyed sunny Portugal, and then they would all fly back to Iceland. But when one of the vessel’s crew members was sidelined with a broken leg, Ægir volunteered to replace him. After all, there would be plenty of room aboard for his family.

It turns out to be the cruise from hell, as one thing after another goes horribly, tragically wrong. The book alternates chapters about Thora’s investigation (the grandparents need to find out if their son and his wife are indeed dead in order to resolve custody issues involving the toddler) with flashbacks documenting the doomed voyage.

You don’t get the full “what happened and why” picture until the final page of the book, and getting there can be a bit of a slog; there are several very odd translation errors (for instance, one character says, “We’re doing our nuts here over the lack of information”), and the alternating-chapter structure of the book sometimes slows its momentum. The solution to the mystery is quite ingenious, however, and the ending is as bone-chilling as an Icelandic winter.