Sarah’s Key – Tatiana de Rosnay
I had no idea that in the summer of 1942, French police rounded up more than 13,000 Jewish women, children and men living in Paris and dumped them at the Velodrome d'Hiver.
From that squalid makeshift camp, they were sent onto internment camps in France. Then, with adults going first and children left alone with no care, the authorities dispatched them to Auschwitz.
This under-told reality is the basis for his book, which follows the life of an American journalist married to a Frenchman in Paris and how her reporting on the Vel d'Hiv leads her to an unlikely connection to her husband’s family.
Both stories collide, of course, but in realistic ways. The writing is moving and concise – not easy to do – and is remarkable for its ability to contrast privilege and misfortune from a 60-year gap.
I’d recommend this book to anyone who thinks a historical novel can’t be timely, or who can’t imagine being caught up a story that takes place so far away. Actually, I’d recommend this book to pretty much everyone.
A Very Simple Crime – Grant Jerkins
Dark mysteries can be hard to pull off, unless you’re this first-time novelist from my newly adopted town of Atlanta.
The novel is nearly Gothic in its interplay of the Lee family: creepy Adam, our narrator; his mentally unstable wife, Rachel; his disabled son, Arthur; and his slick brother, Monty.
The story opens with Adam on trial for murdering Rachel, which at first blush appears to be the act of Arthur on his first release from an institution.
Arthur, it should be noted, killed his roommate and had previously attacked his mother.
Monty, who is representing his brother, is credited by Adam for teaching him about cruelty degradation.
All three men are suspects in the murder, and the story twists and turns to make each seem a plausible killer at different points.
Trying to sort it out with the reader is Leo, an assistant district attorney trying to regain his stature after setting a child killer free.
No one is everything they appear to be, though. The regular mystery rules don’t apply in this disturbing tale, but I couldn’t put it down all the same.
I Thought You Were Dead – Pete Nelson
Paul is your basic lovable loser.
He’s Minnesota nice, makes a living writing the For Morons series of self-help books, still mopes over being divorced, drinks too much and struggles with dating a woman who is also dates another man.
Thank goodness, then, for Stella. She’s his 15-year-old declining dog who talks to him. Yes, to him.
For a book that contains a talking dog and some really painful relationship speak in it, this is book as sweet as our hapless Paul.
I’ll admit, too, that I actually cried while reading, which I think is a first. Suffice it to say that anyone who has ever had to put a beloved pet down will relate.
I Knew You’d Be Lovely – Altethea Black
Fear and lack of motion dominate this collection of stories by first-time author Black.
Characters are cautiously optimistic about what lies in front of them or ahead, but often a bit too quiet to make the points she is trying to make.
I also found most of the stories too earnest but the characters not very emotionally warm.
That said, some moments stick. The opening story of a divorced man looking for a connection uses a worn device for his link: “talking” with an attractive woman at a party whose laryngitis has her relying on writing down her end of the chatter. But the amount said and not said is what keeps this story moving gracefully to the end.
Black also shows the results of action not taken in another story about three sisters who bicker at their summer home as their parents’ marriage crumbles.
Black wants to keep her characters upbeat, despite the problems. But I find she does best when she captures the melancholy alongside the hope.
Virals – Kathy Reichs
Who knew Kathy Reichs – the creator of Temperance Brennan and the inspiration for the TV version of the character on Bones – had such a strong affinity for teen snark?
Reichs captures the voice of 14-year-old Tory perfectly, from the usual teen hyperbole to the more specific complaints of a clearly precocious and brilliant young woman.
Tory is actually Dr. Brennan’s niece, a fact she discovers only after her mother dies and she is forced to live with a father she has never known and did not know she existed.
Father and daughter are adjusting to life together on a secluded island off South Carolina, home only to those working in a research facility located there. Her only friends are boys the same age, just as bright in science, whose parents also work at the lab.
Their geeky adventures turn dangerous one day when they free a dog from a secret lab. Infected with a new virus, the teens come to realize they have new powers from their ailment, powers they will need to solve the riddle of a decades-old murder and how it relates to the current day.
The paranormal is a new bit for Reichs, but she manages to wrap fantasy and science together in a surprisingly authentic way. The layers come together nicely at the end, which screams for a sequel if not a series.
That appears to have been the plan. A new “Virals” book is due out later this year.
So Much Pretty – Cara Hoffman
Wendy White is a young woman who goes missing and is later found murdered in her small upstate New York town.
Everyone seems willing to move on after the death except Stacy Flynn, a newspaper reporter who moved from violent Cleveland to the rural area in search of environmental exposes. Flynn’s search for justice for Wendy gradually shows the community’s indifference to women and violence.
Alice Piper is the local teen who follows the story from her own unique vantage point: the brainy daughter of idealistic doctors who relocated from NYC when she was a toddler, thinking a life of organic farmers would be more pure.
The problem for me in this story is not how Alice’s story becomes the action, or that it takes so long to get there.
My issue is that each chapter is told in a different voice, either from a different character or from invented court documents and interviews with fringe players.
Hoffman has some skill in capturing the culture shock of living in the other New York and the intentional blindness of locals to the ability of their opinions and beliefs to create tragedy.
But I found the jumping around akin to listening to someone stutter, trying to tell you something they find important. At least for me, it makes me want to find another narrator.