Whitney Otto has created eight memorable female photographers in her new novel Eight Girls Taking Pictures. The novel is written episodically; each character appears in a separate short story, but there is a common thread running through the entire novel. The first story features photographer Cymbeline Kelley, studying photography in the early 1900s and discovering what it means to be a female artist in her time period. Cymbeline is the glue that holds the novel together. Even after her own story is completed, she is often mentioned in the stories that follow, so the reader will learn what happens to her as she ages. Many other characters are equally fascinating and the novel spans many years during the twentieth century. Charlotte Blum, a Jewish photographer in Germany during World War II, is falling in love with another woman. Miri Marx becomes a wife and mother and moves to an apartment in New York City, contenting herself by taking pictures of Central Park from her window. Each story begins with a photograph, allowing the reader to discover how this particular photo fits into the life of the photographer. Otto covers many themes in the novel, including what it means to be a women and an artist and how to balance what is expected of you with what you hope to achieve. Because the novel spans so many years, the reader can witness the changing times but still appreciate the similarities of these different women from separate eras.
Readers will remember Whitney Otto from the sensational How to Make an American Quilt. Eight Girls Taking Pictures follows that similar short story style and will satisfy fans of Otto as well as attracting new readers. The photographers she writes about are fictional but are loosely based on real women photographers, and Otto provides a bibliography in case she piques a reader’s interest to learn more. Truly a wonderful novel, Eight Girls Taking Pictures will also provide lively discussions for book groups.
Peter Hoeg has created a delightful novel with a cast of zany characters in his newest book The Elephant Keepers' Children. Fourteen-year-old Peter and his older siblings Tilte and Hans are thrust into a mystery when they are informed that their parents have mysteriously vanished. Hans manages to evade capture, but Peter and Tilte are caught and taken to Big Hill, a home for abandoned children and recovering addicts on the island of Fino. Determined to find their parents, Peter and Title plan and execute an elaborate escape, beginning an adventure that is destined to change their lives forever. They encounter several curious characters along the way, including Count Rickardt Three Lions, a recovering heroin addict and resident of Big Hill, Leonora Ticklepalate, a nun in Fino’s Buddhist community and resident computer scientist and IT specialist, and Lars and Katinka, two police officers who are also star-crossed lovers chasing the children. Not everyone they encounter is out to help the pair. They are also being chased by a hapless bishop and her secretary, and a professor and his wife. Peter and Tilte are aware that their parents are up to something and they believe they are going to a conference in Copenhagen that will gather together great scientific minds and religious leaders of all faiths. Along the way, Peter reflects on his own brand of spiritualty and wonders what is left when you cut through the dogma.
Readers may remember Peter Hoeg from Smilla’s Sense of Snow but will encounter a very different novel with The Elephant Keepers' Children. Peter is an imminently likeable narrator, and the novel is full of humor, adventure, and incredibly memorable characters. There is also a philosophical undercurrent running through the novel that readers who enjoy a second layer will certainly appreciate. The tone and atmosphere are remarkably fun and there are a few great chuckles along the way.
Not for faint hearts or weak stomachs, John Ajvide Lindqvist will be sure to terrify and delight horror fans with his unique brand of Scandinavian horror in Little Star. Lennart and Laila Cedersrom were once a famous Swedish pop duo with a hit song. As they grew older, their fame faded and they were left trapped in a disastrous marriage and with angry and bitter son. One fateful day, Lennart wandered into the woods to pick mushrooms, and he found an infant, left discarded, half buried and in a plastic bag. He brings the infant home and gives her the moniker Little One. Lennart has an ear for music, and soon he realizes that Little One emits the most beautiful notes. He believes she is destined to become a great singer. Afraid to call the police or social services in fear that they would take her away, Lennart and Laila keep Little One locked in the basement. They instill in her a fear of adults. She remains trapped for years, until she finally reaches adolescence.
In another part of Sweden we meet Theresa. As a girl, Theresa is quiet and doesn’t quite fit in socially.This becomes traumatic when she becomes older and begins to gain weight. She finds herself shunned and mocked at school, while even her one childhood friends finds a girlfriend and moves on. Theresa begins to withdraw from the world, creating online personas and trolling poetry sites. She becomes obsessed with a contestant on Sweden’s version of Idol, and is determined to meet this strange singer. When she finally meets Little One, a terrifying and dysfunctional friendship is formed. The novel examines the music industry, the effects of bullying, reality singing competitions and dysfunctional relationships and winds them together in a dark and terrifying package. Little Star is an unsettling read that will haunt readers long after they have finished the novel.
Fans of Ruth Rendell will be delighted to read her new psychological thriller, The St. Zita Society. In this novel we meet the householders and staff of Hexam Place, a posh neighborhood where nothing is as it seems on the surface. June Caldwell, professional companion and caregiver to Princess Susan Hapsburg, has taken it upon herself to bring fellow staff together to discuss problems and offer up solutions. They meet in the corner bar, and have named themselves the St. Zita Society.
Rendell introduces the reader to an interesting group of characters, including handsome chauffer Henry who has an eye for the ladies, the mysterious gardener Dex, and Rabia, the young widowed nanny who has lost children of her own and seems to be overly attached to her young charge. We also meet some of the wealthy homeowners, like the Still family who are surviving a difficult and loveless marriage, and Roland and Damian, a couple who rent out flats in their home to the insufferable Thea and the aging Miss Grieves. As any reader of Rendell will know, something is bound to go terribly wrong and plunge several characters into a situation that will be difficult if not impossible to escape from. In the St. Zita Society, a faulty bannister, an unfaithful wife and a nosy elderly neighbor will become the recipe for disaster.
Rendell, well known for the Inspector Wexford novels, often writes stand-alone thrillers that explore the psyches of several main characters. Many of her novels have become successful movies on the BBC, and most recently her novel 13 Steps Down has been adapted for television. The St. Zita Society will satisfy any fan of Rendell’s work, but will also appeal to new readers who would like a sinister snapshot of life on a wealthy London street.
Things are intense at age fourteen, and our perceptions of events are not always entirely clear. Cold Light by Jenn Ashworth examines the friendship between Lola and Chloe, as well as the tragic aftermath of Chloe’s suicide. The reader meets Lola in the present day, now going by her given name Laura. She is watching a report on the news about the building of a memorial for Chloe next to the man-made lake where she died. When the shovel is pressed into the earth to break ground, something is struck and a body is uncovered. Lola is transfixed for she knows far too well who the victim is, and her story begins to unfold.
Traveling back in time ten years, Lola relives the events that transpired when she was fourteen. She is the daughter of two older parents, Barbara and Donald. Donald is unusual, possibly manic-depressive, but his malady is never defined. He spends his time either hidden in his room or coming up with wildly implausible theories that then have to be publicly explored. Because of this, Lola is shunned at school until she makes the acquaintance of the beautiful Chloe who takes Lola as her confidant and friend. The young women’s friendship grows until Chloe meets her boyfriend Carl, who is several years older than her. At the same time, the town is thrown into unrest as an unknown man begins to attack young women.
Cold Light is a tragic tale told from the point of view of someone now older and wiser, looking back on events and trying to make sense of them. The story unfolds slowly and the reader is swept along as each new piece of information adds to the mystery and suspense. Whose body has been found by the memorial? How did it get there? And, ultimately, what does Lola know and how is she involved? Cold Light is a well-written suspense story that will thrill any mystery lover.
In The Hollow Man by Oliver Harris, we are introduced to London police detective Nick Belsey. Even at the start of the novel, we know things are not going well for Nick. He awakens on Hampstead Heath after having wrecked a squad car, he is still drunk, and has lost his I.D. and phone. A detective on the skids, he must think fast in order to not lose his job. Back at the station, he sees a missing persons report for the reclusive millionaire Alex Devereaux. It is easy to convince his bosses to let him investigate the crime, and when he enters the mansion he is able to find a fresh set of clothing to wear, a set of keys to the home, and plenty of food to eat. Having no place to live of his own, Nick decides to stay at the Devereaux mansion and take his chances. But what exactly did happen to Alex Devereaux? Suddenly he begins to realize what sort of man he has decided to impersonate and how much trouble this man was in. Soon Nick finds himself playing a dangerous game, swapping between the man he is, and the man that he is pretending to be.
Oliver Harris has created a terrific thriller with The Hollow Man. It is intricately plotted with enough twists and turns to satisfy the most die-hard thriller reader and the suspense builds and builds to a stunning conclusion. Although Nick is a bit of a rake, he is a compelling and interesting character and the reader will enjoy having his company throughout the novel. Harris has positioned himself among the great thriller writers of today, and will be a writer to watch to see what he comes up with in the future.
The Playdate is a terrific psychological thriller from debut author Louise Millar. The story is told from the points of view of three very different women. Each has events in their pasts that they are trying to hide from one another. Pasts have a way of creeping up on you though, often in terrible and unexpected ways.
Callie is a single mother raising her daughter Rae, while Rae’s father is away in Sri Lanka with his new girlfriend. Callie is feeling alienated from her old friends and longs to return to work as a sound effects editor. She has become close friends with a neighbor, Suzy, but feels that Suzy can be intense, almost clingy with their friendship. Suzy is facing troubles of her own, raising three sons with almost little or no help from her husband, Jez. Jez is emotionally distancing himself from Suzy, and this makes her desperate to find a way back into his affections. Debs has recently moved to the row home right next door to Suzy. Debs is older than Callie or Suzy and is used to living life on her own, and she is adjusting to life with her new husband. Debs also has little tolerance for noises of any kind. Airplanes flying overhead, a neighbor flushing the toilet or even vacuuming can create in her a sense of madness.
The Playdate is an incredibly tight thriller. The reader is aware that something unpleasant is going to happen, and as the novel progresses and secrets are revealed, the action intensifies. The story barrels forward to an intense conclusion, making The Playdate a gripping read.
The world has changed in Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars. A pandemic has infected millions. Many have not survived, and those that have are shunned and avoided. The novel begins nine years after the outbreak, and centers around pilot Hig and his aging dog, Jasper. Hig and Jasper live at an abandoned airport with survivalist and gun-nut Bangley. Hig has refurbished a 1956 Cessna, which he takes on short flights in the area. He has to choose his paths with care. If he flies too far, he could run out of fuel. Airports in the area can be dangerous places. Wandering groups of marauders appear that would kill you as soon as look at you. Airport runways have fallen into ruin and there is a good chance Hig would not be able to land. He could find himself too far from home, and not able to find the fuel he needs to get back. He finds himself desperately lonely. He is reminded of his wife Melissa who died during the pandemic. Bangley is not much for conversation. Occasionally, Hig flies to deliver supplies to a group of Mennonites who have been infected with the blood disease, but he can never get too close with them. Suddenly, a tragic event happens that will change Hig’s perceptions and force him to make a decision that will alter the course of his life.
The Dog Stars is primarily a character study of a man who has lost hope. It is a heartbreaking work, and the reader gets the sense of intense loneliness that Hig is feeling, trapped in this new world, fighting each day for survival. Written in short passages and often single sentences, the story has a distinct style that is very readable and ultimately compelling. This is a novel to be savored, and the reader will remember Hig long after they have finished the final page.
Tumbleweeds by Leila Meacham is one part romance, one part saga and one part character study, but in all parts a ripping good read. Cathy Benson is orphaned while living in California, and sent to live with her grandmother in Kersey, Texas. There she is befriended by John Caldwell and Trey Don Hall, two boys who also have absent parents. They become her protectors. In high school, the boys become the stars of the Kersey football team and seem destined for greater things. Kathy shows a knack for science and medicine and throws herself into her studies. Both boys are deeply in love with Kathy, but it’s Trey who makes the first move, and he and Kathy become high school sweethearts. A secret between John and Trey threatens their futures and their friendship, and an unexpected event changes the lives of the three friends forever. The novel follows the threesome through high school, college and careers, and ultimately their return to town at age forty for a reunion.
Meacham creates three sympathetic characters, and the reader is privy to information that each character knows but seems unwilling to share with the other two. This builds suspense as the reader waits for the secrets to be revealed. There is enough information and character development to strengthen the motivations of the characters, and each decision stays within believability. Readers will enjoy getting to know the three friends, spend time with them, and care what will happen to them in the future. Tumbleweeds is a wonderful look into a world of small town dreams, friendship, love, and growing older. Meacham’s previous novel, Roses was also a reader favorite, and she is a writer to keep on any must read list.
In Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce, we meet the Martin family, who has been devastated since their sixteen-year-old daughter Tara mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago. Searches were unsuccessful and her boyfriend Richie was accused but never charged. On Christmas Day Tara resurfaces looking just as she had twenty years before, spinning a seemingly implausible tale of a mysterious gentleman and a place in the woods that only allows access several times a year. Tara insists that only six months have passed, but her family remains twenty years older. The Martin family must decide to question the nature of reality, or question Tara’s sanity. Some Kind of Fairy Tale takes an interesting spin on the contemporary fable and is definitely a unique read.
Another new and very different look at another world is the slightly darker Charlotte Markham and the House of Darkling by Michael Boccacino. It begins as a standard gothic piece with a large English country house, the master in mourning from the loss of his young wife, and an attractive governess hired to care for the two children. It soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems in the town when the nanny of the boys is murdered, seemingly ripped apart by wild animals. Charlotte and the two boys are also having mysterious dreams about a man dressed entirely in black and a strange house through the mists where the boys’ mother remains alive. When these dreams become reality, Charlotte finds herself playing a dangerous game, one that she must win for the sake of herself and the children. Both of these tales offer strong characters, suspense, mystery and an enticing other-worldly setting. Perfect for adults who want a bit of fairy magic and a fascinating tale that will sweep them out of reality into a world of dreams.