My round-up of summer paperbacks for today’s Star Tribune.
“Vengeance,” by Benjamin Black (Picador, $16)
When business titan Victor Delahaye shoots himself during a sailing excursion off the coast of Ireland’s County Cork, the obvious suspect pitches the pistol overboard — a plot point that muddies the waters only briefly in this mild, midcentury whodunit. For readers, the more compelling mystery in author John Banville’s pseudonymous franchise is the character of Quirke himself. With a weakness for bad women and good whiskey, the impenetrable Irish pathologist continues to puzzle, while the fluid prose raises it a few notches above the better-plotted competition.
“By the Iowa Sea,” by Joe Blair (Scribner, $16)
After setting out on an “Easy Rider” fantasy with his girlfriend Deb, reality hits hard when the author runs out of money in Iowa, gets hitched and has a family of four — including one son with an autism diagnosis. This bruising but hopeful memoir got its start as a Modern Love essay in the New York Times, and it covers everything from marital infidelity to HVAC repair and the meaning of life with brutal honesty and hard-won wisdom.
“Circles of Time,” by Phillip Rock (William Morrow, $14.99)
You can’t help wondering whether “Downton Abbey” creator Julian Fellowes cribbed a bit from this family saga, the second installment of the “Passing Bells” trilogy published in the 1970s and reissued for the generation still reeling from Matthew Crawley’s car crash. The great house of Abingdon Pryory is the pivot point for plenty of Jazz Age angst, where the titled Greville clan is riven by World War I, climbing hemlines and crumbling social codes. It’s the perfect summer reading while you wait for Season 4.
Sterne is the name of the Torrington family manor, falling into ruin and ready for a cash infusion that may yet come from an advantageous marriage for Emerald the ingénue. But just as the servants are preparing for her 20th birthday party, a passel of third-class passengers from a nearby train wreck arrive to wreak havoc, pushing what starts as a pleasant Edwardian comedy of manners into more ghoulish, Edward Gorey territory. Clever plotting and smartly observed characters (like the widow and second husband who meet “in the far-down places between grief and sex”) make for a highbrow page-turner.
“The Suitors,” by Cecil David-Weill (Other Press, $16.95)
Even more rarefied real estate is at stake in “The Suitors,” where the Ettinguer sisters contrive to save L’Agapanthe, the family villa on the Côte d’Azur, by seducing a billionaire to pay for it — or perhaps courting one so vulgar their parents take it off the market. Like a French Nancy Mitford, Cecil David-Weill (daughter of a former chairman of Lazard Freres) is at her most interesting when she’s parsing the manners of the super-rich, explaining why offering a Jet Ski as a hostess gift is simply never done.
“An Uncommon Education,” by Elizabeth Percer (Harper Perennial, $14.99)
In this coming-of-age novel set at Wellesley College, earnest narrator Naomi Feinstein overcomes her isolation when she’s initiated into the Shakespeare Society, a Seven Sisters secret that’s not nearly as sexy as it sounds. Equal parts “Prep” and “Dead Poets Society,” this elegant debut novel might have benefited from a little more Donna Tartt drama.
“Gossip,” by Beth Gutcheon (William Morrow, $14.99)
Miss Pratt’s, another exclusive single-sex school, serves as the starting point for this sharp and poignant novel about the triangle of friendship between scholarship student Loviah French, and the more privileged Dinah and Avis. Combining art world glamour, Upper East Side mores, big secrets and steady patter about what to wear, this novel is far more stylish than its shapeless title.
“The Distance Between Us,” by Reyna Grande (Washington Square Press, $15)
For eight years, Reyna Grande dreams of being reunited with her parents, who have left their children with abusive grandparents in rural Mexico so they can set down roots for a better life in America. But their eventual reunion is no happy ending in this affecting memoir about the Mexican immigrant experience and the author’s search for home.
“The Lost Saints of Tennessee,” by Amy Franklin-Willis (Grove Press, $15)
RC Colas and Moon Pies permeate this very Southern debut novel, which sees Ezekiel Cooper’s suicide plans sidetracked on a trip from Clayton, Tenn., to Virginia horse country. Burdened by the drowning death of his fraternal twin, divorced from his wife and estranged from his daughters, there’s a pleasing “Prince of Tides” quality to Zeke’s midlife turnaround.
“American Ghost,” by Janis Owens (Scribner, $16)
Hendrix, Fla., is a town of “listing cracker dog trots and trailers” where the giant oak tree in the square is missing a limb — the result of an infamous 1930s lynching. The crime has painful ripple effects six decades later for Jolie Hoyt, daughter of the town’s Pentecostal preacher, and a graduate student named Sam, who may be investigating more than he lets on.
“That Deadman Dance,” by Kim Scott (Bloomsbury, $17)
The “friendly frontier” of western Australia is the setting for this award-winning novel that explores the intersection between the Noongar people and the European settlers who soon alter the aboriginal landscape. Jumping through time, much of the story is told through the eyes of Bobby Wabalanginy, a welcoming third culture kid who comes to see that the cultural exchange of colonization works in only one direction: “We learned your words and songs and stories, and never knew you didn’t want ours. ”
“Seven Locks,” by Christine Wade (Atria Books, $15)
When her wastrel husband sets off in a huff and never returns from the wilderness around their Hudson River Valley farm, the narrator in this debut novel has to make her way with two young children and townspeople convinced she had a sinister hand in his disappearance. Set against the backdrop of the Revolutionary War, this compelling historical novel takes its inspiration from a sleepy Washington Irving tale.
Laura Billings Coleman is a writer in St. Paul.
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