Six book suggestions for a shivering summer

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Every coat rolled in blood

By James Lee Burke, Simon & Schuster, 288 pages

This novel, Burke’s 15th, is billed as his most autobiographical and as “supernatural” with a certain mystery attached. He begins with an explanatory preface and says he believes this is his best novel. He’s probably right, though I’d hate to ignore The Draining the sheet metal roof, still the best crime novel written about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But supernatural and even mystery don’t quite describe a work of fiction that takes us into the soul of an author. If you’ve only read one book this year, make it this one.

Burke is one of America’s finest prose stylists, celebrated for his elegance and finely crafted, unique voice. In his books, always gracefully punctuated by old Southern ways and golden charm about the original sin of slavery, he continually reminds us of the four last things: heaven, hell, death and judgment, which form the focus of this novel.

Aaron Holland Broussard lives in Montana, lonely and aging. His beloved daughter, Fannie May, has just died, leaving him with “a hole as big as a pie plate in the center of my chest”. When a truck pulls up in his driveway and a teenager gets out and paints a swastika on his barn, he’s not one to back down: “You don’t belong here,” shouts the child as the truck drives away.

The encounter leads Broussard to a state police officer Ruby Spotted Horse, who sees an old man (Broussard is 85) in danger from white supremacists or worse. Broussard sees a world where children are blighted at birth by drugs, internet conspiracy theories, racist dogma and blanket lies. He can’t save everyone, but he just might save the kid with the paint bucket. The story of how he does this takes him to a twisted world that is the destruction of the natural Eden Montana that could have been or could have become.

All the immense talent of James Lee Burke is expressed in this book which I found much too short. I could have stayed here for another 200 pages of its sweet purring prose and wonderful story of redemption and salvation. As for ghosts, well, I grew up in the American South of Burke, where distant pasts were recalled daily. They gave us comfort and joy. This book is dedicated to Burke’s daughter, Pamala, who passed away in 2020, and, like her spirit, will last as long as anyone can remember.


give to others

By Donna Leon, Atlantic Monthly Press, 304 pages

With over 30 pounds under her belt, Donna Leon could now be slacking off in acting. Most series writers do this at some point, but that’s not the case here. Far from being a weakened version of his beloved Brunetti, it is one of his strongest works.

As always with Léon, Venice itself is a major character and we are in a Venice like no other. The pandemic has emptied Serenissima: beloved stores have disappeared; good restaurants have closed; the tourists, both needed and hated, have yet to return. As Brunetti drives to work, he stops to savor a Venetian streetscape. From now on, it is possible to choose a route for pleasure and not for fear.

This shock of pleasure and loss is the backdrop to this story of a woman who fears for her daughter and contacts Brunetti for private help. Is her daughter in danger? The wife, Elisabetta Foscarini, once lived above Brunetti and her mother was very kind to hers. This simple memory is enough for Brunetti to call on his friends and their talents to look for possible problems that Foscarini’s daughter, Flora, might have. Little comes to light, but violence intrudes, and as the Venetian winter chill arrives, so too do revelations that drive Brunetti to search for the answer to the Foscarini riddle. The pace of this novel is slow and majestic, but save it for the weekend when you won’t have to put it down even for a meal.


Bad Actors, by Mick HerronHandout

bad actors

By Mick Herron, Soho Press, 360 pages

Jackson Lamb and the Slow Horses are back. If you don’t know what that means, then you’ve missed one of the best spy series of this century. Eight novels in Herron’s Slough House books prove that he is one of the best and wittiest writers to follow in the tradition of Len Deighton and John le Carré.

Although you can immerse yourself in the world of Slough House in this book, I advise you to read the whole series in order, starting with slow horses. By bad actors, we’re good with the characters and the setting – Lamb, his icy superior, Diana Taverner, various slimy politicians and the horses themselves; Lech, Roddy Ho, Catherine, Louisa, and the smart but unlucky River. The Horses are failed spies who have been banished to Lamb’s Dungeon and condemned to endless irrelevant tasks until they either give up or die of boredom. They dream of miracles that will bring them back to the halls of MI5 and relevance. This time around, it’s about finding a missing government researcher who may not have disappeared at all. Naturally, politics are in play – an unelected villainous apparatchik is involved – and there are, ultimately, Russians. The twists and fights are both gory and funny and done with Herron’s own spy lingo, giving it all the panache. In short, a delight.


children on the hill

By Jennifer McMahon, Scout Press, 352 pages

How do you make a monster? The most famous, Frankenstein, was constructed piecemeal from corpses and then shocked to life by electricity. He’s the nameless creature but is he responsible for his crimes? Or is it its creator? That’s the underlying story of this terrific tale from McMahon, which has so many twists and turns that a pretzel seems straight.

We started in 1978 in Vermont in a renowned private psychiatric clinic. Dr. Helen Hildreth runs the clinic and, in her spare time, cares for her orphaned grandchildren, Violet and Eric. One day, Dr. Hildreth brings home a strange mute child named Iris. It’s clear that terrible things have happened to Iris, and Dr. Hildreth tells her grandchildren that they should treat Iris like a sister, accept her in their games, share their secrets. Soon, Iris responds. Then everything collapses.

Cut to 2019 and podcaster and monster hunter Lizzy Shelley is on the trail of a killer she believes to be her sister, cut from her decades ago. The police don’t believe Shelley’s story of a series of murdered girls, preferring to believe they are dealing with a group of runaways, but Shelley is convinced they know who and, possibly, why. Told at different times and with several different narrators, this is a finely crafted, haunting novel of the tricks that memory can play as well as the impulses that drive us to uncover secrets that lie within the psyche.


watch out for her

By Samantha M. Bailey, Simon & Schuster, 336 pages

The creepy creepy psychological thriller requires solid characters, a good setting, and most importantly, a solidly chilling premise. Toronto author Samantha Bailey has provided all of this and more in her debut book, A woman on the brink. This tracking shows that Bailey is no wonder. It’s as tightly plotted and deftly written as its first, with a beautiful backstory to carry it through.

Sarah Goldman and her family have just moved to a new neighborhood in a new city far, far away from her past. What Sarah is running from is the memory of last summer when she hired Holly Monroe, a pretty young nanny to share custody of her son, Jacob. Everything seemed perfect. Holly wanted a surrogate, Sarah wanted some freedom, Jacob adored her. But it all went wrong and now Sarah is away, building a life in a new place where it seems the neighbors are still watching out for each other. But then Sarah discovers spyware in her home. Who’s watching her? And why?

Bailey creates suspense here with excellent pacing and clues that fall at exactly the right time. It’s a great book to take on summer vacation or weekends at the cottage when all you have to do is relax, eat, and read.


Outside

By Ragnar Jonasson, translated by Victoria Cribb, Minotaur, 352 pages

Jonasson is becoming one of the hottest writers in the icy Nordic Noir. Snow guard, his first novel in translation, featured Ari Thor, a local cop in Iceland’s rural Far North. This series continued but Outside is a stand-alone thriller where the villain isn’t just human, it’s also a blizzard that turns the lives of four college friends upside down on a survival weekend.

Armann, Daniel, Helena and Gunnlaugur are friends in their thirties looking for ptarmigan in the wild. Each has a different reason for being on the hunt, but all are united by Armann, the most experienced outdoorsman in the group. Daniel is an expat actor living in London. Helena is a grieving widow. And Gunnlaugur is the outsider, a disciple of Armann, an addict to the rest.

As the group heads for ptarmigan land in the remote eastern moors of Iceland, a surprise blizzard surprises them. Cut off, they head to one of the survival huts provided for this purpose but when they arrive, the first of many surprises awaits them. As the blizzard and the weekend progress, we learn more and more about the quartet and what unites them. Jonasson cleverly takes us inside each other’s minds, telling us exactly what we need to know, from that character’s perspective, until a full story emerges.

The only problem with this novel, and it’s not really as big as it sounds, is that Helena, Daniel, Armann, and Gunnlaugur turn out to be pretty unsympathetic people. On the other hand, if they were really charming, we would be bored waiting for something to happen. It turns out that people with a tricky past make better books.

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