Sunday, June 24, 2018

Literary time travel: 9 thrillers, dramas, horror-fantasies to whisk readers away

Whether we travel near or far (or not at all), the point of vacation is to take us away from our daily lives for a while.

For many of us, the same is true of vacation reading. We hope that the books we download into our e-reader or pop into our carry-on bag will give us a break from the quotidian, a mental journey into another place.

Or, perhaps, another time. Here are nine new novels (three thrillers, three relationship dramas, three horror-fantasies) that are portals to time travel, with stories set in the past, ranging from Victorian England to World War II-era Europe to Houston in the 1950s — or in the uncomfortably near future.

Even if you don't go any farther than your own front porch, these books will whisk you away to other places and times.


Journey to Munich by Jacqueline Winspear (Harper, 287 pages, $26.99)

This is the 12th novel in Winspear's always engrossing series about the intrepid psychologist-detective Maisie Dobbs. The series began in post-World War I England, with Maisie just back from serving as a nurse during that war. The books have traced her career as she studied psychology with a mysterious mentor, built her own investigative business, married and was widowed. She always has been a richly nuanced character, and Winspear's settings and plots have served to paint a picture of the complexities of British society in the years between the wars.

Journey to Munich brings Maisie to 1938, when she is recruited by the British Secret Service to help rescue Leon Donat, a British businessman, from a then-obscure prison camp called Dachau by impersonating the man's daughter.

Maisie is still working through her grief after the death of her beloved husband, James, in a plane crash. Although she accepts the assignment to help Donat, she is dismayed when she learns that Elaine Otterburn, the young woman she holds responsible for James' death, is in Munich as well — and Elaine's parents want Maisie to bring their runaway daughter home to London. Trying to accomplish both tasks puts Maisie herself in mortal danger.

Winspear builds tension skillfully and re-creates the brutal rise to power of the Nazis in Munich to chilling effect. As always, the specifics of Maisie's case reflect the perils at large in the world around her.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst (Random House, 256 pages, $27)

Furst is a past master of historical espionage novels. In this book, he focuses on a cell of Resistance fighters in and around Paris in 1941, after the Germans have occupied France but before the United States' entry into World War II. Readers who enjoy noir suspense punctuated by passionate romance and wrapped up in historical context will want to take this trip.

City of Secrets by Stewart O'Nan (Viking, 208 pages, $22)

The subjects of O'Nan's always compelling novels have ranged widely; this time, he sets a morally complex thriller in Jerusalem in the days immediately after World War II, as Jewish refugees stream to what was then Palestine at a chaotic point in history. Reminiscent of Graham Greene and Raymond Chandler, the story of a haunted refugee named Brand takes many a dark twist.


The After Party by Anton DiSclafani (Riverhead, 369 pages, $26)

DiSclafani, who grew up in Florida, sets her second novel in Houston in the late 1950s, with a tone that's a little Mad Men, a little Carol and a lot of steamy atmosphere.

The novel's narrator, Cece Buchanan, is 15 when her mother dies and her estranged father marries his mistress. Cece doesn't much care — the one person she does care about is her best friend, Joan Fortier, and she is soon invited to move in with Joan's oil-rich family, who see her as a kind of caretaker for their wild daughter.

Joan is a golden girl, queen of her socialite circle. She parties all night and shrugs off the hearts she breaks. Cece, who is "half as pretty," rides happily in her wake, so obsessed with her friend that she chooses most of Joan's clothes and monitors her relationships even more closely than Joan's mother does.

When the girls are seniors in high school, Joan disappears. Cece is stunned — not that Joan would chase adventure, but that she wouldn't share it. Rumors abound that Joan has gone to Hollywood to pursue acting; then one day, just as suddenly, she's back, resuming her social whirl as if her year's absence was a trip to the powder room.

Many cocktails are drunk, many high-heeled shoes kicked off at parties, time passes. Cece marries a devoted husband, Ray, and has a son, Tommy, whom she fears is somehow disabled — just one of the things that, in 1950s Houston, one kept a secret.

And then Joan vanishes again. DiSclafani keeps the reader guessing: Is some terrible mystery afoot? And how much of what Cece tells us can we believe?

(DiSclafani will be signing her novel at the Oxford Exchange Sunday.)

The Girls by Emma Cline (Random House, 368 pages, $27)

Cline's artfully written debut novel, set in Northern California in the late 1960s, resonates with the real-life story of the Manson Family. Evie, 14-year-old daughter of divorcing parents, meets a group of girls in a park and is soon drawn in by the charismatic Suzanne — who will lead her to a commune where bad, bad things happen.

Modern Lovers by Emma Straub (Riverhead, 368 pages, $26)

Straub brings a humorous touch to a story of past secrets catching up to the present. Bandmates during their rock 'n' roll days in college, Elizabeth, Andrew and Zoe are now 40-somethings living in painfully hip Brooklyn and realizing that it's hard to hold on to your cool when your kids are grown up. The story circles back to the '90s to reveal the truth about their relationships and the fourth bandmate who went on without them.


The Fireman by Joe Hill (William Morrow, 752 pages, $28.99)

The world is threatening to end with neither a whimper nor a bang but with a conflagration in this gripping futuristic horror tale by Hill. In the very near future, the new plague is a highly contagious spore dubbed Dragonscale, because the infected develop what look like lovely black-and-gold tattoos on their skin — and then, sooner or later, they burst into flame. There is no antidote, and soon entire cities are burning.

The book's main character, Harper Grayson, is a dedicated nurse in a small-town New England hospital, where she treats hundreds of plague victims until the hospital burns down. Harper, whose role model is Mary Poppins, refuses to give in to despair when the Dragonscale appears on her own skin — especially because she has found out she's pregnant. Staying alive until she can deliver her child becomes her driving force, more important to her even than her husband, Jakob, who is contemplating suicide — for both of them. All around them, the world devolves into chaos, with government officials and celebrities combusting in front of television cameras and vigilante Cremation Squads taking preemptive action on plague victims.

Finding refuge in an abandoned summer camp with an impromptu commune of survivors, Harper is both drawn to and fearful of a mysterious figure called the Fireman, who has the plague but seems to have learned not only to control it but to deploy it as a weapon.

If this swiftly paced horror yarn full of flawed but likable characters reminds you of Stephen King's books, it's no wonder: Hill is his son, and carrying on the family business nicely. Well, not so nicely, but well.

Hystopia by David Means (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 352 pages, $26)

In Means' gonzo alternative history novel, President John Kennedy is entering his third term as the war in Vietnam continues to rage. Back in the United States, psychologically damaged soldiers have their memories removed by a process called "enfolding" — except for the few who can't be treated and roam wild, re-enacting wartime atrocities on civilians. The story is a novel-within-a-novel by a young soldier, filled with humor, violence, surrealism and heart.

Smoke by Dan Vyleta (Doubleday, 448 pages, $26.95)

Vyleta's alternative history is set in England a century ago, in a society in which human beings' moral failings are marked by smoke and soot that pours out of their bodies. Except for the rich and aristocratic, who do not smoke — or do they? This Dickensian thriller-fantasy has hidden laboratories, government corruption, a love triangle, religious fanatics, family drama and more.

Contact Colette Bancroft at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.


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