There's something about a summer read set in a cold, northern climate that really helps with the whole escapist premise of a beach book. Set in present day Salem, Mass., of witch-hunt infamy, The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry will pluck you out of your staycation lawn chair and drop you straight into a quaint town with an ugly history.
The townspeople of Salem, says Towner Whitney, the book's protagonist and main narrator, "celebrate the witches, who never existed at all in the days of the witch trials but who thrive here in great numbers now." Towner isn't a witch exactly, just a woman with a gift for reading thoughts and telling the future, though she tries her best to avoid doing either.
Towner's past, complicated and tragic, has wrecked her for the present. Living in California and determined to avoid Salem, she's compelled to go back when her beloved great-aunt is found dead under mysterious circumstances.
Once in Salem, physically weak from recent emergency surgery and emotionally shaky from the assault of hostile thoughts aimed her way, Towner finds a new menace. Cal Boynton casts a long and brutal shadow on the Whitney family, and he has returned to Salem as the religious leader of a group of fanatic fundamentalists who despise and fear witches.
Soon Towner's history and Salem's are on a collision course, and history is about to repeat itself. As the tension mounts, Towner seems to shrink from the challenge. Physically and emotionally she becomes less and less reliable, and her gift for reading the future through lace seems as unstable and unreliable as the rest of her.
In The Lace Reader, Barry has written one of those lovely novels that is easy to dive into and that lingers in your thoughts. The haunting questions about what exactly happened, how, when and why, will keep your brain happily digesting this book long after the covers are closed.
Tammar Stein is the author of "Light Years" and "High Dive." She is currently working on her third novel.