Last Lessons of Summer, Margaret Maron, Mysterious Press, $7.50.
Every time I read a Margaret Maron novel, I am freshly surprised by her seemingly effortless storytelling skill, one which resonates at the same time with emotional meaning. Perhaps the only other author who can rival her storytelling ability is Elizabeth Peters. Like Peters, Maron has not one but two very strong series, as well as a number of stand alone novels. Last Lessons of Summer is one of the latter variety. I may be the only one who is a bigger fan of her Sigrid Harald novels than her Deborah Knott ones, but I've enjoyed her southern stand alone novels, Bloody Kin being an early example. Last Lessons of Summer is that novel's delightful kissing cousin. In this novel, Amy Voygt, a reluctant heir to her grandmother's large publishing/franchise empire - based on a pair of stuffed animals Amy's now dead mother had received as an infant - has gone to Raleigh, North Carolina, from New York, to sort out her own life and to clean out her grandmother's large house before she sells it.
Maron is an absolute master at throwing out a large number of characters in the first few chapters (and I knew this would be an excellent read when I saw there was a family tree in the beginning of the book), and making them all so memorable and distinct that as a reader, there's no difficulty in remembering who they all are. In this case she introduces us to Amy's New York based family - including father, husband, and half sibs, and then throws in Amy's large extended Southern family, whom Amy doesn't know as well thanks to her grandmother's aloofness from the rest of her family. Maron also tricked me twice - there are two situations where I thought I had easily guessed the outcome, but was foiled by the wiley Maron. It should teach me not to assume anything when reading a book by a writer as clever as this one.
The story itself is a compelling one - Amy is pretty certain her grandmother has been murdered, but back with her mother's cousins in Raleigh, she starts to have questions about her mother's apparent suicide when Amy was just three years old. When the final denouement and wrap up occurs, and Maron neatly ties up every story thread, you can easily look back and see the clues she's strewn in the reader's path along the way. This is a wonderful effort from start to finish, and you'll end up with a real picture in your mind not only of Amy, but her family's North Carolina home. This is definitely one of the best reads of the year.
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