My sense of time is fuzzier thanks to the pandemic, so this could be a late spring or an early summer round-up. The one thing I know for sure is that this mixed bag of terrific books is one I'd want to carry with me anytime.
This Time Tomorrow
by Emma Straub
Straub's new novel is a time-travel fantasy imbued with her signature awareness of the infinite ways we humans make life harder for ourselves. The heroine here is a single woman named Alice who works at her old high school. Her father, a bestselling novelist who raised Alice on his own, is dying in a New York hospital. That ordeal, coupled with Alice's approaching 40th birthday, plunges her into despondency: "Alice had always thought of her professional life in perfect contrast with her father's — he'd had wild success, and she, none, just hanging on to something stable like a seahorse with its tail looped around some seagrass ..."
On the night of her birthday, Alice returns from a drunken binge and stumbles into the gift of time travel, which allows her to explore the big question, "What if?" The greatest compliment I can pay to This Time Tomorrow is to say that I'd always considered Jack Finney's 1970 novel, Time and Again, to be the New York City time travel tale; now Finney's classic has company.
by Michelle Huneven
Huneven's comic novel is a delicious, recipe-laden, must-read for anyone who's ever served on a committee. The narrator, Dana Potowski, is a food writer living in California who's roped into joining the search committee for the new minister of her Unitarian Universalist church.
Huneven dramatizes how one strong personality — in this case a young woman swollen with insolence — can control a committee. And her descriptions of conducting first-round interviews over Zoom are hilarious. Here's Dana describing an interview with a female candidate that turns disastrous:
Just before she signed off, she offered to sing us a song.
Plucking a dulcimer off the wall, she ... started in on "Bridge over Troubled Water". ... With the chorus, she began to keep time by slapping the dulcimer, and somehow each slap was a sharp direct crack to our eardrums. ... At the end, she looked up, smiled ecstatically, and waved.
by Gary Phillips
Group decisions are not something Harry Ingram worries about. He's the star of this new hard-boiled mystery by veteran crime writer Gary Phillips. One-Shot Harry is set in L.A. in 1963, as racial tensions are escalating in advance of Martin Luther King's upcoming Freedom Rally at Wrigley Field. Harry, a Black freelance news photographer who roams all over L.A. with his Speed Graphic camera, is the best of all possible guides to this watershed moment. His job gives him entrée into neighborhoods and events that might otherwise be off-limits to him because of his race. In the course of investigating a friend's suspicious death, Harry finds himself facing off with a white supremacist group who wants the speedometer of racial progress pushed way back down. What makes One-Shot Harry a standout is the cityscape of mid-century L.A it summons up — its music, chromium cars, hateful slurs, "invisible" racial boundaries and cautious hopes.
Knock Off the Hat
by Richard Stevenson
The circumstances of this last recommendation are unusual. Richard Lipez, who wrote under the penname Richard Stevenson, was a groundbreaking author of gay detective novels featuring private eye Donald Strachey. Decades ago, I reviewed one of those Strachey books, and Dick and I became fast friends. He died in March, but one of the things he left behind was the first novel in what would have been a new series about a gay private eye in 1940s Philadelphia. Knock Off The Hat may be the best novel Dick ever wrote. Its main character, Clifford Waterman, is a former police detective dishonorably discharged from the Army during World War II for an "indecent act." Cliff gets drawn into helping a man who's nabbed in a raid on a so-called "Degenerates" club.
As with One-Shot Harry, the greatest pleasures here are the details that make 1940s Philly come alive: the Horn & Hardart automat meals of meat loaf and coconut cream pie; the network of Cliff's closeted friends, working in town at Wanamaker's shoe department or even on the police force. I wish I could say there'd be more Waterman novels to come, but the fact that Dick was in his early 80s when he wrote this novel — well, maybe that's a reason to believe in springtime possibilities no matter the season.