Some great summer fiction picks that have a Berkeley connection

It’s the heart of the summer and we have a slew of recently-published books to recommend. These suggested books are all written by authors with Berkeley connections or are set in Berkeley. Today we present novels. Next week, we will highlight some nonfiction titles.

Janelle Brown’s Watch Me Disappear has all the elements of a blockbuster in the vein of Gone Girl. Set in Berkeley, the novel starts a year after Billie Flanagan, the wife of Jonathan and the mother of Olive, has disappeared while on a solo hike in Desolation Wilderness. Rescuers couldn’t find her body but recovered a single hiking boot and a smashed cell phone. Jonathan nurses his grief with alcohol and a flirtation with one of Billie’s friends while he writes a memoir about his joyful 15-year marriage. But then Olive starts having waking dreams that her mother is still alive. She sets off on a journey to find her. At first, Jonathan dismisses his daughter’s visions as hallucinations. But slowly he begins to question if his wife is really dead. He scours her computer and finds evidence of unannounced trips and contacts with a detective. That prompts him to ask just how well did he really know his wife? How well do we really understand those we love? Watch Me Disappear is a great mystery with the added delight of familiar Berkeley scenes. Brown attended UC Berkeley and now lives in Los Angeles.

Terry Shames lives in Berkeley but grew up in Texas, and that’s where she sets her series of mysteries centered around Samuel Craddock, the retired police chief of the small town of Jarrett Creek. The first book in the series, A Killing at Cotton Hill, won a MacAvity Award from Mystery Readers International and the other books in the series have all been well received. For her sixth book in the series, An Unsettling Crime for Samuel Craddock, Shames has written a prequel that shows Craddock in his first year as police chief. He has just served a stint in the military, is happily married, even though he and his wife cannot conceive, and has absolutely no experience solving crimes. After a fire breaks out in a house deep in the woods, investigators discover the bodies of five young African-Americans. They had all been shot. Craddock’s police department does not have jurisdiction in the case, but he develops serious doubts about the thoroughness of the investigation headed up by a racist trooper with the Texas Highway Patrol. Craddock’s fears are realized when a young black man who clearly was not the killer is arrested. He launches into his own, below-the-radar search for the killer. Shames expertly explores small town life, the almost casual, yet destructive racism in Texas in the 1980s, and America’s unequal justice system.

A Good Country, written by Berkeley writer, Laleh Khadivi, is the third in a trilogy of novels that explores one family with Kurdish and Iranian roots. This book tells of the gradual radicalization of Alireza Courdee, the son of Iranian immigrants. When the book starts, Rez is a straight-A student and chemistry whiz who tries to fit in with his Southern California classmates  by smoking pot with them. But all that changes when the Boston Marathon bombing and a disaster on a trip to Mexico prompt his white friends to regard him suspiciously. Rez then gravitates to people with a less rosy attitude about the United States. Soon Rez and his girlfriend are on their way to Syria to join Muslim radicals. Khadivi’s book got rave reviews from The New York Times, which called it “powerful” and “unsparingly realistic. Khadivi will appear July 25 from 6 to 8 p.m. at the Litquake event, A Bunch of Bad Hombres: Immigrant Writers Respond to Trump.


Berkeley resident Cornelia Nixon’s fourth novel, The Use of Fame, tells the story of two married college professors and poets who live on opposite coasts and have a commuter marriage. Abby McCormick and Ray Stark have been together for 25 years despite their class differences (he comes from a West Virginia coal mining family and she comes from San Francisco’s tony Pacific Heights) but their passion has diminished and is threatened with extinction because of Ray’s affair with a much younger former graduate student. The book alternates between Ray’s and Abby’s perspectives, and, as Joyce Carol Oates put it, “rarely has a marriage so come alive in a work of fiction.”

 

 

 

In 2001, Berkeley author Sylvia Brownrigg published a novel, Pages for You, that centered on a 17-year-old college freshman from California named Flannery Jansen. She becomes close friends with a 28-year old teaching assistant, Anne Arden, and the novel explored their intense love affair. Fast forward to 2017. Brownrigg’s new novel, Pages for Her, picks up the story 20 years after the women’s passionate, but brief, romance. Both women have met others – Flannery is married and has a small daughter while Anne ‘s husband has just left her. When they meet up again at a conference at Yale they discover their passion remains. By reconnecting with one another, they find the inner selves they thought they had lost. Here is a list of Brownrigg’s upcoming appearances.

 

 

The novel, A Kind of Freedom, by Margaret Wilkerson Sexton, who attended Berkeley Law, won’t be published until August. But we wanted to give Berkeleyside readers a sneak preview because the book has been getting great reviews and explores the timely issue of racial disparity. Set in Sexton’s native New Orleans, A Kind of Freedom is a saga that follows three generations of a single family. The novel opens during World War II with Evelyn, who comes from a privileged Creole family in the upper echelons of Black society. Evelyn falls in love with a man from a much different background and is forced to choose between him and the world she grew up in. Then the book shifts to their daughter Jacqueline, who marries a pharmacist addicted to cocaine, and finally to the third-generation, where T.C. tries to make sense of post-Katrina New Orleans. Sexton will be launching her book at a party on Aug. 15 at Diesel Books, College Ave.

The novella family genus species by Berkeley writer Kevin Allardice is both a satire about Berkeley political correctness and progressive values and a thriller that explores the city’s political hypocrisy. And he stuffs all of that into 147 pages. The story centers around Vee, who changed her name from Colleen a week before the book’s action begins, who goes to her nephew’s birthday party. Vee’s sister, Pam, lives with her husband Geoff and son Charlie in North Berkeley and has transformed the backyard into something so lush, so full of flowers and vegetables that it is now referred to as The Family Farm. With capital letters. From the start, the reader can see Vee is a misfit. For one, she has brought Charlie a birthday president, a dinosaur, even though presents have been expressly forbidden. “We want Charlie to understand that the real gifts are family, friends, and fellowship, not gross material possessions,” Pam lectures her sister, whom she insists on referring to as Colleen. As the party is going on, a Black Lives Matter-type protest is brewing in downtown Berkeley. A circling police helicopter is the first clue that both the birthday party and protest won’t go well and are destined to intersect in unexpected ways.