Browsing: Novels focus on bonds over time

"The Most Dangerous Thing" by Laura Lippman (Morrow, 384 pages, $25.99)

Memories can be deceptive. Childhood remembrances especially are fleeting, as Laura Lippman skillfully and subtly explores in "The Most Dangerous Thing." Lippman's seventh stand-alone novel — and 17th work of fiction — also is a look at how children often have little idea what goes on in their parents' lives. In addition, the novel serves as homage to more innocent times when, in the not too distant past, children could roam beyond their neighborhoods without their parents fearing where they were.

That's the kind of summer five youngsters enjoy in Baltimore during 1979. The three Halloran brothers and two girls, Gwen Robison and Mickey Wickham, are children on the cusp of becoming teenagers who forge an unshakable friendship for one summer. Daily, they escape to the woods behind their homes, going further every week until they find a ramshackle cabin where an old man lives. What happened next in the woods both bonds them and drives them apart.

Decades later, the friends reunite for the funeral of Gordon Halloran, who died drunk when he crashed his car into a concrete barrier. Uncomfortable reminisces, unsettling revelations and the uncertainty of what was going on in each child's household permeate the four survivors' thoughts and their time together.

"The Most Dangerous Thing" builds quietly as Lippman's character-rich plot turns on the influence that summer in the woods had on each person. But this is no "I Know What You Did Last Summer" or even an updated "The Big Chill." Lippman doesn't follow any predictable route as she illustrates how connections between people and the consequences of actions vary with individuals. Each character has secrets that none of the others know. While Gwen is often the focus, every character takes a turn at narrating the tale to show how unique these individuals are.

Lippman's acumen with the intricacies of the psychological thriller and her recurring theme of the fragility of memory excel in "The Most Dangerous Thing."

"Iron House" by John Hart (St. Martin's Press, 432 pages, $25.99)

Each of John Hart's three novels have meshed the vagaries of family dynamics with a respect for the traditions of the Southern novel. That approach has earned him three Edgar Award nominations, resulting in two back-to-back wins.

"Iron House" should bring Hart a fourth nomination, at the very least. Hart's lovely prose delivers a solid, forceful tale about family bonds and the legacy of violence set against the streets of Manhattan and the mountains of North Carolina. "Iron House" is both a moody Southern novel and an intense urban tale as Hart keenly explores human foibles.

Hart builds on two brothers' unshakeable bonds to show that family ties can last through years, distance and separation.

Michael was 10 months old, his brother Julian a sickly newborn when they were found abandoned next to a creek and brought to a North Carolina orphanage called the Iron House. During the next decade, When Michael isn't nearby, Julian is mercilessly bullied. The brothers' lives radically change when a bully is found stabbed to death.

Michael flees the orphanage, eventually making his way to Manhattan where he becomes a hit man for a mobster who treats him as a son. Adopted by a wealthy senator and his young wife, Julian remains weak and fearful, despite his success as a best-selling children's author. But Michael's attempts to leave the crime family put in danger his fiancee and Julian, whom hasn't seen in 23 years.

Hart gracefully moves "Iron House" from Michael's life with the crime family and his time running from them to Julian's unsettled adoptive home.

Hart has proven to be an inspired storyteller. With "Iron House," he surpasses his own fine work to deliver a terrifying yet emotional story.