By Joseph Olshan

(Minotaur, $24.99, 304 pages)

Who is this author?

Joseph Olshan, who divides his time between Vermont and Cambridge, Mass., has written 10 novels and has garnered awards for his work. His first novel, “Clara’s Heart” won the Times/Jonathan Cape Young Writers’ Competition and was adapted for a feature film starring Whoopi Goldberg as the Jamaican housekeeper who befriends the lonely young boy in her charge.

He’s also been a contributor to the New York Times, the New York Times Magazine,, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, the New York Observer, Harper’s Bazaar, People magazine and Entertainment Weekly and wrote book reviews for the Wall Street Journal during the 1990s.  Olshan also has been a professor of Creative Writing at New York University. His other novels include “Nightswimmer” and “Vanitas.”

With “Cloudland,” he moves from writing literary fiction to crime fiction, but brings his descriptive talents with him.

What is this book about?

Set in Vermont’s rural upper Connecticut River valley region, generally a safe place for its well-off and working-class residents alike, “Cloudland” tells what happens when a serial killer disrupts the peace and quiet, murdering young women by strangling or stabbing them and leaving not a trace of his identity.

It’s a book based on true events. Olshan became the friend of a woman who found one of the six victims and was haunted by its horror.

In the book, he tells the story through Catherine, a divorced former journalist and teacher whose life is a mess: she lost her teaching job for having an affair with a student, her daughter won’t talk to her, she lives with her dogs and pot-bellied pig. Now a household hints columnist and teacher of writing for jailed prisoners, she sets out for a walk and sees a woman sitting under an apple tree. Except the woman is not enjoying the afternoon sunshine: she’s dead.

Catherine can’t resist getting caught up in the investigation, which also involves a neighbor who is a forensic psychologist.  And she realizes that details of the case reflect the classic Wilkie Collins novel, “The Moonstone.”  Worse, she thinks the killer may be someone she knows – and that she might be his next victim. Meanwhile, her younger forbidden lover has shown up, giving Catherine another puzzle to resolve.

Why you’ll like it:

Olshan spins an intriguing tale here, mixing the hunt for a killer, the complexities of a troubled woman’s life and echoes of the Collins book that many consider to be the first mystery novel. This multi-level plot will keep you hooked.

What others are saying:

Kirkus Reviews says: “In this refreshingly cliché-free serial-killer tale, Olshan tries his hand with a female narrator/heroine, whom he handles just as deftly as his sensitive male heroes (“The Conversion,” 2008, etc.). Although all these chilly, hurting souls are well worth your time, the real keeper is Catherine, still grieving the death of the husband she’d divorced and the loss of the younger lover she’d pushed away. ….Even as you wonder who the killer will turn out to be, you’ll worry mainly about how she’s going to come through all this.”

“Unlike the more common, adrenaline-fueled serial-killer thrillers, this is literary, character-driven fiction with remarkable empathy not only for those whom murder leaves behind but also for the perpetrator. Another fine performance from a critically acclaimed author,” says Booklist.

“Rarely do you find a story with characters so fully developed that you feel as if they might live next door. Conjuring a distinctly 19th-century atmosphere, Olshan excels at crafting a Dickensian literary piece, but the amount of detail may put off some readers expecting more action. Wilkie Collins fans, on the other hand, will be delighted by the role of the author of “The Moonstone” in this plot,” says Library Journal.

“Joseph Olshan’s latest novel, “Cloudland,” captures a neglected part of the Northeast with verve and accuracy. The rural places of Vermont — away from the ski condos and golf courses which lure the high-end city folks from Boston and New York — where head in the heavens college professors and dirt-stained farmers mingle on lands that seem barely settled is the setting for a story about savage murder, about misshapen love and about the emotional debts that are carried inside us all. While ostensibly a tale about serial killings in this isolated part of the nation, it probes deeper into the darker and more complex realms of the heart. It is a thriller in the widest sense of the word — where not only does the reader wonder what happens next, they wonder why it will happen. Written in consistently elegant prose, with memorable psychological acuity, “Cloudland” is both exciting and compelling and will keep readers turning pages energetically,” says bestselling author John Katzenbach.

When is it available?

You can borrow it now from the Downtown Hartford Public Library or the Blue Hills Branch.

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