Night Shade

By Pauline Knaeble Williams. (40 Press, 224 pages, $16.95 paperback.)

Ambitious and arresting, Minneapolis native Pauline Knaeble Williams' second novel tells the story of Penny McGinty, a hardworking, kindhearted Irish immigrant maid for a Philadelphia family. It's 1850, just after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required that all escaped slaves be returned to their masters upon capture, even those in free states.

Even free blacks were terrorized by the law's enforcers, who often didn't bother to find out whether their captives were freemen or escaped slaves. One day, Penny answers a knock on the kitchen door to find a bedraggled, exhausted young woman who appears to be white but who in fact is an escaped slave seeking refuge. She has taken the name of Larkspur.

"Night Shade" is the story of Penny and Larkspur's friendship and of the adventures they experience, along with the house's wealthy inhabitants and their acquaintances, both black and white. Williams' historical novel is most powerful when it examines the growing doubt of characters who have long blindly adhered to the law after they come to witness the fear and damage it spreads.

"Night Shade" (the title refers to a plant pivotal in the plot) features a compelling and smoothly paced story line, complex characters and plenty of nuance and surprises. But it has a glaring fault — it's often poorly written, or edited, rife with dangling modifiers that aren't just clumsy, but confusing. Such carelessness is inexcusable, especially in an otherwise fine novel, and should be a caution to both the writer and her editors. Nevertheless, readers will find the story's stronger traits worth their time.


The Family Upstairs By Lisa Jewell. (Atria Books, 340 pages, $27.)

Libby Jones, adopted as a baby, knows little about her birth parents or how she came to be abandoned. But she has known for most of her life that they are dead, that there is a will, and that she'll be contacted by the trustees of her parents' estate when she turns 25. That day is finally here.

Opening the letter upends Libby's life. She has inherited a mansion in the posh neighborhood of Chelsea in London. And she learns she has a brother and a sister — or, had.

What seems like a stroke of good fortune, transforming the financially struggling Libby into an instant millionaire, becomes a dark tunnel to her past life. We learn that three adults died in a suicide pact, and that the two teen siblings were never seen again. Needing an ally in her quest for answers, she contacts the London journalist who, 25 years ago, chronicled the macabre story of the dead bodies and the crying baby in the mansion.

As Libby begins her journey, several parallel characters quietly surface to tell their own stories of growing up in that mansion. The reader knows these paths are on a collision course.

Flashbacks help fill in the events that take place inside the walls of that mansion as a once-great family descends into hell. Their home becomes a fortress of psychological manipulation, of child abuse, of a cultlike culture led by a man with an engulfing ego and a fearsome rage.

Lisa Jewell's story is spellbinding, somewhat Gothic despite its contemporary setting, and impossible to put down. By the time we unravel the last of her mysteries, we're almost choking on the malevolent threads that weave themselves into a coy and satisfying conclusion.

Event: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Barnes & Noble, Edina. Tickets $29-$50, includes book.