Clay Jannon, newly unemployed, stumbles upon a mysterious bookshop during his frequent wanderings through the streets of San Francisco. The Help Wanted sign in the window seems like a sign of fate and he feels drawn into the bizarrely shaped store filled primarily with antique one-of-a-kind texts. Although far removed from his previous employment as a tech-savvy designer and marketer for a failed startup, Clay accepts the position of overnight sales clerk. Little does he realize that this spontaneous decision will catapult him into a mystery involving an ancient society whose cryptic workings will change the course of his life. Robin Sloan’s unique novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, brings together cutting-edge advances and time-worn tradition as they conflict and combine. Clay discovers that his embrace of new technology and a new-found respect for the methods of the past brings him great reward. Sloan’s novel also explores the idea that good things happen when people of different backgrounds combine their personal strengths and beliefs to solve problems. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a delightful exploration of how curiosity and innovation have acted as universal and timeless inspiration for the advancement of ideas. A good selection for those who enjoy mysteries that are more cerebral than action-packed.
In Hunting Annabelle, , a debut novel of suspense, Wendy Heard introduces readers to a narrator with a unique perspective. Sean Suh is a Korean American who has recently moved to Texas from San Francisco with his mother, a noted neurosurgeon. The story takes place in 1986 and Heard immerses the reader into that time period by peppering the narrative with many references and cultural allusions. She captures the alienation of her main character as a person of color in Texas, but Sean is a true outsider for other reasons as well. He is an artist who sees people’s auras, dresses in “alternative” punk/goth clothes, and happens to be a diagnosed violent schizophrenic recently released from inpatient care. Sean spends his days at a nearby amusement park, drawing people in the crowds that engulf, but do not incorporate, him. One fateful day, Sean spots a girl whose aura strikes him as particularly unusual and he is captivated enough to follow her into the park’s wax museum. Unlike his other subjects, Annabelle confronts Sean and their interaction leads to an immediate attraction and plans for meeting again. Sean’s mother is overbearing and controlling, and her overprotectiveness means that Sean needs to keep his new friendship hidden. When Annabelle is kidnapped right before his eyes, Sean knows that he will not be believed by anyone because of his past instability and police record. He becomes obsessed with finding Annabelle on his own-both because he is convinced that he loves her and to prove his innocence. Sean must battle his own disturbing impulses and disorienting medication effects while also facing suspicion and discrimination. Diving into Annabelle’s past, he discovers an abundance of potential suspects and some revealing information about this girl that he barely knows. Wendy Heard deserves credit for creating a fast-paced and gripping thriller with diverse characters and some unpredictable plot devices. Some readers might object to her somewhat simplistic portrayal of mental illness, depending on their own experiences and knowledge. Younger readers might also feel a bit alienated by all the 1980s trivia, but these tidbits would be enjoyable for anyone familiar with them. The relationship between Sean and his mother was very interesting, and the story might have benefitted from including more details about their shared history. Hunting Annabelle is a solid page turner with good pacing and entertainment value, worth a look for fans of thrillers with an innovative approach.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Harlequin for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.
Self-involved, narcissistic and oblivious Toby Hennessy receives a harsh come-uppance in Tana French’s newest novel, The Witch Elm. This first-person narrative allows the reader to witness Toby’s transformation from an entitled jokester to a man shaken by events that cause him to question his morality and potential for cruelty. Toby works in PR at an art gallery when he is not out drinking with his friends or cuddled up with his wonderfully perfect and adoring girlfriend. After a typical night at the pub, Toby is awakened to the sound of strangers in his flat. When he surprises the burglars, Toby gets beaten so badly that he sustains a traumatic head injury that leaves him severely impaired. His recovery leaves him ashamed of his new limitations, and he soon sinks into a drug-hazed depression. His cousin suggests that Toby could use his medical leave to help their uncle, who is dying of cancer. Toby accedes to the plan when his girlfriend agrees to accompany him to his Uncle Hugh’s house, a long-time family estate and the location of many childhood memories. Toby struggles to manage his physical and mental difficulties but finds comfort in a new routine in the familiar surroundings. Their peace doesn’t last long, however. A skull is discovered in a tree on the grounds during a family meeting, leading to a disruptive and extensive police investigation. The evidence points to a potential murder that must have occurred during Toby’s adolescence, and he and other family members become the main suspects. Toby tries to do a bit of sleuthing, but his inquiries reveal some disturbing things about himself that he may have never realized or just can’t remember. Toby begins to distrust his family and his version of past events, leading him to question motives and suspect shared secrets. Tana French has an amazing ability to construct complete characters, making them so familiar with all their flaws and foibles. It is a testament to her talent that she can portray such an unlikeable character that believably evolves through her storytelling to become sympathetic. Much more than just an imaginative and well-plotted mystery, The Witch Elm is a study in the delusions brought about by privilege and entitlement. The author explores the theme of luck-by birth or circumstance-and whether experiences and/or nature allow certain people to avoid difficulties that would plague others. She addresses how small choices and purposeful ignorance can lead to a crisis of self. Fans of Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series will be delighted to see her talents sustained and expanded in this exceptional standalone addition to her work.
Joe Ide delights his many fans again with another exciting entry in his IQ series with Wrecked. Ide’s version of a modern-day Sherlock Holmes in L.A. manages to be creative, funny, touching and thought-provoking. In this third installment, Isaiah Quintabe (IQ) finally gets a chance to reconnect with a mesmerizing girl he encountered at the end of the last novel (Righteous). Although IQ is so perceptive, calm and assured in his sleuthing abilities, he obviously lacks experience and confidence when it comes to connecting with a potential love-interest. Fortunately for him, Grace initiates contact when she approaches IQ to enlist his help as a highly regarded detective. She needs his aid in tracking down her mother who left under mysterious circumstances shortly after her father’s death many years ago. Grace is certain she has seen her mother watching her recently, despite the outstanding warrant for her arrest. IQ is so anxious to get close to Grace that he risks the displeasure of his new partner, Dodson, by accepting one of her paintings as payment. Of course, this case will be more complicated than it first appears. IQ may be outmatched in a confrontation with a ruthless group of ex-military operatives who are also looking for Grace’s mother. These people are leftovers from Abu Ghraib, ready to enthusiastically employ the “enhanced interrogation techniques” they learned there. Meanwhile, Dodson has been trying to keep secret from IQ that he is being blackmailed for a past action by a man who is apparently completely unhinged. The action in the IQ series is always fast-paced and the repartee often hilarious. This entry reflectively draws comparisons between the lack of regard for human life fostered in gangs on the street as well as in military “gangs” that have been allowed to cross certain lines with impunity. Ide’s writing is clever, his characters are captivating, and his storylines are unique. As with his other IQ books, Wrecked ends on a satisfying note but will leave readers clamoring for more stories about IQ and his friends.
Bibliophile: An Illustrated Miscellany by Jane Mount is a beautifully crafted and charming tribute to the printed book as both a physical object and an enduring cultural contribution. Mount’s delightful illustrations fill every page and are inspired by her prior experience as an artist painting clients’ “Ideal Bookshelves.” This book provides informative and entertaining descriptions of a wide variety of titles, with chapters organized by familiar genres or quirky subjects (e.g.: “Unhappy Families Each in Their Own Way”). Bibliophile focuses primarily on fiction, but some popular nonfiction categories are also presented. Interspersed throughout the book are profiles on bookstores and libraries throughout the world known for their interesting origins, architecture or collections. Author profiles and depictions of their writing spaces give insight into the creative surroundings and inspirations of well-loved classics. Mount steps aside to give plenty of space to include recommendations by other book experts such as librarians, booksellers, editors, and artists. Packed with the advertised “miscellany,” fun trivia and quizzes, this homage would make a wonderful addition to any book aficionado’s shelves, and a great gift for those who still revere the look and feel of this timeless media.
A teacher of creative writing at a British middle school begins experiencing disturbing events that mirror those from a short story in Elly Griffiths’ The Stranger Diaries. Clare is a respected and well-established instructor and researcher at Talgarth, hired during a restructuring effort after the school had experienced a downturn. She lives with her teenage daughter, Georgie, and her beloved dog Herbert. The novel opens as Clare is teaching her adult ed course, using as an example a ghost story that was written by the man whose house they are using for their class. She is interrupted by her department head with the news that Clare’s close friend and colleague has been found murdered on the grounds. Griffiths interposes sections from the short story within her narrative, along with alternating points-of-view between three women: Clare, Georgie, and Harbinder, the lead detective assigned to investigate the homicide. When more murders occur, it becomes increasingly apparent that Clare is at the center of the mystery. Someone close to her must be responsible, leaving her messages and quotes in her personal diary- or could it be Clare herself committing the crimes? The book contains many unexpected twists and turns, some of which are a bit contrived. There are also some plot elements that are also somewhat far-fetched and very convenient in retrospect. Some of Griffiths’ references and allusions may not be familiar to audiences outside of Great Britain, but nothing pivotal is lost in terms of the story. The Stranger Diaries provides a decent mystery, and the character of Harbinder is especially well-drawn and provides a unique perspective. If this standalone novel were to be developed into a series, her character would be one that would be interesting to follow.
Thanks to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for an Early Review copy of this book.
Disparaging portrayals of Millenials are in vogue right now, spawning a flood of novels with unlikeable and irredeemable 20-something characters. Halle Butler brings a breath of fresh air into this endless conversation with her first novel, Jillian. The book vacillates between the viewpoints of two anti-heroines who are prototypes of the stereotypical self-involved generation of young adults. These two women are forced to work together in a small doctor’s office, despite their opposing temperaments and simmering animosity. Jillian is the ultimate optimist with big dreams but no organization or grit to see any of them to fruition. She races from goal to goal, seeking signs of destiny that she is compelled to embrace until a new one comes along. Jillian is a single mother of a young child, despite still being childlike herself. Telling lies to keep up appearances, she even begins to believe her own fabrications. Her officemate, Megan, despises Jillian and expresses this opinion in passive-aggressive behaviors followed by a litany of complaints to her pitiable boyfriend. Megan presents herself as hard-edged and pessimistic, suspicious and anti-social. She uses her barbed tone to protect herself, attempting to cover up her low self-esteem with an attitude of superiority. Megan drinks excessively and ostentatiously-what she relies on as a social lubricant ultimately isolates her. In bursts of short vignettes, Butler presents external and internal viewpoints of her two main characters. The reader gains insight into how others view them and how they view themselves. Both women seem to be rudderless, headed for major meltdowns due to their inability to adjust to a world that refuses to accommodate them. Jillian is a quirky novel that is at turns witty and tragic. The reader feels sympathy for Jillian and Megan while simultaneously wincing with each bad decision and botched attempt at “adulting.” A unique and talented new voice, Halle Butler is an author worth following.
Darryl Jones manages to pack in a lot of information into a short volume in Sleeping with the Lights On: The Unsettling Story of Horror. In his introduction, Jones describes the long tradition of depicting horrific scenes in the works of lore and literature from the earliest civilizations. He discusses the “catharsis” theory that posits that images of violence can vicariously fulfill people’s natural inclinations without requiring overt action. In contrast, current psychologists have hypothesized the idea that experiencing simulated violence can lead to an increase in equivalent behavior and acceptance. Jones uses the book to elaborate on his own idea that tales of horror are a way of testing limits and a reflection of the level of tolerance within a society. He clarifies the vocabulary of the genre and its subcategories, using examples from books, film, and podcasts. Jones demonstrates how humans may have common innate sources of anxiety and fear that span cultural differences, but that the form that these take varies over time and development. While some of our well-known external “monsters” have become iconic and have endured over time, other new ones have emerged due to advances in technology. Our increased knowledge about mental processes and illnesses has altered our understanding of non-normative behavior, leading to changes in how aberrant examples are perceived. Sleeping with the Lights On is concise and interesting, providing a nice overview to the history of horror and our underlying fascination with it. Jones also includes an appendix with additional resources for readers interested in more in-depth exploration. This is a great basic “primer” for a genre that is increasingly becoming accepted as a true art form.
An Anonymous Girl a collaborative effort by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen, is due for release in early 2019. It is an interesting and nicely-paced thriller with some unfortunate credibility issues. The story is told in alternating points of view, beginning with protagonist Jessica Ferris, a young woman barely getting by as a contract make-up artist in New York City. In first-person narration, Jess describes her turning away from friends and a potential career in the theater after experiencing debasing sexual harassment. She needs more income to support herself, and she also is secretly subsidizing expensive treatments for her sister with special needs. During an appointment with two NYU students, Jess overhears them discussing a highly-lucrative university study that one of them is planning to skip out on the next day. Jess decides to seize this opportunity for some quick cash by showing up for the appointment and impersonating the student. It turns out that the study involves questions of morality and ethics and is being conducted by Dr. Shields-a well-respected psychology professor and therapist. Dr. Shields provides the other voice in the novel, her chapters are presented from the second-person point-of-view. After Jess and Dr. Shields meet in person, what began as a straightforward computerized questionnaire evolves into an expanded, in vivo sequence of experiments with greater personal risk and payment for Jess. Jess increasingly becomes dependent on the money and Dr. Shields but is unaware of the objectives of the research and its underlying motives. The reader comes to understand that Jess is being manipulated, and she is not the first to be drawn into a potentially deadly scheme. Hendricks and Pekkanen require the reader to believe that Dr. Shields has an almost supernatural ability to read people, collect details about them, and persuade them to act. While Jess is a sympathetic character, she makes many dubious decisions and her gullibility is often implausible. The stakes for Jess are so high, the reader might wonder why she allows herself to continue on such an obviously dangerous path. A side romantic plotline is also cursorily brought into the story but it is thin and remains underdeveloped. An Anonymous Girl remains an entertaining novel, with some genuine thrills and originality for those who can suspend disbelief and overlook these minor flaws.
The fourth book by the extremely popular Ruth Ware is a twist on a classic mystery trope involving an inheritance/rags-to-riches fantasy. Harriet Westaway, the heroine of The Death of Mrs. Westaway, is isolated and adrift after losing her mother in a tragic accident. She never learned her father’s identity-Harriet and her mother eked out a living by reading fortunes for tourists. She retains their small boardwalk booth after her mother’s death, despite her disbelief in the practice. She feels like she is merely playing a role, appeasing her conscience by detaching herself from her clients’ gullibility. On the brink of financial ruin and deeply in debt to some very dangerous characters, Harriet serendipitously receives a mysterious letter in the mail. It appears that an error has been made, and she has been named an inheritor in a significant estate. She decides to see if she can use her honed perception skills to claim what she hopes will be enough to save her from her collectors. She travels to the funeral of the deceased and upon being embraced by her kind “relatives,” Harriet feels torn between her desperation and guilt. It turns out that the inheritance is far more complicated than she imagined, and she is drawn into some old conflicts and family secrets. Harriet begins to question how long she can sustain her charade, and if the prize is worth the constant vigilance and paranoia of discovery. Harriet is not the only person hiding something at Trepassen, and questions start emerging about her own possible connection to these other Westaways. Fans of both classic mystery and literary fiction would enjoy this book, especially those looking to avoid explicit violence and gore. The novel is very atmospheric and wonderfully paced, with three-dimensional characters written with complexity and nuance. The resolution is unpredictable but believable, twisting in a truly satisfying way. The Death of Mrs. Westaway continues the high-quality work that readers have come to expect from Ware’s books, and is further evidence that her popularity is well-deserved.
Zoje Stage’s debut novel, Baby Teeth, has received very polarized reviews from both readers and critics. The novel tells the story of a young family struggling to parent a child who seems to be extremely disturbed, if not downright evil. As the book opens, 9-year-old Hanna is receiving an MRI, a last-ditch attempt by her parents to see if her mutism has a physiological basis. The news is received with both relief and dismay by her mother, Suzette, who was hoping that her daughter would be able to receive a clear diagnosis and mode of treatment. When it appears that Hanna’s complete lack of verbal or written communication is selective, it is up to Suzette to examine her own contribution to her child’s condition. The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Suzette and Hanna, and the reader is privy to the fact that Hanna harbors some violent designs against her mother. Suzette is desperate to provide her daughter with everything she was deprived of as a child and remains obsessed with appearances, even as her fears and resentments grow. As Hanna’s attacks on Suzette escalate, Suzette attempts to convince her husband that something is seriously wrong with the girl. She even starts to retaliate against Hanna, increasingly treating her like an adult nemesis. Alex (the stereotypical clueless father) is reluctant to believe that Hanna is anything but the sweet little girl that he has witnessed. As he coddles and spoils her, her mother sneers and taunts her. Hanna begins to plot a way to “remove” Suzette from their family so she can be alone with Alex. Since the book has a small cast of characters, Stage creates a claustrophobic feeling that adds to the foreboding tone. Is Hanna’s behavior a result of a congenital psychological disorder, or caused by her parent’s failed efforts at raising her? Do we erroneously assume that love is deserved unconditionally between parents and children and vice versa? There really is no sympathetic character for the reader to side with in the book, and the result can be discomforting. Much of the controversy about Baby Teeth involves the perceived sexualization of a child, presented in an excessive and overt manner. Stage was obviously very inspired by the Freudian concept of the Oedipal Complex when composing this novel. Those readers put off by the descriptions of this element should know that Hanna’s drive is presented as more of a bid for her father’s absolute attention rather than a literal desire for consummation. This book is not for everyone, and most readers will know pretty quickly if Baby Teeth is a selection they can tolerate or would choose to add to their DNF pile.
The Secret Place is Tana French’s fifth entry in her fantastic Dublin Murder Squad series. Like in the previous novels, French selects one member of the squad to build a story around. This time, French concentrates the action on Stephen Moran, a new officer first introduced in her third book, Faithful Place. Moran played a pivitol role in that novel, and it provides background information about his methods and character. The earlier work also establishes his initial encounter with Frank Mackey, an MS detective who also appears here in The Secret Place. Holly, Mackey’s daughter brings an important clue to Moran who is starting out in the Cold Cases department. It involves an unsolved murder that took place a year ago at her posh private school. A boy from the school next door was found dead in the woods, but the perpetrator and a possible motive was never discovered. Moran is ambitious and leaps at the opportunity to bring the new evidence to a Murder Squad member who might vouch for him and advance his career. Unfortunately, the detective assigned to the case when it was active was Antionette Conway. She is an outcast in the Murder Squad, and her prickly demeanor and easily offended sensibilities will make working with her a challenge. Moran and Conway reopen the case and head up to St. Kilda’s school to follow up. Their investigation brings them in contact with two opposing groups of tight-knit girls who definitely know more than they admitted last year. French juxtaposes the two cliques, exploring teen friendships-some based on dominance/intimidation, and others on blind loyalty and co-dependence. It is a pretty negative and stereotypical portrayal of adolescent girls, and Conway is also not presented as the best example of a well-adjusted female. There is a different tone to The Secret Place, which is often considered to be the weakest entry in French’s otherwise successful series. Some elements stretch credulity and the character development is not as extensive as in the others. Fans accustomed to her gritty realism and deeper psychological themes may find it a bit disappointing, but French’s writing and storytelling are still more impressive than most. Her next Dublin Murder Squad book, The Trespasser, is French at her best again and not to be missed. Each Murder Squad mystery can stand alone, but the sequential reader benefits from a richer understanding of the characters, their history, and their interactions with other members of the squad. A new stand-alone work, The Witch Elm is due to be released in October 2018.
This version of The Lost Art of Reading by David L. Ulin is a revised edition previously published in 2010. It contains a new Introduction and Afterword reflecting important cultural and technological changes that have occurred over the past eight years. Ulin uses these updated sections to describe and bemoan current trends in the US in terms of freedom of speech, privacy concerns, censorship controversies, and race relations. He does not hesitate to excoriate the election results of 2016, making his political opinions pretty clear from the start when he describes: “…the racist rhetoric that runs, like excrement, from the President’s mouth.” It seems that Ulin could have written a separate book on that subject, especially given the fact that these parts of the book take up almost 25% of the total. The rest of The Lost Art of Reading contains some very personal anecdotes and broad assumptions based on seemingly only on his own experience. The author digresses into history and sports analogies, explaining that everything can be considered a “story” and is thus relevant to his discussion. Ulin relates his own dismay at discovering an uncharacteristic inability to maintain sustained attention and interest in his reading. He uses the frame of helping his son with a school assignment to demonstrate the younger generation’s lack of interest in traditional modes of reading. He notes that the Internet, with its sheer saturation effect and many distractions, has impeded people’s ability to concentrate on text as is required. He also seems skeptical of the value of e-readers and cites their limitations, although his observations are based on outdated technology from 2010. This new release of The Lost Art of Reading would have benefitted from a complete update throughout so advances in this area could have been considered. Ulin’s book is most interesting if approached more like an extended essay or personal memoir than a definitive text. Those seeking a research-based or global approach to current trends in reading would be better served by searching elsewhere.
“This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.” “The Hollow Men” -T.S. Eliot
Severance by Ling Ma is an unusual but elegant combination of immigration story and post-apocalyptic drama. Thematically, it addresses the human desire for belonging that is derailed by mistrust and urban alienation. It also makes a statement about our modern tendency to adhere compulsively to conformity despite conflicting ideals of individuality and personal freedom. Ling Ma’s protagonist, Candace Chen, is a new transplant to New York City after having lost both of her parents. The rest of her family lives in China, so she has no real connections upon her arrival. At first, she aimlessly wanders the city taking photographs that even she admits are unoriginal. Eventually, she falls into a job working in an international book printing office. Candace finds herself caught in an endless loop of routine-with mostly superficial friendships and little hope for change or advancement. She even clings to her daily rituals as the world succumbs slowly to an epidemic that culminates in the breakdown of civilization. The sickness, called Shen Fever, causes the infected (“the Fevered”) to act like robotic zombies, engaging in rote motions until they inevitably die from neglect of their basic needs. The plague spreads insidiously, creeping over the globe with no discernable reason as to why some people fall ill while others remain immune. Candace reluctantly leaves the city only when pressured by the lack of services and a secret she can no longer contain. She is welcomed into a group of survivors in search of a place to settle and begin a new life. Their dogmatic leader enforces order with evangelical zeal and may have ulterior motives. The novel alternates between Candace’s experience as a child new to America, her life in NY, and her experience dealing with the aftermath of the catastrophe. Severance is a quick but addictive read- unique and thought-provoking. What does it take to wake us up out of our comfort zones and propel us into taking action when these zones are no longer inhabitable? Is the security of being accepted and cared for worth the cost of independence? Ling Ma’s debut novel is funny but disturbing, refreshing but uncomfortably familiar. Definitely a new author worth recommending and watching for her future efforts.