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Monday, December 27, 2021

Charles Finch, WHAT JUST HAPPENED: NOTES ON A LONG YEAR

 


BOOK REVIEW ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I had the pleasure of meeting the mystery writer Charles Finch once, when the Poisoned Pen bookstore owner invited me (as another author who writes mysteries about Victorian London) to help interview him. That evening, Finch struck me as gracious, well-read, and comfortable in his own skin. He was on a book tour for The Last Passenger, one of the Charles Lenox mysteries, and I read some of my favorite passages from it aloud to the audience because they were wonderfully, wryly funny -- a tricky thing in murder mysteries. Pulling it off requires that a writer be keenly attuned to both emotions and language.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Finch has written a memoir that is discursive, literary, allusive, and above all humane. His dated entries beginning on March 11, 2020 follow the linear historical trajectory of events including Covid, the presidential election, and the Black Lives Matter movement, but the entries aren't homogenized into a tidy whole. To me, they feel reassuringly raw and emotionally uneven--reassuring because this is exactly the way that I experienced the past 18 months, with that messy mixture of denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance and some hope and a load of anxiety thrown in. If this sounds like Elisabeth Kubler Ross's 5 stages of grief, that's because ... well, it's been a long, painful year.

Some of the reviews on goodreads have criticized Finch for his liberal views, which are earnest and heartfelt and may strike some people as strident. I'll admit, I don't wholly agree with some of the solutions he sketches, as he's addressing some complex problems, but I also felt that what he was capturing (successfully) was the impatience, the desperate longing for things to change *soon* that many of us feel.

As for the writing itself, his feelings and thoughts, his memories and experiences are limned in prose that makes me a tad jealous at his turn of phrase. (The passages about his grandmother are especially tender.) It's the sort of book that makes me want to be a better writer, to be more precise with my own language, not to be lazy, but to find just the right metaphor to reflect human experience in a fresh, true way. He references cultural icons and books (so many books! I found myself thinking, How does he have time to do anything other than read?!) from Aslan to A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, and I came away feeling as though I'd spent several hours with a lively intellect, someone honest, someone I'd like for a friend -- and having been reminded that shared stories and books are some of the nodes around which we can gather, to undo that feeling of isolation and get through this together.

Highly recommended.

Sunday, November 28, 2021

Edwin Hill, THE SECRETS WE SHARE

I've enjoyed Hill's previous books, but this is hands down my favorite. It's a twisty tale -- and the narrative power comes not so much from the unexpected reveals and startling violence but from a rich backstory of pain and trauma, secrets and misunderstandings. As a result, the emotional lives of the characters feel complex enough to justify the longings they feel, the motives that compel them, and the risks they take. As with Tana French's debut, IN THE WOODS, the characters at the center of this story are now grown but had an experience as children that shaped their lives in profound and troubling ways. The two sisters, Natalie and Glenn, have coped with tragedy differently, but Natalie's tendency toward depression and Glenn's almost frantic self-promotion are flip sides of the same coin. Psychologically coherent and intense, this novel is a great read for mystery fans. 

This book will be available in March or April 2022.

Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Emily Arsenault, THE LAST THING I TOLD YOU


I'll be honest -- I don't tend to gravitate toward thrillers, and I probably wouldn't have picked up this book except that I met the writer at a conference and thought, She's smart and insightful; I bet she's written a good book. And in my opinion, it *is* good, but (reviews including the one by the wonderful Hallie Ephron notwithstanding) I wouldn't categorize this novel as a "thriller." That label sets up expectations of a racing pace that this book doesn't really meet. However, the novel does succeed in excavating a young woman's traumatic childhood, exploring a teenage girl's emotional muddle surrounding a drastic and violent act, and portraying the ensuing multi-layered therapy relationship as well as allowing the reader the vicarious pleasure of solving the murder mystery along with a likable, humane detective. Indeed, in alternating between two narrators--Henry, the detective investigating the therapist Mark Fabian's murder, and Nadine, the traumatized woman who was once Mark Fabian's patient--the book in some ways reproduces the structure of therapy and suggests that in both therapy and detective work, the process toward resolution is the same: assembling a linear and plausible narrative out of scraps.


One of the issues I have with many books that depict therapy is they tend to follow a rather idealized trajectory -- such as in Good Will Hunting, where Robin Williams plays the engaging and wise therapist and Matt Damon plays the young man who reaches the necessary epiphany as a result of their time together, and then drives off into the sunset to find the girl. I'm not griping about Good Will Hunting, which is heartwarming and enjoyable. But Arsenault's book offers something more nuanced: it examines a therapy relationship that feels genuine and authentic, between an imperfect therapist (with emotional fatigue and memory issues) and a patient who does not transcend her demons by the end of their sessions.

For me, Arsenault's strength is her ability to portray the inner workings of Nadine's mind. It's never quite fair to take a passage out of context (it often doesn't "show" well), but I'm going to include one here, just to demonstrate what I mean. This is Nadine: "As a good and proper therapy patient, one tries, most of the time, not to go to these places in one's head. But you do. Your brain wants to do it, just because it knows it's not supposed to. Like when you're in Sunday school class as a kid, and the old lady teaching the class says that God sees and knows everything, even what's in your head, and then your head just keeps thinking I hate Jesus, I hate Jesus, I HATE JESUS! Not because you really hate Jesus (because what is there to hate about long hair and love and crucifixion?) but because God is listening and your brain just wants to screw you over for some reason that you will never--even decades later--ever understand."

There is a raw humanity and a psychological complexity to both Henry (who has his own baggage) and Nadine that I appreciated. For that reason alone, I found myself wanting to see how it all turned out. I'll definitely look for more by this author.
 

Monday, November 8, 2021

Sigrid Nunez, THE FRIEND


A tender, delicately wrought, deeply humane novel that purports to be a memoir by a woman writer who inherits a huge Great Dane named Apollo from a friend who commits suicide. (There's a twist at the end, but no spoilers here.) One aspect I loved was how immersed, even steeped, the book is in the writing life--the anxiety and frustration inherent in the creative process, reading books, writing books, receiving reviews, teaching creative writing, writing letters of recommendation for students trying to get into MFA programs, etc. Nunez also drops in the references to books (Unbroken), poems ("September 1, 1939"), plays, and literary figures, but deftly. I felt none of the sense that she's doing it to prove how much she's read (ugh); instead, she drops in just enough information that you feel included in her circle.


I read this book in a single day and enjoyed it (I was hurrying for bookclub); then I went back and reread parts today and found I appreciated it even more. Highly recommend to my writer friends and dog lovers.
 

Sunday, October 10, 2021

Abi Daré, THE GIRL WITH THE LOUDING VOICE



A strong and poignant debut set in Nigeria in around 2015, about Adunni, a fourteen-year-old Nigerian woman, married off by her father to be a third wife to an old man. Adunni only wants to go to school, maybe even become a teacher to help improve the lot of other young women, but she is trapped in what appears to be an inescapable cycle of abuse and poverty.

Somewhat as in the novel THESE IS MY WORDS, language is central to the narrator's self-actualization and empowerment. Adunni's language (the novel is told in first person) is at first broken and uncertain--though her observations are apt: "Papa like to be sitting in front of the fan in the evening ... drinking from the bottle that have become his wife since Mama have dead." But gradually, Adunni's language gains assurance and skill, as she learns about the world and finds a place for herself in it, eventually writing her way into a better, happier situation. A quick, satisfying read, and I'm looking forward to talking about it at my book club. 

First lines: "This morning, Papa call me inside the parlor. He was sitting inside the sofa with no cushion and looking me. Papa have this way of looking me one kind. As if he wants to be flogging me for no reason, as if I am carrying shit inside my cheeks and when I open mouth to talk, the whole place be smelling of it."

Tuesday, September 7, 2021

Edwin Hill, WATCH HER


Edwin Hill’s WATCH ME, a contemporary thriller set in Boston, centers on a for-profit university and its owners and students—and a crime committed years ago that was covered up by layers of lies. It is told from the alternating perspectives of Angela (a detective), Hester (a missing persons specialist), Barret (a transgender student), and Maxine (who helps run the university). Through their different perspectives, Hill illuminates how one small, terrible incident years ago can have effects for a large web of people, and how the characters (and we) all carry our baggage—divided loyalties, unfulfilled longings, childhood guilt, and questions of identity. The ending has a twist I truly did NOT see coming. Yow! 

Those who like contemporary thrillers will find this a quick, engaging read. I'd say this is a good fit for fans of Hank Phillippi Ryan, Lisa Unger, and Hannah Mary McKinnon. 

Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Paula McLain, WHEN THE STARS GO DARK


This is a departure from McLain's previous works of historical fiction (such as THE PARIS WIFE and CIRCLING THE SUN). This is a thriller based upon real events and set in 1993, just before the internet makes finding missing persons a different kind of task. 

The protagonist, Anna Hart, a missing persons detective living in San Francisco, has left her family behind after a tragic accident kills her daughter, and she goes to Mendocino, a former home town, to grieve. There, a constellation of cases of missing girls draws her in, and in working through them, she confronts her childhood traumas from life in foster care. 

For me, what makes this an unusually strong thriller is the level of writing, particularly the internal monologue, which often feels pitch-perfect, precise and elegant, even poetic. Quotes are never as powerful out of context, but here are some samples:

"[I felt]... a sadness that seemed to settle into the space between the trees, between the trunks and branches, between the needles and leaves, between the molecules. It climbed inside my body and curled up tightly under my ribs, like a fist made of silver thread."

"When things got hard and you felt shaky, she liked to say, you could hit your knees wherever you were, and the world would be there to catch you."

"What is all the suffering for if not so we can see how alike we are, and not alone? Where will the mercy come from, if not from us?"

Ambitious in its themes and compassionate and humane in its ethos, I think this book will appeal to fans of Tana French and Louise Penny.