Monday, December 27, 2021



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


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


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


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


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.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Kaitlyn Greenidge, LIBERTIE


This is a beautifully written historical novel. If you look closely at this picture, you can see the red tabs that I stuck to pages when I found a particularly well-wrought sentence. There were dozens. 

The setting is 1860s Brooklyn. I have to admit, part of the charm of the book was that this was a time and place that was fresh and unknown to me.  

The line that opens the first section is this: "Se pa tout blesi ki geri. Not all wounds heal. 1860." 

The protagonist is Libertie Sampson, a young Black woman and the daughter of a doctor who can pass for white. Her mother intends that Libertie will join her medical practice, that they will be Dr. Sampson and daughter, but Libertie's interests lean elsewhere. The book begins in 1860, and we see through Libertie's eyes (told in first person POV) the world before the Civil War, during it, and afterwards, when Libertie moves to Haiti and experiences life there. 

Despite being set during a war, this is not a book full of Huge Events. Rather, it's a thoughtful, poignant look at a mother and a daughter, striving to find their places in a world where everything is changing. It is also a nuanced meditation on race and our responsibilities toward others. I'm tempted to call it a coming-of-age story, and I would recommend it not only to adults but to YA readers, who I think will identify with Libertie's longings and hopes, her fears of disappointing her mother, and her desperate break with her early life that causes her to feel regret and brings about a growing awareness of herself. 

I'm always entranced by authors who develop their secondary characters well. My favorite SCs in this novel are Experience and Louisa, two Black women singers, who are inspired by the Fisk Jubilee singers, all emancipated slaves, who formed an a cappella group that toured America and Europe to earn money to support Fisk University. The last section of the book, set in Haiti, was hard for me to read, as Libertie suffers emotional abuse at the hands of her husband Emmanuel's family. But her letter to her husband, at the end, is a satisfying triumph. 


Sunday, July 11, 2021




Monday, July 5, 2021



Like his award-winning debut BLACKTOP WASTELAND, Cosby’s new novel is gritty and raw and ambitious in its themes. There are two main characters, both ex-cons—a white father named Buddy Lee and a Black father named Ike—whose sons Derek and Isiah fell in love and were married and raising a daughter when they were brutally murdered. The fathers had rejected their sons’ sexuality and marriage before the young men died; but now, belatedly, the two men resolve to “set it right” by discovering why the young men were murdered and taking their revenge. Although the book contains plenty of curses, and guns and blood appear frequently, the profanity and violence are neither gratuitous nor superfluous. These men live in a brutal world (present-day, in a small town in Virginia), where the power is held by some truly unredeemable men, characterized by ignorance, fear, and rage. As the fathers’ regret for their irreparable mistakes nearly breaks them, Buddy Lee and Ike each find some redemption in the acceptance they find for each other and their differences, which go far beyond skin color into the domain of lived experiences and fundamental assumptions. Ike schools Buddy Lee regularly about the injustice he faces as a Black man, and at times I felt Buddy Lee was a stand-in for the insensitive white reader. But far more often, I felt the authenticity of Ike’s pain—the gross injustices as well as the mundane, grinding ways that Black people are treated with less decency and consideration than white people. 

At times, reading Cosby’s book, I found myself thinking of Brit Bennett’s VANISHING HALF because that book (also very good) grapples with similar questions: Why do we fear difference, and how do we transcend that fear? What does it mean to accept someone who is very different from ourselves, by virtue of their skin color, sexual orientation, or gender identity? (Like VANISHING HALF, RAZORBLADE TEARS features a transgender young adult.) Cosby’s novel adds another question, a poignant one: What can we do when we come to acceptance too late, and how can we make amends?

As a novelist, I keep my eye out for moments when the language conveys profound feeling, a raw experience that pulls the reader into the minds and hearts of the characters. Cosby is good at this; the moments come frequently. I also scribble in the margin at places where the language sings. In his writing, Cosby slips smoothly from forthright description into language that feels lyrical and even poetic: “The air had a stale, spoiled scent. A thin layer of dust covered most of the exposed surfaces. Death had laid his cold hand on this place and stilled its heart.” He turns nouns into verbs, and vice versa, making the language fresh: “His truck shuddered as the engine dieseled for a few seconds.” And he paces the book well, with the conflict becoming more and more desperate—until the final, terrifying showdown.

A powerful, well-written page-turner with compelling and troubled protagonists, this book will please fans of Lou Berney and Tana French.


This true-crime art heist tale, published in 2004, has as many unlikely twists, betrayals, and double agents as a compelling mystery novel.

In 1974, a British heiress sympathetic to the IRA, together with three men, stole 19 paintings, including Vermeer's LADY WRITING A LETTER WITH HER MAID, from Russborough, a castle and the dwelling place of the English aristocrats Sir Alfred and Lady Beit in Ireland. The paintings were recovered; but in 1986, the Vermeer and other paintings were stolen again by a bold Dublin gangster named Martin Cahill. Set against Irish tensions of the late 1900s that reflected the chasms between the classes and between Ireland and England, this story illuminates the darker side of art--including the connections to drug and mob money and to violence.

My fascination with the stories and historical tidbits that surround high-end art began when I worked at Christie's Auction House in NYC in the 1990s. Much of what I learned there about the art world became good fodder for the novel that would eventually become A TRACE OF DECEIT. I first read this book (THE IRISH GAME) as I was drafting TRACE, years ago, because it tells more than the story of the solved art heists. It also tells the story of how a man restoring the painting carefully removed the top layer of paint (which was added after Vermeer died) to reveal a red wax seal on the letter, which adds to the emotional depth of the painting; and how a conservator discovered the technique Vermeer used to achieve perspective in his painting. Amazing.

I reread this book again recently because as I develop my new protagonist, Inspector Michael Corravan, born in Ireland and raised in an Irish section of Whitechapel, I'm obsessing about Ireland--its history, the prejudices against the Irish in England in the 1800s, and the complex web of police and criminals that reached from one island to the other across the Irish Sea.

I recommend this book for anyone interested in art, Ireland, and true crime.

Monday, June 28, 2021

Susan Elia Macneal, THE HOLLYWOOD SPY

An enjoyable tenth installment in the beloved MAGGIE HOPE series! This might be one of my favorites, partly because it illuminates part of WWII history that I knew very little about.

The first line of the Prologue is “It was 1943, and America was at war.” Readers might think they know what this sentence means; America had been at war since Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941. But before long, we realize a second meaning: America is at war with itself. As Maggie Hope solves the mystery of Gloria’s death in Hollywood, she discovers the racial inequities and anti-Semitism that shaped Los Angeles and America more broadly. The posters plastered along the Los Angeles streets may claim we’re all standing “shoulder to shoulder,” but as the novel progresses, it becomes clear that there are rifts and divisions among the American police and civilians alike.

I write my novels from a single, first-person perspective, so the reader knows what the detective knows. MacNeal writes in third person and astutely employs this to her advantage here: we follow Maggie and her friend John Sterling (readers of previous books will remember this attractive hero) searching for the truth; we also see a group of KKK/Nazi sympathizers plotting acts of destruction, putting democracy and the American way of life at stake. As another author friend said recently, a villain is never a villain in his own head. In MacNeal's hands, these conspirators are not stupid straw men (as a less accomplished author might be tempted to portray them). We gain insight into the logic and justifications they use, and this amplifies and brings home the danger they present.

Another important theme that runs through the book is the use to which the media is put. Everywhere there are slogans, posters, newspapers, books, and movies that are shaping the image of the war for American consumption. John Sterling is teaching pilots, but he is also helping to write propaganda for Disney, as his real-life counterpart and RAF pilot Roald Dahl did. It becomes clear that Britain and America are fighting with each other for control of that propaganda—which is yet another example of not standing “shoulder to shoulder” despite proclaimed (and romanticized) intentions. I also loved the opening line of chapter 1: “I have a feeling … we’re not in London anymore.” The use of *The Wizard of Oz* throughout as a “meta-text” for this novel is both a wink to the reader and a suggestion that there are two worlds in America—one in black and white, and the other a shadow, mythical world whose most noticeable characteristic is its color (the Yellow brick road; the Emerald City) and which points to a world that may look first at the color of a person’s skin.

As usual, MacNeal’s extensive research is evident without being on ostentatious display, with historically accurate details and metaphors drawn from the time. Maggie Hope fans will find this novel suspenseful and surprising, illuminating a lesser-known aspect of WWII. To my mind, it’s her intriguing adventure yet.

Friday, June 25, 2021


This was a knockout of a book, a non-fiction with enough elements of a mystery novel that I kept reading well past bedtime. 

I knew very little about the Irish Troubles, and that complicated history, full of betrayals and double agents and factions, could have been frustratingly bewildering. What I appreciated was the way Keefe organized the book around a central crime--the abduction and murder by the IRA of a supposed "informer" named Jean McConville--that involved a variety of actors, for Keefe then threaded their stories/biographies along the main one. Managing multiple subplots is not easy to do, but this was done deftly, in a way that made the material accessible. I also appreciated the historical context Keefe sketches ... dating all the way back to the Norman raiders of the 12thC and, in the 16thC, Henry VIII and the Catholic/Protestant divide. I also appreciated the quality of the writing, which was spare and elegant and forthright. 

This book was one selected by the Arizona Literary Society, which is how  found it; it was also chosen as one of the 10 best books of 2019 by the New York Times Book Review. Highly recommend for anyone who likes readable, deeply researched history. 

Tuesday, May 25, 2021


I found this an unusual, curious book. Part family story, part animal rights tale, and a finalist for the Man Booker, its theme concerning the relationship of human beings to their natural environment and other species somewhat reminds me of Lab Girl and Overstory and a few of Kingsolver’s books. The “big reveal” happens around page 70; if you don’t want the spoiler, don’t read on.  

[SPOILER ALERT] The story of an odd, academic family (the father is a professor) that adopts and raises a chimpanzee named Fern as one of the three children, it is told from the perspective of the “other” daughter, Rosemary, nearly the same age, so they’re raised as “twins” until Fern and Rosemary are around five years old. When Fern leaves, it wreaks emotional havoc on the entire family, especially the mother, who has a nervous breakdown, and the brother, Lowell, who becomes a fervent animal activist. 

There is a piercing clarity to the language; Fowler has the knack of succinct, brutally frank observation and a delicately allusive style, drawing upon everything from Shakespeare plays to Schrodinger’s cat to convey Rosemary’s lived experience. I found myself underlining as I read, especially at the moments when I winced with sympathy or grinned wryly in understanding. One theme is the problematic nature of memory—what we remember and how that memory is overwritten or effaced. But to me, it seemed the large overarching theme is how rules and conventions govern the ways we communicate—including the inevitable failures and purposeful omissions (due to repressive social norms, say) as well as the misunderstandings that stem from talking too much or simply because words and gestures (for chimpanzees as well as humans) are not fixed in meaning. An early example: “One day, a package of junior-sized tampons was left on my bed along with a pamphlet that looked technical and boring, so I didn’t read it. Nothing was ever said to me about the tampons. It was just blind luck I didn’t smoke them.”

Another: [Father] told [his mother] he was running a Markov chain analysis of avoidance conditioning. He cleared his throat. He was going to tell us more. We moved to close off the opportunity. Wheeled like a school of fish, practiced, synchronized. It was beautiful. It was Pavlovian. It was a goddamn dance of avoidance conditioning. “Pass the turkey, Mother,” my uncle Bob said. 

Another: No more politics, Grandma Donna had said as a permanent new rule, since we wouldn’t agree to disagree and all of us had access to cutlery.

The secret purposefully withheld from the reader (that Fern is a chimpanzee) is revealed around page 70; our narrator is very aware of the conventions of storytelling, which is (after all) yet another form of communication. An inveterate talker as a child, Rosemary explains that her father (who has tired of her long recitals) advises her to start a tale in the middle. She also leaves holes in the text: “My father made a crude joke … If the joke were witty, I’d include it, but it wasn’t.”

This was a quick, enjoyable read for book club. It is the first book I’ve read by Fowler, but I will look up her others. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021


In 1939, Churchill brought together a group of six men whose job was to fight "dirty," as it became clear that guerrilla warfare and innovative weapons might be the only way to beat Hitler. This group of out-of-the-box thinkers used everything from hard candies that dissolved in ocean water to higher mathematics to design bombs and plots that would foil Hitler's plans. 

Although at times I felt the book gets bogged down in the bureaucracy of it all (I'd start skimming at the details of who hired whom), there are other places where the book reads like a series of daring, bizarre escapades. My favorite account, toward the end, was about a small group of men who parachuted into Norway to destroy a heavy water plant that Hitler would have used to build an atomic bomb. The fact that they landed in a dense blizzard, then (by sheer luck) literally bumped into a solitary hut that sheltered them for four days until the blizzard ended, confounded Nazi resistance, found their resistance counterparts, scaled a huge cliff, on top of which stood the factory, and managed to set off the bombs and escape without significant injury is ... well, it could be a GREAT movie. 

What also fascinated me was that the notion of "(un)gentlemanly warfare" in 1939 was produced discursively, in an argument on the Letters page of the London *Times*. One writer claimed that the sword was the only weapon appropriate for a gentleman, as it gave both fellows a chance and made it a "sporting affair." But--another writer pointed out--did it really matter if one cut the enemy's jugular with a sword or a bayonet? This book spends some time tracing the process by which the English eventually acknowledged that Hitler was no longer playing by rules that governed earlier wars. As I read, I had some compassion for Chamberlain; he didn't want to acknowledge that difference--perhaps because it suggested many other kinds of loss. The very definitions of words such as fairness and justice and decency were changing.

I stole this book from my husband's nightstand after we began watching ATLANTIC CROSSING on PBS. I found this book a good companion to the series, which begins in Norway in 1939 and follows the Crown Princess of Norway to America, where she influences FDR's thoughts and policies on the war. I would recommend to fans of WWII true history and of books such as Eric Larson's THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE. 

Friday, April 23, 2021

I thoroughly enjoyed this Victorian mystery set in 1893, when the young future Nicholas II comes to London for a wedding and Barker and Llewelyn are hired to protect him from assassination. I was privileged to be able to interview Will Thomas via zoom, with Barbara Peters of the Poisoned Pen. 

This is the 12th in the series, and I jumped in about half way (somewhere around #7, I believe). I've enjoyed them ever since. For those who have not yet met Barker and Llewelyn, they are neither Scotland Yard inspectors nor policemen. They are "private enquiry agents," and readers who enjoy Sherlock Holmes stories will find much to appreciate here in the banter and difference between these two protagonists. As with the Holmes stories, these are narrated by the "sidekick" ... thank goodness because Llewelyn is very likable and funny--a nice offset to the crimes and mayhem; Barker is rather imposing and fierce. 

Two of my favorite aspects of these books are first, the humor. It is not ha-ha, elbow in the sides humor. It's subtle--a small wry wink and a nudge to the reader. For example, when Llewelyn and Barker are introduced as "Lewis and Baker," he shrugs it off: "We'd been called worse." There are dozens of these ... I wouldn't even call them one-liners, as sometimes they're merely half a line. But they keep me smiling as I read and give me a sense of connection to and sympathy with Llewelyn. 

The other aspect I love is that I feel deeply steeped in Victorian London throughout the book. The author has been writing about Victorian London for years now, and he's familiar enough with the sights and sounds that they appear organically; he doesn't shoehorn them in. The historical figures William Morris and Israel Zangwell appear, and for those readers who know who they are, it's fun to find and recognize them. Beyond that, the very metaphors he uses are drawn very specifically from that English world. Describing trying to find a messenger boy to deliver a note: "The boy slipped by like a salmon on the River Spey." Describing what it was like to be close to a man who was shot: "It was like one of them butchers in Leadenhall market threw a bucket of blood all over us." It's like being immersed in a pot of proper English tea ... or perhaps the Thames! 

Despite that last example, these books are not gritty. The violence is largely off the page, and I wouldn't feel uncomfortable recommending these books to my teenage son. I'd recommend to fans of Charles Finch, Alex Grecian (THE YARD, etc.), and Abir Mukherjee (A RISING MAN, etc.).

Friday, April 9, 2021

Elizabeth Wetmore, VALENTINE

1976 Odessa, Texas. The book begins with a rape of young 14-year-old girl, Gloria Ramirez, by an older white man, Dale Strickland, the son of a preacher, who bears no remorse for what he's done. Subsequent chapters trace the aftermath, but rather than focusing solely on Gloria's story, this book tells five separate stories, of five women, loosely connected by life but caught in the same painful, stifling misery. Some reviewers didn't like the constant shifting among the five women narrators, but to me it suggested their fate was inescapable; every woman, not just one or two, experienced pain with a different source. The only help for it was to grab the car keys and drive out of town because the brutality in Odessa is pervasive and systemic, tainting every aspect of life. 

In Wetmore's hands, oil is at once the source of material wealth and a metaphor for the darkness, the crudeness that is inheres in very bedrock of the town. At one point, the oil erupts from a new well, completely out of control, stinking and sliming across the ground, blackening the land and smothering through slow death all the plants in its way. So here, the football players suffer concussions--"they have their bell rung a little"--and keep on playing. Pastor Rob preaches the evils of desegregation: it's like "locking a cow, a mountain lion, and a possum in the same barn together, then being surprised when somebody gets eaten."  And a white man who rapes a Hispanic girl gets away with it. The few attempts at kindness--the young girl DA trying to help a Vietnam veteran, a woman testifying on Gloria's behalf--end badly, with vicious threats and near-fatal consequences. 

My one difficulty with the book is that while circumstances change--Mary Rose moves off her ranch and into town; Glory leaves Texas for Mexico with her uncle--I didn't find that the characters change. That is, there's change but not much, if any, evidence of psychological growth, and I look for that in a book. That said, Wetmore has built a dark world and a relentlessly harrowing tale, with language that is strong and poetic. I'll be interested to see what she writes next. 

Monday, April 5, 2021

Allison Epstein, A TIP FOR THE HANGMAN


Years ago, for a course in grad school, I read Christopher Marlowe's play A JEW OF MALTA (c. 1590), and I remember wondering what sort of mind would conjure a play so full of brutality, revenge, poison, and betrayal. Marlowe's play DR FAUSTUS is a heartbreaker, too. I'm a sucker for anything British historical, so when I saw the brief synopsis of this novel about Marlowe on the Poisoned Pen website, I popped in for the zoom talk with the author and subsequently read the book. 
I found this a solid debut and a very satisfying read. Yes, Epstein has taken some liberties with history (which she acknowledges in her author's note, and which unlike some reviewers I don't mind; I've used the same "get out of history free card" myself) but she's captured beautifully what might have been the brain and heart that would write those tragic plays. Her Marlowe is psychologically coherent, full of longing and pain and conflicting passions--a desire to do something of significance on the world/on the stage and a wish to do what he likes, behind the scenes, without repercussions. The story of how Marlowe is drawn into spying on behalf of Queen Elizabeth while simultaneously writing his plays and falling in love is suspenseful and moves at a quick pace. The writing is modern (Epstein doesn't attempt to reproduce Elizabethan English, thank goodness) and well wrought, with finely tuned dialog and some lovely poetic bits. The spymaster Walsingham: "You are Christopher Marlowe. ... Skilled in rhetoric and disputation, disgraceful in geography and geometry. You've been smoking all evening and hoped I wouldn't notice." Marlowe, in a stick spot: "He took a deep breath, then let it out. Two seconds, to stitch together some semblance of calm." A pleasure to read.
People who liked Hilary Mantel's books will find much to like here, although frankly I found this novel to be more accessible than Mantel's. The fact that Epstein is a Northwestern grad ... well, I'm sending this book along to my daughter who is also a Cat. :) 

Saturday, March 27, 2021

Ruth Ware, ONE BY ONE

A contemporary take on the Agatha Christie classic AND THEN THERE WERE NONE (1939) in which eight people arrive on a desert island and are met by the butler and housekeeper, after which they are murdered one by one. In Ware's version, ten people on a company retreat arrive at a luxurious ski chalet in the French alps and are met by the cook and housekeeper; shortly afterward an avalanche cuts off all communication, rendering the place a virtual island. One by one, the guests disappear and/or die. Like Ware's other books, this hits its target of being a quick, easy-to-read thriller. I must confess, I guessed the killer about half-way through, partly because the story is told in chapters with alternating narrators. The fact that the company is a tech startup aimed at connecting people through music was a nice touch, when the murders depend upon people becoming separated.

Thursday, March 25, 2021


After watching the superb NETFLIX adaptation of this book, I was curious about the book. The adaptation adheres very closely to the novel, with the exception of building more backstory than Tevis gives us; the scenes between Beth and her mother, in particular, are developed more fully than in the book. For those who have not seen the NETFLIX version, it's a great read, with spare, direct prose, and a quick pace. I had already seen the end of the series, and I knew how it ended, and I STILL found myself racing through the last quarter of the book, in a good way. That's a measure of the suspense Tevis builds into the story. 

That said, when I went back and reread sections (when I wasn't reading for plot), I realized (to my great enjoyment) how subtly Tevis had woven in some suggestive, nuanced themes. For example, here are the opening lines: "Beth learned of her mother's death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. ... A legend under her picture read: 'Orphaned by yesterday's pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizaeth harmon surveys a troubled future.'" So from the first lines, he suggests that Beth apprehends her life not as her own lived experience but mediated through the eyes of others, through words and photographs about her, and in the company of someone with a [clip]board. The plot propels the story along, but it was with pleasure that I went back to the beginning and thought about chess as the central metaphor, with all its multiple meanings. I'll be adding his other books to my TBR. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2021

A solid debut, which I read in one sitting (it's a relatively short novel). Set in present-day India, a young woman named Jivan makes a careless comment on Facebook and becomes the scapegoat for a train bombing, which becomes so politicized that two acquaintances—a former PE teacher and an aspiring actor/friend—must betray Jivan in order to preserve their own dreams. What overwhelmed me throughout is the precariousness of any individual’s life. One tiny wrong move, for any of these three characters, and their lives will be forever changed and hopes destroyed. Corruption is so pervasive that rewards for hard work and decency simply don't exist anywhere. I might have appreciated some small sign of fair play; it would have added nuance. But as it stands, the book is devastating and relentless. Spoiler alert: this is not *Slumdog Millionaire.*

Tuesday, February 2, 2021


Just finished this book about a women’s diving cooperative on the small Korean island of Jeju in mid-20th century. To be honest, I didn’t find the characters particularly compelling, and the “strength of women’s friendships” that some readers feel this book celebrates seemed to me diminished by pettiness and failures of forgiveness, but the way women wielded the earning power and other historical aspects were fascinating. This small island was overrun repeatedly, by the Japanese before WWII, North Koreans, and Americans (during the Korean War). Personal  and collective loyalties shift, and these women just keep diving into the sea for octopus, oysters, and abalone to keep their families alive. Definitely worth a read. 

Monday, January 11, 2021



In the first story, a 13-year-old girl is literally “lost” to the world because she is abducted. But in this and the other stories, many interconnected by their setting in the small Southern town of Slocum, girls are metaphorically “lost” because they lose the innocence we associate with girlhood, through the vicious or thoughtless acts of the people around them. This motif runs through these tales, intertwined with themes of teenage anxiety, identity, race, sexuality, aging, parenthood, dependence, violence, and infidelity. Having grown up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, I felt anchored in the period by Morris's adept feathering in of details—the musical Bye, Bye, Birdie, Alice from the Brady Bunch, the Kodak Instamatic with Magicube flash, the TV shows Welcome Back, Kotter and Bewitched, dodge ball, and the horrid blue-and-white striped polyester gym uniforms. I remember them well! Yet I was also intrigued by references to aspects of Southern culture that were wholly unfamiliar to me—e.g., the “bottle tree,” in which empty open bottles hung from branches make sorrowful sounds when the wind blows; and the “sin eater,” a person who sits by a dead body and eats a “corpse cake” to take on the sins of the dead. Morris’s language feels frank and fresh: “She stood on the bar as she swayed from side to side. She was losing her religion—right there in front of everybody.” He had “a cleft in his chin, as if God had picked him special and run a fingernail through his chin before his face was set.” Taken together, the stories in this evocative, often devastating, collection explore a range of women’s experiences, the various losses we suffer privately and collectively, and the ways we sublimate and transcend those losses over time.