Two New Book Reviews for You

The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths

A pensioner by the sea. What a way to spend retirement! It is something I know many of us long for.

Peggy is a happy retiree and spends her time watching everything that goes on – – and writing notes about it in her little journal: 7 people walking the beach (3 couples and a single) 4 people with dogs, how many cyclists, joggers etc.

She has a number of friends and neighbors that call on her to visit and they are murder mystery buffs. And I mean really, who doesn’t enjoy sitting around thinking of ways to bump people off? Peggy is even acquainted with a few authors that ask her for advice on killing people for their books, and they always give her an acknowledgement ‘This is for Peggy.’ Peggy also suspects she is being watched.

There is a dark spot in her history that not many people know about, however. Her friends Edwin, Natalka, and Benedict have all heard some stories about her time in Russia, but never realized they could be true.

So, when Peggy is found dead of natural causes, it is only understandable that her friends suspect foul play even though the police do not. When a postcard falls out of one of Peggy’s book that says “We are coming for you,” DS Harbinder Kaur from CID gets involved. Then an author Peggy had helped ends up murdered so DS Kaur decides to question the trio of friends. With an author’s event coming up, the trio decides to go and follow up on some clues.

I absolutely adored the bumbling investigation techniques in this book where everything gets solved and tied up in a big bow almost by accident! I also enjoyed the subtle clues and connections and trying to solve it myself before the characters (I did NOT solve this one). This was a fun book and a pretty fast read. I highly recommend it!

One Step to You by Federico Moccia

Babi is a popular girl from a well-to-do family. Step is your typical ‘bad boy’ on a motorcycle. Step first sees Babi when he pulls up next to her car while Babi’s dad drives her to high school. You can almost hear the zap as Step is instantly hit by Cupid’s arrow.

Babi has always been a well behaved, proper young woman….  Until Step convinces her to just go for one ride with him on his motorbike. She falls for him but doesn’t want to admit it to herself or anyone else.

There are no parents screaming at her to “keep away from that boy” because they have no idea the things she has been doing. Skipping school and sneaking out. Babi knows what she’s doing is wrong, and that being with Step is dangerous, but it’s LOVE! What can you do?

You have to read all the way to the last page to find out what they do…  you’ll never guess!

And Then There Were Three

From time to time I like to surprise myself by reading something that doesn’t involve monsters or ghosts or the seamier side of humanity or teenagers in a flux of crisis. I’ll pick out a book normally labeled as Chick Lit but what I like to call “just a nice read about friendship.” Because even monster lovers like to read about the bonds of enduring friendship every once and awhile.

Jane Green’s The Friends We Keep studies a friendship between three people that spans 30 years. Evvie, Maggie, and Topher meet at college in England during the 80s. They form a fast friendship, forging their separate paths together into adulthood and the real world. Evvie, American born and raised, constantly starves herself and becomes a super model. Maggie marries college sweetheart Ben, whom she hates at first (isn’t that how most love stories start?). Topher becomes a well-known actor while keeping on the down low that he enjoys the company of men.

Like all friendships and the phases of the moon, the relationship between the three waxes and wanes over the years. They lose touch only to reconnect again and then lose touch once more. But each of them is hiding a dark secret, a secret they would normally share with each other but feel so shameful about that they keep them hidden and let them fester like a wounded limb going gangrenous.

Evvie’s modeling career is stopped in its tracks after an affair with a married man results in pregnancy. Topher has a childhood trauma that keeps him from fully loving someone and accepting love in return. Maggie’s marriage to Ben hasn’t been the perfect wedded bliss she pretends it is. Their marriage is on the brink of oblivion from Ben’s chronic alcoholism.

The three best friends get together close to the 30th anniversary of their friendship and move into a house where their secrets slowly trickle out and begin to poison the well. Will their enduring friendship survive such well-kept, yet insidious, secrets?

I think anyone with a soul can relate to this novel and see themselves in one, if not all, of the characters. We’ve all had friendships that have lasted for what seems like an eternity as well as friendships that seem to be over before they even get started. The true test is who we come out as on the other side.

If you want to read a novel with unforgettable characters (I’m still wondering how Maggie’s doing, living the second half of her life and hope she’s okay) pick up The Friends We Keep and take a ride in the ‘way back when machine’ to your own childhood friendships. If nothing else, you’ll begin to wonder what so-and-so’s up to.

An Easy Accomplishment or Two

Do you enjoy that sense of accomplishment you get from finishing a book, but don’t have the time to dig into a 500 page saga? Also, do you like reading books in translation and exploring a different culture and country?  If, like me, you seek out these types of books, I’ve got two great works of fiction to recommend that satisfy both criteria at once. They are novellas, coming in at the 100 page mark, and are written by authors that hail from Japan and South Korea respectively. Most importantly, they are excellent and intriguing books well worth your, perhaps limited, reading time. Read on to learn more.  

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada 

The plot seems innocuous enough. Asa’s husband has received a promotion and is transferred to a small country town, that happens to be where he grew up. She has only been doing unsatisfying temporary work in the city, so doesn’t mind going with him and starting a new life in the country. But soon her lack of employment and growing isolation, coupled with an unbearable summer heat wave, combine to make things, well… a little weird. Not only in her day to day life, but in the natural world around her. 

Oyamada has a unique writing style that is elegant, yet deceptively simple and straightforward. Reason is never abandoned, even when events become a bit surreal. I appreciate this. It allows for multiple interpretations and trusts the reader to decide whether events are actually happening, or are in the protagonist’s head. The author, as in her previous work The Factory, also effectively shows the bizarre and often isolating effects of corporate culture on the individual. Especially for those having to deal with the current economic reality.   

Nowhere to Be Found by Bae Suah 

Told in a series of reflections, the unnamed narrator of this work goes back and forth through time, but mostly tells the tale of her life in 1988 when she was in her early twenties. She is supporting her family by working two temporary dead end jobs and dealing with an alcoholic mother, a distant brother and an absentee father. She is also expected to eventually marry her high school boyfriend, who seems to need as much support as everyone else in her life. The narrator is not a conformist, however. Much of the novel deals with her inability to understand others’ acquiescence; eventually leading to her deviation from and rejection of the role set aside for her.  

Suah’s writing style is sparse and at times matter of fact, but still comes of as a stream of consciousness narrative. The characters innermost thoughts pile one on top of the other, reflecting her ambivalence: not only about the world she finds herself in, but also her own mental state. Her descriptions of the surroundings she inhabits reflect this as well. Whether in a crowded urban street or a desolate country field all is cold, stark and easy to get lost in.  

Heartwood 10:4 – Return Trip Ticket by David C. Hall

As Donald Westlake’s introduction notes, David C. Hall’s 1992 novel, Return Trip Ticket, is grounded in the pulp style first introduced by such writers as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, but the character of the classic PI is updated and extended here in the figure of Wilson who is both more worldly and more self-critical than his predecessors. So instead of the hardball patter of Philip Marlowe or Sam Spade, in Wilson we get a man who is frequently fatigued and put-upon by his work, but who is also resourceful, diligent and a keen observer. Indeed, it is the detached descriptions of the world around him that first drew me in, and kept me there even as the plot began to grow in complexity and intrigue toward the end of the book.

Wilson is an overweight, balding, forty-something, Vietnam-vet now working as a private detective on a case involving the disappearance in Spain of a wealthy Denver businessman’s daughter. The story is set in both Barcelona and the American desert southwest in that distant past (1988) just before the era of web browsers and cellphone ubiquity. Wilson interacts with an interesting variety of individualized characters as he attempts to track down the young woman, plays cassettes of Thelonious Monk and Ornette Coleman in his drably oppressive hotel rooms, and looks forward to reading Dickens or Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire when he had a bit of time to himself.

Return Trip Ticket is a quick read that has a fine balance of characters, plot, language, and setting. The ending struck me as a little anticlimactic but also realistic in its insinuation of the all too common corruption of those who hold power.

I don’t want to say much more about what happens in the book (that’s what you read a mystery to find out), but maybe this sample passage, in which the detective and his quarry stop at a southwestern 24-hour pancake house, will give you a bit of its flavor:

            The waitress came over and said, “Good morning,” without a trace of sarcasm, poured them some coffee and went away.  She was wearing a short, pleated uniform with a little white apron and a lot of strawberry lipstick, and she had a frazzled smile that she turned off and on.  A couple of old men in cowboy hats were drinking coffee in another booth and yelling at each other in slow dry voices, and a drunk was sitting at the counter with his chin sinking slowly toward the dish of apple pie in front of him.  It was the kind of place Wilson remembered sitting in all night when he was a kid, getting high on cup after cup of lousy coffee and listening to the piped-in music.  It made you feel grown up, for some reason.

Pulp detective stories are in no short supply. Based on limited online reviews, I don’t see that David C. Hall has been able to achieve widespread popularity (though he has won some crime fiction awards). But that is neither here nor there. I’d say, if you’re in the mood for a finely written chase novel, and like your noir with a dose of attention to detail and humility, this will certainly do the trick.

She Lies Close

A lot is going on for Grace in the novel She Lies Close by Sharon Doering.

After her husband has an affair, Grace buys a house in a new neighborhood with her two young children Wyatt and Chloe. As they are getting settled in and starting to meet people, she begins to hear rumors that her new neighbor Leland is suspected in the disappearance of a young girl. Is she really living next door to a kidnapper and murderer?

Grace can barely sleep, and becomes obsessed with the case of sweet, missing Ava. In the wee hours of the night she repeatedly watches a video that was posted of Ava singing and dancing, desperately looking for clues to her disappearance..

After she discovers that Chloe has a pocket full of tootsie rolls that she got from Leland while she was playing in their adjoining back yards, Grace begins having nightmares and sleepwalking, with reality and dreams blurring the fine line of sanity.

The police have no leads in Ava’s disappearance, and Grace continues to talk to the neighbors, asking questions to try and find the truth of what happened. Then, a body is found, and everything changes. Grace finds herself on the other end of the investigation.

I got to the last 60 pages and could NOT put the book down.

If you like a good page turner, you will really enjoy this book!

Walk-Ins Welcome

They say that there are many parallel worlds all around us, just out of sight. Who are “they?” I don’t know. Fringe scientists, paranormal armchair detectives, somebody’s crazy Aunt Lulu down in Boca Raton who, some speculate, has been baking in the sun too long.

There is a popular thought that in each of these parallel worlds are versions of ourselves. In one world maybe I finally got off my ass and wrote the novel that would become a best seller. In another world, maybe I became the funeral director I always wanted to be. And maybe in another, someone wanted to marry this mess and procreate with me.

I first came across the term “walk-ins” while reading a Stephen King novel. Yeah. Big surprise. Walk-ins are those who very clearly do not belong in our world. They show up in the middle of a sweltering August heatwave wearing winter jackets 50 years out of date. Or they insist a building was once where a building never stood. There’s just something…off about these walk-ins.

Whew. Having said all that, let’s get to the book I want to tell you about.

In Melissa Albert’s The Hazel Wood, Alice is a 17-year-old girl always on the run from something looming but unseen with her mother. Her mother Ella doesn’t want them staying in one place for too long, but she’ll never explain why to Alice. Alice has never met her grandmother Althea before but knows that the woman has a rabid cult following because of a book of fairy tales she wrote years ago, set in a place called the Hinterland. Ella refuses to talk about Althea or her popular novel and flew into a rage the one time she caught Alice with a copy of the book.

After having settled for the millionth time in a new place and new school, they get word that Althea has died alone on her estate. The estate’s name? Hazel Wood. Alice has a faint memory of being a young child and being abducted by a man. Not exactly kidnapped in a rough fashion. She willingly went with the man. She was found unharmed and alone. Now, over ten years later, she sees the man again sitting in a café, unchanged, unaged. Something is going on, something hovering-like another world-at the edges of her vision.

Her mother inexplicably vanishes, taken by something or someone. All that’s left is a note in her mother’s handwriting reading “Stay away from the Hazel Wood.” Not damn likely to happen, Alice thinks and with the help of a classmate named Ellery Finch (who is a hardcore fan of Althea’s book of fairytales and has his own reasons for helping Alice out) Alice embarks on a dangerous mission to rescue her mother. A mission which includes slipping through to a world not just made up in the mind of Althea.

What follows is a thorn choked path where everything Alice thought she knew to be true turns out to be false. But will she find her mother and escape the strange fairytale world and make it back to her world? Will she be the same person? Are any of us the same person at the end of a magnificent and harrowing adventure? Not damn likely.

Frankly in Love

In Frankly in Love by David Yoon, Frank Li straddles two worlds: the world he knows, being an ultra-smart and awkward teenage boy born and raised in Southern California and Frank Li, son of two Korean immigrants who came to America so their children would have better (and more) chances in life. Frank barely speaks any Korean and his parents aren’t the stereotypical helicopter parents, pushing him to make excellent grades and to be the best in everything.

Frank’s already getting straight A’s and is headed to a college far away. As much as he loves his parents and his Southern California upbringing, he wants to get far enough away to see who he really is. All his life he hasn’t felt Korean enough or American enough. It’s like he floats in some vicious limbo where he’s not enough of either. He can go away to college and just be Frank Li. But he has to get through his senior year first.

And while his parents don’t force Frank to be all Korean, the one rule is he has to date and eventually marry a Korean girl. There’s just one problem: Frank Li falls in love with Brit, a white girl. Frank’s older sister is a lawyer in Boston. She’s been disowned by their parents because her boyfriend is black. They refuse to speak to her.

Along with living in a cultural limbo, Frank also lives in a limbo where his parents are casual racists. Frank’s best friend is black and while they’ve always been polite to him, it’s been a cool and aloof polite. There’s no way his parents would accept Frank being in love with a white girl. And the equally horrible (but relatable) thing is Frank doesn’t explain this to Brit, how his parents want him to be with a Korean girl. The only way Frank can bring Brit around to see his parents is if he invites a group of friends over and pretends she’s just a friend.

And then Frank comes up with a seemingly foolproof plan: he’s going to pretend to date a Korean girl while actually dating Brit. He knows the perfect Korean girl. Joy Song. She and Frank have grown up together and he happens to know for a fact that she’s in a similar situation: she’s dating a Japanese boy her parents would forbid her from seeing if they only knew.

Frank explains the plan to her, and she agrees. Both of their families think they’re dating. Whenever Frank and Joy go out on a date, they make sure their parents see them together before they go their separate ways with their taboo loves for the evening and then meet back up to make a show of having been busy in love all night.

Meanwhile Frank is finding out that Brit is his first love and it’s overwhelming. He wants to tell her his plan, that he’s fake dating Joy for his parents’ approval but something keeps his mouth shut. Unfortunately, it’s about to get even more complicated for Frank when he finds himself falling in love with Joy.

At turns hilarious and heart breaking, David Yoon’s Frankly in Love is a novel about first love, belonging, family, and future. It’s about choosing what’s best for yourself while still loving your family and knowing you’re loved by them.

Confessions on the 7:45

Have you ever found yourself telling a complete stranger things about yourself that you would never have shared with family or friends? I know that talking to your hairdresser or a bartender seems to be a safe outlet to express your problems and not be judged. You might think twice, however, after reading Confessions on the 7:45 by Lisa Unger.

Our story starts with Selena, who has just discovered her husband is having an affair with their nanny Geneva. She is very upset and begins to talk with a very friendly woman on the 7:45 train coming home from work. When Selena leaves the train, she can’t believe that she told the woman, Martha, so much.

Selena confronts her husband Graham and the next thing we know; the nanny Geneva has disappeared without a trace. Then we discover that her car is still parked in front of Selena’s house. Selena begins getting text messages from Martha wanting to meet again. Selena is a little freaked out until they finally do meet, and Martha reminds her that she gave Martha her business card. Selena doesn’t remember this, but she WAS upset and out of sorts, and surmises that she must have given it to her.

As we get to know Martha, we begin to realize that she is a con artist, and has had many personas and layers of lies throughout her life. She has been stalking Selena for quite some time and their meeting on the train was anything but coincidental.

I loved getting deeper and deeper into the layers of deceit and finding out the little ‘aha moment’ clues. This book was like doing a jigsaw puzzle, a little piece of building here, a chunk of sky over there… until the end when you see all the pieces slide together and finally see the whole picture. I really enjoyed all the characters and thinking about what I would have done in any of their positions.

I have not read Ms. Unger’s other books, but now I will read them the first chance I get!

Wicked Seattle

Wicked Seattle by Teresa Nordheim  

This was an awesome book! Being born and raised here in the Pacific Northwest I have always enjoyed books about our local history. I remember my mom always said, “We live in the wild west, and you can’t get much wester than this.”

Reading this book made me laugh with all the anecdotes about crooked politicians, police officers on the take, the wheeling and dealing of ‘business’ men and tales concerning women of the oldest profession. I was expecting all the stories to be from the early days of Seattle, but was surprised that there were plenty of stories about things still going on in the 1970’s and 1980’s and even shenanigans still happening in 2009.

You will also read about prohibition and smuggling alcohol, crooked treaties, racketeering and just plain old underhandedness. After reading this, the old adage “the more things change, the more they stay the same” becomes a crystal clear point!

This was a fun and pretty quick read with lots of ‘mugshots’ and pictures of early Seattle.

Heartwood 10:3 – The Literary Sphere

The impetus for today’s post is the similarities between books by two writers from two different continents; one young and living in Paris, the other an Argentine, recently deceased. Things kind of snowball from there.

Our Riches by Algerian author Kaouther Adimi, now living in Paris, is a love letter of a novel to the real-life Algiers bookseller and publisher Edmond Charlot who opened Les Vraies Richesses (Our True Wealth) in 1935. The multi-award-winning book jumps backward and forward in time from the 1930s to the present day. It interweaves Charlot’s journal entries about the bookstore and his publishing projects, historic footnotes to WWII and French-Algerian postwar tensions, and chapters about a young man sent by the bookstore’s new owner to clear it out so he can convert it into a bakery.

There’s an almost documentary feel to much of the writing, and indeed Adimi provides a list of sources and a note of thanks to several of Charlot’s literary friends for sharing stories (the Wikipedia page on Charlot confirms the factual nature of many of the elements found in the novel). Charlot’s journal entries offer up a lot of detail about the world of the publisher/bookseller, and a treasure trove of encounters with famous authors such as Albert Camus, André Gide, Philippe Soupault, and many others. These very short notes about his everyday projects and challenges resonate with a trilogy of books by Ricardo Piglia in which he also chronicles his book-world pursuits (I’ve written about Piglia previously here).
The Diaries of Emilio Renzi include the occasional lengthier piece of creative writing, but mostly they are composed of brief journal entries that begin with the alter-ego narrator’s first encounter with books, and his ongoing obsessions with reading and writing, including his long-term involvement in the bustling Buenos Aires publishing world in the mid-20th century (he mentions “temples of used bookstores,” but did not appear to work in one). In the course of these entries he engages with such luminaries as Jorge Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti, and Manuel Puig, and notes the influence of Hemingway, Faulkner, and Raymond Chandler on his own writing. He also provides insights into writers such as Tolstoy, Cervantes, and Kafka, and many, many others. In a style similar to Adimi’s novel, Piglia’s books also record the pressures, frenzy, intellectual stimulation, and financial challenges of working in literary publishing while also recording details of the frequent political strife in Argentina at that time. The third volume of the trilogy is scheduled to be released this October.

These books will have the most appeal for world-literature bibliophiles but they have also caused me to reflect on the interrelated spheres of writing, publishing, bookselling, and libraries. A number of well-known authors have opened bookstores, which strikes me as a very generous way of embracing the literary community. Sylvia Beach, founder of the Paris bookstore and lending library, Shakespeare and Co., famously brought James Joyce’s masterpiece Ulysses into the world, and Lawrence Ferlighetti’s publishing/bookselling enterprise, City Lights, made waves when it published Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in 1956, and went on to publish the work of other Beat writers along with many other authors up to the present day. More recently, in the book-saturated sliver of the internet where I tend to lurk, there was quite a bit of enthusiasm when Deep Vellum opened its Dallas-based bookstore and started publishing some phenomenal literature in translation (including the Trilogy of Memory by Sergio Pitol which shares similar literary enthusiasms as those found in Piglia’s Diaries and Adimi’s book). In Adimi’s novel, Charlot’s bookstore, Les Vraies Richesses, also served as a lending library to students who didn’t have enough money to buy books; for a local lending library example, check out Seattle’s own Folio (though you won’t be able to visit while we’re in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic). And now a number of bookstores offer print-on-demand publishing options for local authors, including Bellingham’s Village Books, and at least one public library is doing the same.

Are you aware of other real-world literary bookstore/publishing ventures or related hybrids? Share them in the comments. In the meantime, as a lover of good books, why not rub elbows with Charlot or Renzi or Pitol, and reflect upon the riches of world literature?

(And if you love bookstores, now would be a good time to show your support. Find local independent bookstores in your community at IndieBound, or consider making a purchase at a Black-owned, independent bookstore.)