Eden, by Andrea Kleine

35721129When they were teenagers, Hope and Eden were kidnapped by a man who claimed to be their father’s friend. They both physically came out of the woods, but they left something of themselves behind. In Andrea Kleine’s Eden, we follow Hope almost twenty years later as she tentatively goes on a quest to track down her sister, who went off the grid shortly after the kidnapping. It’s been years for Hope, her sister, and their parents, but they haven’t really moved on. The kidnapping derailed everyone’s lives. No one is healthy in this book, but Eden is not a catalog of mental illness so much as it explores the impossibility of “letting go” of trauma in the way that Hope’s friends and family constantly exhort her to do.

Hope is a struggling playwright in New York City at the beginning of the novel, when she gets a letter informing her that the man who kidnapped her and Eden years ago is up for parole. (This is really the cherry on top of a bad month because Hope’s mother had just died of lung cancer.) The local district attorney wants Hope and Eden to testify to make sure he stays in jail. The DA also suspects that the kidnapper murdered a girl shortly before he took Hope and Eden into the woods. If Hope and Eden testify, maybe the guy will be convicted of murder, too. So Hope halfheartedly goes home. She talks to her father, Eden’s mother, and anyone else she can find who remembers Eden.

I was astonished by the selfishness of the parents in Hope and Eden’s life. Suriya, Eden’s mother, took off when Eden was a child and lives a peripatetic life as a hippie at a series of communes and collectives. Hope and Eden’s father seems to be content to be a sad sack who castigates himself with his failings as a parent, so much so that others have to comfort him. Luce, who was the father’s girlfriend at the time, at least has the self-awareness to admit that she didn’t like being a stand-in mother. It’s little wonder that Eden left and Hope has become so closed off to others that she’s emotionally crippled.

Eden has the benefit of being a unique account of the aftermath of trauma. I’ve never seen anything like it. But just because this book is unique doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable. I daresay this book will make readers angry because of the terribly self-absorbed parents. Hope clearly needed and still needs help, but most of the people in her life are incapable of providing that help. That said, how does one help someone who goes through what Hope and Eden did? The only thing we can say for sure is that you can’t just tell them to “move on” and “let go.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

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Island of the Mad, by Laurie R. King

36296239Laurie R. King’s Island of the Mad is the fifteenth entry in the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series, which imagines the characters as a married couple who are always willing to dive into a new case. This episode is set in 1925 and sees the pair on the trail of a woman who, formerly an inmate of Bethlem Royal Hospital, disappears into thin air during the festivities of her marquess brother’s birthday.

Vivian Beaconsfield is the aunt of Mary’s good friend so, when that friend asks Mary to find out where Vivian went, Mary can only agree. Besides, if Russell and Holmes don’t have a case, they tend to get a little itchy. Mary starts asking questions at the family estate—Vivian’s last known location. Holmes snoops around London to see if Vivian pawned her share of the family jewels. The trail leads to Venice and Mary and Holmes set off in hot pursuit.

Unlike some of the other books in the series, Island of the Mad doesn’t seem to be about solving a mystery so much as it is about the setting. Mary and Holmes—who also has a task from his brother, Mycroft, to perform—decide to divide and conquer. Mary puts on the disguise of a Bright Young Thing and hangs around Venice’s Lido, hoping to catch word of Vivian among scads of people intent on having a great time. Holmes sidles up to Cole Porter, where he might catch word of Vivian through the artistic crowd. Readers who know the songwriter’s oeuvre will be tickled pink at all the references to his songs.

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Venice’s Hotel Excelsior, c. 1914, where a lot of the book’s action takes place.
(Image via Panorama)

The pairs’ points of view show the frenetic decadence of the Roaring 1920s. Everyone drinks and parties like it’s their last day on earth. As a dark counterpoint to all this high-octane frivolity, Blackshirts roam the city in increasing numbers and throwing their weight around. It doesn’t take too long to see the dichotomy of the times. On the one hand, you’ve got the live-and-let-live crowd. On the other, there are fascists who will violently assert their version of how they think people should live.

Island of the Mad is a mostly languid mystery, with most of the action crammed at the end. Readers should be prepared for regular doses of Venetian history and plenty of foreshadowing about what the fascists are going to get up to in about a decade. Even though it’s not the most gripping of mysteries, Island of the Mad is an entertaining jaunt to the height of the 1920s in always popular Venice. The scenery is so richly described that I started to feel like should put on some sunblock as well as Russell as she zips up and down the canals. This is very much a summer read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, by Amy Meyerson

36477572Either C.S. Lewis or William Nicholson said, “We read to know we are not alone.” Readers who read a lot can’t help but sometimes see our selves, our friends and family, our experiences, and our lives in the books we read. This is especially true of Miranda Brooks, the protagonist of Amy Meyerson’s affectingly bookish, The Bookshop of Yesterdays. After learning that her estranged uncle has died and left her his bookstore, Miranda returns to Los Angeles. The funeral is hardly over when she discovers that Uncle Billy has left her one last scavenger hunt, one that will finally reveal the big family secrets that no one would ever talk about.

Sixteen years after she last spoke to Billy, Miranda is a successful middle school history teacher in Philadelphia. She has a boyfriend. They live together. Things are good. But then she gets word that her uncle has died. Despite the estrangement—and her mother’s continued hostility towards Billy—Miranda flies back for the funeral. She doesn’t plan to stay long, even after she learns that she’s inherited Billy’s beloved Prospero Books. But then she receives the first clue in the scavenger hunt and she starts to put off her return. She has to know what happened to Billy and her mother. And she also can’t bring herself to sell the bookstore. While she follows the clues Billy left, she dives into a possibly quixotic quest to save Prospero Books.

The Bookshop of Yesterdays, in addition to the literary scavenger hunt and the bookstore subplot, does something that I love. At the beginning of the book, I was set up to feel very specific things about some of the characters. Miranda’s mother is portrayed as simultaneously cold and overprotective. Billy is the magical relative who made Miranda’s childhood wonderful. Miranda herself is a seeker who just wants to know why her mother fought with her uncle before he vanished from their lives. The scavenger hunt—in which quotes lead to books with clues—results in Miranda (and us) getting the story in small doses. We and the protagonist are constantly reevaluating what we know about everything.

The way that books function in The Bookshop of Yesterdays strongly reminded me of one of my favorite books, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin. Readers who’ve been trying to find something like it should definitely pick up this novel. The longer I read, the more I enjoyed this book. At the very end, as Miranda heads off into a brave new world, I was cheering for her and the possibilities of her future. For a book that has so many emotional family stories, it ends with a surprisingly beautiful hopefulness.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 12 June 2018.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended to mothers and daughters who are on the outs but want to reconcile.

Treeborne, by Caleb Johnson

36031239Caleb Johnson’s novel, Treeborne, is a deep dive into a family with serious skeletons in their closets and firm beliefs in their own righteousness. The Treebornes of Elberta, Alabama have always been considered weird by the rest of the town. Hugh Treeborne made weird sculptures from found objects. His daughter Tammy wants to clearcut the family property and has dreams about being in the movie business. His granddaughter, Janie, is probably the strangest Treeborne of all. Janie narrates her story—and her family’s story—to her own grandson. Each chapter takes us further into the dark history of the Treebornes.

Janie, when we first meet her, is a stubborn old woman whose house is about to be flooded when the local dam is finally destroyed. She refuses to move. She fought hard to hold on to her family’s land around Elberta, called the Seven. In 1958, when Janie’s grandmother died, the land was left to Tammy. Tammy wants to sell off the timber from the Seven, ruining what makes the land special to Janie. At 13, Janie still seems like a feral child. She roams the hills in and around Elberta in the company of one of her grandfather’s creations: a “dirt boy” that sometimes speaks and moves, but only when a Janie or another Treeborne is around.

To stop her aunt from clearcutting the Seven, Janie hatches a plan with the other young adolescents in her circle to kidnap Tammy. They have no idea what will happen after that. It’s clear they never thought that far and things quickly get out of hand. Meanwhile, Janie’s chapters alternate with the stories of her grandparents. Hugh Treeborne gets tricked into losing some of his art to a Northerner who takes credit for it and then gets into a macabre entanglement with the Tennessee Valley Authority while building the dam that will eventually be destroyed and flood Janie’s house and land decades later. And all that’s before the storm.

Things keep happening to the various generations of Treebornes. There’s a lot of plot to keep track of, but what I was most interested in Hugh and Janie’s strangeness. They both seem to be under compulsions. For Hugh, it’s his art. For Janie, it’s the woods. Unfortunately, the strangeness wasn’t really explored in the kind of depth I wanted. Without some kind of psychological clarity, Treeborne felt muddled and opaque to me. It felt like a lot of characters doing bad things to each other with no thought for the consequences. I like reading about consequences, but I have a hard time sympathizing with characters when I don’t really understand their motivations.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 5 June 2018.

Paper Ghosts, by Julia Heaberlin

32912154Grace has gone a lot farther to figure out what happened to her missing sister than anyone can imagine. She has trained in self-defense and to master her fears. She has scoured the dark web for information and false identities. She has cooked up lies to cover her tracks. She has done all of this to break a possible serial killer with dementia out of a halfway house to get the truth out of him somehow. Julia Heaberlin’s Paper Ghosts is a tense ride through Texas, following a trail that leads who knows where for a story Grace might not want to hear. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this book.

We don’t know much about either Grace or Carl Feldman at the very beginning of Paper Ghosts. In a few short chapters, we learn that Carl has dementia, he was a photographer, and that he might have killed Grace’s sister. We also learn that Grace is going to bust him out and take him on a trip to the sites where he took pictures and young women disappeared. Somehow it’s all going to work, in Grace’s head. It has to. She refuses to think that it won’t work. Carl, of course, is not talking about his past no matter how much she prods or tries to jog his memory. Instead, he makes demands for fast food; stops to pan for gold; and to pick up stray, wounded animals. He is not the kind of serial killer Grace expected, especially when he starts to save her life from mysterious pursuers.

The question of what Carl has and hasn’t done kept Grace (and me) guessing about what really happened to her sister and three other young women. Carl was on trial for one kidnapping and murder, but acquitted due to lack of evidence. There’s circumstantial evidence that puts him in the right time and place. There’s his cunning intelligence and charm that can be predatory or flattering by turns. He seems like he ought to be a serial killer. And yet, there’s a delicious ambiguity that runs through the entire book that is only finally resolved at the very end.

I wasn’t sure about Paper Ghosts when I first started it. There were a lot of short paragraphs to get the story moving that made me worry that there might be a lack of depth—characterization and backstory sacrificed for the sake of a fast plot. But Heaberlin is very skilled at embedding information in such a way that you learn more about what’s happening and why without loading readers down with exposition. She’s also great at building up an atmosphere and rich setting that made me feel like I was in the car with Grace and Carl, worried every minute for Grace’s safety and wondering what Carl would do next. This book is a fantastic thriller. It was so good that I want to go and read the rest of Heaberlin’s books.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 15 May 2018.

The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen

35960911Jaakko Kaunismaa is having the worst day of this life. At the beginning of The Man Who Died, by Antti Tuomainen and translated by David Hackston, Jaakko learns that he has been fatally poisoned and that his wife is cheating on him with the delivery boy of their mushroom company. He only has a few weeks to live, according to the doctor, in which to figure out who wants him dead.

In almost any murder investigation, the family and friends of the victim are asked if the deceased had any enemies. As the soon-to-be-deceased, Jaakko is discovering that there are a surprising number of people might want him dead. There’s his wife. There’s his new competitors, a trio of very threatening men who want in on the surprisingly lucrative mushroom business in Hamina, in southeastern Finland. Jaakko can’t go to the police because there’s no proof that his poisoning is intentional or accidental yet. Because he’s not dead, there’s not really a crime for them to investigate. So, in spite of his declining physical condition, Jaakko sets out to solve his own murder.

Because Jaakko is an amateur detective, he blunders through his investigation like a bull in a china store. He makes radical decision about his company. He says provocative things to watch people’s reactions. He asks his employees to spy for him. His actions stir up hornets nests all over the place and no one has a clue what’s going on. Then, the stakes get raised even higher when some of those competitors try to speed up his murder.

The Man Who Died is a blackly comic novel, surprisingly given its premise, and I chalk it up to the fact that most of the characters have no idea what they’re doing. Things go spectacularly and hilariously awry more often than not. Jaakko does eventually find out who poisoned him, but I think this mystery ended up being more about the journey than the destination. It is a story about a man who is murdered, yes, but his murder is a catalyst to rip off his blinders and really examine his complacency. Once those blinders are off, Jaakko gets the chance to go out with a bang.

I strongly recommend this book for readers who like puzzles and off-kilter fiction. I loved this book, so much that I read it all in one sitting.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. 

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort, by Jess Kidd

Mr. Flood’s Last Resort was previously published as The Hoarder in the United KingdomI’m honestly not sure which is the preferred title.

38128947Maud Drennan does not have an easy job. Taking care of the elderly, people who were previously perfectly capable of taking care of themselves, is hard. When the elderly person in question is Cathal Flood, a hoarder with a sharp tongue and a reputation for going after other do-gooders with a hurley stick, the job gets even more difficult. After you throw in the fact that Maud sees saints and the possibility that Cathal might have killed his wife, you have the absolutely packed and off-kilter adventure that is Jess Kidd’s Mr. Flood’s Last Resort.

We meet Maud in a situation that sums up her relationship with Cathal: she’s trying to make the downstairs bathroom hygienic while he shouts at her. Her boss thought that because they were both Irish, they might be able to manage each other. That is not the case, not with Cathal’s temper and his secrets. As Maud clears out the hoard, she starts to receive what look like messages…from Cathal’s dead wife. This is not as strange to Maud as it is to us. She has been followed around since childhood by about a half a dozen saints, who disappear and reappear and make comments on her sex life. Getting ghostly messages is not that weird for her.

Every chapter and every battle with Cathal reveals a new layer to the mystery about whether Cathal’s wife died in an accident, why he won’t talk to his son, and what might have happened to a girl named Maggie Dunne who disappeared without a trace fifteen years earlier. The Flood family have been sitting on a lot of secrets and, now that Cathal might be kicked out of his house, someone is determined to keep those secrets under wraps—violently if necessary.

I loved how Mr. Flood’s Last Stand rockets between mystery and psychological thriller. What I enjoyed most, however, were the characters. Maud is a strong but damaged woman who is trying to make a past wrong right. Cathal is ferocious and hilarious. The friendship that develops between them is delightful to watch blossom. Maud’s landlady, Renata, takes the cake for one of the best secondary characters I’ve ever read. She is an absolute delight. This book is the full package.

I received a free copy of this book for review consideration from the publisher via NetGalley. It will be released 1 May 2018.