mystery · review

Under the Harrow, by Flynn Berry

27246107Flynn Berry’s lightning fast and devastating novel, Under the Harrow, begins with Nora walking into the most horrific scene that anyone can blunder into. Nora is planning to spend the weekend at her sister’s house, only to walk in to find that her sister has been brutally murdered. The book never lets up after this shocking discovery and we ride along as a grief-stricken Nora tries to find out who did it.

Nora is, obviously, a wreck when the police start to ask her questions. But she is able to give the police a lead or two. She tells the lead detective about Rachel’s assault as a teenager and how they used to try to find out who did it. Maybe that man came back, she suggests. But then, Nora also sees red flags everywhere. While the police follow the evidence, Nora follows hunches and bits of memory. She asks the police to look into a local man she finds creepy. She leads them to a stalker’s hideout near Rachel’s house.

As she investigates on her own, Nora finds out that she didn’t know her sister as well as she thought she did. This is a brief book, but it is absolutely jam-packed with red herrings and twists. It’s truly astonishing how much Berry packs into this story. Not only is this book crammed with plot, but it’s also deft in its portrayal of the way grief can derail someone’s mind. Nora makes some bad decisions that are hard to witness; I wanted to yell into the book at her more than once. That said, Nora’s grief also makes her determined to make sure her sister’s killer is caught even when the police are ready to give up and wait for new evidence.

It’s not unusual for detectives to be under some kind of emotional duress in fiction. They might have a drinking problem or family pressures that keep them from being totally focused on the case. Some, like Jo Nesbø‘s Harry Hole, have emotional and physical baggage. But I’ve never see a mystery from the perspective of the relative of a murder victim. That perspective makes Under the Harrow one of the most effective murder tales I’ve ever encountered.

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literary fiction · mystery · review

Ohio, by Stephen Markley

Trigger warning for rape.

36373372Stephen Markley’s Ohio is a novel grows ever more devastating the deeper we get into this grim, profound portrait of a group of friends, enemies, victims, and bullies. It circles back and forth from around the turn of the millennium to 2013, on a night when several characters find themselves back in New Canaan. The more we read, the more we learn what terrible deeds are afoot on that night and why those deeds might (or might not) be justified.

At first, that night seems ordinary apart from the fact that people who thought they fled New Canaan find themselves back in the former steel town. These days, New Canaan has little to offer anyone. The army is a way out for some. Drugs are an easier, more likely option for those who remain. Bill Ashcraft, the lone liberal of New Canaan, is back in town because he’s been hired to do a secret errand for an old flame. Once in town, he quickly gets drunk and high and takes us on a bleary tour of his memories. Then we move on to Stacey Moore, who has come back because the mother of her long lost love has asked Stacey for a favor. After Stacey tells her stories, we meet Danny Eaton, a wounded veteran of three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Danny’s quiet goodness and sense of duty is contrasted with Bill’s strident arguments against the war. Lastly (and most affectingly), we see Tina Ross. This night belongs to Tina—but I can’t say too much, lest I ruin the slow boiling twists of Ohio.

Each section ends with a scene that shows us what’s going on that night. It isn’t until the last section, narrated by Tina, that we see the whole picture. Along the way, there are hints about the guilt that many of the characters are wrestling with and about the crimes that were committed during high school that still need justice or revenge. Ohio rewards readers who pay attention. All of the details are germane. New Canaan’s classes of 2003 and 2004 are a tangled web that cannot be understood without following our four narrators down the roads of the old town. I loved picking it all apart.

I wasn’t sure about Ohio when I started it. Spending time with Bill was rough because, despite his attempts to do some good in the world, he mostly seems to be drunkenly tilting at windmills. He’s also so self-absorbed that he didn’t realize how awful some of his classmates are—especially the villainous Kaylyn Lynn and Todd Beaufort. Once the perspective shifted to other characters, I fell headlong into the narrative. I had enormous sympathy for Stacey, Danny, and Tina. Some readers might struggle with the multiple time lines. There are places where time seems particularly fluid. But this kind of achronological storytelling is catnip for me. Ohio takes the story of high school bullies and their victims and transforms it into one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. It is masterly in its construction and the fully realized portraits of its characters. This book is a dark gem.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 21 August 2018.

historical fiction · mystery · review

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

887333In The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Richard Zimler takes us back to 1506, the year of a bloody massacre of Jews in the Portuguese capitol, and gives us a brutal murder and conspiracy among the forcibly converted “New Christians” of the city. Berekiah Zarco and his uncle, Abraham, are defiantly Jewish Kabbalists at a time when it was extremely dangerous to be so. Still, they keep up appearances as Christians while Abraham smuggles religious and philosophical texts out of the country to safer places. But then forces conspire to destroy their way of life.

Berekiah is a passionate man. He loves his family. He revels in the spiritual knowledge and strength he has as his Kabbalist uncle’s apprentice. He also feels constantly simmering fury at the Old Christians who have forced the Jews underground. But then, on April 19, 1506, a massacre erupts as Old Christians violently attack Jews and converts, blaming them for the ongoing drought and an outbreak of plague. Berekiah had been sent out of the city on an errand only to return to a scene straight out of hell. Jews are in hiding while Christians roam the streets looking for victims. When he does reach home, he finds his uncle murdered in their cellar with an unknown woman. Another murder among all the other murders isn’t strange, sadly, but there is other evidence that Abraham and the woman were not random victims.

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Undated German woodcut of the Lisbon massacre (Image via Wikicommons)

Berekiah doesn’t wait for the violence to die down before he leaps into action. He hunts down clues while also trying to find the missing members of his family, who scattered when the mob roared through. The clues point Berekiah to one of the men in Abraham’s “threshing group,” a group of Kabbalist seekers in the secret Jewish community. The more Berekiah dies, the more he realizes that he didn’t know much about Abraham’s smuggling or what secrets the man held.

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon recreates the city and the lives of the Jews and converts who tried to make a home there. I will admit that I was skeptical of Berekiah and his friend, Farid’s, forensic abilities and a few anachronisms. This and a few odd details about Berekiah’s sexuality where the only problems I had with the book. But these are minor quibbles against the vibrancy of the book’s setting and the Gordian tangles of the plot. I was hooked right from the beginning, when Berekiah’s autobiography is found in a hidden trove of documents in an ancient house in Istanbul. Zimler poured historical research into the story without bogging down the full tilt plot. This book will be a great read for historical fiction buffs (so long as they have a strong stomach).

literary fiction · mystery · review

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.

historical fiction · mystery · review

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.

literary fiction · mystery · review

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.

historical fiction · mystery · review

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.