Metropolis, by B.A. Shapiro

Trigger warning for brief depiction of domestic violence.

B.A. Shapiro’s Metropolis is the kind of book that reminds us that there are so many spaces and people we just brush past. Most of us don’t need to store (or hide) possessions in storage facilities. They’re usually temporary spaces. Certainly, most of us don’t need to live in storage facilities. As we travel from home to work to our third spaces and back, few of us see the homeless or the jobless or the stateless. Metropolis focuses all our attention on a Boston storage building and straight onto people who, all for their own reasons, find refuge in a place most of us wouldn’t look twice at.

Metropolis is told from the perspective of several characters and from two different time periods before and after an accident involving the Metropolis building’s elevator. It jumps straight into the aftermath by first showing us an auction attended by Zach, the former owner of the Metropolis. He is raising money for legal fees and other expenses by auctioning off the unclaimed property in the building. As the auctioneer directs the procedings, we see each unit through his eyes. We see rooms full of dog houses, the contents of a teenagers’ bedroom, a darkroom filled with undeveloped film, a lawyer’s office, and rooms that have clearly been lived in, even though the building’s not rated for that.

The story’s perspective then shifts to refocus on our other narrators months before the auction. There’s Rose, the building’s former manager, who takes extra money to rent out two (later three) of the units for people to live in. We meet Jason, previously a high flying lawyer now reduced to working any case he can get from a room in the storage facility. There’s Laurent, a gifted photographer suffering from PTSD and undiagnosed illnesses. Laurent and Marta, a Venezuelan refugee and gifted sociology graduate student, both live in the Metropolis because it offers safety and anonymity. The last narrator we meet is Liddy. Initially, she rented a unit at the facility to store her children’s belongings after their awful father shipped them off to boarding school in Switzerland. It’s Liddy’s efforts to escape her husband that bring trouble down on everyone’s head.

Readers, I was engrossed from the minute the auctioneer started opening doors to let the punters have a peek. This book scratches that itch we feel when we sense a story behind an abandoned object by telling us how they came to be there, and how they were abandoned. I don’t want to say too much because a big part of the pleasure of reading this book is learning everyone’s secrets. But I will say that each character is a marvelous study in how the pressures of money and jobs and fear and desire can push people into places they never imagined they might end up.

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

How to Be Eaten, by Maria Adelmann

Trigger warnings for references to trauma and child abuse.

I have a fascination with books that look at what happens after—after the Big Bad has been taken down and the lovers have gotten together and all that. I especially love it when authors take the metafictional route and put characters into group therapy to talk through their issues (as in The Final Girls Support Group and Lost in a Good Book). When I saw reviews for Maria Adelmann’s How to Be Eaten I jumped at the chance to read it. I just couldn’t resist a book in which five women who lived through traumatic events that strangely resemble fairy tales are invited to participate in group therapy. Readers, I inhaled this book.

Five women receive a series of emails that invite them to private group therapy. It takes several emails to get them to attend since, for the most part, these women don’t want to talk about what happened and prefer to keep the lowest of profiles. The emails eventually wear them down and, in short order, we meet Bernice, who went into the one room her rich boyfriend told her not to; Ruby, who wears a wolfskin coat almost as heavy as her attitude; brittle-bright Ashlee, who won a Bachelor-style reality show called The One; Gretel, whose brother has very different memories of what happened when their impoverished parents abandoned them; and the mysterious Raina, a motherly woman nursing secret regrets in spite of her apparently perfect life. All of these women are barely maintaining the appearance of normalcy. It doesn’t take much to crack their facades.

Group therapy is a chance for all of these women to finally get their stories heard, if only by their therapist Will (who we learn has his own secrets). They are all heartily sick (or constantly retraumatized) by having the public at large telling simplified—and mostly wrong—versions of events. Like so many real women who appear in the news, the public question their choices, blame victims, or speculate about ulterior motives. The fact that their sometimes very traumatic pasts have been turned into entertainment just adds insult to injury. That these women’s stories have elements of the fantastic, it’s little wonder that they either hide from or rail against the injustice of it all.

Adelmann has crafted a brilliant narrative that explored how women are portrayed in the media and gossiped about by society in a way that stays grounded in a cast of fascinating characters. I was completely engaged with those characters, even as I tried to match them with fairy tales and wondered about what Will was really up to. Everything about this book was incredible.

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

The Hired Man, by Aminatta Forna

Trigger warning for violence towards animals.

Aminatta Forna’s tense novel, The Hired Man, shows us why the saying is just “revenge is a dish best served cold” and not “revenge is a dish best served cold and bewildering.” Our protagonist, Duro, is a patient man. He’s been waiting a very long time to tell the people who wronged him just how much he wants to hurt them. He’s also not a monologuer, so when the time comes, it’s hard to say what his targets are supposed to feel when his plan finally springs into action. I know I’m being hard on this book right out of the gate, but that’s because I was really enjoying the ride right up until the end. Take what I say with a grain of salt: I didn’t understand the ending, possibly because I was reading too fast to take in the important details.

Our story takes place in Gost, Croatia. The town used to be an important waypoint back in the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Those days are long behind this rural backwater now. The Yugoslav Wars pushed the town even further into irrelevance. People still live there, mostly because it’s where they and their families have always lived. And Gost is quiet, mostly because the people did things to each other during the Wars that no one wants to talk about. The most excitement in years turns up in the form of an English woman and her two children, after the woman buys a house that is very important to Duro. Seeing the old Pavić house occupied after so many years shocks Duro for a moment. Then he goes up and introduces himself to Laura with an offer to help her fix the place up.

While Duro busily puts things at the Pavić house back to rights, Forna takes us into his past. We see his friendship with the Pavić children, especially daughter Anka—and also how his friendship with the son Krešimir goes sour as the boy’s moods grow violent and erratic. The three children grow up in the last decades of Yugoslavia, until Duro is forced to leave. The more we see, the more it makes sense that Duro is a solitary man, living in a former pig shed with his two dogs, dedicatedly putting together the home of his absent lost love and best friend.

It’s only later that Forna reveals to us how the war came to Gost, even though we all know that devastating and sectarian violence is coming. As that tension builds, another tension starts to form as Duro comes closer to finishing his restoration of the Pavić house. Strange things start to happen around Gost that remind Krešimir and the repugnant owner of the town’s only bar, Fabjan, of the terrible things that happened there so many years ago. There are no outright accusations. Instead, Duro’s narratives slowly show us who did what to whom. It’s left to us to decide if anyone deserves punishment or revenge, and if it’s fair to manipulate others to unwittingly be pawns in Duro’s long revenge.

This is an extremely well-written book, for the most part. It’s incredibly atmospheric and the character development is among the best I’ve seen. Before I consign this book to the “tried it” pile, I think I’ll need to go back and at least read the last third again. Resisting the urge to rush and reading slowly might make me change this book from a three to a four or five out of five.

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher

Trigger warning for intimate partner violence.

When someone tells us something is impossible, we usually take that pronouncement at face value. We know that we either don’t have the talent to do the thing or that the thing requires too many resources or changes or that the thing violates the laws of physics. When Marra hears that something is impossible, she does the thing. She does the thing because not doing the thing means that her sister will die at the hands of a wicked prince. In Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher, we see Marra and her band of allies take on the impossible in this dark but very satisfying fantasy. This book will be perfect for readers who like fairy tales but who also wish that they could be a little more practical.

Marra is the youngest of three sisters in a very small kingdom caught between two more powerful ones. In order to eke out a little more independence, Marra’s mother arranges for Marra’s oldest sister to marry the prince of the northern kingdom. When this sister dies abruptly, Marra’s next oldest sister goes as a replacement. Marra is sent to a convent to be kept out of the way. She is not very diplomatic; she asks far too many questions for anyone’s comfort. But when she’s summoned north for her sister’s laying-in and subsequent christening of her niece, those uncomfortable questions reveal that the prince is dangerously violent. Marra has to do something to get her sister out of there while also avoiding an invasion of her home. It’s an impossible task, but we know from page one that Marra isn’t afraid of doing impossible things in the name of saving lives.

On page one of Nettle & Bone, we see Marra create a dog from bones and wire. Anyone else would say that this is impossible. To Marra, the bone dog is just the latest in a list of impossible tasks given to her by a dust-wife (a witch who can speak with the dead) in exchange for help getting rid of the prince. Before long, Marra assembles a group of unlikely heroes to go north and death with the magically protected prince: the bone dog and the dust wife, of course, but also a warrior who made the mistake of sleeping in a fairy ring and a godmother who is better at cursing things than delivering blessings.

Once I got the hang of the book’s tone (adventurous with lashings of metafictional snark), I enjoyed the hell out of Nettle & Bone. Marra delighted me as a heroine and I loved Kingfisher’s originality. I would definitely recommend this to readers looking for a fast, fun read that’s not too fluffy.

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

The Violence, by Delilah S. Dawson

Trigger warning for domestic violence.

From the outside, Chelsea Martin lives an enviable life. Her house is perfectly decorated. Her daughters are adorable. She doesn’t have to work. The price she pays for this is by following every single rule set by her violent husband. She and her daughters have to meet him the instant he comes home, and she has to have a perfectly chilled beer ready for him. The consequences for breaking these rules are frightening and painful. But then, a terrifying pandemic arrives that gives Chelsea the chance she needs to get herself and her daughters out from under his thumb. The Violence, by Deliah S. Dawson, is an unsettling story about what might happen if everyone has to worry about the threat of being beaten to death if someone snaps.

In a brief preface, we see the first attack from what is later called the Violence. A woman in a grocery store attacks and kills another shopper then, after it’s over, goes back to shopping like nothing happened. We’re then whisked away to an ordinary day in the life of Chelsea Martin. She worries. A lot. Her essential oils aren’t selling. Her husband is terrifying. And then her narcissistic mother drops by, unannounced, to make everything just a little bit worse. It’s a lot to take, right off the bat. I wanted to yoink Chelsea and her daughters right out of the narrative before anything can happen to them—but this is not that kind of book. Thankfully, Chelsea comes up with her own plan to get out of her husband’s control. When details about the Violence start to spread, she decides to risk her safety by breaking all of her husband’s rules, then calling the police hotline to have him taken away by claiming that he has the disease.

Everything goes to plan, except that Chelsea’s husband has a cop buddy who is almost as frightening as he is. His threatening questions spook Chelsea so much that she bolts with her children. And then The Violence gets even weirder, as if a book where people blackout when they lose their temper, beat someone to death, and then wake up to a horror scene. There’s an amateur wrestling league, rich people avoiding mosquitos, camps for people with the Violence, roving teams of vaccinators, wrestling coaches who double as therapists, and lots of time in isolation for the characters to think about how they ended up in their situations. There are also plenty of references in The Violence to how COVID-19 has changed us: taking precautions or ignoring them, conspiracy theories about vaccines, society changing versus society refusing the change. Unlike Covid (despite its lethality and Long Covid), the Violence is impossible to sweep under the rug.

There’s a lot to process in this book. I finished it a week about and I’m still processing how I feel about it. There is a factual error that bugged me (there is no capsaicin in ground black pepper) and some facile plot resolution, but I found that I actually liked a lot of this novel. I loved seeing Chelsea find her power in the wrestling ring among some found family. The ending is also deeply satisfying (if in a very unethical and unsettling way). I guess my conclusion is that this was a weirdly entertaining book, as long as you don’t think too hard about the repercussions of all the violence.

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

The Bone Orchard, by Sara A. Mueller

Trigger warnings for references to rape, pedophilia, and physical abuse.

Charm is a hard woman to figure out. Most people know that she came from an area brutally conquered by the emperor but, now, she closes her exclusive brothel on Tuesdays to cater to that emperor. She seems to have made a very cozy nest for herself, as far as we can tell at the beginning of Sara A. Mueller’s enthralling The Bone Orchard. It wasn’t until near the end of Charm’s story of revenge, politics, healing, and hope that I understood Charm’s contradictions–and she seems to finally understand herself.

Charm is a woman in a gilded cage. A bit of magic implanted in her skull keeps her from doing anything more rebellious than coloring her hair in bright colors while only wearing mourning black. Almost as soon The Bone Orchard opens, Charm is summoned to the imperial palace where the emperor who ruined her life and destroyed her country lies dying after someone poisoned him. Once there, the emperor gives Charm one final set of commands: she has to find out which of his three sons poisoned him and make sure that none of them sit on the throne. He then reverses all of his other commands so that, once she finishes this last task, she’ll be free.

As if Charm doesn’t already have enough on her plate, The Bone Orchard takes us behind the scenes at Orchid House and its very unique staff. The women who work there are bone ghosts, created by Charm and a mysterious woman known as the Lady. They are created from bones grown behind Orchid House, then animated by ghosts known as Pain, Pride, Justice, and Shame. We learn where the ghosts came from over the course of the book in some of the best character development I’ve ever read.

I loved a lot of The Bone Orchard. Charm and her women are fantastic creations. The magic system is original and deadly. And the politics are top notch. The only thing that bothered me about this book is the way that mental disorders and illness are treated. Where Charm’s psyche is portrayed with compassion and depth, the men are written off as irredeemably insane and violent. The magic system probably make that true, but it was still an odd note to strike. This is definitely Charm’s book and there are other great characters here. Like I said, I loved a lot of this book. I just wished that every part was written as well as Charm was.

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

The Final Case, by David Guterson

Trigger warning for discussion of extreme child abuse and religious abuse.

I don’t know what to make of The Final Case, by David Guterson. I’ve been trying to resolve the disparate parts of the narrative since I finished it last night. To be honest, though, the book feels unfinished. It feels half-baked, if I’m being blunt, because it doesn’t do anything with the real inspiration for the book’s premise other than to use it as a vehicle for the narrator to talk to people’s ruminations and justifications for some terrible thoughts and actions.

The narrator’s father Royal is a lawyer, years past retirement age but still going into the office because it gives his life meaning. These days, Royal doesn’t have much business other than a few public defender gigs when the official office has too many cases to handle. Due to his age and increasingly poor health, the narrator is helping out his father by driving him around and, after his father gets a case from the public defender’s office, takes on some investigative tasks by conducting and recording interviews. This case, which turns out to be Royal’s last, is a horrific case of death due to child abuse. The evidence against Royal’s client and her co-defendant is utterly damning. The defendants themselves have such repellant beliefs that it will be next to impossible to garner any jury sympathy. Royal takes the case, however, because even though he knows his client is guilty as hell, he believes enough in the system to make sure that this client gets a capable defense.

I thought that this case and the narrator’s relationship with his father would be the main focus of The Final Case. (I mean, look at the title!) For the first half of the book or so, The Final Case is about Royal’s final case. After Royal dies, the narrator—and the narrative—come unmoored. We get some of the narrator’s thoughts about life, his parents, his wife, but the case is almost completely forgotten until it comes around again at the very end of the book. This second half confused me. I was really interested in listening to Royal’s thoughts about fairness, justice, and punishment. I was also interested in listening into the trial testimony and learning how the defendants came to their abusive parenting philosophy. I was far less interested in listening to the various, unconnected people the narrator talks to for the rest of the book.

I supposed the only conclusion I can come to about The Final Case is that it’s a book about a writer who listens to people, seemingly without judgment. It was strange to have such a transparent reading experience, in which the narrator was simply a conduit between me and the other characters in the book. I wish that the narrator had been a little more writerly in arranging the various conversations and interviews into a more cohesive whole, for easier digestion by me, the reader.

The other thing that bothered me about The Final Case (and it really bothered me) was the way that Guterson used a real case for a premise and then never really engaged with the issues the case raises. Although the narrator gives some voice to the victim, she never really comes to life. Almost everyone else gets to have their say, but the victim never really does. This lack of engagement—or refusal to engage—with what happened with the victim and her case made me angry with Guterson and the book.

I plan to read other reviews of The Final Case, because I hope someone can help me figure this book out. That said, I don’t recommend this odd, unsatisfying novel.

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

Devil House, by John Darnielle

Trigger warning for description of domestic violence late in the book.

How do you tell a story? What do you put in or leave out? How should events be ordered? Who is the narrator? Every author has to answer these questions and more but, as John Darnielle shows us in Devil House, the authors of true crime stories have additional questions they have to wrestle with: how to portray the victims and the perpetrators; where to center the story; where to assign the blame; the legacy of the crime; and on. All of these questions swirl around true crime writer Gage Chandler in this book, getting in the way of his next project and forcing him to reconsider everything he thought he knew about telling terrible stories.

The pitch Gage gets from his editor is a slight twist on his usual formula. What Gage usually does is a combination of secondary research and interviews to capture the place and time of a crime on top of all the gory details. This time, his editor wants him to buy and move into the house where two people were brutally killed in the mid-1980s. At the time, the house was a recently closed porn shop, to add to the salaciousness of the whole thing. The house has been on and off the market ever since and has just come back up for sale again. Ashton, the editor, tells Gage this is the perfect next step for a new project. After some hemming and hawing, Gage takes the house and starts to work on recreating what happened more than a decade before.

It seems perfectly reasonable at the outset. The case has the same sort of local mythos that made his first book such a smash. The house/porn store was an embarrassment in its little town. When the store went out of business, it very briefly became a clubhouse for a group of teenagers who transformed the place into what sounds like the kind of extraordinary art project that adults just wouldn’t understand. After two people are killed on the premises, the rumor mill went into overtime, fueled by Satanic panic talk, strange rituals, a sword for a murder weapon—but no one was ever arrested in the case, much less charged and put on trial.

Gage is able to get his hands on some of the police records and evidence in the case. He tracks down some of the people who might have been involved. And yet, the story refuses to coalesce into a clear narrative. True crime usually follows a couple of formulas, but it’s usually pretty clear from the beginning whodunit. But Gage can’t figure out what happened. The more he digs, the less he seems to know about what happened at Monster Adult X. Instead of giving us a straight-forward narrative, Gage tries to put himself into the heads of the teenagers who transformed the porn store and might have murdered two people who walked into the transformed store, planning on flipping the property. We get a string of incomplete narratives that wander up and down the spectrum of veracity from probably true to outright fantasy. The twists at the end further transform this narrative into something profoundly thoughtful and unexpected.

This book is a puzzle. I’m not sure that I liked it, per se, but I very much appreciate the questions the narrator raises about what kind of story should be told, the stories audiences want, and the differences between the two. It looks very closely at who deserves to have their stories told by constantly zooming out to explain how victims and perpetrators came to find themselves in the same place, at the same time, in fatal circumstances. Above all, I think, Devil House says a lot about not rushing to judgment, even when we think we know everything we need to know.

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

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire

Trigger warning for references to eating disorders, bullying, and suicide.

Where the Drowned Girls Go, by Seanan McGuire, is the latest outstanding volume in the Wayward Children series (a series I can’t praise enough). Each entry in the series features one or more teens who found a door where there wasn’t supposed to be one. These doors whisked them away to a strange world where oceans can be made of strawberry soda or the horses talk or the dead waltz. Cora’s world transformed her into a mermaid. Now that’s she back in the “real” world, Cora is having a hard time adjusting. Things get worse after another trip through the doors.

Cora is one of several students at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children, there to find a way to make peace with leaving a place that felt more like home than their actual homes. Before Cora was a mermaid, she was bullied for being overweight. Nothing she would do would get rid of fat that genetics wants to hold onto. But as a mermaid, Cora was perfect and beautiful. She had been making progress at Eleanor’s school, but she takes another trip through the doors to help her friends, an encounter with the Drowned Gods of the Moors makes it impossible for Cora to relax. Her only option, she feels, is to turn to Eleanor’s competitor at the Whitethorn Institute. Unlike Eleanor, who works with her students to help them adjust while keeping alive the hope that their doors will return for them, Whitethorn pushes its students to forget that there are other worlds and doors.

As soon as Cora arrives at Whitethorn, she knows she’s made a mistake. Whitethorn is about conformity. It’s about misery. It’s about erasing everything that’s unique about the students who come there. What I love about this series is that it celebrates quirks and heroism and individuality—not forcing square pegs into round holes—but in a way that’s honest about the costs that have to be paid. I wish these books had been around when I was younger because I think they’re among the best coming-of-age stories I’ve ever read.

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

The Kitchen Front, by Jennifer Ryan

Trigger warning for brief domestic violence and emotional abuse.

In her note at the end of The Kitchen Front, Jennifer Ryan explains that rationing began in Britain in 1939 and lasted through 1954. Rationing included fuel, cloth, rubber, paper, and a whole host of food products. For people used to a worldwide empire of sugar, spices, grains, and more, women (mostly) had to scale back on what and how much they could cook. Privation and stress play major roles in this novel, as four women compete for a job on a BBC/Ministry of Food radio show, a job that could change their lives forever.

Set in Fenley, a small town somewhere outside of London, four women decide to compete in a cooking competition set by The Kitchen Front, the aforementioned radio show. The prize is to become the co-host along with Ambrose Heath (a former restaurant critic whose scripted advice makes it clear that he’s not the person who has to tuck into the spam, whale meat, and endless boiled vegetables advocated by the Ministry of Food). Ambrose will judge the women as they create a starter, main, and dessert out of whatever ingredients they can scrounge up. Extra points are awarded for thrift and cunning use of rationed ingredients. Recipes are included in the novel.

The first woman we met is Audrey Landon, a war widow in straightened circumstances. After the death of her pilot husband, Audrey turned her knack for cooking and large kitchen garden into a bustling pie business. She works every hour in the day and then some to keep her crumbling house intact and her boys fed. The second woman to enter the contest is Lady Gwendoline Strickland, Audrey’s sister. Gwendoline is a character readers will hate at first. Her inflated sense of self and ambition grated. Thankfully, she softens over the course of the book. Third is the ruthless Zelda Dupont, who worked at a London hotel until it was bombed. She might be the one who struggles most with the restrictions of rationing. She longs for the elegant dishes of pre-war haute cuisine. Lastly, we meet Nell Brown, who works in Gwendoline’s kitchen. Nell is a gifted, overworked cook who wishes for a better life.

Over the course of the novel, the four women start to realize that they’re better friends and allies than they are enemies. Once that process starts to happen, The Kitchen Front improves a lot. The characters are a little wooden at the beginning of the novel, with a bad and unrealistic habit of verbalizing their thought processes. One thing that is consistently good throughout the book is the descriptions of cooking during World War II. These range from frankly unappetizing (never reuse tinned sardine oil to make pastry) to mouthwatering (roasted hare in elderberry wine sauce) to transcendent (mushroom soup and a surprising croquembouche made with honey instead of caramel). I kind of wish I had read this book yesterday; The Kitchen Front is a perfect book about food and friendship.