The Evening Hero, by Marie Myung-Ok Lee

After the rural Minnesotan hospital where Youngman Kwak works closes, he no longer has work to keep his mind occupied. This means that memories of his life in Korea during and after the Korean War start to creep back into his conscious mind. It also means that Youngman has time to reflect on his relationship with his wife, how they raised their son, the medical profession, and the casual racism he and his family have always faced. There’s a lot going on in Marie Myung-Ok Lee’s The Evening Hero. Unfortunately, it’s a little too much and the tone veers from beautifully thoughtful to absurdly satirical. To me, it read like two novels spliced together.

Youngman Kwak is a dedicated OB-GYN at Horse’s Breath Hospital when we first meet him—more so because the new director of the hospital is squeezing every scrap of profit out of the hospital before ingnominiously closing the whole thing down. Youngman feels very much for his patients, all of whom are now just that much further away from good medical care. Youngman’s diligence and humane care of his patients is a sharp contrast to his son, Einstein, and the employees at SANUS (the very company that bought and closed Youngman’s hospital). After an uncomfortable Thanksgiving dinner that further highlights the differences between Youngman and his wife and their son and daughter-in-law, Einstein talks his father into taking a job at SANUS. Unfortunately, the promised job delivering vaccines turns out to be a humiliating gig operating a depilation machine. SANUS is mall medicine. It’s far from Youngman’s work delivering babies and caring for women.

Meanwhile, Youngman starts to receive letters from an unknown woman in Seoul. He knows that the letters have someting to do with the brother he abandoned in Korea, to start his new life with his wife and unborn child in the United States. He’s been running from his brother—and his regrets—for decades. At this point, the narrative takes us back to just before the Korean War. Youngman and his mother, younger brother, and grandfather, are eking out a living in Water Project Village. When the war comes, their situation becomes even more fraught. Not only are they facing starvation, the small Kwak family and the rest of the non-combatants walk up and down the Korean peninsula, avoiding violence from soldiers on all sides, and hoping to find a safe place to stay until they can go home. This part of the novel is utterly harrowing.

Over the course of the rest of the novel, the narrative switches back and forth from Trump-era America to post-war South Korea. The contrast between the escalating weirdness of Youngman’s life in America and Youngman’s nostalgic memories of Korea grows bigger and bigger—and harder and harder to reconcile into a cohesive whole. For me, the parts of the book in Korea and South Korea were the most interesting and enjoyable. The narrative is much better when Lee leaves behind the satire and the absurdity. Although I appreciated the points Lee made about the greed of the America healthcare industry, I preferred the emotional honesty of the other half of the novel, the parts in which Youngman looks back across his long life and wonders if he made the right choices.

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

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.

Dead Collections, by Isaac Fellman

Isaac Fellman’s Dead Collections held a lot of promise for me when I first read the reviews. How could I not love a book about a vampire who works as an archivist who falls in love? I adore a good love story about weirdos finding each other. The fact that it took place at least partly in an archive was just gravy. That said…this was not the right book for me. Instead, this is a book for people who want to know what it’s like to feel uneasy about one’s body, out of place in the gender binary, or distressed by not feeling attracted by the same things as everyone else.

Sol Katz has some, but not all, of what he wants out of his unlife. He works in an archive (and squats there during the day). His coworkers don’t seem to like him that much, but they tolerate his vampiric quirks. The happy status quo changes when Elsie drops the archive of Sol’s favorite TV writer in his lap. Even though Elsie is recently bereaved, she and Sol have an instant connection. The two share long calls in which they reveal their desires and fretful thoughts about themselves. Those conversations are a lot, especially when what I really wanted was vampiric archival adventures and shenanigans.

I can’t fault Dead Collections for not being what I wanted it to be. There’s at least a little of archival shenanigans sprinkled here and there for those of us who wanted more books and fewer feelings. For readers who do want feelings, Dead Collections is a delightful and unusual love story about weirdos finding their soulmate.

Quantum Girl Theory, by Erin Kate Ryan

Erin Kate Ryan’s complicated novel, Quantum Girl Theory, begins with a preface that explains the eponymous theory in a stuttering series of images that offer possible endings to a story that begins with a girl putting on a red parka. In some of the endings, she lives. In most, however, she meets a frightening death because the world is full of people looking to take advantage of those they consider weaker. Our protagonist, once a missing girl herself, unfortunately gets flashes of these endings as she drifts across America in the early 1960s trying to save at least some of them.

We don’t know much about the woman who introduces herself as Mary Garrett when she arrives in rural North Carolina town other than that she has visions of missing girls, has very little money to her name, and that that name is not her real one. She’s come to this town because there’s a reward on offer for a girl who went missing while riding her horse. That money will go a long way in 1960 if she can claim it. Mary has a lot of tricks up her clairvoyant sleeves to try and get her visions going. All she needs to do is talk the parents into letting her spend some time in the missing girls’ room, with her things. The strange thing (after a whole bunch of other strange things) is that no one seems to be trying very hard to find the missing girl. Her father is willing to let Mary try, but everyone hints or outright tells Mary to go away.

Between chapters that show Mary scrounging for room and board along with searching for the missing girl, other chapters take us into Mary’s past. At least, it seems like they do. The stuttering iterations from the preface play out in different times and places. We’re whisked to various years from the late 1940s up to the mid-1990s, and from New England to Baltimore to Utah and Arizona. These stories share some common elements. The girl Mary used to be loved another girl named Wise, until they were caught and Mary lied about even knowing Wise. Wise disappeared. Then Mary did. After that, anything and everything happens and it’s hard to tell how many missing girls are real and how many are just possibilities.

Quantum Girl Theory is an unsettling book, but I relished the questions it raised about what we choose to pay attention to and what we choose to ignore. One of the people who (reluctantly) helps Mary is Martha, a Black maid at a motel where Mary scams a place to stay, pointedly asks Mary if she ever gets visions of missing Black girls. Mary says no, in a moment that should remind every reader about how much attention is paid to missing white girls compared to every other person who disappears only to be ignored or dismissed as “probably a runaway.” Also, the way that all the missing girls’ stories blend into Mary’s got me thinking about the glut of true crime books, shows, and podcasts. Consuming all of that content can make it feel like we’re surrounded by crimes and injustice. Maybe we are. And if we can’t find the missing, maybe we—like Mary—can witness and tell their stories. If we tell their stories, even if we never really know what the ending is, they won’t be forgotten.

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 Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd

Throughout The Cartographers, by Peng Shepherd, characters frequently ask each other, “What is the purpose of a map?” Answers range from the obvious (to find things) to the philosophical (to orient ourselves in relation to the world) to the near mystical. This book takes us deep into the world of rare maps and cartography to deliver a mystery that is a lot stranger than anyone could’ve ever expected. I love a story that starts in an archive and ends up somewhere magical.

Nell Young hasn’t worked at her beloved New York Public Library’s map division for seven years, ever since the “Junk Box Incident.” Before the incident, Nell interned there under her father’s direction. She got to work with rare, pre-modern maps along with her boyfriend. Then she finds a box labeled junk in the backlog of uncataloged donations to the library. Along with a handfull of very valuable maps, Nell finds a mass produced map that is so worthless it has to have been put in the box by mistake. Strangely, her father is incensed by the appearance of the worthless map and fires Nell. After seven years of exile, Nell is called back to the NYPL with news that her father has died.

Things start to get very weird after Nell visits the library to visit an old family friend/colleague. (The map world is apparently very small.) Reminiscing at her father’s desk leads to a rediscovery of that old junk map, a map that turns out to be the source of someone’s deadly obsession. The Cartographers turns into a steeple chase at this point: underground map sellers, suspicious black cars, break ins, murders, creepy tech moguls, family secrets. It all culminates in a secret that delighted me, but that I’m definitely not going to tell you about because it would ruin the book.

The Cartographers is a treat for readers who enjoy mystery and whimsy with an academic flavor and some outstanding character development.

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

The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich

I just finished Louise Erdrich’s latest novel, The Sentence, and I am still feeling buzzy. As soon as I finished it, I wanted to do two things at the same time: immediately start reading it again and start messaging my bookish friends to talk them into reading it immediately. I loved so much about this book that this is probably going to be another gushy review in which I worry that I won’t be able to fully convey its wonderfulness. Heck, I’m even a little annoyed that I borrowed a copy from the library because there were so many beautiful passages I wanted to underline.

Tookie is a haunted woman, in both senses of the word. First, she is being haunted by a customer who, annoying in life, continues to be annoying by hanging around the bookstore where Tookie works. (This bookstore also happens to be in Minneapolis and owned by a woman named Louise, very much like this real bookstore). Second, she is haunted by a crime she committed when she was younger and making a lot of bad choices. That crime, laid out in the earliest chapters of the book, is an odd one: she stole a dead body because the woman she loved at the time asked her to. Of the two, the restless ghost of the customer is more troublesome.

Most of The Sentence takes place between November 2019 and November 2020. Erdrich gives us a series of chapters and vignettes that bring us into Tookie’s life. Some of the shorter segments are moments in which Tookie is caught by the beauty of the natural world around her, written in clear language that put that beauty straight into my head. Other chapters show Tookie with her sweet husband, Pollux, or with customers hungry for a new book. Later in the book, we see Covid roll in and change everything, while the protests after the murder of George Floyd spark protests and catharsis. All through this, the ghost keeps coming back and Tookie doesn’t know how to get rid of her.

The structure of the book allows Erdrich to play with other doubles like Tookie’s hauntings: prison sentences and literary sentences, names, police as guardians and police as the violent enforcers of the status quo, different kinds of closeness, waxing and waning relationships, and others. You see why I wanted to go back to the beginning? There is so much to this book that I want to unpack. On the first read through, I was too busy spending time with Tookie and all of the lives (and one un-life) that intersect with hers.

I really loved this book. In fact, I went and bought my own copy from that Minneapolis bookstore so that I can read it again.

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.