Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire by Clare Frank

This exceptional memoir shows wide emotional range in spanning the complexities of firefighting and fire prevention in California and the American West, gender issues, family, work, love, and loss.

Clare Frank’s Burnt: A Memoir of Fighting Fire is a heart-racing, heartfelt story that will make readers laugh, cry, and consider what matters most in life. The author is an indomitable character, from self-supporting teen through a decades-long career in California firefighting (beginning in 1982, when women were few and generally viewed askance), with impressive achievements in her career and personal life. Frank’s memoir is packed not only with adrenaline but with sensitivity, thoughtfulness, and creativity. Beware the impulse to race through these 300-plus pages in a single sitting.

After talking her unorthodox parents into emancipating her at 16, Frank becomes a firefighter at 17 (faced with an age requirement of 18, she simply leaves her birthdate blank on the employment form). Despite being “the youngest, shortest, and lightest person in an academy for the brawniest of professions,” she is indefatigable: stubborn, hardworking, short-fused, and tenacious, earning nicknames like Flipper, Tiger, and Poindexter–as well as degrees in fire administration, law, and creative writing–along the way. Frank rises through the firefighting ranks in her 33-year career (with a five-year doctor-mandated medical break), finishing with the lofty position of State Chief of Fire Protection, six ranks above captain, the highest she once thought she would be willing to attain. She works on structure fires and wildfires, in small firehouses and large ones, in the field and in positions of leadership, on labor and legal issues, prevention, forestry, and more, across the behemoth California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire (the largest fire department in the state).

While she does meditate on firefighting’s gender issues, her response to the question for much of her career is encapsulated in an anecdote: “While I pulled hose through tangled manzanita, the reporter jammed a microphone in my face and yelled, ‘What’s it feel like to be a female on the line?’ I yelled back, ‘The same as it feels for the guys, except I have chee-chees.’ ” She hoped that if she ignored what made her different, everyone else would as well–a strategy that worked frequently but not always.

Frank is a renegade overachiever in all areas: athletic, career, and (after a late return to the classroom) academic. Her writing is not merely serviceable, but thoughtfully constructed; her memoir’s sections are labeled for stages of fire development: ignition, sustained heat, free burn, growth, full development, and decay. Fire is present in every aspect of Frank’s life and work, including writing, but this always feels natural rather than effortful. By the end of this memorable book, readers will reconsider fire policy as well as family, risk, and hard work. With thrilling momentum and a heat of its own, Burnt is a sensation and an inspiration.

This review originally ran in the April 27, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 9 bird’s nests.

Hughes: The Private Diaries, Memos and Letters by Richard Hack

This was a most weird experience. I brought this book home when it was weeded from a library where I used to work, in probably 2010 or 2011. It has therefore made several cross-country moves with me. Why was I so invested in a banged-up copy of a Howard Hughes biography? I guess I was just that interested in learning more about this mysterious figure; but it does feel like an odd choice. Its publication date is now more than 20 years past, and it reads like it could be older still. Hughes is a fairly off-putting guy, to put it very mildly, and our biographer doesn’t benefit from soft-pedaling his criticisms. It frankly gave me the creeps throughout. But Hughes is such a profoundly bizarre man, and this is such a shocking story, that I couldn’t put it down, nor really stop talking or thinking about it. So what does that mean for my review? As a book, it’s got some problems. But I couldn’t walk away. It might earn back some points for that.

Richard Hack is noted in his bio to be an investigative writer largely covering Hollywood and the media. I found his telling to be salacious, sensational, decidedly creepy in its interest in Hughes’s relationships with women and (in particular) teenaged girls. The subject of this biography had deeply problematic relationships with women. That doesn’t mean the author had to join him there. Hack consistently characterizes young women as bimbos or manipulators, uses their first names (in contrast to the last names of their male counterparts), and notes that when Hughes was looking for a wife, one of his interests was “still a minor so of no use now.” That’s not Hughes’s voice, but our author’s. Another teenager is characterized as “the untouched plain; the virgin forest; the next unscaled mountain to conquer for the explorer Hughes.” Again, Hack’s own assessment. I apologize that you just read that and assume you feel as sick as I did. (Also, an aside: Hack insists more than once that Hughes was not impotent. It feels like the lady doth protest too much [and might possibly be projecting].)

A friend of mine encountered a podcast, just when I was reading this biography, which credited Hughes as being an ‘engineering genius.’ I can’t confirm or deny that impression, because this biography was far more interested in madness, sex, and bad behavior than it was in engineering. The book ends with a Hughes quotation: “I’m not nearly as interested in people as I should be, I guess. What I am tremendously interested in… is science.” This line, particularly as final mic-drop moment, did not fit at all with the story I’d been absorbed in for nearly 400 pages. Hack hadn’t much set up our subject as being a man of science. (I am exercising all my restraint to not make a “hack” joke here.)

Each chapter is opened by a Hughes quotation, a number of which are demeaning of women or blatantly and horrifically racist. None of these are handled within the text of the chapter – it’s just a hate bomb, followed by the continued story of Hughes’s life. It feels irresponsible, if not ugly, to drop these nuggets and then walk away without comment.

In short, the writing of this biography had me alternately creeped out and angry. Yes, the book’s 2001 copyright date was a long time ago by some measures. But I knew a lot of people even in 2001 who knew better than some of Hack’s gaffes.

I have some appreciation for the vivid telling of Hughes’s story in this work of creative nonfiction: Hack frequently gives us the play-by-play, including dialog and interior thoughts, in scene. This is fun to read, novelistic, but it raises some questions. The book ends with massively copious source notes, and it’s possible that Hack’s claims about dialogs, thoughts, and small-scale actions are well supported by evidence; but the absence of footnotes or endnotes leaves me wondering where speculation meets documented conclusion. I regret this.

I struggled very much with the telling of this story. But the story itself? Whew. Howard Hughes was many things, as claimed here and elsewhere. He was one of the richest men in the world, arguably the first American billionaire, and in a combination of personal contributions and those of his companies, massively changed aviation and motion-picture-making. He remains an important figure in the history and economy of my hometown of Houston (I have ridden my bike past his gravesite, and fun fact, my former father-in-law worked for Hughes Tool for over 50 years); I didn’t realize til this reading how many pies he had a hand in. He was not self-made (though he did massively increase his personal wealth) but born wealthy, spoiled, and privileged, and was raised in eccentric fashion, probably contributing to his later eccentricity and (I’m going to say it) insanity. It is not for me to diagnose him, but the behaviors described in this biography read as completely unhinged. He was reclusive, paranoid, a strange combination of germaphobe and filthy, a drug abuser and decidedly an abuser of people. I knew he was more or less nuts in popular opinion, but what shocked me most in these pages was not how nutty he was – I have personally known some cases – but how much he got away with. His wealth and fame surrounded him with people who did what he asked even when those asks were unreasonable, abusive, and counter to his own basic physical needs. I was surprised at how far down the rabbit hole he was allowed to travel. According to this telling, there was just one moment when Hughes’s handlers considered having him committed. The ability to keep earning money off his follies seems to have quickly defeated the thought.

I had an obviously conflicted time reading this book, but I couldn’t have put it down, either. For this I’m giving it a very conflicted rating. I’m a little tempted to go find another, better biography of Hughes for comparison and contrast, but I think I’ve spent enough time in the company of a pretty toxic character.

Strange times.

Rating: 6-and-a-half Hershey bars with almonds.

Maximum Shelf: My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 10, 2023.

My Name Is Iris by Brando Skyhorse (The Madonnas of Echo Park; Take This Man) is a chilling near-reality dystopian novel, set in an unnamed state that resembles California (and is called the “Golden State”). Protagonist Iris Prince is a second-generation Mexican American whose parents view her birthright as a gift and use the refrain “you were born here” to shame her whenever they feel her bad behavior shows a lack of gratitude. (“I am a second-generation Mexican-American daughter of Mexican immigrants, meaning that of course I was ungrateful.”) Born Inés Soto, she was glad to have her first name simplified by white schoolteachers, and then to take her husband’s last name. Iris is proud to be a rule follower, her highest ambition to blend in.

When the novel opens, Iris Prince has just left Alex, her husband of 16 years, and is determined to finally build the sanitized, magazine-cover life she’s dreamed of: a new house in a suburban neighborhood on a cul-de-sac, a new school for her nine-year-old daughter, Melanie. She has shunned her parents’ low-income home in a Spanish-speaking neighborhood (where her younger sister still lives, annoying Iris with her activism) and avoids Alex’s overtures at co-parenting or getting back together. Iris feels that her real life–coffee clubs, gardening, and white picket fences–is about to begin.

Then one morning, she looks out of her lovely new bay window to find that a wall has sprung up in her front yard. It seems permanently fixed, and no one but Iris and Melanie can see it. Her realtor and contractors claim the wall must have been there all along, until gaslit Iris wonders, “Who was I to say otherwise?” And, impossible as it is, the wall seems to be growing.

Meanwhile, a new piece of wrist-wearable tech called “the band” is sweeping across the state. Iris herself voted in favor of the proposition that established this technology as a paper-saving, easy identification to “facilitate paying for and receiving state and public services, act as a drivers’ license,… help users regulate a household’s water usage and garbage output, serve as proof of residency for your child’s enrollment in school, and potentially save the state millions of dollars.” But it turns out that, regardless of citizenship, one must have a parent born in the United States to qualify for a band. Iris’s confidence in her place in society is shaken. “Wear your bands and prove you belong here,” says the propaganda. Hatred, bigotry and intolerance quickly swell into violence. “Somehow, in an overnight or two, my social contract had been renegotiated. Politeness vanished.” Iris’s loyalties are challenged: she has long associated herself with law and order and the establishment, but those forces have turned against her, despite all her rule-following. Each morning she drops her daughter off at school, the band’s seductive glow encircling Mel’s slim wrist–due to Alex’s birthright, Mel qualifies for the privileges of the band. But Iris fears for her home and her job; her mother has been fired for her bandless status, and the family is in jeopardy. Under these pressures, Iris will have to consider just what she’ll risk to protect her hard-won sense of identity.

Skyhorse seeds his text with plenty of Spanish-language dialogue, especially with Iris’s parents and sister; non-Spanish-speaking readers will easily use context clues. In addition to this lovely linguistic texture, Skyhorse imbues his all-too-lifelike novel with fine details–Iris’s anti-nostalgia for a defunct supermarket, her love for bland ritual–and judicious use of highly impactful notes of the mysterious or the surreal. These twists of magical realism include a ghost from a childhood trauma who haunts Iris in her vulnerable moments, and of course the wall itself, which grows and morphs overnight. The wall is ever-present, at one point “almost like a co-parent,” even as it literally deprives her home of the sun’s light and heat, as well as her sense of security: “Later, when I would dream, I dreamed of walls.”

My Name Is Iris is terrifying with its proximity to reality. Iris is perhaps preoccupied with labels and appearances (as the book’s title forecasts), and not the most likable protagonist, initially; but her flaw is simply in seeking the American dream as it’s been advertised. Despite her obedience–teaching her child to always trust the police, adhering strictly to HOA rules–the world she’s trusted has turned on her. What can one woman do to fight a state security regime or a magically self-constructing wall?

This gripping dystopia poses difficult but important questions about the world as we know it and the few small steps it takes to slide into horror. Intolerance and xenophobia lurk in the most seemingly benign corners. My Name Is Iris is part social commentary and part thoughtful consideration of themes that include family, identity, transitions, perspectives, and hope. In addition to being an engrossing, discomfiting tale, this will make an excellent book club selection and fuel for tough conversations.

Rating: 6 chanclas.

Come back Monday for my interview with Skyhorse.

Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries by Heather Fawcett

This was a fun one. Emily Wilde is an academic, and a bit of a type: grumpy, antisocial, deeply socially awkward and mostly unbothered about it; she is passionate about her work in the field of dryadology, which is faeries, or the Folk. Her hair is absolutely without exception a mess, even under the influence of magic. We meet her en route to do a season of fieldwork in the very remote, far northern village of Hrafnsvik, whose faeries, known as the “Hidden Ones,” are poorly documented. The research she hopes to accomplish here will complete the work of a decade or more, her Encyclopaedia of Faeries, whose publication should cement her academic reputation and finally get her out of adjunct work and into a position with tenure. (Those of you who know my personal life these days will hear me chuckle in bitter recognition.) This book takes the form of her journal entries, intended as notes for her professional work and as “record for those scholars who come after me should I be captured by the Folk.” Which, mild spoiler, she will be.

Emily arrives in Hrafnsvik with her loyal dog Shadow but fails to immediately thrive, because of her clumsiness with the locals (whose help she needs, whether she acknowledges it or not) and unfamiliarity with the climate (very cold). A few small quibbles with the novel’s consistency here: Emily is proud of her past expeditions into the field, which have ranged far and wide; she is far better with fieldwork than she is at working with other mortals. “I am used to humble accommodations and humble folks–I once slept in a farmer’s cheese shed in Andalusia.” But she’s also never started a fire (?!) and doesn’t know where to begin, and can’t figure out how to split wood (certainly an acquired skill; but her inability to jump in and begin feels like it belies an experience ‘in the field’). She is assessed as an ‘indoors type’ by a sneering local, at which she bristles but doesn’t disagree. And yet she does some massive mountain hikes in the course of her research; she estimates that her daily limit is twenty miles, and in precipitous conditions. In a word, these feel like inconsistencies in the character: is she an indoors type who is unable to light a fire? or is she an intrepid mountain hiker and experienced field researcher? (There is also a woman who mourns the loss of her husband. But then her daughter comes home to both parents.) Small details, perhaps, but they catch my brain distractingly. There is still much to love, however.

After Emily’s early struggles in Hrafnsvik, she is both assisted and further irritated by a new arrival: her colleague Wendell Bambleby. Famous, handsome, and well regarded in the field – if a bit academically lazy, in Emily’s view – he decides inexplicably to crash her fieldwork party, tidying up her lodgings, charming the locals, and generally causing trouble. (To highlight their different personalities, one of his first nights in town was “the most enjoyable evening I have spent in Hrafnsvik, as the villagers largely forgot about my existence amidst the gale-force winds of Bambleby’s personality. I was delighted to sit in the corner with my food and a book and speak to no one.”) The challenging local community, the region’s mysterious and intoxicating Folk, and Bambleby – both obnoxious and somehow appealing – combine to offer Emily chances she’s never really had before, in terms of research, friendship, and romance.

The result is funny, fun, frequently silly, and also suspenseful. Emily is definitely a type (the well-meaning but curmudgeonly professor), but still charming; her new acquaintances include mortals and faeries and at least one frightening faery king. Even Shadow, the loveable loyal hound, is more than he at first seems. I loved the worldbuilding aspect of dryadology, for example, the concept of oíche sidhe, a housekeeping faery driven mad by disorder. The device of Emily’s journal means we get appended faery tales, which was fun. While the Hrafnsvik story is neatly wrapped up, Emily’s own ends on a bit of a cliffhanger; this novel is book 1 in a series, and despite some small quibbles, I’m in for book 2.

Rating: 7 needle-fingers.

The World We Make by N.K. Jemisin

It’s been nearly three years since I read The City We Became, and I wish I’d spent a few minutes reviewing that one first. I still felt close to the avatars of New York’s boroughs, but New York himself (he goes by Neek, as in NYC if you pronounce the Y like ‘ee’) felt less familiar, and I’d lost track of some of the rules of Jemisin’s carefully constructed world. For slightly better results, you might want to keep book 1 a little handier than I did here, but it was still a hell of a ride.

Highlights include the personalities themselves, their relationships, and the final action scene(s). I remembered loving Manny (Manhattan), Brooklyn and Bronco (the Bronx); I feel like we get to know Padmini (Queens) better here, and I really enjoyed that. I applaud Jemisin’s work with Aislyn, the bigoted Karen-in-training avatar for Staten Island; she is unlikeable but complicated enough that the reader grudgingly sympathizes, which is a feat (and an exercise in patience and empathy that some might have excused the author for not engaging in). These avatars have had time since the last book’s action to settle in to relationships among themselves in ways that are pleasing; the characters were strong to begin with but they perform best when they play off each other (true of all characters, probably). Then there are the avatars of other cities around the world: I imagine it must have been so fun to build characters for places like London, Tokyo, Istanbul, Paris, Budapest, Kinshasa, and Amsterdam… because this novel ends up in a massive showdown. In its course, we (and our avatars) learn more about the rules of the world of living cities and their great Enemy. The threat, as threats do, grows larger and then imminent, and a major brawl ensues. This series was originally billed as a trilogy, and actually I still thought it so at book’s end; it was only in Jemisin’s acknowledgments that I learned we’re done here. I do think the ending allows room for more if she finds her energies refilled, but I understand the effects of the pandemic and Trump’s evil on her intended storytelling, and (not that she needed my permission) I can grant her this ending, too.

Three years ago, when I read The City We Became, Jemisin was new to me. Now I return to this series having since read every novel Jemisin has ever written.* With this perspective, the Great Cities duology feels both familiar and very different from her other work. This one is set in the most recognizable of her fictional worlds, closest to our own real one. The characters are modern, urban, fresh and real-world-adjacent, while the characters in her other outstanding works are realistic but recognizably otherworldly. I don’t think I have a preference, but it’s a different effect. I guess for readers more reluctant to venture into proper sci fi/fantasy, this urban version might feel friendlier.

*I have not yet read How Long ’til Black Future Month?, her short story collection, which I erroneously thought comprised works by other authors that she’d collected and edited. I would have gotten around to that eventually. But it is in fact all her own work, which means I need to get there soon.

I love the action and attitude of these living cities, and Jemisin is an important figure in my lifetime of reading. Can’t wait for more – whatever she does.

Rating: 8 sticky toffee puddings.

The Nigerwife by Vanessa Walters

In this riveting novel about a young woman’s disappearance, Lagos high society hides personal struggles and larger cultural concerns.

Vanessa Walters’s American debut, The Nigerwife, is a gripping work of suspense, a psychological puzzle, a mystery, and a critique of marriage and high society. The prologue begins: “Nicole often wondered what had happened to the body.” This foreshadowing line refers to a body floating in a trash-filled Lagos lagoon, viewed from the home of a young woman who had recently left London to join her Nigerian-born husband. This narrative perspective, “Nicole, Before,” defines every other chapter of the novel, interspersed with the viewpoint of “Claudine, After.” The pivotal event of these dual timelines is Nicole’s disappearance, which gives the prologue’s opening line new and sinister meaning.

Nicole spent years in Lagos with her husband, Tonye, and their two young sons. She ceased communication with her family in London and formed and dissolved friendships both in and out of a club called the Nigerwives. “The Nigerwives were so different, a pick ‘n’ mix of skin tones, hair textures, body shapes, and facial features, but their stories were one and the same. They had all defied the prides and prejudices of their families, sacrificed friendships and careers and independence, and followed heart and husband to Nigeria for what they believed would be an epic adventure.” For Nicole–and perhaps for other Nigerwives before her–that adventure would end badly. Between fancy dress and art openings, social posturing and boating parties, she struggled to keep her sanity and independence.

In the days after Nicole goes missing, the aunt who raised her travels to Lagos to look for answers. Claudine does not know Tonye’s family well and is dismayed to find how little the family or the police seem to be doing to find Nicole. “She could see [the household help had] been warned not to tell her anything, not even what time of day it was, though they were very respectful clams.” The more she attempts to unravel her estranged niece’s life, the greater her fear that she’s arrived too late. As their timelines progress, Claudine and Nicole each work separately to sort out the family issues that drove them apart, which will not be revealed to readers until the story’s end.

With a sense of foreboding, The Nigerwife considers overlapping loyalties and betrayals and the strict constraints of marriage, family, gender, and culture. Nigeria’s largest city is ruled by glamour, glitz and materialism; motivations for marriage include love, financial and political gain, and cultural compatibility. Various characters criticize Lagos and Nigeria, but this is not the novel’s aim. Rather, Walters’s inexorably paced plot examines institutions and the choices women face. “Nothing compensated for having family around to look out for you. But then, what kind of family?” This engrossing novel both entertains, with the mystery at its heart, and provokes questions that go far beyond Nicole’s personal story.

This review originally ran in the April 7, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 hidden knives.

The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey by Tom Walker

This unforgettable portrait and travelogue of an individual Alaska gray wolf gorgeously and thoughtfully illuminates issues for the species and for all Arctic wildlife.

Tom Walker (Wild Shots; Alaska Wildlife; The Seventymile Kid), an accomplished photographer, author and longtime Alaskan, turns his naturalist expertise to a single individual animal emblematic of a larger story in The Wanderer: An Alaska Wolf’s Final Journey.

“On the northern frontier of Canada and Alaska sprawls a wilderness largely devoid of human imprint.” Walker outlines his subjects broadly: the land, its natural and human histories, flora and fauna and variations in land use over centuries. He transports his readers to early November of 2010, to the slopes above Copper Creek, where two gray wolves roam: an older female, already collared as Wolf 227, and her younger male companion. Biologists spot them from a helicopter and descend to tag him as Wolf 258, although Walker will call him the Wanderer (with some protest from scientists, who prefer the impersonal numbering system over names, even the archetypal). Over the following 11 months, GPS tracking shows the Wanderer traveling nearly 3,000 miles, earning his nickname in a lengthy quest for prey, territory, and a mate.

Walker narrates this journey in detail, with lyricism and a clear love for the land and life forms he describes, using his informed imagination to provide specifics where the GPS collar cannot. “The Coleen tumbles through treeless highlands that in summer are resplendent with wildflowers. Between storms, the crystalline waters rush lyrically over the cobblestones…. In summer, lupine and fireweed bloom in willow thickets alive with breeding songbirds and ptarmigan.” In Walker’s telling, with the benefit of expert biologists’ opinions, the Wanderer makes repeated inexplicable decisions: to turn away from abundant prey and to move into areas of greater risk from humans or other wolves–although he will generally be lucky in avoiding threats. Through his choices and movements, readers consider broader questions about habitat, climate change, predator/prey relationships, and the rights of human vs. animal hunters. (Walker relates the history of predator control policies in Alaska and throughout the U.S.)

Stunning photographs and essential maps help readers follow the Wanderer’s ramblings. Intermingled with his meticulous account of the wolf’s wanderings, Walker handles related subjects: geology and natural history; Alaska politics; remarkable stories of animal and human life in the Arctic; pack dynamics; and the changing habits and habitats of species the wolf interacts with, including caribou, grizzly bears, Dall sheep, Arctic ground squirrels, moose, and muskox. The Wanderer is a deeply enjoyable example of creative nonfiction and nature writing: literary, lovely, meditative in its pacing, informative and clear.

This review originally ran in the April 6, 2023 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.

Rating: 7 artic ground squirrels.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches by Sangu Mandanna

I no longer remember where I got this recommendation, but it was a *great* one.

In the opening pages we meet Mika Moon, a young Indian-born witch living in modern-day England. She was raised by a quickly-turning-over series of tutors and nannies, who were in turn employed by an elder witch named Primrose. Primrose is the keeper of the Rules for witches: in a nutshell, witches live in secret and in minimal contact with one another, because witches together mean too much magical dangerously combining in small spaces. Mika is lonely. As a relief valve for her enthusiasm for witchiness, she releases videos on her YouTube channel in which she brews potions and casts spells: it’s not meant to be taken seriously, of course. So she’s alarmed to be caught out by a strange offer to tutor three young witches at a mysterious estate called Nowhere House.

Mika struggles to balance her own strong desire for companionship, community, even family, and her passion for her work, with her grudging respect for Primrose’s Rules. Three little witches in one space should be very dangerous indeed, especially because (like young skunks!) they’re not yet in full control of their powers. Nowhere House turns out to be magical in many ways for Mika, though. She is just beginning to find the kind of kinship she feared would never be an option for someone like her – someone different – when it turns out there are still more layers of secrets than she’d realized.

The Very Secret Society of Irregular Witches is a lovely book. With themes involving outsiderness and the search for belonging, the risks of relating to other people, built families, passion for one’s calling, and every kind of love, it’s a beautiful, affirming study in humanity. Central characters show a nice diversity in age, ethnicity and sexuality. Especially with its realistic, fully-formed child characters, it feels like it wants to be friendly to young adults (such positive messages!), and I was going to classify it as such for nearly 300 pages – at which point there occurred a pretty heavy sex scene, so keep that in mind.

I’d recommend this to anyone – even kids if you’re ready to expose them to sex! – and am anxious to see more from Mandanna. I am so charmed.

Rating: 9 star fragments.

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

Another winner from Liz. It felt for a split second like it was going to be a bit too easy a meet-cute, but things got immediately complicated for the better.

The first thing the reader sees at the start of Part I is a brief annotation to Roald Dahl’s story “Lamb to the Slaughter,” by an A.J.F. (we assume, the title character). These annotations begin each chapter, but it takes a while to discern their intended destination or use.

Next is a chapter starring Amelia Loman, whom we meet painting her nails yellow on a ferry ride from Hyannis to Alice Island. She has a mild hangover but still feels upbeat about the appointment she’s ferrying toward: she’s a new publishing sales rep going to call on A.J. Fikry, proprietor of Island Books. Amelia is a likeable character, but A.J. – first encountered through her eyes – is prickly. I was surprised to learn that he is just thirty-nine years old, because my first impression was of a crusty old curmudgeon of a shopkeeper (a ‘type’ I recognize from bike shops, but bookstores will do just as well). He certainly fits the type, just younger than I’d originally guessed. And after that first chapter, Zevin wisely takes us from Amelia’s focus (in the close third person) to A.J.’s. I love a jerk whose bad behavior is suddenly complicated and made sympathetic by backstory.

A.J. has suffered a major loss, and he is a jerk – or at least he’s coping poorly – but then the unexpected strikes. It’s not Amelia, as I’d originally thought. It’s something a little different, and my synopsis stops here.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry is delightful. It has grumpy but endearing book nerdiness; earnest, messy human emotion; the complications of grief and loss and family; whimsy and mishaps; and yes, a little romance. Also, a bookshop in a small town, with all the social drama and love and support that that can entail. It’s definitely on the sweet side, approaching precious, but never saccharine; I’m pretty sure when Liz recommended it she acknowledged that it would be best read in a mood for something sweet and light-ish, but it’s not the least bit fluffy, and even involves a sequence about the line between fiction and memoir and does it even matter? I read it in a single day and wish it had lasted longer. I could sink into the world of A.J. et al much further. I am off to see what else Zevin has written. Do recommend.

Rating: 8 vampires.

Murder Your Employer: The McMasters Guide to Homicide by Rupert Holmes

So you’ve decided to commit a murder.


Murder Your Employer is a genre mash-up, and great fun. It purports to be a how-to manual on how to commit a murder (the Conservatory prefers “deletion”) without getting caught – in this case, specifically the deletion of one’s employer, with future volumes promised. (Other popular deletions include work rivals, financial advisors and spouses.) The book’s narrator is Dean Harbinger Harrow – Dean being not a first name but a title, as he serves as Dean of the McMasters Conservatory for the Applied Arts, a top-secret institution that trains would-be deletists to remain successful and forever unknown. It contains narratives within, however: short on actual training-manual-style directives, instead the bulk is made up of examples in the form of the stories of three McMasters students, all majoring in employer deletions.

The central protagonist is Cliff Iverson, who botched his first attempt to murder the toxic, womanizing, belligerent boss at his aircraft manufacturing job. Instead of criminal charges, he faces involuntary admission to McMasters (for very mysterious reasons). We are treated to his journal throughout, as well as the Dean’s notes on the progress of Cliff and two fellow students: Gemma Lindley, who needs to get rid of her blackmailing boss, and a woman known at the school as Dulcie Mown, although everyone finds her dimly familiar (the reader knows why).

So we have a how-to-manual, framing an epistolary novel (journal entries and other documents), in an idyllic boarding school milieu, on the absurdist subject of ‘an education in murder,’ filled with wordplay, puns and humor, with a certain amount of suspense as our three students aim to successfully complete their theses (intended deletions), wrapped up in a mystery (who is responsible for Cliff’s enrollment at McMasters in the first place?). Oh and the setting is historical, in the 1950s, so bookies and bad guys have a certain style and type. It is a mad, beautiful mess of genres, and I found it enormous fun (despite a rather crabby review from Kirkus, who does not think it cute). Yes: it does require a fair amount of suspension of disbelief; I would think that would be obvious, since it’s a slightly unhinged promotion of the murderous arts. (Somewhat in their defense, McMasters does have some moral standards. Make sure your target is deserving and all other options have been exhausted; no innocent bystanders; certainly no serial killings or mass murders; etc.) It’s ridiculous and it knows it (think The Princess Bride).

The pacing is not snappy, but I thought it was nice to linger with each of our characters – Harrow rather silly, Cliff earnest and serious, Gemma haunted, Dulcie driven – and in the slightly cartoonish historical setting. The McMasters world itself is a sort of madcap Opposite Day, and the ‘real’ world features caricatures. Dean Harrow is a bit of a buffoon (and yes, pun-obsessed). It was fun and, I admit, relaxing. The whole conceit is ludicrous enough that it let me let go. I don’t think real life murders are cute, but this book surely is.

Rating: 7 MacArthur-style sunglasses.
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