The Trespasser by Tana French (audio)

The Trespasser is the sixth book in Tana French’s ‘Dublin Murder Squad’ series, starring Antoinette Conway and her partner Steve Moran. Conway is chafing at her mistreatment by the rest of the murder squad, the good old boys’ club that hates her (she interprets) for being a woman, for having brown skin, for not playing their games. Moran’s all right, a good partner, and more or less loyal – she brought him into the squad, after all – but she has trouble trusting him entirely. It’s just a part of her personality, and/or, a result of the continuing abuse and harassment she experiences.

They work the night shift, and keep getting assigned low-level domestics and bar fights. Until Aislinn Murray: a Dream Date Barbie-type in a magazine-perfect flat, with a shadowy past. The squad pushes Conway and Moran to settle this one quickly, by charging the obvious suspect: a new boyfriend who had a date with Aislinn the night she died. But the two young detectives have some more complicated theories in mind. The Trespasser is part “straight” murder mystery, as they race to solve Aislinn’s murder, but it’s also part murder-squad intrigue, and a hefty part psychological drama: Conway has some formidable strengths, but it seems one of her greatest weaknesses is a certain suspicion, not to say paranoia, that makes it hard for her to trust Moran or anyone. In Tana French’s signature style, much of the turmoil of the story takes place not in exterior action but inside Conway’s head, as she argues with herself about what she can believe in.

In the middle, this one got a bit slow for me, and like The Witch Elm could have used some acceleration; but by the end, it zipped along as cracklingly as the best of French’s work. I still hold The Likeness to be her finest, but this one is solid.

And then, holy smokes, talk about amnesia. I just searched this blog for previous Tana French reviews and found that I’d read this one shortly before its 2016 publication. I can’t believe it – not for a moment did it feel familiar. I’m losing my mind. Previous review here, and I’m keeping the rating. This reading seems a bit different from that first experience in that I detected a slow-down in the middle; also, reading vs. listening makes a big difference with French’s atmospheric, heavily Irish stories. I love hearing them done aloud with the accents and the musical lilt and pacing, and wouldn’t want to consider reading them if I had the audio version available!

I can’t believe I forgot this book.


Rating: 8 schemes.

Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard

My buddy Vince lent me his copy of this very slim collection (just three essays, under 70 pages), saying he’d found it very comforting early in the pandemic and social isolation, and pointing out that the essays refer to Dillard’s time in the Pacific Northwest, when isolation was a bit of a theme for her.

My relationship with Dillard’s writing has been complicated since the beginning, when I read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek and loved it, but not without qualification. We’ve had our ups and downs. When I found out that the rose-printing, bloody-pawed cat at the beginning of that book was a fiction, my trust was broken, and it turns out that I’m still dealing with that.

The three essays that make up Holy the Firm feel representative of Dillard’s work, although perhaps a bit at the abstract end of the spectrum, with fewer (as I told Vince) sticks and bugs than I prefer. It’s the minutia, the close attention to sticks and bugs, that I loved most about Pilgrim. And I am not the intended audience for musings on God, religion, or the church. I found myself often screwing up my face, a bit impatient with her (and when she describes her cat’s behaviors, I’m still hung up on the made-up cat, and unable to buy in). Put briefly, I’m sure this brief collection has a lot to offer the right reader, but it wasn’t for me on the whole.

There were, however, some lovely lines.

The earth is a mineral speckle planted in trees.

It is the best joke there is, that we are here, and fools–that we are sown into time like so much corn, that we are souls sprinkled at random like salt into time and dissolved here…

Yet some have imagined well, with honesty and art, the detail of such a life, and have described it with such grace, that we mistake vision for history, dream for description, and fancy that life has devolved.

On the other hand, I was suspicious of Dillard’s claim that “No drugs ease the pain of third-degree burns, because burns destroy skin: the drugs simply leak into the sheets.” (Indeed, a few websites indicate otherwise.) I’m not sure I believe in the burning moth in the first essay; I’m suspicious of the story of Julie Norwich (and offended by some of Dillard’s gendered expectations for her). This author and I may not be made for each other. We may have different priorities; we certainly have different rules for what constitutes nonfiction. But I still get to keep what I loved about Pilgrim. It’s nice that books work that way.

My favorite passage in the whole book was the one about buying communion wine.

How can I buy the communion wine? Who am I to buy the communion wine? Someone has to buy the communion wine… Shouldn’t I be wearing robes and, especially, a mask? Shouldn’t I make the communion wine? Are there holy grapes, is there holy ground, is anything here holy? There are no holy grapes, there is no holy ground, nor is there anyone but us…

I’m out on the road again walking, and toting a backload of God.

In the end, I’m left with a sense of dissatisfaction with the essays as a whole, and a sense of grumpiness toward Dillard. But in the details, in individual lines, I definitely found moments to love. Perhaps more than ever, keep in mind that your reaction to this book will be different than my own – recall Vince’s recommendation and appreciation. To each her own.


Rating: 5 accidents.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

“This book is very close to perfect,” says the front-cover blurb by Seanan McGuire, and I confess I raised my eyebrows. But I just finished this book, and I agree.

I’m going to take an unusual step and repost my colleague’s review of this book as published by Shelf Awareness (on March 2, 2020), because I think it’s an excellent review and it’s why I purchased this book. (Which is not my typical fare.) My comments follow. Thanks, Jaclyn, for your good work!

A repressed orphanage inspector takes a stand for six magical children and their charismatic caretaker in this humorous, inclusive love story.

In this sparkling romantic fantasy, TJ Klune pits a mild-mannered paper pusher against the forces of discrimination, inhumane bureaucracy and precocious children, with hilarious and inspiring results.

“Make sure the children are safe… from each other, and themselves,” Extremely Upper Management of the Department in Charge of Magical Youth (DICOMY) instructs 40-year-old Linus Baker. Linus’s thankless task is inspecting orphanages that house magical children. He blanches at the children’s powers but treats them kindly and believes his work supports their welfare. His quiet life with his old Victrola and “thing of evil” cat Calliope gets interrupted when administration dispatches him to remote Marsyus Island Orphanage, home of six especially unusual children.

Though no stranger to telekinesis or witchcraft, Linus balks at the group: a distrustful forest sprite, a button-hoarding wyvern, a female garden gnome who swings a mean shovel, a boy who turns into a Pomeranian when frightened, a green blob who likes to play bellhop and “Lucy,” the six-year-old son of the Devil. However, their gentle, unflappable caretaker, Arthur Parnassus, unsettles Linus most of all. He exhibits no intimidation at parenting the magical equivalent of a nuclear warhead, and Linus, “a consummate professional,” finds himself attracted to the orphanage’s master in a most unprofessional manner.

However, his reservations about the children fade as Linus gets to know them and sees Arthur’s commitment to giving them a thoughtful, loving upbringing. The intention of remaining detached and going home in one piece evaporates when Linus learns that the island’s non-magical inhabitants have threatened the children. Nevertheless, Arthur Parnassus is more than he seems and, sooner or later, Linus will have to choose between remaining safe but complicit in an oppressive system or standing up for the people he has come to love.

Stuffed with quirky characters and frequently hilarious, this inclusive fantasy is quite possibly the greatest feel-good story ever to involve the Antichrist. Klune, who has previously won the Lambda Literary Award for Best Gay Romance (Into this River I Drown), constructs a tender, slow-burn love story between two endearingly flawed but noble men who help each other find the courage to show their true selves. Charged with optimism and the assertion that labels do not define people or their potential, The House in the Cerulean Sea will delight fans of Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and any reader looking for a burst of humor and hope.

Jaclyn Fulwood, blogger at Infinite Reads

It started just a hair slow for me, perhaps because the style and genre weren’t what I’d been involved with lately (or much ever), but soon the magnetism of the story took hold. Linus is frustratingly meek; it took me a minute to get invested in his future. But there is certainly magic here, not only in the fun, quirky, vulnerable children, but in Klune’s imagination and the lovely house in the sea. By the end, I cried. This book is just deeply sweet, and sometimes we need that. It’s also got some powerful messages about acceptance, authenticity, honesty, and the value of a built or chosen family; and those messages are nicely couched in a story that is sweet but not precious. I found it most moving; TJ Klune has a new fan. I’m so glad I stepped away from my standard reading material. We all need that sometimes.


Rating: 9 buttons.

personal news: cross-post from Foxy

Just a little bit about what’s going on in my life these days; back to book reviews tomorrow. Moving In and Moving On.

Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir by Natasha Trethewey

A former U.S. Poet Laureate remembers her mother, and wrestles with her brutal murder, in compelling and feeling style.

Natasha Trethewey, two-term United States Poet Laureate, forges a serious, poignant work of remembrance with Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir. Trethewey’s mother, Gwen, is the focus of this book: the daughter’s memories and what she’s forgotten, and, pointedly, the mother’s murder at the hands of her second ex-husband. The murder took place just off Memorial Drive in Atlanta, Ga.; the aptly named thoroughfare runs from downtown to Stone Mountain, monument to the Confederacy, “a lasting metaphor for the white mind of the South.”

Trethewey is the daughter of an African American mother and a white Canadian father. Their marriage was illegal; she was born just before the Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court case that struck down laws banning interracial marriage. Memorial Drive begins with her upbringing in Mississippi with her doting extended maternal family, necessarily recounting her early understanding of race and racism. This happy period ends abruptly with mother and daughter’s move to Atlanta, when Trethewey’s parents divorce. Atlanta has its strengths, such as a vibrant African American community, but very quickly, Gwen meets the man who will become her second husband. From the beginning, Joel is a sinister figure. Twelve years later, 19-year-old Trethewey returns to Atlanta from college to clean out her mother’s apartment after Joel brutally murders Gwen.

While this central event is harrowing, Memorial Drive does not focus only there. Trethewey ruminates on memory and forgetfulness, and recalls her developing love for and skill with metaphor, language, writing. Back home in Mississippi, her great-aunt “would appear each day at the back door, singing my name through the screen, her upturned palm holding out toward me three underripe figs… she was teaching me the figurative power of objects, their meaningful juxtapositions.” During the painful retelling of her stepfather’s physical abuse of her mother, Trethewey resorts to the second person, a whole chapter delivered to her younger herself. Concluding: “Look at you. Even now you think you can write yourself away from that girl you were, distance yourself in the second person, as if you weren’t the one to whom any of this happened.” Memories of her mother often appear as images, offering symbolic interpretations of the 12-year gap left by trauma. While Trethewey does pursue forensic exploration (transcripts of recorded phone calls between Gwen and Joel, as well as a visit to a psychic), this memoir is more introspection than true-crime investigation. And it is gracefully and gorgeously rendered, as befits a poet of Trethewey’s stature.

Trethewey declines to offer a neat conclusion, but she succeeds in making meaning from pain. Memorial Drive is loving and elegiac, disturbing and incisive.


This review originally ran in the June 18, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 lost records.

Bottled Goods by Sophie van Llewyn

An unusual story of 1970s Communist Romania with a thread of magical realism, told in flash-style snippets.

Bottled Goods, Sophie van Llewyn’s first novel, is a curious story of oppression set in 1970s Communist Romania, featuring a young woman pressing against the confines not only of culture and state but of family. Largely realistic, the narrative takes the odd, surprising turn toward magical realism, making the already strange world of heavily monitored government control feel stranger still.

Readers first meet Alina as a girl, then a young single woman, working as a translator and tour guide on the Romanian coast. It is here that she meets her future husband, a history student (later professor) named Liviu. While Alina comes from a background of privilege and property, lost when the Communists took power, Liviu comes from privation, which he does not let her forget. When they marry, “It was not a wedding, but a documentary about customs and traditions that she had been watching, trapped inside the bride’s body.” Trapped indeed in several ways, she goes to work as an elementary schoolteacher–which she dislikes–but life is tolerable until Liviu’s brother defects to France. Then the Secret Services enter their lives and everything changes.

Luckily or unluckily, Alina has an aunt with connections to the government, to whom she turns for help. Aunt Theresa’s assistance varies from intervention with the authorities to entanglements with fairies and strigoi (Romanian folk spirits). When Alina gets desperate, the fairies’ form of help will upturn her life yet again.

The short chapters in Bottled Goods resemble pieces of flash fiction (van Llewyn’s accustomed form). Some unfold in first-person narration, some in third person; some take the form of lists, postcards or how-tos. This formal variation puts readers slightly off-balance, as Alina is continually off-balance, trying to navigate the dizzying rules of her society and increasingly frustrating relationships with her husband and her mother, among others. Van Llewyn’s prose, often simple and unadorned, has moments of lovely imagery: “The beach is a conglomerate of eyes glazing her as if she were an apple.”

Though not always entirely likable, Alina is an insistent protagonist, pulling readers along relentlessly. The magical elements of her story play well off the mundane and the grotesque in everyday life, with surprisingly charming details throughout. Fluid in form, often stark in style and surrealistic in subject matter, Bottled Goods is a strange and compelling story about freedom of choice and those we choose to keep near to us.


This review originally ran in the June 16, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 pairs of Levi’s blue jeans.

Curious Atoms: A History with Physics by Susanne Paola Antonetta

Full disclosure: the author was a professor and mentor of mine at Western Washington University.

Curious Atoms is an essay chapbook, 50-some pages in length, dealing with physics and the author’s own life experiences: part memoir and part science, told by a serious reader of physics but with no formal training in the hard sciences (as far as I can tell). “A History with Physics” feels like an apt subtitle.

There is a certain density to this subject matter. For one thing, admittedly I neither much understand nor much care about the theoretical physics discussed here; I had to let it go by, try to meet it where I found it and move on. But it didn’t hinder my appreciation for the writing, because a great writer can carry us through any subject. (Although I might have gotten more out of this had I been more comfortable with quantum whatnots.) The physics might challenge you as it did me. The personal material is heavy in a different way; Antonetta delves into her experience with bipolar disorder, with mental health and treatment, stigma, medication, and more. She’s also a deeply intelligent and well-read narrator, ranging widely. It’s not an easy read in a few ways, but a rewarding one. I love that wide-ranging headiness, and I loved feeling like I could hear the voice again of a woman I got to hear speak in a classroom a few days a week – that was a real privilege.

Here are a few lovely, thought-provoking, representative lines.

To bring to the lyric the mind and body that I have, and speak from the lyric soul, I cannot. I’m not sure what of mine can be called mine, body or mind; the lyric, with textbook definition of “the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker,” wants a warm hand, not mineral. I am not an individual, quite, but a chemo-dual.

That “our bodies of difference,” as Stephen Kuusisto writes, “offer crucial ways of knowing” I do believe. I can only give the cellular knowing of my chemical history, with the punctuation of what I suppose I really am, unmixed: hysteria under the bed, glitter. I can talk about 1970s psychiatry, the time I first encountered as a girl patients preyed on sexually, the awful, always visible electroshock machine, used as treatment and threat, its aftermath a gelled amnesia. I do not think, however, that such memoirizing would get to the question.

Gifted memoirist writes that memoirizing is not the solution. Note the interest in the idea of dualism or multiplicity, as in the multiverse, as in bipolar, as in the highs and lows of minds and lives.

Better still – I apologize that this review is half quoted text, but David Lazar’s brief introduction is too perfect to pass up. I think he describes the collection perfectly, and I couldn’t agree with his final statement more.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s essays are full of erudition and stunning self-appraisals, hair-pin turns between metaphysics and splintered pieces of autobiography, dark energy and light asides, tossed off like hand grenades. These essays are sculpted – I’m tempted to say forged (so necessary is each sentence, even each word one feels). Yet in the midst of work so exorbitantly cooked, the raw springs of the felt occasion drive the essayist through her thought-projects. I loved being in the company of this mind.

You can view the entire chapbook here, and you really should.


Rating: 8 sides.

No Middle Name: The Complete Collected Jack Reacher Short Stories by Lee Child

All the Reacher short stories! I thought I could take this one in chunks, but no: I stayed up later than I should have to rush through the whole thing, as per usual. I loved it.

I’d read “Second Son” before, but I was glad at another chance. It’s definitely one of those that requires a suspension of disbelief, as Reacher at (I think) thirteen is just a slightly smaller version of himself: badass, a fighter, and very clever. He solves two mysteries for the MPs, which seems a bit unrealistic, although also an excellent backstory for a later MP.

I’d also read “Small Wars,” but I doubted my memory of the ending, which made it fun again. There is an element almost of a Poirot-style detective in Reacher’s intuition, his ability to take scattered facts and build a whole story out of them.

Some of these stories star Reacher in adulthood, in his post-military rambling stage, which is when most of the novels are also set, and some see him still in the Army. But we also have several instances of teenaged Reacher. These are fun for me, although they make that mistake, as mentioned above, of treating younger Reacher as a miniature (still very large) version of adult Reacher. Whatever; it’s a departure from realism, but the Reacher corpus is not about hyper-realism. “Everyone Talks” is told from the first-person perspective of a character who’s not Reacher, and according to my memory, that’s unique. I appreciated the variety, being a bit outside his own perspective. By contrast with longer stories of 40+ pages (“High Heat” runs over 70), some of these stories are very short, almost vignettes, and might serve as character studies of Reacher himself: what does a guy like this do in a particular situation, that sort of thing. He’s a problem solver, he’s a hero, he’s an eccentric, he does the right thing. He’s a romantic, and a sexual creature, and he uses his fists, but with a code.

As a collection, I think No Middle Name is an excellent addition to the Reacher world, satisfying fans’ desires both for plot, storytelling, and action, and the Reacher character himself. (Also the odd romance or sex, which I think is a well-established if secondary element.) Longer, more involved stories come earlier in the collection; it wraps with several shorter ones. The final story, “The Picture of the Lonely Diner” (reference to the Hopper painting), felt like the perfect closer. Again, I thought short stories might help me take smaller sips of the fiction I love, but I ended up binging as usual, so consider that a warning of sorts. Possibly a good entry point for a curious reader. Certainly, a great read for the established fan.


Rating: 8 lines of adult dialog.

bonus post: Shelf Awareness Turns 15!

Please pardon the extra post on a Tuesday, for this pleasing big news. I loved yesterday’s email, and hope you will too. Shelf Awareness Turns 15.

four Hunger Games movies (2012-2015)

They made the three Hunger Games books into four movies, which I watched over a week or so with halfhearted interest. This is a brief review, but tldr: the books are better.

It was neat to see the characters brought alive onscreen. The visual interest of the Capital and its weird denizens was not, I think, exploited to its potential, but it was still worth seeing. And I confess I am as susceptible as anyone to the appeal of seeing the young love play out live-and-in-person (sort of). I was disappointed with the casting of Peeta’s character at first, but he won me over. Gale just looked old – too old for the character’s age – like, as usual, they picked a 30-year-old to play a 17-year-old. (Turns out Liam Hemsworth was 22 when the first movie came out, but this was my reaction.) Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss felt a little unconvincing; or maybe the acting in the final two movies (when her character is herself failing as an actor in the Mockingjay role) was a little too good? Most of my impressions can be summed up as ‘meh.’ The biggest problem, of course, is the one consistent with book-to-movie adaptations: they couldn’t fit the story and all its nuance, backstory, character motivation, interiority, etc. into this format. The movies failed to develop the history of Panem and of Katniss’s own family; they cut too many minor but instructive sideplots; minor characters were underdeveloped (Cinna!!) or missing; and Katniss’s thoughts and feelings, which make her human and complicated and conflicted, were entirely lost. I understand the challenge. It’s hard to do thoughts and feelings without straight narration, which comes with issues and dragginess of its own. But I thought a lot of what was best about Collins’s novels was missing from these films. I can see the appeal, and note I watched all four movies. But I watched them with about 65% of my attention. I think my recommendation would be to just stick to the books.

Anybody read the new prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes yet? Reviews are indifferent; not sure I’ll bother. Oh, well. The trilogy’s pretty great!


Rating: 5 meals.
%d bloggers like this: