The Old Place by Bobby Finger

An irritable retiree in a small Texas town stars in this sweet, poignant story about community, secrets and all the ways to love.

Bobby Finger’s unforgettable debut novel, The Old Place, hits the rare and satisfying double note of harrowing and delightful. Roughly 90 minutes outside of San Antonio, Tex., a recently retired schoolteacher navigates various relationships and juggles old secrets in the kind of small community where everyone thinks they know everything about everybody else. Mary Alice Roth is a compelling, although decidedly prickly, protagonist; secondary characters only sweeten this heart-wrenching, warm-and-fuzzy small-town drama.

In the opening pages, Mary Alice is furious at being forced out of her job, and at the young woman–new to town and newly wed into an old family–hired to replace her. She tentatively renews her friendship with neighbor Ellie, hinting at one of the novel’s first slow reveals: the two women (one widowed, one divorced) had sons the same age who were also best friends, until a double tragedy. As readers puzzle over the deaths of Mary Alice’s husband and son, her (also long-estranged) sister, Katherine, shows up unannounced and unwelcome, all the way from Atlanta. Mary Alice continues her practice of bullying and haranguing the local ladies in preparation for the annual church picnic (“All the money spent there, whether on raffles or games or rides or food, went to Him whether you believed or not”). Katherine prods her to take responsibility for an old wrong, and together they reopen old wounds. Ellie privately nurses a new romance, only adding to the ever-twisting mysteries and secrets. Mary Alice’s replacement, the newcomer, offers a refreshing outside perspective as a native New Yorker who is as surprised as anyone at how much she loves her new home.

The Old Place muses over the stereotypes of a town like Billington, Tex., where privacy is scarce and prejudices persist, but where forgiveness and even redemption may just be possible. Mary Alice is a difficult woman to like, but the people who surround her–and the life she’s lived–keep her from being pure villain. By the novel’s second half, everyone is more nuanced than they originally seemed, and the fictional Billington feels as multifaceted and significant as any real hometown. Finger is expert at the careful disclosure of one secret after another, and his characters capture hearts and imaginations. His novel beautifully profiles the iconic small town, both holding it accountable and celebrating its quiet humanity. “Even a town in decline never really stops growing. People may leave, but their stories remain, reverberating in the bones of all those left behind.” At its heart, The Old Place is about the way people relate to one another: family, neighbors, new and old friends. The messiness, pain and grace of these relationships are candidly portrayed in a story that will inspire laughter and tears, making this debut a memorable achievement indeed.


This review originally ran in the July 26, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 tubs of potato salad.

Fingersmith by Sarah Waters (audio)

I got this title off some list of bests somewhere, and queued it up behind In the Woods on the return trip from Texas. It was a delightful, weird, engrossing adventure. I am going to be careful and vague with this one, as it hinges on big reveals that I don’t wish to spoil.

Set in Victorian London, Fingersmith begins with the first-person narration of Sue Trinder, an orphan who has been raised by a household of ‘honest thieves’ and a mother figure, Mrs. Sucksby. Sue and her comrades are fingersmiths, or pickpockets (and they partake in other crimes and cons, mostly of the property reassignment category). One day Sue is invited into a masterful heist: she will pose as lady’s maid to an innocent, sheltered woman of just her own age, the also-orphaned Maud Lilly, to aid in a fellow crook’s seduction of the lady. He will then marry her, steal her fortune, and have her locked away in a madhouse (which is sinfully easy to do to women, in those times and into quite recent history). Sue has never been a lady’s maid before, so she has much to learn about the job, but off she goes. The plot proceeds, but Sue’s loyalties become split, as it turns out she rather likes her mistress.

This is just the very beginning of the complications. But then! Part two! The first-person perspective shifts, which I did not see coming. And everything the reader thought she knew about this story gets turned on its head. I will stop writing about plot now, but it continued to surprise me, repeatedly, and Waters gets full marks for this feat. Also, I was not expecting erotica, which popped up a few times to (again) surprise me and was remarkably well done. Fingersmith is absolutely a plot to get thoroughly lost in; really great road trip fodder. I did feel in the middle that it dragged on a bit longer than it needed to – especially when the victim of this or that plot must wallow in her misfortune. I could take much less of the wallowing. But eventually we stepped out of that puddle, and the story continued to twist and turn; I was riveted right until the end, and was sorry to be done. Masterfully plotted; do recommend.


Rating: 8 ink stains.

The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe

Janelle Monáe’s book is a collection of linked stories – quite long ones – with a handful of coauthors listed, by story (see image below). As the subtitle indicates, the book is a companion, or an expansion, of Monáe’s album Dirty Computer. I know concept albums, and I know accompanying movies (The Wall being a big one for me), but this is the first time I can remember seeing a book version. The Memory Librarian expands on the album’s worldview, and does some mighty worldbuilding; I am pleased.

The opening Introduction, “Breaking Dawn,” was a bit weird and abstract for me; I felt like I was missing something, so it took me a few pages to engage. But the first story, “The Memory Librarian,” took right off. I had to learn about the world we’re in, which was consistent throughout the book – the stories didn’t really have recurring characters (except in the most glancing references), but it was definitely the same world. New Dawn is the authoritarian power, policing its cities and towns with cameras on drones and fearsome Rangers patrolling the streets. People are referred to as computers and must be “clean,” or free from difference, weirdness, subversion, creativity; if they are found to be dirty, they will be cleansed. Notably, queerness is considered “dirty,” and racism is alive and well in New Dawn too. A state-approved drug called Nevermind helps to erase memories; outlaw substances or “remixes” free the mind, in ways that New Dawn absolutely does not approve.

“The Memory Librarian” focuses on a young, ambitious woman named Seshet, with a promising career as (yes) a memory librarian under New Dawn, although as a Black, queer woman she must watch her back hard too. She collects people’s memories (which they can exchange for currency) and helps keep them “clean.” Her own past is mostly lost to her. But then she meets a compelling woman and has to question her relationship to New Dawn, to authority, to her own history, her loyalties and the value of memories and dreams. This story had me fully invested; I was rooting for Seshet and Alethia, and feeling the pressures of their world. Then “Nevermind” introduced the Hotel Pynk, and the gender politics at play even among an apparently progressive feminist enclave. “Timebox” featured a toxic relationship that quite upset but also intrigued me; I think this will be one of the more memorable stories for me. “Save Changes” handles family (and the inheritance of resistance), and “Timebox Altar[ed]” stars children, and brings in more hope than I felt in any previous stories; it has a dreamy, colorful mood that felt good as a way to end the book.

I enjoyed both the stories in their creative concepts and the ways in which they were executed (written). I appreciated the emphasis on the value of diversity (in so many ways) and the importance of art, free thinking, and the freedom to be weird. I liked that these stories trended longer – from 50 to 80-some pages, long enough to get well involved (plus their interconnectedness). I continue to be a Monáe fan, and I’m very impressed with her entry into this different medium. I assume the coauthors brought something useful to that process; and I think it’s worth noting that even though Monáe was joined by a different one for each story, they fit together seamlessly. Someone was on top of the editing. Solid effort; do recommend.


Rating: 7 masks.

Boys Come First by Aaron Foley

Three gay, Black, millennial men in Detroit face romantic, professional and existential challenges together in this deeply engaging novel about the importance of friendship.

With Boys Come First, Aaron Foley (How to Live in Detroit Without Being a Jackass) offers a delightful novel about romantic and career ambitions, friendship and the particular charms of and challenges faced by gay Black millennial men in Detroit. Chapters alternate perspectives among a lovable trio of friends.

Readers first meet Dominick as he departs New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen in a fluster: the start-up advertising firm he’d taken a chance on has just failed, immediately before he walked in on his boyfriend of eight years with another man. Dom flees home to Detroit to lick his wounds and reconnect with his old friend Troy. Troy teaches sixth grade at a charter school, eschewing his father’s considerable wealth in favor of giving back to the community, but he’s frustrated in his relationship with a domineering boyfriend, and the school’s charter is now under threat. Feeling a little stagnant, Troy has just picked up a mild-to-moderate cocaine habit. Meanwhile, Troy’s college friend Remy has styled himself as “Mr. Detroit,” a real estate prodigy and local celebrity: outwardly successful, but struggling to find meaningful connection with a partner who wants more than sex. (Remy oozes style, so it suits his character that his chapters are the only ones written in first person.) Remy likes sex, no mistake–each of the friends does, but each is also in search of something more meaningful.

Dom and Remy hit it off, and the boys’ club is complete. With group texts and happy hours around town, they support each other through messy hookups via dating app, professional disappointments and workplace microaggressions, heartbreaks and more. That is, until Remy’s latest development opportunity conflicts with Troy’s local advocacy. In Dom’s mind, “when you’re Black, gay, and thirtysomething, time always feels like it’s running out,” and these men feel both in-common and individual pressures to which any reader can relate.

Boys Come First is rich in flavor and detail, benefiting from Remy’s comprehensive knowledge of Motor City neighborhoods, Troy’s hyperlocal concerns for his school and Dom’s perspective as he returns from afar. The changing demographics of contemporary Detroit, by class but most pointedly by race, are front and center. Foley’s novel shows range, with its fun, silly and pathos-filled handling of the love-and-sex storylines, serious commentary on social issues and an endearing representation of sincere (if troubled) friendships. Unforgettable characters, madcap fun and mishaps converge in this sweet and, finally, aspirational story.


This review originally ran in the March 15, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 glasses of Lambrusco.

Real Life by Brandon Taylor

Real Life centers around Wallace, a biochemistry graduate student in an unnamed Midwestern town. He feels unmoored and isolated despite having a group of “friends” (he’s not sure how true this term really feels) from school; he is one of the only Black people in this town, running from a traumatic past in Alabama. This novel takes place over the course of one weekend, when Wallace (who is gay) hooks up with one of his male friends (who insists he is straight), and tries to navigate this intrusion into his closely protected personal sphere alongside micro- and macroaggressions at work and among the friend group. The title refers to Wallace’s persistent worry that what he is living is somehow not “real life”; he is considering leaving graduate school but doesn’t know where to turn instead.

What gazes up out of the lapping black sea of his anger? What strange dark stones make themselves known to him?

It is a book of few joys, certainly. Rather, Wallace and his friends experiences large and small traumas and frustrations, hurting themselves and each other. It is a book of beauty, though, in its precise, quietly evocative writing and close observations. As Wallace carefully watches the miniscule creatures he breeds and destroys in the university lab, he likewise tracks the moves, desires and motivations of the people around him, from whom he feels removed. His tennis partner has just discovered that his boyfriend is on “that gay app” and may be cheating on him. A female friend is on the rocks with her Tolstoy-studying boyfriend. His colleagues are generally toxic, mildly if not overtly racist, except for the one woman of color, who is horrified that Wallace would consider leaving her there alone.

Gifted is the sweetness meant to make the bitterness of failure palatable–that a person can fail again and again, but it’s all right, because they’re gifted, they’re worth something. That’s what it all tracks back to, isn’t it, Wallace thinks. That if the world has made up its mind about what you have to offer, if the world has decided it wants you, needs you, then it doesn’t matter how many times you mess up. What Wallace wants to know is where the limit is. When is it no longer forgivable to be so terrible? When does the time come when you’ve got to deliver on your gifts?

A friend-of-friends is blatantly racist, and none of the group (all white) will speak up to even the most obviously offensive comments. We get the sense that Wallace would happily quit this scene if he could identify another option in the world.

The most unfair part of it, Wallace thinks, is that when you tell white people that something is racist, they hold it up to the light and try to discern if you are telling the truth. As if they can tell by the grain if something is racist or not, and they always trust their own judgment. It’s unfair because white people have a vested interest in underestimating racism, its amount, its intensity, its shape, its effects. They are the fox in the henhouse.

These characters are compelling and memorable, and the writing is indisputably fine. If there is a final takeaway, perhaps it is that this is real life – all of life is – and that we are all more or less miserable, whether quietly or demonstrably. It’s an admirable book but not a pleasurable one.


Rating: 7 nematodes.

Under the Whispering Door by TJ Klune

TJ Klune is my comfort food reading these days. Under the Whispering Door has all the charm of The House in the Cerulean Sea but a new focus: end of life, death, grief and grieving, and the questions of whether one lived as fully as one might have, and what redemption might be possible. This material has a personal resonance for the author, who lost his partner at an impossibly young age. Despite that heaviness, and the heaviness that we presume, culturally, will accompany these topics, this is still a TJ Klune novel. Death is a new beginning – not one that is all flowers and sunshine, of course; it is accompanied by much pain and trauma, depending on circumstances. But there is hope, even hope for romance, and that romance happens to be between two men, in a beautiful, whimsical, hilariously misfit tea shop that is also a waystation for the recently deceased.

“You’re awfully strange.”

He heard the smile in her voice. “Thank you. That might be the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me. You’re awfully strange too, Wallace Price.”

Where Cerulean featured magical orphans and a socially awkward but well-meaning orphanage inspector, our little built family this time includes a few dead (one a sweet, goofy dog), a few living, and an initially deeply unlikeable lawyer. Three of the five central characters, Klune notes in his Acknowledgements, are people of color, while the author is white, and he emphasizes the important contributions of his sensitivity readers. I found all of these characters delightful, because if there is one thing Klune does well it is delightful, wacky, loveable, flawed characters (even dead people and dogs). Even the comedic villainess here is sort of a joy. As a YA book about death, this is just charming as can be, and I think truly helpful for those suffering a loss; but it is also never saccharine, which is an easy pit to fall into. In short, I am in for wherever Klune wants to take me next, at the juncture of sweetness, fantasy, profundity, inclusivity, wisdom and pure silliness. Strongly recommended.


Rating: 8 cups of tea, obviously.

In the Field by Rachel Pastan

A Nobel-winning scientist holds the focus of this lovely, contemplative, completely absorbing novel.

“What if Cinderella had asked her mother’s tree to give her a microscope instead of a ballgown?” With In the Field, Rachel Pastan (Alena) offers a compassionate, clear-eyed story of self-determination, love and science. The novel begins in 1982, when Dr. Kate Croft receives a phone call from the Nobel committee, then rewinds to 1923, when Kate is a first-year student at Cornell University, to the disapproval of her family, male professors and classmates.

Kate is entranced by biology, if not obsessed: “The cell was an uncharted country, and she was an explorer newly landed on shore… that was part of the joy of it: the promise of richness that lay ahead. The sense she had of undreamed-of discoveries–unimagined systems and structures–waiting there in the dark to be found.” Socially challenged and estranged from her family, she grows up with a single-minded devotion to her work, despite the struggles of being a woman in a male-dominated field and her difficulties in love.

An author’s note acknowledges that Kate Croft is based on Barbara McClintock, but Pastan makes clear that this is a heavily fictionalized account of the geneticist’s personal life, while remaining accurate to the science. Kate is a “corn man,” in the parlance of the day, studying maize genes at Cornell’s College of Agriculture. Her colleagues accept and respect her to varying degrees: one reports, “People say either you’re a genius, or else you’re off your rocker.” Kate’s greatest joy is in carefully tending her corn, her slides and her data. Other scientists profit off her discoveries (she is a gifted researcher) and deny her credit; she has difficulty accepting help. Meanwhile, she wrestles with her secret love affair with a woman, and maintains a lifelong friendship with a fellow corn man.

The curiosity that drives Kate’s research fuels her love for humanity, too. “Couldn’t people change their natures? Couldn’t they change, the way her corn had changed in the middle of the growing season, suddenly producing leaves with different frequencies of streaks? Something switched on, something else switched off, deep inside the cells.” These questions of free will are as important as those of heredity or meiosis. In the Field excels in its multifaceted view of a complex woman: scientist, lover, friend, student of life in both biology and philosophy. Readers will be better for time spent with this patient, tender, loving examination of a life devoted to examination of life. Kate will stay with readers for a long time.


This review originally ran in the July 15, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 chocolate walnut cookies.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead by Emily Austin

This strangely delightful debut novel, with its charming, anxious, bumbling hero, crackles with warmth.

Emily Austin’s spellbinding and unforgettable first novel, Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead, stars an unusual hero: Gilda is so profoundly socially awkward, anxious and depressed as to be practically nonfunctioning as an adult. She is perhaps too kind for her own good.

The story begins with a car wreck, when Gilda, who narrates, is struck from behind by a beige van. When she arrives at the emergency room (having driven herself, with a broken arm, because “I do not like to be a spectacle”), she is told, “You are a lot calmer than you usually are when you come in here.” Readers begin to understand that Gilda is a little odd.

From this misfortune, she follows an ad for free counseling and is dismayed to find that it is being offered at a Catholic church (Gilda is an atheist). She is too polite to disappoint the priest who thinks she’s there for a job interview, and finds herself working as the church’s new receptionist–therefore living a double life, posing as a Catholic and sort-of-dating a parishioner’s abhorrent brother-in-law (Gilda is a lesbian). While keeping up this increasingly complicated act she also finds time to worry about her brother (drinking too much) and a missing neighborhood cat, among countless other stressors; topping that list may be the fate of the church’s previous receptionist, Grace, who died under suspicious circumstances. Gilda is obsessed with death, her mind on an endless loop: hit by a bus, choke on a piece of bread, clogged arteries, cancer, apartment fire, malaria, carbon monoxide, lightning strike. Almost without meaning to, Gilda begins investigating Grace’s death, and because she doesn’t have the heart to break bad news, posing as Grace in e-mails to the woman’s old friend. What could go wrong?

Gilda’s anxiety and social ineptitude could hardly be overstated, and she bumbles through life with such painful clumsiness that her story should be hard to read. But somehow, Austin’s remarkable narrative is engaging and snappily paced even when its first-person narrator is lying in a dry, empty bathtub without the will to move. Gilda’s voice is frequently extremely funny, with gut-laugh punchlines made more effective because they are so surprising.

Everyone in This Room Will Someday Be Dead is disarmingly sweet even in its grimness. Gilda is a singularly memorable character. She ponders big questions–“I feel simultaneously intensely insignificant and hyperaware of how important everyone is”–and remains open to all possibilities, sometimes even the good ones.


This review originally ran in the June 7, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pots of macaroni.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton

This novel of strong bonds, secrets and small-town Irish life is both sweet and horrifying, and completely absorbing.

Home Stretch by Graham Norton (Holding; A Keeper) wends its way from small town to big city, from Ireland to England and the U.S., and back again, tracking family and community. This aching saga begins in 1987, in a small village in Cork, when six young people are in a car wreck on the way home from the beach. Three are killed, one lies comatose and two walk away unscathed–physically, at least. But their lives, and those of everyone in the village of Mullinmore, are changed forever.

The novel follows these characters over the ensuing decades, most centrally Connor Hayes, the social outcast who was inexplicably driving the car when it overturned, and his younger sister, Ellen. Turned out of town by shame, blame and guilt after the tragedy, Connor lives and works in Liverpool, London and New York City, wrestling with his past and self-loathing. “The task of untangling the mess of secrets that he had created seemed so impossible.” Ellen stays in Mullinmore. A chance encounter in a Manhattan gay bar will eventually reconnect Connor to his distant past and see the next generation get another shot at correcting certain mistakes.

Norton rotates the novel’s point of view so that readers see the impact of the car wreck from many angles. The Hayes family suffers Connor’s survival alongside the grief of the families of the dead, two of whom were on the eve of their wedding. But it is that tangled mess of secrets that will most haunt these characters, and readers, as Norton doles them out teasingly into the final pages.

Home Stretch is by turns charming and harrowing as it accesses some of humanity’s darkest moments and impulses, as well as some of the best. That expert balance of comfort and pain is perhaps the most memorable feature of a novel with complex plotting, twists and turns and characters who do not fit easily into likable and unlikable categories. This is a story of the many kinds of love and betrayal that can hold and haunt people, of filial and community ties and the meaning of home. “This is what homecoming meant. Arriving in a place to discover you’re fluent in a language you’d forgotten you ever knew.” Home Stretch is a riveting narrative, a character study, a love letter to a place and a culture, and a moving coming-of-age story.


This review originally ran in the May 21, 2021 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 pints.

The Murder Wall by Mari Hannah

From Shelf Awareness I got this list of “One Author’s Top 10 Queer Protagonists in Crime Fiction,” which sounded like something I needed. This is the book I chose to buy (and it had to come all the way from the UK).

As a murder mystery, I found this one engaging, not lightning-paced but with enough momentum to pull me right through its 450 pages. In Newcastle Upon Tyne, DCI Kate Daniels is on a career fast track; she’s a favorite of Detective Superintendent Bright, who is also a dear friend. (He and his idealized wife reminded me a bit of Elizabeth George’s Detective Lynley and his Deborah. And Daniels is just a bit of a Havers.) Daniels is not without her secrets, which are uncovered slowly, or her traumas, which we know more or less at the outset: eleven months before this novel’s events begin, she discovered two bodies in a church, whose unsolved murders still haunt her. Now she lands her first case as Senior Investigating Officer, which is a rush–until she sees who the victim is.

Daniels is dogged; she is good; and she has that self-destructive thread that all good fictional detectives, it seems, possess. Her buddy DS Hank Gormley is a treat, too: loyal, smart, funny. All the troops in fact are well written and more or less likeable (there’s always that one guy). This is the start of a series, and the elements I’ll want in a series are all here; I’m ready to follow these characters forward. In the world of murder mysteries, this is a darkish one, focusing on the evil that lurks in some (all?) of us, and the novel does not shy away from sexual assaults (heads up, if you need it). I’m in for more. I will say, though, that the LGBTQ angle isn’t as developed as it might be. If you come to this book chiefly for that element, you might be mildly disappointed. I didn’t necessarily feel shortchanged, because the mystery is strong. Daniels as queer protagonist counts as representation, which is the point of the article that brought me here, and that is significant. Her queerness isn’t central, which cuts both ways: it’s cool that it’s allowed to be no big deal, but it also doesn’t add much as a framing element. Her sometimes-partner is a bit underdeveloped as character, too, but I suspect she’ll come forward as the series does. Daniels is not out at work (this was the breaking point for the erstwhile partner), and her fear of repercussions is a minor plot detail that could also develop nicely; this is the 2000s, but it’s still very true that she’s already at some disadvantage in a men’s world, before inviting homophobia in as well.

I am intrigued and shall continue. I’m also keeping my eye on the possible television series adaptation – that would be fun!


Rating: 7 bags of donated clothing.
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