Maximum Shelf author interview: Anna Solomon

Following Monday’s review of The Book of V., here’s Anna Solomon: Make an Absence into a Presence.


Anna Solomon is the author of Leaving Lucy Pear and The Little Bride. She is a two-time winner of the Pushcart Prize, and her short fiction and essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, One Story, Ploughshares and Slate. She is coeditor, with Eleanor Henderson, of Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers. Solomon was born and raised in Gloucester, Mass., and lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two children. Her new novel is The Book of V. (Holt, May 5, 2020).

(photo: Willy Somma)

What makes for a compelling protagonist?

A compelling protagonist is someone whose wants and desires and needs are in conflict in some way with the realities of her life. What draws me in as both a reader and as a writer is the tension that exists between the longing and the reality. I also want my protagonists to be inwardly multifarious, ambivalent in what they want. I’m interested in seeing the characters that I read and write struggle not just to get what they want but to figure out what they want.

Was one of these three women the starting point?

When I write a novel, it’s almost impossible for me to remember where I began. But really, Vashti was the beginning. In a lot of ways the three women who hold the book’s core for most of it–Lily, Vee and Esther–were not really where it began. It began with this banished ancient Persian queen, Vashti, who I always wondered about. I wanted to figure out how to make her absence into a presence. So it began with a question about her, but in terms of the characters forming, I’m pretty sure I began with Vivian Barr (also known in the book as Vee), who is my Vashti.

Do you have a favorite character, or one with whom you especially identify?

The answer to each of those questions is different. Certainly, in terms of her relationship to my own life, and the contours of our lives, I identify most obviously with Lily. She is the mother of two in Brooklyn, which is where I live as a mother of two. Our lives are really different from each other: Lily has given up her work, where I have not. But in a lot of ways, writing Lily felt like taking many of my own impulses and questions and exaggerating them to the hilt.

She’s like alternate-reality you.

Kind of, yeah, like what would have happened if I had stopped working? What would that do to me, if I had not held onto the part of me that creates and is out in the world as an adult and a professional and an artist?

As for which I like the most or enjoyed writing the most, the one who was the most fun was Vivian Barr, in part because I got to write her in two very different parts of her life. Writing Vivian both as a young woman and as an older woman, and watching her both evolve and not evolve, was really thrilling for me as a writer. In some ways, I found her development came most easily to me.

How long does it take you to write a novel? You said you don’t always remember the beginning!

That’s also hard to identify by the end! In part because there are so many different stages to writing a novel. And, at least in my experience so far, in the middle of writing a novel I have another one come out in the world. And so I take time away to go introduce that book to the world, and then I come back to it. But I think it’s fair to say that this novel took me three to four years to write and research and edit and rewrite, and all the rest.

I feel as if this book was created perhaps a little more efficiently than my first two, and that’s probably because I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing it. It’s the first book I did not have a baby while in the middle of writing.

That makes a difference, huh?

Yeah! Who knew! (We all knew.)

Your three novels each center on women chafing against limitations of their eras and cultures. How have these projects differed from one another?

When I began dreaming up this book I knew what I wanted to do was much more ambitious structurally than what I had done before. The first book, The Little Bride, featured one protagonist, one clear arc from beginning to end. In Leaving Lucy Pear, I broadened the cast of characters, and there was certainly more complexity in terms of time, but there was still a kind of unified arc to the book. And in this book what I set out to do was thread together three very distinct narratives that were happening in completely different time periods–in fact over the course of 2,500 years. And that was a huge challenge, but I loved the work of orchestrating it. It felt musical, which is why I say orchestration, and it also felt architectural. I really enjoy structure. And I think in a lot of ways this book came to be through its structure as much as through the story. In many ways the structure and the story happened symbiotically. And playing with the structure, kind of seeing how I could move the chapters from one to the next, and the way these women’s stories would overlap and eventually converge in the way that I wanted them to–that was really the great challenge of this book. I really, really enjoyed doing it and I learned a lot about my capabilities as a writer as I did it.

As I wrote it, the big fear was “Can I do this? Will I be able to pull it off?” And of course, there was a lot of work that I did in revision and rewriting to smooth out and fine tune those linkages. But it did feel, once I got going with it, like it came together pretty naturally.

How much research went into this project? Do you enjoy that part?

Yes! I did enjoy it. I do love research. There was a lot of it involved, in terms of understanding the conversations that have come before me around the Book of Esther in particular, and also in terms of getting a hold on the 1970s in Washington, D.C., and in Massachusetts (where I grew up). One of the things that surprised me is how little is actually known, both about how the Book of Esther came to be, but also what it might have been like to live in Persia in 462 B.C.E. I really enjoyed the license that that gave me to really just play. That license is part of what encouraged me to go in certain directions.

One of my favorite parts of research, always, is contacting people. Reaching out beyond the Internet and books and finding people who already know a lot about what I’m writing about, and are almost always eager and generous with their expertise. Everybody from a nonprofit international development expert who can talk about what’s going on in that world today, to my rabbi, and a guy who does shellfish work in Rhode Island and knew all about which shellfish might have been eaten in the 1970s and which wouldn’t. I really enjoy that part of the process.


This interview originally ran on January 29, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: The Book of V. by Anna Solomon

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 January 29, 2020.


The Book of V. by Pushcart Prize-winner Anna Solomon (The Little Bride; Leaving Lucy Pear) explores the lives of three women, apparently unconnected yet increasingly intertwined as the pages turn. The braided result is moving, surprising, so touchingly detailed and authentic as to seem more real than life.

In biblical times, a king of Persia takes a second wife. Solomon’s epigraph comes from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s The Woman’s Bible: “I have always regretted that the historian allowed Vashti to drop out of sight so suddenly.” This first wife simply disappeared: “No one knows. She’s gone.” Solomon takes steps to correct the oversight of Vashti, but she is more concerned with the second wife–Esther, a Jewish orphan girl, chosen by the king as his replacement queen against her wishes.

Esther, meant to be homely and invisible, tried to shrink from the spotlight but somehow charmed the king despite herself. She casts a long shadow here, telling her own story–how she resisted the role of queen, and later used it to save her people–and then influencing several lives that come later.

Lily and her family live in Brooklyn in 2016. Lily gave up her academic career to stay home with her children: two girls who keep asking her to read the Esther book to them, even though she is thoroughly sick of it. Her husband works as deputy director of programs for Rwanda at a major humanitarian aid organization. It’s not that Lily misses academia, but she’s a little dissatisfied with the life she traded it in for. She is also a second wife.

And then there is Vivian, wife of a senator from Rhode Island in the 1970s. Vee is the daughter of a senator’s wife who was the daughter of a governor’s wife. In D.C., she is torn between the women in her consciousness-raising group–“with their circle-talk and their red wine and unmade faces”–and the other senators’ wives: “They are dazzling, these wives of politicians and company presidents, these tigresses who openly dislike and disagree with each other.” Vee is a little of each–and a little contrarian, driven to thwart both.

The title, The Book of V., refers to Vee, to Vashti and surely, to a part of the female anatomy. “This is what the women’s group women insist on calling it. Vagina, [Vee] thinks dutifully, though the word disgusts her.” Solomon shows a careful attention to words. “A blowhard, Esther called him, perhaps not with that word but with another that meant the same in that time and place.” Her writing is lovely, incandescent; paradoxically, it has that ability that fine writing often has to disappear into the background, so that readers seem to hear the characters directly without a writer’s mediation at all.

Readers follow Esther as she is thrown into a pageant (in several senses of the word) against her will, by an uncle who hopes she will solve problems bigger than herself, problems that have been plaguing the Jewish camp outside the city walls. Vee challenges her husband’s authority repeatedly, finally disobeying him in the same way that, legend has it, got Vashti banished or killed. Lily struggles with an attraction to another woman’s husband, just as her mother takes ill.

Chapters alternate among the perspectives of these three women. Individually stunning, their stories also intersect and meet in unforeseen ways. Though each takes center stage in turn, it requires all three to form the complete picture. They illuminate each other. The women’s relationships with men are very much at issue: Esther’s unkind king and his more powerful minister; Lily’s essentially good but somewhat boring husband; and Vee’s rather sadistic senator. They are joined by other male characters, sex symbols and brothers and abusers. But relationships between women are privileged. The Bechdel test–the idea that a book (1) should have at least two women in it, who (2) who talk to each other, about (3) something besides a man–is easily passed. Esther, Lily and Vee are joined by many interesting women: one of the maidens forced alongside Esther to compete for the king’s favor; Lily’s inscrutable mother; an old friend of Vee’s; a fellow Brooklyn mom who makes suspicious attempts to befriend Lily.

Each story is gripping in itself, and to balance them in alternation is a trick; it is to Solomon’s credit that the reader moves so smoothly among them, always sorry to step away but eager to return to the next woman, so that the pages fly by with unusual momentum. For a novel to offer such delightfully realized characters as well as such taut pacing is a fine accomplishment. The interweaving of the women’s lives is cleverly done, hinted at early on (as with references to Vee’s senator as royalty, or Lily’s daughters’ interest in Esther) with a light hand, and then growing as past secrets come to light.

With tense, deft plotting, memorable characters and writing that glows with each sentence, The Book of V. is a striking effort that will leave readers long inhabiting the worlds of Vee, Lily and Esther.


Rating: 8 zipper pulls.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Anna Solomon.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jennifer Finney Boylan

Following Monday’s review of Good Boy, here’s Jennifer Boylan: We’re Here to Love Each Other.


Novelist, memoirist and short story writer Jennifer Finney Boylan is also a nationally known advocate for human rights. She is the inaugural Anna Quindlen Writer in Residence at Barnard College of Columbia University, and her column “Men and Women” appears on the op/ed page of the New York Times. Her 2003 memoir, She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, was the first bestselling work by a transgender American. From 2011 to 2018 she served on the board of directors of GLAAD and also provided counsel for the TV series Transparent and I Am Cait. She lives in New York City and in Belgrade Lakes, Maine, with her wife, Deedie. They have a son, Sean, and a daughter, Zai. Boylan’s memoir Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, will be published by Celadon Books on April 21, 2020.

photo: Dan Haar

What inspired this book?

I think a lot of people, when they’re a little older, look back at their lives and wonder, how did I get here? It can be a challenge to connect who you’ve become with who you’ve been, for a transgender person like me. And yet it’s not a dilemma that’s unique to transgender people. I think we all seek to connect our pasts and our presents. When I look back, one of the constants in my life would be the dogs that I’ve had. And each of those dogs represents a particular phase of my life. There’s the dog I had in boyhood, there’s the dog I had when I was a nascent hippie, when I was a college boy, and then a young hipster, and a boyfriend and a husband and a father… it occurred to me it would be an interesting way to connect present to past, to talk about the dogs who were a constant over a very complex life.

How was writing Good Boy different from writing She’s Not There, more than 15 years ago?

With She’s Not There, it was all very new to me. Whereas at this point in my life, I’ve lived a third of my life as a woman, almost 20 years. She’s Not There is very much a book about transition. Good Boy in some ways is a book about dogs, but also about masculinity. About boyhood and manhood. It strikes me that a woman in late middle age who had a boyhood has a unique insight on what that experience was like. I have to be careful with this metaphor, because I don’t want to be insensitive, but I sometimes think that being a transgender person has something in common with immigration. I wasn’t born here in the land of women, but I do have my green card. I look back on boyhood and masculinity in the kind of way that my great-grandfather looked back on Ireland: a place remembered well but also a place you’re glad to have escaped from.

I’m able now to celebrate some of the joys of that life. It was a life I was delighted to escape, and I feel so lucky to have landed where I am. She’s Not There was a book of trouble–I was trying to solve a lot of problems over the course of my life with that book. I think I’m able to take a more generous look at masculinity, now that it’s so far in the past.

There is both pain and humor in your story. How do you balance those elements in storytelling?

I’ve always thought those two things come from the same well. Some of my favorite writing is the kind where you’re laughing one minute and in another you’re overwhelmed by a sense of sadness. American humor is funny–we think of humor as the lesser art form compared to tragedy. When was the last time that the winner of the Best Picture Oscar was a comedy? Was it Annie Hall, in ’76, ’77? The humor of fart jokes and frat boys is one thing, but the humor that comes from a life of trouble and absurdity is a much deeper form. I think that kind of writing and the literature of sadness comes from a very similar place.

It seems you and your family have sorted out the rules about sharing personal information. How do you negotiate that?

Well, I don’t know if we have it figured out. There are times when I just feel very sorry for them all, being stuck with me. One of the things that you learn in this book is that my older child came out as transgender a couple years ago, and that completely floored me. That’s not a story in which I come off very well, quite frankly. There are ways in which my own initial response to my child coming out as trans was not as generous as was my Republican evangelical Christian mother’s response to my coming out as trans 20 years before.

In the past I’ve written a lot about my children, and I’m sorry to say I think sometimes I’ve used the stories of their success in the world as kind of a way of proving to people that I am not that bad a person after all. And perhaps, in previous works, I might have waved that flag a little too vigorously. I did have my older child read the book. I had my wife read the book, to make sure everybody was okay with everything. But you still worry. I hope in the end that the people that I love and that love me have some respect for what I’m trying to do as a storyteller, and trust that what I’m doing essentially is done with love. My mother used to say, “It’s just as easy to tell nice stories. Why don’t you tell some nice stories instead?” I think if it were just as easy to tell nice stories I probably would. But the drive wheel of story is conflict. A true story that has conflict in it is going to be about people who at least at times are at loggerheads. You hope in the end that you show how people come to an understanding of themselves and each other, but it’s often a qualified resolution, and not everything being tied up neatly with a bow. There are some things that never get resolved.

Does this book have a moral or a lesson?

I think we all know that if we’re here for any reason at all, it’s to love one another. And yet it turns out that loving each other is not easy, and a lot of the time it’s something that we’re not good at. For men in particular, expressing love can be really difficult. For women, too, but my memory of masculinity is that a lot of serious things, and love not least, had to be expressed ironically or through understatement or through these long pregnant silences. And what dogs do is give us a way to express the love that’s in our hearts in a way that we don’t have to feel ashamed of. You can see the most serious, somber person in the world, and then they get a dog in their arms and suddenly they’re blubbering all over the place and kissing Bingo on the head. If there’s a message, it’s that we all should share the love that’s in our hearts, and if you find that difficult, get a dog.

A lot of times in this book, you’ll see a moment where I’m really messed up. My father is dying upstairs, or I’m out in the woods trying to figure out how am I ever going to get through transition, or I’m wondering how am I going to be a good parent to my daughter. And at those moments, the dogs are there. Lucy and Ranger and Brown. And they put their heads in your lap and you understand that you’re not alone. The message that they have for us is not that complex. Most dogs are not deep thinkers (unlike cats–cats are philosophers). Most dogs kind of know one thing. And that is that we’re here to love each other, and also maybe that it’s always good to have a snack.


This interview originally ran on January 22, 2020 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun.

Maximum Shelf: Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs by Jennifer Finney Boylan

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 January 22, 2020.


Jennifer Finney Boylan tells her life story with both sweetness and fierceness in Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs. A coming-of-age story, a tale of finding and owning of self, and an elegy to a series of delightful and frustrating mutts, this is an occasionally heartbreaking but ultimately feel-good memoir about life and love.

Boylan’s 2003 memoir, She’s Not There, about her trans experience, was the first bestselling book by a transgender American author. Good Boy differs in several particulars: for one, there are dogs. “This is a book about dogs: the love we have for them, and the way that love helps us understand the people we have been.” It follows the path of Boylan’s life, from a confused and troubled boyhood through various teen and young adult phases, to dating and marriage, and finally to the decision to transition and the recent happy years as wife and mother to two young adults. Through these years and epochs, seven dogs in particular helped Boylan mark time and observe change, and learn to love.

First came Playboy, “a resentful hoodlum who loved no one except my father.” He chases and attacks motorcycles and is happy to raise a leg or squat indoors. “My father thought this was kind of funny, but then he was never the person who had to clean it up.” (That person was Boylan’s mother, and she would continue the unenviable task of cleaning up for several dog lifetimes to come.)

Then there was Penny, aka Sausage. What eventually turned out to be a thyroid problem caused this Dalmatian puppy to grow enormously fat, but the young Boylan (at this point known as Jimmy) carries her around “like an unusually heavy rag doll.” Boylan loves her, despite the dog’s indifference. “I figured, if I kept being sweet to Penny all the time, eventually her heart would open, and she would love me as I loved her. No one told me this is never how it works.”

Matt the Mutt humps everything and everyone, human and non, and knocks people down as they enter the house. Despite being neutered, Matt has lots of sex with Sausage, while James–now in college–mostly avoids it, even though he has opportunities with female classmates.

Next comes Brown, whose perfectly plain (if descriptive) name the Boylans hoped would match a personality boringly normal and sane, as none of their dogs had been to date. But all Brown wants to do is eat her own paws, and so she must spend her days in the Cone of Shame, meant to protect her from herself. “Was Brown not so unlike me, driven to the ends of the earth simply because she could not quite do the thing that she was destined to do?”

Alongside the lives of these dogs, young Boylan wrestles with deeply hidden anxieties–about how well he belongs in “his” body, in an all-boys school, in the world he’s been assigned. James’s mother is a martyr to dog poop, and his father battles cancer. On his deathbed, Boylan Sr. tells his son, “Be the man.” That, of course, is the task James most struggles with.

Boylan describes herself as a gender immigrant, as having a life divided into more or less equal thirds: boyhood, manhood, womanhood. (Boylan makes clear that while some trans people would not use such terms, she does see the earlier parts of her life as belonging to a person others perceived as a boy and, later, a man.) Good Boy is in part a contemplation of these themes: What does it mean to be a man? Is it tied to one’s ability to change the oil in the car, build things, woo women?

In adulthood, Boylan meets the woman she will marry, and they receive from their best man and childhood friend a dog that he can no longer care for. Alex is Boylan’s “guardian angel” and a “unique scholar,” apparently the first well-behaved dog to belong to a Boylan, but one who never gets over the loss of his first owner.

Happily married James adopts a “golden retriever” puppy that turns out to be anything but. This vaguely yellow mutt, Lucy, serves as witness to the beginnings of Boylan’s transition, finding herself and becoming Jenny. Initially distressed by the sight of her owner in dress, heels and wig, Lucy eventually counsels Jenny (in imagined dialogue) that, rather than losing everything, “Some things you will keep.”

Finally, Ranger is the dog of Boylan’s happy, settled life, a loyal black lab with a troublesome inability to avoid porcupines. In these later years, the author reflects on how well her conservative mother had handled her coming out, and Boylan herself must consider how to be the best mother she can be when one of her own children has news to share. Happily, well-adjusted Ranger is there to counsel the whole family as Boylan’s children grow up.

The mature woman who has penned Good Boy has much to reflect upon and lessons to share, many of them couched in the lives of good (and troubled) dogs. “There’d been this puppy I’d loved when I was eleven, but in time I’d turned my back on her, thrown my dog out of bed because her gelatinous sadness was a merciless chain tying me to the person I no longer wished to be.” Boylan’s dogs have taught her about love, and how its unconditional nature flows between humans and dogs. Good Boy is a story, first and foremost, about love, its many forms and the many directions in which we point it and receive it, and about how certain details, like gender, really matter very little in the end. If you have a family–and a dog–that love you, that’s the vital thing.


Rating: 6 cello suites.

Come back Wednesday for my interview with Jennifer Boylan.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Alex North

Following Wednesday’s review of The Whisper Man, here’s Alex North: The Heart of the Book Starts Beating.


Alex North was born in Leeds, where he now lives with his wife and son. He studied Philosophy at Leeds University, and prior to becoming a writer he worked there in their sociology department.

Chapter by chapter, your characters take turns holding center stage. Was it complicated to manage so many points of view? Is there a strategy for writing this way?

I think the structure is just what this story demanded. Although the characters do come together as the book progresses, they start off in different places, and they each have their own storyline to follow until they do. Tom is clearly the main character, and we follow the majority of the book from inside his head, but there is a surrounding cast whose stories gradually begin to dovetail with his, until all of them are inextricably linked by the end.

I don’t think it’s necessarily any more complicated to write than a more straightforward single narrative. You do have to keep track of things very carefully, though, and you certainly don’t want one strand of the story to overshadow another. In an ideal world, a reader will finish a chapter that focuses on one specific character completely desperate to find out what happens to them next–but equally eager to pick up on things from another character’s perspective in the meantime and see what happens there.

It’s a balancing act, but I do like stories that use this technique. For one thing, if it’s done well, it can drive you through the book. For another, it can sometimes become quite claustrophobic for me if I’m trapped in a single character’s head for the entire story. But most of all, I think it’s interesting when these characters eventually collide and interact with each other. Writing from different perspectives allows you to see things from different angles, because the characters will understand and interpret the same event in their own unique ways. We all do that in real life. And I think it helps to bring nuance and ambiguity to the story, with the truth being revealed through a combination of viewpoints.

Fathers’ impact on their sons forms a central theme of the book. Was that intended, or did it arise as the story unfolded?

It was intended to an extent. To begin with, all I knew was that I wanted to write about a father left alone to care for his son, and finding it difficult. But there was a moment, shortly after moving into our new house, when my own son briefly mentioned that he was playing with “the boy in the floor”–which obviously gave me a bit of a chill! Thankfully, that didn’t last, but at that point I knew the little boy in my story would have imaginary friends, and that some of them might turn out to be quite sinister and disturbing. The book unfolded from there.

But the background theme of fathers and sons definitely expanded the more I wrote. It was on my mind the whole time, and so I found different connections emerging as I went. It felt a lot like things appearing through the mist: the more you write, the more the events in the book begin to link to each other, suggesting other connections, and so on. I was writing about fathers and sons from the beginning, but it took a first draft of the book before I discovered all the different ways that theme fed into the story.

What are your favorite parts of writing a novel like this?

Writing a novel is a marathon rather than a sprint, and I think you have to accept that there will be good and bad days–and far more of the latter–but I’ve learned that you have to go through all those bad days to get to the good ones. As is so often the case, half the battle is showing up.

But while I’ve enjoyed the handful of days when the writing has flowed, there’s also immense pleasure to be had in the ones when you had to drag yourself to the keyboard… and something just clicks. It’s enough to keep you trying the next day and then the next. Which of course is what you have to do.

For The Whisper Man, the moments I most enjoyed were towards the end, when all the connections began to make sense to me and the book finally came together. It’s easy to say what my favorite scene to write was, but also a bit of a spoiler. Speaking carefully, it involves a conversation between a little boy and a little girl. While there was still a whole load of writing and rewriting to do afterwards, that was the moment where I felt like I’d found the heart of the book and felt it start beating.

Can you give us any hints about your next novel?

I’m really superstitious when it comes to talking about work in progress. For one thing, I think it robs you of the impetus to write the book itself but, more importantly, my books tend to change all the way up to the wire. I have to try to write the story to figure out what I should have written all along, which means my final draft can be very different from my first. I write slowly to begin with, and then frenetically in the last month or so. But one thing I can say is that the next one is another very dark psychological thriller with creepy undertones. If The Whisper Man made it difficult to fall asleep, my hope is that the next one will make you very scared indeed of what might happen when you do.


This interview originally ran on April 17, 2019 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: The Whisper Man by Alex North

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 April 17, 2019.


Alex North’s The Whisper Man is an exemplary thriller, offering plenty of suspense, things that go bump in the night and complex psychological maneuverings that may–or may not–explain the good and the bad that is shared by fathers and sons.

As the novel opens, off-duty Detective Inspector Pete Willis wearily heads out to help search for a missing six-year-old boy. He doesn’t want to think about the similarities between this case and an old one that he still can’t forget. At the same time, Tom Kennedy, a successful novelist and deeply bereaved widower, is struggling to connect with his young son, Jake. A gifted but troubled child, Jake knows more about the world around him than seems natural. He tries to be good, quietly drawing by himself, but his pictures profoundly disturb Tom.

Detective Inspector Amanda Beck–a generation younger than Pete–wrestles with the case of the missing child, which does indeed turn out to be linked to the case that haunts the older detective. The serial killer, dubbed by the press “the Whisper Man,” appears to have returned, although he’s been in prison some 20 years; Pete was never able to pin down for certain whether there had been an accomplice. And now, there’s another child-snatcher whispering to his victims before he takes them. Kids repeat the rhyme on school playgrounds: “If you leave a door half open, soon you’ll hear the whispers spoken. If you play outside alone, soon you won’t be going home….”

Tom and Jake have just relocated to a new village to start over, after the loss of Jake’s mother. But it seems they’ve moved into a maelstrom of evil, like something out of one of Jake’s drawings. The tension and the action ratchet up as the distant past becomes very present again.

The Whisper Man is told from a number of different perspectives, chapter by chapter–Tom, Jake, Pete and the Whisper Man himself. They are occasionally joined by others, including up-and-coming DI Amanda Beck, who looks to Pete as a mentor; but the story centers on Jake, his father and their connection to the bad guy. Tom’s perspective is the only one written in first person, giving him a compelling narrator’s authority– appropriate, as he is the novelist of the bunch. These differing voices exhibit North’s adeptness with character, including the precocious child’s view of the world in Jake’s chapters. They also give the reader a chance to sleuth alongside the professionals. But North gives nothing away: even the most mystery-savvy reader will be gasping and page-turning to the very end.

North’s characters are multi-layered, deeply relatable while keenly entertaining as they reveal themselves. Pete struggles with alcoholism in a day-to-day battle that is both fraught and poignantly banal. A young man whose father didn’t love him focuses on the meaning of a meal prepared with or without care. One of Tom’s daily challenges involves taking Jake to school, where he waits for his son to look back over his shoulder or not, and where he worries about fitting in with the other parents (one of whom will become a significant side character). Each chapter in its turn, and each featured character, is so absorbing that the reader wishes to follow this lead and then that one–but the momentum of the plot is relentless. Characters that the reader has invested in are in danger, and the pages fly by. At nearly 400 pages, The Whisper Man is nonetheless a quick-reading, fast-paced novel.

The psychology is complex. There’s more than one bad guy, blurring into one another in the eyes of frustrated investigators Willis and Beck. And if The Whisper Man has a hero, or heroes, they are imperfect, each occasionally thinking themself the villain. Whether it surfaces as evil or good intentions, there is a strong theme throughout of the connections between fathers and sons: what is passed down, and what role free will has to play.

In the end, The Whisper Man has all the hallmarks of a great murder-mystery thriller: suspense, the battle between good and evil, surprise twists and turns, fresh takes on classic detective characters and sympathetic civilians. But more than that, North offers nuance and questions about human agency. For all the darkness in this novel about serial killers and trauma, there is a sweet strain of filial love and creativity, and even a note of redemption.


Rating: 8 circles.

Come back Friday for my interview with North.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Kief Hillsbery

Following Wednesday’s review of Empire Made, here’s Kief Hillsbery: Writer as Detective.


Kief Hillsbery is the author of two novels, War Boy and What We Do Is Secret. He is a former contributing editor and columnist for Outside magazine, and a former writer for Rolling Stone. He lives in New York City. His new book is Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, coming from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt on July 25, 2017.

photo: Tobin Yelland

In Empire Made, you recount your relative Nigel Halleck’s mid-19th-century experiences with the East India Company. How closely were you able to stick to recorded facts, and how did you navigate points of departure?

In the beginning, I envisioned Nigel’s story as part of an account of my own experiences living and traveling in Nepal, Afghanistan and the former British India. I hesitated to make him the focus because of the scarcity of recorded facts about his life there. Very little of his correspondence survived, and what did was fragmentary. I just didn’t think that I had enough material. My ace in the hole was my taste in popular fiction. When I read for pleasure, more often than not I turn to police procedurals: Harry Bosch, Inspector Lynley and Sergeant Havers, Donna Leon’s Guido Brunetti series. And the hand dealt to all these detectives at the beginning of each book is the same one dealt to me at the beginning of mine: not enough material. It’s all about accumulating new material through research and analysis, and paying close attention to seemingly trivial details. Ultimately you have enough of it to feel confident in making assumptions that help advance the case, or the narrative. When I felt stuck trying to figure out what was up with Nigel all those misty years ago in India, I often got unstuck by channeling my inner detective.

For example, when Nigel transferred out west to the Punjab from Patna in the aftermath of the First Anglo-Sikh War, he was posted to a British headquarters at Jalandhar, about 75 miles east of Lahore. But he first went to Lahore, traveling 150 miles out of his way by horse at the height of the Indian “Hot Weather,” on a post road that was bordered every dozen miles with cemeteries for the interment of Europeans who succumbed to heatstroke. In other words, it wasn’t a detour undertaken lightly. I was stymied in trying to establish why he went to Lahore. It clearly had nothing to do with his new job. At the time, it wasn’t even British territory. All I could do was take my cue from Harry Bosch. When he reached a dead end he invariably went back to his “murder book” and reviewed every piece of evidence collected so far. So I re-read all of Nigel’s surviving letters. And there it was, in an aside written several years before about two friends of his who had been posted to the Punjab. He hoped one day to follow in their footsteps, so he might see for himself in Lahore the Shalimar Gardens of Shah Jahan, patron of the Taj Mahal. So even as I lack recorded facts to back me up, I feel confident in saying that I know why Nigel went to Lahore.

You switch chapters between Nigel’s travels and your own. Was that your strategy from the beginning, or did you have to work into it?

It seems entirely sensible with benefit of hindsight, but it took a lengthy false start to persuade me. I originally conceived of the structure as a mosaic of vignettes, along the lines of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. I’ve always admired what he did with that book. And it seemed like an organic approach for mine. Two mosaic tiles, one in Nepal and one in Afghanistan, ultimately provide the key to unlocking the central mystery of Nigel’s life. To my way of thinking there was also something gemlike about a series of highly polished, standalone vignettes, and precious jewels are part of the story, too. (The British publisher has chosen to title the book The Tiger and the Ruby.) The problem, I discovered, was that vignettes worked against creating narrative momentum. Chatwin didn’t have to worry about that because he wasn’t telling a linear story. I was, and I needed a structure that enabled readers to feel they were progressing towards its conclusion.

I still resisted the idea of alternating between Nigel’s travels and my own, because his were so much more extensive and occupied so much more time. The first complete draft of the book consisted of three parts, with the first telling most of his story and the second focused on my initial efforts to uncover it. A briefer third part braided the two threads together and revealed the outcome. Momentum was still a problem. What finally worked was to just accept that there would be more Nigel chapters and establish a rhythm of interspersing them with my own personal chapters. The trick was to get the two parallel narratives to Nepal in consecutive chapters. Once I managed that, everything seemed to fall into place.

Do you feel catharsis for having partly uncovered this family mystery?

My inquiries into Nigel’s life in India spanned a long period of time, and were pretty casual until I started work on the book. So the emotional connection is a little too attenuated to speak of catharsis. I definitely feel some satisfaction. It’s tempered, though, by nagging questions that will probably always remain unanswerable. The theory that Nigel was some sort of deep-cover British agent was based entirely on circumstantial evidence. But it’s hardly outside the realm of possibility. Then there’s the connection to the Koh-i-noor diamond, which played a central role in stories handed down concerning the years of Nigel’s exile. As unlikely as it seems that he was directly involved, part of me will always wonder if all the generations of smoke didn’t originate in a flicker of historical fire.

What was your favorite part of creating this book?

Since I was immersed in the staid and rather stuffy world of colonial Victorians, it was always delightful to discover the exceptions that proved the rule. There was the wife of the governor-general of India, a titled aristocrat who left him to live in a Bedouin harem. There was the chief magistrate of Calcutta, who took every opportunity to don female attire in public. There was the commander of the East India Company army, who took 13 native wives and led them on evening promenades around the walls of the Red Fort at Delhi, each on the back of her own elephant. Stories like these made me fantasize about stealing a page from Lytton Strachey and writing another book, Less Than Eminent Victorians.


This interview originally ran on June 22, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India by Kief Hillsbery

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 June 22, 2017.


Kief Hillsbery grew up with the legend of his great-grandfather’s great-uncle Nigel, who had “gone out to India” and never returned to his family’s home in Coventry, England. According to the many stories, he’d left the British East India Company abruptly and gone to live in Kathmandu; he’d been killed by a tiger; he’d been involved with shady dealings regarding a famous diamond. From childhood, Hillsbery always had “a clear sense that [the family] disapproved of Nigel and the vague notion that there was more to his story.”

In Empire Made: My Search for an Outlaw Uncle Who Vanished in British India, Hillsbery describes his decades-long, on-and-off exploration into Nigel’s life and death. It is an absorbing story, told with an eye for suspense and the odd, engrossing detail. Nigel’s story does not lack for weird and glittery hints; it takes a deft hand to explore them with interest and not sensationalism, but Hillsbery is up to the task. His lovely descriptions bring to life a country that is worlds of difference from Nigel’s English home. Sagar Island offers “houses like palaces, rising in their shining stucco masses from flowerbeds filled with imported English blooms on the undulating riverbank, their verandas spacious, their pillars lofty, their profiles Athenian.” Hillsbery is astonished to find a rhododendron forest just where his family’s stories placed one. “India,” he writes, “is full of surprises.”

Nigel set out for Calcutta in 1841 as a 20-year-old clerk for the East India Company. In 1975, Hillsbery was himself 20, headed for a college year abroad in Nepal, when his mother gifted him a sheaf of papers: all that remained of Uncle Nigel’s letters home, most incomplete and in various stages of decay. She wanted her son to be the first in the family to track down Nigel’s grave and pay his respects. The young man figured he would visit a cemetery or two and do his duty. But in fact he would embark upon years of research and travel through India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nepal.

Alternating chapters detail the author’s own travels and Nigel’s, the latter re-created using personal correspondence and official records from the 1840s. Necessarily, Empire Made also delves into British and Indian politics, and the nuanced racial and class-based prejudices and pressures that characterized the British East India Company for centuries. The background history that contextualizes this story can be convoluted, but Hillsbery wrestles this “historical quicksand” gamely, and his digressions enrich the sense of strange wonderment that characterizes this historical investigation. Readers will come away with a general sense of British-Indian relations, while focusing on the mystery of Nigel’s fate.

Hillsbery’s narrative neatly braids the threads of the two protagonists’ parallel travels. Nigel Halleck’s family background and education links into the narrator’s interest in mountaineering, and in Nepalese culture and language. With a distant idea about the enigma of a lost great-uncle, the young Hillsbery takes one and then another detour from his own travels to investigate a cemetery, a shrine, a memorial. He listens to the tales told by locals “with Chaucerian relish” of past visitors, and he learns to check Nigel’s letters as he travels, searching for references to each stop along his own way so that he can follow leads as they arise. This research on the move begins to yield new information, if only in hints.

Over the years and miles, Hillsbery uncovers a theory that Nigel was a deep-cover British secret agent; that he was connected to an important family, the Saddozais, by his close friendship with the Afghan prince Sa’adat ul-Mulk; that he was involved in some under-the-table dealings with the famous Koh-i-noor diamond. But beyond these dramatic stories, Hillsbery finds quieter details that link his own life story more closely to Nigel’s than he could have ever expected.

Empire Made nears its end when Hillsbery visits a seeress. Stumped by Nigel’s unexplained movements and his inexplicable retreat to a Hindu palace in Kathmandu, he submits to a friend’s recommendation to supernatural assistance: “Her rates were reasonable, and I could always write about it.” This woman’s cryptic statements, and Hillsbery’s later realizations about two pieces of information he’d uncovered, eventually help him to reach certain conclusions about Nigel’s life. These conclusions are not supernatural, but worldly. In the end, this epic story of travel, research, family mystery and centuries-long colonial effort ends with uncertainty; but Hillsbery’s voice in closing does find satisfaction in what he’s learned.


Rating: 7 rhododendrons.

Come back Friday for my interview with Kief Hillsbery.

Maximum Shelf author interview: Danya Kukafka

Following Wednesday’s review of Girl in Snow, here’s Danya Kukafka: Choosing Favorites.


Danya Kukafka is a graduate of New York University’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. She currently works as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books. Girl in Snow is her first novel.

You began writing novels when you were just 16. What is different about this, your first to be published?

photo: Elliot Ross

I was writing pretty straight YA before. I wrote my first full novel–it was very bad–for a 10th grade project, and I gave it to my mom for Mother’s Day. And she said, “Honey, this is about a dead girl!” And after that I dabbled in some Peter Pan fan fiction, and then I wrote a paranormal YA novel when I was in college that was rejected by about a billion agents. And then after that I decided to go a little bit older. When I first wrote this book, I thought it was a YA novel until someone told me that it was not. So, I think as I got older my writing sort of naturally got older, too.

I had read a lot of straight YA when I was in high school, and a lot of it deals in the paranormal. One of my favorite series is Meg Cabot’s Mediator series. It’s about a girl who can talk to a ghost. I loved those books, and I took a lot of what I thought paranormal books could do from that. But I’ve definitely moved away from that, probably for good. I’m happy that this is the one that caught. Looking back, I’m glad it wasn’t those earlier ones that published.

How did you choose this setting in (fictional) small-town Colorado?

I grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado. It’s actually not a small town, it’s a pretty large city; but surrounding it are all these really small suburban enclaves, and I think they’re really interesting. They’re so insular. And the landscape of that part of Colorado is also really interesting to me. It’s the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, so you have these huge mountains looming over you, and to the other side you have open plains. You’re just kind of tucked into the base right there.

Why three characters’ voices? Did they all come to you at once, or did one come later than the others?

Oh, this is a good one. No, they did not. The first character that I had was Cameron, and I thought the book was only Cameron’s book, when I started it. I wrote an entire draft of only Cameron, but I could not get to the end. None of the endings made sense, and I couldn’t figure out what to do. I was taking a writing class at NYU with Colson Whitehead, and there was a story that I had written, that had a very, very early version of Jade’s voice. It came out really naturally, and everyone in the class really liked it, and I sort of thought, well, what if there’s a way to fit her into the story? So I had this draft, a full draft of the novel, and I went back and I wrote all of Jade’s chapters into that draft in about six months. And I had what I thought was a YA novel in my hands. But then I signed with my agent, Dana Murphy at the Book Group, and she said, this is not a YA book. This is adult writing and about adult themes, so let’s write in an adult perspective. (It was also very short.) So that was where Russ came in. We sort of thought up Russ together. And it was amazing how much he opened up the book for me: it felt so much bigger and richer and more expansive. But… I wouldn’t do it that way again.

Why not?

Since I had basically fleshed out the whole plot from one perspective, it was actually pretty easy to go in and add these people in terms of structure, because I already had the opening and the middle and the end. I knew generally what needed to happen. So it was actually really fun to go in and find out the little ways I could put these characters into the world that I had built. It was definitely messy for a while, but at the same time I always knew that it was making this world bigger, which I really liked. But it was very accidental and–well, maybe I will end up doing it this way again! But I hope to go into it with a little more intention and a little more knowledge next time.

Do you have a favorite among the three protagonists?

Cameron has to be my favorite. He’s the little dude of my heart, my little brain child. I love Jade for many other reasons–I loved writing Jade because she’s so angsty and such a teenager, and that was really fun to write. And as Russ came along I got to be more of a grown-up, which I also really enjoyed. But yeah, my favorite’s Cameron and I won’t hesitate to say it. Sorry, guys.

How has your day job (as an assistant editor at Riverhead Books) affected your writing?

I think I’ve become much harder on myself, which is a good thing. Also, I’m reading all the time, which is really good for my muscles, I guess. Just being able to read other people’s work as it’s coming in, and see how even really successful and amazing authors need revision–that’s been really inspiring for me, because I realize that everyone goes through this kind of horrible process of writing a book. But I’ve also had a really great experience learning to discern what stories I find necessary and interesting. Working for an editor and as an editor has helped me become pickier as a reader and a writer. Of course, I also find it a little bit scary sometimes, just seeing the volume of amazing work that is out there and knowing that you’re going to have to fit into it somewhere.

And what’s next?

I’m working on a new novel. I can’t say much about it yet but I will say it’s going to be set in upstate New York, about a family. I’m working on a draft, it’s messy right now, but it’s been really freeing to start something new and be out of the story I’ve been with for so long. I can play around now. I can do something totally different.


This interview originally ran on April 26, 2017 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

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 April 26, 2017.


The town of Broomsville, Colo., is rocked by the early-morning discovery of Lucinda Hayes’s body, slung against the carousel in the elementary school playground. Lucinda was a freshman in high school, and the town’s golden girl: beautiful, kind, smart, popular. In the days that follow, though, her secrets and those of her friends and neighbors will be expertly teased to light, old wounds reopened and a number of lives permanently changed.

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka’s first novel, and its riveting narrative dives immediately into the impact of Lucinda’s death through the perspective of her classmate Cameron, an unpopular, troubled teenager whose waking thoughts, dreams and artwork all fixate on her. “Cameron hated the word ‘stalk.’ He had other words for his relationship with Lucinda, but they were words no one else would understand. Words like vibrant, frantic, twinkling, aching….” He is an obvious early suspect. But there are others: the night janitor who found the body, Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend, a homeless man, even her parents.

Then the perspective shifts, as it will throughout this stark and striking novel, from Cameron’s to that of Jade, a junior at the high school, who finds it pointless to even pretend to mourn Lucinda’s death. The third point in this triangulated mystery is Russ, a police officer of 17 years who shares an old trauma with one suspect, and is related to another by marriage. The reader’s lens on the story rotates among these three characters as each struggles with the way his or her life has changed, and sooner or later feels compelled to investigate.

Objectively, Cameron is a stalker; he is certainly troubled. Jade is sullen and generally hostile. Russ, like the two teens, is haunted by his past. They are absorbing characters, with layers of secrets that overlap among them. Although Jade’s chapters are told in first-person, and Cameron’s and Russ’s in the third, their distresses are all written with raw immediacy, and each character is complex, aching and ashamed, for different reasons. Kukafka drags these hidden injuries and infamies out of her characters slowly and by degrees. This measured pacing and withholding of information gives her novel an atmosphere of nearly painful suspense. This is not a traditional murder mystery, although the killer’s identity does remain unknown for most of its length. Rather, it is a quietly taut thriller concerned with the secrets we keep from our closest loved ones–and even from ourselves.

Kukafka’s meticulous details–like Jade’s musical tastes and Russ’s wife’s background–enrich her characters and add to the sense of realism. Cameron is a skilled visual artist with a precise understanding of plant and animal anatomy. Jade is a loner, “eyes ringed in black; raven, greasy hair swooped over one eye,” “two inches of pale stomach rolled over her waistband even though it was winter and she was probably cold,” and even though her mother disapproves. Jade’s little sister is their mother’s Barbie doll, “a mannequin for Ma’s regret about her worry lines and all those cigarettes she smokes.”

Jade knows that “When people die, they become angel caricatures of themselves,” and Lucinda was perhaps not so perfect as the news reports would have it. The reader has only the perspectives of Cameron, Jade and Russ to go on, and their opinions of her vary, but even in these glimpses the dead girl receives some nuance of characterization.

Secondary characters come just as fully formed. Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend Zap, whose parents are French, loves astronomy. Cameron’s art teacher has a history and loves of his own, besides his obvious passion for his work. Broomsville may be an “overgrown cul-de-sac,” “like a cardboard town filled with paper people,” but its inhabitants are as variously disturbed and troubled as any group of imperfect humans. One of them is a murderer, but it seems they are all guilty of something.

Kukafka’s prose often leans toward short sentences and quick turns, but also pauses for beauty or metaphor. There is a poignancy to Cameron’s observations of the physical world, as he kneads his eraser, noting “snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine.” He thirsts for beauty, and thinks there’s “nothing worse than loving someone and mixing up their earlobes with someone else’s.” But one of the points of Girl in Snow is that appearances are often terribly misleading.

“It’s all about perception. What I see is automatically my truth, simply because I’ve seen it.” The impossible objectivity of sight and memory, and the slender boundary between devotion and obsession, between appearance and truth: these are the central questions of a novel with a murder at its heart, but with broader concerns. Girl in Snow is about the effects of Lucinda’s death on an entire town, and Kukafka’s memorable characters allow those effects to keep hold of the reader long after the final denouement.


Rating: 7 Crucibles songs.

Come back Friday for my interview with Danya Kukafka.

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