The Prisoner

By B. A. Paris

I’m not even sure how to review this book, quite frankly. I definitely enjoyed it, but it was listed sort of vaguely as psychological thriller, and while it is that, it also read as decidedly YA. And I don’t mean that as a bad thing!

Well, not all the way, at least. The characters are two-dimensional enough that I kept waiting for a reveal beneath the surface that never came. However, a plot switcheroo halfway through the book reminded me strongly of Gone Girl, only as it would be written for children. It’s not a sophisticated book, so the switch didn’t come as a total shock, but it was still very satisfying, which I think represents the book well.

This would be an amazing book for a young teen or precocious tween, who feels ready for adult books but should still be somewhat eased into them. There are a number of tricks and schemes that weren’t the most subtle, but I still really enjoyed them, just in a sort of bemused way. There is no sex (though some non-specific mention of sexual assault in the past), no drug use, or even much swearing. There is violence, as befits a mystery and psych thriller, but not gruesomely described. I would have loved it and felt so mature if I’d read it at 14 or 15! (I was not a precocious tween.)

Once I had a clearer realization of the proper audience for the book, I enjoyed it even more and stopped looking for hidden meanings or nuance that wasn’t there. That said, I was pleasantly surprised that the author gave serious attention to the protagonist’s trauma response, instead of brushing it aside or romanticizing it, which I’d half expected.

Lavender House

By Lev AC Rosen

This mystery novel had shown up on several recommendation lists over the last few months, and it is well justified! Rosen beautifully takes the noir sensibility, which imbues generalized disenfranchisement, and applies it very directly and acutely to the LGBT community in 1950s San Francisco. It becomes a somewhat pointed critique of noir in general, I think, by contrasting what has typically been a general mental oppressiveness in the great noir writers like Chandler and Hammett, with actual systemic and malicious oppression against specific people.

Traditional noir characters sense a true darkness in the world that the general populace ignores or is blind to. In Lavender House, the gay characters only wish they had the option to ignore the ugliness of the world, instead of having it thrust upon them if they drop their defenses for a second. While San Francisco was just starting to be a budding haven for gay people, so there were more underground clubs and the like, the whole of the United States remained very dangerous.

Our protagonist, Levander “Andy” Mills is as aware of this anyone else. As a (closely closeted) gay cop, he is both threatened and the threat, and straddling that line, can trust no one. Before the start of the novel, however, he was discovered in a club raid, kicked off the force, and all but run out of town. He is getting drunk in a bar before throwing himself into the Bay, when Pearl comes to ask him to investigate the suspicious death of her wife. Pearl is the surviving matriarch of the Lavender House, where the now deceased scion of a wealthy soap family created a home where a handful of gay couples can live freely, while showing a much different face to the outside world.

Andy moves into the house in order to investigate, mostly with the idea that he has nothing left to lose at this point, but it opens his mind to a whole different world. And this is what I really loved about the book: it explores the seductive but false appeal of noir and cynicism. It’s a really interesting play on noir – the detective himself has bought into the ideological grimness, but the novel makes the effort to show that his cynicism, though not unfounded, is a blindness of sorts. He expects the worst from people, and while this protects him to a point, he closes himself off so no one can either hurt him or care for him. And then, worst of all, believes that is all there is to life.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book before that did such of a good job of criticizing its genre so validly, while also perfectly exemplifying it. A very minor spoiler: the end is both satisfying and a poignant summary of the overall themes, with a hopefulness that would feel jarring after a traditional noir but feels like the point of the whole book here.

The Screwtape Letters

By C.S. Lewis

Rebecca and I both enjoyed The Great Divorce so much that we decided to read The Screwtape Letters, another Christian fantasy by C.S. Lewis (her review to follow). This novel is a collection of letters from Screwtape, a demon, giving guidance to his nephew on how to corrupt people’s souls. And it comes out of the gate swinging!

“Your business is to fix his attention on the stream [of immediate sense experiences]. Teach him to call it ‘real life’ and don’t let him ask what he means by ‘real’.” (p. 2!)

C.S. Lewis is scolding me for wasting time on social media from beyond the grave!

“But the best of all is to let him read not science but to give him a grand general idea that he knows it all and that everything he happens to have picked up in casual talk and reading is ‘the results of modern investigation’. (p. 3)

80 years ago, C.S. Lewis was dunking on do-your-own-research guys!

So, it’s been a real eye-opening seeing the ever-green traits of humanity that I used to ascribe to the digital age. I initially enjoyed the novelty of it, but the narrative structure of letters leads to far more proselytizing than The Great Divorce, which took a more show-don’t-tell approach. As Screwtape enumerates all things that can lead a person to hell, the path to heaven becomes narrower and harder to define. The reader gets all sorts of negatives (just going through the religious motions will surely lead you to hell, but so too will interrogating your faith too thoroughly), and no positive directions, as far as I can tell.

Of course, this falls in well with the conceit of letters from a demon. Lewis even gives himself a clever and all-encompassing disclaimer in his preface by saying that all demons lie and even have their own bias, so any issues with the letter lie solely with the fictional demonic letter-writer. So, while it’s hard to argue with this, Lewis clearly intends the book for Christian instruction, and for me, at least, this type of negative direction is not so helpful.

After a while, as the ways humans stray kept piling up, I started bracing myself for some ugly prejudice or another to rear its head. However, nothing overt emerged, though Lewis is pretty dismissive of women, when he gives them any thought at all, and it’s probably all for the best that he doesn’t give any thought to anyone non-white, non-Christian, or even non-English. It was hard to escape the feeling of just being constantly scolded, though.

The book contains 31 letters in all, each only being 3-5 pages, and it made me wonder if it was intended to read one letter a day, to allow the reader some time to really think through each one. But Rebecca read that they were originally released in serial on a weekly basis, which is an even better, longer break between each one! It ends with a longer essay, Screwtape Proposes a Toast, which Lewis wrote years later, and in which Screwtape is addresses a new graduating class of demonic tempters. In it, Lewis once again expresses a surprisingly current sentiment, though more retrograde with a “kids these days, with their participation trophies” hack.

The Half Life of Valery K

By Natasha Pulley

I really like Natasha Pulley, but man, it feels like she is in a challenge to make her readers root for the most problematic character possible. I had some serious issues with her previous book The Kingdoms, but I think she might have outdone herself this time. (Unlike her other books, The Half Life of Valery K doesn’t include any magical realism and is even based on real events, which makes it worse, quite frankly.)

The protagonist, the titular Valery K, is a radiation scientist in Russia in the 1960s, which simply can’t be anything but problematic given the field of study and time period. When the novel starts, Valery has been in a Siberian work camp for 6 years, and has only survived that long due to some lucky circumstances. The description of the work camp is devastating, especially given how well researched it seems to be. Valery has every expectation of starving to death in the following year when he is released and brought to ‘City 40’ to help study the effects of radiation on the general ecosystem. City 40 is kept in deep secrecy to hide it from the western countries (the US in particular), and once in the city, no one leaves.

Valery quickly befriends the head KGB officer that holds them all there, another strangely sympathetic but deeply problematic character. It is a much more comfortable imprisonment than the work camps, so Valery is content until he discovers deeper secrets that even his very compromised morals cannot accept.

And that gets to the crux of the book – it is all about the evils that people have to accept to survive in impossible situations. And also when people reach a breaking point where they can’t accept any more, and fight back, often becoming evil in their own opposing way. This obviously makes for a very difficult read, and I think I’ll be wrestling with the questions this book raises for a while.

I haven’t read much about the Soviet Union, so this book more than any other I’ve read gave me insight into what the Soviet communist government was trying to achieve as an ideal and some of the ways it failed so badly in practice. Anti-west Soviet propaganda is a pervasive background throughout the novel, with most characters living in constant fear of US bombing, especially after Hiroshima. Soviet citizens would ascribe most unexplained explosions to US bombing, and I realized that I had no idea if the United States had bombed the USSR in the 50s and 60s, and that I likely wouldn’t know.

Though the US is somewhat more sophisticated in how it influences its citizens,* it made me really interrogate the degree to which I’ve bought into western propaganda (the Soviet characters are shocked by the strict gender roles imposed in western cultures, for instance). Awareness is all well and good, but there’s no clear answer for how individual citizens can combat this ideological warfare, which left me feeling a little hopeless about the state of humanity in general.

*I was reminded of a joke I’d heard a while ago: A Russian and an American get on a plane in Moscow and get to talking. The Russian says he works for the Kremlin and he’s on his way to go learn American propaganda techniques.

“What American propaganda techniques?” asks the American. “Exactly,” the Russian replies.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

By Marina Lewycka

“Extremely funny” says The Times.
“Mad and Hilarious,” Daily Telegraph.
“Uproariously funny” from The Economist

Guys, this was one of the most mean-spirited books I’ve read in a long time. Sisters Vera and Nadia hate each other and seem contemptuous of their elderly widowed father. When he becomes attached to a much younger woman, they try to intervene, seemingly more out of immediate hatred for this new woman than any concern for their father. Their father, in turn, disdains his daughters for a variety of reasons, and fights their intervention, even as the new woman turns out to be despicable and abusive.

The back blurb teased that this struggle uncovers long buried family secrets, which is what hooked me (as well as the unusual title). And the central story is interspersed with background vignettes on the parents’ and grandparents’ lives in Ukraine, though there is no big reveal or epiphany. Instead, by spending just a little more time talking about their different experiences growing up, the two sisters reach a basic level of empathy for each other that they probably should have managed a long time ago. Oh, and there are also passages from a short book the father is writing about tractors. The history of mechanical invention is not really my thing, but I actually welcomed the breaks from the central characters.

I wanted to quit a couple of times, but was too embarrassed after the librarian had looked so intrigued by the title when I was checking it out and made a note to check it out herself. Plus, I feel like I’ve been losing interest in books halfway through lately, and that I should really see one through to the end. That said, the ending was surprisingly satisfactory and even a little touching after all the meanness, so that was kind of nice.

The Woman in the Library

By Sulari Gentill

Whew, this book is a trip! It starts off with a scream of terror in the Boston Public Library. In the fuss and speculation that follows, our narrator, a young woman named Freddie working on a novel, becomes friendly with the three other people at her table, one of whom, the book tells us, is a murderer! I was just settling in for a good locked-room mystery when it unfolds that the scream-in-the-library is the first chapter of a book being written by a successful novelist named Hannah, who is sending her chapters individually to a fellow author Leo for feedback.

So, we get the chapters of the library mystery, interspersed with letters of commentary from the other author (interestingly, we don’t get any personal description or insight into Hannah). I was initially a little disappointed because the meta-framework prevented me from getting as fully invested in the library mystery, but I was eventually pulled in despite myself. And then even more thrilled when Leo’s letters started to hint at its own mystery!

Luckily for my comprehension, we don’t read any of Freddie’s book, though she takes notes of people and events she encounters that will influence her novel, so there’s some blurring of lines there as well. I had to periodically pause to remind myself where any given character existed in the layers of fiction stacked in this novel. Gentill (the real author) does a very good job of creating these overlapping worlds that seem to influence each other across boundaries more permeable than one would expect.

Gentill herself is an acclaimed Australian author of novels across multiple genres; Hannah, the mostly invisible fictional first-level author behind the chapters, is also an acclaimed Australian novelist, writing from Australia about winter in Boston (Leo is her contact in Boston, giving her local flavor in addition to general feedback); and Freddie (protagonist of Hannah’s novel) is an Australian novelist on a writing fellowship in Boston, where she gets tangled in a series of suspicious circumstances stemming from the initial titular scream.

I got a little miffed midway through when Freddie started making some dumb decisions (something I’m getting much less tolerant of in books) when I realized that I might be entering a further level of unreliable narrator, which was very exciting!

In the end, I really enjoyed the layers, and how in addition to double suspense, it allowed the author to write about the process of writing in several different ways without being too heavy handed.

Pigeon English

By Stephen Kelman

I thought this was a murder mystery with an atypical narrating protagonist, like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (which I loved) and The Maid (which I liked well enough), so I wasn’t really prepared to for this very literary novel about poverty in the UK. It was very good for what it was, but in this third year of the pandemic, I really need to stick to my low-stress cozies. That said, as much as I felt that I really didn’t have the emotional bandwidth for this, I also couldn’t put it down.

12-year-old Harri lives with his family in one of London’s housing projects, and when an older boy he recognizes from school is found dead, he and his friends decide to investigate.  Harri himself is cheerful, enthusiastic, and generally optimistic in a quite grim world, that his narration kept me pulled in, even when his young London slang was almost entirely incomprehensible to me. As a warning,  there are also a number of slurs, insults, and general ignorance, which seems entirely accurate to the protagonists but also got occasionally tiresome.

However, the hardest part of reading this was seeing how poverty grinds up everyone in it, regardless of how they try to escape or even claw out some bits of joy. It is beautifully written, with some surprisingly poetic narration woven in, but very much a gritty study of often-overlooked communities, framed around this one murder, rather than a mystery novel.

Cemetery Boys

By Aiden Thomas

Cemetary Boys is a very seasonal read right now with its cemetery setting, leading up to El Día de los Muertos.  Yadriel was born into a family gifted with divine abilities. All the women of his family serve life, able to heal even mortal injuries, while the men serve death, leading lost spirits to their afterlife. Yadriel is trans, though, and while his family recognizes him, they insist that Lady Death will not, and refuse to let him perform the necessary male ritual that will awaken his powers.

When Yadriel attempts the ritual in secret, with the assistance of a cousin, he accidentally summons the wrong ghost in the process, a fellow classmate from his school. The ghost challenges Yadriel to solve his murder, and in the process, they uncover a slew of disappearances throughout their LA neighborhood. It’s a great premise and well-thought out mystery, but I realized early on that the novel is very much for young adult readers, perhaps even middle school rather than high school. I liked and cared about the characters, but felt more sympathy for the overwhelmed and often clueless parents and grandparents than I did for the teenage protagonists.

It was also quickly clear to me what was going on with the mystery, which I took as another sign that this is truly a book for younger readers, ones who are still being introduced to plot twists and suspense in books. I would have loved this book in my preteens, and I feel a little sad that now I found it at times tiresomely predictable, though I suppose that is an inevitable part of getting older. Happy Day of the Dead, everyone!

Admissions

By Kendra James

I first heard about this book during Kendra James’ very funny guest stint on my favorite podcast “Yo, Is This Racist.” I highly recommend the episode, both because the hosts are always very funny and smart and because the stories James tells from the book got me hooked (granted after a few months). It is a memoir of her experience as the first Black legacy student at Taft, a fancy prep school in Connecticut, and the whole thing was a real eye-opener for me. In the early 2000s with nascent internet and social media, her high school experience was wildly different than mine, and it was often hard to parse whether that was due to the time period, the quality of the school, or race. Regardless, she captures this moment in her life with such detail that I really felt like I was getting a clear look into a life much different than mine.

On the one hand, I never really understood prep schools, feeling that at this point, for better or worse, most high schools sort of vaguely aim their students toward college instead of trade apprenticeships. However, James reveals the extraordinarily high level of guidance students at Taft got when applying for colleges, which really hammered home the extra privilege that makes these students much more likely to go to prestigious colleges and universities. (It also made me mad all over again about the college admissions bribery scandal, since they already had such a leg up!)

On the other hand, she was one of a handful of Black students in an overwhelmingly white school (in an overwhelmingly white state), and of course that came with a fairly constant barrage of aggressions, both micro and not so small. James is so funny overall in her writing that it came as a surprise how difficult some parts are to read. She does an equally skilled job at unpacking the oversized responsibility that is piled on all the students of color, who are also still so young and just coming into awareness of themselves and the world around them.

What struck me hardest from James’ memoir was how acutely James and other students of color could distinguish between individual racism, which was often more blatant, and systemic racism, which though more subtle, could hurt them in much wider ways. This really gets at what many white people, myself included, often don’t see: some rando shouting the n-word is disgusting, but a centuries-old institution requiring the Black, Latinx, and Asian students to continuously prove their worth to both their peers and much of the faculty is much more lastingly harmful. James and her fellow students of color recognized that immediately, and I felt bad that it took me so long into adulthood to begin to see the same thing.

I also have to admit that I recognized more of myself than I would have liked in her ignorant white classmates. My own high school was also very white, and while I did not actively hold racist beliefs, I just went with the cultural flow, and the flow in the Texas public school system was most definitely racist. Admissions gives a clear, fairly universal, real world example why not being racist isn’t enough, and why we need to aim to be anti-racist instead.

I only found out in the acknowledgements (for some reason, I’ve started reading them dedicatedly, and it feels somehow very middle aged of me) that James first began to write about her experiences on our beloved defunct website, The Toast!

A Splendid Ruin

By Megan Chance

Alison Green recommended this book a few weeks ago on her blog, Ask A Manager (one of my daily reads), and it sounded so gothic, full of the secrets and decadence of the very wealthy, that I was hooked! It actually turned out to have unexpected similarities to The Maid, which I’d just previously read, both featuring fish-out-of-water protagonists who face serious endangerment from the society around them. In this case, May Kimble is an impoverished orphan who is invited to live with her estranged, extremely wealthy aunt and uncle after the death of her mother. Once there, she faces a whole slew of warning signs that she tries to explain away with her own inexperience.

Like The Maid but even more so, the tension ratchets up until the worst has happened, but then May faces the truth and finds her own strength in recover and it is very satisfying. It also has the subtlety and depth that I missed in The Maid, which in retrospect I think was the detail of the setting. Author Megan Chance gives 1900s San Francisco such color that it is almost its own character. The first half of the book leads up to the devastating fire that destroyed most of the city, and the second half occurs right afterwards, and Chance does an amazing job of bringing it all to life.

Every scene unfolded new and intriguing details about each individual character and the society as a whole. Between the vibrancy of the historical setting and the taut suspense of the impending doom, I truly couldn’t put this book down. I basically read it straight in three days in any free time I had, and then found the ending completely satisfying.