The Maid

By Nita Prose

I’d been on the waiting list for this book for several months, and when it finally came in, the librarian mentioned that it’s been coming in and out constantly. I’d heard it recommended as a mystery in the form of Agatha Christie, which of course sold me on it, but I’m not sure that I get the comparison, other than it is a mystery and a twisty one. Perhaps also that the narrating protagonist is as overlooked as Miss Marple often is?

Molly is a very skilled maid at a high-end hotel, and also very clearly autistic. I have no idea how accurate the author’s portrayal of autism is, but it certainly creates an interesting perspective. Whole scenes told one way in Molly’s perspective are clear to the reader as having entirely different interpretations under the surface that she’d not recognizing. Many of these are fairly unsubtle, but it does create an interesting puzzle for the reader to figure out exactly how is being missed or misinterpreted.

It’s a bit agonizing at times, to be honest. Molly is such a decent person, left on her own after the death of her grandmother and trying so hard, and we as the readers watch people manipulate and use her. Some scenes are vaguely funny, which made me a bit uncomfortable (Molly herself worries about not knowing if people are laughing with her or at her, and I sometimes wasn’t sure if I as the reader was, either), but more are depressing at the ugliness of people who will do anything to get even the slightest edge in life.

Fortunately this is balanced out by the charming handful of people who appreciate Molly and are ready to help when she finds herself in deep trouble. This begins when she finds a guest has died in one of the rooms, a wealthy man who had enough enemies to make his death suspicious. Molly’s unemotional reaction to it quickly attracts the attention of the police, so she and her growing number of friends scramble to discover what really happened before it can be pinned on her. I very much enjoyed the book, and read it within a few days, which is very quick for me, but the occasional lack of subtlety made the story feel somewhat unrefined in places. It has already been optioned for a movie due to come out next year, with the excellent Florence Pugh as the lead, which I think may actually be even better than the book. My sense is that the more obvious parts of the book will read better on screen than on the page, so I’m already eagerly anticipating the movie.

Silver in the Wood

By Emily Tesh

First off, I have to recommend Tor.com’s eBook club, where they basically just offer a free ebook (or three) each month. A few months ago, the offering was a compilation of Witchmark, All Systems Red, and Silver in the Wood. I’d already read and loved both Witchmark and All Systems Red, but it took me a little while to get around to reading Silver in the Wood. Well, I read it in two days, and loved it, too!

It is very short, under a hundred pages, so more of a novella, but it just feels very tidy, if that makes sense. The story actually feels a bit like an ancient forest, quiet and mystical. There are no extraneous flourishes: only a handful of characters and the entire story takes place in a cabin and the surrounding woods. As a reader we get the pertinent information as we need it, and I don’t want to give any of it away early here.

I will say that the book is separated into two parts, and I was surprised and delighted by the shift in tone between the two. Part I has a mild melancholy that I could sink into, and Part II had me laughing out loud on the first page. Because I was reading Silver in the Wood as part of a compilation, I didn’t have a clear sense of where I was in the book until I’d suddenly reached the end. It had a satisfying conclusion that fit the rest of the book, but I was sad not to have more. And then, I discovered it was the first in a duology!

Drowned Country

Unfortunately, I didn’t like the sequel nearly as well. I was so happy to revisit the people I’d loved so much in the first one, but a couple of years have gone by in the world, and things have fallen apart. The general tone of the book shifted from quietly melancholy to angsty, and there wasn’t much humor at all.

A big part of that shift was due to the change in protagonist. While both books are written in third person, one character’s internal thoughts and feelings are expressed, and I didn’t like the internal life of this book’s protagonist nearly as well. His general personality was a slight irritant to me throughout the book, even when other characters and events caught my attention.

And the plotline is interesting, if somewhat recursive of the previous book. The ending was satisfying enough, too, that I don’t regret reading the book. Our protagonist matured enough over the course of the story that I’d probably read a third sequel if one came out, though this seems pretty definitively a two-parter.

The Angel of the Crows

By Katherine Addison

Someone had recommended The Angel of the Crows as Sherlock fanfic with the serial numbers filed off, and as Rebecca pointed out, they weren’t filed off much. For me, though, this had the benefit of the book feeling immediately comfortable even in the unique setting. Set in an alternative Victorian Era, angels guard most of the public spaces of London, while their fallen numbers rampage in war zones. Doyle has returned from war in Afghanistan (a depressing constant) with incapacitating wounds and a couple of secrets that are slowly revealed over the course of the book, and finds housing with the titular Angel of the Crows, who solves mysteries to pass the time and keep London safe.

Doyle, of course, quickly gets roped into assisting the angel Crow, and both of them are so eminently likeable with their various flaws and idiosyncrasies, and their relationship was so sweet, I could have read twice as many stories of their adventures. Crow’s lack of understanding of many human traits makes much more sense and is much more sympathetic, coming from a literally unearthly being. Addison also builds off of a variety of Arthur Conan Doyle’s most famous stories, including the Hound of Baskerville and the Speckled Band, and I really enjoyed seeing the reinterpretations in a world where werewolves and vampires exist openly.

Rebecca read it first and warned me that the book has very episodic plotting, with many shorter cases solved within the arc of the longer Jack the Ripper investigation. Knowing what to expect, I read the book somewhat like a collection of short stories, and found that especially accessible, too. None of the mysteries were as complex as one would get in a single dedicated novel, but I could read one each night and then set the book down satisfied. It’s been such a nice end to my day all this week that I’ve got a bit of a book hangover now, even though my to-read stack is towering.

Devil House

By John Darnielle

John Darnielle is the lead singer of The Mountain Goats, who I’d never actually listened to, and also a big supporter of and frequent guest on podcasts, which is where I heard of his new novel, Devil House. The main premise is that a true crime author moves into a house that was the scene of a supposed devil worship sacrifice during the satanic panic of the 80s, in order to immerse himself in the scene while writing about the event. Darnielle explained that he tried to construct the novel itself like a house, which I didn’t fully understand, and still don’t even after reading it. There certainly was a lot of description of the house, if that’s what it means?

This very lukewarm review is likely due to me as a reader, rather than the book itself, though it is also a much different book than I was expecting. This was just not the book for me (I also listened to a couple of Mountain Goats songs out of curiosity, and they were also Not For Me, so I guess that’s something learned all around). On the one hand, I was immersed enough in the entwined stories that at times I struggled to put the book down, and there was never any question in my mind about finishing it. On the other hand, I was viscerally and generally annoyed for pretty much the entire week I was reading it.

As much as I love mysteries, especially murder mysteries, I hate reading true crime. And this is not true crime, in itself, but I think Darnielle probably does a good job of mirroring it, while writing about his author. I had previously thought I didn’t like the sensationalizing of real victims in true crime, but as I read Devil House, I realized instead of any sort of lofty ideals, I really just find the psychological delving to be boring. I’d much rather read about solving the logistical puzzle of a mystery than the thoughts and emotions of the killers and victims, and there’s a lot of the latter in this novel.

The bulk of the book shifts between three time periods, our author in the present day researching his book, the double murder in the 80s, and a separate double murder in the 70s that was featured in the author’s breakout book. I kept waiting for there to be some connection revealed between the three, but I think Darnielle was trying to do something more subtle, and he was giving three ostensibly different examples that come at the same core message from different perspectives.

The book ends with a lengthy treatise on truth, stories, what gets remembered and what doesn’t, and what gets amplified in stories and what doesn’t. Darnielle writes all this with an universality (“we all…”) that captured much of my frustration with the book as a whole. I often felt like I was supposed to be reading something poignant and informative about how humans all relate to memories, but it didn’t match my relationship with my own past or memory at all. So it’s alienating, at the very least, to read what is clearly supposed to be a reflection of humanity overall, and to find it so strange and unfamiliar.

As an aside, I think the cover reflects all of my feelings very well: it is a really striking graphic design, but I realized pretty quickly that the house pictured on the cover doesn’t match the physical description in the book at all, which was a continual irritant.

They Came to Baghdad

By Agatha Christie

I was first intrigued to read a spy adventure novel by Agatha Christie, rather than her more usual English murder mysteries, but it also turned out to be a disconcertingly timely read. Published in 1951, it is all very Cold War, with tensions running high between the United States and the Soviet Union, with a planned global summit in Baghdad in an attempt to ease those tensions and prevent a third world war so soon after the second. It’s been a very odd week to read a book with such similarities and equal disparities to current events! (The Iraq of 1951 is also strangely discordant, since it is both through Christie’s blatantly prejudiced eyes, though she in fact loved the country herself, and before many of the subsequent wars that tanked its economy and culture.)

For all the overarching motivation of preventing war between America and Russia, it is really a story of England and Iraq, with the many English expats converging on Baghdad for a madcap variety of reasons. The whole plot has Christie’s classic clues and twists, but has enough screwball comedy to it that I’m very disappointed that no one has adapted it to film yet. Our main protagonist, Victoria, is a mediocre typist recently fired in London, who impulsively follows an attractive young man to Baghdad. She is more gutsy than intelligent (thus her initial poor decision making), but to the detriment of all the espionage around her, she is unexpectedly observant and also a somewhat compulsive liar. Christie’s mastery really shines in the final denouement, when all the smallest clues, including some that I had chalked up to minor writing flaws, came together very quickly in a very satisfactory way.

A very minor spoiler, the central conflict is explained to Victoria midway through the book, and hit me like a flash of familiarity:

Continue reading

Dreamland

By Nancy Bilyeau

I was positive that Kinsey had recommended this book to me, but when I texted her to tell her how much I was enjoying it, she was like, so, tell me about this book?

It’s a murder mystery, sort of: there’s definitely someone killing young women on the Coney Island boardwalk, but it is sort of in the background for most of the book. It’s also got a lot of the earmarks of gothic mystery: a very wealthy family with simmering tensions and a young woman trying to escape the strictures of the family.

The whole book is so delicately written: it is clearly much better to be super rich in New York in 1910 than it is to be super poor, but it still seems to suck pretty badly.  (It is probably by far the best to be comfortably middle class.) I didn’t expect myself to sympathize quite so much with such a wealthy and indulged protagonist, but Bilyeau does a great job of showing how imprisoning and insulating/isolating this level of wealth does. Peggy wants very much to be a good person, but her very existence within the power that her family’s wealth yields is a threat to everyone around her not equally protected by wealth.

After being coerced by her family into attending a summer retreat to Brooklyn shore, she falls into a star-crossed romance with an immigrant artist on the boardwalk. As her naivety with the everyday struggles of the rest of the world threatens his life and livelihood, I did wonder what exactly he saw in her. Peggy is incredibly sympathetic, but not always likeable, and I credit the writing immensely for that. She has such good intentions and tries so hard, but often falls back into arrogance and selfishness in times of stress. It illustrates so well how this type of upbringing can be corrupting despite one’s best intentions. (For me, the artist, Stefan, was the weakest character, sort of an unrealistic ideal that made me grudgingly suspect him of fortune-hunting, agreeing with many of the other characters.)

I did think the ending fell a little short of the suspense leading up. The more I read, the greater appreciation I have for mystery authors – it is really hard to set up a puzzle and then pull off a solution that fits all the pieces while still being a surprise at the end. It’s a rarer skill than I’d realized, and this book doesn’t quite meet it, but it doesn’t negate the beautifully atmospheric pages leading up to it.

Also, I recommend the final author’s note, since her description of which real-life people and places she based characters and settings on is fascinating!

Cultish

By Amanda Montell

One of my new year’s resolutions was to lose some weight and, realizing that I wasn’t going to be able to do it on my own, I looked at some diet apps. I went through the one-week free trial of the ubiquitous Noom, and though I found it somewhat helpful, the language in the lessons made me a bit uneasy. I decided to read Cultish as a counterbalance, to help me ward off any susceptibility to a diet cult. (I ended up quitting Noom at the end of the trial, partially because of the high cost but mostly because it’s nutritional guidelines did not allow for my morning latte and my evening glass of wine, and those are non-negotiable.)

However, Cultish still ended up being hugely relevant. Amanda Montell looks at a variety of ‘cult-like’ entities, from the obvious like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate to the much milder like Instagram influencers, primarily through the lens of language and speech. As she delved into the oratory style of Jim Jones, who studied persuasive speakers ranging from Martin Luther King, Jr. to Adolf Hitler, I began to recognize similar stylings in extremist politicians (on all sides of the political spectrum, though I do think the ultra-conservative right has a special talent for it) and even in mainstream media chasing after clicks.

Catastrophizing news items or historical events, often out of context, and creating a sense of urgency sounded exhaustively familiar:

Jonestown survivor Yulanda Williams recalls Jones showing the Redwood City congregation a film called Night and Fog about the Nazi concentration camps. “He said, ‘This is what they have planned for people of color. We’ve got to build our land up over there in Jonestown, we’ve got to get over there. We’ve got to move fast, we’ve got to move swiftly, we’ve got to pool our resources together,’” she explained.

The repetition of key phrases is also a seemingly obvious but very effective oratory tool, as well. It also reminded me of the Scam Goddess podcast, which I highly recommend and which ties into this quite well. As podcaster Laci Mosley describes, scams rely on creating a sense of urgency where there’s no time to stop and think through practicalities and logistics, since you may then start seeing the logical holes.

The big cults are the ones known throughout the country, so it’s not until Montell starts diving into MLMs and fitness crazes that she turns to more personal connections and anecdotes. They are fascinating and relatable, but at the same time, pervasively LA-centric. There’s a certain glib assumption that the author and her family are the most sophisticated skeptics possible, which sticks out from the narrative, though doesn’t take away from the still fascinating analysis of language usage.

Hugo-Nominated Novellas

I’m usually not a fan of novellas (they often feel to me like bare outlines of better, longer books), but after reading Nghi Vo’s two last year, I was ready to reconsider. The Empress of Salt and Fortune won the 2021 Hugo novella category, and since I loved that one so much, I decided to check out some of the others. These authors have definitely proved me wrong – with each one, I paused multiple times to just take in fully how good it was! And honestly, right now, being less than 200 pages is perfect for my attention span.

Ring Shout by P. Djèlí Clark

I had first read Clark with his short story, A Dead Djinn in Cairo, which I highly recommend – he has a companion novella, which I enjoyed quite a bit, and a sequel novel, which I hope to read soon, set in the same magical, steampunk world. They are fun, adventurous murder mysteries with fantastical elements.

Ring Shout is a bit of a divergence, set in Georgia in 1922 during the rise of the KKK, but still maintains the exciting pace of an adventure story, as well as a wide variety of delightful characters. Clark masterfully balances the reverberating horrors of slavery with a celebration of Black life and resilience. Instead of a harrowing look at the evils perpetrated by white supremacy, he focuses on our resistance heroes who triumph against both earthly and other-worldly aggressions.

More subtly, he weaves in themes of how fear and anger can corrupt into hate, on all sides no matter how righteous or justified, and I definitely needed to do some self-reflection after reading.

Upright Women Wanted by Sarah Gailey

The tagline for this is “Are you a coward or are you a librarian?” and it is perfect! Set in a Gilead-like dystopian future, restrictive gender and hetero-normative identity has been enforced by an authoritarian government. Our protagonist runs away from her stifling home life to join the Librarians, who disperse government-approved literature throughout the country, among other things.

Another exciting adventure story, with Western overtones, since horses and wagons have once again become the norm, with the limited cars and fuel being reserved for military use. Along with the protagonist, we get to know better the other librarians, and their role in a larger-scale resistance movement. Like Ring Shout, it is exciting, suspenseful, and ultimately hopeful.

FINNA by Nino Cipri

FINNA is set in a fictional IKEA, and I’m not sure a better dystopian setting exists. Ava and Jules are co-workers and recent exes who must awkwardly work together to rescue a customer from a wormhole, which apparently not infrequently opens in random big Scandinavian furnishing stores. Another enthralling adventure as the duo have to cross through several multiverses, with a very funny but pointed satire of capitalist grind and work culture.

Each world is a fascinating look at how trade and commerce can play out in society, diverging farther from the US standard the further our protagonists go, but I have to say that the laugh-out-loud funniest parts for me were in the prime store and all the very accurately satirized agony of working retail.

The Chosen and the Beautiful

By Nghi Vo

Nghi Vo must have had this novel in the chamber ready to go, because it was published mere months after The Great Gatsby left copyright in January 2021. So, to brush off my decades-old literature degree, The Great Gatsby is basically a character study of one man, the titular Jay Gatsby, and the character is also more a metaphor for the corrupting deception of the “American Dream” than an fleshed out person. There’s a lot of room to fill out the lives, thoughts, and feelings of all the characters, and Nghi Vo does that very well.

The narrator is Jordan, the thinnest of the central five characters in the original, so with the most room for creative exploration, and Nghi Vo sure takes advantage of that! She’s now Vietnamese, adopted as an infant by a wealthy white missionary, and now in young adulthood doing her best to ignore anything that makes her stand out from the other bright young things. She is also untrained but agile in the Eastern magic of paper cutting, and this magical element is what really diverges from the source.

It is mostly incidental to the plot but fascinating, and there were several times where I wish the novel had thrown out the source plot entirely to just explore this magical and much more diverse world. On the one hand, the multi-dimensional Jordan, Nick, Daisy, and Tom are more interesting to read about in detail (Gatsby remains a bit of an enigma); on the other hand, those details somewhat undo the pivotal central message and theme of the original.

The very act of adding dimension negates the sense of a flat façade that Fitzgerald created, but Nghi Vo also plays with that idea in interesting, and occasionally very literal ways, as with the magical paper cutting creating animated illusions. I think in the end, I found the book more interesting than enjoyable, and not up to the very high standards of her previous two novellas, which Rebecca reviewed last year, but with all that, I still think it is well worth the read.

Meddling Kids

By Edgar Cantero

Just read the blurb for this and see if you aren’t intrigued! I immediately put a hold on it and was eagerly anticipating its arrival, but upon reading quickly realized that it’s not really my thing. I get what Cantero is trying to do and I think it is really interesting, but for me, it doesn’t quite work. He wants both a winky satire/nostalgia piece and a dark, shocking horror/mystery, and they each undercut the other.

The first 50 pages were a bit of a slog, as Cantero set up the characters and setting. He really, really likes a simile, and I can’t say that I feel the same. Not everything has be like something else! Some things are just themselves! And often the similes got so convoluted, it actually obstructed understanding rather than assisted: “The night was cold but gentle like an X-rated metaphor.” What does that even mean?! “From the mining equipment buried in that station like implausible goodies found inside pyramids and hellgates for the use of video game characters, Andy picked up a few items she deemed useful.” Sigh.

Once the action picks up after about a hundred pages, I started enjoying it more for the plot itself. The characters are likeable enough once the author stops rhapsodizing over their physical and mental attributes. The plot really is a good one, too, flipping the standard cartoon final reveal of a man-in-a-mask to become a façade covering something much darker.

Meddling Kids would make a brilliant movie (with a pretty serious editing job), and the author clearly agrees, painstakingly setting up sequences of physical comedy and Rube Goldberg-like action that would look stellar on the screen, but bog down the pace for the reader. Of course, even those sequences are immensely clichéd – it’s meant to be, that’s part of the joke and the homage – but that also doesn’t prevent it from also being eye-rolling. The writing style very much isn’t for me, but I think a lot of readers would enjoy it much more than I did, as testified by the raving reviews and cover blurbs.* Also, to give credit where it is very much due, Cantero takes incredible care to avoid any serious animal harm: even the literal canary in the goldmine implausibly survives intact.

About midway through the book, I checked whether Edgar Cantero had made an appearance in The Midnight Society (he has not, as far as I know), which is one of my favorite twitter accounts. The author lovingly skewers a wide variety of horror authors in ongoing tweet-length dialogues, and it makes me laugh regularly and introduces me to some new authors and some truly wild details about authors I had thought I’d previously known!

*Though, actually, when I went on GoodReads to confirm this, the majority of reviews sound the same as mine – good premise, weak execution, and they brought up some more serious issues of outdated language referring to intersex, transgender, and lesbian characters, as well as some broad racial stereotyping. I was willing to give some leeway for this since Cantero is Spanish, and Spain and Latin American countries use different terms than we do (even in translation), but readers should definitely be forewarned about that.