Review: Dreams of Gods and Monsters, Laini Taylor

The final installment of a series is a trap. The writer is pursuing a set of goals which, though they are not fundamentally incompatible with each other, would probably not receive much encouragement from the OK Cupid algorithm to send each other a flirty message. The stakes have to be high but can’t be stakes the characters have already faced and overcome in previous books; the resolution has to be victory but can’t be too deus ex machina; and the characters have to end on a note that acknowledges everything they have been through but also feels conclusive and not too unbearably depressing.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters, the conclusion of Laini Taylor’s Nouns of Atmospheric Nouns trilogy, knocks it out of the park on all of these fronts.

(See also: Monsters of Men. Oh my heart.)

This is not a CBS procedural. Laini Taylor does not care about bringing newbies up to date. If — like me — you’ve let some time elapse since reading Days of Blood and Starlight, the first couple of chapters of Dreams of Gods and Monsters may feel dense and confusing. The angel hordes have just invaded Earth when the book begins (that was the cliffhanger from the last one). Karou and Akiva are gathering their allies together to try to sort out a counterattack, though they are woefully outnumbered and can’t hold out any real hope that their side will triumph.

A girl called Eliza watches the invasion and holds a secret close to her heart. “People with destinies shouldn’t make plans,” says her mother’s voice in her head. People with secrets shouldn’t make enemies, she reminds herself.

You also should not forget that the Stelians — who cameoed in the last book to bop the angel emperor on the nose and peace out without leaving a trace — could show up at any time and kill everyone with their brains. That is an important thing to keep in mind.

Dreams of Gods and Monsters is a surprisingly merciful close to the trilogy, in that Taylor never forgets that her characters are defined by their hope: that Karou and Akiva (and Zuzana, and Mik, and Ziri) have always been people who dreamed of something better for themselves and their world. In a key exchange early on, Karou says wearily, “Warriors make our plans,” and Issa responds, “And if an artist were to make our plans?” It’s this — an artist trying to make her plans based on a version of the world she can bear to live in — that’s always kept the series from falling too far into darkness. Taylor recognizes the weight of war and loss and killing, but doesn’t sink her characters under that weight.

Eliza’s a terrific addition to the series, though there isn’t enough space for her to receive her due as a character. She’s a woman plagued by bad dreams and running from her past as the child prophet of a cult that believes it’s descended from angels. Though Eliza has left that world behind her, it catches up with her now that the earth has been invaded by angels, disrupting her work as a lab assistant and flashing memories into her head like (I love the image Taylor uses here) tarot cards turning over to gradually reveal her destiny. I’d have loved to see more of her and her past and her struggles.

Akiva and Karou are whatever. I was never interested in them as a couple. Happily, the nascent love triangle from the second book doesn’t really stick around, and there isn’t too much wishy-washy dilly-dallying about Oh I love you but our love is too dangerous, which would have annoyed me greatly.

For my one nitpick, I have selected editing. Laini Taylor’s a good writer, but Dreams of Gods and Monsters could have used a sterner editor. During tense moments, Laini Taylor is prone to taking a time-out from the action to think lots of sad thoughts about what the possible outcome of these tense moments will be. This is okay in moderation, but it happens a lot, and sometimes the tense moment resolves itself very quickly, which made me feel that Karou was wasting my time with all that internal wailing about the Death of All Hope.

And a word about polysyndeton: As with all rhetorical devices, I love it; I cherish it; I strongly advise against overuse. There’s only so much The sky was blood and death and toil that a girl can take before she starts yearning for the frank, manly syntax of Julius Caesar.

Apart from that nitpick, Dreams of Gods and Monsters is a stellar conclusion to a really fun YA trilogy. If you were holding off on reading the series until all the books came out, I now pronounce it safe to speed through them without fear of an unsatisfying payoff.

 

British cover
British cover
American cover
American cover

Cover report: Ah, tough call. I liked the notion of the American covers as a set, but the execution of this one doesn’t grab me. British cover wins.

The Cutting Season, Attica Locke

Oh wonderful Attica Locke! If only I had read The Cutting Season after Difficult Men rather than before! Attica Locke would have been a wonderful antidote to the maddening failure of representation.

The protagonist of The Cutting Season (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), Caren Gray, has come back to work and live at the Louisiana plantation where her mother was a cook and her multi-great grandparents were slaves. She manages all of the plantation operations, from tours (complete with a rose-colored play about antebellum life at Belle Vie) to events — Belle Vie is a popular location for weddings and benefits. When an undocumented worker is found on the grounds of Belle Vie with her throat cut, Caren and her nine-year-old daughter are drawn deeper and deeper into the police investigation and the dark past of the plantation where they make their home.

Locke’s evocation of the nausea and nostalgia of old southern plantation homes could not be better. Though the Belle Vie job provided Caren and her daughter a lifeline when they needed one the most, that doesn’t prevent Caren from casting a cynical eye on the way the plantation tours frame the house and its history. She runs the house as its (white) owners want her to, but she won’t go near the slave quarters, which remind her all too vividly of Belle Vie’s violent and traumatic past. She’s as wearily unimpressed by her newest employee’s rhetoric about seeking racial truth as she is by the resident scholar’s impassioned claims about the plantation’s historical importance.

As in Black Water Rising, there’s a degree to which the characters’ mistrust of the police is the sole cause of all their problems, and it would have been easy to feel like, Ugh, but just, if you had just, it’s not like they were going to think your nine-year-old killed someone! Attica Locke smartly subverts this by letting the police focus attention on the immediate, obvious suspect: a young black employee of Caren’s, who has been acting suspicious but not, you know, murder suspicious. It’s another reminder of the unsafeties that attend being black, and it cements Caren’s determination to protect her daughter and herself.

Attica Locke is great and should write more books. The end.

Review: Falling into the Fire, Christine Montross

Note: I received a copy of Falling into the Fire from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

In her review of Falling into the Fire earlier this year, Victoria said “I begin to wonder whether there is an entry in the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) for readers like me, who find themselves fascinated by accounts of people struggling with the different illnesses it defines.” If there is, I surely have it, and I could not resist asking Penguin for a copy of this psychiatrist’s account of some of her most severely ill patients at the hospital psych ward. Montross writes about Colin, who believes he has experienced a spiritual awakening and is unnerving his friends and relations; Lauren, a regular of the psych emergency room, who swallows scissors, needles, anything she can get her hands on; and many other patients who have challenged Montross and aroused her interest and sympathy.

In each chapter, Montross begins by talking about a patient and the symptoms that patient presents, and then she moves on to write about the history of this type of illness: What we know about it, and what we absolutely don’t. For instance, she brings up the case of body integrity identity disorder (BIID), whose sufferers believe that they are intended to be amputees, that certain parts of their body do not belong to them. They go to extreme measures to amputate the offending portion of their bodies, and after they’ve managed this, they are better. Cured. Montross cites a study suggesting that the parietal lobes of BIID sufferers may not be recognizing the legs (or hand, or whatever body part the sufferer doesn’t want to keep) as a part of the coherent human body. But she also notes that we don’t know enough yet about this to draw any definitive conclusions. If the cure is to amputate the legs, should we? Surely we can’t amputate healthy legs, but then — what if that is legitimately the only way to end this kind of mental torment?

This leads me to something I really liked about the book: Montross doesn’t shy away from talking about the uncertainty of her work. So much of what we think we know about mental illness and the practice of psychiatry is uncertain and subject to change. Brains are not hearts. Our understanding of them is woefully imperfect, and when there’s something wrong with the functioning of a brain, we’re floundering around in the dark a lot of the time. Montross knows this. Even when her patients improve drastically, she acknowledges that she hasn’t sent them home cured. She thinks about them after they leave, wondering what their futures will hold, if they’ll suffer a relapse, if she made a mistake sending them home when she did, if she should have kept them longer and given them different treatment.

Less interesting are the memoirish portions that appear at the end of each chapter. Montross is tying her patients’ lives into her own: a mother who admits herself to the hospital with the fear that she’ll harm her baby reminds Montross of thoughts she had as a new mother that she might drop her baby into the river and lose her forever. Occasionally (as in the foregoing example), this sheds light on how thin the line is between normalcy and dysfunction, but more often it feels unnecessarily self-indulgent.If you’re a fan of psychiatric case studies (which I could read until my eyes fall out of my skull), Falling into the Fire is a lovely, thoughtful, compassionate collection of them. Recommended.

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American cover

Cover report: British cover wins. Neither one is blowing my mind.

Boy, Snow, Bird, Helen Oyeyemi

Note: I received this ebook from the publisher via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Nobody ever warned me about mirrors, so for many years I was fond of them, and believed them to be trustworthy.

The beginning: That’s the first line of Boy Snow Bird, and doesn’t it remind you of how much you’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi? In her newest book, a girl named Boy runs away from her abusive father, a rat-catcher, to a small town called Flax Hill. There she meets a man called Arturo Whitman, and maybe she falls in love with him, and she tries not to become a wicked stepmother to his beautiful daughter, Snow.

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “The whole” if you don’t want to know!): This is actually a good example of a time the benefits of reading the end are objectively evident. At the end Boy Snow Bird, it is revealed that the rat-catcher, Boy’s father, was actually her mother omg shocking twist, who was a queer artsy college type until she was raped, whereupon she retired to a home for girls and found that the person looking out at her from the mirror was a man, so she started acting like one in her real life. And Boy packs up her husband, daughter, and stepdaughter to go “break the spell” the rat-catcher is under. The end.

Okay. Sometimes it happens this way. Sometimes I read the end, and I think: Man, that seems disappointing. I hope the parts of the book I haven’t read make it not disappointing. And I’ll tell you right now that they usually don’t. Usually it’s that the ending isn’t good, but if you’ve read the end before you read the middle, then at least you have a good bit of time to prepare for the ending to not be so good. It won’t be that you reach the very end and get suddenly, abruptly, enormously disappointed.

Not to say that the ending of Boy, Snow, Bird is suddenly and enormously disappointing. Thematically, the reveal at the end works fine — it’s very much in keeping with the book’s themes of identity and fear, and the image clusters with mirrors keep right on coming. It’s dicey, though, in terms of tone and plot, and it’s hella dicey as a portrayal of gender nonconformity.

The whole: Oh, I’ve missed Helen Oyeyemi. She seems to just keep getting better and better at this business of putting books together. Boy Snow Bird has all the matter-of-fact strangeness of her past books, but it feels more carefully assembled than some of her earlier work. Going back through for quotations from it, I keep finding great little bits of foreshadowing and parallel imagery that I missed as I was reading it the first time.

The theme of not being exactly what you look like (of mirrors — literal and metaphorical — being unreliable) runs through the whole book and all of its characters, so that you can never feel confident that what you’re looking at is true. Oyeyemi has no stake in resolving reader discomfort about what’s real; rather, she insists that the reader recognize that reality is flexible, subjective, ever-changing — unreliable.

As for Flax Hill itself, I was on shaky terms with it for the first few months. Neither of us was sure whether or not I genuinely intended to stick around. And so the town misbehaved a little, collapsing when I went to sleep and reassembling in the morning in a slapdash manner. I kept passing park benches and telephone booths and entrances to alleyways that I was absolutely certain hadn’t been there the evening before.

The writing is gorgeous: Helen Oyeyemi has a very particular way of writing that is inimitable and that I love. Here’s some advice Snow receives:

When something catches your attention just keep your attention on it, stick with it ’til the end, and somewhere along the line there’ll be weirdness. I’ve never tried to explain it to anyone before, but what I mean to say is that a whole lot of technically impossible things are always trying to happen to us, appear to us, talk to us, show us pictures, or just say hi, and you can’t pay attention to all of it, so I just pick the nearest technically impossible thing and I let it happen. Let me know how it goes if you try it.

And a description of Snow:

If Snow was ever worried, if any anxieties ever disturbed her for longer than a day, she rarely showed it. She was poised and sympathetic, like a girl who’d just come from the future, but didn’t want to brag about it.

And this just because it made me smile:

Both Gee-Ma and Grammy Olivia have their funerals and coffins and burial plots all paid for, only Grammy Olivia also has a guest list for her funeral and strict instructions that anybody who isn’t on the list can’t come in. This makes Bird’s dad laugh and sigh at the same time and intrigues Bird, because it suggests Grammy Olivia is worried about unsavory characters from her past showing up to damage her reputation.

The ending, as I said above, was troubling from an ideological standpoint, but never mind. I just won’t read the ending next time. I’ll stop early, when Boy gets the black eye that she says is from falling over. I can do that. I do it for Moulin Rouge all the time. The big show ends, the curtain falls, THE END. Or My Fair Lady: “Goodbye, Professor Higgins. You will not be seeing me again.” THE END.

White Is for Witching remains my sentimental favorite of Helen Oyeyemi’s books, but I don’t think there’s much question that Boy Snow Bird is the best of her books so far structurally — polished, elegant, unmerciful.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: I’d have done something with mirrors, if it were me. I like the way the British cover addresses coloring, which is such an issue in Boy Snow Bird, although the rest of the cover feels like a nonsequitur. I hate the colors and the design of the American cover. British cover wins.

Review: Wit’s End, Karen Joy Fowler

The beginning: A woman called Rima, the last surviving member of her family, comes to live with her godmother, a famous mystery writer, in Santa Cruz. Addison was estranged from Rima’s father years ago, for reasons Rima has never known, and Rima has come to Santa Cruz partly to find out whether there was anything more than friendship between her father and her godmother. While living at Addison’s mansion (called Wit’s End), Rima becomes fascinated by Addison’s fans, whose online presence has given Addison’s fictional detective a life of his own.

Damn, Wit’s End (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is hard to describe. Hard to describe, but good!

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip down to “the whole” if you don’t want to know): Here are a bunch of characters whose names I do not recognize, but never mind. The major mystery is solved — Addison and Rima’s father Bim became estranged because Addison (inadvertently, but Bim thought it was on purpose) put into her book a true story of how Bim brought about someone else’s murder at the hands of a cult leader. Oh, that’s sad. There are a few other things solved too, that I didn’t think to wonder about, like that Addison turns out to have been the daughter of (real live) cult leader William E. Riker. I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction.

The whole: I enjoy Karen Joy Fowler’s extremely weird blending of fact and fiction. (I said that a second ago but maybe you missed it because you weren’t reading the spoilers section.) If you aren’t already obsessed with cults — which going from her short stories and novels, Karen Joy Fowler is — you may not know that the Holy City is a real place, and William E. Riker was a real person, and the mysterious fires that destroyed Holy City buildings after it was sold were real fires and probably arsons. And if Karen Joy Fowler hadn’t thanked the owner of Holy City Art Glass in the acknowledgements, I wouldn’t have known any of that was real. It makes the book even more intriguing, as it’s a book about a fictional book that fictionalizes the cult and its history.

I’ve said recently on the podcast that I like the depiction in books of miscommunications between characters, and Wit’s End is full of these. Although the book is from Rima’s point of view, Fowler regularly tosses in remarks about what Rima thinks is being said or intended versus what really is being sad or intended. For instance:

“Martin’s always welcome.” Addison glanced at Rima.

 

Here is what the glance meant: Don’t worry. No way will Martin stay the night. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so. …

 

“You’ll like Martin,” Tilda told Rima, and from the darkness behind Tilda’s shoulder, Addison gave Rima another look, hard and right at her.

 

This look meant: Martin’s a conniving little snot. Here’s what Rima thought it meant: I know I said you’d have the whole floor to yourself, and now I’m sorry I said so.

Lovely, right? As in We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Fowler is fantastic at depicting the space between people, both the closeness and the inescapable separateness. The book begins with Rima having all the questions and Addison (presumably) all the answers, and it ends the other way around, with Rima understanding what Addison never has, and explaining to her the parts of it that won’t cause unnecessary pain. They are not brought closer by any of this; they are only brought closer by proximity and the shared desire for affection.

Fowler’s gift for weird, specific detail, which in her short fiction can feel like a build-up to a cymbal crash that never comes, serves her well in Wit’s End. The truth of Holy City, California mixes in seamlessly with the imagined world of Addison’s books. Addison’s home, the setting for the whole story, was formerly a bed-and-breakfast and before that belonged to a woman who survived the Donner Party. Addison’s mystery novels are created on the basis of intricate dollhouses representing the crime scenes, which Addison makes in exquisite detail prior to writing the book — a detail clearly based on the Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death, a series of model crime scenes created in the mid-1900s by an heiress that continue to be used to train police officers in forensics. These are the kind of weird yet lifelike details that make me so fond of Karen Joy Fowler (she’s a magpie like me).

So: Recommended, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves puts the weirdness to better use ultimately. Not that I’m comparing. Comparisons are odious.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Cover report: They are both a bit boring. I am going with the simpler cover, the British one, partly because the creepy eye freaks me out, and partly because yellow is my favorite color.

Review: Give Me Everything You Have, James Lasdun

Long before reading Give Me Everything You Have: On Being Stalked (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository), I read this article Lasdun wrote about acquiring a female stalker he calls Nasreen, and this discussion in Guernica Magazine between Lasdun and another writer who was targeted by Nasreen. (I was glad the second article existed because I like to have independent confirmation when there is a case as ugly and inexplicable as this one.)

Nasreen was a student in a creative writing course Lasdun taught, and they corresponded by email for some time after. Nasreen’s emails became increasingly frequent and obsessive, and at length, abusive. She gradually escalated her behavior from sending abusive emails to Lasdun to sending abusive emails about him to his professional contacts: his agent, his publisher, universities with which he was or had been affiliated, etc. Though Lasdun went to the police and even to the FBI to try and get her to stop, nobody was able to help.

As sometimes happens, writing notes for this review led to my talking myself out of the book. Lasdun spends about half the book discussing the events, and the other half trying to find a context for them. This is okay when he sticks to literary context — he is, after all, a literature guy — but becomes dramatically less interesting when he tries to relate Nasreen and her behavior to his travels in Israel/Palestine.

Because really what draws you about this sort of story is the mechanics of the outlandish: Here occurs an improbable event X, and now what is it like, what are its practical effects? It’s like becoming obsessed with her back even though you don’t want to be; it’s like finding yourself a boring conversationalist because all you can think and talk about is this insane behavior that you didn’t ask for and can’t escape from. Give Me Everything You Have is at its best when Lasdun sticks to this.

Here is what I truly cannot understand about Lasdun’s attempts to contextualize Nasreen: He doesn’t read about stalkers. Or if he does, and if he finds out anything interesting, he does not relay it to the reader. He tries to understand Nasreen by looking at the conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but he does not try to understand her by looking at research into other people who do the exact thing Nasreen is currently doing. Or perhaps he did try to understand her this way and found it not applicable to his own situation and so did not write about it?

Obviously it is not down to me to tell Lasdun what sort of book to write, what sort of response to have to his stalker. He does not have to read research about stalkers if he doesn’t want to. But for all of his woe and self-recrimination, there is an unpleasant odor of indignation and injured dignity and that couldn’t (surely) (right? you would think?) survive the reading of a couple of papers about how stalkers behave and why and how they escalate. Lasdun is aware of his privileged position in relation to Nasreen, and says so, but it’s not at all clear that he’s aware of how privileged he is in relation to the great majority of victims of stalking, and the book suffers from the missing context.

Cover report: Variations on a theme, and the British cover does it better.

American cover
American cover
British cover
British cover

Life after Life, Kate Atkinson

The beginning: In Life after Life, a woman called Ursula takes out a gun to shoot Hitler. At once we are flashed back to the day of her birth, when she dies from having the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck. But Ursula is not a regular child. She gets to try again. The second time around, the doctor arrives in time to save her with a pair of surgical scissors, and she survives to live a regular life. Again and again throughout her childhood, Ursula dies, and dies, and dies again. Always she gets another try at life. She does not remember her earlier go-rounds, and neither does anybody; but she does, sometimes, become afflicted with vivid deja vu.

 

Cover report: British cover wins. American cover is not turning in a good effort. Are there even any roses in this book?

The end (spoilers in this section only, so skip it if you don’t want them): I read the end because I was curious how — if she shoots Hitler in the end, and the SS officers around her shoot her right away (as they would) — how she manages to stay dead. Surely she would just end up zapped back a few years in her timeline, with Hitler not dead at all? The end was not enlightening. The penultimate chapter is the shooting-Hitler chapter a second time, and in the final chapter, Ursula is alive after all, and so is her brother Teddy, who in earlier chapters (I flipped backwards to see) died in World War II. I flipped backwards a good bit to see what was what, to no avail.

The whole: My last foray into Kate Atkinson’s work was not a resounding success. I am delighted, because I prefer agreeing with Teresa to not agreeing with her, and because I prefer liking things to not liking things, to have enjoyed Life after Life very much. I read — and am glad I did — a physical copy of it, borrowed from the lovely Julia, which permitted me as much back-and-forth flipping as my heart desired. Even if you are a linear reader, I recommend going this route. The book is not linear, and there’s no reason you should be.

Teresa reports that the writing in Life after Life lacked the quirk she’s accustomed to experiencing in a Kate Atkinson book. Maybe I just don’t know the glory that awaits me in Behind the Scenes at the Museum, but I thought the writing here was a delight: easily, lightly funny throughout. It was all exactly like this:

Could you drink the water in the Serpentine? Shelley’s first wife had drowned herself here but Ursula supposed that on a day like this — crowds of people enjoying the sunshine — it would be almost impossible to avoid another Mr. Winton jumping in and saving her.

and this:

Hugh [Ursula’s father] was relieved that she would be spending her time “in the provinces,” where “people are, on the whole, better behaved.” (“He means duller,” Ursula said to Millie.) Hugh had completely vetoed Paris, he had a particular aversion to the city, and was hardly more keen on Nancy, which was still uncompromisingly French. (“Because it’s in France,” Ursula pointed out.) He had seen enough of the continent during the Great War, he said, he couldn’t see what all the hullabaloo was about.

It was just fun to read.

Atkinson excels at depicting the dynamics in Ursula’s family. She is the middle one of five children, and not unnaturally she is closest with the sister right above her (Pamela), and the brother right below (Teddy). The family’s closeness rang very true to me, how they knew each other’s flaws and talked to each other about them, but ultimately loved each other tremendously and bothered about being near each other. (Interestingly, although Ursula’s path in life goes a dozen different ways, Teddy and Pamela tend to shake out about the same most every time.)

“Practice makes perfect!” Ursula’s mother is wont to chirrup at intervals throughout the book. She’s referring to playing instruments, usually, but Life after Life wonderfully shows Ursula getting better at living her life through many successive tries at it. It isn’t just that Ursula gets better at producing more favorable outcomes for herself (that’s touch-and-go). The main thing is that she gets better at being herself, being a version of herself who is brave and good and in control. It was a lovely thing to see.

Highly, highly recommended!

The Girl You Left Behind, Jojo Moyes

Aw, y’all, thanks for pointing me in the direction of this book. I would never have known about it if the blogosphere hadn’t all jumped up and down shouting “LOOK HERE AT THIS,” so as ever, I am indebted to you for your bookfinding awesomeness.

The Girl You Left Behind  The Girl You Left Behind

The beginning: Sophie lives in an occupied French town during World War I, and she and her sister and brother are struggling to get by. When the Kommandant of the German regiment sees a portrait of Sophie, painted by her husband, he begins to take an interest in them, an interest that could prove dangerous.

(There is also, I know from the flap copy, a second storyline about a modern-day widow called Liv who owns the portrait and faces the possibility that she will have to return it to the family that originally owned it. But that story doesn’t start until well into the book.)

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight blank spaces to read them): I read the end pretty early on, and doing so made me like JoJo Moyes so much. In the end, Liv gets to keep the painting, and although we are left uncertain as to Sophie’s exact fate, there is good reason to believe that she was reunited with her husband and they lived happily ever after. Anyway that is what I am going to believe happened.

The whole: The Girl You Left Behind (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is such a dear book. I’m glad y’all raved about it–Jill particularly piqued my interest by saying that both storylines are equally as good as each other; a rare and enticing thing! And extra extra thanks to Amused by Books for being my dealer on this one. I can now say with authority: If you haven’t picked up anything by Jojo Moyes before (as I haven’t), I recommend you do so now.

One of my longtime comfort authors, Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels, distinguishes herself from other writers of romantic suspense/mystery because of the specificity of her plot settings. When she sets a book in a vintage clothing store, it’s not just a backdrop for her characters, it’s an important part of their lives. She talks about the types of customers that come to vintage clothing stores, the types of clothes people try to sell, the places you  hope to get really good finds, and it all feels specific, real, and fascinating.

The Girl You Left Behind has that same sort of specificity. Liv’s love interest, Paul, works for a company that specializes in returning looted artwork to its owners, and his involvement with this work is more than just an obstacle to a promising relationship. Moyes doesn’t shy away from the complex questions that Liv’s predicament raises: Though neither Liv nor her late husband had any intention of wrongdoing when they bought the painting, they may still be a link in a chain that starts with wartime theft or coercion. And Liv is not fighting against returning the portrait because she’s truly sure that it should be hers, but rather because she cannot bear to part with it.

In both storylines, Moyes deliberately sets up a fascinating opposition between love and morality. Both Sophie and Liv are implicated in (and benefited by) an evil not of their making, and their stubborn love for absent husbands makes it difficult for them to extricate themselves. Though the resolution of the book’s major conflicts is perhaps a trifle convenient, it succeeds brilliantly in providing an emotionally satisfying conclusion to both storylines at once. Moyes’s generosity to her characters and her avoidance of easy moral solutions made The Girl You Left Behind a surprising, lovable, wonderful read. I can’t wait to pick up more books by this author.

Cover report: I feel like the American cover isn’t even trying. British cover wins (not by being awesome, just by showing up.)

Review: I’ll Be Seeing You, Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan

The beginning: Two war wives in the midst of World war II, one pregnant, one with a husband and son both away at war, begin corresponding with each other. Through their letters, they become very dear friends, exchanging recipes, sympathy, and prayers for each other.

  

At first, I thought I’ll Be Seeing You (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) was a very by-the-numbers homefront of World War II book. To some extent, it is. The women talk about missing their menfolk; Rita finds out that her son was sort of seeing a nondescript woman at the local bar, which she’s not crazy about; Glory bewails her busy busy toddler son running around frantically when she’s pregnant and can’t chase after him.

The end (spoilers in this section only; highlight the blank spaces if you want them): I assumed the end would have the two women meeting up at last, but I found that I couldn’t take not knowing whether either husband or Rita’s son was going to die in the war. I like to know which characters I must harden my heart against, and which I can become attached to. Death toll: 1 – Rita’s husband Sal is killed. Paralyzed: 1 – Glory’s husband is wounded in action and loses the use of his legs. Good thing this isn’t World War I or it probably would have been much worse.

The whole: As I said, I started this book feeling that it was proceeding along well-trodden lines. But it won me over in the end, as the two women grew more trusting of each other, more willing to share their private stories as well as the cheerful stories they put on for general company. Hayes and Nyhan snuck up on me a bit: I hadn’t realized I felt attached to the characters until they began facing real misfortunes, and then all of a sudden I found myself on the edge of tears, a state that persisted for the final third of the book.

The depiction of female friendship was wonderful. Many of the reviews of Code Name Verity talked about how refreshing it is to read a book where friendship is treated as a serious relationship in itself, and I felt the same way about I’ll Be Seeing You. Glory and Rita’s support of and generosity to each other feels very true, as do their occasional disagreements and admonishments of each other’s behavior. I loved it that they always, always assume each other’s good intentions, no matter what they were saying in the letters.

Less successful was the authors’ depiction of the American home front. I don’t mean that I spotted any historical lapses, but the setting felt unfinished. When the authors dropped in small details about American life in the 1940s, it felt elbow-nudgey — like, hey hey, guess what, they didn’t use to have penicillin in those days! it had only just been invented! This is the second time in the past month that it has been brought to my attention that penicillin was beginning to be used during the Second World War, and I liked it better coming from Laurent Binet.

Cover report: British cover wins, but only because it’s more colorful. Neither cover really grabs me, so I don’t think either side of the pond should feel good about this.

Review: The Hidden, Tobias Hill

The beginning: A man called Ben, separated from his wife, has come to Greece for three months to get away from his life in Oxford. For a while he works at a meat grill in Athens, but a chance meeting with a colleague gets him a job on an excavation at Sparta, an excavation populated with a group of strange, unfriendly, exclusive people.

The end (no spoilers): I had it in my head that this book was like a cross between a Carol Goodman novel and The Secret History. The eternity Ben spends in Athens as a waiter or whatever threw me for a loop, but the ending makes it clear that the book’s really about some next-level shenanigans going on at the Spartan excavation. Good. That is what I signed on for anyway.

The whole: In The Hidden (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) I spy the bones of a properly good book. The similarities to The Secret History were limited–fortunate for me as a reader because I love that book so so so much and it is hard for other books to measure up–and Tobias Hill is good at evoking the stony fatality of Sparta. I am addicted to classical antiquity, in case you didn’t know. Sparta was one of the greatest cities of olden times, but it left almost nothing behind when it fell. Hill quotes Thucydides:

Suppose the city of Sparta to be deserted, and nothing left but the temples and the ground-plan, distant ages would be very unwilling to believe that the power of the Lacedaemonians was at all equal to their fame.

Prescient, no? If it weren’t for the rest of Greece, we wouldn’t know hardly anything about Sparta, for the exact reason Thucydides mentions.

Once the plot gets going, it’s a pretty good one. My mind was on completely the wrong track as to what nefarious doings the unfriendly excavation team was up to in their spare time, and it was fun to be set straight. But Ben is only permitted access to the secret two-thirds of the way through the book, and until that point it’s hard to know why I’m supposed to be interested. If it were me, I’d be friends with the nice Greek man who invited me to dinner with his family and not with the snotty exclusive kids who seem to get a kick out of being unfriendly.

Another failure of the book that the allure of the excavator clique is minimal. Richard, the protagonist of The Secret History, has come to his Vermont college to shake off his old life and put on a new one, and the classics majors (rich, elegant, brilliant) are emblematic of that new life. Ben, by contrast, is only planning to stay in Greece for a few months, so I couldn’t see what need in his life the cliquey jerks were filling. They weren’t that interesting (except insofar as it’s boring and depressing to be the odd man out), and they were pretentious in a way that was not aspirational to Ben.

Woe! I was hoping for good things from this book. I guess I will have to reread The Secret History then, or get a book about Sparta from the library.

Cover report: British cover wins resoundingly. This is not a book about reading old books, it is a book about digging. I also like the spartan, stylized thing the British cover has going on.