Books We Loved, Mar. 2019
C, J. Box, The Disappeared (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018)
Even fantasy can become mundane if one reads too much of it. The Disappeared by crime writer C.J. Box offered a welcome break. I’ve been a fan of his for years. The series follows Joe Pickett, a regular Wyoming game warden who finds himself in a number of challenging situations. Joe is neither exceptionally smart nor emotionally complex. He’s a good man trying to do the right thing, devoted to his job, still in love with his wife, protective of his daughters. Joe is a decent law-abiding sort, so the introduction into the series of his friend, Nate, a feral falconer, was a great idea. Nate is the id to Joe’s superego, voicing all the things we wish Joe could say and dishing out the hurt to the deserving.
The title The Disappeared refers to a blonde British ad executive, who vanished after her visit to a deluxe ranch near the little town of Saratoga. That might even be the least of the community’s problems. Someone is visiting the burner of the local mill at night, someone who has bodies to dispose of. Then there’s the mystery of the local game warden, who appears to have just left one day. The new governor, an obnoxious and privileged sort, orders Joe to investigate. But is Joe being set up? Thank goodness Nate appears soon, to extract information from recalcitrant informants, using highly unapproved methods such as slapping a man with a frozen trout.
Suspenseful, funny, and very Western.—GM
Elsa Hart, Jade Dragon Mountain (Macmillan, 2015)
I love historical fiction, but I also love a well-crafted detective novel that focuses on the characters and the puzzle rather than blood and gore. An unusual setting, well realized, is also a plus. This opener to a new mystery series, which continues in The White Mirror (2016) and last year’s City of Ink, has all three.
Set in early Qing China, the series follows the adventures of Li Du, a former imperial librarian sent into exile as a result of guilt by association, and his friend Hamza, a storyteller well traveled along the Silk Road. Here Li has arrived in the border city of Dayan, after five years of wandering, to discover that the city is preparing for a visit by the emperor. Elaborate celebrations designed to showcase the ruler’s power to predict lunar and solar eclipses serve a double purpose: to awe an imperfectly subdued province. But when a Jesuit priest is murdered, and Li’s resentful cousin—the magistrate of Dayan—shows himself far too ready to sweep the crime under the rug to avoid any unpleasantness, Li is determined to see justice done, despite the tight time frame created by the emperor’s imminent arrival. This clever mystery, with its unusual but satisfying solution, doesn’t end with the identification of the killer. Because the murder has given rise to a political crisis that only Li’s ingenuity can resolve….—CPL
Daisy Johnson, Everything Under (Graywolf Press, 2018)
In this mythic novel set in the present, Gretel is a lexicographer who pins down words and meanings. She has been searching for her freewheeling mother, Sarah, who abandoned her as a teenager. They lived on a moored riverboat and shared an evocative language of their own creation that remains with Gretel. As the story opens, Sarah returns to Gretel as an Alzheimer’s sufferer with slippery memories, moods, and secrets that Sarah tries to unlock.
The novel interweaves the searches of Gretel, Sarah, and Marcus, a boy who stayed with them for a time. Marcus, who was born a girl, has run away from his adoptive family because of a prophesy made by a transgender neighbor who warned that he, like Oedipus, would kill his father and marry his mother.
There is an urgent quest for a marsh monster, the Bonak, that personifies Sarah’s fears and from which, it seems, no escape is possible. Johnson’s rich descriptions of water as an ever-present River of Life, with current-driven flotsam and river people drifting by create an aqueous, flowing mood to this tale. Against it are pitted questions of fate and predetermination. Everything Under is eerie, creepy, and strange but equally lovely and compelling.—AA
Sigrid Nunez, The Friend (Riverhead Books, 2018)
The plot of The Friend is not only simple but also somewhat shadowy. Following the suicide of The Narrator’s dearest friend (a fellow writer and teacher who once taught The Narrator herself and with whom she once had a brief affair), The Narrator is coaxed (by the friend’s third wife, referred to as Wife Three) to adopt the friend’s dog, a Great Dane who is in deep mourning for his master. Although The Narrator lives in a tiny NYC apartment where dogs are prohibited and is herself grieving (and is more of a cat person anyway), she accepts this challenge.
There is a dreamlike quality to the loose plot of The Friend, leaving plenty of space for The Narrator to relay bits and pieces of conversations she had with her friend over the years, most of which were about literature, writing, publishing in today’s world as opposed to publishing in the past, and so on—and what all the changes in the book world say about our culture. Accordingly, The Friend is about loss, the loss of a loved one but also the loss of the integrity that may have once existed in the literary world, depending on whether or not you share the views of the characters.
It is fair to say that this story will appeal mostly to people who can’t live without books, especially writers but also readers, and of course to people who love dogs. But even casual readers are sure to be stirred by The Narrator’s warmth, charm, gentle humor, and unassuming intelligence. The Friend is as comforting as it is brilliant.—JS