Books We Loved, Jan. 2022
Well, here it is, a new month and a new year. We hope everyone had a great holiday, with lots of good books to while away the evenings and at least some time with family and friends. As we head into January, minds turn to resolutions and refurbishing. But don’t forget to put those gift certificates and new devices to work, and here are some suggestions for engrossing reads, whether you indulge in the midst of exercising or just curled up on the couch fighting the snow outside. And Happy New Year!
Joy Castro, Flight Risk (Lake Union Publishing, 2021)
Isabel Morales, the first-person narrator of award-winning author Joy Castro’s new novel Flight Risk, is out of place at her own dinner party in her swanky Chicago condo overlooking Lake Michigan in the opening pages of this story. Part of her discomfort is because on some level she continues to identify with the abused girl she once was, growing up in poverty in rural West Virginia. The other part is that she has just learned that her estranged mother, who had been serving a prison term for a heinous act she committed in a drunken state, has died. In her effort to hide her past from her new husband, a pediatric radiologist, and his ostentatiously wealthy family, she has kept her background a secret. Thus, when she decides to return to West Virginia to sort things out, she doesn’t tell him or anyone else where she is off to.
In addition to the problems she must face upon her return—for starters, the family house, which now belongs to her, is as uninviting as ever and yet multiple parties seem to want to get their hands on it—Isabel, who has kept so many secrets from her husband, must decide if she will confront him about secrets she has come to suspect he may be hiding.
The plot of Flight Risk unfolds vigorously. Even so, author Castro takes the time to highlight social-economic inequalities, and issues regarding race, environment, education, and politics. Of particular interest is her protagonist’s artistic successes. Isabel’s unusual sculptures both provide her entry into a world of opulence and reveal her insecurities about being there.
Flight Risk is a genre-busting novel that allows plenty of room for tears and occasionally laughter as it blooms into a mystery with some very thrilling aspects. In other words, it’s a literary page-turner, impossible to put down once started.—JS
C. A. Fletcher, A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World (Orbit, 2019)
Unlike many dystopian novels, this contemplative novel won’t give you an adrenaline jolt every other page or fill your nights with images of horror. It’s a coming-of-age story that centers on the journey our narrator, Griz, makes to retrieve his beloved dog. The feisty terrier was kidnapped by a stranger who arrived one day at the remote island where Griz and his family live.
Griz is an impulsive teen, and though his primary motivation is to recover his animal friend, he’s also curious about what the world was like before the human race slowly died out, leaving only a few survivors. His trip away from the island broadens his horizons and raises many questions. As he hikes through the deserted landscapes of great fallen cities and looping freeways, hoping to reach the place where he believes his dog has been taken, he begins an internal dialogue with an imagined boy from a long-ago photo. Things we take for granted seem so sweet to Griz, who has grown up with only his family and dogs for company, in a place where everything is either salvaged or made by hand.
The novel gathers speed at the end, where Griz discovers other humans and makes a surprising discovery, which also serves as the pivotal event to reveal something astonishing about his identity. However, the “big” plot twist, which Orbit asks readers not to share, was almost beside the point for me.
The melancholic yet joyful journey through the remnants of civilization and the question of whether Griz finds his beloved dog were enough reason to read.
Interview with the author at New Books in Science Fiction.—GM
Irina Shapiro, Murder in the Crypt (Merlin, 2020)
In this series opener, Jason Redmond, an American surgeon plagued by his experiences during the US Civil War, has traveled to an English village to claim his title as the local earl. He is accompanied by his eleven-year-old ward—Micah, a former drummer boy for the Union side who survived imprisonment at Fort Anderson alongside Jason. These two reluctant immigrants have barely settled at the manor before the chance discovery of a body in the crypt of the local church brings Constable Daniel Haze onto the scene.
Since murder is a rare crime in quiet English villages, suspicion naturally falls on Jason, a foreigner. But Jason’s medical expertise proves invaluable in collecting evidence, and the new earl would much rather solve a crime than assume the role of Lord Redmond, which offends his Yankee sensibilities. Micah, too, yearns to return home and search for his beloved sister, missing since the war. And Daniel has problems of his own—a career short-circuited by his departure from London and a once-loving marriage almost destroyed by the accidental death of his son.
Despite an astonishingly rapid turnout (seven books in two years), Irina Shapiro does a great job of balancing character development against the demands of intriguing, challenging mysteries and snappily paced plots. The books are self-publishing at its best: professionally produced with good editing and appealing covers. A real find.—CPL