Books We Loved, Nov. 2020
Jennifer Ashley, Death below Stairs (Berkley, 2018)
When Galit Gottlieb, the host of New Books in Literature and a mystery writer herself, recommended Jennifer Ashley’s books to me, I was immediately intrigued. Historical mysteries are not rare, especially ones set in the UK, but historical mysteries that feature a female cook and explore the “downstairs” part of the Upstairs/Downstairs Victorian world are harder to come by. I downloaded an e-book right away, but it took me a while to find the time to read a novel that had no association with interviews, written or podcast. Once I did, I wished I’d started much sooner.
Kat Holloway, the cook in question, has spent barely an hour in her new and much-needed job at the Mayfair mansion owned by Lord Rankin when trouble strikes. His sister-in-law, who likes to go about dressed in jacket and trousers à la George Sand, badly injures a working man who, she insists, leaped into the path of her carriage. The kitchen maid Kat chooses as her successor and trainee (Sinead, according the young woman herself; Ellen, according to the housekeeper; and perhaps another name entirely at her birth) reveals that Lord Rankin expects personal as well as professional services from his female employees. And when Kat, determined to thwart his lordship’s base desires, delivers Lord Rankin his coffee in defiance of his orders that Sinead should come alone, she discovers that he is meeting with Daniel McAdam, whom Kat knows as a man-of-all-trades—here posing as an aristocrat. Lord Rankin is furious, leaving Kat uncertain whether she will still have work in the morning. But when she stumbles downstairs the next day, she discovers Sinead lying murdered in the pantry, and Kat’s troubles really begin.
This is a fast-paced, fascinating mystery filled with class conflict and period detail, but what sets it apart is the richly developed and fully realized characters. I can’t wait to explore the rest of the series.—CPL
Hilary Leichter, Temporary (Coffee House Press, 2020)
This unusual book defies the expectations of those who are looking for a straight story, a modern “tell it like it is” book about the gig-working temps that fuel our frayed economy. In fact, the book starts out as if it will go that way, with what seems to be a tongue-in-cheek recitation of the temp jobs the protagonist has had: “There was the assassin. There was the child. There was the marketing and the fundraising and also the development.” If it weren’t for the first two sentences, the third would sound like so many other “young woman coming of age in the modern world” books. The initial sentences, though, give it a sarcastic or wry feel. Beware! Take note of them. Take them seriously, because as the book progresses it flies off the straight road into maybe fantasy, maybe insanity.
The Temporary is highly regarded by her agency, and the primary contact at the agency, Farren, praises her excellence as a temp: she's on her way to permanence. But things begin to go sideways quite early, and the assignments develop an allegorical hopelessness, a shedding of true personality, as the temp becomes a non-person, even a non-human. Eventually, yes, she even becomes an assassin. But all of this is leading somewhere. Is that somewhere permanence? Does permanence even exist? Does the Temporary even exist? Does she have a name?
And one day, maybe she’ll find out who she actually is. If she is.
It’s a short book, it’s weird, it speaks to the disconnected/hyper-connected times we live in, and it’s a book I loved.—CHL
T. K. Leigh, Writing Mr. Right (Tracy Kellam, 2017)
Molly Brinks, a thirty-year-old (just don’t call her that) living in Boston, writes steamy romances under a pen name—a fact she keeps secret from everyone but her brother and her best friend. Least knowledgable of all are the men she dates. Not one for relationships, thanks to her parents’ devastating split when she was a child, Molly picks her romantic entanglements based on one thing—how well they match up with the kind of love story she’s currently writing. So while these men serve up great inspiration and even better Saturday nights, and have more to do with her successful career than they’ll ever know, Molly herself avoids commitment at all costs and discards her unsuspecting muses as soon as she types The End.
Until, of course, she meets Dr. Noah McAllister at the same time she’s suffering from writer’s block. As the neurologist overseeing her father’s rapid decline from Alzheimer’s disease, Noah is strictly off-limits. He’s also the one guy she can’t stop thinking about. As their relationship grows, Molly’s writing veers from her normal steamy but shallow stories into something far more meaningful to her, but even though the words start flowing, she knows they’re not the ones her publisher wants.
Terrified at the thought of losing both her five-book contract and her heart, Molly has to decide what’s more important—giving the readers what they want and keeping herself safe, or taking a chance on both Noah and herself. This was my first book by T. K. Leigh, and I’ll be going back for more, for sure.—CJH
Jodi Picoult, The Book of Two Ways
(Ballantine Books, 2020)
The title of Jodi Picoult’s newest novel refers to ancient hieroglyphics—found in coffins in various Egyptian necropolises—to alert the dead within to the two different routes available to them as they navigate through the afterlife. One route is by land and the other is by water, and the two are separated by a lake of fire.
The idea of parallel lives is at the core of this novel. Fifteen years before the moment Picoult chooses to begin her story, Dawn Edelstein, the narrator, is an archeologist working her way toward a PhD in Egyptology. Having fallen hard for the thrill of interpreting ancient texts found at burial sites—as well as for Wyatt Armstrong, one of her fellow Egyptologists—she is at the point in her life when a change in her trajectory seems unimaginable. But just then Dawn learns that her beloved mother is in hospice back home in Boston, and she leaves Egypt (and Wyatt) at once.
Dawn begins a new trajectory immediately thereafter. She meets Brian, a physicist (who happens to be researching parallel universes), while all but living with her mother in the hospice facility. (Brian is there to be with his dying grandmother.) They begin an affair, and when Dawn learns she is pregnant, they marry. Moreover, she changes careers during this time, from tomb excavator to death doula, a sort of private hospice caretaker who commits to doing just about anything to ensure the best possible passage for her clients. Her nearly perfect life with Brian and her daughter, Meret, is pushed off track once again when one of Dawn’s clients asks her to hand deliver a letter to someone she once knew in London. Dawn’s trip takes her (and the reader) back to the very place where the novel began—the lake of fire, in a sense—and in doing so, offers Dawn the opportunity to reevaluate the life choices she has made.
The Book of Two Ways unfolds in alternating chapters labeled Land (focusing on Dawn’s time as an Egyptologist) and Water (focusing on her career as a death doula, and her life as a wife and mother). The story is rich in fascinating details, from the study of Egyptology to Irish superstitions and many things in between. You wouldn’t think a novel that puts forth so many ideas could also be a nail-biter, but this one is—a truly invigorating read.—JS