Book of the Week: The Magpie Murders – Anthony Horowitz

Horowitz has had bestsellers with both his previous takes on genre mysteries: Moriarty and Trigger Mortis. With Sherlock Holmes and James Bond under his belt, Horowitz this time offers us a delightful homage to Agatha Christie. The bonus of a book-within-a-book structure is icing on the cake.

The story opens with editor Susan Ryeland settling in to read the manuscript of her bestselling author’s latest mystery novel. Alan Conway may be a pill but his creation–Detective Atticus Pünd—is a reliable hit and cash cow for the small publishing house.

So Susan starts reading and we’re treated to a new Pünd novel. And like her, we’re caught up short when we realize the novel is incomplete. Susan arrives at work the next morning to hear that Alan Conway has died and the “real life” mystery is afoot! When Susan realizes that the characters in the new Pünd manuscript might be stand-ins for people in Conway’s life, the author’s suicide suddenly looks like it could be murder.

All in all, a very satisfying clockwork–smart fun and a great beach read handsell for the Indies.

Magpie Murders has been chosen as a Book of the Month pick at several stores I work with and booksellers and librarians have chosen it as the #1 Indie Next and LibraryReads picks for June. There will be major review coverage on sale and the book has already received three starred advance reviews. It will be part of the NYT Summer Reading Feature and NPR will run a Lynn Neary interview with Horowitz.

A preternaturally brainy novel within a novel that’s both a pastiche and a deconstruction of golden-age whodunits…. Fans who still mourn the passing of Agatha Christie, the model who’s evoked here in dozens of telltale details, will welcome this wildly inventive homage/update/commentary as the most fiendishly clever puzzle—make that two puzzles—of the year.”
— Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“[T]wo mysteries for the price of one, crafting a classic whodunit within a modern mystery… combined, they result in a delightful puzzle. Fans of Agatha Christie and the BBC’s Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War (both written by Horowitz) will relish this double mystery.”
Library Journal (starred review)

A treat for fans of golden age mysteries with this tour de force that both honors and pokes fun at the genre…. Poirot-like sleuth Atticus Pünd, a German concentration camp survivor who has settled in England, tackles an Agatha Christie–like puzzle in 1955 Saxby-on-Avon…. Horowitz throws in several wicked twists as the narrative builds to a highly satisfying explanation of the prologue.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“As a huge fan of 2014’s Moriarty, it didn’t surprise me that Anthony Horowitz managed to create his own, instantly iconic version of an Agatha Christie detective in Magpie Murders. What did surprise me was discovering that novel stuffed, like a Russian nesting doll, into a second novel concerning a book editor convinced that the suicide of her most lucrative client––the arrogant mystery writer responsible for the Christie homage––was really murder. Yes, this have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too approach is awfully, often deliciously clever, but Horowitz knows that the best whodunits are more than puzzles to be solved. I relished every plot twist, but it’s the novel’s insights into fame, privacy, and fiction-making itself that kept me turning pages.”
—  Sam Krowchenko, Literati Bookstore, Ann Arbor, MI

Magpie Murders (9780062645227) by Anthony Horowitz. $27.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 one day laydown.

 

Book of the Week: The Essex Serpent – Sarah Perry

This is a very clever literary novel that should appeal to fans Sarah Waters, Jessie Burton and Helene Wecker. Using the conventions of the 19th century Gothic novel, Perry tells the story of a young widow and a rural British village obsessed with the possibility of a prehistoric serpent the townspeople believe may be responsible for the mysterious deaths of several animals and people.

Against that background Parry is able to play out a story of science, faith and superstition populated with characters who feel both pegged to the time and refreshingly modern: a rakish dwarf who is a brilliant young surgeon and smitten with our heroine, the widow’s inscrutably peculiar son who we 21st century readers understand to be autistic, a country minister with a fierce intelligence that matches our heroine’s—and our heroine herself: an iconoclast, a survivor of abuse, and an autodidact fascinated with Darwin’s new theories. She thinks the “monster” might be an evolutionary throwback. That’s only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the cast of characters in this lively, inventive novel.

To me one of the book’s central pleasures is that it feels both subversively modern yet has all the charm and civility so central to the shape and tone of 19th century novels. And because Parry is playing with the 19th century Gothic, there are star-crossed lovers, romantic consumptives, high and low society, lives in peril. The book does Dickens and the Brontes proud. Combined with the mystery of the serpent, how it all gets resolved makes for very satisfying reading.

The Essex Serpent has been met with raves in England; the Waterstone Bookstore chain’s named it one of their books of the year calling it “the most deeply satisfying fiction you will read this year.”

On this side of the pond, it’s a June Indie Next pick. And as an indication of the broad popular/literary readership we expect, Variety selected Sarah Perry as one of “10 Brits to Watch in 2017.” Review attention starts with People, the NYTBR, WSJ, Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue and Vanity Fair.

The unlikely friendship between a canny widow and a scholarly vicar sets the stage for this sweeping 19th-century saga of competing belief systems….An unlikely pair, the two develop a fast intellectual friendship, curious to many but accepted by all, including Ransome’s ailing wife….Perry pulls out all the stops in her richly detailed Victorian yarn, weaving myth and local flavor with 19th-century debates about theology and evolution, medical science and social justice for the poor….The sumptuous twists and turns of Perry’s prose invite close reading, as deep and strange and full of narrative magic as the Blackwater itself….[P]repare to fall under Perry’s spell and into her very capable hands. Stuffed with smarts and storytelling sorcery, this is a work of astonishing breadth and brilliance.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“In Perry’s excellent second novel… a fatal illness, a knife-wielding maniac, and a fated union with the Essex Serpent will dictate the ultimate happiness of [the] characters. Like John Fowles’s The French Lieutenant’s Woman, whose Lyme Regis setting gets a shout-out here, this is another period literary pastiche with a contemporary overlay.”
Publishers Weekly

“The vivid, often frightening imagery… and the lush descriptions… create a magical background for the sensual love story between Sarah and Will. Book discussion groups will have a field day with the imagery, the well-developed characters, and the concepts of innocence, evil, and guilt.”
Booklist (starred review)

In this novel, reminiscent of Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights in its bitter cold and windy weather, people surprise each other, much is not as it would seem, and the human heart wants what it wants, even when we know what happened in the garden of Eden. Lovely characters I will not soon forget.”
— Anne Holman, The King’s English Bookshop, Salt Lake City, UT

“[A] pitch-perfect modern take on the Victorian novel, channeling both Sarah Waters and Jane Austen. A weathered widow rediscovers a love for natural science as she both attempts to track down a mythical beastie in Essex, England and fend off a budding attachment to a local minister. Science and religion clash in a thrilling manner in this beautifully written novel, brimming with fully-formed, fascinating characters (I especially love her gruff, protective companion who is so in love). Romance! Passion! Religion! Politics! Giant river monsters! Fans of Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things are going to love this charming, yet scathing novel. I certainly did!”
— Bill, Carl, Wellesley Books, Wellesley, MA

The Essex Serpent (9780062666376) by Sarah Perry. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

New Trade Paper Fiction: The Crime Writer – Jill Dawson

When customers come to you for a follow up after Magpie Murders, hand them Dawson’s homage to Patricia Highsmith. It’s another suspenseful crime drama that pays homage to an individual writer’s brand of storytelling. And in this case, the alcoholic, lesbian and deeply eccentric Highsmith herself is the protagonist of this most Highsmithian murder tale.

Based in the historical record of a year that Highsmith spent in rural Suffolk and told in the writer’s voice, readers get a feverish, twisted peek into a troubled, talented mind of the writer—as well as a distinct sense of the new kind of crime fiction she intended to write.

Some details were so willfully odd (for instance, that she collected and cultivated snails) that the sent me to Wikipedia where I learned that this novel hews quite closely to Highsmith’s actual life and her opinions on writing.

It’s a dark psychological character study of desire, abuse, rage and paranoia. Near the end of the book the fictional Pat Highsmith offers a comment which is, I think, the key to that Dawson is up to in this book:

“What if the fantasy life is the real one? What if –well, what’s that Virginia Woolf quote about us living two lives at any time and one of them being the life of the mind, the imagination? Who is to say that isn’t the most valid, the most real . . .”

This was a fun read for genre fans who like it dark—a page-turner that’s both smart and pulpy. Dawson has been shortlisted for the Orange Prize and has won the Whitbread. Already out in England, The Crime Writer been well-reviewed; Paula Hawkins called it “brilliant.”

 When acclaimed suspense writer Patricia Highsmith, the antiheroine of this dreamlike, high-tension novel…moves into a Suffolk cottage in 1965, she welcomes the quiet seclusion. She looks forward to working on her new book, collecting snails, and maybe enjoying a weekend with her married lover, Sam Gosforth, who’s ‘everything I’m not.’… Pat has always been fascinated by what moves a person to murder, and she applies fierce resolve to the aftermath of a shocking act of violence that would not have been out of place in her novel The Talented Mr. Ripley. Dawson smoothly marries fact with fiction to capture the famously prickly Highsmith while astutely exploring love, obsession, and the myriad shades of darkness within us all.”
Publishers Weekly

“[I]n a manner that seems deliberately modeled on Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt (filmed recently as Carol), Pat is absolutely unguarded against her love for the upper-class Sam. These two sides come together in a catastrophe that occurs halfway through the novel. It’s a clever conceit, plunging an author into a scenario right out of her own queasy-making fiction, and it’s adroitly handled, forcing Pat to live out her ideas of crime and guilt.”
Kirkus Reviews

Ventriloquy is Dawson’s forte…. This fascinating, skillfully constructed novel builds a convincing picture of Patricia Highsmith, her spiky, awkward intelligence and (in a phrase of her biographer, Joan Schenkar) ‘the low, flat, compellingly psychotic murmur’ of both her life and her prose.”
The Spectator

“Fantastically moody and appealingly unhinged — a piece of sophisticated literary ventriloquism that achieves a wonderful blurring of the lines between fact and fantasy.”
— Sarah Waters in the Guardian

The Crime Writer (9780062669582) by Jill Dawson. $15.99 trade paper original. 6/6/17 on sale.

New Fiction: She Rides Shotgun – Jordan Harper

 

Screenwriter Harper was well-reviewed for his terrific debut story collection, Love and Other Wounds, inspiring comments like this from PW: “Harper kicks the door of crime fiction off its splintered frame.”

The promise of that collection is realized in this explosive first novel which received three starred advance reviews. The set-up sounds something like Paper Moon blasted against the hyperviolent universe of Breaking Bad. After making enemies with a gang called Aryan Steel, Nate McClusky is released from prison to find his ex-wife dead and the gang looking for his young daughter. Nate scoops up the shy, smart Polly from school and the two go on the run from both Aryan Steel and the police.

Kirkus notes in its starred review that “The novel combines striking images…with disturbingly raw violence.”  But the real surprise here is not the adrenaline-fueled escapades and violence. It’s the way Jordan is able to develop the relationship between this absent father and his young daughter—and his portrayal of a shy kid turning into a strong heroine who has her own sense of grit and honor.

Harper’s writing is not for the faint of heart but this is a rewarding read from an author to watch.

At the start of Harper’s visceral, pulpy, vernacular-filled first novel, introspective 11-year-old Polly McClusky has an unexpected reunion on the steps of her Southern California middle school with her estranged father…. Nate, Polly, and her stuffed bear, who serves to articulate the swirling emotions that Polly hesitates to voice, go on the run, sought by not only the gang but also Det. John Park, who’s investigating the murders. Nate and Polly’s relationship blooms, despite their being in constant crisis-survival mode…. Expert pacing and well-developed characters lift this above the thriller pack.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“From its bravura prologue to its immensely satisfying ending, this first novel comes out with guns blazing and shoots the chambers dry. It’s both a dark, original take on the chase novel and a strangely touching portrait of a father-daughter relationship framed in barbed wire.”
— Booklist (starred review)

“The characters’ loyalty, love, and struggle for redemption grip the reader and don’t let go.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

She Rides Shotgun (9780062394408) by Jordan Harper. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

New Fiction: everybody’s Son – Thrity Umrigar

This is bestselling author and book-club favorite Umrigar’s best book in years. Moving from her usual focus on immigrant and Indian-American experience, this new novel looks at America’s fraught class and race relationships by exploring the story of a young black boy adopted by affluent, influential white parents.

Nine-year old Anton becomes a front-page story when he is found locked in an apartment and seemingly abandoned by his crack addicted mother. David Coleman is a judge and the son of a U.S. Senator looking to fill a void after the death of his son five years ago. He and his wife take in Anton, and though the boy misses his mother, he flourishes.

Anton is eventually adopted by the Colemans and seems to be living the American Dream—complete with a Harvard education and an eventual career as a State’s Attorney General. But the worm at the heart of the story is that years before David used his influence to ensure that Anton’s mother got a long prison sentence and pressured her to relinquish her parental rights. When Anton discovers this is world is again upended. It’s a wrenching read about the nuanced, morally compromised decisions we make in the name of love and “higher good.”

A Boston Globe review has already been assigned and Umrigar will be interviewed by Scott Simon on NPR’s Weekend Edition.

When nine-year-old Anton first enters foster care, he still believes his mother is coming back for him. However, his new foster father, David Coleman, hopes she stays away for a long time…. David rationalizes that if he must do something dishonest to keep the boy, it is only because he wants to protect him and give him a better life…. But when the secrets of his past are finally revealed, Anton’s identity is shaken to the core. Jarring and beautiful, Umrigar’s novel examines complex social issues with brutal honesty, but also creates accessible characters with relatable motives, reminding us of the deep-seated racism that exists even in the places we don’t think to look.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“[Umrigar’s] focus has always been on the Indian and Indian American experience, but here she crosses borders to examine tough and timely issues concerning a black family, a white family, and our children today.”
— Library Journal

“[An] uncompromising in its portrayal of what power reveals about those who wield it.”
   — Booklist

Everybody’s Son (9780062442246) by Thrity Umrigar. $26.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

Nonfiction Short Take: We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria – Wendy Pearlman

This is a potent first-person collection of voices and testimonies from survivors of the Syrian Civil War and the subsequent humanitarian crisis that created over 4 million people seeking refuge.

While we might claim a kind of information fatigue when it comes to Syria, the stories of ordinary Syrians have remained largely unheard– stories told about them have painted by the brush of political agendas designed to create dread and to demonize millions of desperate, ordinary people. I challenge you to read this and not be moved by the quiet strength, hope and courage of these voices. Harper’s Magazine will run a first serial

 “[F]illed with hope, informed by an understanding of the unity possible in spite of the discord sowed by Assad.”
   — Publishers Weekly

Pearlman’s book is not only important because it puts names to suffering, but also because it reminds readers—especially in the final segment, Reflections’—that in the Syrian conflict, ‘there is no right or wrong,’ only problematic ‘shades of gray.’ A poignant and humane collection.”
Kirkus Reviews

“Pearlman aims to tell the personal stories of Syrian refugees who are often treated as a monolith in mainstream media…Stories range from hopeful during the protests to devastating as the war goes on. Families are separated, killed, and forced out of their homeland. The raw voices of refugees resonate as they describe the terror of living in a war zone…A heartbreaking, human, and necessary book. Recommended for anyone who wishes to better understand the Syrian conflict.”
   — Library Journal

We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled: Voices from Syria (9780062654618) by Wendy Pearlman. $24.99 hardcover. 6/6/17 on sale.

Young Adult Short Take: Queer, There, and Everywhere – Sarah Prager

Two starred reviews and a bookseller shout out put this one back on my radar. And then I remembered Gay Pride Month is just around the corner. This one’s perfect for your display.

 “First-time author Prager delivers a rich exploration of gender identity and sexuality across time and nation, focusing on 23 queer individuals from different eras and using a broad definition of queerness (‘anyone outside society’s gender and sexuality norms’)…. These snapshots—sometimes irreverent in tone, but always respectful of the people and relationships they discuss—offer strong insight into the lives of individuals who broke barriers or simply lived life on their own terms.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Presented in a breezy, conversational tone that will engage teens and make them laugh.… Should be placed in the hands of every LGBTQ teen so they’ll know that not only are they not alone, but they have a rich and diverse history.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Well written, timely, and interesting; the profiles include a thoughtful, varied mix of queer historical figures …. Prager has captured moments from thousands of years of queer history-making in a captivating, illuminating read.”
Voice of Youth Advocates (VOYA)

“I opened this book just to flip through a couple of entries, and each time I immediately went ‘wait, really?’ and had to read the whole thing. Well-researched and engaging, this book will turn your assumptions about several historical figures on their heads, and introduce you to several more. I only wish that the book was three times as long!”
— Genevieve Taylor, Boulder Book Store, Boulder, CO

Queer, There, and Everywhere: 23 People Who Changed the World (9780062474315) by Sarah Prager; illustrated by Zoe More O’Ferrall. $17.99 hardcover. 5/23/17 on sale.