“The House Uptown” by Melissa Ginsburg

The House UptownOrphaned at 14 after her mother’s sudden death, Ava is sent to live with her only surviving relative: her grandmother, whom Ava only met once, many years earlier. Lane lives in New Orleans, where she works as an artist; Ava grew up in Iowa, and knows very little about this talented but troubled woman. For instance, what caused the estrangement between Lane and her daughter?

Ava arrives in New Orleans by train, but no one meets her at the station. The reader learns that the girl is resourceful enough to figure out how to get to her grandmother’s house (she takes a cab), which is good, because living with Lane is not exactly going to provide her with a structured environment.

Lane spends her days smoking pot (procured by her assistant, Oliver), swigging iced coffee and working on her art. However, she has bigger issues than just being an absentminded artist; she appears to be suffering from dementia, and frequently forgets who Ava is (going so far as to point a gun at her at one point, convinced the girl is an intruder) or believes her to be Louise, her late daughter. Without adult supervision, Ava spends her days exploring the city, a perplexing place where “plastic beads hung in the branches of trees and on telephone wires,” where street musicians “sang songs about singing songs in New Orleans—Ava felt lost in this strange place so enamored with itself.”

The novel’s prologue (set two decades earlier) hints at a dark secret involving Bert, Lane’s former lover, and his son Artie, who is now running for his dad’s old seat on the City Council. There is a crime and a cover-up, but I’m not sure I would classify The House Uptown as a mystery or a thriller; it’s more of a character study, as we follow Lane, Ava and Oliver in alternating chapters (with occasional drop-ins from Artie). I’ve never experienced New Orleans’ beguiling atmosphere in person, but visiting it through Melissa Ginsburg’s well-crafted tale was a pleasure.

Thanks to Flatiron Books for the review copy (via NetGalley)!

“The Lions of Fifth Avenue” by Fiona Davis and “The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig

The Lions of Fifth AvenueA few years ago, I read an article about the hidden apartments once found in many New York City libraries. At the turn of the last century, the libraries were heated by coal, and live-in caretakers were needed to tend to the fires. Once the heating systems were upgraded, the custodians were no longer needed, and these days, the former living spaces have gradually been repurposed.

However, for a book lover, the idea of living in a library sounds undeniably romantic—especially now, when many libraries have been closed to the public for months on end. (My local library is still only allowing curbside pick-up.) The Lions of Fifth Avenue tells the story of a family that moves into the brand-new library at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street in 1911. Jack Lyons, the superintendent, oversees a staff of 80, since it takes a lot of people to keep such a majestic building running; his wife Laura and their children, 7-year-old Pearl and 11-year-old Henry, live with him in the “white fortress.”

“Laura hadn’t realized how remote their lives… would be. There were no neighbors to wave hello to each morning, as there had been at the brownstone where she grew up, nor picnics down by the river… Instead, just an endless parade of anonymous visitors who came in to see if the building lived up to its reputation for grandeur and beauty (the answer was always a resounding yes).”

Since Jack spends every spare moment of time working on his novel, Laura feels lonely and frustrated by the constraints of life as a wife and mother, so she decides to go to journalism school—Columbia has just opened a few slots for women. However, Jack finds himself in trouble when several rare books are stolen from the library, including the exceedingly valuable Tamerlane and Other Poems by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Lions of Fifth Avenue features a parallel story set in the early 1990s, as Sadie Donovan, Laura’s granddaughter, who now works at the same library where her grandmother once lived, is also dealing with rare book thefts. Initially, it seems far-fetched that the crimes could be related, but Sadie decides to investigate her family’s past, including the life of her grandmother (who died before she was born), to see if she can learn more.

Sadie and Laura are both captivating protagonists, and the library background makes this a fun read for book lovers and fans of historical fiction, offering a fascinating peek behind the scenes of one of New York’s most storied institutions.

The Midnight LibraryKeeping the theme going, Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library is set in a very different sort of library: one that lives only in the mind of Nora Seed as she teeters between life and death. Nora feels that her life has been one disappointment after another, and when her beloved cat dies and she loses her job, she decides to commit suicide. After taking an overdose, she finds herself in the Midnight Library, presided over by her old grammar-school librarian, Mrs. Elm. In this very personal library, Nora finds an untold numbers of volumes; “every book provides a chance to try another life you could have lived,” explains Mrs. Elm. “To see how things would be different if you had made other choices… Would you have done anything different, if you had the chance to undo your regrets?”

If Nora pops into another life and is disappointed with the outcome, she will return to the library. If she’s content, she can stay in that life until she dies of old age. So Nora starts living: in one life, she’s a world-renowned Olympic athlete; in another, she’s a scientist studying climate change in the Arctic; in yet another, she married her former boyfriend and they opened a pub together in the English countryside.

I often find myself ruminating over past choices I now regret, both large (why didn’t I spend a year or two living in New York or Stockholm when I was younger?) and small (why did I park directly under that tree which shed yellow pollen all over my car?), and I’m fascinated by the many-worlds interpretation (why did I wind up in the universe where Donald Trump was president?), so the premise of this book hooked me. However, when Nora lands in a new life, she has no idea what her counterpart has been doing, which causes a lot of confusion; in the scenario where she’s an ex-Olympian, she’s about to go onstage and deliver a motivational speech to a huge roomful of people, which is a literal nightmare. As a rock star, she’s asked to play her biggest hit, but of course she doesn’t know it. How can you give a life a fair shake if you are disoriented and perplexed the whole time?

Still, the last few pages of this book are joyous and quite profound. A sample, taken from a social media post written by Nora after she exits the library:

It is not the lives we regret not living that is the real problem. It is the regret itself. It’s the regret that makes us shrivel and wither and feel like our own and other people’s worst enemy.

We can’t tell if any of those other versions would have been better or worse. Those lives are happening, it is true, but you are happening as well, and that is the happening we have to focus on… We just have to close our eyes and savour the taste of the drink in front of us and listen to the song as it plays.

“Honey Girl” by Morgan Rogers

Honey GirlAt the end of last week’s review, I stated my desire for something more uplifting, and I picked Morgan Rogers’ Honey Girl off my TBR pile because of the romcom premise: a type-A woman, on vacation in Vegas after a professional setback, wakes up one morning and finds out that she got married the night before. Instead of immediately getting an annulment, the new spouses decide to get to know one another. Fun, right?

But Honey Girl is definitely not a romp; it’s a romantic drama about ambition, friendship, living up to parental expectations, and coping with depression. Grace Porter just got her PhD in astronomy, but soon discovers that as a Black queer woman, landing a prestigious job isn’t as easy as she thought it would be. Grace’s father is a career military officer—she calls him Colonel and he calls her Porter!—and raised her to be a perfectionist who must be the best at everything she does. After a disastrous job interview, Grace heads to Vegas, where she meets Yuki Yamamoto, a waitress with a nighttime radio show where she talks about monsters and reinterprets folk tales through her unique personal lens.

Yuki lives in Harlem and Grace lives in Portland, so to find out if their relationship will work, Grace moves to New York for the summer, telling her father she’s going there for a fellowship. The change of scenery makes Grace question how she’s spent her life so far (she’s just about to turn 29).

“‘My battery is low and I’m getting dark,'” Grace says quietly. “Those were the last words of a Mars Rover that was only supposed to survive for ninety days. It followed its plan until it couldn’t anymore.” Grace wipes her eyes. Little hiccups of grief come for plans followed and plans dismantled and in need of repair…

“Okay, so not to sound like another person trying to fix your problems with a hammer,” Yuki says slowly, “but who said you had to be responsible? … It sounds like you’ve spent a really long time being responsible.”

So does Yuki convince Grace that she can live her life for herself and let go of her lifelong perfectionism? Ha ha, no. Honey Girl is the second book I’ve read in the past few weeks where a character trying to cope with significant issues actually winds up going to therapy, which is a very welcome trend, if you ask me (I’m sure we’ve all read books where we’ve mentally yelled at a character to get some professional help already).

Honey Girl may not have been what I expected, but it is beautifully written and moving. I found a brief but insightful interview with the author on Shondaland.com, in which she concisely sums up the novel’s themes: “Life is just so much more than one goal. It’s so much more than just reaching the next milestone. It’s just living and digging into the muck every day and figuring out how to be your best self without causing harm. That’s a big theme for Grace. It’s a journey.”

“Before She Was Helen” by Caroline B. Cooney and “The Only Child” by Mi-Ae Seo

Before She Was HelenLet’s return to the Edgar Awards, as I continue reading and reviewing the nominees for Best Novel (I began last month with Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club). Like Osman’s book, Caroline B. Cooney’s Before She Was Helen deals with a group of elderly people living in a retirement community. Her protagonist, Clemmie, is a Latin teacher who resides on a quiet cul-de-sac in Sun City, South Carolina. Clemmie’s next-door neighbor, Dom, is something of a curmudgeon (“his only friends were the hosts of hostile political talk shows”), but after a fall, he now texts her every morning to let her know he’s OK.

When she doesn’t hear from Dom, Clemmie uses his key to go check on him, but he’s nowhere to be found. He’s not answering his cell phone, either. Unbeknownst to Clemmie, her decision to enter Dom’s house will have lasting repercussions and will threaten to expose her biggest secret: her true identity. Her Sun City friends and neighbors know Clemmie as Helen, but the fact that they don’t know anything about her past is not an anomaly in a community where “people arrived… without a past and without acquaintances. They set about joining groups and making those friends, but in many cases—certainly in Clemmie’s—they never recited a history. ‘Oh please, too boring,’ someone might say, and later you’d find out he was a famous cardiologist.”

The details of Clemmie’s earlier life emerge in dribs and drabs throughout the book, and I found them incredibly disturbing and upsetting. She was a victim during a time (the 1950s) when women who were sexually assaulted were never given the benefit of the doubt; there was no point in going to the authorities, or even to your parents, especially if your abuser was a popular and powerful man. Granted, the 21st century is far from perfect in this regard, but Clemmie would have had some options open to her today that she wouldn’t have had back then.

The Only ChildThe Only Child by Mi-Ae Seo makes Helen seem like a cozy mystery by comparison. This Korean psychological thriller, translated by Yewon Jung, flaunts its similarities to The Silence of the Lambs in an early chapter, as professor of criminal psychology Seonkyeong is nicknamed “Clarice” by her students. Soon enough, she will meet her very own Hannibal Lecter—prolific serial killer Yi Byeongdo, who is imprisoned but has refused to reveal the full details of his crimes. He’s willing to talk, but only to Seonkyeong. She has no idea why, but of course, she agrees, and of course, the guy turns out to be incredibly handsome and charismatic.

“Yi Byeongdo pretended to be strong but [was] infinitely vulnerable, and the sharp, cold gaze betrayed loneliness. Yi Byeongdo’s cold eyes sometimes made Seonkyeong want to take him into her arms and heal his wounds. In this thirty-four-year-old man was a chid who had never grown up.”

No. Just… no.

Meanwhile, Seonkyeong’s husband, whose first wife died by suicide, turns out to have an 11-year-old daughter, previously unknown to Seonkyeong, who has now come to live with them. She turns out to have some very serious behavioral issues. Is she a mini-Yi Byeongdo in the making?

I’m on record as really hating serial killer books, especially ones that have chapters told from the murderer’s point of view and try to “explain” why he became a killer. This book has that in spades.

I had high hopes for this crop of books since I enjoyed The Thursday Murder Club so much, but the fact that the Edgar best-novel committee picked these two shows that we’re obviously operating on very different wavelengths. Both of these books made me feel really sad and upset, which really isn’t the mood I’m going for right now. Here’s hoping I’ll find something a bit more uplifting for my next read.

Correction: I received The Only Child in a box of books which included several Edgar-nominated titles, but it turns out it was not nominated for the award after all (a wise decision, if you ask me!). 

“The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue” by V.E. Schwab

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue“Being forgotten, she thinks, is a bit like going mad. You begin to wonder what is real, if you are real. After all, how can a thing be real if it cannot be remembered?”

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is a fairy tale for adults, set in a world where witches and curses and demons exist—invisible to the vast majority, but very much a presence to those who know how to seek them out. Adeline LaRue is a young woman in a rural village in France who dreams of adventure. The year is 1714, and her parents have promised her to a young widower; they are to be married in the local church, but Addie runs away, off into the woods, hiding in the forest under a moonless sky, where she makes a wish:

“I do not want to belong to anyone but myself. I want to be free… I want more time.”

This is a fairy tale, so of course she is able to make a Faustian bargain with the devil himself (or one of his close associates). He gives Addie what she wants, but the gift also comes with a curse. She will be forgotten by everyone she meets; she might spend an hour or an evening in somebody’s company, but as soon as Addie is out of their sight, they won’t remember ever having known her. Needless to say, this causes its own unique set of problems. You can’t rent a room or get a job if your landlord or boss is constantly forgetting who you are.

Addie becomes incredibly resourceful, but every year, on the anniversary of their bargain, the demon returns to see if she’s finally had enough and wants to give up her soul. The decades and the centuries pass, until one day in 2014, Addie ventures into a Brooklyn bookstore, where she meets a bookseller named Henry. When she returns the next day, he remembers her.

Why is Henry the first person in over 300 years who recognizes Addie when he sees her again? That is the central mystery of this book, which skips through time, alternating chapters set in 2014 with snapshots of Addie’s life in previous eras. We learn that even though Addie is doomed to be forgotten, she has nevertheless found subtle but significant ways to leave a mark.

The book is a long, sprawling saga, but V.E. Schwab uses short chapters and a lot of one-sentence paragraphs that make the pages fly by. The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue is guaranteed to make you consider whether Addie’s deal was worth the price she paid; it struck me that perhaps immortality is easier to bear if you can never really get close to anyone. As to what finally happens when Addie is able to connect with a human, I needn’t have worried that Schwab would flub the ending—the novel’s conclusion provides a very satisfying payoff.

“It Had To Be You” by Georgia Clark and “People We Meet on Vacation” by Emily Henry

It Had To Be YouA lot of romance authors create a shared universe for their book series. For instance, Book #2 may feature the best friend of the protagonist from Book #1 finding love, and then Book #3 couples up her sister, etc. Georgia Clark, on the other hand, has done this with a single book; It Had To Be You features several love stories, all of which are neatly wrapped up by the end of the novel.

This isn’t a new concept—the book’s promotional material compares it to the movie Love Actually—but Clark puts a modern spin on it: her characters are gay, lesbian, straight, middle-aged, young, Black, Latinx, white, very rich and struggling to pay the bills.

The novel starts off by introducing us to Liv Goldenhorn, a wedding planner in her late 40s whose husband and business partner has just dropped dead of a heart attack. Liv soon learns that Eliot had been cheating on her, and that he’d changed his will just a couple weeks before he died to give his young mistress Savannah his half of Love In New York, the company he ran with Liv. Needless to say, Liv is horrified by this development; what could be worse than running a business centered on love with your late husband’s secret girlfriend?

A few months down the road, when Savannah offers to help Liv revive her moribund business with the help of a well-known Instagram influencer who is planning to tie the knot, the two women wind up working together. Southern belle Savannah and Brooklynite Liv turn out to be a pretty formidable pair.

All of the other characters in It Had To Be You are involved in Liv’s business: a DJ, a cater-waiter, a florist, etc. Alternating chapters take us on their romantic journeys, heartbreaks, and happily-ever-afters. As is often the case with these types of stories, I found myself more interested in some plot strands than in others; my favorite was probably the one where rich playboy Zach, the DJ/musician, embarks on a fake-dating relationship with singer Darlene in order to convince his parents that he’s worthy of gaining access to his trust fund. On the other hand, I kept forgetting about gay florist Gorman and his boyfriend Henry until their chapters popped up.

On the whole, I think Clark did a terrific job making her readers invested in the lives of a dozen major characters, and I never for a moment had any trouble keeping track of who was who (an accomplishment in itself!). It Had To Be You will be published on May 4, just in time for beach-reading season; thanks to Atria/Emily Bestler Books for the review copy via NetGalley.

People We Meet On VacationSpeaking of beach reads, Emily Henry’s Beach Read was one of my favorite books of 2020, so I was very excited to get my hands on the follow-up, People We Meet On Vacation. It is a super slow-burn romance about Poppy and Alex, two platonic friends who meet in college and go on vacation together every year. Poppy is a New York-based travel writer who writes about glamorous destinations for a living, while Alex teaches high school in the southern Ohio town where they both grew up (and which Poppy couldn’t wait to leave).

The obvious question is why Poppy and Alex aren’t a couple, since they love spending time together and, except for the whole long distance thing, seem so perfectly suited to one another. I need to throw in a bit of personal history here: I have had very close platonic friendships with guys—I’ve even vacationed with them!—and Poppy and Alex’s relationship just didn’t ring true to me. As she proved in Beach Read, however, Henry is very good at presenting fully realized back stories for her characters; you get the sense that she really knows and understands them. Rationalizing why Poppy and Alex aren’t a romantic couple sometimes requires her to work pretty hard: Alex’s mother died when he was young, and he simultaneously wants to find someone “who can help him build the life that he lost when he was six years old” and is afraid of getting too close because if he allows himself to love someone, he might lose them. Poppy is ambitious and competent, but she was bullied throughout her childhood and always felt like the odd one out in her family (“I was something of a loose part, that baffling extra bolt IKEA packs with your bookcase, just to make you sweat”).

Both Alex and Poppy are very likable and I really appreciated the fact that they both wound up going to therapy to deal with their respective childhood traumas. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it more if it was the first Emily Henry book I had read; my expectations were probably too high after Beach Read, and the follow-up is good-but-not-great, in my opinion.

People We Meet on Vacation will be published on May 11; thanks to Berkley for the review copy via NetGalley.

“Maggie Finds Her Muse” by Dee Ernst

Maggie Finds Her MuseDuring the past year, I have attended a great many virtual author talks. One of the questions that inevitably comes up is, “Are you planning to write anything set during the pandemic?” Almost everybody says “No, absolutely not” (one author suggested that he might, though he’d probably wait a few years). However, at this point, I actually wouldn’t mind reading about people who have, like me, largely been shut-ins for the past year; when I started Maggie Finds Her Muse and the title character blithely hopped on a plane to take a spur-of-the-moment trip to Paris, I realized that I was deeply envious of a fictional character. Right now, the best I can hope for is a post-vaccination jaunt to San Francisco, which has been simultaneously 20 minutes and a million miles away from my suburban home since March 2020.

The current state of things may have colored my reaction to this novel, and to its protagonist’s dilemmas. Maggie is a best-selling author who is trying to sell her series to TV so she can buy a beach house. There’s just one catch: she needs to finish writing the final part of her trilogy about two lovers in a war-torn country before any network will pony up the big bucks (they learned their lesson after “Game of Thrones”), and she’s suffering from a massive case of writer’s block, which has caused her to miss a couple of deadlines.

Conveniently, her agent has access to a gorgeous apartment in Paris, complete with a charming live-in housekeeper, and he’s convinced that the words will tumble right onto the page if Maggie experiences a change of scenery. Plus, Maggie’s grown daughter lives in Rennes, Brittany, a quick 90-minute trip from Paris by train.

It turns out that the housekeeper, Solange, has a handsome son who happens to be visiting, and Max sparks Maggie’s imagination; when he’s around, the dam bursts and Maggie finds herself able to write for hours. (In between stints at the laptop, she is able to do fun stuff like shop at Galeries Lafayette and drink wine at sidewalk cafés.) The problem is, Max is a busy executive, and Maggie is terrified that if he leaves, she won’t be able to finish her novel. Further complicating matters: Maggie’s ex-husband, Alan, is visiting their daughter, and he’s interested in rekindling their old flame.

I really enjoyed the fact that this is a novel about a woman in her late 40s who gets to have fun and find love—as I’ve mentioned in the past, such books are surprisingly rare. Sometimes I felt Maggie was a little bit too flighty and silly for a woman of her years; there’s a Big Misunderstanding with one of the male characters which is so ridiculous that Dee Ernst gets a little bit meta with it (in the novels Maggie writes, we learn, no such plot contrivance would ever occur). Still, Maggie Finds Her Muse should appeal to anyone looking for a light, romantic read about a 40+ heroine; just don’t be surprised if you find yourself overcome with yearning for a trip to France.

Maggie Finds Her Muse will be published on April 20. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the review copy via NetGalley.

“Ordinary Hazards” by Anna Bruno

Ordinary HazardsMotherhood does not account for statistical likelihoods. Low-probability events—lightning, child abduction, poisoned candy—share the same tonal qualities as ordinary hazards: wall outlets, toxic substances, a hole in the floor. I think maybe this is nature’s twisted prophecy: you can worry all you want, but you’ll never predict the thing that will destroy you.

A woman walks into a bar. It is 5 PM when Emma enters the Final Final, a blue-collar townie watering hole in an upstate New York college town. Like many such establishments, the Final Final is largely populated by its tight group of regulars; Emma is not really in that circle. Her ex-husband Lucas, however, is, and the regulars include his best friend, Jimmy. Emma and Lucas now do a fine job of managing to avoid each other; Lucas won’t set foot in the bar if there’s a chance Emma might be there.

Lucas is working class—he has a drywall installation business—while Emma manages a hedge fund with her business partner Grace, and teaches Advanced Communications to MBA students at the university. As Emma sits at the bar, her friends Samantha and Grace keep trying to text her, asking her to come over to Samantha’s house; Emma fears they might be planning some kind of intervention, so she ignores them and orders another whiskey.

As the hours pass, Emma looks back on her life and where it all went wrong. We eventually learn that she and Lucas had a son, but since there’s no mention of a babysitter and Emma seems like she’s trying and failing to drink to forget, I began to fear the worst. (Maybe the child is staying with Lucas, I hoped, even as I realized that it was probably delusional to be that optimistic.) Meanwhile, the regulars drink, banter and pass the time. What  feels like an ordinary night turns out to have life-changing consequences for everyone in the bar.

I discovered Ordinary Hazards on a list of “overlooked” fiction of 2020; it got a lot of very positive reviews in trade publications like Kirkus, but did not get much mainstream coverage. After the first few pages, I wasn’t sure I wanted to read it because it seemed depressing, and I’ve sort of been trying to stick to lighter fare. But Emma’s compelling first-person voice kept me turning the pages. Yes, there is sadness here, but beauty and hope ultimately shine through the pain.

“The Thursday Murder Club” by Richard Osman

Once again, I am diving into the Edgar nominees for Best Novel. The Edgars are presented by Mystery Writers of America, and they are the only U.S. crime fiction award judged by a panel of authors; all the others are nominated and voted on by fans. Each year, the members of the panel have to read every book nominated in the category they are judging. The most demanding task is that of the people on the Best Novel committee, who routinely have to read over 400 mysteries (or at least enough of each book to determine whether or not they want to keep going) over the course of a single year.

I know a lot of people who have served on the Best Novel panel over the years, and they all take it very seriously. You’re sworn to secrecy about the process, including why certain books did or did not make the list. Every time, some major critical favorite winds up not getting nominated, and no one on the outside will ever know why (this year, a lot of people were surprised that Blacktop Wasteland didn’t make the cut).

The Thursday Murder ClubOne of my clients was on the Best Novel jury this year, and while she wouldn’t give me any inside scoop on the deliberations, she was willing to consider one question: why was Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club, a first novel, nominated in the Best Novel category and not Best First? It turns out Osman’s nationality is the key here—he’s British, and the debut category is only open to U.S. authors.

This is a really lovely book with a lot of humor and pathos, a story about elders written by a man in middle age who has obviously spent a lot of time considering issues of mortality and grief. But while there is a lot about loss in this book, there’s also enough wackiness and fun that the sadness never overwhelms. Don’t skip it because you think it might be depressing; it’s not.

For one thing, there’s an ideal villain—Ian Ventham, a cartoonishly rapacious real estate developer whose portfolio of properties includes Coopers Chase, an upscale retirement community. Joyce Meadowcroft, one of the newer residents, is invited to join the Thursday Murder Club after one of its founding members, former police inspector Penny Gray, goes into a nursing home. The quartet meets once a week to consider cold cases, sifting through some of Penny’s old paperwork (“She wasn’t really supposed to have the files, but who was to know? After a certain age, you can pretty much do whatever takes your fancy. No one tells you off, except your doctors and your children.”).

When Ian’s right-hand man is murdered, the club finds itself in the middle of a very hot case. They decide to investigate, much to the dismay of the actual police detectives. Ian had been planning to expand Coopers Chase, which was built on the site of an old convent, and he intends to bulldoze the cemetery where all the nuns are buried. The last nun died a couple of decades ago, but the controversy around digging up and relocating the bodies is something that the wealthy developer cannot easily buy his way out of.

The Murder Club members are a diverse bunch: there’s Joyce, a retired nurse, and Elizabeth, who seems to have been a spy (she’s certainly the most resourceful of the lot). Ibrahim is a psychiatrist who still sees patients from time to time, and “Red” Ron was a well-known socialist firebrand who still loves stirring up trouble.

“For Ibrahim one of the beauties of Coopers Chase was that it was so alive,” writes Osman. “So full of ridiculous committees and ridiculous politics, so full of arguments, of fun, and of gossip. All the new arrivals, each one subtly shifting the dynamic. All the farewells, too, reminding you that this was a place that could never stay the same. It was a community, and in Ibrahim’s opinion that was how human beings were designed to live. At Coopers Chase, anytime you wanted to be alone, you would simply close your front door, and anytime you wanted to be with people, you would open it up again. If there was a better recipe for happiness than that, then Ibrahim was yet to hear it.”

The ending gets a bit convoluted—I had to go back and reread one chapter to make sure I knew exactly what had transpired—but on the whole, this is a worthy addition to the pantheon of Edgar nominees, and makes me look forward to reading the other five Best Novel picks.

“How To Raise an Elephant” by Alexander McCall Smith

How To Raise an ElephantHow To Raise an Elephant is the fifth No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency book I’ve reviewed, and the 21st in Alexander McCall Smith’s popular series. At this point, I feel like I could just quote lines from my previous reviews, and they would apply to the newest novel: “a typically thin plot”; “a little detecting, a lot of philosophizing and tea-drinking”; “hits all the usual beats readers expect.”

In Elephant, Mma Ramotswe investigates one measly case, and it’s (a) not a paying gig—in fact, it involves someone hitting her up for money—and (b) she totally botches it. She’s been at this for a while now, and I keep hoping she’ll get some really good, meaty cases and do an amazing job of solving them. The other component of the plot involves, as the title promises, an elephant. Charlie, who works for both Mma Ramotswe as an assistant detective and for her husband Mr. J.L.B. Matekoni as an assistant mechanic, has come into possession of a baby elephant and is keeping it temporarily as a favor to a friend.

When it emerges that Charlie’s friend might have nefarious plans for the pachyderm, Mma Ramotswe decides she needs to intervene and find a better home for him. Naturally, she turns to Mma Potokwane, her best friend and a highly competent problem-solver. The elephant winds up at a sanctuary in northern Botswana, a real place; in fact, several of the people listed on the organization’s “Our Team” page appear as characters in the book, and as promised by the title, we do learn how they raise an elephant.

I enjoyed reading about the sanctuary, and then looking at the adorable elephant photos on its website, but this is not a particularly strong entry in this long-running series.