“Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

Still Me by Jojo MoyesThe second sequel to Jojo Moyes’ smash hit Me Before You picks up almost immediately where the last book ended. The final scene of After You had Louisa Clark holding her brand-new passport, about to board a plane from London to New York. The first scene of Still Me sees her going through customs in New York, ready to begin her new life in America.

Starting over doesn’t mean she wants everything to be different. She hopes her (temporary?) move will not bring about an end to her relationship with sexy paramedic Sam, who is staying behind in the U.K.

Once again, Louisa will be serving as an assistant to a wealthy person. In Me Before You, of course, she worked for (and fell in love with) Will Traynor, a quadriplegic who chose to end his life by means of assisted suicide. Now, her employer is super-rich businessman Leonard Gopnik, who hires her to serve as a paid companion to his much-younger second wife, Agnes. Before she became the new Mrs. Gopnik, Agnes was an immigrant from Poland, working as a masseuse—and she’s having difficulties adapting to her new life. Louisa’s task is to stay by her side, whether that means attending a family dinner with Leonard’s sullen daughter from his first marriage, or an elegant charity ball. (At times, I wondered why Agnes—whom I always pictured looking like a younger Melania Trump—was so shunned by the other society wives; surely there must be other Eastern European trophy spouses in that scene for her to hang with?)

At one particularly glamorous event, Louisa meets Josh Ryan, a cute and ambitious New Yorker who quickly becomes infatuated with her. Meanwhile, back in England, Sam has a new partner at work, a beautiful woman who is hoping he’ll forget about his long-distance love. Can their relationship survive these twin temptations?

I thought Still Me was an improvement over After You, which had Louisa spinning her wheels through much of the book, working at a cheesy airport bar, not quite able to move on with her life. Things still go wrong for her in Still Me—it wouldn’t be a very interesting book otherwise, would it?—but this time around, Louisa is smarter and more self-confident.

Moyes has said that “once I committed to write the sequel to Me Before You, I would also write a third book. I saw it quite clearly as a trilogy.” So this may be the last we see of Louisa. If so, Moyes has left her in a good place, giving our resourceful and relatable heroine the happy ending she deserves.

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“The Moonstone” by Wilkie Collins

The MoonstoneA few weeks ago, my friend Vallery suggested I read  The Moonstone (1868), which is considered to be the first full-length detective novel (Edgar Allan Poe wrote some short-story mysteries in the 1840s). “If you have not read The Moonstone then that should be your first book of 2018. My all time favorite. Up there with Sherlock and Marlowe. Reread it recently in a book group and we all agreed that it reads well, and is surprisingly current.”

Well, I had never read The Moonstone, so I checked it out of the library at the end of December, thinking that I would indeed make it my first review of the new year. That obviously didn’t happen, partly because The Moonstone is very long: over 400 pages of small print. Many were the nights I fell asleep reading the novel; I finally downloaded the Kindle version (free!) and finished it while I was on vacation in late January.

This is not to say that The Moonstone isn’t a good book; I just found it a little tough going at times. The novel opens with the theft of the legendary yellow diamond, which was purloined by an English soldier during a battle between Southern Indians and the British East India Company. The soldier—a cruel and rapacious man—dies years later, leaving the diamond to his niece, Rachel Verinder. She receives it on her eighteenth birthday, and that night, it vanishes from her room in the posh Verinder estate. In an attempt to get at the truth, numerous guests who were present for Rachel’s birthday are asked to write down their personal accounts of what they witnessed.

The first narrator is Gabriel Betteredge, “house-steward in the service of Julia, Lady Verinder” (Rachel’s mother). Betteredge is a man in his 70s and completely devoted to his employer. He is an astute and often funny narrator, and I found him to be exceedingly good company; his section was my favorite one of the book, and I was a bit disappointed when, after 170 pages, Drusilla Clack took over. (Fortunately, Betteredge does return as an important character later on.) A poor relation of the wealthy Verinder family, Miss Clack is a Christian who feels it is her duty to evangelize to everyone she meets. She is also a faithful member of the Mothers’-Small-Clothes-Conversion-Society, which rescues “unredeemed fathers’ trousers from the pawnbroker, and to prevent their resumption, on the part of the irreclaimable parent… abridg[es] them immediately to suit the proportions of the innocent son.”

I was curious about whether or not pawning clothes was a common thing, and it turns out that it was! According to this article, in Victorian times, “Clothing was often pledged on a Monday and redeemed on a Saturday after the breadwinner of the family had been paid. It was worn to chapel or church on a Sunday, and pledged again the next day. This was the reason that Saturdays and Mondays were the pawnbrokers’ busiest days.” Whether anything like the Conversion Society ever existed is hard to say, but I did appreciate Collins’ satire of both Evangelicals and do-gooders. However, Miss Clack’s prose is rather turgid and overly formal, despite the occasional gem (one of her favorite tracts, on “the sinfulness of dress,” is titled “A Word With You On Your Cap-Ribbons”).

After Miss Clack, we hear from Matthew Bruff, the Verinders’ solicitor; Franklin Blake, Rachel’s cousin and love interest; Ezra Jennings, assistant to a physician; and Sergeant Cuff, the famous detective called in from London to find the missing diamond. Cuff’s arrival is a big deal (“If half the stories I have heard are true, when it comes to unraveling a mystery, there isn’t the equal in England of Sergeant Cuff!” exclaims Franklin Blake), though when he shows up, he seems more interested in the estate’s rose garden than in the crime; it’s not difficult to see Cuff as the prototype for every eccentric detective in the annals of mystery fiction.

Considering that it took me a month of on-and-off reading to finish The Moonstone vs. about four hours to polish off current best-seller The Woman in the Window, I can’t say that I’m eager to jump right back into the world of Victorian fiction. But reading The Moonstone in 2018, I was pleasantly surprised by how sympathetic Collins was to some of the “underdog” characters in the book, like the odd-looking, racially-ambiguous Ezra Jennings, thief-turned-housemaid Rosanna Spearman, and even the Indian men pursuing their lost treasure (intimating that the diamond should have stayed in India rather than be plundered by a greedy, unpleasant Englishman was probably a pretty progressive stance in the 1860s). The prose can be a bit tough going for someone not used to 19th-century novels, but in general, I agree that The Moonstone does hold up and is well worth reading 150 years after its debut.

Note: If you’re not familiar with Collins’ personal life, read this review for a taste of just how unconventional he was.

“The Immortalists” by Chloe Benjamin and “The Little Paris Bookshop” by Nina George

The ImmortalistsHaving a good airplane book is something I take very seriously. My library copy of Chloe Benjamin’s novel The Immortalists came in a couple days before I headed out on a cross-country trip. I read the first few chapters, and was sufficiently entranced to buy the ebook version for my flight. (I travel light, so I didn’t want to drag along a library hardcover.) It was a wise investment; I was so absorbed by the book that I didn’t even check my watch every 10-15 minutes, which I have an unfortunate habit of doing on long flights.

The Immortalists tells the story of the four Gold children, who sneak out of their Lower East Side apartment one fateful day in 1969 to consult a psychic. It’s summertime, and the siblings are bored; little do they know that what she tells them will have reverberations down through the decades.

Each of the children meets with the psychic individually, and she reveals to each of them the date of their death. The reader only follows one child, Varya, into the room; she is told that she’ll die on Jan. 21, 2044, when she’s 88. When she emerges, her siblings, who have already spoken to the seer, seem badly shaken by what they’ve heard.

After this prologue, we follow each of the Golds, starting with Simon, the youngest. He moves with his sister Klara to San Francisco in the late 1970s. Simon is gay, and you probably don’t need to be psychic yourself to figure out his ultimate fate. Then we focus on Klara, a budding magician; Daniel, a doctor who determines whether or not young military recruits are fit to go to war; and finally Varya, a researcher who works with primates to try to unlock the secrets of the human lifespan.

I probably enjoyed Klara’s section the most, since I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes look at what’s involved in becoming a successful stage magician, but each of the four segments is unique and moving in its own way. The Immortalists is a triumph of both character and plot.

The Little Paris bookshop by Nina GeorgeWhile waiting for a connecting flight, I spotted a woman who was just starting to read The Little Paris Bookshop. I was half-tempted to dissuade her, but while it wasn’t my particular cup of tea—I found it overly sentimental, not to mention at least 50 pages too long—it’s a book other readers have obviously enjoyed. The Little Paris Bookshop made the New York Times bestseller list in 2015, and has been published around the world (the author is German, and the book was translated into English by Simon Pare.)

Bookseller Jean Perdu (the French word for “lost”—because he’s a lost soul!) sells his wares from a barge in the Seine. His specialty is matching people with their ideal book, “prescribing” certain volumes to his customers: “A book is both medic and medicine at once. It makes a diagnosis as well as offering therapy. Putting the right novels to the appropriate ailments: that’s how I sell books.” Naturally, the one person whose affliction Perdu cannot cure with a tome is… himself.

The 50-year-old bookseller has been miserable for 21 years, ever since his lover Manon left him. He even blocked the entrance to a room in his apartment, concealing it behind a bookshelf, because it was where he had spent time with her. When a new tenant with no furniture at all moves into his building, Perdu is persuaded to give her the wooden table from the hidden room. The table’s new owner discovers a letter hidden in a drawer—one sent by Manon after her departure, which Perdu had refused to open and then forgotten about. Of course, he finally does open it, and the contents of that 21-year-old missive change his life forever.

Manon was the kind of free spirit who rode horses naked (as someone who has ridden fully clothed, I can’t begin to imagine how painful that must be) and said things like, “Who knows, Jean, you and I might be made of the dust from one and the same star, and maybe we recognized each other by its light. We were searching for each other. We are star seekers.” Most of the characters in this book share her impetuous spirit; another woman we meet later on jumps into a canal during a raging storm because she wanted to know “if my fear would tell me something important.” In fact, everyone seems to make crazy spur-of-the-moment decisions that somehow work out beautifully.

I certainly hope that the woman I spotted at the airport is far less cynical than I, and that she decided it was her destiny at work when she chose The Little Paris Bookshop to take on her flight. Personally, if I’d been reading it on a plane, I’d probably have tossed it aside and chosen instead to solve the Sudoku puzzles in the airline magazine.

“The Child Finder” by Rene Denfeld

The Child Finder by Rene DenfeldEntertainment Weekly occasionally runs pie chart book reviews, and I’m tempted to draw my own chart for Rene Denfeld’s The Child Finder, comparing it to two other 2017 books: Karen Dionne’s The Marsh King’s Daughter and Peter Heller’s Celine. Since all three books were published last year, any similarities are purely coincidental. But like the title character in Celine, Denfeld’s Naomi is a uniquely gifted private investigator who only takes one kind of case: reuniting parents and children. And there’s a heavy fairy-tale element in the book, as there was in The Marsh King’s Daughter. In this case, instead of Hans Christian Andersen, we get the Russian story of The Snow Maiden.

Naomi was herself a lost child who escaped from an abusive situation (one she remembers very little about) and was raised by a loving foster mother. Now she devotes her life to finding missing kids, often solving cases that have stumped law enforcement agencies. In The Child Finder, she is asked to look into the case of Madison Culver, who disappeared three years ago at the age of five. Her parents had taken her to the Skookum National Forest in Oregon, planning to cut down a Christmas tree; in a moment of inattention, she vanished, and a snowstorm covered any tracks she may have made.

“No one could survive for long in the woods. Especially not a five-year-old girl dressed in a pink parka… Hope was a beautiful thing, Naomi thought, looking up through the silent trees, the clean, cold air filling her lungs. It was the most beautiful part of her work when it was rewarded with life. The worst when it brought only sorrow.”

The reader learns early on that Madison did survive—she was found by a deaf-mute trapper, Mr. B, who takes her to his remote cabin and keeps her there, imprisoned in a cellar secured by a locked trapdoor. Madison’s favorite fairy tale was The Snow Maiden, or as she knows it, The Snow Girl; she begins to believe that she had been “freshly created herself, rolled of snow and made of wishes.” Over the years, she gradually works to win the trust of Mr. B, and sometimes gets to sleep in his bed—yes, there is definitely child sexual abuse going on here, though it’s implied and not explicit.

With some help from a friendly park ranger, Naomi goes deep into the snowy mountains to search for Madison. But Mr. B catches a glimpse of her, and is willing to kill to keep his secrets.

This is a beautifully written but often disturbing book; it’s not long, yet I read it over the course of three evenings because the subject matter was so dark. There were times when I felt the relationship between Mr. B and Madison was depicted almost too romantically, but Denfeld herself is a survivor of childhood abuse and I trust that she wrote this story in the way she felt it needed to be told. She is, like her central character, a woman of powerful talents.

“The Woman in the Window” by A.J. Finn

The Woman in the WindowThere’s a great Twitter account called CrimeFictionTrope which satirizes trends in mystery publishing. Sample Tweets: “I can’t believe, after that whirlwind weekend courtship, that my husband is not who I thought he was.” “I applied to be a cop. But was disqualified because I’m not divorced with a teenage daughter I adore but rarely see.” “In my new thriller, a sexy heiress with amnesia almost struggles to escape a serial killer with amnesia. The title: THE GIRL WHO AM I.”

The anonymous writer behind CrimeFictionTrope has Tweeted quite a few times about The Woman in the Window, which seems to tick all of the post-Gone Girl suspense thriller boxes: A damaged, unreliable, alcoholic narrator! Rich white people in New York City! A mysterious trauma that you don’t learn the details of until 3/4 of the way through the book!

A.J. Finn, the nom de plume of William Morrow vice president Dan Mallory, obviously succeeded in his attempt at writing a highly commercial book, since it’s #1 on the New York Times hardcover list this week. (“There is no doubt worth in the kind of writing that only 12 people will appreciate, but I don’t consider that the best use of my time,” he told The Guardian.) I keep telling myself that I’m going to stop reading so many twisty thrillers, which are the literary equivalent of M&Ms, but I was stuck in bed with a cold and I desperately needed a fun, easy read. Suffice it to say that I finished The Woman in the Window in a single afternoon, but I’ll admit that CrimeFictionTrope lurked in the back of my mind the entire time.

Our Unreliable Narrator is Dr. Anna Fox, a child psychologist who has lived like a recluse in her four-story Harlem townhouse (real estate porn alert!) for the past year, due to her PTSD from the event that is fully explained… eventually. She’s on all sorts of psychiatric drugs, but she also drinks Merlot by the gallon. Her hobbies are playing chess online, watching black & white movies, and spying on her neighbors. In a nod to “Rear Window,” she believes she witnesses a murder—but of course no one takes her seriously.

“I shy and shrink from the light, and a woman is stabbed across the park, and no one notices, no one knows. Except me—me, swollen with booze, parted from her family… A freak to the neighbors. A joke to the cops… A shut-in. No hero. No sleuth.”

So much alcohol is consumed in this book that I started feeling a little woozy myself, and I was drinking nothing harder than herbal tea. If you’re looking for the midwinter equivalent of a beach book, or something to keep you occupied on a long flight or a sick day, The Woman in the Window is here for you; the calories are as empty as those in a bottle of wine, but it does go down smooth.

“If I Die Tonight” by Alison Gaylin

If I Die Tonight by Alison GaylinSmall-town gossip has been a popular subject in books for decades now—see Peyton Place for one notorious example—but today, social media means that everyone in town has instant access to word-of-mouth whispers. Alison Gaylin’s If I Die Tonight, which deals with the death of a teenager and the swirl of rumor and innuendo that follows in the wake of that tragedy, feels very of-the-moment; she makes it clear that it’s not just the kids who are on Facebook. The parents are there, too.

Liam Miller, a high school football star in the Hudson Valley town of Havenkill, NY, died a hero, according to the local grapevine: he was killed while trying to prevent a carjacking. Of course, if a story has a hero, it also needs a villain, and that role is filled by troubled teen Wade Reed. He fits the (admittedly vague) description of the assailant, and other bits of circumstantial evidence ensure that many people in Havenkill are determined to blame him for Liam’s death.

Wade’s mom, Jackie, is struggling to raise him along with his younger brother Connor, despite the fact that the boys’ father is no longer in the picture—her attorney ex-husband pays child support but is otherwise not involved in his sons’ lives, choosing to spend time with his new family, including his younger second wife. Jackie is a real estate agent, a business which requires her to maintain a squeaky-clean reputation locally; the accusations being hurled at Wade endanger her ability to make a living.

If I Die Tonight also features several secondary characters, including a has-been ’80s pop star named Aimee En (the carjack victim) and Havenkill police officer Pearl Maze. I must admit that I rolled my eyes a bit as Gaylin rolled out the details of Pearl’s tragic past, which has caused her to fall into a life of one-night stands with guys she meets on hook-up apps. Jackie just felt like a more realistic, well-rounded character, and her up-and-down relationship with her two adolescent sons felt very true-to-life.

I’d classify this book as a thriller, but it’s not as over-the-top twisty as other books in the genre. The trial-by-social-media aspect of If I Die Tonight seemed scarily plausible, and will no doubt resonate with anyone struggling to parent teens in today’s brave new world.

If I Die Tonight will be published in the U.S. on March 6 (it was released in the U.K. in August of last year). Thanks to Janet Rudolph of Mystery Readers International for the advance copy.

“The World of Tomorrow” by Brendan Mathews

The World of Tomorrow“The World’s Fair, in that summer of 1939, was a place full of promise,” writes Brendan Mathews in his debut novel, The World of Tomorrow. “It promised a world of frozen food and hot jazz, a world that would be better supplied and better organized in power, communications, transport, and amusement. Ribbons of highways would connect skyscraper cities where every citizen had a home in the clouds and a car on the road.”

That passage appears on page 514 of Tomorrow, and the preceding pages don’t really have much to do with the World’s Fair, which drew over 44 million visitors to Queens, N.Y., during its eighteen-month-long run. I had been hoping that this book would provide an exciting and dramatic saga set against the backdrop of the fair; instead, I got a so-so novel which climaxes at the event.

The main focus of the book is on three Irish brothers, one of whom emigrated to New York 10 years ago and two who join him there in June 1939. Martin is a semi-successful musician, married with children, still hoping to get his big break. Francis and Michael set sail from Ireland on the run from the I.R.A. with a bag of stolen loot, which is used to book first-class tickets; once aboard the ocean liner, Francis is no longer a small-time pornographer who busted out of jail by making an escape during his father’s funeral, he’s a Scottish laird named Sir Angus. Michael, a former seminarian rendered deaf and mute in an accident, is now Sir Malcolm, tragically injured while fox-hunting.

Little does Francis know that an encounter with a wealthy mother and daughter aboard the liner will force him to keep up the “Sir Angus” ruse once he disembarks in New York. Meanwhile, Michael is joined by a couple of companions: the ghost of William Butler Yeats, the recently-deceased Irish poet, and a very-much-alive young street photographer named Lilly, who helps Michael after he becomes separated from his brother.

Not surprisingly, stealing money from the I.R.A. manages to get Francis in hot water. Much of the book is devoted to Francis’ pursuit by yet another Irish immigrant; I was never as interested in that story as I was in the subplot about Lilly and Michael. Lilly is a European Jew who is supposed to return to Prague, where her boyfriend awaits, but the gathering storm clouds of World War II cause her to wonder if going home would be a wise move, considering the German occupation of Czechoslovakia.

There are a lot of characters in this book, but I never had a problem keeping track of them; I often got the sense that Mathews is more skilled at creating characters than in conjuring up a sense of place, since I often found myself wanting more of a flavor of 1939 New York. This is a wildly ambitious novel, but perhaps he’d be better off narrowing his focus a bit next time around.