“The Suspect” by Fiona Barton

The Suspect by Fiona BartonIt’s every parent’s worst nightmare: their teenager is thousands of miles away, and unreachable. Her Facebook and Instagram are no longer being updated; she’s not answering her phone.

This is the terrifying situation faced by two mothers in The Suspect, Fiona Barton’s third novel featuring journalist Kate Waters. (I reviewed the first book in the series, The Widow, a couple of years ago.) Lesley O’Connor’s 18-year-old daughter Alexandra traveled to Bangkok, Thailand, with her friend Rosie Shaw, promising to phone home on the day her eagerly-awaited A-Level results came out. When the day passes with no word from Alex, Lesley reports her missing.

The disappearance soon becomes national news, which brings Kate into the story. Her son, Jake, is also in Thailand, living in Phuket. While he’s older than the girls, it’s concerning to Kate that he’s not been in more frequent touch: “There’ve been three e-mails, but our eldest son told us early on that he wouldn’t be contactable by phone. Said he was freeing himself of all the stress that constant calls would bring.”

Kate follows the story to Thailand, hoping to perhaps pick up some clues to exactly what Jake’s been up to while she’s investigating the girls’ disappearance. In a flashback, we learn early on in the book that level-headed Alexandra and free-spirited Rosie were at odds even before their plane touched down in Bangkok (“Rosie had had three glasses of wine with her hideous airline meal—’The chicken or the pasta?’—and Alex had warned her she’d get dehydrated. Her friend had rolled her eyes and made a big show of flirting with the man in the next seat before falling asleep and snoring gently.”). Alex had been hoping to see the sights, while Rosie’s main interests included partying and boys.

The Widow was fairly bleak, dealing with some pretty unsavory themes, and The Suspect isn’t exactly a feel-good novel either. (Any parent whose kid is angling for a gap year in Thailand will probably refuse to let them go near the place without a sober coach and an armed escort in tow after they’ve read this book.) Barton, a former journalist and editor at major U.K. newspapers, writes with authenticity about how Kate must insinuate herself into the mothers’ lives in order to scoop her rivals. The story is told from multiple points of view (including the police), but I always looked forward to returning to Kate’s first-person chapters, since her straightforward, authoritative yet compassionate voice is the best thing about this series.

The Suspect will be published on Jan. 22, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One” by Raphaëlle Giordano

Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have OneIt’s the beginning of a new year, which means many people will be picking up self-help books. I was curious about Your Second Life Begins When You Realize You Only Have One because it is, as far as I know, the only book of its kind: self-help fiction. YSLB tells the story of a Parisian woman named Camille who changes her life with the help of Claude, a “routinologist.”

After they meet by chance, Claude describes the nature of his work to the harried, stressed-out Camille. “You’re probably suffering from a kind of acute routinitis,” he tells her. “The symptoms are almost always the same: a lack of motivation; chronic dissatisfaction; feeling you’ve lost your bearings and everything meaningful in life; finding it hard to feel happy even though you have more than enough material goods; disenchantment; world-weariness… Unfortunately, developing our capacity for being happy isn’t something we’re taught at school. Yet there are techniques you can learn.”

After mulling it over for a few days, Camille decides to call Claude and schedule an appointment, hoping to learn how to escape the rut of her long marriage and sometimes-fraught relationship with her 9-year-old son, and her exhausting job. The “routinologist” begins presenting her with tasks, from the straightforward (“throw away at least ten useless objects and… tidy up, sort out and refresh your surroundings”) to the fanciful (taking her on a long car ride to meet a great teacher who turns out to be… a cat: “There’s no one like him for being peaceful and calm, completely anchored in the here and now”). Over time, her life begins to change for the better in practically every way, including her love life with her husband Sebastien (“A warm wind blew on our love, reviving embers that seemed only too willing to burst into flame”).

My biggest beef with YSLB is that it’s just not very good as a novel. It’s full of anodyne aphorisms (“Today is a gift. That’s why it’s called the present” and “Come down from your cross, we need the wood”), and a lot of Claude’s advice seems torn from the pages of other self-help books, like suggesting she implement SMART goals—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely. This made me curious to learn what SMART goals were called in the original French version. It turns out they’re… called SMART goals (Spécifique, Mesurable, Atteignable, Réaliste, Temps), which seems like a lucky break for the translator.

As someone who has often struggled with routinitis, I think the real benefit that Claude is selling is accountability. It’s easy to say you’re going to start doing things to break out of your rut, but wouldn’t you rather have a charming older Frenchman at your side to encourage you and take you on adventures? (The cat thing might have been a bit of an anticlimax, but he also arranges for Camille to go up in a hot-air balloon so she can toss overboard paper airplanes with negative thoughts written on them.)

YSLB has been a worldwide phenomenon, with millions of copies sold, so obviously a lot of people have found it inspirational. Personally, it made me think that a really great way to break out of my own routine would be to go to Paris and sit at a sidewalk café sipping an espresso while reading a more enjoyable novel than this one.

2018: The Year in Reading

This is what typically shows up in my site’s search logs

As I write this on Dec. 28, I’ve finished 97 books. I’ve currently got two in progress, so who knows—I may make it to 100. I reviewed 62 of them. The most popular post by far was my review of Amy Bloom’s White Houses, a fictional retelling of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok. This is because a lot of people have used Google to try to figure out if Roosevelt cousin Parker Fiske, a character in the book, was a real person. He was not. That’s why my review comes up when you search for his name and not a Wikipedia page. The second-most popular post: The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz, primarily for the mention of Damian Cowper, an actor who appeared in a couple of “Harry Potter” films. Guess what: he’s fake, too! To boost my readership in 2019, I think I’ll only review novels featuring invented characters who interact with real-life people.

My review of three books about the Swedish concept of lagom did really well, which I’m happy about, as I feel I was pretty qualified to write about that.

The least-popular post: The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware. Oh well. However, I’m a bit sad that this particular review didn’t get a larger readership, considering that I probably spent more time on it than anything I’ve ever written for this site. I read the same book twice, in two different languages!

My favorite books that I reviewed during the past year: The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin was a masterpiece. I don’t read a lot of true crime, but I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara was tremendously compelling (even though I couldn’t get up the courage to read it until after the Golden State Killer was actually caught). Brad Parks’ Closer Than You Know was the best thriller I read in 2018 (and I read a bunch). Marcia Muller’s The Breakers was a joyous return to form from an author I’ve been reading for years. I predict that Lou Berney’s November Road is going to win all the mystery awards next year, and deservedly so. But perhaps the moment of greatest book-related happiness I experienced in the past 12 months was finding out that my beloved Stewart “Hoagy” Hoag was back, and I got to revel in two brand-new David Handler mysteries.

Ordinarily, I would never mention the worst book I read in 2018, because I try to keep it positive in this year-end sum-up, but the author’s dead, so what the heck: A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill, which I read for my book group (and didn’t review). I’ve enjoyed other Hill novels, but this one (published in 1970) belongs in a time capsule—preferably one buried so deeply underground that it’ll never be found.

If you’re looking for more recommendations, check out Barack Obama’s reading list, and try to remember what it was like to have a president who actually read books. (His best songs list made me wonder if he’s ever heard Mitski—I think you’d enjoy her, Mr. President!—and his best movies had me dying to know if he caught “Sorry to Bother You.”) And here is a quote from the former Reader-In-Chief:

“At the moment that we persuade a child, any child, to cross that threshold, that magic threshold into a library, we change their lives forever, for the better. It’s an enormous force for good.”

“Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty

Nine Perfect StrangersOne of the “nine perfect strangers” in Liane Moriarty’s new book happens to be a once-bestselling author whose career has fallen on hard times. Frances Welty’s latest book was rejected by her publisher, and perhaps even worse than that, a critic wrote a much-read opinion piece calling her novels “formulaic” and “trite.” Frances finds herself obsessing over it, which made me wonder if Moriarty was working out some of her own issues with negative reviews.

In any case, I found Nine Perfect Strangers to be anything but formulaic and trite, and it kept me awake an hour past my bedtime because I simply had to finish reading it. This is a very entertaining novel, although it’s one that goes off in some rather unexpected directions, so I’ll try to avoid spoiling too much of the plot.

Frances, along with eight other people—a newly-rich couple, an ex-athlete, a couple and their 20-year-old daughter, a woman whose husband has just left her, and a handsome lawyer—have all checked in to Tranquillum House for 10 days of wellness. The resort, in an isolated locale six hours northwest of Sydney, promises to transform its guests through “fasting, meditation, yoga, creative ’emotional-release exercises.”

“Like so many things in life, it had seemed like an excellent idea at the time,” muses Frances. What awaits her at Tranquillum House is a transformative experience, all right—but one that neither she nor any of her eight compatriots could ever have anticipated when they first drove through the gates. Rest and relaxation are definitely not on the menu.

The book has a lot of fun sending up the obsession with self-improvement, but it also tackles some very serious themes, and does so sensitively (as was also the case with Moriarty’s Big Little Lies, which dealt with domestic violence). Nine Perfect Strangers goes down as easily as a mango smoothie.

“The Knowledge” by Martha Grimes

The KnowledgeEvery time I have visited London, I’ve been struck by how vast it is. When I was there last May, I took a walking tour and was amazed at how the guide took us down odd side streets that I would never even have noticed had I been wandering around on my own.

If you want to drive one of the classic London black cabs, you have to acquire The Knowledge—learning all of the city’s 25,000 streets by memory, and having to pass rigorous oral exams, which involve reciting from memory the fastest route from any given point in town to another.

The idea of a mystery novel centered around The Knowledge struck me as a great idea, and it had been a few years since I’d last read anything by Martha Grimes. But The Knowledge, in which a cab driver witnesses a murder in the book’s opening pages, actually has fairly little to do with taxis or drivers. Much of the action takes place in Kenya, and involves a 10-year-old girl, an orphan who survives by her wits. It’s quite an odd book.

Grimes’ long-running series character Detective Superintendent Richard Jury is on the case of who killed a glamorous couple in front of one of London’s most exclusive clubs, a casino/art gallery. Unbeknownst to Jury, little Patty Haigh has managed to follow the suspect from London to Nairobi. (Yes, this part of the story requires some suspension of disbelief.) Armed with a mobile phone, different-colored wigs and a selection of fake IDs, she’s akin to a 21st-century version of one of Sherlock Holmes’ Baker Street Irregulars. Meanwhile, back in London, Jury is trying to figure out a possible connection between the murders and a rare-gem smuggling scheme.

There are some wryly funny moments in this book, which has a plot that sometimes seems as convoluted as a route from Islington to Isleworth, many of them involving a pub called The Knowledge “that only London’s black cab drivers could patronize… [it] would be otherwise unlocatable: untraceable, unfindable, unmappable.” The Knowledge itself didn’t prove to be a totally satisfying novel, but I’d love to read more about that fictional pub and the cabbies that hang out there.

“The Red Address Book” by Sofia Lundberg

The Red Address BookWhen I was a child, I remember driving past the local cemetery with my grandmother and she’d often make a comment along the lines of, “I have so many friends in there.” At the time, it struck me as a terribly morbid thing to say, but now that I’m older and have lost some people who meant a great deal to me, I understand. My grandmother joined her friends a few years ago, so I can never tell her that I now know how she felt.

Doris, the protagonist of Sofia Lundberg’s The Red Address Book, is 96 years old, and was inspired by a real person: Lundberg’s great-aunt Doris, whose address book she discovered after her aunt had passed away. “She had crossed most of her friends’ names out and had written the word ‘dead’ next to them,” recalled Lundberg in an interview published on her book’s Amazon page. “It broke my heart to realize how lonely she must have felt. Her death was very painful for me, as we were so close. I couldn’t stop thinking about it.”

The fictional Doris is paging through the address book she received as a tenth-birthday gift. The crossed-out names inspire her to write down her recollections for her great-niece Jenny, who lives in California with her husband and three children, half a world away from Doris’ Stockholm apartment. Doris’ father died when she was a young girl, and at the age of 13, her mother sent her off to work as a servant in the home of a wealthy woman. After a year, her employer, Dominique, moves to Paris, bringing Doris along with her. But that is only the beginning of Doris’ adventures, which will eventually lead her back to Stockholm.

There was a lot in this book that hit me pretty hard—I am sure that The Red Address Book may strike many readers as too sentimental by half, but as for me, I was reading it in the waiting area of a Toyota dealership as my car was being worked on, and at one point I had to get up and go outside because I felt self-conscious about the tears in my eyes. It’s an international sensation, published in over 30 countries so far, and I can see why, as it deals with universal topics like life, love and loneliness. Doris’ life story kept me captivated from start to finish, and I suspect many American readers will embrace this book once it is published here next month.

The Red Address Book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“An Anonymous Girl” by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen

An Anonymous GirlWhen I was in my 20s, I would frequently make a little extra cash by participating in studies and focus groups. All you have to do is spend an hour or two answering a few questions, and you walk away with a nice wad of cash. I never thought twice about it—but I guarantee that anyone who reads An Anonymous Girl will never approach a psychological study quite so cavalierly.

Jessica Farris wasn’t even supposed to be participating in Dr. Shields’ research into “ethics and morality.” A freelance makeup artist living in Manhattan, and thus perpetually in need of extra cash, Jessica learns about the study from one of her clients, who states her intention to blow it off, not wanting to show up at 8 AM on a Sunday morning: “I’m not going to set an alarm to go to some dumb questionnaire.” Once she finds out that it pays $500, Jessica decides to go in her place. A bit ironic for a study of morality, perhaps, but she’s got rent to pay.

Before long, Jessica has become the mysterious Dr. Shields’ favorite subject, and the research takes a strange turn—but the amount she’s being paid increases as well, and with her father out of a job and her disabled sister in need of expensive care, she finds she’s caught up in a situation that is quickly spinning out of her control.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen wrote one of my favorite thrillers of 2018, the bonkers-but-entertaining The Wife Between Us, and I expected An Anonymous Girl would be another crazy thrill ride of twists upon twists. Much to their credit, the authors have produced a work of more straightforward psychological suspense that does have plenty of surprises, but their priority here is to tell a solid story, not just to keep tricking the reader with misdirection.

An Anonymous Girl will be published on Jan. 8, 2019. Thanks to St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy (via NetGalley).