“An Unexplained Death: The True Story of a Body at the Belvedere” by Mikita Brottman

“For as long as I can remember, certain kinds of mysteries have enthralled me, especially those that contain an element of the uncanny—an odd coincidence; a mysterious stranger whose presence can’t be explained; an element of missing time; a prophetic dream the night before. To me, these wonders are dropped stitches in the universe, windows left uncovered for a moment, permitting us a quick glimpse into the unknowable.”

So writes Mikita Brottman in this fascinating chronicle of her growing obsession with a death that took place in the building she calls home, the Belvedere in Baltimore. A former hotel, which opened for business in 1903, the Belvedere was converted to condos in the early 1990s. By the time Brottman moved in, it was a place of “shabby grandeur,” with worn carpeting in the hallways and elevators that regularly broke down.

About a year after taking up residence in the downtown landmark, Brottman notices “Missing” posters posted around the neighborhood. Rey O. Rivera, age 32, 6’5″, brown hair, brown eyes. Eight days after his initial disappearance, Rivera’s body is found at the Belvedere, inside an empty room that used to house the building’s swimming pool back in its hotel days. He had apparently leapt off the top of the Belvedere and plunged through the roof of the annex, where his body had lain undiscovered for over a week. Out walking her dog, Brottman sees police swarming the building; later, from her apartment window, she has “an almost perfect view of cops climbing around on the annex roof,” and she even visits the room after everyone has left: “the carpet is stained almost black and scattered with what look like grains of rice, which, when I get down on the floor to study them more closely, turn out to be dried insect larvae.”

An Unexplained Death chronicles Brottman’s effort to find out what happened to Rivera. Was it suicide, or murder? Rivera had been working for a company called Agora that many of the people she talks to seem to consider somewhat sinister. He and his wife had been planning to move to California and everything seemed to be going well for them, so why would he kill himself? Brottman also reports on the many suicides and deaths that have taken place at the Belvedere over the years, along with the riddle of suicide itself. (This is the kind of book which matter-of-factly serves up sentences like, “Full urban mummification is not as common as you might think.”) You have to be willing to follow Brottman through her digressions, as this is not a linear true-crime tale. She even turns her gaze toward herself, and her lifelong conviction that she’s somehow invisible, forgettable.

I thoroughly enjoyed the twists and turns of her amateur investigation, and while anybody hoping that she will somehow come up with a definitive solution to the mystery may be left disappointed, I found the conclusions she does reach at the book’s end to be well-reasoned and utterly plausible. “What makes a death mysterious?” she muses. “What happened to Rey Rivera transpires every day. People die alone; their bodies are undiscovered for days. It happens everywhere… Nobody feels compelled to solve the puzzle.” Readers can feel lucky that Brottman took a crack at this one.

“One Day in December” by Josie Silver

One Day in DecemberBefore I started reading One Day in December, I scanned the blurbs on the back cover, including this one by author Hannah Orenstein: “I devoured this delicious novel in one sitting.” Noting that One Day in December is 400 pages long, I scoffed at the idea of reading it in one go, assuming I would finish it in 3-4 days.

Instead, I found myself turning the final page at about 1:45 AM, long past my usual bedtime, grateful that I’d at least started it on a weekend night.

The novel covers 10 years in the life of a Londoner named Laurie, beginning on a fateful December day in 2008. Laurie is riding the bus and looking out the window when she spots the man of her dreams waiting at a stop. Their eyes meet, “as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together.” But he’s waiting for a different bus, and Laurie is hemmed in by a crowd of passengers, so she can only sit there helplessly as the bus pulls away.

At this point, I wondered if they have “Missed Connections” ads in London, but I guess not, since Laurie spends months searching for “Bus Boy,” to no avail. Helping her out is her best friend and roomie Sarah, a gorgeous aspiring TV presenter. Sadly, a year passes, and Laurie never manages to find her mystery man. Then Sarah introduces her new boyfriend to Laurie and… you definitely see where this is going, right?

The premise is pure rom-com, but Silver kept me turning the pages because the characters were so appealing: you get to see them grow from kids fresh out of university into adulthood, making mistakes and figuring things out along the way. When Laurie realizes that her pal’s new love, Jack, is Bus Boy, she immediately decides not to tell Sarah that he is the guy she’s been mooning over all year long. Jack doesn’t say anything, either (Laurie can’t be sure that he even recognizes her).

The main reason Laurie doesn’t want to spill the beans to Sarah is because she doesn’t want to risk jeopardizing her friend’s happiness. The relationship between the two women is, refreshingly, depicted as just as important, if not more important, than any of the romantic entanglements in the book. Laurie’s family is also a crucial part of her world. By the end, Laurie, Jack and Sarah all felt like old friends.

“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.