“Manhattan Beach” by Jennifer Egan

Manhattan BeachJennifer Egan’s last novel, 2010’s Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit From the Goon Squad, was such an unabashedly postmodern work, with its shifting narratives and unconventional storytelling (one large chunk of the book takes the form of a PowerPoint presentation), that many readers no doubt wondered whether her follow-up would be even more experimental. Instead, Egan has written a historical novel set during World War II, which is more conventional but no less ambitious.

According to a New Yorker profile, Egan had been working on Manhattan Beach for 15 years before it was finally published. The book displays a prodigious amount of research, albeit the kind that is seamlessly integrated into the plot, and into Egan’s lyrical prose. Here, for example, is a paragraph describing protagonist Anna Kerrigan’s solitary walk through midtown Manhattan:

“She decided to head back home. Walking toward the IND on Sixth Avenue, she passed a flea circus, a chow-meinery, a sign advertising lectures on what killed Rudolph Valentino. Gradually she began to notice other solitary figures lingering in doorways and under awnings: people with no obvious place they needed to be. Through the plate-glass window of Grant’s at the corner of Sixth, she saw soldiers and sailors eating alone, even a girl or two. Anna watched them through the glass while, behind her, newspaper vendors bawled out the evening headlines: ‘Tripoli falls!’ ‘Russians gaining on Rostov!’ ‘Nazis say the Reich is threatened!’ To Anna, these sounded like captions to the solitary diners. The war had shaken people loose. These isolated people in Grant’s had been shaken loose. And now she, too, had been shaken loose. She sensed how easily she might slide into a cranny of the dimmed-out city and vanish. The possibility touched her physically, like the faint coaxing suction of an undertow. It frightened her, and she hurried toward the subway entrance.”

We first meet Anna at the age of 12 when she accompanies her father Eddie on a visit to the lavish seaside home of Dexter Styles, whose own pampered daughter has more toys than Anna could ever dream of. The need to provide for his younger daughter, severely disabled Lydia, ultimately drives Eddie to work for some dangerous men. A couple years later, Eddie disappears, leaving his wife to care for Lydia on her own.

At the age of 19, Anna goes to work in the Brooklyn Naval Yard, measuring and inspecting parts. Bored with her work, Anna dreams of becoming a diver, working underwater to repair ships. But that is not a job open to women. Anna decides to fight for the position, despite the dismissive attitude of the officer in charge of hiring divers. She also has a chance encounter with Dexter Styles, whom she remembers clearly from the day she visited his home, and wonders if he might possibly know what happened to her father.

We eventually learn much more about Styles and his background, and as his story begins to intersect with Anna’s, she is finally allowed to dive. While the individual pieces seem like they may be ones we’ve encountered before—mobsters, World War II, New York in the 1940s, grief, survival in the face of great odds—Egan’s skill is that she has combined them into a tale that is unique and beautifully told.


“The Death of Mrs. Westaway” by Ruth Ware

The Death of Mrs. WestawayRuth Ware’s fourth novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway, seems to draw a lot of its inspiration from Daphne DuMaurier’s Rebecca. There’s a Cornish mansion, a sinister housekeeper, secrets galore, and a young heroine who has no idea what lies ahead of her when she arrives at the stately home.

Hal (née Harriet) Westaway is dead broke—in fact, she’s in debt to a loan shark—when she receives a letter from an attorney informing her that her grandmother has died and Hal is a beneficiary of her will. This comes as something of a shock, since the parents of her late single mother Margarida Westaway, are both dead. Hal figures it has to be a mistake, but perhaps all she needs to do is show up for the funeral and reading of the will, and if she’s lucky, she’ll inherit enough money to make her problems go away. So she takes the train down to Penzance and finds herself at Trepassen House, a crumbling, ivy-covered estate. The housekeeper, Mrs. Warren, is decidedly unfriendly, putting Hal up in a freezing attic room with a barred window and locks on the outside of the door.

Eventually, Hal meets the late Mrs. Westaway’s offspring and their respective families, who don’t exactly give her a warm welcome either. Somehow, she needs to figure out a way to trick them all into believing that she is the daughter of their long-lost sister Maud, who disappeared without a trace many years ago, without seeming like so much of a threat that somebody will be tempted to kill her in order to keep all those secrets intact.

Hal is a clever and resourceful heroine and I found the book to be great fun, if a bit portentous at times. (“There was a sudden spatter of fresh rain against the glass, and she thought she heard—though perhaps it was her fancy—the far-off sound of waves against a shore. An image came into Hal’s mind—of rising waters, closing above all of their heads, while Mrs. Westaway laughed from beyond the grave…”) But for those of us who enjoy this gloriously Gothic type of novel, The Death of Mrs. Westaway offers solid summertime entertainment.

“The Female Persuasion” by Meg Wolitzer

The Female PersuasionI read a lot of books that are primarily plot-driven, but I read Meg Wolitzer’s books because they’re character-driven: she writes so brilliantly about people and what makes them tick. Her 2013 novel The Interestings followed a group of six teenagers who meet at a summer camp, taking them from youth to middle age. The main character in The Female Persuasion, Greer Kadetsky, is only in her early 30s when the book ends, but her mentor, feminist icon Faith Frank, is nearing 80, and the trajectory of Faith’s life may serve as a preview of the difficult choices, sacrifices and compromises which will eventually be faced by Greer.

Greer is a college freshman when a chance encounter with Faith changes the course of her life. After graduation, she goes to work for Faith’s new foundation, Loci, which is well-funded by a venture capitalist. Faith (and Greer) hope they can use the money to help struggling women around the world, but the people who hold the purse strings are more concerned with providing feel-good workshops to affluent Americans. (The descriptions of Loci’s leadership summits sounded like a cross between Oprah’s Super Soul Sessions and Gwyneth Paltrow’s In Goop Health festival.)

Along with Faith and Greer, Wolitzer also pays exquisite attention to the lives of Greer’s boyfriend Cody, her best friend Zee, and Emmett Shrader, the billionaire pumping money into Loci. But the heart of the book is the complicated relationship between Greer and Faith, which is inevitably somewhat one-sided given how famous and beloved Faith is. Looking at a box of gifts given to her over the years by fans, Emmett ponders: “All of these women had needed a connection with Faith. She was plasma to them. Maybe it was a mommy thing, he thought, but maybe it was also: I want to be you. There were so many of these women, just so many. But there was only one Faith.”

In the final chapter of The Female Persuasion, a character refers to “the big terribleness,” a time when “indignity after indignity had taken place, constant hammerstrikes against everything they cared about.” What a tonic it is to read a novel about two strong female characters, with all their flaws and faults, both working toward a world where women “could feel capable and safe and free.”

“Making Up” by Lucy Parker

Making UpMaking Up is the third book in Lucy Parker’s London Celebrities series, which is set in the world of West End theatre. The heroine of this novel, Trix, also appeared in book #2, Pretty Face, which starred her best friend Lily.

Trix is performing in a musical which also features quite a bit of stunt work and acrobatics (I imagined something akin to “Pippin”) when the female star of the show falls and is injured. As one of her understudies, Trix is asked to step in, at least temporarily. However, a bad relationship with a manipulative man who undermined her confidence has left Trix shaken, and she’s not sure she can adequately perform the more difficult role.

Then there’s the show’s new make-up artist, Leo—a former school classmate of Trix’s, and her one-time crush. Not only is he working with her, but he’s also moved into the house she shares with a few other theater people. Leo and Trix immediately clash, but not surprisingly, there’s some sexual tension as well. I knew that Leo was a good guy as soon as it was revealed that HE HAS A PET HEDGEHOG NAMED REGGIE. At that point I would have proposed to him on the spot.

I really appreciated the fact that the main driver of the story is not “will Leo and Trix ever stop fighting and fall in love?” but “will Trix get her self-confidence back?” I think a lot of Parker’s young female readers will learn some important lessons about not letting a romantic partner damage your self-worth and isolate you from your friends; Leo is very supportive of Trix, but it’s clear that this is her journey, and even a cute boyfriend with a pet hedgehog can’t fix all of her problems.

There’s actually more conflict in the book between Trix and Leo’s sister, Cat, who has just returned from a year in New York and is behaving like a brat. (Full disclosure: Leo was actually hedgehog-sitting Reggie for her while she was in the States, but obviously Cat can’t be reunited with her hedgie until she has worked on her own emotional issues.)

With Making Up, Parker has proven that she’s not just writing to a formula in her books, but creating fully-realized and relatable heroines.

“Need to Know” by Karen Cleveland

Need to KnowI received a free copy of Need to Know by Karen Cleveland in my CrimeFest book bag, and will admit that I was captivated by the clever design of the advance readers’ edition: if you bend the paperback in one direction, the page edges read HE’S YOUR HUSBAND; if you bend it the other way, the letters turn into HE’S A SPY. Cute gimmick, but would the book live up to the packaging?

Cleveland has crafted a twisty thriller about a CIA counterintelligence analyst named Vivian who learns very early on in the book that her husband of 10 years is a Russian spy. She confronts him immediately, and he confesses that instead of all-American Matt Miller, he’s actually Volgograd-born Alexander Lenkov. He courted and married her simply because he was following his Russian masters’ orders, but now, he swears that he really does love her—and their four young children, who complicate everything. Vivian realizes that turning in her husband would wreak havoc on her kids’ lives; her job is demanding and Matt does most of the child-rearing. Perhaps, she thinks, if she can unmask Matt’s handlers, he could escape their grasp, and they could return to a normal life. That is, if she can ever forgive him… or trust him.

Cleveland, a former CIA analyst herself, does a great job of getting into Vivian’s head and making readers experience her feelings of confusion, fear and fierce maternal love. The book is a quick read, and while I’m not a huge fan of spy thrillers, the domestic-suspense aspect was definitely in my wheelhouse. The ending may prove divisive—this would be a good book-club selection, since readers could debate whether they’d make the same decisions Vivian did in the same circumstances. And with all the talk of Russian interference into U.S. politics in the news, it’s certainly a timely novel.

“The Boy at the Door” by Alex Dahl

The Boy at the DoorI’m attending the CrimeFest conference this weekend, and while there are plenty of authors here with whom I’m already familiar—Lee Child, Simon Brett, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Peter James, etc.—I wanted to check out some of the new writers. Alex Dahl’s debut thriller is set in Norway, and I’m always interested in the latest in Scandinavian crime fiction. Unlike a lot of the Scandi-noir titles that make it to the U.S., this one isn’t a bestseller in its homeland that’s just been translated; Dahl was raised in Oslo but she’s half-American, so she wrote this book in English.

I’m on the record as being a fan of books with complicated, even frankly unlikable narrators, so I was immediately captivated by Cecilia Wilborg, who is… well, at best, a narcissist, and at worst, a sociopath. Cecilia lives in the town of Sandefjord, which she describes as “a wealthy town full of spoiled, bored wives.” She works as an interior decorator, and the money she earns helps keep her in cashmere Missoni throws and designer dresses. Her husband is a successful businessman, and they have two beautiful daughters.

“All I ever wanted was a normal family, the kind of family others may look to for inspiration. Does that make me bad?” muses Cecilia. “I’ve worked hard at being the perfect wife and the perfect mother.”

When something comes along to threaten that perfection, Cecilia is forced to make some difficult decisions. A small, olive-skinned boy named Tobias is found alone at the local swimming center, and Cecilia, who is there with her own children, is persuaded to take him in for a few days while the authorities search for his parents. She is furious at the inconvenience, but relents. Soon, she discovers that Tobias has a connection to a drug user named Anni—a woman who knows some shocking secrets that Cecilia has tried very hard to hide.

Dahl is wise enough to realize that a whole book of self-absorbed Cecilia would be rather hard to take, so the author intersperses chapters told from Cecilia’s point of view with Tobias’s backstory and excerpts from Anni’s diaries and letters. As Cecilia’s carefully constructed web of lies begins to fall apart, the question becomes whether she’ll be able to outrun her past, or if her misdeeds will finally be exposed.

The Boy at the Door is a genuine page-turner, a fascinating psychological study and a must-read for people who can’t resist twisty thrillers with unreliable narrators. It’s already available as an ebook from the U.K. publisher Head of Zeus; it’ll be out in the U.S. in July.

“The Glitch” by Elisabeth Cohen

The GlitchSince I have lived in Northern California long enough to have experienced both tech booms, I was immediately interested when I heard about The Glitch, a comic novel set against the backdrop of our local industry. Shelley Stone is one of the few high-powered female CEOs in Silicon Valley; her company, Conch, produces a wearable device that’s sort of like a more-advanced Siri who’s always in your ear. (The Conch provides advice, like “Avoid blood clots and increase productivity by taking a moment to stand and stretch,” along with giving directions and information.)

Shelley believes in her product, but more than anything, she believes in herself. Incredibly driven, Shelley lives a regimented life centered around work (“I manage myself, my actions, my thoughts, my goals, my calories ingested and expended, mood, work deliverables, and long-range planning with an intensity and accountability that I know most people could not handle”), but she does have a husband and two children (their maid speaks Mandarin to the toddlers “so they’ll have perfect tones”).

In the first chapter, the family is visiting Cap Ferrat, France, when 4-year-old Nova disappears. Both Shelley and her husband are on business calls, which they try to continue as they frantically search for their daughter. I thought at that point that the book was going to be about a type A personality who comes to realize the importance of family, but The Glitch is a lot wilder and weirder than that; Nova is found relatively quickly, though the search for her brings Shelley into contact with a mysterious man who figures into the plot later on.

Shelley went from a normal Wisconsin teen to a hyper-ambitious striver after she was struck by lightning shortly before her 20th birthday. Now rising at 3:30 AM (“such a great time to answer email while doing some high-intensity interval training”), she often comes across as the human embodiment of a TED Talk. Elisabeth Cohen must have spent months reading books and listening to speeches given by Silicon Valley thought leaders in order to write using such fluent business-buzzword-speak: “I tried to do some strategic blue-sky thinking, focusing on our Conch mottoes and corporate touchstones: ship and iterate. Moonshot thinking. Fail better.”

On the one hand, Shelley is obviously a deeply unlikable person with seriously screwed-up priorities (“having a family [is] part of my brand”). But on the other, there are so few women leaders in Silicon Valley (or in Fortune 500 boardrooms in general) that when things start going wrong, I will admit I was rooting for her to succeed. The Glitch takes some odd turns into magical realism, then sort of undercuts them with prosaic and sometimes-unconvincing explanations. But on the whole, this is a book I had fun reading, and it’s one I would put in a time capsule so people 50 or 100 years from now can understand what it was like in Silicon Valley circa 2018. By then, maybe everyone will be wearing Conches, or perhaps a similar technology will just be implanted directly into our brains.

The Glitch will be published on May 22. Thanks to Doubleday for the advance copy (via NetGalley).