“Under a Dark Sky” by Lori Rader-Day

Under A Dark SkyIf you were to ask me to describe my ideal reading environment, I might picture a rainy Sunday afternoon, a mug of tea and a comfy couch. Or perhaps a deck chair next to a pool. Even a long flight, provided turbulence and screaming infants were kept to a minimum.

The opposite of those scenarios involves me spending all day trying fruitlessly to catch up on my never-ending workload, followed by a few hours moving and sorting boxes as I try to clear out a relative’s multiple storage units. At the end of the day, I collapse into bed, pick up a book, and feel my eyelids starting to droop almost immediately. That’s why it took me two weeks to finish Lori Rader-Day’s Under A Dark Sky, and the reason I suspect I can’t quite give this novel a fair shake. It’s almost 400 pages long, and it felt long, but is that just because I was reading it in such small increments, when I wasn’t at my best?

The book has a fascinating premise: Eden Wallace, a young widow from Chicago, arrives at a dark sky park (an area with no artificial lighting, allowing visitors to observe the night sky free from light pollution) in northern Michigan on what would have been her 10th anniversary. After her husband was killed in an accident, Eden developed a paralyzing fear of the dark. But she also came across some papers indicating that he’d been planning to take her to the park as an anniversary surprise. Sure, it seems like a terrible idea (sort of like someone who has an incapacitating tulip phobia deciding to visit Amsterdam in the spring), but she decides to go anyway, bringing along some high-wattage lightbulbs to help keep her room nice and bright.

She immediately discovers, to her dismay, that her husband had only rented one room in the park’s guest house, not the entire thing, so she’s going to be sharing the facilities with six annoying millennials who are having a reunion four years after they graduated from college. (Five, actually—the sixth woman is the new girlfriend of one of the alums.) Eden decides she has no interest in crashing their party, and plans to head home the next day. But when one of her fellow guests is murdered, she is forced to stick around until the culprit is found.

Rader-Day writes beautifully about grief and fear, but I feel like the novel could have been a little tighter and the killer’s motive a little clearer. Still, Under A Dark Sky did make me want to visit a dark sky preserve someday. The one in the book is based on the real-life Headlands Park in Mackinaw City, MI, and yes, it has a guest house, though anyone who reads this book will no doubt think twice before agreeing to share it with a group of strangers.

“Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune” by Roselle Lim

Natalie Tan's Book of Love and FortuneIn the world of Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune, a flock of ceramic bird figurines bursts into song; harsh words draw real blood; and tears crystallize, forming glittering piles, proving that “there was beauty to be found everywhere—even in sadness.” There’s more than a little magic in the San Francisco Chinatown setting of Roselle Lim’s novel. (As someone who lives in the area, perhaps the only thing that I totally couldn’t buy was the delicious smell of dumplings carrying all the way from Chinatown to the Mission; I only wish SOMA and the Tenderloin smelled that good.)

Natalie has been estranged from her agoraphobic mother for seven years, traveling the world and trying to pursue her dream of becoming a chef. Her mother had refused to support that dream, leading to their split. Natalie returns to Chinatown after her mother’s death—oddly, she died right after stepping outside for the first time in ages, and none of her friends and neighbors know why she finally chose to leave her apartment.

One of the things Natalie inherits is her laolao’s (grandmother) book of recipes, which seem to have mystical properties. Natalie wonders if she can bring the fractured, decaying neighborhood together again with her food, perhaps even opening the long-abandoned, decrepit restaurant where her laolao once cooked.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune has a wonderfully vivid Chinatown setting and lots of descriptions of food that will surely make your mouth water. I did find some of the plot twists a little too convenient (for instance, the discovery of her mother’s journals which pretty much answer every question Natalie had ever had), but overall, this is a fresh and fanciful novel, as long as you have an appetite for a few spoonfuls of magical realism.

Natalie Tan’s Book of Luck and Fortune will be published on June 11, 2019. Thanks to Berkley Books for the advance copy (via NetGalley).

“Good Riddance” by Elinor Lipman

Good RiddanceMarie Kondo’s blockbuster The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up has inspired millions of people to declutter their homes. And now Kondo has also inspired a novel: Good Riddance, which kicks into gear when Daphne Maritch decides that an old yearbook she inherited from her mother doesn’t “spark joy,” so she discards it in her apartment building’s recycling bin.

Who could possibly want a copy of 1968’s The Monadnockian, documenting the high school lives of a bunch of small-town New Hampshire students now approaching their 70s? Not Daphne, who has just moved into a tiny Manhattan apartment following her divorce. Her neighbor Geneva, however, discovers the book, as well as the copious and often snarky notes Daphne’s mom made over the decades about the students she taught (she faithfully attended each of the reunions held by the class of 1968): “Who’s fifty pounds heavier, who’s a failure, who’s wearing the same dress she wore at the last reunion?”

Geneva decides that the yearbook would be great fodder for a documentary film, and heads to New Hampshire to attend the class’s 50-year reunion, with a reluctant Daphne in tow. Geneva’s only previous credit is a doc about the last matzo factory in Brooklyn, so Daphne figures the odds of her actually financing and completing the film are slim. However, the contents of the yearbook cause long-buried secrets to come to light, wreaking havoc in Daphne’s already-precarious life.

Like much of Lipman’s oeuvre, Good Riddance is a light, fluffy, modern comedy of manners. (The fact that Geneva, unable to get her documentary off the ground, decides to turn her project into a podcast instead is a delightful touch.) However, Daphne often seemed a tad immature for a woman in her early 30s, and her romance with another neighbor, an actor named Jeremy who is several years her junior, kept annoying me for a rather petty reason: he is supposedly an actor on the hit TV show “Riverdale.” Now, I’ve never watched a single episode of “Riverdale,” but I have read enough about it to know that it films in Vancouver, B.C., and not New York. Why was Jeremy always at home and never jetting off to Western Canada?

In an afterword, Lipman acknowledges, “I do know that the TV series ‘Riverdale’ is not filmed in New York. I took liberties with the cast, plot, and location for narrative convenience.” By that point, the book’s general amiability had had its effect on me; you can’t stay mad at a book that tries this hard to please.

“Past Tense” by Lee Child

Past TenseAfter reading 2015’s truly disturbing Make Me, I kind of swore off Lee Child for a while, as it struck me as more horror than thriller. But then I saw Past Tense on the new-books shelf at the library, and decided to give it a whirl.

Like Make Me, Past Tense has Jack Reacher impulsively stopping in a small town, in this case Laconia, New Hampshire. “A name Reacher knew. He had seen it on all kinds of historic family paperwork, and he had heard it mentioned from time to time. It was his late father’s place of birth, and where he was raised, until he escaped at age seventeen to join the Marines… But he never went back.”

At this point, anyone who’s read a Jack Reacher novel (this is #24 in the series) knows that small towns in Lee Child novels are always places where bad, bad things are going on, and Reacher will wind up having to save the day, kicking lots of ass in the process. In Past Tense, we get a parallel story about a young Canadian couple on their way to New York with a mysterious suitcase. Their car breaks down near a motel a few miles outside of Laconia. But it’s not a Motel 6, and they’re not going to leave the light on for you.

It’s clear that the Reacher-in-Laconia storyline and one with the Canadians stuck at the creepiest lodging since the Bates Motel are eventually going to intersect. Pleasantly, the Canadians, especially the female, are resourceful, and not sitting ducks for whatever the sinister innkeepers have in store for them.

Getting a glimpse into Reacher’s past is always interesting, and the book subverts expectations a bit by not having him have a fling with the female cop in Laconia; the Canadian woman, Patty, fills the traditional “strong woman” role in this book. (One of the reasons Child has so many female fans is undoubtedly because women are portrayed as powerful in their own right, even if they don’t possess hands the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.) This is an enjoyable read that delivers everything Reacher fans have come to expect when they pick up a Lee Child novel, with just the right amount of suspense and action.

“Daisy Jones & The Six” by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Daisy Jones & The SixI was having a very bad week, so the publication date of Daisy Jones & The Six came along at precisely the right time. I needed an escape, and this book delivered. My only wish is that it could have gone on for another 50 or 100 pages.

Taylor Jenkins Reid is the author of The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, one of my favorite books of 2017. In that novel, Reid constructed an alternate history of the movie business around her fictional characters; here, she does the same for the music industry of the 1970s. Daisy Jones is a charismatic Hollywood wild child who joins forces with a Pittsburgh rock band called The Six, not entirely dissimilar to the way Stevie Nicks became a member of Fleetwood Mac after they’d already released a few LPs. The powerhouse duo of Jones and The Six frontman Billy Dunne takes the band to new levels of superstardom; then, in 1979, they abruptly called it quits. This book—which takes the form of an oral history—tells the story of their rise to fame and why they broke up at the height of their success.

The oral history format is interesting and unusual (I don’t think I’ve ever read another novel that exclusively uses this type of conversational style), allowing us to get sometimes-differing perspectives of the same events. Sex, drugs, rock and roll—it’s all here, and depicted so convincingly that I had to remind myself that I couldn’t actually log into a music app and listen to Daisy & The Six’s hit album Aurora.

The only thing I didn’t entirely buy is that in the final pages, where we find out what everyone’s been up to since 1979, there’s no mention of any manager or promoter trying to reunite The Six. They were huge—surely somebody would have backed up a truck full of money to try to get the band back together one more time? A group that leaves the scene at the peak moment of fame and never tries to cash in on their glory days in the decades to come… well, I guess there’s a reason this book is a work of fiction.

“The Incomplete Book of Running” by Peter Sagal

The Incomplete Book of RunningI used to be a runner. I am very proud of the fact that I trained for and completed a half-marathon, along with a variety of shorter races, including San Francisco’s iconic Bay to Breakers (which attracts a mixture of serious runners and elderly nude men, people dressed in gorilla suits, and day drunks).

However, one day I just decided that I didn’t want to run anymore, and that was that. I still try to walk at least four miles per day, but I fully realize that’s not real exercise. (A big part of what I didn’t like about running was that I had to change clothes in order to do it, while even brisk walking seldom makes me break a sweat, especially in the chilly climes of the Bay Area.)

So I’m not exactly the target audience for a running memoir. As a longtime fan of NPR’s quiz show “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me,” however, I couldn’t resist picking up host Peter Sagal’s book, which is also a bittersweet meditation on aging and loss. His daily runs helped Sagal escape from his deteriorating marriage; at one point, he accepts an out-of-town speaking engagement, writing that “My absence was wished for so often and so vividly by my wife that the relief of giving in and leaving was greater than the satisfaction of defying her and staying… In the declining years of my marriage, as our fights became more constant, and more frustrating, my runs became the place where I could say the things I was either too weak or wisely cautious to say out loud, condemnations and defenses that were never contradicted or interrupted because I was saying them into the air.”

Sagal volunteers for an organization called Team With a Vision, which pairs sighted runners with blind ones, and travels to Boston in 2013 in order to run the marathon with a man named William Greer. Hoping to set a personal record, Greer instead finds himself beset by cramps a few miles from the finish line. He tells Sagal that he’s going to have to walk the last mile, but instead, he breaks into a sprint, and the two of them are only a hundred yards away from the finish line when they suddenly hear an explosion. If William Greer hadn’t managed to find his second wind, he and Sagal could well have been injured or killed in the Boston marathon bombing.

That dramatic account, plus the heartbreaking misery of his divorce and strained relationship with his children, may make you wonder if this is really the same Peter Sagal who brings laughter to public radio audiences every weekend. And indeed, I wouldn’t exactly call this book a laugh riot, though there are some poop jokes (ever since he was injured in a bike-riding accident, Sagal’s digestive system tends to act up when he’s running) and witty asides. But primarily, this book shows a different, more serious side of Sagal, one that his fans—runners and non-runners alike—will no doubt appreciate getting to know.

“My Sister, the Serial Killer” by Oyinkan Braithwaite

My Sister, The Serial KillerFor some reason, I tend to feel a weird sense of responsibility to finish any book I start. I rarely abandon books even if I’m not enjoying them. But this week, I gave up on not one but two novels. (One of them was an Edgar Best Novel nominee; I hope that one doesn’t win.) Then I picked up My Sister, the Serial Killer, and I was hooked from the very first lines:

Ayoola summons me with these words—Korede, I killed him.

I had hoped I would never hear those words again.

Ayoola is the staggeringly beautiful younger sister of Korede, a nurse (a useful profession, as it means she’s unlikely to panic at the sight of blood). Bonded by traumatic events in their childhood, the two of them make an odd pair: gorgeous, flighty, flirty Ayoola, who has an unfortunate habit of stabbing to death any man who makes the mistake of falling in love with her; and clear-headed, homely, hard-working Korede, ready to tidy up any mess her sister may leave in her wake. (Be sure not to neglect any blood that may have “seeped in between the shower and the caulking. It’s an easy part to forget.”)

Why is Korede always there to help her sister, even in the most dire of circumstances? “I wondered what would happen if Ayoola were caught… I imagine her trying to blag her way out of it and being found guilty… I relish it for a moment, and then I force myself to set the fantasy aside. She is my sister. I don’t want her to rot in jail, and besides, Ayoola being Ayoola, she would probably convince the court that she was innocent. Her actions were the fault of her victims and she had acted as any reasonable, gorgeous person would under the circumstances.”

Then something finally comes between the sisters: a man. Specifically Tade, a doctor at Korede’s hospital, whom she’s had an unrequited crush on for ages. When Ayoola shows up one day to visit Korede at work, Tade spots her and is instantly besotted. It was one thing if Ayoola killed someone who was a stranger to Korede, but she simply can’t let Tade die at the hands of her sister. But how can she convince him that he needs to tread carefully around Ayoola without coming off as a jealous shrew?

Despite the grim subject matter, My Sister is not overly gory, and while Ayoola seems not to have a conscience, that’s definitely not true of Korede. Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite skillfully balances humor, heartbreak and suspense in this audacious debut novel.