SURPRISING HORROR: THE LAST HOUSE ON NEEDLESS STREET

When you first pick up The Last House on Needless Street, by Catriona Ward, you probably think (as I thought) you’re in for a classic horror story.  All the accouterments are there: you have a strange man living by himself in a house that’s all boarded up, a man who suffers from periods where he doesn’t remember what he’s done or what he could have been doing, a man who sees a psychiatrist (whom he refers to as a bug doctor), and who periodically has a young girl staying with him, a young girl who’s not allowed to leave the house or be seen by anyone else, a young girl he refers to as his daughter but who seems not to be. There’s also a cat living in this house who tells her story of the goings on and her connection to the man in question.  There seem to be few other people on this street until a woman moves in next door and starts stalking the man, looking for her sister who disappeared years before.

You think you have some idea of what’s going to happen here and who these people are: Ted, the man in the house, is extremely creepy without doing anything overtly terrifying.  He comes across as someone who’s probably a serial killer or worse.  The girl, Lauren, acts like someone who’s been held captive by a predator for a number of years (she tries to leave messages for outsiders that she’s been kidnapped, or just that she needs help).  You think she might be the missing sister who disappeared at the nearby lake years ago, even though there’s a flashback to the time of the disappearance and Ted’s non-involvement in it.  The cat doesn’t always act or talk like a cat (she reads the Bible, for instance; even if cats could read, I have a feeling they would find something less judgmental to read), so you’re not sure what she is.  And the neighbor, Dee, is totally focused on rescuing her sister from Ted, because she’s convinced he’s the one who abducted Lulu (her sister) in the first place, the district attorney’s assurances to the contrary be damned. She comes across as your classic revenge seeker, the person who’s willing to act outside the law to create justice when the system fails (and there are hints that she already tried to punish someone else for the crime, with dire results).

The atmosphere is extremely nerve-wracking as the different characters tell their stories.  The author creates a terrific sense of dread, and brings the horrible milieu to detailed life. There are references to the “gods” Ted has buried out in the woods and how they have to be moved before someone else finds them.  There are even creepier references to the Green Boys upstairs, whom we don’t see (this makes them even more unnerving; my imagination was running wild, speculating about what the Green Boys might be).  There are references to Ted’s parents, especially his mother, and you can tell from Ted’s memories that there was something definitely wrong with her, though Ted himself refuses to see her as a bad person.

You think you know what’s going on, you wonder about the reality of different things, but the author has a number of surprises up her sleeve.  I am not going to give away any of the twists of this book, because I have no intention of spoiling the fun.  I’m just going to say that I consider myself reasonably genre-savvy and I was surprised by some of the developments in the book, which, upon consideration, were actually set up cleverly earlier and hidden by the author’s sleight of hand.

It is a horror story, just not the one you thought you were reading. There is violence in it, sometimes pretty gruesome violence (there isn’t sexual violence, for which  I was grateful), but most of it is of the psychological type.  If you’re steering away from this book because of potential gore, don’t worry.  If you’re interested in a good scary read, the kind that keeps you turning the pages in a sense of dreadful fascination, this is an excellent book. Scary reads shouldn’t be restricted to the season of Halloween.  Check out The Last House on Needless Street and settle in for a wild, very dark, ride.

HOW DO YOU GET TO THE AFTERLIFE? UNDER THE WHISPERING DOOR

There’s nothing like encountering a completely new vision of what happens after death.  One of the best things about Tim Burton’s Beetlejuice (other than a bravura performance from Michael Keaton, of course) is its concept of the afterlife, from the rules and how they’re enforced to the way dead people are supposed to act.  When an author I’ve read and enjoyed in the past takes on the question of what happens after death, I’m more than ready to jump in and follow where they lead, which is why I so enjoyed T. J. Klune’s Under the Whispering Door.

His last book, which I didn’t review because our library doesn’t have it (one of my rules for the blog is that the books I review have to be available at The Field Library), was The House on the Cerulean Sea, and I highly recommend it.  It was charming and moving and imaginative, and it primed me for his latest book, which I made sure we bought for the library.

In some ways, Under the Whispering Door falls into the trope of the misanthropic character who regains his humanity (like A Christmas Carol, the ur book of that trope, and like The Guncle, A Man Called Ove and numerous others).  Our main character, Wallace, starts out as a terrible person.  He’s an attorney (of course), he’s a partner in a law firm and when we first meet him, he’s about to fire a paralegal who, being somewhat dense (how could you work for someone like this and not realize what kind of person he is?), thinks he is going to help her with her problems outside of work.  He feels no remorse about destroying her ego and making her miserable; he hardly seems to care about human feelings at all, including his own.

Then he dies. It’s a heart attack, and catches him by surprise, but he’s even more surprised when he’s attending his own funeral and nobody around seems to notice that he’s there, except one young woman, Mei, who not only sees him and can interact with him, but seems to know more about him than she has any reason to do.  She is, it turns out, a Reaper on her first solo mission.  Her job is to deliver him to the Ferryman so he can move on to the next stage.

The Ferryman is an adorable, charming character by the name of Hugo, who lives in the delightful, topsy-turvy house you see on the cover of the book. He runs a tea shop on the ground floor, where he’s the kind of person who knows every customer’s preferences and is loved by all of them. He has a deep knowledge of different kinds of tea, growing some in the backyard, and one of the first things he does with a very angry and in denial Wallace is to make him a cup of tea that’s tailored to his personality (it turns out to be peppermint, which I would never have thought of, at that point in the book, as having anything to do with misanthropic Wallace).

Nelson, Hugo’s dead grandfather, is also hanging around the place, as is his dog, Apollo (who’s also dead but doesn’t let that stop him). Wallace is supposed to climb the stairs to open the door to the next phase of his afterlife, but Hugo isn’t going to force him to go before he’s ready (it turns out that Hugo has seen what happens when someone’s forced through the door, and it is not pretty), and Wallace has no intention of opening that door ever.  

Gradually we learn other aspects of this afterlife: what happens when you go too far from the tea shop (you become a husk, which is kind of a frightening nonhuman thing), what the Manager is (after you’ve heard about The Manager in respectful and even unnerving contexts for a while), and what happens when the process goes awry.

It takes death, and a lot of interactions with Mei, Hugo, Nelson and Apollo, to turn Wallace into a more decent human being than he’d been for a long time in life.  You might feel his transformation happens a little faster than would be realistic, but you are reading a book where living people act as Reapers and Ferrymen to the dead, so a little suspension of disbelief is required.  As we watch Wallace’s thawing, and the slow development of his relationship with Hugo, and the way he settles in with this found family, we’re always aware that Wallace is dead and Hugo is alive and there’s got to be a limit on how close they can get.

The book has a happy ending, and yes, that’s a spoiler but you could have guessed from the beginning that it’s going in that direction (especially if you read The House on the Cerulean Sea), and in this book it’s not so much the destination as it is the journey that makes the reading worthwhile.

The book is heartwarming, funny, poignant and a charming read.  Give yourself the pleasure of visiting Charon Crossing in Under the Whispering Door.

DECEMBER FIELD NOTES SELECTION: THE INVISIBLE LIFE OF ADDIE LARUE

You know, sometimes it’s difficult to come up with a book that’s “uplifting” for book group, but that’s what we tried to do for the November selection for the Field Notes Book Group, when we read The Keeper of Lost Things.  While some of the group members really liked the book, others found it too predictable, too saccharine, not interesting enough.  There were bits everybody enjoyed, so we were able to have a good discussion anyway.  And of course, as we noted, you don’t need to like the book we choose in order to participate, and I would hate to have anyone in any of my book groups feel inhibited from expressing their opinions because they aren’t the same as those of the majority of the group.  Half the fun, after all, is hearing what other people see, or don’t see, in a book.

We did, with a little difficulty, decide on our book for December: V. E. Schwab’s The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, a fantasy book with an interesting premise: what if you could actually live forever, but the cost of immortality would be that nobody who sees you or interacts with you could remember you?  Eternal life without any lasting human connections might not be the sort of thing you’d actually want, however little you might want to die.  Addie LaRue makes a deal with — maybe the devil, maybe someone else, an attractive and odd creature named Luc — in 18th century France with exactly those terms.  She lives on through the centuries, slipping through other people’s lives without leaving so much as a fingerprint, let alone an impression, until finally in modern times she meets someone who actually remembers her, someone who sees her and knows her and could, in principle, have a relationship with her.  How is that possible?  Will she change her immortality at last?

We are also, at the December meeting, going to go through the books we’ve read over the course of the year.  It’s not just a nostalgia trip (though it’s definitely that), but an opportunity for us to think about what we’ve liked the most and what we’ve liked the least, which is helpful as we start the new year and choose our next reading adventures.

Copies of The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue will be available at the circulation desk shortly.  Join us on December 18 at 11 to talk about immortality, and to talk about the year we’ve had in 2021.

SPECULATIVE FICTION FOR ALL TASTES

One of the coolest things about speculative fiction is that it’s so protean.  Whatever your particular bent, whatever kinds of stories you’re interested in, there’s some speculative fiction that will give you just what you’re looking for. We have a wide variety of new speculative fiction here at The Field Library that demonstrates that for you.

For instance, say you’re an old school science fiction fan.  You like stories about future technology, how that’s going to shape our world and change things.  You’re exactly the right person to read Termination Shock, by Neal Stephenson.  If you’re a fan of technological thrillers, odds are you already know Stephenson’s work and are ready to read the book just because he wrote it.  This book takes on the question of global climate change.  It’s set in a near future world where the worst of climate change has already started to happen: superstorms, rising sea levels, more virulent pandemic diseases.  One billionaire has a plan for how to reverse climate change.  Can it work?  Will the cure be worse than the disease?

In the same way, if you’re a fan of classic epic fantasy, just knowing that Terry Brooks is starting a new series with his Child of Light is enough to catch your interest.  Brooks, the author of the Shannara series, starts with a new world and a new plot.  Auris Afton Grieg is a 19 year old human who’s been imprisoned since she was 15.  She doesn’t know why, and she doesn’t remember much of her life from before her imprisonment, but she knows that the adult prison to which she’s supposed to be transferred is going to be worse.  She and some of her friends escape into a world she finds unfamiliar, and she immediately meets a handsome but alien stranger who claims to be a Fae and claims, despite the lack of any resemblance between them, that she’s a Fae as well.  As Auris and her new companion, Harrow, navigate this world of magic and strangeness, Auris begins to discover more and more about herself, and how to heal herself and maybe her world as well. 

Star Mother, by Charlie N. Homberg, author of the Spellmaker and Spellbreaker books, goes in a different direction than the author’s other books.  In this world, stars are born to mortal mothers, and the star’s birth inevitably kills the human who gives birth to it.  Ceris chooses to birth a star, knowing the risk, to help her family’s honor, and to everybody’s surprise, Ceris survives the birth.  Only when she tries to return home afterwards, she discovers that seven hundred years have passed instead of nine months, and everything has changed.  She’s joined in her search for her descendants by a godling, Ristriel, who’s incorporeal, a trickster and a fugitive, who’s the only one who could possibly get her where she needs to go.

And then there are the books that look as if they’re fantasy but turn out to be something else, such as Elder Race, by Adrian Tchaikovsky.  It starts out with obvious fantasy elements: a world with a princess who’s trying to protect her homeland from a demon by invoking an age-old pact between her family and the local wizard.  However, things are not what they seem.  The so-called wizard is actually an anthropologist studying the culture, and he’s sworn to non-interference.  At the same time, though, he can see clearly that the threat to the kingdom isn’t a demon but something else, something more dangerous.  The possibilities are intriguing: can the “wizard” do anything to help without jeopardizing his work?  Can he remain scientific and keep from intervening even if he realizes the people are going to be destroyed?

And finally, if you’re more of a mystery fan, there are science fiction mysteries that add just that note of futuristic technology and different worlds to the age old questions of who did it and why.  For instance, we have Far from the Light of Heaven, by Tade Thompson, in which someone or something murdered a number of the sleeping souls on the colony ship Ragtime.  First mate Michelle Campion discovers this macabre situation when she’s roused from cybersleep at the Lagos Station when the ship docks.  Investigator Rasheed Fin responds to her distress call and has to find out what happened to those people and why, which leads to questions about the Lagos station, the planet to which the colonists were going, and even leads back to earth itself.

Mystery AND speculative fiction?  A marriage made in the heavens indeed.

So come in and check out the variety of speculative fiction here at the Field.  You’re sure to find something that speaks to you.

PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND . . . BURLESQUE? A CERTAIN APPEAL

As should be obvious from reading my blog, I’m a big fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice.  I’m not the kind of fan who holds the original text as so sacred that not one word of it should be changed; in fact, I’ve read and enjoyed a number of different versions of the story (which, in my opinion, contains one of the ur-romance plots, the enemies to friends trope), including one set in modern day Pakistan (Unmarriageable, a wonderful and fun book by Sonia Komal), one told from Darcy’s viewpoint (An Assembly Such as This, by Pamela Aidan).  I’ve even read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith which, while interesting, didn’t really work as a Pride and Prejudice retelling or a zombie story.  It’s the kind of plot, and the kind of characters, that can be retold in many different ways. 

However, I have to give special recognition to the newest Pride and Prejudice version, A Certain Appeal, by Vanessa King, for the sheer audacity of imagining Lizzy Bennet as a burlesque performer in New York City.  Of course, King doesn’t go too far from Lizzy’s inherent nature: she’s an executive assistant in her day job (can’t you just see Lizzy running things in a business setting, being the kind of “assistant” who actually runs the business?), while performing in a burlesque nightclub called Meryton (and again, if you’re familiar with the original, having the club named Meryton — the name of the village in which the Bennet girls spend so much of their time — is a clever idea).  

Some things have to be retained: she and Darcy (a wealth fund manager, which also seems really appropriate) have to meet and there has to be a spark between them and Darcy has to say something disparaging about Lizzy which she overhears and which causes her to write him off as a jerk.  In this case she hears him refer to her as merely “tolerable” (a direct quote from the original), and that’s enough to prejudice her against him.

However, their closest friends get involved with each other and Darcy and Lizzy are thrown together despite themselves, and the book then moves through the basic beats of the original with its own unique spin to the inevitable happy ever after.

If you’re a fan of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, or if you’re just in the mood for a new take on the classic enemies-to-lovers trope, check out A Certain Appeal for the fun of it.

BATTLE OF WITS FOR DECEMBER FIELD OF MYSTERY: THE DEVOTION OF SUSPECT X

Once again, the Field of Mystery Book Group had an interesting discussion about the book this month, The King of Lies, although it was not one of our favorite books.  As a matter of fact, I personally really disliked the book, and I’m afraid I might have influenced other members of the group to look at it more critically than they would have otherwise done (on the other hand, maybe my opinion made it easier for other people to say what they really thought about the book).  Merely disliking (or even vehemently disliking) the book for a book group isn’t, as you can see, the end of the story and you can have a good discussion even if you disliked the book.

Fortunately, we had no problem choosing the book for our next meeting in December.  It’s The Devotion of Suspect X, by Keigo Higashino, a very different kind of mystery from The King of Lies.

When the abusive ex husband of Yasuko Hanaoka finds her and their teenage daughter, things take a bad turn and the ex ends up dead in her apartment.  Her neighbor, Ishigami, who is a brilliant math teacher who’s devoted to Yasuko, figures out how to get rid of the body and how to set up their alibis so neither mother nor daughter will be prosecuted for the killing.  

It would be the perfect crime, except that the inspector of the Tokyo police who’s handling the case feels there’s something wrong with the official story.  He consults a friend of his, Dr. Yukawa, a brilliant physicist known as “Detective Galileo,” who happens to have known Ishigami from their college days.  Yukawa then sets to work to find the holes in Ishigami’s plan, while Ishigami tries to protect the woman he loves as a battle of wits between two masterminds ensues.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk, so come in and pick your copy up.  We’ll be meeting on December 4 at 10 a.m., and donuts and coffee will be available, along with what promises to be a fascinating discussion.

WHY A SILENT BOOK GROUP IS A WONDERFUL THING

As you know if you’ve been following this blog, I am very big on book groups.  I should be, since I’m running three different ones every month.  I’ve written here about the delights of joining a book group, why you should join one, how to do a better job of selecting books, and even what to do when you hate the book that your book group selected.  This month I started a very different book group, the Silent Book Group.  

I take no credit for the idea of a silent book group; I’ve read about it in numerous places online before I got psyched up enough to try it for the library.  Basically, the idea is that you come to a room, take a chair, sit down and read.  That’s it.  For an hour and a half.  There’s coffee and tea provided, and there’s a whiteboard in case you want to write down the name of a book you’re reading that you think other people might enjoy.  There are no cell phones, there are no distractions, there’s no discussion of any kind. It’s just a time and a place for uninterrupted reading.

And why is that a good idea?  

There are probably some people for whom this doesn’t work.  People who are really extroverted and who can’t sit quietly for any period of time would find this torture.  People who live alone and are free from distractions at home probably wouldn’t see the need for this kind of space.

But the rest of us?  All of us who want more time to read but can’t squeeze the time in, who live with other people who somehow don’t understand that you shouldn’t be interrupted while you’re reading (except in the case of an emergency, and that’s a stringently defined term), all of us who find too many distractions when we’re home to be able to concentrate on reading for more than a few minutes at a time, we’re the people who would really enjoy a silent book club.

Think of it: once a month you can tell everyone around you that you have to go to your book group, and you leave the house.  You get to the room and you can just sit down, read and relax for a whole block of time.  Think of how far you could get in the book you’re working on if you could just read it for an hour and a half straight!  Think of how comfortable it would be to read in the company of other people who are also just reading quietly (trust me, it is).

If you’re shy around people, if you have social anxieties, if you don’t want to join a book group because you don’t want to have to talk to other people about what you’re reading, this is ideal.  If you don’t want to join a book group because you want to choose your own books and not have to read something because the group wanted to read it, this is your kind of book group. 

We only had two people (other than me) at the first meeting, but I think that’s because people didn’t realize what a great thing this is.  The three of us sat and read.  I finished one of my books and started another.  One person made serious inroads in a long book she’d recently gotten but hadn’t been able to start yet.  I’m going to keep making this available every month, as long as people are willing to come, because I think that for a lot of readers, this could be an oasis in a desert of distractions and interruptions.  Come by in November and check it out.

YOU THINK YOUR FAMILY IS CRAZY? CHECK OUT DIAL A FOR AUNTIES

You’ve probably had this experience yourself.  You make a mistake and then you try to fix it, only your fix makes a bigger problem, and then you try to fix that and you make an even bigger problem, until finally you are in a complete mess and you have no idea how to get yourself out of it.  In a nutshell, that’s what happens to Meddy, the protagonist of Dial A for Aunties, by Jesse Q. Sutano, over the course of this very funny, very engaging novel.

Of course, the mess in which Meddy finds herself is a little unusual, as is the way things get more and more complicated.  Meddy is the daughter of an Indonesian Chinese woman, and she’s been brought up, more or less, by her mother and her mother’s three sisters, the Aunties of the title.  The Aunties are known by title, rather than by name (Big Aunt, the oldest, and Second Aunt, and Fourth Aunt), but don’t worry, you’ll be able to tell which one is which very quickly.  The aunts, all loud and sure of themselves, have very strong opinions about the world, about each other, and about how Meddy should live her life.  They’re all working together in a wedding business (one does the baking, one does the flowers, one does the makeup and hair, and one is a performer), and Meddy is, somewhat reluctantly, the photographer who works with them on their weddings.  

All of Meddy’s cousins got out of the area as soon as they could, but Meddy has been the obedient daughter/niece her whole life; she chose to go to a local college in California though she’d been accepted at Columbia, and when the time came for her to choose whether to go east with Nathan, the love of her life, or to stay near her family, she chose to stay in California, at least partly because she never told her mother or her aunts that Nathan existed.  Years later, she’s still living with her mother and in close proximity to her aunts, working in their business, and pining after the one she let get away.  Her family is concerned about her lack of a love life, and the unlikelihood that she’s going to give her mother grandchildren, so her mother sets her up on a blind date by pretending to be Meddy in an online dating service.

As you can imagine, things go downhill from there.  Meddy ends up inadvertently killing her blind date, and, in a panic, she puts the body in the trunk of her car and drives home.  When she tells her mother what happened, naturally her mother calls in the aunts to take care of the situation, and from that moment on, things go from bad to worse. The problem of what to do with a dead body is a constant whenever you have a murder, and the solutions the aunties come up with are novel, to say the least.  

When Meddy arrives on the exclusive resort on an island where her family is handling their biggest wedding ever (with the dead body in tow), and she discovers that the owner of the resort is none other than Nathan, her former love, what had been a complicated messy situation becomes a hundred times worse.  

What makes this book work so well is the characters.  Yes, the plot is wild and just when you think you have a clue how things are going to work out, the author throws another twist at you, and that’s lots of fun, but the heart of the book is Meddy and her mother and aunts.  I think everybody has been embarrassed by their family from time to time, but Meddy’s family is in a class by itself.  All the aunts are lovable and dedicated to Meddy and to each other, even as they drive each other crazy.  Their outsized personalities and their competitions with each other are classic family stuff, and the way the family communicates in three languages (Indonesian, Mandarin and English, with Meddy having the most trouble with the other two languages), along with the traditions of the Indonesian-Chinese weddings, make the story richer and more interesting.

Nathan may be a little bit too quick to forgive Meddy (if the love of my life dumped me with no explanation, I’m not sure I would be quite so happy to see them again four years later, especially if that person is acting strangely around me even now), and maybe he is a little idealized (handsome, smart and charming), but he’s not excessively perfect, and Meddy’s enthusiasm carries us along.

This is, at least partially, a romantic comedy, and so I’m not spoiling anything by saying that there’s a happy ending and a (mostly) satisfying resolution to the dead body problem.  You’re not reading a book like this for suspense anyway.  You’re reading it for the sheer fun of it, the warped machinations of Meddy’s well meaning and lovable, if somewhat unusual, family.  If you’re in need of some good laughs, I heartily recommend Dial A for Aunties.

SAVING THE DAY AND THE FAMILY WITH BRUNCH AND PANACHE: THE GUNCLE

When you read a short description of Steven Rowley’s book, The Guncle, you might be forgiven for thinking you’ve read this book, or a version of this book before.  It appears to fit into the category of “(Nicer) Scrooge Story Without the Ghosts and the Christmas Trappings”, where the main character is a seeming curmudgeon or difficult person who is redeemed and revealed to be a much better person by reason of encountering another family or children and spending time with them. There’s nothing wrong with this category; Frederik Backman has done very well by playing with it for years.  It’s just that The Guncle isn’t one of those books, not by a long shot.

Upon the death of his sister in law and his brother’s going into rehab for a drug addiction, Patrick, a gay former situation comedy star who has been living in isolation in Palm Springs, is induced to take on his brother’s two children, Maisie and Grant, while their father is in rehab. Sounds like the trope, doesn’t it?  And while it is a heartwarming story of family, and dealing with grief, it transcends the stereotype mostly because of the kind of character Patrick is.

To put it simply, he’s wonderful.  As a patron said when I asked her about the book (before I read it myself), “He’s the guncle we all wish we had.” He doesn’t start out the book as seemingly misanthropic or difficult; he’s clearly different from the norm, but he’s charming and funny and you find it difficult to imagine that someone like Patrick has actually isolated himself (though there are reasons, and you learn them over time).

His first reaction, when his brother asks him to take the kids, is to refuse, loudly and clearly. He’s not interested in children, not even his niece and nephew, and he believes he has no idea how to take care of them or how to deal with their grief at their mother’s death.  In fact, the impetus for his changing his mind and taking the kids is the intervention of his bossy sister, Clara, who announces that it’s ridiculous for someone like Patrick to look after these children when she has great amounts of experience, having parented her stepchildren. It’s so perfect that Patrick would get his back up and decide to take the responsibility just because his sister gets on his nerves; anyone who has adult siblings can relate.

And, despite his lack of experience with children in general and with these kids in particular, Patrick does an excellent job of taking care of Maisie and Grant.  He makes mistakes, of course, but the kids are generally willing to cut him a break or two, and an uncle who lets them wear what they like, who swims with them in his pool every day and takes them frequently to the dinosaur park, not to mention making Christmas in the summer, even exchanging presents with them and putting up a pink Christmas tree, is worth cultivating, especially since they don’t have a lot of alternatives at this stage of their lives.  

They’re grieving and so is Patrick.  Patrick was friends with their mother, Sara, before she ever met and married Patrick’s brother, and he is as heartbroken by her death as the kids are, as his brother is.  He’s also carrying the grief from the death, years before, of the man he loved, Joe (who sounds, from Patrick’s memories, like a great person). That loss largely drove Patrick out of Hollywood, out of the industry, and into relative isolation.  Patrick has little experience dealing with grief, and a great deal of experience avoiding dealing with it, but somehow he manages to find ways to reach Maisie and Grant, even when they’re behaving their worst, and the three of them begin to heal together.

Of course Patrick, and his relationship with Grant and Maisie, is the heart of the book, and I would probably read anything in which he was a main character, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention some of the other delightful and well realized characters populating the book.  Clara, the sister, is almost a stereotype, playing the part of the person who tries to take the children away from Patrick (this is not the main plot, in case you’re worried about cliches), but even she turns into a full-fledged person and not a cartoon villain.  Patrick’s delightful neighbors, JED (what Patrick calls a “throuple”, a threesome of gay men who live together), his new agent, whom he keeps referring to by the names of various mountains (her real name is Cassie Everest — this is Patrick’s sense of humor), and Emory, Patrick’s new friend (who might turn into more) are fun every time we encounter them. 

Yes, it’s a heartwarming book in which all the characters get a chance to change and grow, but don’t worry — there’s nothing saccharine about it, because there is no way in this world that Patrick would ever allow a book starring him to be anything saccharine.  If you’re in the mood for a fun read with lovable characters and great heart, definitely check out The Guncle

JO NESBO TAKES ON SHORT STORIES IN JEALOUSY MAN

Given my long term love for Jo Nesbo’s Harry Hole series (when is he going to write another one of those books?) and for his version of Macbeth (the perfect match), no one should be surprised that I immediately grabbed his newest book, Jealousy Man, which is a collection of short stories, and devoured it immediately.  Knowing my feelings about Nesbo’s writing, is there anything new I can say about Jealousy Man?

Yeah. Damn, the man can write short stories!

This is not a given.  The Harry Hole books are full length novels, and they’re built on multiple plotlines, multiple characters, interacting. Some of those plotlines take several books to come to a conclusion, and characters continue from book to book, changing over time.  You can’t do all those things in short stories; you’re limited, usually, to one plotline and a few characters, a short time period and a tight set of locations.  

The best stories in this book, in my opinion, are the longer ones, which might be novelette length rather than, technically, short stories.  Yes, some of the real short stories here are fine: the opening story, “London”, manages to create two characters, an interesting concept and a twist in few pages, and “The Line” is chilling and effective in a very tight form, and the others are good, certainly readable and enjoyable, if dark.  He really does his best work, though, in the longer stories.

The title story, “The Jealousy Man” involves two separate characters who have gotten away with murder, one of them a police officer, one a person of interest in a police investigation.  The characters are complex, the setting (a Greek island) unusual for Nesbo, and the plot’s strands mingle past and present to turn the story into a meditation on guilt and second chances that’s fascinating.

And then there’s “Rat Island,” the longest story in the book, and the one that caused me to put the book down and walk away for a while when I finished it.  It’s a dystopian story about the aftermath of a virus and the breakdown of civilization (gee, wonder when he got that idea, huh?), and how the people who remain cope.  He manages to give us two different point of view characters, very different (this is tough to do in a short story) but both survivors, and the story turns on questions of relationships, of revenge, of what the rule of law means when all the institutions that enforce the laws are falling apart.  It’s a page turner of a story, the only one that comes close to the level of dark violence you find in the Harry Hole novels (though not quite as horrible as that), and ultimately you’re left thinking about morality and whether there are any good people in the story.

He stretches into some speculative fiction concepts in “The Cicadas” and in “The Shredder,” and takes the big concepts of multiple timelines and of eternal life and turns them into very human, albeit very dark, stories.  

If you’re a fan of Jo Nesbo, of course you should read this book.  There are no Harry Hole stories, unfortunately, but the stories here are thought provoking and disturbing.  If you’re not a fan of Nesbo because of his often gruesome violence, you might want to try this book because he doesn’t go quite as far here, and it’s a good introduction to the way he thinks and the way he writes.  It’s a page-turner, it’s well-written and it will haunt you.