Lenni is seventeen and terminally ill. Margot is eighty-three and awaiting a series of heart surgeries. They unofficially meet at Glasgow Princess Royal Hospital when Margot, decked out in purple from head to toe, goes dumpster diving for a letter and Lenni distracts a nurse from discovering her. Margot and Lenni officially meet in the Rose Room, a therapy space where hospital patients can create art, when Lenni adamantly insists on joining the eighty and above class. When the two discover they’ve lived an astonishing one hundred years, they set out to create one hundred paintings commemorating the key moments of their shared century. Canvases of first kisses, birthday cakes, a baby in a too-small yellow hat, a night full of stars, and more celebrate their lives. Full of tenderness and quiet observations, The One Hundred Years of Lenni and Margot is one you’ll want to finish with a box of tissues nearby.
While Margot and Lenni are perceptive, funny, and witty, it’s the cast of supporting characters that make this novel come alive. Hospital chaplain Father Arthur and Lenni banter back and forth about faith, loss, watercress sandwiches, and silverfish. Margot’s second husband, Humphrey, is such an enamored astronomer that he stands in the middle of the street, risking life and limb, to better observe the stars. “New Nurse” confides her career insecurities with Lenni and “The Intern” has a satisfying, full-circle moment when it comes to the hospital and the art space. Chicken stories are scattered throughout. Whimsical and sweet, but never saccharine, the novel is a celebration of life and death.
The court of King James I is a dangerous place, full of fierce political and religious rivalries. Even the slightest whisper of scandal could result in loss of land, position, and life. In the midst of this intensity, Lady Frances “Frankie” Howard marries the third Earl of Essex, Robert Devereux, in a political maneuver arranged by her powerful and influential Catholic family. The marriage is a nightmare. Devereux loathes the Howard family (I suppose that’s what happens when your in-laws are partly responsible for the execution of your father) and is increasingly violent and spiteful towards Frankie despite her efforts to make the marriage work and produce an heir. Frankie forms an inseparable, intimate friendship with Anne Turner, a talented albeit struggling fashion stylist and wife of the well-respected Dr. George Turner, when her mother enlists Anne’s services to make Frankie more attractive to her husband. Frankie ultimately wishes to annul her marriage and marry Sir Robert Carr, the King’s favorite, but a difficult, snide Thomas Overbury, royal courtier and Carr’s best friend, stands in her way. After a poisonous plot, the King’s justice seems to ensnare only the smallest of fishes.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Frances Carr before (if you’re unfamiliar with the Jacobean Era or need a quick introduction to Frances, I highly recommend Dana Schwartz’s Noble Blood podcast episode “The Schemes of Countess Frances Carr”), but Lucy’s Jago’s meticulously researched novel is a fresh interpretation. Women are typically absent from the historical record, but when they do appear, they are too often cast like Frances Carr: Scandalous, deviant, and improper. At the heart of A Net for Small Fishes is the story of female friendship, female morality, and women willing to stretch beyond the limitations placed on them by society. Jago gives voice to Carr and Turner, a glimpse into what their true, complex motivations might have been during the Overbury Scandal. Jago does an excellent job of portraying how any accident of fate could send a woman tumbling into poverty or disgrace. Her depictions of Jacobean society, including forbidden magic (the amount of astrology captured in this book makes me happy), aristocratic dress, and the narrow, filthy streets of London, are vivid and immersive. Historical fiction should be this imaginative and emotional. A stunning debut.
I drove over two hours in 2016 to see Anthony Doerr, as one does when one is nerdy and obsessed with an author and in school to become a librarian. I remember clutching my copy of All the Light We Cannot See and being completely enamored. For an exercise in curiosity, Doerr presented a slideshow full of close-up pictures and asked us to guess the everyday objects. He described how a dropped call on the subway in New York City in 2004 was the inspiration behind All the Light We Cannot See, and how he spent ten years researching and writing the book, including studying the history of radio and Nazi art looting. When he signed my book, I remember him taking the time to ask about my weekend and wishing me a happy birthday. So needless to say, I was excited to get my hands on Cloud Cuckoo Land.
Cloud Cuckoo Land is ambitious novel, spanning multiple centuries, places, characters, and even genres. There’s Anna, an orphan who lives and works in an embroidery house in 15th century Constantinople with her sickly older sister. She learns Greek in secret and during her quest to uncover even more words, she discovers a ruined library. Having a cleft palate and believed to be cursed or even demonic, Omeir is exiled to a remote part of Bulgaria and is raised by his whimsical, sweet grandfather. He is conscripted into the Ottoman army with his oxen to attack Constantinople, putting him directly in the path of Anna. Seymour lives in present-day Idaho and his only comfort is the natural world. He befriends an owl that lives in the woods behind his home but when the forest is destroyed for a new housing development, Seymour becomes a radical eco-warrior and crosses paths with Zeno in a devastating way. Zeno is an octogenarian, amateur translator, and Korean War veteran attempting to put on a play with a small group of children. Lastly, there’s Konstance. Konstance is trapped on a spaceship in the future with an infinite library meant to preserve humanity’s knowledge for a new, unspoiled planet. All five stories are connected through an ancient book following the fantastical and humorous adventures of a poor shepherd. Doerr’s writing is just as lyrical and rich as in All the Light We Cannot See. The novel is a clear ode to libraries, language, and the art of storytelling. While I wasn’t as invested in the characters as with All the Light We Cannot See, no one can illustrate the interconnectedness and beauty of our worlds like Anthony Doerr. Cloud Cuckoo Land is an epic worth diving into.
It’s been some time since I read a novel that truly surprised me and Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street not only surprised me, it astonished me. This strikingly original, difficult, and heartfelt novel disguises itself as a horrific story about a serial killer and a missing child, leading readers down disturbing paths and in all the wrong directions as it slowly but surely reveals itself to be much more.
Told through the perspective of multiple narrators, we follow the life of Ted, a strange and lonely man who lives at the end of the forebodingly named Needless Street. He has boarded up all the windows in his house, which sits at the edge of a deeply wooded park and regularly hosts visits with his estranged daughter. His only friend appears to be his cat Olivia- who is also a narrative voice and is quite charming.
The tale opens on the anniversary of the disappearance of a young girl, a disappearance that Ted was initially suspected of causing, and we also meet the vengeful sister of the missing girl who is still trying to track down her sister’s potential murderer years later. This deeply layered plot is revealed little by little with each chapter, and keen readers will note right off the bat that all is not as it seems with each narrator, and we are clearly not getting a complete picture.
The final few twists of this novel are stunning, and absolutely heartbreaking, making this a standout novel of psychological horror, but also an emotional story of trauma and finally, and most importantly, hope. A detailed author’s note at the end further explains Ward’s excellent work on this story and why this is a very realistic tale of trauma. Highly recommended for fans of deeply woven mysteries, unreliable narrators, and psychological horror.
Note: There are some very upsetting and intense scenes in this novel, particularly depicting animal abuse and child abuse, so please proceed with this trigger warning in mind.
Have you heard that (Cleveland’s own) Paula McLain has a brand-new book out? You’ll want to place your hold for When the Stars Go Dark right now.
In this novel, Anna Hart, a missing persons detective in San Francisco, is very good at her job. Having suffered trauma as a teenager in foster care herself, Anna is an outspoken advocate for young girls in trouble. After a personal tragedy, Anna takes a break from her life and work in San Francisco and flees to her one-time home in Mendocino, California to regroup. There, she rents a cabin in the woods and reunites with her childhood friend, Will, who is now the local sheriff. When Will tells her about a series of missing local girls, Anna quickly becomes engrossed in the investigation.
Paula McLain is well-known and loved as an author of bestselling, meticulously-researched novels of historical fiction. When the Stars Go Dark is more of a suspense novel, though, and is inspired by the author’s own personal experiences with foster care and abuse. With well-drawn characters, many edge-of-your-seat moments, and a satisfying conclusion, McLain delivers a truly compelling read. Just try and put this one down!
Fans of Helene Wecker’s award-winning historical fantasy novel, The Golem and the Jinni, rejoice – after eight years of waiting, we finally get a sequel!
The Hidden Palacecomes out on June 8 and picks up shortly after the end of the first book (don’t worry – there are unobtrusive reminders in the text to get you up to speed with the preceding events). The evil sorcerer who had imprisoned jinni Ahmad in a metal vial (spoilers!) was defeated at much personal cost in the first book. Ahmad and Chava, the golem, now must weather the rapid changes at the turn of the twentieth century in New York City: the sinking of the Titanic, the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, and the beginning of the Great War, as well as changes in their relationship to each other and their communities.
Once again, Wecker has crafted an immigrant chronicle for the ages that grapples with the dual problems of the diaspora: attempting to assimilate into a new culture while at the same time keeping close one’s native culture, all while trying to find a place in the world. The Hidden Palace is a sweeping character-driven epic of a family forged in love, not blood ties, whose members fight and love and learn, falling apart and together organically. Even though I only read The Golem and the Jinni once many years ago, this new book felt like coming home, as if I never really left Ahmad and Chava’s world and was now spending time with treasured friends. The tone is melancholy with measured pacing so that readers can truly immerse themselves in the world, and while no one gets a happy ending, exactly, Wecker ends her novel on a hopeful, bittersweet note. The Hidden Palace is a worthy successor to its smash hit predecessor and will wrap you again in a fully realized world you won’t want to leave.
Thanks to NetGalley for the ARC (advance reader copy)!
Departing from her usual science fiction and fantasy offerings, Marissa Meyer has released her first YA contemporary romance with a hint of magical realism and it is delightful.
Prudence Barnett is the stereotypical overachiever. She’s judgmental and difficult to like at times, especially when she’s lashing out at her horrible lab partner, Quint Erickson, the well-liked slacker who is dragging her and her final grade down. After an accidental head injury, Pru discovers she has the ability to bestow instant karma on those around her. The only problem is that Quint seems immune to her new power, much to her dismay. She and Quint have been given a second chance to improve their grade, but he continues to frustrate her.
Things aren’t all fluff, teen angst, and typical romance tropes. The story has real meat to it as both teens deal with family issues. Pru is also forced to confront her own assumptions about her friends and classmates and make some tough decisions regarding how to use her unusual gift. Throw in some environmentalism, an aquatic animal rescue, and some karaoke, and you have fun, refreshing, and thoughtful cautionary tale. The queen of retellings has struck gold with this one.
As the weather grows colder and the days get shorter, treat yourself to this sunny beach read. You won’t regret it.
Thanks to Netgalley and the publisher for a review copy of this book.
Eve Black was twelve years old when her family-mother, father, and little sister-were murdered in their home. It was only chance that spared Eve. She spent the rest of her childhood with her grandmother never speaking of the events that destroyed their lives. As an adult, Eve became determined to find the serial killer known as the Nothing Man. A college assignment turned into her true-crime memoir, the first step on her journey. Now, she’s on a book tour that takes her back to the scene of the crime and seemingly everyone is reading about her trauma, everyone including the Nothing Man himself. With every page he reads his rage and panic grows. His only loose end has come back to haunt him.
This book ticks all my boxes!
A book within a book
A true crime “memoir”
Pursuit of justice
A potentially unreliable narrator
An Irish setting and Irish audiobook narrators
The story of the Nothing Man is told from two perspectives. Readers experience Eve’s memoir along side Jim Doyle, the sixty-something store security guard who killed the Black family nearly two decades ago. The memoir portion reads as an homage to Michelle McNamara and her quest for the Golden State Killer, while Jim’s unraveling ratchets up the tension. This is a must read for fans of true crime and psychological thrillers.
Thanks to Netgalley and Blackstone Publishing for an advanced audio copy of this book.
I have been spending a lot of time lately adding content to the library’s new true crime book discussion Facebook group page. We are the Riverinos and we’d love to have you in the group. If you are looking for more book, podcast, and tv reviews please join us.
Here’s a little taste of what you’ll find in the group:
Good Kids, Bad City: A Story of Race and Wrongful Conviction in Americaby Kyle SwensonOn May 19, 1975, Harry Franks, a white salesman, was robbed, assaulted, and murdered in broad daylight in Cleveland’s University Circle neighborhood. Three black youth were sentenced and spent a combined 106 years in prison for the crime. The murderer was never caught. The entirety of the prosecution’s case against Wiley Bridgeman, Kwame Ajamu, and Ricky Jackson was based on the eye-witness testimony of 12-year old Ed Vernon. Nearly 40 years later Vernon recanted his story, revealing that the police used fear and coercion to convince him to tell the story they wanted him to tell.In Good Kids, Bad City, journalist Kyle Swenson weaves the personal stories of the young men who were sentenced to grow up in prison with the corruption and injustice that plagued the city of Cleveland and the Cleveland police department. Swenson’s narrative is a scathing indictment of systematic discrimination that continues to this day.
Daughters of Erietown is Connie Schultz’s debut novel. It’s the story of Ellie and Brick McGinty, two rural Ohio teens whose lives were changed by an unplanned pregnancy. While Ellie and Brick learn to be a married couple in the 1950’s they also battle with the demons of their past. The young couple navigate societal norms, limited opportunities, and dreams deferred. They raise a middle-class family on a union job salary. They watch their children grow up and forge their own paths in the world. It’s a quiet story, rich in character and it’s likely on your summer TBR list. You aren’t alone. So, while you wait for your library hold to come available, check out some of these generational stories.