Message in a Bottle
On Recommending Books

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We had visitors from Portland at our house last weekend. My friend and her husband left Seattle about four months ago and she took a job at a sportswear company. I used to share an office with her, and our book-related roles led into a friendship that has long outlasted that period of employment. We were paid to discuss books (the far most interesting of our designated tasks), and that habit also long outlived the job.

The first thing my friend said to me was, “I desperately need something to read.” Although her new job offers plenty of athletic gear, her access to endless free books is a perk of the past. I happily led her to our study and began pulling titles off the shelves.

"Here," I said, "Try the new Tana French. It’s not out yet but I’m curious to hear your thoughts.” (Don’t worry, faithful readers, I’ll review it closer to the September pub date.) She started to crack it open but I was already piling more on top of it. Here’s The Weight of Blood, one of my favorite debut novels this past year. And you’ll like this old Anita Shreve. What about We Were Liars? You’ll probably like Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments. And of course there’s always my never-fail recommends, A Fine Balance and American Wife…”

Flooded, she smiled and thanked me. The next morning, I found her sitting on our couch with my copy of Courtney Robertson’s I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends. Sheepishly I thought, who am I to shove books on a seasoned reader?

Yes, as booksellers it’s our job to point people towards the right titles. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from a fair number of years in this business, it’s that most people gravitate towards the right books on their own. All we can do is point in a general direction and hope for the best. It’s similar to fixing up friends on a blind date. Sometimes it can go very wrong. Like the time I suggested my mom read American Wife. While she greatly enjoyed the book, I completely regretted the recommendation after she expressed her shock over a particular sex scene. It just wasn’t worth my embarrassment.

It’s in my nature to recommend books, so I’ll keep doing it. But I’ll also continue to keep my expectations low. I suspect my friend will get around to reading at least one or two of the books I tossed at her, but ultimately, I was just happy to see her curled up with a book I enjoyed. Who cares how it fell into her hands? I just led her towards the options and the connection was made, just like any good friendship.

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—Miriam

The Fever by Megan Abbott

imageEvery summer there’s one or two thrillers that everyone’s talking about. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson dominated 2010. In 2011 it was Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson and Sister by Rosamund Lipton, in 2012 there was Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, and last year the big one was The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith. This year, everyone’s been telling me I have to read The Fever by Megan Abbott. So I did.

We already know a version of The Fever in real life. In 2012, Le Roy, New York made the news with a strange epidemic: a strikingly large group of mostly teenage girls all developed an idiopathic tic. Was there an environmental cause? Was it stress? Had everyone gone crazy? No one seemed to know. What happened in Le Roy was eventually believed to be a psychological problemmass hysteria. But that isn’t the case in Abbott’s new novel.

In The Fever, the first teenager to suffer a seizure and fall into a coma is Lise, a voluptuous and popular girl who has been getting a large amount of male attention since puberty hit. It just so happens that the day before Lise’s seizure, her best friend Deenie lost her virginity to the same guy Lise had been hooking up with. Deenie is the central character in The Fever and her entry into the world of sexuality sets the stage for the book’s underlying condemnation of promiscuity, implying that the victims of what soon becomes an epidemic are actually being slut-shamed. The primary male characters, Deenie’s father Tom and her brother Eli are stable, solid guys. But Deenie’s mom had an affair and abandoned the family. All the other female characters are either promiscuous, sinister, or hysterical. Women, it seems, are being punished.

Lise’s case is the most serious, but soon the strange seizures spread and incident after incident lands girls in the hospital. Deenie’s other best friend, Gabby, is one of the victims, and soon Deenie begins to notice that the symptoms are striking those closest to her. Theories are floated. Was it the school-given HPV vaccine that caused the epidemic? Contact with the local contaminated lake water? But then why isn’t Deenie affected?

It isn’t the solution to the problem that’s at the heart of The Fever. It’s the force of teen emotions and the dynamics of their interactions with each other that’s so compelling. Teenagers make each other crazy, but oddly, sometimes their motivations make perfect sense. At least in the ending of The Fever they do.

While I enjoyed The Fever, if you’re looking for a thriller about teens gone wild, the one to watch for is The Secret Place by Tana French coming in September. Now those characters are crazy.

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—Miriam

Review: Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken HarborAs promised in a post six months ago, it’s time to review Tana French’s new thriller, Broken Harbor. The July 24th pub date is fast approaching, and there’s already a video clip out of the author talking about her book.

Broken Harbor is French’s fourth effort, after In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place.  Her books are character-driven and feature flawed and compelling though not necessarily likeable protagonists. With each new book, French brings a new detective to the forefront, always a character who lurked in the background in the preceding novel. In Broken Harbor, the spotlight is on Mick “Scorcher” Kennedy, the jerky and by-the-book-only cop who tried to keep Frank away from the investigation in Faithful Place.

The recession, the property developers, the real estate promoters, and the banks are invisible yet present villains in this timely story. Kennedy’s big case calls him out to Broken Harbor, one of the half-built, half-abandoned “luxury” developments scattered across Ireland, where Patrick Spain and his two young children are found dead. Spain’s wife, Jenny, is the only survivor, but she’s hanging on by a thread in intensive care. The Spains had fallen into the trap of the property boom and the dream of idyllic suburban life, and instead found they had spent ten times their income to get stuck out in the middle of nowhere in a never-to-be-finished development. Developers ran out of the money, the neighborhood remained unfinished and unpopulated, and Pat Spain lost his job. But what could have gone so completely wrong out there that led to murder?

The murders at the Spain house are only part of the story. Detective Kennedy has a past of his own in Broken Harbor. He’s dealing with a mentally ill sister whose childhood memories of Broken Harbor resurface when she learns her brother is on the case. His naive rookie sidekick, Richie, thinks the murders should be easy to solve. But there are too many holes in the obvious assumption that Pat Spain was responsible. Weird things were happening at the house: holes smashed in the walls, files missing off the computer, and a stalker who has been spying on the family.

One of French’s favorite plot devices is inadmissible evidence, and she uses it here in an utterly heartbreaking way that puts the flaws of the main detectives on full and painful display. One of Kennedy’s main characteristics is his by-the-rules approach, so what’s a guy like that to do when truth and justice are at odds with the law?

I liked Broken Harbor and remain as steadfast an admirer of Tana French as ever. If this is the first novel of hers that you read, you’ll be impressed. She’s a one-of-a-kind storyteller, truly in a league of her own. If, however, you’ve read her other books, you might share my nagging sentiment that she can do better. Faithful Place set the bar particularly high. You won’t go wrong reading Broken Harbor this summer if you want to read her newest, but for the best of Tana French, I’d send you to her backlist.

—Miriam

Marriage is the Ultimate Mystery

Gone GirlYou can often find Marni behind the front counter of Island Books, her honey-colored hair and love for dogs an innocent cover for her reading taste. She’s the other Island Books staffer besides me who gets positively giddy over a good psychological thriller. This became obvious when Marni and I tried to snatch an advanced copy of Tana French’s Broken Harbor out of each others’ hands. In a friendly way, of course. So when she emailed me at the end of March to say “There’s a new mystery/thriller by Gillian Flynn called Gone Girl that you should read. I’m so excited for it to come in so I can sell it!” I knew what needed to be next on my reading list.

I’m limited in what I can say without spoiling Gone Girl, but I will tell you this: no matter how much you think you have the mystery figured out, the second half of the book will blow you away. And if my review here isn’t sufficient to hook you, ask Marni to tell you more about Gone Girl when you drop by the store. Her eyes will light up (as much as if you bring your dog by).

Here’s a book that looks like a classic “the-husband-did-it” thriller. Believably told from alternating points of view (and not all writers can pull this off well, but Flynn does), the story begins when bar owner Nick comes home to find his stay-at-home wife Amy has disappeared, leaving only suspicious signs of a struggle, some tell-tale blood on the kitchen floor, and the back door wide open. As the investigation begins, sections of Amy’s diary written in past tense are interspersed with Nick’s experience in the present as he deals with the aftermath of her disappearance.

Amy tells the story of how they met as young writers in New York, fell in love, and got married. Then the economy turned sour and both lost their jobs, which led to a decision to move back to Nick’s hometown in Missouri to care for his dying mother. Amy’s parents are bestselling authors of a children’s book series called Amazing Amy, which chronicled a fictional version of their daughter as she grew up. Their bestselling work turned Amy into a trust-fund child, and allowed her to loan Nick the money to open a bar with his twin sister, Margo.

The Amy that comes across in the diary is madly in love with her husband and increasingly lonely after they leave New York. She leaves behind warning signs in her narrative that suggest that they struggled in their marriage and Nick has a temper he can’t control. Nick, on the other hand, despite his earnestness over the seriousness of the situation, lies to the police, Amy’s parents, and worst of all, us readers. The media doesn’t like him and his behavior following Amy’s disappearance is suspicious. We can see where this is going. Nick must be the one responsible. The question is why, and how. Or is it?

That’s where the story seems to be going, but then we’re smarter readers than that, aren’t we? The explanation can’t possibly be that simple. Then other suspects begin to pop up, including stalkers from Amy’s past (she’s had a few since she was the inspiration for a popular children’s book character). Her parents seem a little off, too. And then there’s that something that Nick’s sister Margo is hiding…

At this point in the review I’m using all my restraint to keep from dropping the bombshell on you. All I can say is you’ve never met a villain as creepy and distinctive as this one, or an ending that’s as uniquely disturbing. The darkest parts of this novel are not the crimes. What’s most unnerving about Gone Girl is, shockingly, the true nature of Nick and Amy’s superficially normal marriage.

—Miriam

Author Spotlight: Sophie Hannah

Sophie HannahBritish author Sophie Hannah has five brilliant works of crime fiction out in the United States, with another thriller coming this summer. Message in a Bottle readers know I’m a sucker for this genre, in particular the incredible Tana French. But the truth is, French can’t write as fast as I can read, and Hannah is my other favorite go-to when I’m hungry for a good mind-bender.

I’ve read her entire US backlist: Little Face, The Truth-Teller’s Lie, The Wrong Mother, The Dead Lie Down, The Cradle in the Grave, and just this past week, an advance copy of The Other Woman’s House. That’s enough to know this author isn’t a one-hit wonder.

Hannah’s stories are about sinister relationships gone wrong, and the multi-dimensional continuing characters of the detectives who get to the bottom of the crimes. Often you don’t even know if a crime has really been committed or what the exact danger is, because the sanity of the narrators is often in question.

The Cradle in the GraveRather than opening with a dead body, her books always begin with a distraught and traumatized person coming to the see one of the leading detectives, Charlie Zailer or her partner (and complicated love interest) Simon Waterhouse. Zailer and Waterhouse’s humanity balance out the twisted and dark crimes, adding a level to the books that doesn’t exist in straight-up crime fiction. There are many dimensions to their characters and the work takes a heavy toll on their personal lives. These guys are committed beyond “who did it?” and “how?” They always dig down to the “why?” no matter what the cost, and that’s what makes them so compelling.

Hannah’s premises will make your head spin. In Little Face, a woman comes to the Zailer and Waterhouse claiming that someone has swapped her baby with a different baby while she left the child alone with her husband, but no other baby has been reported missing. In The Dead Lie Down, a man confesses to the murder of a woman who isn’t dead. And in The Truth Teller’s Lie, a woman insists something terrible has happened to her lover and that he’s disappeared, even though his wife says he’s not missing. With each novel, the setups seem so implausible that it’s hard to believe an author could bring the threads together and make the plot work.

The Wrong MotherEvery story begins with a puzzling and impossible situation, often taking on far too ambitious a starting point. Essentially what makes Hannah so good is that she lives up to the challenge, filling out an intriguing premise with complex explanations and fleshing the story out fully to a satisfying conclusion. I can honestly say I’ve never guessed any of the endings before the last quarter of the book, and usually I’m pretty good at that.

The Other Woman’s House is Hannah’s new book coming in July. I read my advance copy in two days, once again caught up in the complex plot. When a woman takes a virtual tour of a house on a real estate website and sees a dead body in the picture, she’s sure a crime has been committed, even though her husband looked at the site minutes later and the body was gone. Is she crazy or is her husband deceiving her? As usual, I kept turning the pages to find out.

—Miriam

Reading in 2012

Best of 2011As 2011 comes to an end, it’s a good time to lay out some new annual reading goals. What I’d like to do is finally start writing down every book I read, so at the end of the year I can look back and remember my annual literary life. I’ve been meaning to start that list forever and it just keeps getting away from me. Can you remember every book you read in 2011? I know I can’t, and that’s frustrating because I read about a book or two a week. I remember my narrow list of favorites at least, so maybe that’s enough (Before I Go to Sleep, The Paris Wife, 22 Brittania Road, and Sister spring to mind).

Disclaimer: Considering that I’m partial to thrillers and fiction, take my personal list with a grain of salt. If you want the stellar collaborative Island Books list, go here.

That said, it’s time to close the 2011 chapter and move on to 2012. And wouldn’t you know, just as I started researching what’s coming out next year so I could plan my must-read list, I received an email from one of my favorite publishing insiders who happens to know my taste a little too well. He said, “I’m thinking I have a galley for you which you will want to be the first book you read in 2012.”  Somehow I just knew what he meant and let me just say, thanks for the best holiday gift ever, you-know-who. Pretty soon I’m going to get my hands on an advanced copy of Broken Harbor by Tana French, and I hope no one expects to hear from me until I finish reading it. The pub date isn’t until the end of July, so I know I’m getting way ahead of myself. There’s no cover or book description available, so why, you ask, am I already blogging about it?

Faithful PlaceThere are three reasons: Faithful Place, The Likeness, and In the Woods. Over the last few years, Tana French’s work has become hard to surpass on the psychological thriller shelf. Her writing is as intelligent and crafted as the finest fiction and her plot twists are masterful and thought-provoking. It’s incredibly rare to find a thriller that succeeds on both fronts. To say I’m a fan would be an understatement. Not only does French manage to make all of her troubled Irish characters three-dimensional, she links her novels together by making a supporting character in one the protagonist of the next. Her books imprint themselves so deeply on my brain that I can still talk passionately about them years after I read them. She keeps a plenitude of secrets up her sleeve while she makes readers hopelessly invested in the emotional lives of her characters, then masterfully drops a bombshell that turns a novel on its head. Another reason I like Tana French? Each book gets better than the last.

I’m already checking my mail for that advanced copy of Broken Harbor, and to be reasonable, I’ll keep my expectations in check. Look for my review sometime before it comes out next summer, and in the meantime, if you haven’t read French’s first three books, by all means get on it.

—Miriam

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