PNBA 2014

On Saturday I attended PNBA- the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association trade show. The organization supports independent bookstores in the Pacific Northwest and once a year they bring together publishers, authors and other book-related companies. This year the event was held in Tacoma, WA at the Hotel Murano. I went to see what the publishers are talking about for spring and thought I’d share it with all you readers because it was so much fun.

There is something about walking into an event like this that is probably hard for non-book lovers to understand, but it’s a bit intoxicating. All of my plans about which booths to visit and what books I’m interested in fly right out of my head and I want ALL. OF. THEM. There was so much to see and the publishers’ representatives did an amazing job selling their upcoming titles. By and large they are there to get sales, booksellers ordering books for their stores, so a book blogger is not a big deal but everyone I met was more than happy to talk to me about their upcoming spring releases. And more importantly, they’d read them! The man at Macmillan was engaged from the moment I stepped up to the booth until I left. He was describing their new titles with such enthusiasm that I took several based on his recommendation. At Penguin Random House, I met with two sales reps—one who did such a good job describing The Girl on the Train that three people took a copy. The other was so excited about the upcoming Anne Tyler that she crawled under a table to try and find a copy for me. Unfortunately, they were all gone but she took my info and promised to mail me one. And at Tin House, a small publisher based in Portland, I managed to get copies of two of their spring releases that had been highly recommended to me.

This is a special show, maybe because it is perfectly sized. I’ve been to BEA and it is a blow-your-mind kind of event. Everything is over the top—the crowds, the hype, the noise, with huge authors and celebrities everywhere. PNBA is much more manageable and yet, it gets the job done just as well in that it gets books into the hands of the people who are going to promote them and sell them. Overall, I had a great time. The feeling of being surrounded by people who love books and want to talk about them is infectious and uplifting. I had conversations with strangers about why we loved a book or why they didn’t and I did. There was a lot of good energy which means that readers have all kinds of great reading to look forward to this spring! And don’t fret if you don’t live in the PNW. There are similar associations in other parts of the U.S. One of my blogging friends Shannon, over at River City Reading went to SIBA, the Southern version a few weeks ago.

Going to PNBA means I’ve completed the trifecta of bookish events for book lovers! I’ve been to BEA (Book Expo America), the largest event for publishers and virtually anyone in the book world; ALA (Seattle and Las Vegas), which is for librarians; and now PNBA for booksellers.  I can retire. No, I can’t, I have all these amazing new books to read and write about!

Have you been to any book shows? Or events in your industry that were fun?



No better way to be welcomed than with a Hello made out of candy!




The results of my efforts! I’m especially looking forward to: The Boatmaker, The Mime Order, Our Endless Numbered Days, Dead Wake, and Rodin’s Lover.

Bitter Greens

bitter greens

Thomas Dunne Books, September 2014


Charlotte-Rose de la Force is a most unfortunate women for her times. Unmarried and subject to whims of Louis XIV she has provoked his ire once too often with her acerbic writings about the Church and has now been consigned to a nunnery. For a woman who loves her fine silk dresses and elegantly styled hair to be shut away, wearing burlap with shorn hair and no writing utensils is a fate almost worse than death. But, at the abbey she meets an unusual nun who uses their time working in the garden together to spin a wonderful tale and leads us into Kate Forsyth’s new novel, Bitter Greens. Charlotte-Rose was a real woman and the original author of the fairy tale Rapunzel. In Bitter Greens, Forsyth combines the details of Charlotte-Rose’s life with those of a young girl named Margherita and a courtesan known as La Strega Bella.

Margherita is the character most of us know as Rapunzel and Forsyth follows her story fairly carefully—foolish promise made by parents to a witch who takes her away as a young girl and imprisons her in a tower. Forsyth then plies her own imagination to add details to the story including how the hair came to be and why the witch wants Margherita so desperately. Her vivid imagination also creates Selena, La Strega Bella, a beautiful young woman who apprentices herself to an herbalist who also works with the occult. She becomes a courtesan and when necessity prevails, begins to use the dark arts, and eventually becomes the witch who kidnaps Margherita.

In Bitter Greens Forsyth braids these stories of one woman and two fairy tale characters into one thick novel that fascinates from a historical perspective and appeals because of the high drama of the fairy tale. The only drawback—as Margherita found with the bulk of 100’ of hair attached to her head—is that there is so much going on that it can be hard to manage. Keeping track of who/what is real and what is the tale being spun is made more difficult because in the chapters about Charlotte-Rose Forsyth is careful to emulate the French aristocracy’s delight in announcing their full lineage to anyone who asks. Additionally, the court of the Sun King was rife with intrigue which Forsyth includes in Charlotte-Rose’s story but in doing makes it feel as if her life was more than enough for a novel by itself. Still, for lovers of historical fiction Forsyth’s re-creation of the golden days of French history is filled with behind-the-tapestries intrigue. For those with a magical bent the reworking of an age old fairy tale with maidens, witches, evil spells and handsome princes—all with slightly modern attitudes—will be a welcome beginning to the kind of reading needed for the cold, rainy weather of fall.

I received a copy of this book from Thomas Dunne Books as part of Historical Fiction Virtual Book Tours. To see the tour schedule click here.

About the Author

bitter greens

Kate Forsyth, award-winning author of thirty books for both adults and children, was voted one of Australia’s Favourite 20 Novelists, and is an accredited master storyteller with the Australian Guild of Storytellers.

Her recent novel, ‘The Wild Girl’, is the true love story of Wilhelm Grimm and Dortchen Wild, the young woman who told him many of the world’s most famous fairy tales. It was named the Most Memorable Love Story of 2013. ‘Bitter Greens’ has been nominated for a Norma K. Hemming Award, the Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Fiction, and a Ditmar Award.

Kate’s books have been published in 14 countries. She lives in Sydney, Australia, with her family and many thousands of books.


This book can be purchased online at:

Bitter Greens
by Kate Forsyth

The Elliott Bay Book Company

How to Build a Girl

how to build a girl

Harper, September 2014


I want to be a self-made woman. I want to conjure myself out of every sparkling, fast-moving thing I can see. I want to be the creator of me. I’m gonna begat myself.

Caitlin Moran’s How to Build a Girl is the hell-bent lovechild of Angela’s Ashes and Almost Famous—overlarge, impoverished family with a drunken non-working father and a teen daughter with a love of music and writing, desperate to grow up and get away. Johanna Morrigan is fourteen and who she is is so horribly not who she wants to be that she creates a new persona for herself named Dolly Wilde, who sends unsolicited music reviews to a London music publication. When, after two years, Johanna gets an interview with them she takes her Goth-meets-Willy-Wonka, heavily made-up, top hat wearing self to London and Dolly is officially launched as a music critic. Now, she can be who she wants to be- the kind of gal who is up for any adventure especially of the drinking and having sex kind. For her, both are the ultimate entrée into a world that has eluded her. Unlike, the overweight, goofy Johanna who likes musicals, Dolly parties every night, smokes, drinks, and sleeps with anyone who asks her. She is a sexual adventuress, earning money to keep her family afloat, and in charge of her own destiny. Until she is not.

Even if How to Build a Girl is based on Moran’s own life, she writes fiction that explodes. It also pierces and shocks but at the same time fills the reader with sympathy and recognition. You don’t have to have been an overweight girl with too many siblings, a drunk father and no money to remember the onslaught of feelings that came with the teenage years. Johanna yearns to be everything she is not and for many women there is much to recognize in those feelings. The difference is she acts on it, deciding to remake herself as she thinks she wants to be. And so, Dolly Wilde is born, the snarky, hard-partying, sex toy. At the same time, she is intelligent, endearing, and starved for life and experience.

Because what you are, as a teenager, is a small, silver, empty rocket. And you use loud music as fuel, and then the information in books as maps and coordinates, to tell you where you’re going.

How to Build a Girl is not for everyone. Moran uses profanity in place of carbon dioxide—spewing it with every exhale. This is especially true of the ‘c’ word which I cannot accept as part of the feminist paradigm (own it and it can’t hurt you). It is simply a horribly derogatory word to me and I don’t like seeing it, BUT Moran so thoroughly inhabits Johanna’s world that it is necessary not gratuitous. Still, this is a novel about a 16-year-old girl who embarks on a journey of indiscriminate sex and drugs to discover who she wants to be. It hurts, it’s made up of awful mistakes, but there is a core there that glows with the positive energy of self. If I were the mother of a teenage girl I would be terrified by Johanna’s recklessness in pursuing her selfhood but as a mature woman, while her choices are still concerning they are offset by the nuclear brightness of this young girl’s mind.

Moran writes this character so inimitably herself- though she tries to be someone else- that Johanna’s words resonate, even in the mind of middle-aged readers. She burns hot and fast until she learns that this façade is not one built to last and that it’s based on a foundation of cynicism that is not really her.

For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas. Cynicism means your automatic answer becomes “No.” Cynicism means you presume everything will end in disappointment. And this is, ultimately, why anyone becomes cynical.

There is much in How to Build a Girl that will offend and put off, but the real message of the book, underneath the noise and squalor, is one of hope and the kind of inner self-sufficiency every girl should have. Johanna puts herself in harm’s way to learn, but as a girl with no support system she has to get there on her own. The fact that she does so, is nothing short of a miracle and a testament to her brilliant, troubled, foolish, incandescent self.

There is no academy where you can learn to be yourself; there is no line manager slowly urging you toward the correct answer. You are midwife to yourself, and will give birth to yourself, over and over, in dark rooms, alone.


This book can be purchased online at:

How to Build a Girl
by Caitlin Moran

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Paying Guests

paying guests

Riverhead Books, September 2014


By the end of World War I Frances Wray has lost almost everyone in her life she cares about—her two brothers to the war, her father to a heart attack, and the person she loves to the circumstances brought about by so much death and change. She and her mother are left with a grand old house but no money, as her father lost it all in bad investments before his death. It is Frances who decides to rent out part of their house to lodgers, in order to keep from selling it and becoming homeless. The Paying Guests is Sarah Waters’ novel about the changes the Wray’s experience as they open their home to a young couple from a social class far different from their own.

Lilian and Leonard Barber bring an unexpected vitality and a dose of unease to the house as they bump and crowd their way in. For Mrs. Wray, a polite smile and a hasty retreat to her room are as much as she can muster. For Frances, these people, unusual in her genteel world, are intriguing and off-putting. Lilian draws her in with her showy, feminine exuberance while Leonard’s sly humor feels as if he is making fun of her. It is only as time passes that relationships shift and the lines between tenant and landlord blur. What started as a business arrangement becomes something far more inflammatory and unmanageable.

…Frances felt a rush of the abandonment that had overwhelmed her a few nights before. The feeling was like a wailing infant suddenly thrust into her arms: she didn’t want it, couldn’t calm it, had nowhere to set it down.

There is no doubt about Waters’ ability to vividly recreate time and place as well as the intricacies of human emotion but in The Paying Guests this skill leads to a slowing of the plot I found very hard to manage. The difficulty of Frances’ situation and the conflict created by her intense emotions and desires make for rich reading but in a novel over 550 pages long it can be hard to sustain continued attention. However, when the plot does return it is substantial and generates enough momentum to enhance the existing, heightened emotions on all sides. It just may be, that what was scandalous in the 1920s, despite being handled with delicacy and Waters’ thoughtful prose, may fall flat to present day readers.

Sarah Waters will be reading from The Paying Guests at The Elliott Bay Book Company tomorrow night, September 23rd, at 7:00pm.




30 Authors in 30 Days: Lisa O’Donnell on Crooked River by Valerie Geary

30 authors in 30 days

30 Authors in 30 Days is a first of its kind event aimed at connecting readers, bloggers, and authors. Hosted by The Book Wheel, this month-long event takes place during September and features 30 authors discussing their favorite recent reads on 30 different blogs. There are also some great prizes provided by and BookJigs. For the full schedule of participating authors and bloggers, visit The Book Wheel or join the Facebook group. You can also follow along on Twitter with the #30Authors hashtag!

Today I’m thrilled to be hosting Lisa O’Donnell, author of The Death of Bees, which I loved. She shares her thoughts on Crooked River by Valerie Geary.

crooked river

William Morrow, available in October


Author Lisa O’Donnell on Crooked River by Valerie Geary

I was privileged enough recently to read an advanced copy of Crooked River by Valerie Geary due out in October. It is a mesmorizing read and I’m compelled to share.

Set in rural Oregon, Crooked River tells the tale of sisters, Sam McAlister, who is 15 years old and Ollie who is 12 and who sees ghosts or as she calls them “the shimmering” When their mother dies they are sent to live with their beekeeper father Bear, a local eccentric who lives with his two daughters under the stars in a meadow in a tepee, but soon after they arrive the girls find a young woman’s dead body in the river and instead of telling anyone they let it float away. The body is soon discovered and all evidence points at Bear. He is quickly arrested, but Sam believes her father is innocent and embarks on a desperate hunt to keep her family together. Ollie also believes her father is innocent; the spirits who surround her have told her so and are guiding her towards the truth placing both Sam and Ollie in real danger.

Embroidered in immaculate prose, this enchanting supernatural thriller engaged me from the first paragraph when the girls discover the body washed up on the banks of Crooked River. Told in the first person and from each sisters point of view thus vibrant literary debut will reward lovers of psychological mystery and with a pen so tender it will break your heart.

You can find Valerie Geary at:

Author site:
Twitter: @ValerieGeary

30 authors in 30 days


Author Bio

Lisa O’Donnell won the Orange Screenwriting Prize in 2000 for her screenplay The Wedding Gift. Her debut novel, The Death of Bees, was the winner of the 2013 Commonwealth Book Prize. She lives in Scotland.

Twitter: @LisaODonnell72


The books mentioned in this post can be purchased online at:

Crooked River
by Valerie Geary
The Death of Bees
by Lisa O’Donnell

Broken Monsters

broken monsters

Mulholland Books, September 2014


Lauren Beukes covered creepy in her debut The Shining Girls but it doesn’t compare to just how mess-with-your-mind she gets in her latest, Broken Monsters. As if Detroit hasn’t taken enough hits in the last decade it is now the setting for this scary tale of an amorphous monster creating gruesome art out of mixed human and animal body parts…taken from living subjects. Detective Gabriella Versado must find the killer all while trying to manage her teenage daughter who, on the surface is a star student but thinks her brains and street smarts equip her to handle online predators. Other characters caught in the goings-on of Detroit are Jonno Haim, a pseudo-journalist who has crash landed in Detroit after his life in NYC burned out and TK, a street person trying to stay clean and help others. Floating amongst them is an artist who begins with a vision but ends up with dreams he can’t tell from reality.

…all eaten up on the inside by the dreaming thing he let into his head that didn’t mean to get trapped here, drawn out by the raw wound of the man’s mind, blazing like a lamp in one of those border places where the skin of the worlds are permeable…

Broken Monsters takes place over ten days in November, beginning with the discovery of a young boy’s torso attached to the hind legs of a fawn. Beukes crisscrosses the action between Versado’s attempts to control the murder investigation with Haim’s desire to make a name for himself using the ‘public’s need to know’ excuse, Thomas’s unknowing interactions with the possible killer, and Layla’s attempts to grow up and find outlets for her empathy. By flipping between everyday emotional and physical stories and the exaggerated gruesomeness of the killer’s actions the novel maintains a level of tension that induces non-stop reading. Beukes ups the ante by making the killing tool a nail gun which, for me, meant I was reading while waving my hand in front of my eyes to keep me from seeing what was happening.  No logic to that kind of fear.

Ultimately, what makes Broken Monsters the most terrifying is not the grossness of the story but the message that lies beneath. That of the very real horror engulfing our me-me-me society—the growing need of so many to be seen and seen and seen again whether it be selfies, Instagram, or YouTube. At first it’s just lowlife Haim who, when he happens on one of the murder scenes, films it on his phone and puts it on the internet to reclaim the fame he never had. But then, it is the killer who so wants to be seen that when it figures out the game, works relentlessly to make it so. When is it enough?

 This book can be purchase online at:

Broken Monsters
by Lauren Beukes

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Moor’s Account

moors account

Pantheon Books/Random House, September 2014


And thus it was done. Of all the contracts I had signed, this was perhaps the only one my father could never have imagined me signing, for it traded what should never be traded. It delivered me into the unknown and erased my father’s name. I could not know that this was just the first of many erasures. 

The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami is the story of Mustafa, a young man who lives in Morocco in the early 1500s and sells himself into slavery to save his family from starvation. The first thing that is taken away from him is his name when he is renamed by a Spanish slaver and becomes Estebanico. Soon he is sold to a Castilian conquistador and embarks with him on a voyage to the New World, landing in what is now Florida. What was supposed to be an ocean voyage followed by a quick conquering of a native population, the discovery of copious amounts of gold and a return to Spain as wealthy heroes turns into thirteen years of disease, death, and enslavement by the Indian tribes they encounter. The original 500 passengers of soldiers, clergy and settlers are reduced to four men who wander from Florida all the way to Mexico, known then as New Spain.

The novel is Mustafa’s version of those years, in opposition to the accounts given by the three other men, who as Spaniards and gentlemen are loath to admit the failure of their mission. It is Mustafa who details their lives through the years when they searched first for their ships and gold and then as part of the nomadic tribes of Indians with whom they lived. With his honesty we watch these arrogant men brutalize the natives, lie to them and then call them liars when what they desire (gold) is not to be found. They are the untrustworthy devils and as disease decimates their group as well as the natives they watch in horror and then resignation as they become the slaves, serving chieftains and being abused and starved.

For Mustafa, this is nothing new. He realizes the horror of what he has done early on and that there is no way out.  It is only in their sixth year, when they encounter a tribe in need of a healer, that things change. Mustafa’s black skin already marks him as different from the feared white men and now his knowledge of healing and facility with the various Indian dialects gives him power as a shaman. Suddenly, his master looks to him to save their lives and in doing so, makes promises to him about his freedom when they finally get home. Two years later they find another set of Spaniards and the novel takes on a not unexpected but tragic tone.

Unfolding with the strange and wonderful beauty of a new land and foreign cultures, The Moor’s Account is lushly woven together by Lalami’s prose. She writes with such strength and surety of this long ago time that you expect to look up and see forest from the doorway of your hut. Mustafa is given a quiet dignity even as he suffers. Even though he is the sole narrator there is no question that his account is anything less than the truest truth. And while he has a fierce desire to get home, to recapture what he so thoughtlessly gave away, he accepts that he has no control over his own fate.

The Moor’s Account is beautiful but deeply sad, as a novel of the conquest of the New World must be. Even when the Castilians are assimilated into the Indian tribe and marry their women, they shed this skin as soon as they are able and revert to their previous attitudes and behavior. Lalami has written a novel of profound depth and solemn sadness from a time long ago but the feelings it evokes are fresh and raw.

The Elliott Bay Book Company is partnering with the Seattle Public Library to host Laila Lalami on Tuesday night, September 16th. Event details here.


This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters

harristown sisters

Bloomsbury, August 2014

The Swineys are seven Irish sisters of unknown paternity growing up in a falling-down shack in a small town in Ireland in the late 1800s. They have no electricity, no indoor toilets, and so little food that a piece of bread may suffice for the day. What they do have is hair of extraordinary length in hues from white blond to deepest black. They also have a range of singing voices that gives the eldest sister, Darcy, the idea for their salvation. This is where The True and Splendid History of the Harristown Sisters by Michelle Loveric begins.

 The Harristown Sisters follows the girls from their early beginnings and their first show when, thanks to Darcy’s fertile mind, they close by cascading their copious locks onto the stage boards causing a frenzy of delight and jealousy that launches their careers. From that lowly church stage the girls began to be booked in real local theaters, ultimately making their way to a new life in Dublin. From that point on, the sisters rise and rise, from simply showing off their unbound hair—a provocative act for the times—to performing clever skits and songs, written by the middle sister, Manticory. They sign deals to have dolls made with hair just like theirs and to sell hair growth potions.

 All of this is grand but the only sister with any power is the indomitable Darcy, who controls her sisters with intimidation and verbal threats. They receive an allowance from her but she keeps all contracts and money locked away and she is the only one to communicate with the increasing number of men with whom she does business. As one of them says, “She makes one long for the tender manners of Attila the Hun.” The other sisters are so cowed there is no thought of leaving the group or returning home, much less simply refusing to do an act that is becoming increasingly salacious as the girls become women.

Can all the hurt girls in the world add up to a single happy one?

Lovric does a marvelous job emulating the rhythm and slang of the Irish language, making The Harristown Sisters raucous reading. What begins as plausible fiction moves through operatic highs and lows and a fair bit of magical realism (Darcy’s physicality begins to mirror her black soul) before the novel winds down. Seven sisters and a career spanning decades is a lot of territory to cover but with Lovric’s imaginative touches, The Harristown Sisters is a lively Irish tale.


This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Station Eleven

station eleven

Alfred A. Knopf, September 9, 2014


I read a fair amount of dystopian fiction this summer- either set in the U.S. or global and I would have saved myself a lot of time if Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel had come out first because it is the best. Big words, I know but, while not garnering the level of publicity of other recent books in the genre, it is a novel that should be noticed for its portrait of an America-to-come that is as recognizable as it is depressing.

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on there was no place they could walk where life continued as it had before…

The big picture is frightening (no Internet, no air travel or cars, even no electricity) but where Mandel excels is in the little things that might not occur to anyone thinking about the apocalypse: no insulin or chemotherapy or anesthesia or, even homier—beds, walls, kitchen appliances—all the things that provide comfort and ease to our lives, gone as the years pass. There is no manufacturing to replace what breaks, no medicine to heal what ails, and no schools to train and educate and it is almost impossible for our coddled minds to imagine. Suddenly, we are pre-Industrial Revolution and completely isolated in our loss and knowledge of what is happening in the rest of the world. A loss all the more painful for those who lived before the end and remember what life was like.

Station Eleven is about life after the apocalypse and yet, it is the life of one man which holds it all together—an actor named Arthur Leander and his connection to every character in the novel. Despite dying of a heart attack while performing King Lear in the novel’s opening pages his impact is still felt decades later as the novel closes. Like a play, the apocalypse is the massive backdrop against which the scenes unfold. It is an immutable structure, but the novel is fluid as it moves among the lives of the people that Arthur touched, possibly without even knowing he did so. Kristen was a little girl when he worked with her in King Lear, and he spoiled her in lieu of Tyler, the son he misses. He gives both children a copy of the science fiction comic book his first wife wrote, Doctor Eleven, Vol. I: Station Eleven. Little does he know how it will impact each and the lives they are about to lead.

Station Eleven is powerful because of its realism. There is no need for zombies, aliens or war lords; even class warfare is dead thanks to the fact that the playing field has been leveled. Instead, Mandel covers the smallness of what is left and the struggle to survive by a diverse cast peopled with those who knew Arthur in some way: his best friend, Clark; his first wife Miranda; Jeevan, the EMT who treated him as he lay dying, to name a few. This is the kind of book that could get bogged down in the back story of so many characters but Mandel’s sense of pace and her taut prose not only render the characters fully alive but endow the reader with a sense of caring about what happens to them. Station Eleven hits all the narrative and descriptive marks found in the kind of brilliant storytelling that goes beyond the plot to hold the reader even after the last page.

p.s. For a book lover, Station Eleven is especially poignant because, for much of our lives, we’ve watched as print has declined and digitization of ancient and modern works has been deemed necessary. What happens to that knowledge when the only thing left is a candle and a chair and everything digital disappears? Books, newspapers, any printed word on a page would be the only way to entertain and educate, but they are gone. It’s all gone.


This book can be purchased online at:

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Children Act

children act

Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, September 2014

Ian McEwan is one of those authors who can blend matters of life-and-death with everyday issues and give both equal weight. In his newest novel, The Children Act, he displays his skill with his elegant renderings of the life of Fiona Maye, a High Court judge in London. Maye presides in family court over the type of cases that bring out great emotion but she is widely known for her even-handed, incisive decisions. In the novel’s opening scene she is notified of a case that needs immediate attention as the child in question, who is suffering from a rare form of leukemia, will die without a much needed blood transfusion in the next few days. His parents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, are refusing the transfusion and the boy, who is seventeen, is refusing as well. It is up to Maye to decide if the hospital has the right to override the refusals and save his life.

When Maye gets the call about this case she is in the midst of listening to her husband Jack announce that after 35 years he wants an open marriage and is going to have an affair. Less than five pages in and already the tension is so thick it has a physical presence. We watch as she tries to compartmentalize the intellectual details of her work away from the emotional impact of a betrayal. As her mind whirls over all the details, thoughts, questions, and responses she might have, it returns to the many things she has done for him and given to him.

These offerings represented only a fraction of the happiness she urged on him, and sex was only one part of that fraction, and only latterly a failure, elevated by him into a mighty injustice.

When she tells him this is not a possibility for her, Jack leaves. She knows where he’s gone, knows who the woman is, but when he returns the next day after only one night, full of regret and wanting to save their marriage, her emotions are not necessarily what one would expect.

Then it came to her plainly what she felt about Jack’s return. So simple. It was disappointment that he had not stayed away. Just a little longer. Nothing more than that. Disappointment.

And yet, through McEwan’s portrayal of Maye, they are not completely surprising. She is a woman for whom the mind is paramount over the heart. Not that she is heartless but she has clear expectations of her life and the people in it and cannot understand why they can’t play out their roles. She has loved Jack and taken care of him and if a component of their marriage has fallen away he should accept it. And, if he was going to leave, shouldn’t he have done so for long enough that she could be alone to process her thoughts and get some space from the emotional intensity of the act?

Instead of any big scene, they try and return to their old life albeit with a certain coldness and distance. Maye’s mind is focused on the case of the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ family. She goes to see the boy, as he is almost at the age of consent, to get a better idea of what are his wishes and what are those of his parents. She renders a judgment and has no idea of its impact on her own life until it is too late.

Maye’s marriage and the teenage boy are the focus of The Children Act and McEwan uses them to sift through a number of themes—the personal versus professional life, parental and religious rights, and what marriage means. Each is a complex issue on its own but McEwan lets the narrative find its own level from within the mind of Fiona Maye. It’s not just the understanding of the complex and contradictory emotions these issues evoke that makes McEwan’s writing so intense, it’s the way he writes it. Just as Maye’s decisions are razor sharp so is his prose as, with a surgeon’s skill, he delves into the mind, discovering, in the darkest corners, the thoughts and emotions we do not want to admit, leaving us to recognize ourselves on the page.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

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