The Arsonist


Knopf, June 2014


In Sue Miller’s The Arsonist Frankie Rowley has returned to the small town of Pomeroy, New Hampshire- a beach town where she spent summers with her family and where her parents, Alylvia and Alfie, have now retired. She has left behind her life in Africa where she spent years working for an organization that helps feed children. She hopes that a quiet summer at the beach will clear her head and help her decide what to do. When struck with jet lag her first night home she takes a walk in the early morning hours and is surprised when a car drives by on one of the remote lanes near her house. When she learns the next day that an empty house burned down in the night she wonders about what she may have seen.

Within short order, several unoccupied houses in the area have burned down but in The Arsonist this action is only one small part of the story. Miller’s skill and finesse mean that as this story unfolds she has the literary wherewithal to write of much deeper, intimate issues that, while they progress more slowly, are no less damaging and difficult than an out-of-control fire. Sylvia is the first to notice that Alfie who, with his fickle thirst for new knowledge has always been a challenge,

She had come to understand how distractible he was, which she hadn’t noticed at first. How he was always hurrying to the next universe to read about, to master, but never quite deeply enough. 

is now forgetting more than he remembers. His moods shift and simple things like directions become complicated. Their retirement is still new and fragile and so she says nothing but later when Frankie has a conversation with her father he admits that he isn’t being honest with Sylvia and wonders

 “It raises the question, doesn’t it: when a person is changing, as I am, at what point are they no longer who they were?” 

This change, as slow moving as it may be unleashes a slew of emotions in Sylvia. She, too, was looking forward to retirement but with a husband who will require constant care and supervision can she even retire? And how would she work and look after this man’s needs? What would retirement even mean with a man who is becoming a stranger?

Sylvia is not alone in life changes. Frankie finds herself navigating a new relationship with the local paper’s owner and editor. Her plan of simplifying and figuring out her life is disrupted by this man.

It is Miller’s knack for delving into the personal lives of her characters in the face of larger situations that provides an important contrast for the reader. Even as disaster occurs there are small human stories evolving. The Arsonist stays so true to life that it is not always certain where things are going. Well into the novel there is a turn of events that is completely plausible in life and does not feel contrived but for which there is no expected outcome. The reader is simply along for the ride in the lives of these characters. This ambiguity can be disconcerting but the ride is still worth taking.


This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

Summer House with Swimming Pool

summer house

Hogarth, June 2014


Author Herman Koch has created the doctor we’re all afraid of in his new novel, Summer House with Swimming Pool. Not a horrific needle wielding monster but something worse: the one who pretends to care but really despises his patients. Dr. Marc Schlosser listens to his patients’ complaints and seems to be sympathetic and attentive but is really thinking about the beach and what a boring hypochondriac you are.

I used to let the patients talk for the full twenty minutes. After that they would go home feeling relieved. The doctor had given them a prescription and urged them to take things a little easier. 

One of Schlosser’s patients is a stage actor who, after inviting he and his wife to one of his plays, remarks to Schlosser about his wife’s attractiveness, a comment that rankles and begins what is Schlosser’s obsession with Meier and what he perceives to be Meier’s inappropriate lewdness towards women. And yet, this revulsion propels Schlosser towards Meier instead of away. He misleads his wife and chooses a summer vacation site close enough to Meier’s summer house that their paths cross within days. His thirteen-year-old daughter is taken with Meier’s fifteen-year-old son and Schlosser himself flirts with Meier’s wife while mentally despising Meier for his leering attitude towards every woman and girl they encounter, including Schlosser’s daughter. This combination of awkwardness explodes the night of a large midsummer celebration when like the fireworks, everything goes off badly and with results just as catastrophic: His daughter Julia has been found on the beach unconscious.

When Julia regains consciousness she is hysterical and appears to have been raped. Her inability to remember any of the details or even who assaulted her is the catalyst for Schlosser’s rage against Meier and leads him to take action of his own. Summer House is told only from Schlosser’s perspective which is as it should be because although there are many stories and events the only thing that matters is Schlosser’s perceptions of what happened and how that influences the choices he makes throughout the novel. Even by the end there is no certainty that the truth has come out although there is a very great likelihood it has and that Schlosser’s actions are indefensible. At the very least his breach of medical ethics, much less personal ones is egregious.

Koch proved himself in The Dinner as a writer who can walk the fine line of moral dilemmas and how morals can be highly relative, depending on the situation. The Dinner was shocking and striking and Summer House achieves many of the same effects but as it spans a much longer period of time the tension is not easily sustained. Where the novel loses strength is in Schlosser’s reminiscences of medical school and of one professor in particular. There is much made of homosexuality and pedophilia with a confusing conclusion about why both are biological abnormalities but where this fits into what is a psychologically complex story is unclear and serves only to deflect attention away from what is really happening. Summer House unsettles and challenges the reader and their conclusions or judgment just as Schlosser himself is challenged.


This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Stager: A Novel


Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, July 2014

As the real estate market appears to be rebounding it has given birth to an entire new industry—staging. And you know an industry has arrived when it makes its debut into fiction. Susan Coll’s new novel The Stager is about a quirky stager, who remains nameless for much of the novel (which is not surprising as these people slip into your home, remove everything that is yours and replace it with anonymous furnishings) but becomes an integral part of the main family’s life. They need to sell their house fast as the wife has been promoted into a new high level position in London and they’ve already purchased a house there. Unfortunately, a psychotic rabbit, a recalcitrant child, and a high maintenance husband are making the move especially difficult.

Bella is the uber achieving, Hermes-bag-owning executive in this drama and yet, despite being the only character with any control she is the only one with no voice. We hear the story extensively from her husband Lars and her daughter Elsa and then later from the stager Eve, but Bella, the centerpiece of all this narrative never speaks on her own behalf. She apparently controls all and either feels no need to give her side of the story or is prevented from doing so. Either way, it makes the retelling of this group’s history wildly inventive and amusing.

Coll designs two of the narrators, Lars and Elsa, as sources of perpetual annoyance so well that I grind my teeth when they speak. Once known as a major tennis star, Lars has now lapsed into obesity and drug abuse and can hardly leave the house or bathe. And yet, he manages to hold onto the tiny power of his many illnesses to get what he wants. When Bella suggests a chandelier for their new home rather than punching two holes in the roof for the skylights he wants he whines, “It needs to be natural light, Bella. I think you know that. Artificial light offers no nourishment.”

As the novel progresses the massive doses of painkillers, anti-depressants, and anxiety meds he takes lead him to believe he can read the minds of others and that a rabbit is speaking to him. One who seems to truly understand his pain:

“It’s Bella’s story. That’s the problem! You’re living life on her terms. You do everything she says. And you even believe her version of events. Like, she’s probably even put some sort of happy spin on the current situation. You get all of ten percent fidelity out of her, yet all she has to do is put out a press release with her own version of the story and then she controls the narrative.”  

Elsa is everyone’s worst nightmare of an only child—precocious and so solidly certain of her inalienable right to anything and everything she wants that there are no limits to what she will do to get it. Can’t find the Pop Tarts in the kitchen newly cleaned by the stager? Pull everything out of every cupboard, then change your mind, and leave. Want your bedroom to have a huge rabbit painted on the wall despite the stager saying it was not a good idea? Get the paint yourself, spill it, then walk in it and on your white carpet, and again, leave. She is also the proud owner of Dominique, the rabbit, who is apparently demented and wants to return to the wild so he runs away at every opportunity but not before chewing holes in the carpet, throwing up, climbing the drapes, and slashing holes in velvet upholstery with his claws.

Eve is the hapless stager and initially remains as innocuous as the furnishings she tries to set up in the Jorgenson house and deal with a pre-middle school child who thinks the world revolves around her. What slowly becomes apparent is that Eve is not unknown to the Jorgensons—most specifically to Bella. In fact, they go back many years to when they were both financial journalists and good friends. And then they were not and now Eve wants to set the record straight; all while maintaining her professional ethics and doing her best to ready their house for sale.

The Stager is sly and snarky and Coll ties the story together like a good room, adding pieces here and there to fill in the gaps between the characters. It is no coincidence that Eve takes this job but her rationale for doing so is a bit off. Regardless, it all leads to a funny conclusion in this satire about real estate, friendship, money and life and if Coll leaves some portions of the novel askew, in a way a stager would find off-putting, they are not enough to ruin the overall appeal of the story. As a buyer I’m sold.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Stager
by Susan Coll


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Girls Gone Wrong

girls gone wrong

Little, Brown and Company, June 2014


You spend a long time waiting for life to start—the past year or two filled with all these firsts, everything new and terrifying and significant—and then it does start and you realize it isn’t what you’d expected, or asked for.

Megan Abbott excels at portraying the almost overwhelming brew of hormones and perfumes that comes off teenage girls. Where she deviates from more traditional teen fiction is that more often than not the note that scent is heavily tinged with the testosterone of revenge. In The Fever, her newest novel, the action centers on a small circle of girls falling ill and exhibiting signs of what could either be seizures, bad HPV vaccines, or an illicit swim in a massively polluted lake. Much like the girls in Salem during the witch trials, the hysteria spreads and more fall ill—or think they are falling ill. In today’s record-everything-instantly society, photos and videos taken on phones show disturbing footage of each as she succumbs.

Caught in the middle of this growing medical nightmare is the Nash family. Father Tom is a teacher at the school, brother Eli is a popular student, and sister Deenie is the hub around which all the sick girls are connected. As she tries to stay above the growing questions about why she’s the only girl not getting sick, her father and brother try and deal with the students, friends, and the community and their own growing fears.

The Fever is a read-in-one-night kind of book (Abbott’s forte). The heightened pitch of the illness, the school, the girls, and their families builds realistically until the reader is primed for aliens or demons to exit bodies. Instead, what Abbott gives us is something much scarier: a look at the less than pretty side of teenage emotions.

This book can be purchased online at:

The Fever
by Megan Abbott


girls gone wrong

Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus & Giroux, June 2014

There are not many who would take a sexy university town in Umbria Italy and imbue it with a sense of darkness and foreboding but Katie Crouch does just that in her new novel, Abroad. The guileless Tabitha, or Taz, as she’s known to friends, is looking forward to leaving Ireland and spending her year abroad in sunny sexy Grifonia. Thanks to her near fluency in Italian she manages to find an apartment and get settled in, but her shyness and lack of confidence keep her isolated until a girl she knew from school befriends her. When she joins her group of three friends as the fourth, her social life takes off. What does not change is the reader’s increasing unease. This feeling could be because from the beginning Crouch intersperses modern day Grifonia with historical bits about the violent and bloody deaths of young women. Also, none of the characters seem to be what they’re pretending to be. Taz’s three wealthy gorgeous new friends? All of their money and social cachet comes from drug dealing.

Crouch ups the ante in Abroad when Taz, the novel’s narrator, indicates within the first half of the novel that she will be dead by the end. What is left, as she moves from adventure to misadventure is only who, when, and how it happens. Not big questions when the novel is so front loaded, but Crouch layers in a silent, brooding Englishman, parties in castles held in remote areas, pervy old men, and a guy Taz likes who is only interested in drugs and sex and she still doesn’t give away the game. The tight control she maintains on the story leaves the reader questioning until the final events.

It’s worth noting that Abroad is based on the Amanda Knox story (much like last year’s Cartwheel from Jennifer Dubois). This provides the most unusual aspect of the novel and allows it to gel. Much has been written from Amanda’s point of view but here we have the dead girl’s perspective and it is an interesting one. Taz is young and foolish and enters a lifestyle of which she has very little understanding and for which she pays the ultimate price. What Crouch provides is a completely unheard tale but while certain aspects are pure fiction and a bit over the top, the balance will challenge perceptions about this tragic story.

This book can be purchased online at:

by Katie Crouch

A Conversation with Deborah Harkness

Yesterday I posted my review of The Book of Lifethe final installment in the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness. Today her publishers, Viking, have been kind enough to share a question and answer interview they hosted with her. Read on for fascinating insight into what is a great paranormal fantasy series.

Conversation with Deborah Harkness



Q: In your day job, you are a professor of history and science at the University of Southern California and have focused on alchemy in your research.  What aspects of this intersection between science and magic do you hope readers will pick up on while reading THE BOOK OF LIFE? There’s quite a bit more lab work in this book!

A. There is. Welcome back to the present! What I hope readers come to appreciate is that science—past or present—is nothing more than a method for asking and answering questions about the world and our place in it. Once, some of those questions were answered alchemically. Today, they might be answered biochemically and genetically. In the future? Who knows. But Matthew is right in suggesting that there are really remarkably few scientific questions and we have been posing them for a very long time. Two of them are: who am I? why am I here?

Q: Much of the conflict in the book seems to mirror issues of race and sexuality in our society, and there seems to be a definite moral conclusion to THE BOOK OF LIFE. Could you discuss this? Do you find that a strength of fantasy novels is their ability to not only to allow readers to escape, but to also challenge them to fact important moral issues?

A. Human beings like to sort and categorize. We have done this since the beginnings of recorded history, and probably well back beyond that point. One of the most common ways to do that is to group things that are “alike” and things that are “different.” Often, we fear what is not like us. Many of the world’s ills have stemmed from someone (or a group of someones) deciding what is different is also dangerous. Witches, women, people of color, people of different faiths, people of different sexual orientations—all have been targets of this process of singling others out and labeling them different and therefore undesirable. Like my interest in exploring what a family is, the issue of difference and respect for difference (rather than fear) informed every page of the All Souls Trilogy. And yes, I do think that dealing with fantastic creatures like daemons, vampires, and witches rather than confronting issues of race or sexuality directly can enable readers to think through these issues in a useful way and perhaps come to different conclusions about members of their own families and communities. As I often say when people ask me why supernatural creatures are so popular these days: witches and vampires are monsters to think with.

Q: From the moment Matthew and a pregnant Diana arrive back at Sept-Tours and reinstate themselves back into a sprawling family of witches and vampires, it becomes clear that the meaning of family will be an important idea for THE BOOK OF LIFE. How does this unify the whole series? Did you draw on your own life?

A. Since time immemorial the family has been an important way for people to organize themselves in the world. In the past, the “traditional” family was a sprawling and blended unit that embraced immediate relatives, in-laws and their immediate families, servants, orphaned children, the children your partner might bring into a family from a previous relationship, and other dependents. Marriage was an equally flexible and elastic concept in many places and times. Given how old my vampires are, and the fact that witches are the keepers of tradition, I wanted to explore from the very first page of the series the truly traditional basis of family:  unqualified love and mutual responsibility. That is certainly the meaning of family that my parents taught me.

Q: While there are entire genres devoted to stories of witches, vampires, and ghosts, the idea of a weaver – a witch who weaves original spells – feels very unique to THE BOOK OF LIFE. What resources helped you gain inspiration for Diana’s uniqueness?

A. Believe it or not, my inspiration for weaving came from a branch of mathematics called topology. I became intrigued by mathematical theories of mutability to go along with my alchemical theories of mutability and change. Topology is a mathematical study of shapes and spaces that theorizes how far something can be stretched or twisted without breaking. You could say it’s a mathematical theory of connectivity and continuity (two familiar themes to any reader of the All Souls Trilogy). I wondered if I could come up with a theory of magic that could be comfortably contained within mathematics, one in which magic could be seen to shape and twist reality without breaking it. I used fabric as a metaphor for this worldview with threads and colors shaping human perceptions. Weavers became the witches who were talented at seeing and manipulating the underlying fabric. In topology, mathematicians study knots—unbreakable knots with their ends fused together that can be twisted and shaped. Soon the mathematics and mechanics of Diana’s magic came into focus.

Q: A Discovery of Witches debuted at # 2 on the New York Times bestseller list and Shadow of Night debuted at #1. What has been your reaction to the outpouring of love for the All Souls Trilogy? Was it surprising how taken fans were with Diana and Matthew’s story?

A. It has been amazing—and a bit overwhelming. I was surprised by how quickly readers embraced two central characters who have a considerable number of quirks and challenge our typical notion of what a heroine or hero should be. And I continue to be amazed whenever a new reader pops up, whether one in the US or somewhere like Finland or Japan—to tell me how much they enjoyed being caught up in the world of the Bishops and de Clemonts. Sometimes when I meet readers they ask me how their friends are doing—meaning Diana, or Matthew, or Miriam. That’s an extraordinary experience for a writer.

Continue reading

The Book of Life

book of life

Viking, July 2014


Deborah Harkness returns with the final novel in the All Souls Trilogy. The Book of Life begins with Diana and Matthew’s return to Sept-Tours, Matthew’s ancestral home. Harkness wastes no time in assembling the almost dizzying and incomprehensible cast of Matthew’s family- both those related by birth and those created by blood. Thankfully, her skill at weaving the family’s threads and connections into a recognizable tapestry rivals that of Diana. Harkness also makes Diana the narrator of certain chapters, grounding the narrative and ensuring that her importance as the centerpiece of the trilogy cannot be forgotten.

Diana and Matthew were not successful in their time travel to the 1500s in that they did not recover the elusive Book of Life- an item desired by all creatures for the secrets it supposedly holds. However, they return to the modern day world with a secret of their own—one that will quickly become evident. Diana is pregnant; something believed to be impossible between a vampire and a witch. This pregnancy, in addition to the very fact of their mating (vampiric marriage) has the world of vampires, witches, and daemons in an uproar. Their union is considered unnatural and forces Matthew into creating his own “scion”—blood family, an action that will generate implications and issues around the globe. At the same time, the hunt for the Book of Life intensifies as one of Matthew’s blood sons has given in to his darkest impulses and, out of loathing for his father, is determined to impregnate a witch and create a line of master creatures of his own. He believes the book contains the secret of how to do this.

There is so much going on in The Book of Life that it could easily get out of hand and spiral into an unintelligible mess but instead Harkness balances the escalating drama with a mixture of humor and whimsy. There is Diana’s family home, which is alive in its own way and a bit temperamental, meaning it chooses who it likes and doesn’t and when it is willing to give up its secrets. Then there are the numerous sly references to recent economic situations that are being manipulated by creatures for their benefit (the Clark County coven of witches is using spells to revitalize the Las Vegas housing market). This kind of detail and narrative foil are indicative of Harkness’s innate ability to prevent terror fatigue—an all too common side effect of fantasy series. Instead, the tension builds naturally…but insidiously, making The Book of Life a wonderfully satisfying way to end the All Souls Trilogy. The only question left is: will there be a movie?


This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Evergreen: A Novel


Knopf, July 2014


A small cabin without running water, indoor plumbing, or electricity, in the wilderness of Minnesota is the setting for Rebecca Rasmussen’s new novel, Evergreen. In it, the young Evaline joins her new husband Emil who hopes to build their life as a taxidermist to the numerous hunters and sportsmen who live in the region’s lumber towns. Although a city girl, Evaline embraces life in the woods with her husband and, nine months later, their baby boy, Hux. When Emil learns that his father back in Germany is dying he feels he must return to say goodbye. Despite his wishes that Evaline move back to her family’s home while he is gone, she decides to stay in their cabin, feeling that this is her home now. Their life is quiet but idyllic, enhanced by visits from an eccentric neighbor named Lulu and her son Gunther. Unfortunately, this world is shattered by a visit from a con man who rapes Evaline, leaving her pregnant and with a horrible choice to make.

Emil finally returns home after being trapped in Nazi Germany and life with his wife and son resumes while many miles away at an orphanage in Green River there is a young girl named Naamah. Though she cannot understand why, her very existence seems to plague the head mother, a fierce and unyielding nun named Sister Cordelia. She is told time and again that her mother is a prostitute in one of the logging camps and so she is possessed by the devil, who must be beaten out of her. Finally, at age fourteen she escapes and goes to the camps to find the woman who left her. Her real mother, Evaline, mourns her decision and her lost daughter to her dying day but never reveals her secret.

She saw her in her dreams, always at the corner of her vision, a girl with hair as black as roots and eyes as grey as storm clouds, her skin cold to the touch. Sometimes, despite herself, Evaline would call to her, but the girl would never come; she’d only stand there from afar watching Evaline with love or hate or both rooting her to the ground.

It is after both his parents have died that Hux discovers he has a sister. He goes to the orphanage to find her but only encounters the horror of Sister Cordelia.

In front of him was a woman who’d lived her life on a leash of her own making and would die on one, and he felt sorry for her the way he felt sorry for her the way he felt sorry for wounded animals when there was no one to put them out of their misery.

When he does finally find her, Hux brings Naamah home and tries to create the family life she never had. Sadly, Naamah is so damaged by her upbringing in the orphanage and the twisted emotional and physical abuse of Sister Cordelia that real relationships are beyond her. She has no way to ground herself and is, internally, like a wild animal. She seeks comfort and finds her greatest joy in being outdoors. Hux’s childhood friend, Gunther, now a hunter and outdoorsman, falls in love with her and they marry but even this likeminded man with his natural exuberance is not enough to stop her from hurting herself. When Naamah gives birth to a baby girl the past returns and she believes she is faced with the same choice as her mother. Her self-awareness leaves her anguished with the knowledge that she cannot live a normal life.

Rasmussen’s rendering of each of the characters in Evergreen is as delicate and exquisite as the taxidermy work of Emil and Hux. In contrasting the raw beauty and simplicity of the woods of Minnesota against the psychological depth of the people who inhabit them she gives us a novel that is tender, painful and, ultimately, redemptive.


This book can be purchased online at:

by Rebecca Rasmussen

The Elliott Bay Book Company

The Care and Management of Lies

care and management of lies

Harper, July 2014

Thea and Kezia have been friends since childhood and have just finished college to begin their teaching careers in The Care and Management of Lies by Jacqueline Winspear. That is until Kezia decides to marry Thea’s brother Tom, leaving Thea feeling isolated and betrayed. While Kezia adapts to married life and being a farmer’s wife, Thea throws herself into the suffragette movement. Then the war comes and their relationship is further frayed when Thea’s suffragette beliefs turn into active pacifism. With details of both the stir and activity in London played off against the more bucolic feel of life in the country, Winspear manages to give the reader a portrait of England as the war began and then as it went beyond the brief skirmish so many believed it would be into a slog from which the end was not visible.

But he knew, too, that he had not surmounted fear, that he might never overcome the terror inside. He knew it lived with him, would eat with him and would go to bed with him at night and come to him in his dreams. Yet he was not afraid of death, of that final moment of life. He was afraid of the dying that came before the end.

Winspear fills The Care and Management of Lies with such a varied cast that all aspects of the war are represented, from those left behind, to the battlefields and their horror.With impeccable pacing she then divides the action between the farm as Kezia strives to manage it in Tom’s absence to the fields of war in France where her husband and numerous other men struggle and suffer in battles that gain neither side any purchase just more and more dead. For Kezia, still a newlywed, the best way she can help her husband is to write him letters filled with descriptions of the dinners she is cooking for him in his absence. A woman who had never had to cook for herself, her inventive combinations and mishaps become Tom’s link to the world he left behind and the woman he loves. What he cannot know is that there is no food, that everything has been requisitioned by the army and Kezia is eating only marginally better than he is.

As each character moves through the novel Winspear shares the most intimate details of their inner life as they try to make do with a situation none of them thought they’d be facing. Tom ends up in a battalion reporting to his next door neighbor, Kezia is asked to take a German POW as a field hand to keep the farm functional, and Thea faces the worst of what war does and realizes that perhaps her judgment of her friend was unwarranted. In The Care and Management of Lies Winspear populates the battlefields in France and the farm land in England with characters of depth and detail in a novel that is compulsively readable. Like the war the tension ratchets up as the war rages on and the losses mount. Who will be impacted?

This book can be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky

how to tell toledo from the night sky

St. Martin’s Press, July 2014

For many, there are few ideas more compelling than that of perfect love. To meet the one person who understands you at your deepest level and loves you unconditionally; a true soulmate. Lydia Netzer takes this dream and puts it on the page in the quirky How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky. Irene Sparks is a prickly astrophysicist attempting to create a black hole in her lab. When she does so, she is invited to continue her research at the prestigious Toledo Institute of Astronomy. George Dermont is an instructor and cosmologist teaching at the Academy. Three years before Irene arrives he visits a psychic in a semi-drunken state after his most recent break-up. The woman knows his name before he says a word, increasing his confidence in her predictions. He’s told that his true love is a brunette, living in Toledo, and that she’s an astronomer. So, for the last few years George has been making his way through the brunette faculty with no success. When Irene arrives and they meet, George is certain she is the woman he has been told to look for. Irene is significantly less certain but does feel a very strong pull of emotions, namely lust, which she has never felt before.

Little do they know that their mothers, Sally and Bernice, met in the fifth grade and after living through the acrimony of their parents’ bad divorces they begin the kind of conversation so many teens love— how they could do things much better. For the girls the idea of arranged marriage is the first step, but not for them because their parents are too messed up to arrange it. Instead, what if they got pregnant at the same time, raised their children together when they were young, indoctrinating them with a love of many of the same music and books but also incorporating differences so there would be yin to yang?

They would train them independently to be magnets, north and south, that would click together when they met, years later, at the appointed time.

What began as a teenage fantasy becomes real through a combination of Sally’s indomitable will and Bernice’s funky psychic abilities. It is only when George and Irene are small children that an event occurs that pulls Sally and Bernice apart and permanently severs their connection and their plans for their children.  At the same time, it sets into motion an equal and opposite reaction (sound familiar?) that brings the two back into contact when they’re adults.

There is a lot going on in How to Tell Toledo from the Night Sky but Netzer ensures that the main storyline is the sun around which everything else orbits and that each of the main characters has enough pull to keep the reader engaged. It is a testament to her gift that the novel is charming, light and funny even as it deals with issues that are none of these things. Instead, with a subtle hand and poignant prose she looks at love as a force that both creates and destroys. Whether a dreamer who looks at the stars for their beauty or a thinker who studies them closely through a telescope this novel will enchant.

This book can be purchased online at:


The Elliott Bay Book Company

Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands

close your eyes, hold hands

Doubleday, July 2014


Sweet sixteen—a time of so many changes. Learning to drive, first dates, preparing for college, and, if you’re Emily Shepard, a nuclear reactor meltdown near your tiny town in Vermont, your parents disappearing, and being evacuated from your school with only the clothes on your back. This is sixteen as seen by Chris Bohjalian in his new novel, Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands.

When Emily and her classmates are dropped off at a college deemed a safe distance from what appears to be a massive nuclear disaster, her mind is already racing with possibilities and as her friends start clicking away on their phones she knows it is only a matter of minutes before what she fears most will be on their faces. Her father is the chief engineer at the plant and her mother is the head of public relations. The only thing they may not know is her father has a drinking problem but that will come out at some point. As she frantically tries to call both her parents with no results the worry everyone else feels turns to terror for her. If they are dead, then people, angry important people, are going to be looking for answers and for her. She slips away and embarks on a lonely journey to survive and, despite the insanity of this thought, to get home.

Bohjalian has always been able to capture time and place in his novels but it is his ability to mind meld with his protagonists that makes his work resonate. Emily is not some super hero, star student/athlete, perfect teen. She is bright, but with a lot of attitude. As she freely admits judgment and impulse control are not her strongest suits. Close Your Eyes is written from her point of view and in doing so Bohjalian is able to contrast the normal workings of the teen mind against the very adult situation in which Emily finds herself. A broader view of the accident and the resulting fallout would not be nearly as dramatic as seeing it from inside Emily’s head. As she runs to safety in another Vermont town she does so completely on her own. No one knows who she is or where she is. At one point, she befriends a nine-year-old boy, Cameron, when she sees he has been abused by his foster family. Despite being hardly able to take care of herself she appoints herself as his guardian and his wellbeing becomes a focus greater than her desire to get home.

Close Your Eyes is not a treatise on the evils of nuclear power or any of the larger themes that place Emily in her situation. It is about something just as hard to see: the lack of any kind of support system for young people without homes, with no hope of having their basic needs being met. Bohjalian sears us with the reality of life on the street in what Emily has to do to survive. This is a girl who had a home, a safe place to sleep and eat, with parents who loved her and a dog she loved. Despite her tough attitude she is still innocent in many ways. All she wants is to get home, even if home has been deemed off limits to all humans and is under military control. Without a misstep, Bohjalian blends current events with the esoteric flotsam in a teenager’s mind, and in so doing brings us into Emily’s world. We too wonder what to do next and how this will all turn out.

This book may be purchased online at:

The Elliott Bay Book Company

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