Another half dozen recent and upcoming releases for your consideration…
The Department of Rare Books and Special Collections by Eva Jurczyk
Liesl Weiss has been (mostly) happy working in the rare books department of a large university, managing details and working behind the scenes to make the head of the department look good. But when her boss has a stroke and she’s left to run things, she discovers that the library’s most prized manuscript is missing.
Liesl tries to sound the alarm and inform the police about the missing priceless book but is told repeatedly to keep quiet to keep the doors open and the donors happy. But then a librarian goes missing as well. Liesl must investigate both disappearances, unspooling her colleagues’ pasts like the threads of a rare book binding as it becomes clear that someone in the department must be responsible for the theft. What Liesl discovers about the dusty manuscripts she has worked among for so long—and about the people who preserve and revere them—shakes the very foundation on which she has built her life.
My thoughts: After her boss suffers a debilitating stroke, Liesl Weiss discovers a prized manuscript is missing from the university’s rare book department where she is employed. Under strict instructions not to involve the authorities (for reasons that, frankly, stretch credulity), she investigates. The chief suspects? Her fellow employees. Her inquiry is slow-moving as her peers prove reticent to be straight with her (from a narrative standpoint, one could say conveniently so), so what follows is a bit of a ponderous unfurling of the truth. The premise makes it sound like a fun romp, and the first few chapters seem promising in that respect, but as the book evolves it turns dark, touching on topics like mental health and gender inequality with debatable success. As a result, the whole felt tonally discordant at times. Also, the key to the mystery seems very obvious from the start and it’s never fun to wait for a book’s protagonist to play catch up.
Last Resort by Andrew Lipstein
Caleb Horowitz is twenty-seven, and his wildest dreams are about to come true. His manuscript has caught the attention of the literary agent, who offers him fame, fortune, and a taste of the literary life. He can’t wait for his book to be shopped around to every editor in New York, except one: Avi Dietsch, a college rival and the novel’s “inspiration.” When Avi gets his hands on it, he sees nothing but theft—and opportunity. Caleb is forced to make a Faustian bargain, one that tests his theories of success, ambition, and the limits of art.
My thoughts: A young writer, Caleb Horowitz, lands his first big book deal. But complications arise in the form of a friend, Avi Dietsch, whose short story formed the inspiration for Caleb’s novel. As both authors grapple over rights and renumeration, the reader is treated to an exploration of the volatile, ego-bruising, paranoia-inducing craft of writing. Caleb makes some terrible decisions that land him in trouble and seeks a compromise that seems to work, until it is revealed that Avi too made an equally unwise decision that could doom them all. Both of these characters are driven by pride, greed, and a personal rivalry that proves incredibly self-destructive. In some way, Last Resort was reminiscent of the works of Herman Koch, an author who excels at writing about terrible people doing terrible things. And yet his books, like this one, are complusively readable because its protagonists sow the seeds of their own destruction in fascinating ways. It all culminates in a perfectly fitting ending,
Drunk on All Your Strange New Worlds by Eddie Robson
Lydia works as translator for the Logi cultural attaché to Earth. They work well together, even if the act of translating his thoughts into English makes her somewhat wobbly on her feet. She’s not the agency’s best translator, but what else is she going to do? She has no qualifications, and no discernible talent in any other field.
So when tragedy strikes, and Lydia finds herself at the center of an intergalactic incident, her future employment prospects look dire–that is, if she can keep herself out of jail!
But Lydia soon discovers that help can appear from the most unexpected source…
My thoughts: Surprisingly not much in the way of world-building in this sci-fi mystery centered on a human translator looking into the death of an alien dignitary. It’s an interesting premise and the narrative does offer its fair share of twists and turns, but the sum of its parts prove more impressive than its whole as the various elements fail to dovetail in satisfactory fashion. Still, a unique and engaging read.
Cyclorama by Adam Langer
In an Evanston, Illinois magnet high school in 1982, a group of high schoolers meet to audition for the spring play, excited for the chance to escape the difficulties of their everyday lives. Declan, a senior and an experienced actor, is confident he’ll get his first-choice role, but when the capricious, charismatic drama director casts Franklin, an unknown underclassman instead–and the two are seen alone at the director’s house–the complex series of events that will haunt the cast for years begins to unfold.
By 2016, thirty-four years after the traumatic events of their high school play, the actors have moved on with their lives. Some are wildly successful, some never left their hometown, and some just want to be left alone. Everything will change, however, when one former member of their cast comes forward with an allegation dating back to the time of the play. The consequences of this public revelation will be far-reaching and complex, reverberating through all of their lives in unexpected ways.
My thoughts: A 1982 stage production of The Diary of Anne Frank forms the backdrop for one of 2022’s best novels, a wry, character-rich study of the complex power dynamics inherent in teacher-student relationships, and the consequential reframing of past actions within our contemporary social context. Every one of the teen cast members revolving in the orbit of their colorful drama instructor, the eccentric Tyrus Densmore, is so fully realized and memorable that one can’t help but connect with them through their early juvenile struggles, and then sympathize when we check in with them in their later adult years, wiser yet infinitely wearier. Adam Langer delivers a thoughtful, heartfelt and humor-filled novel about authority, gaslighting, and the complex, often inadequate, nature of deferred justice. A rare 5 star review from me.
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
Ansel Packer is scheduled to die in twelve hours. He knows what he’s done, and now awaits execution, the same chilling fate he forced on those girls, years ago. But Ansel doesn’t want to die; he wants to be celebrated, understood. He hoped it wouldn’t end like this, not for him.
Through a kaleidoscope of women—a mother, a sister, a homicide detective—we learn the story of Ansel’s life. We meet his mother, Lavender, a seventeen-year-old girl pushed to desperation; Hazel, twin sister to Ansel’s wife, inseparable since birth, forced to watch helplessly as her sister’s relationship threatens to devour them all; and finally, Saffy, the homicide detective hot on his trail, who has devoted herself to bringing bad men to justice but struggles to see her own life clearly. As the clock ticks down, these three women sift through the choices that culminate in tragedy, exploring the rippling fissures that such destruction inevitably leaves in its wake.
My thoughts: Twelve hours out from his execution, serial killer Ansel Packer reflects on his station as we are treated to glimpses into his past via the stories of the women in his life. The blurb talks about empathy and yet, despite the tragic childhood that ends up leading Packer down his ruinous path, it’s impossible to muster much sympathy, much less empathy, for this murderer of young innocents. The sympathy is instead reserved for his victims and their loved ones who serve as witness and collateral damage to his heinous crimes. And that’s to be expected, so I didn’t really come away from this book feeling particularly impacted in any unique way. I kept waiting for some revelation, some unexpected act of kindness that would force me to re-evaluate my instant and overwhelming distaste for this character, but it never came and so, in the end, the book simply didn’t leave much of an impression.
The book of the Most Precious Substance by Sara Gran
After a tragedy too painful to bear, former novelist Lily Albrecht has resigned herself to a dull, sexless life as a rare book dealer. Until she gets a lead on a book that just might turn everything around. The Book of the Most Precious Substance is a 17th century manual on sex magic, rumored to be the most powerful occult book ever written—if it really exists at all. And some of the wealthiest people in the world are willing to pay Lily a fortune to find it—if she can. Her search for the book takes her from New York to New Orleans to Munich to Paris, searching the dark corners of power where the world’s wealthiest people use black magic to fulfill their desires. Will Lily fulfill her own desires, and join them? Or will she lose it all searching for a ghost? The Book of the Most Precious Substance is an addictive erotic thriller about the lengths we’ll go to get what we need—and what we want.
My thoughts: Following the suspicious death of a colleague, a rare book dealer embarks on a quest to locate The Book of the Most Precious Substance, a rare centuries old sex manual purported to offer the key to unknown power. To be honest, I skimmed the blurb before clicking borrow on this title – intrigued by the occult book premise, totally missing out on the sex manual angle. So when it was introduced, I was a little surprised, but intrigued by how the author would pull off a narrative that set up like a female-skewed Davinci Code with its international conspiracies and supernatural trappings. Ultimately, these elements feel a little too familiar in a story that hits all the requisite beats: the wealthy puppeteers, mysterious murders, the suggestion of otherworldly phenomena. Where it does differentiate itself is in the object of our protagonist’s quest, and the unexpected influence it has on a woman experiencing a sexual reawakening. Yes, it’s an erotic thriller and, to be fair,I’m not that familiar with the genre, but it all feels a little silly at times and decidedly unprovocative. Your mileage may vary.
So, what are YOU reading?