Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson

HarperCollins, 277 pages, $26.99

I read a review that said “Nothing to See Here” was about children bursting into flame. Maybe there’s a mystery story in there, I thought, or a horror story, à la Stephen King. On the cover was my first warning that the book wouldn’t be what I thought it was going to be. The author Jacqueline Woodson’s blurb was on there. “Laugh-out-loud funny,” it said. I rarely laugh at books that are introduced as “laugh-out-loud funny.” The expectation is too high, so my sense of humor goes into hibernation. I sometimes laugh at slapstick. I sometimes laugh at quirky humor, and that is the category in which I would place “Nothing to See Here.” But I did not laugh at this book — although I smiled a couple of times. I laugh out loud (even while all by myself) mostly at unexpected humor. The first time I read a Janet Evanovich book — in that case, “One for the Money” — I laughed out loud quite a few times. Stephanie Plum was unexpected.

“Nothing to See Here” turned out not to be a mystery or even a novel involving any sort of crime. I finished the book anyway, because it was interesting. I found Lillian, the lost-in-place woman who has a punk vibe, compelling. She was lured into taking care of her ex-best friend’s stepchildren, the aforementioned children who burst into flame.

Im not sure what made Jacqueline Woodson laugh so much, because I found it to be mostly a poignant, sad tale of two children who know they are not wanted. But wait, don’t turn away from reading it because of that description. Dysfunctional Lillian, who knows nothing about children, is there to help. Or maybe she just wants to drink margaritas and play very competitive basketball with her ex-best friend, Madison.

Despite the fact that there was no mystery to see here, I enjoyed Kevin Wilson’s writing. I loved Lillian. I loved the hapless children who caught fire. Best wishes to them. I hope their fictional lives will end happily somewhere, sometime.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Circe by Madeline Miller

Back Bay Books, 416 pages, $16.99 (c2018) (pb ed. release date 4/14/20)

“Circe” is not a mystery.

“Circe” was the New York Times/PBS Newshour’s book group pick for December, but because of other reading obligations and general disarray, I didn’t finish it until now. I remember being fascinated that Gregory Maguire would take the fantasy of “The Wizard of Oz” and humanize the witches in his 1995 book, “Wicked.” Creating “real people” from fairy tale characters was a novel, mind-bending thought, one he went on to use again and again. “Circe” also reminded me of “The Mists of Avalon” by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Legendary figures were hampered by human emotions and desires, and humans were burdened by destiny. So it is in “Circe, fresh on the heels (!) of Madeline Miller’s similarly-worked book, “The Song of Achilles.” 

What must it be like to be immortal? Apparently it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, especially if a god can feel pain and sorrow. And what does one do if exiled to the remote island of Aiaia, to ponder slights, love gone wrong, and mistakes in potion mixing? It’s a long time to think about everything and anything.

“Circe” is a novel for adults, even though the myth of Odysseus and Circe and her habit of turning men into pigs is sometimes fashioned into a story for children to learn some now-lost lesson about manners or pride or something classically appropriate.

Miller has created a spell-binding (!) story of a woman who finds her strength comes from within, not from who her father is (Helios, by the way). Also, it helps to have a bunch of herbs nearby. I enjoyed this book very much and thought it was worth all the fuss generated about it. Reading about gods ripping people apart piece by piece made a nice change from the serial murder mysteries in which people take other people apart piece by piece that I seem to have picked up lately.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Exhalation by Ted Chiang

Knopf, 368 pages, $25.95 (c2019)

“Exhalation” is not a mystery.

Instead, it is a collection of stories with a science fiction veneer. The stories are meditations on what it means to be human, the construct of time, what purpose a lifetime serves, and what-if. They are ingenious, sorrowful, illuminating. Ted Chiang writes with a philosopher’s pen and an artist’s heart.

I am impressed by Chiang’s collection. I recommend it to anyone waiting to step beyond and to do so within an economy of words.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Autumn by Ali Smith

Anchor, 288 pages, $15.95 (c2017)

“Autumn” is not a mystery, but it is a helluva book. A young woman, Elisabeth — with an “s” — and a much older man, Daniel, have a friendship that began when he was her next-door neighbor and de facto mentor. Daniel is close to dying when “Autumn” begins, although the story travels backwards in time as well to gradually fill in certain holes.

One of the most moving moments is when Daniel imagines himself locked in a tree. It is cozy and life-affirming, contrary to what one might expect. Elisabeth contends with a chaotic life, including a bureaucratic run-in with the British post office, but finds moments of stillness with Daniel, as she waits with him for his journey’s end.

The writing is everything. The crossing of lives and how connections are made are potently important to Elisabeth and Daniel.

And so the story drifts but not without meaning or intention. Lovely.