Touch & Go by Lisa Gardner

With The Killing–AMC’s moody Seattle-centric drama series about a smart, nervous, possibly mentally ill, and extremely dedicated female detective attempting to unravel the murder of a young girl–only a distant memory, I’ve been jonesing for a thriller with a woman in the starring role. (Yes, I am a novelist who wholeheartedly admits to watching TV, and not just Downton Abbey.) Series like The Killing are few and far between, but Lisa Gardner’s latest novel, Touch and Go, managed to momentarily fill the void.

The novel opens with the kidnapping of the wealthy Denbe family–the parents and a teenaged daughter–from their home. The investigation is complicated by the fact that the family are such pillars of the community that no one wants to step on their toes, and the company they own has hired its own investigator. Some posturing ensues–whose jurisdiction is it, just who gets to touch what evidence–though ultimately, the various parts find a way to work together. The large cast of characters includes the secretive family members, a bunch of bad-ass kidnappers, D.D. Warren (whom Gardner fans will recognize from the eponymous series),  and another recurring character, Tessa Leoni from Love You More. Added to the mix is a sheriff named Wyatt Foster. Gardner is masterful, of course, at creating suspense, and Touch & Go is no exception. This is a fun ride, a well-plotted pot-boiler that will keep you turning pages.

Note: This is a paid review for BlogHer Book Club but the opinions expressed are my own.

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The Next Time You See Me

The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones

The Next Time You See MeThe Next Time You See Me, the debut novel by Holly Goddard Jones, is a literary mystery in the tradition of Kate Atkinson. The novel opens with the discovery of a body in the woods by a misfit middle-schooler named Emily Houchens. The novel’s plot hinges on Emily’s strange reaction to the body; rather than telling the police or her parents, she keeps the knowledge to herself, relishing the secret and hoping to share it with the boy in her class on whom she has a crush, a wealthy kid named Christopher whose repeated cruelty to Emily is the source of the most heart-wrenching scenes in the book.

Soon, we meet young schoolteacher Susanna, the only person in the small factory town who believes foul play may be involved in the disappearance of her sister, Ronnie, who has a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker. Susanna, who is suffering through an unhappy marriage, isn’t an easy character to like, but she is believable in her complexity. While attempting to get the police to pay attention to her sister’s disappearance, Susanna takes her bullied student, Emily, under her protection.

The novel is told in a shifting third person point of view. In addition to Emily and Susanna, we hear from  Emily’s neighbor, a quiet factory worker named Wyatt, as well as from the lonely middle-aged nurse who cares for him and the detective whom Susanna regrets turning down for a date a decade ago, when they were in high school. While this is a small town, the residents, each trapped in his or her own private struggles, are not always aware of what links them; their failure to truly understand one another gives this the feel not of an idyllic small town but rather of a community falling apart at the seams, its deterioration at once physical, economic, and moral.

Goddard Jones manages just the right amount of creepiness, mixed with strong characterizations. While there is a mystery at the heart of the novel, it’s not a whodunnit, as Goddard lets the reader know pretty early on not only that Ronnie is the body in the woods, but also who killed her. The mystery lies, instead, in the characters’ unusual reactions to their own suffering. Goddard Jones excels in peeling back the layers of human nature, so that, while our heart breaks for a troubled child, we also understand why she is an outcast, and while we are aware of the decomposing body in the woods, we nonetheless are able, in some way, to feel the sorrow of the murderer’s own life falling apart.

Goddard Jones has published one previous book, the story collection Girl Trouble, and she teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. I was delighted upon reading her bio at the back of the book to discover that we share something in common beyond our Southern upbringings and our path from short story collection to literary mystery; in 2013, Goddard Jones received the Hillsdale Award for Fiction from the Fellowship of Southern Writers, which I also had the good fortune to receive in 2009. I highly recommend The Next Time You See Me and am looking forward to Goddard Jones’s next book.

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Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, and the forthcoming novel Golden State, as well as two other novels. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.

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hikikomori and the rental sister

Hikikomori and the Rental Sister by Jeff Backhaus

Jeff Backhaus’s beautiful debut novel, Hikikomori and the Rental Sister, opens with a man locked inside a room, unable to come out except for in the middle of the night, while his wife is sleeping. Ever since losing his young son in an accident which he feels he should have prevented, Thomas Tessler has been hikikomori–a common enough condition in Japan for which Americans have no name. Megumi, a young woman from Japan whose own grief and alienation prompted her move to New York City three years before, is called upon to help him. Megumi’s job: to coax him out of his room, so that he can have a life again.

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I did not come inside one day, shut the door, and decide never to come out. I needed a day to grieve. Then a week. A month. Tired, I took a nap. When I woke, it was dark. The walls were high. There was no way out.

When Thomas’s wife, Silke, pleads with Megumi to save her husband, Megumi reluctantly agrees to visit the apartment, planning to only go once. Finding herself drawn to Thomas, whose plight is similar to that of her dead brother, Megumi continues to return, day after day, until finally, Thomas opens the door a crack. As their intimacy grows, Megumi begins to realize that she wants more than to simply be Thomas’s savior. There is a kind of innocence to the eroticism that unfolds between them, and while Silke cannot help but suspect that there is more to Megumi’s process than merely talking with her husband, there is nothing torrid or cheap about this love triange. Backhaus manages to create genuine empathy for Thomas, Megumi, and Silke, and to make readers feel the separate and devastating loss that each of them is experiencing

Beckhaus’s writing is spare and beautiful. If at times simplistic, it is the simplicity of a very young woman whose unique talents have thrust her into a very complex situation.  What I love about this novel is that there is never too much on the page; there is always just enough. There is a lightness to the novel, despite the characters’ enduring sadness–a lightness not of mood but of atmosphere. Imbued with the sense of quiet and delicacy that permeates the bestof Japanese fiction, Hikikoromi and the Rental Sister is an extremely promising debut. Put Jeff Backhaus at the top of your list of writers to watch.

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Michelle Richmond is the author of the international bestseller The Year of Fog, No One You Know, Dream of the Blue Room, and the award-winning story collection The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. She is the founder and publisher of Fiction Attic Press.

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My Great Gray Reading Chair – Don Draper replaces Mr. Carson

I’m pleased to report that I’ve finally replaced my beloved old reading chair, which my then-boyfriend and I purchased on sale from Macy’s for our first San Francisco apartment back in 1999. It is a well-used chair that served us lovingly, kind of like Mr. Carson, but, like Mr. Carson,  it long ago began showing its age. It’s cozy but rumpled, quite a bit shabbier than it ever thought it would be. The new one, pictured below, is from the Chairs Event at One Kings Lane. I think it’s pretty subtle. I love the clean lines, the smart gray fabric;  it’s more Mad Men than Downtown Abby.


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On titles

The real Ocean Beach in the middle of summer

As some of you may already know, the working title for The Year of Fog was Ocean Beach. My publisher made it clear that there was no way the novel was going to come out with the title “Ocean Beach.” For one thing, my editor and the marketing folks found it redundant–as in, well, okay, yes, of course the beach is at the ocean. My editor and I went through dozens of titles before we finally settled on The Year of Fog. I resisted at first, but eventually, I came to like it.

The working title for my third novel was A Beginner’s Book of Numbers, which I quite like, but it ended up being published as No One You Know. My publisher said that putting anything mathy on the cover of a novel is akin to scrawling, “Please do not buy this book” with a sharpie. Well, naturally, I do not want to scrawl “Please do not buy this book” across any book, with the possible exception of that Jane Austen zombie book, so I capitulated.

So when the inevitable conversation came up with my new book–the publisher felt that the working title, California Street, was too location-specific and just not very catchy–I steeled myself for a battle. Fortunately, this time around, the process of choosing a title that the publisher and I could both be happy with turned out to be painless. I told my editor there were three things I wanted in the title.

  1. It should reference California in some way.
  2. It should be easy to remember, so instead of saying, “You know that book about that doctor at the VA, the one where she’s going across the city, and her sister just came back from Iraq” etc., someone who was trying to bring up the book during a swanky dinner soiree could just say, “You must read TITLE-OF-BOOK!”
  3. It couldn’t sound girly. There could be no reference to sisters or begonias (there are sisters in the book, but no begonias), and it could in no way lend itself to a pastel cover with lipstick on it, as this is really a political novel, and people would be unhappy if they thought they were buying a book about a florist but instead ended up with a book about post traumatic stress disorder. My editor gamely promised to think it over.

A couple of days later, she emailed, “What do you think of GOLDEN STATE?”

“Oh,” I said. “Why didn’t I think of that?” Why indeed. So I can happily report that we have finalized a title about which we are both equally enthusiastic. For me, it has a lot to do with the play on the word “state.” You know that ubiquitous and sort of annoying Billy Joel song, in which he talks about the New York state of mind? Well, for many of us who have found our way to the West coast from hither and yon, California is really a state of being as much as it is a political construct. And I will admit that I was also kind of thinking about what the cover would look like. Not too long ago, I read that, among the runaway bestsellers, books with yellow covers are well-represented, while books with blue covers tend to wilt on the shelves. Someone should have told me that back in 2002, when I was so excited to finalize the title for my first novel, Dream of the Blue Room. The cover is very blue, and, it’s true, no one bought it.

Please visit me on Facebook for more news on Golden State and what I hope will be a very yellow cover.

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