Fiona Barton Local Gone Missing

A man is trapped in a basement.  He’s bound and gagged.  Add the title – Local Gone Missing – and by the time we finish reading the vivid opening, our hearts are beating as fast as the man’s.  As certain as we are that our day will end just we fine, we are equally sure that it’s not going to end well for the unnamed victim.

Fiona Barton’s newest novel, quickly follows on to introduce readers to first-person narrator Dee, the local housecleaner in the smallish seaside village of Epping.  With the reader thoroughly hooked by the opening, Barton effortlessly reels us in as Dee handles chores for a dodgy couple who act wealthy, but the airs they put on seem to be getting pretty thin.  We’re feeling all-too-familiar with Epping by the time we meet DI Elise King.  We’ve met a cross-section of Epping’s best, as well as more than a few scraping by.  Barton makes the reading effortlessly enjoyable, and the twists stack up as fast as the quirks in the townspeople.  Everyone has something to hide, no monkeys and no exceptions.

The trick here is to make what proves to be quite complex seem as simple as a seaside holiday.   Barton’s means of doing so is to pack the rafters with lots of well-written characters.   From Ronnie, a mildly hyper busybody and gossip who steps up as a Watson to DI King, to Pauline, the local wishes-she-were-richer bitch to the missing local, Barton breathes just the right amount of life into everyone we meet to make sure we remember them the next time they come into view.  She also mixes up the timeline, popping back and forth around the inciting incident.  A fair number of those in view edge into awful, but it’s an awful lot of fun to see them from the distance.  We’re all sort of awful in our own ways, yet we generally find ourselves likable; the same is true for Barton’s cast.

There’s a great deal of fun to be had in Local Gone Missing, but Barton keeps it just sober enough to stay on the right side of mystery.  We can be reasonably certain that DI King will be back, and look forward to another seaside holiday in Epping.  Barton makes it all so crisp and easy that in retrospect, readers will be quick to realize how skillfully it’s all been handled.  She writes a novel about a vacation town that’s as memorable as a real vacation.  By the time you’re done, you’ll be more than ready to book another stay in Epping.

Unsurprisingly, Fiona Barton is as entertaining as her novel when discussing the novel, and quite careful to mind the spoilers.  Here’s a link to our conversation, but if you’re set in your deck chair and ready to listen, have a go by listening below at this moment.  You’ll know if you need sunscreen.

Jane Pek The Verifiers

From the first page, Jane Pek’s The Verifiers charms the heck out of readers, grabbing your attention, engaging your goodwill, as it ensures that every word you read will make you want to read what comes next.  Claudia Lin, the bicycle-riding nervous narrator is smart, funny and flawed in all the right ways.  By the time you realize how well-written, thought-provoking, relevant and smart her book is, Pek has you breathlessly turning the pages when you’re not taking the odd moment to think how damn great this novel is.  Set in the world of matchup applications, The Verifiers combines great insights, great prose and a great time.  It’s a perfect match for any reader.

The novel begins as Claudia interviews Iris Lettriste at Veracity, a sort-of detective agency for Soulmates. Claudia’s one month into the job, and Iris wants to know about the man she’s been chatting with via Soulmate messenger.  He’s stopped answering her messages, and Iris wants to know why.  It seems simple, but rapidly becomes entertainingly complicated.  Veracity is not a detective agency (“think of us…as a personal investment advisory firm” her boss tells her), but that doesn’t stop Claudia sensing a mystery, nor Pek from writing as enjoyable a mystery as readers can hope to find.

Along the way, expect to find a lot more mystery.  Claudia is the youngest daughter in a family of Taiwanese immigrant, and the immigrant experience is thoroughly and delightfully explored in The Verifiers.  Her mother, sister and brother are deft, crafty creations brought to life by expert writing with a sense of humor, pathos and joie de vivre.  This extends to all the characters in the novel.  Pek clearly loves them all, and the result is that matter who we’re with in the narrative, we’re happy to be there.

Pek’s vision of the world of matchup apps is clear and more than a little unsettling, but never off-putting.  She’s researched and thought through the tech to an impressive degree. Here’s a hands-on demonstration of the power of algorithms and AI, oft-referred to but rarely explicated with such clarity.  Make no mistake, though, every innovation is seamlessly (and often humorously) integrated into the emotional arcs of the characters and the very crafty plot of the novel. 

Pek is clearly a fan of the mystery genre, and identifies genre tropes even as she sprints past them.  Claudia makes observations and sense of her own unraveling of the mystery via the [fictional] Inspector Yuan novels.  Pek is good enough that you’d like for her to write those novels as well. 

Pek also explores the science involved in match-up applications with a very light touch of science fiction. She name-checks Philip K. Dick, and readers who enjoy his work will find a great deal to admire in this novel. The exploration of identity is smart, clear and thought-provoking. Pek’s ability to pack this sort of material into a lighthearted mystery is impressive.

Happily, The Verifiers is good enough to make readers hope for a sequel.  This is a great novel in every sense.  It’s super-fun to read, it’s really smart and better still, readers will feel as if they themselves are both smarter and more fun for reading it.  The Verifiers is the perfect match for readers usually found only in fiction.

Unsurprisingly, Jane Pek is just as smart as smart and fun as her novel.  You can hook up with our conversation via this link, or, if you’re comfortable doing so in public, you can listen below.

Karen Joy Fowler Booth

In 1822, a famous Shakespearean actor, Junius Booth, drags a log cabin on rollers greased with pig lard to the edge of a dense forest.  It’s a difficult feat, and a bit crazy.  Over the years, he adds to the cabin.  Orchards, gardens, fences.  The cabin is hidden, but everyone knows it is there.  Ten children, four dead.  The whole enterprise is etched into our minds.  It is a world unknowable to us, but we know from it will spring forth a man who will make a mark in history. 

Karen Joy Fowler’s remarkable new novel, Booth, is a masterpiece of historical world-building, wedded to an intense story about an all too American family.  Ruling haphazardly over this world is Junius – when he’s around.  Loving, terrifying, angry, creative, he’s a human tornado who captures all near him and destroys many.  But his family is tough.  Those who survive, formed and malformed by the man and the times, are a clan of stories, writing their narratives Rashomon-like as part of a story larger even than Junius.  Welcome to the spectacle of a nation’s growing pains. 

Fowler’s storytelling skills turn every terror, every joy, every human moment into a gorgeous, detailed, unfolding mosaic centered on an American experience in a past that is truly a foreign country.  Her prose is sparse and direct, yet she crafts a luxurious vision.  Even as we are immersed in the worlds of the primary narrators – Booth children Rosalie, Edwin and Asia, in the daily details, Fowler holds us in history.  John Wilkes, who does not show up until we’re well under Fowler’s spell, is not, for this family, in this time, the focus.  Junius is famous, selfish, likely brilliant and often seemingly mad.  Fowler’s brilliance brings the family, from this foreign country (ours), into our lives and our time. 

In the relative safety and comfort of the 21st century, Booth offers readers the opportunity to experience another century, to hold the two together, to understand how we became who we are.  So much has changed, but for the people.  Families are weird, fathers can be cruel, children can become anything.  But stories capture us all, let us see what we cannot see, and experience what we cannot imagine.  We end and bring about endings.  Narrative captures us all, and never ends.

Karen Joy Fowler is as generous when she speaks as she is when she writes.  Hear her gift to you by following this link, or listen below.

Katherine Stewart The Power Worshippers

The difference between current events and history is more than a matter of time; it’s a matter of perspective.  Great writing about current events tells us what is happening in the moment.  With so much of import happening on a global scale, writing about current events is critical.  History, on the other hand, can tell us what happened before, and the best histories, for example, The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism by Katherine Stewart, illuminate not only the past, but the present. Stewart combines in-person reporting and crisp, smartly written history so perceptively that her book seems prescient.  Her clearly conveyed understanding of the past makes it possible for readers to not just know what’s happening today, but what is likely to unfold in the fullness of time.

Stewart began her journey for personal reasons, described in her book The Good News Club: The Christian Right’s Stealth Assault on America’s Children.  The Good News Club was an after-school program at her local school billed as “Bible study” but meant to convert children to fundamentalist Christianity and encourage them to proselytize to their “unchurched” peers. The Power Worshippers looks at the deeper history of Christian Nationalism, and reveals a complicated, thorough program to remake America into a Fundamentalist Theocracy run by a selected plutocratic elite. 

Stewart takes the reader with her, in person as she attends a series of events, from a gathering in Unionville, North Carolina lead by Sun Tzu-quoting President of The Family Research Council Tony Perkins, to the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy.  Along the way, she excavates initiatives, plans and hierarchies that are bearing fruit in the present and seem ripe to populate the future with a heavy infusion of retrograde “Christian” religiosity, hardcore right-wing economics and ruthless authoritarian politics.  These boots are made for walking!  From the fight against abortion to the rising tide of anti-everything bills choking legislatures everywhere, Stewart shows us inception after inception, the careful, patient planning behind the current chaos.

The Power Worshippers is compulsively readable and consistently disturbing.  Stewart fills her story with complicated and important but under-publicized characters.  The late R. J. Rushdoony, a Calvinist philosopher, provided the soil in which many seeds were planted.  He was not particularly original in his thoughts (and he knew it), but his excellent distillation and synthesis of the ideas that came before him have become a roadmap for the political and religious actors today.  David Barton is a big-deal behind-the-scenes player Stewart calls “the Where’s Waldo of the Christian nationalist movement.”  Stewart slings an alphabet or two of acronymic organizations, but provides flyover view clarity by virtue of her excellent writing and organizational skills.

There’s obviously a lot to worry about, but Stewart’s exposé concludes that “Overcoming this kind of reactionary and authoritarian movement isn’t just something Americans can do; it is what has made Americans what we are.”  If forewarned is forearmed, then The Good News Club that Stewart encountered so long ago will, with luck, bring good news.  Of course, luck needs must be accompanied by action and understanding, and The Power Worshippers goes a long way to make both possible.

I had the honor of talking with Katherine Stewart via the entirely mundane miracle of modern computing.  You can reap the rewards of trailing-edge technology by downloading the audio from this link, or by listening below.

Monarca by Leopoldo Gout and Eva Aridjis

Books can easily accomplish the impossible.  Try, for example, to explain the awesome beauty of a monarch butterfly; from birth to pupation, to rebirth as a butterfly, only to undertake a migration of thousands of miles, and then return, to a young teenager and you’ll see the textbook definition of eye-glazing boredom as it shades over into wiggly impatience.  Monarca, written and illustrated by Leopoldo Gout and Eva Aridjis manages to accomplish this seemingly impossible task by fusing text and vivid, almost psychedelic illustrations into a magic realism polemic.  It’s so beautiful that the adults who read it to their children will feel lucky to have the opportunity.  And chances are, everyone will learn a whole bunch of facts that will inspire not just awe, but action.

On her thirteenth Inés is given a necklace that transforms her into a monarch butterfly. Through a butterfly’s perspective, she experiences the dangers and beauty of the migration south.  The fusion of polemic text – Arijdis is straightforward about environmental degradation and the part played by mankind’s destruction – with Leopoldo Gout’s wild visions enable the authors to have a point and make that point in a plot-driven, vividly entertaining book.  Arijdis creates convincing characters, both human and insect, while Gout fills every page with immersive illustrations that surround the reader in story.  It’s a great partnership, seamless and impressive.  This is exactly the sort of book you can give as a present to your favorite young’un, and reap even richer rewards when you read it to them.  While the book deals in the fairy-tale world of the impossible, it manages to easily accomplish the impossible in the real world. 

Fortunately, it was pretty easy to accomplish what would once have been impossible, which is to say that I managed to talk to Leopoldo and Eva via an aging laptop and get it recorded.  Hearing the details on a complicated project like this was fascinating.  Here’s a book that more like a movie – and an interview with the authors of that book, available at this link, or below

Jennifer Egan The Candy House

Jennifer Egan The Candy House

We’re inclined to think that time is the ultimate people-mover, carrying us smoothly, relentlessly ever forward.  But our experience is quite different.  The present feels ever motionless, the past is a mess, much of which we’d prefer to forget, and edited unconsciously if remembered, while the future is elusive, one moment a promise, the next, a threat.  Putting together a story to describe ourselves, we consider the whole shebang a smorgasbord, grabbing what we’re able to remember favorably, considered by the mood of the moment, assembled for an audience we both hope for and fear.  We’re all novelists, writing with actions in time instead of words on paper. 

Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad perfectly captured our fractured experience of time.  In the intervening years, much has changed, but that novel still feels real; the characters and experiences live on in The Candy House, where once again past, present and future mingle most happily.  This time around, Bix Bouton, an internet nerd on the sidelines in the first book, takes center stage as the creator of a technology that allows users to download their consciousnesses (read: stories) to what we now call “the cloud.”  Even though no such tech exists (or is even on the horizon), Egan manages to make it feel both real and happening now.  The tech is presented not as menacing or particularly beneficial, which grounds the premise.  It’s just another thing we have to deal with.

And so it goes, evading satire, sidestepping dystopia, tap-dancing around life’s rich pageant with a low-key joy and a light-hearted realism that makes these mixed up stories about mixed-up people who follow, rather than lead their lives, a total blast to read.  Egan has the literary skill to blow you away and the street-smarts to let the reader lend a hand by making all the atemporal ties between characters who are unknowingly unstuck in time. She’s happy to hint at the grim implications of her invented pasts and futures, but her real interest is in connecting the dots between coping and hoping.  Each of the characters has to conquer problems both self-induced and presented by time; problems from the past, present and future.  For all the relentless horror the world offers us, human creativity has a rejoinder that at least gets us by until tomorrow.  Even if we must pretend to smile, at least we don’t feel so bad about how it all turned out.  The Candy House may think the future, the past and the present are all traps, but by any name you care to summon, they still taste sweet.

It’s a new world in which I spoke with Jennifer Egan, a future neither of us might have [wanted to] imagine.  Here’s a link to a conversation from our past for your future.  Or if you prefer the present, it’s right in front of you.

Angela Slatter Kathleen Jennings Flight

Collaborations between an artist and a writer require a natural sense of balance.  Each part of the finished book will require lots of revision, yet in the reading they needs must feel as if they both arrived fully-formed, effortlessly.  Flight, written by Angela Slatter, illustrated by Kathleen Jennings and published by PS Publishing reads if it simply came into being.  Open the lovely cover, turn the pages and disappear into another world, another time beyond world and time.  Flight soars beyond the confines of words and images.

Princess Emer may have a tiny problem.  Striving to side-step the rules that manage her life without her consent, she’s been pecked in the palm of her hand by a raven.  Slowly and secretly, a transformation begins.  She may be able to fly, but she finds herself under the control of her bitter aunt.  More than one trade has been made, and freedom can be found in the simplest traps.  Carve out the time, and luxuriate in Flight.  It is in every sense and every arena a triumph.

Angela Slatter’s writing is sublime.  She has mastered a contemporary style that preserves the charms and terrors of fairy-tales, by never once flinching from the consequences of her narrative.  Magic, subtle and overt, becomes a necessity that needs no explanation.  Kathleen Jennings’ illustrations might more properly be termed illuminations; they obviously stem from the same source as the prose and the story.  The large format book design eliminates the boundaries between the reader and the story.  You are simply there.

Flight is the sort of book that once read, demands to be read again, aloud.  Take your time, let it simmer in your soul.  You’ll know your audience, as do the author illustrator and publisher.  Flight is for everyone, everywhere. 

Given the depth and serious artistic passion on display in Flight, one might well assume that a discussion with author and illustrator would be low-key.  But as I spoke with Angela Slatter and Kathleen Jennings, we managed to have the sort of time you might expect o see unfold in one of Slatter’s imagined pubs, after more tankards of ale than might be advised.  We had a 21st-century online blast, which you can download from this link, or listen to right here – ale suggested, not required.

Alexander Weinstein After Yang

The film adaptation of any written work is fraught with peril.  Happily, those who enjoyed any story in the two collections by Alexander Weinstein will find the Kogonada film version of “Saying Goodbye to Yang,” After Yang, offers all the subtle pleasures of the reading experience – strong characters in realistic-feeling science fiction settings with a great front-and-center plot and lots of subtle touches that provoke thought and wonder long after the film (in this case) is over.

Wisely, the director keeps all the elements of the story intact.  Jake (Colin Ferrell) and Kyra (Jody Turner-Smith) play a couple with an adopted young girl, Mika (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja).  They’re not rich, and they both need to work, so Jake buys a refurbished android, Yang (Justin H. Min), to take care of Mika.  The movie begins when Jake is unable to reboot Yang, and a carefully balanced family life begins to unravel.

Director Kogonada has a deep and lovely visual sensibility that embellishes and expands the short story.  Everything here is organic, from the color palette to the set design.  He grounds every scene with a combination of the familiar and the unfamiliar, and makes the future, like the past, a (slightly) foreign country.  To be sure, there are some gorgeous visual effects.  The power comes not just from visual artistry, but because the effects enhance the emotional character arcs.  Kogonada preserves the quiet and reflective feel of Weinstein’s story while using the science fiction aspects to create a stunningly beautiful and rich canvas upon which he’s able to externalize the complex themes and ideas.  Like the story, the movie offers a variety of thought-experiment off-ramps that linger in the mind of viewer long after the movie is done.  In a landscape fraught with peril, Kogonada makes it all look and feel (un)easy.  It’s a quick, quiet visit to a future that might inspire nostalgia for the present.

I had the honor of discussing the movie and the story with author Alexander Weinstein.  You can download it from this link in whatever future you find yourself in, or listen in the here-and-now below.

Mike Meginnis Drowning Practice

Even now, we’re still uncertain what exactly dreams are, other than subjective, which is to say, whatever we care to think or say they are at any given moment.  As Drowning Practice, by Mike Meginnis, begins, humanity has been handed an enormous but still ambiguous clue.  One night in January of a year much like this one, everyone has the same dream.  In it, a loving Father figure guides the dreamer to a watery death, suggesting it’s the end of the world – November 1.  Upon waking, many believe the dream to be a premonition, and embark upon deciding how to finish out their lives.  But not everybody; some suspect a science experiment, or a new weapon.  The world becomes unmoored from the certainty that makes life day-by-day tenable.  Lyd is a novelist with one great work published.  She was lost before the dream and is even more lost now.  Her whip-smart daughter, Mott, is teaching the English class while the teacher dozes.  David, Lyd’s ex-husband, claims to be a spy, working for what’s left of the government.  He talks like a peace-and-love hippie pothead, but just beneath his shallow rap, he’s a controlling creep.  Lyd and Mott ran away from their home to escape him.  Mott wants to write her own novel.  Every day that passes brings them all closer to November 1. 

Drowning Practice offers a chill but weird vision of the Apocalypse.  The world is as usual, a patchwork of craziness and caution, but seen through the funhouse mirror.  Lyd and Mott’s journey across this landscape is adventurous but low-key and oddly realistic.  Character, not catastrophe, compels the turning of pages.  Meginnis has created a prickly world, beautiful and often trashed, where expectations are subverted by events that give room to a wide range of individual reaction.  It’s easy enough to pretend it was just a dream and keep on keeping on.  Routine can be comforting.  It’s equally easy to hit the eject button and embrace the pursuit of happiness.  Lyd and Mott encounter and embrace both reactions as it becomes clearer that what once mattered now seems absurd. 

Meginnis embeds himself and the reader firmly in his malleable world, where an illogical reality still demands a logical mind to deal with forked roads where the sharp bits are pointing at you, not away.  There are moments where they find respite, and others where David seems to find them.  And given the current unmoored world we happen to be living in at this moment, it rapidly becomes clear that the world is always unmoored.  And, as in the dream that is not the novel (aren’t all novels just an author’s dream?), as in this day and this place (where and whenever you may be), in this novel, as in this year,  November 1 arrives. 

Mike Meginnis and I had too much just enough fun talking about his wonderful novel.  Merrily, merrily, life is but a dream!