Book Review: Two Girls Down, by Louisa Luna.

Two Girls Down

Plot:

Louisa Luna opens her novel Two Girls Down with the kidnapping of two sisters, Kylie and Bailey, ten and eight years old. Their mother has popped into a K-Mart for a few minutes, leaving the girls in the car. When she returns, the girls are gone. Frantic search. Police. Code Adam alert. Nothing. No trace. Enter Alice Vega, wild woman, free-lance missing-person finder, and Cap, ex-cop turned private detective. Vega became an overnight star when she recovered a high-profile child, and has been in demand ever since by people whose loved ones have disappeared. The police are not happy to have her involved in the case.

Cover photo Two Girls Down

The grandmother of Kylie and Bailey asks Vega how many of the children she has she has gone after have been successfully found. Vega tells her all of them. One hundred per cent. The caveat, and the terrifying reality that drives the tension in the novel, is that not all were alive when she found them, and a few who were found alive were dead in other ways, scarred beyond repair by the experience. 

When Vega calls on Cap to help her find Kylie and Bailey, the search lures him from his relatively safe and boring work breaking up bad marriages exposing unfaithful spouses. As an ex-cop, he is capable of handling the danger of the job Vega offers him, and the possibility of a little excitement stirs some of the old cop adrenalin.

Writing:

Luna’s writing is strong. When we first meet Vega, she is doing a yoga handstand and thinking about the danger of not knowing what is just beyond your vision. “Her old boss in fugitive recovery, Perry, used to call it Little Bad and Big Bad. Little Bad was the teenager on the front porch with a Phillips screwdriver tucked into his pants. Big Bad was his daddy waiting inside with a loaded .38 and a pissed-off pit bull. There was always a worse thing that you couldn’t see, and it was closer than you thought.” When Cap meets the mother of the lost girls at a bar for an interview, the narrator tells us, “He looked at Jamie’s hands on the bar, lying there like leaves of a dead plant, and did not extend his.”

Characters:

Though the writing style is strong, the strongest element of the novel is the characters. The two leads are interesting and complex. Luna vividly draws the supporting characters—the mother, Cap‘s daughter, the police—who are strong in their own right. Cap‘s daughter, Nell, is, in fact, almost a show-stealer—smart, sassy, loving.

Pace:

The pacing in Two Girls Down is compelling. The build-up is quick, with the kidnapping kicking the conflict into gear immediately, and the intensity develops steadily right up to the powerful ending. I’d compare it to Black-Eyed Susans, by Julia Haeberlin (See my review here). And laced through the action and suspense, Louisa Luna offers the reader the possibility of romance. What more can you ask?

Review: Julia Haeberlin’s Black-Eyed Susans

The Black-Eyed Susans:Black-Eyed Susans

“The Susans are a greedy plant, often the first to thrive in scorched, devastated earth.” This line, early in Julia Heaberlin’s novel Black-Eyed Susans, works on more than one level and becomes an underlying motif for the narrative. Tessa Cartwright was raped and left for dead as a teenager among a field of flowering black-eyed Susans. The bones of other long-lost girls surrounded her. In the media coverage of the case, she and the other girls become known as the Black-Eyed Susans. Out of her scorched and devastated life, Tessa has managed to thrive.

Tessa:

The attack itself remains an empty spot scorched in Tessa’s memory. The novel opens years later, when Tessa has a teenage daughter of her own. She is working with an attorney and a forensic scientist to free the man convicted of the crime, who sits on death row awaiting imminent execution. Though she can’t remember the attacker, she has become convinced that her testimony at the trial sent the wrong man to death row. Underlying the race to save the condemned man is the possibility that the real killer is now stalking Tessa.

The Voices:

Two voices tell the story—the first-person voice of the present-day Tessa, and the first-person voice of her earlier self, the young Tessie in the months after the attack. The voices alternate in short chapters of three to five pages, creating a dynamic pace in the complex and gripping narrative. The two narrative voices press against each other, one from the past and one from the present. The tension grinds inevitably toward the final revelation, squeezing out the truth that lurks behind the Black-Eyed Susans.

Supporting Cast:

Tessa’s teenage daughter, the defense lawyer, and the forensic scientist are engaging and well-developed characters and become important pieces in solving the puzzle, as does Tessa’s best friend from childhood, who disappeared years earlier after the trial. And always, the voices of the other Susans in Tessa’s head, the dead girls who encourage, warn, and challenge her.

Conclusion:

Some readers may find the resolution of the mystery a bit contrived, maybe a little far-fetched. I did. But that won’t take away from a really good story told very well. As in the case of the Nordic Noir novel Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson, the flaws do not outweigh the strengths. I don’t hesitate to recommend the book.

Review: An Artist of the Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Introduction: Ishiguro

Memory and the heart. Such fragile things on which to build our notion of ourselves. As the old prophet Jeremiah said, “The heart is deceitful above all things . . . Who can understand it?” And memory is surely at least as deceitful as the heart. Both memory and the heart seem to function at the mercy of the transient, ephemeral world of human life. And they are central to the fiction of Japanese writer Kazuo Ishiguro, who  just won the 2017 Nobel Prize for LiteratureKazuo Ishiguro photo

An Artist of the Floating World is a beautiful emotional set piece. Following World War II, an aging Japanese artist struggles with his experience of post-war Japan. In time, he regrets his role in the rise of empire that ended in the destruction of the old world.

Comparison: Remains of the Day

Remains of the Day film still Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins

Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day.

It may be that most people know Kazuo Ishiguro for his novel The Remains of the Day and its film adaptation, with Anthony Hopkins as the butler Stevens and Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton. In fact, there are significant similarities in tone and theme between the two novels. In both cases, the main character looks back on a career in which he devoted his life to a cause that was later shown to be horribly mistaken and in which he turned his back on a path that would have resulted in a different, and probably more fulfilling life. Mr. Stevens, in The Remains of the Day,  does not marry Miss Kenton. In An Artist of the Floating World, the artist Masuji Ono turns his back on “fine art.” Fine art focuses on the fleeting beauty of this world. Ono  makes his art serve the empire of the “New Japan.”

Both novels come from a perspective not long after the war. The protagonists look back on a time prior to and during the war, blended with their current lives. The tone of both is nostalgic, beautiful. In An Artist of the Floating World, Ishiguro’s use of an unreliable narrator, whose growth in the novel is toward self-realization, is masterful. Numerous times in the narrative, the artist Ono says it is entirely possible that his memory of an event or conversation is not accurate, that things might not have happened exactly as he presents them. These admissions become part of his growth in awareness of self. They are some of the elements that make him sympathetic and human, and very like all of us.

Conclusion: CatharsisArtistOfTheFloatingWorld.jpg Cover

A reader who identifies with Ono, and feels compassion for him, may experience in reading this novel what Aristotle called catharsis in his Poetics, a vicarious purging of guilt and fear, the impetus toward self-understanding. (See Aristotle on Character)  Ishiguro seems to be saying that as we grow older, we come to realize how much of our image of ourselves is dependent on feeling and memory, and we come to understand how fickle, how deceitful, those things can be. If we are to live in peace with ourselves, we must see ourselves honestly and forgive ourselves. We have all committed well-intentioned errors in our pasts. Only with honesty and forgiveness can we live with integrity and dignity.

Review: Sun and Shadow, by Ake Edwardson

Overview Cover photo of Edwardson, Sun and Shadow

Sun and Shadow, the first Detective Erik Winter novel by Swedish writer Ake Edwardson to be translated into English (1999), is a dark psychological mystery that chronicles two grotesque double murders and the exhausting investigation that follows. The plot is complex, and it delivers the build-up to a suspenseful ending.  (See review of The Preacher, by Sander Jaboksen)

Edwardson’s Style: Dialogue, Description, Verbs, Filtering

Dialogue-

Edwardson’s style is literary. The writing is strong, especially the descriptive language and the dialogue. After Detective Winter visits his father, who has just had a heart attack and with whom Winter has had a strained relationship, he tells his lover, Angela, about it:

“ What was it like, seeing him again?”

“As if we’d been chatting only last week.”

“Sure?”

“Depends what you mean. We spoke about safe subjects.”

“Everything takes time. He has to get better first.”

“Hmm.”

“Are you tired?”

“Not so tired that I can’t indulge in a glass of duty-free whiskey. What about you?”

These spare conversations, circling around a subject like a dance, are common. In effect, dialogue carries the narrative.

Description-

Edwardson avoids extensive descriptive passages that tend to slow the narrative movement. Yet often the descriptive language is strong. Here is an example of a strong and spare description:

“It was night in the apartment, no lights burning anymore. A standard lamp had been on all day, but the bulb had gone. As dawn broke, autumn sidled in through the venetian blinds and a roller blind in the bedroom let in patches of light.”

I would quibble with a couple of things (pet peeves of mine) in Edwardson’s style. (I should add here that it’s entirely possible that the first of these problems results from translation and may not exist in the original.)

Verbs-

First, Edwardson works the poor, overused verb “to be” to within an inch of its life, both as the main verb in a sentence and as the helping verb used with a main verb in the “–ing” (progressive) form. I’ll italicize examples in the following short paragraph to demonstrate:

“Winter was walking along the Ricardo Soriano. It was evening again. He went into the cerveceria Monte Carlo and ordered a glass of draft beer at the bar. The place was full of men watching a football match on a large screen. Real Madrid versus Valladolid. He drank his beer and felt comfortable among all the shouting. There were no women inside the bar. They were sitting at tables on the pavement outside, waiting for the match to end and the evening to begin.”

Five “to be” verbs in a short paragraph. The problem: All these “to be” verbs kill the immediacy of the reader’s experience of what happens. Compare the following possibilities: “Winter walked along  . . . “ or “The bar overflowed with men watching . .” or “All the women sat at tables on the pavement outside . . .” Revising “to be” verbs into action verbs is a staple of good writing.

Filtering-

My second quibble: Edwardson tends to filter sense experience instead of giving it to the reader directly. Here’s what I mean. Detective Winter goes into a bar, and the narrator tells us: “Winter could hear people speaking Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” The readers should experience the bar, not have Winter experience it for them. It would be easy to revise this passage to say, “People at the tables around him spoke Norwegian, Swedish, and German.” That way the reader experiences the polyglot with Winter instead of being told that Winter experienced it. This kind of filtering is too common in the novel.

Summary

Okay, with all that said, this book was a good read. I recommend it, especially for fans of Scandinavian crime fiction. It’s a strong example of the genre. The complex plot builds slowly and in the end delivers a powerful, driving finish.

 

 

The Great American Eclipse: What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?

Juliet tells Romeo that nothing’s in a name. “That which we call a rose, by any other name, would smell as sweet,” she says. And even Hamlet seems dismissive in his “words, words, words.” But after the Great American Eclipse, I must rebuff the beautiful maiden and challenge the churlish prince. Au contraire sweet Juliet. And as for Hamlet, well, a noble mind o’erthrown, and so forth.

The Great American Eclipse

photo of eclipsed sun

Monday afternoon, August 21st, my friend George and I watched the moon creep through those final degrees toward totality. The two of us and our wives were on a quest. Thousands of people rested in lawn chairs or lay on blankets before the capitol building in Jefferson City, MO. On the stage, set up on the capitol steps, the Fort Leonard Wood military orchestra performed. Kids tossed footballs, played in the fountains, chased each other through the obstacle course of resting adults. Clouds drifted lazily by, bringing with them some unease about missing the Great American Eclipse.

But when the final seconds ticked into totality, all eyes stared at the clear blue sky, and a roar went up from the multitude. Then just as quickly, the roar died into silence. Awestruck, we listened to the cicadas wailing in the mid-day dark. The bright corona flared around the black ball of the sun. It was an eclipse, but suddenly that word, which had been mundane, even common, was charged with mystery and awe. It had put on a stunning new mantle.

Words, Words, Words

A few minutes later George asked, “What word would describe the eclipse? What word would best communicate something beyond the ordinary, beyond the natural?” We rejected the word “supernatural” immediately as far too tired and burdened with the clutter of history. A dictionary reveals the problem: Supernatural: of or relating to an order of existence beyond the visible observable universe; especially, of or relating to God or a god, demigod, spirit, or devil; departing from what is usual or normal especially so as to appear to transcend the laws of nature:  attributed to an invisible agent (such as a ghost or spirit). Nope, just doesn’t fit. What we had seen was governed entirely by the laws of nature.

The term preternatural offered itself, and we thought perhaps it would work. Preternatural: beyond what is normal or natural, extraordinary, exceptional, uncommon, singular, unprecedented, remarkable, phenomenal, abnormal, inexplicable, unaccountable; strange, mysterious, fantastic. That was more like it. All these words accurately apply to the eclipse. In fact, when taken together, they are, as a whole, a good summary of an abstract description of what happened in the sky above us. But our experience was not abstract in the least. Preternatural would not do.

The Spiritual

Each of us had experienced the eclipse as something spiritual (not supernatural), something natural that seemed to stop time, to pull us out of ourselves. And the response of thousands of people gathered there revealed that the immediate, shared human response was not just awe, but joy. A shout, clapping, and laughter erupted. We were all drawn totally into the moment, and in that moment there were no democrats or republicans, no liberals or conservatives, no northerners or southerners, no believers or atheists. There were only human beings sharing an experience of totality, an experience of total self-forgetting, of good will and unity. It must have been what the ancient Israelites felt when they saw God in a whirlwind or pillar of fire.

And Flannery O’Connor

Looking back now, those so-brief two-and-a-half minutes of totality, and the response that followed, tempt me to a bizarre comparison. Forgive the incurable English professor in me, but I think of the words of The Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s short story “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” after he kills the meddling, bossy grandmother: “She would have been a good woman,” he says, “if it had been somebody there to shoot her every minute of her life.”

Perhaps you can see where this is headed. In some future aeon, after humanity has destroyed itself, I see a cosmic Misfit, sitting on an asteroid, looking down at earth and shaking its head. “They would have been a good species,” it will say, “if it had been a Great American Eclipse to strike them with awe and wonder every minute of their life.”

Missing Person, by Patrick Modiano, a Review

The Novel:

What is possible when the missing person you seek is you? Where are the clues that will lead you to yourself? Only in the past. The past, for the protagonist of Patrick Modiano’s novel Missing Person, is the period of the German occupation of Paris prior to and during World War II. It is a past of which, when the novel opens, he remembers nothing. He suffers from near total amnesia., He has lived a decade as a private detective, solving other people’s mysteries, under an identity provided by his boss. He is Guy Roland. As the novel opens, his boss retires and closes the agency, and Roland begins to investigate his own identity. “I am nothing. Nothing but a pale shape, silhouetted that evening against the cafe terrace, waiting for the rain to stop; the shower had started when Hutte left me.” 

And so begins the journey from nothing to something. The novel projects the irony of the detective searching for himself. All those he meets know him, but he knows none of them. His memory begins to return in bits and pieces, brief snatches of the past. And he discovers at the heart of his search for himself a dark secret, gradually revealed. His role in the disappearance of someone very close to him.

The Author:

Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature. Missing Person is an early novel (1978), but it embodies the themes for which Modiano has become known—the power of the past and the search for identity. The prose in this short novel (under 200 pages), while exploring these themes, exhibits his beautifully crafted style and his haunting, melancholy tone.

His protagonist says, “I believe that the entrance-halls of buildings still retain the echo of footsteps of those who used to cross them and who have since vanished. Something continues to vibrate after they have gone, fading waves, but which can still be picked up if one listens carefully. . . [I omit a phrase here to avoid a spoiler.] . . . I was nothing, but waves passed through me, sometimes faint, sometimes stronger, and all these scattered echoes afloat in the air crystallized and there I was.”

Beautiful stuff.

Rating:

I loved reading this novel, like slowly eating a perfect lasagna, or ravioli, with a glass of good Cabernet. You chew each bite slowly and savor it. I would have liked to give Missing Person an unqualified 5-Star rating, but when I got down to that last bite, I found it beautiful but unsatisfying. The tone of the short final chapter is exquisite, and the final two sentences are stunning. But alas the resolution of the story was left open-ended, and I confess I felt betrayed.

I highly recommend this novel to anyone who loves finely crafted style in literature and the deep exploration of human identity. Those looking for high action will be disappointed.

The Preacher: Nordic Noir in Clear Prose and Diffuse Plot

The Preacher

The Preacher, a Nordic Noir mystery/thriller by Dagmar Winther and Kenneth Degnbol, a.k.a. Sander Jakobsen, offers a beautiful prose narrative. Not surprisingly for Scandinavian crime fiction, the style leans toward the literary. It tells the story of two murders, each of a woman, apparently unrelated. As the police draw closer to solving the first, they realize the second is indeed closely related. 

Style:

Cover image of Nordic Noir novel The Preacher

The novel opens with the murder of the wife of the vicar of a small Danish village. The writing is evocative throughout. After the investigative team has finished their work, “Then, once again, calm spread its wide blanket over the vicarage.” And as the vicar stands looking over the disarray, “His body had sensed and recorded it, the distance to reality dulled by death itself.” He walks around the house observing all the little memorabilia of his dead wife. They are like “treasures in a museum, when Karen’s death in small incomprehensible bits invaded and claimed him.” The style here reminds me of Thomas Enger in his novel Cursed (See my review here).

Characters:

The main characters—Thorkild, the vicar; Frank, the brother of the second murder victim; Birgitte, the old girlfriend who moves in with the vicar to take care of him after his wife’s murder; and Thea, the detective from Copenhagen, who is drawn into the case emotionally as well as professionally—are well developed, very human, and sympathetic. The reader pulls for them, identifies with them.

Point of View and Plot:

If I have complaints about the novel, they have to do with point-of-view and plot. The point-of-view is third person subjective, alternating between all the main characters and even some of the lesser ones. As a result, the reader struggles to find a sympathetic center. The title, The Preacher, leads the reader to assume that the vicar is intended to be that center. But, in fact, the detective, Thea, often steals that role. The problem becomes that none of the characters take control of narrative perspective. In the end, the point of view is diffuse and unsatisfying.

This diffuse p.o.v. reflects, and to some degree creates, a diffuse narrative structure as the novel attempts to juggle and maintain several competing plot lines—solving the first murder, solving the second murder, the relationship of Thorkild and Frank, the relationship of Thea and Thorkild, and the role of the killer in all of these. I began to feel like a ping-pong ball, going back and forth, never landing on a narrative thread I could anchor everything to. The title role of the novel—the role of “Preacher”—can ultimately apply not only to the vicar, but to Frank, who preaches an angry laissez faire philosophy, or to the killer, who “preaches” a Nietzschean doctrine of the Superman. At times the “preaching” overcomes the narrative drama.

BUT, in spite of all this, I consider the novel a good read. The problems are technical, and perhaps my pet peeves, rather than total failures in the story.

Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go: Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars and was one of the most admired of screenwriters. The following ten tips were aimed at writing screenplays for movies, but if you are familiar with the three-act structure in fiction, you will see how they apply to fiction as well as they do to screenplays. 

  1. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. The key issue Wilder addresses here is “character arc,” which simply means the trajectory of development your character undergoes. All the actions of your leading character should clearly contribute to his or her line of development, and that line of development should be coherent and seem inevitable.
  2. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points in fiction, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in various genres. The plot points in a literary novel might indeed be quite subtle, but in most genre novels, they are more prominent and fall in predictable places.
  3. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. “Setup” is a key idea here. Everything that happens in the third act should be predicated on what happened in the first. Getting this thread of causality right is usually a matter of revision, going back in the later drafts and making sure you have what you need in Act One and then refining how it plays out to the end.
  4. The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie. The plot point at the end of Act Two is the catalyst that leads to the big climax in Act Three. You might say it’s the point of no return. After it, the leading character is committed to a course of action that makes the climax inevitable.
  5. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –that’s it. Don’t hang around. Once your catalyst kicks in at the end of Act Two, it’s a dead run to the climax. Again, this is more prominent in genre fiction than in literary fiction. In writing a thriller, romance, or mystery, this final section has to sustain the intensity, and when the climax happens, Wilder says, wind it down and get out.
  6. The audience is fickle. We’ve all heard the advice “Know your audience! Know who you’re writing for.” Well, Wilder seems to be saying you can’t always count on that audience. I would add that the only audience you can really count on is yourself, so write for an audience of one.
  7. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. Wilder seems to say writing that grabs the reader’s mind and emotions (the throat) won’t be sabotaged by a fickle audience. Intensity, drama, is important.
  8. Know where you’re going! I frequently advise writers who struggle with plot to write a draft of their final chapter, then come back to where they felt lost and write toward that chapter. It helps them know where they’re going.
  9. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. The more readers can add to a work, the more they will invest in it, the more they will remember it. Wilder is telling us not to explain away the subtleties of our work. Good writers find the sweet spot between obscurity, on the one hand, and explaining, on the other.
  10. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing. As applied to screenwriting, this tip has a quite different meaning than it does in fiction. I’d say “voice-over” in fiction refers to the author’s use of narrative voice, and it’s an extension of Tip #4. Though the narrator is positioned at differing distances in different points of view (1st-person, 3rd subjective, omniscient, dramatic), Wilder’s concept applies to them all (perhaps least so to the dramatic p.o.v.). The setting and the action, including dialogue and thought—i.e., “what the audience already sees”—should carry most of what the reader needs to know. An insecure author may be tempted to use the narrator to explain what the author fears the reader won’t understand.

Billy Wilder was a highly successful writer. And though he tosses writing tips out like peanuts at the zoo, I’m pretty sure he’d agree experience—hard work in The Forge—is the only way to make them stick.

Here’s a final thought from Wilder that’s worth keeping in mind in all of this: Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.

From the Forge: The Humanity of Anton Chekov

Anton Chekov in suit and tie

 

Anton Chekov

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Sovfoto/Universal Images Group/REX/Shutterstock (3827651a) Portrait of anton chekhov, Russian author and playwright, 1900. VARIOUS

The Russian writer Anton Chekov is widely recognized as a master of short fiction. It is interesting that many people seem to dislike Chekov’s short stories because they tend to be open ended, lacking a comfortable, reassuring resolution. But Chekov’s place in the pantheon is secure. His influence on later writers has been enormous.

In a recent article in The New Yorker, Siddahartha Mukherjee claims that Chekov “invented a new kind of literature at Sakhalin. It was a literature inflected with clinical humanity—a literature of keen, nearly medical observation about human nature and its imperfections and perversions, but also a literature of expansive sensitivity and tenderness.”

Sakhalin is the Russian island where Chekov spent three months at a penal colony, observing the suffering and the extreme depravity of humanity. His time there became a turning point in his life and his writing.

Mukherjee quotes Chekov as saying, “Six principles that make for a good story . . . are: 1. Absence of lengthy verbiage of a political-social-economic nature; 2. total objectivity; 3. truthful descriptions of persons and objects; 4. extreme brevity; 5. audacity and originality . . . and; 6. compassion.”

Anton Chekov and Leo Tolstoy 1900

 

Chekov and Tolstoy, Yalta 1900

The second and third of Chekov’s principles, “total objectivity” and “truthful descriptions,” no doubt come from his being a physician with a scientific turn of mind. His going to Sakhalin had more to do with Chekov the scientist than with Chekov the writer. But the last two of his six principles, “audacity and originality” and “compassion,” are perhaps the cause of his being so widely loved.

His “audacity and originality” are, I believe, part of why he insisted on the open endings of his stories. Open endings were not popular in the Victorian Period. The Victorians wanted the moral of the story to be clear. They wanted the good characters to end well and the bad characters to end badly. Chekov provides fully realized characters in a tragic situation, but offers no resolution. The reader must search for resolution in his or her own understanding.

But Chekov’s compassion for his characters, his intense feeling that they are simply human beings trapped in their circumstances, driven by their desires, endears him to readers. He does not judge his characters. He leaves judgment to the reader. But his sympathetic, humane treatment challenges readers to look in the mirror before they judge.

Janelle Brown, Watch Me Disappear, a Gripping Read

Janelle Brown’s latest novel, Watch Me Disappeardue out July 11, is a gripping read. A mother’s disappearance while on a solo backpacking trip in the mountains of California devastates her husband and daughter. The narrative is beautifully imagined and intricately woven. The plot is driven by love, loss, and lies. Those three forces pull the characters in opposing directions, making them doubt everything they thought they knew. The father, Jonathan’s, love drives him to write a romanticized autobiography of his life with Billie, the lost wife. As events unfold, he begins to doubt that he ever knew her. The daughter, Olive’s, love causes her to see visions of her lost mother, calling Olive to find her. But she finds much more than she thinks she is looking for. The narrative of Watch Me Disappear is filled with unexpected turns that make the reader not want to put the novel down. And the surprises never stop coming. The characters are complex and sympathetically drawn, very real people with traits that make you love them and traits that make you hate them.

Janelle Brown’s writing is stunning. Beautiful descriptions, surprising images (“an ominous premonition spiders up the back of his neck”), pithy insights into human nature and the beauty and tragedy of life. An old woman who answers the door: “Her hand is papery and porcelain-thin on Olive’s own.” Descriptions that make your skin crawl: “He left an impression of stubble and flannel and stringy unkempt hair, and a sharp smell, something itchy and intense oozing from his pores.” At times the language itself creates a moment of comic relief: “As Isaac tongued her molars, Olive kept visualizing the slides of amoeba they were studying in her biology class–his germy pseudopods spelunking in her mouth.”

Watch Me Disappear is an engaging and rewarding read.