Contemporary Novels


Toward the end of WE ARE ALL THE SAME IN THE DARK, a character muses: “If everybody’s holes were as obvious as a missing body part, what would the word disabled even mean?” Out of context that may sound a bit pat. In context, I found myself in tears.

What an amazing, profound, and captivating novel this is. On the level of plot alone, it piles mystery on mystery–two unsolved murders in the past; a one-eyed girl who appears out of nowhere, refusing to speak; a crazy and possibly homicidal recluse; and what is it with those dandelions? The prose, if a bit hyperbolic here and there, is musical and vivid and precise, with distinct voices for the different narrators. And the characters. Oh, my, the characters. Flawed, broken, tough, vulnerable, and deep. Their pasts are richly detailed, so much so that I felt like I could pick a date at random and Heaberlin could tell me what each of them was doing at any hour of the day.

The opening dozen pages made me worry that this might be a paint-by-the numbers serial killer novel. Heaberlin quickly disabused me of that idea with the first of many plot twists, and the surprises came thick and fast thereafter. If, like me, you love that feeling of weightlessness you get when the rug is pulled out from under you over and over again, you will love this book.

There is so much to admire here. Though there are plenty of secrets to go around, the viewpoint characters play fair–they don’t tease the reader with vital information that they’re withholding for the climax. Heaberlin’s research on prosthetics is completely convincing and full of surprises. That’s true of all her research–the first page of the novel is a disquisition on digging a grave by hand that I wanted to wave in the face of lesser writers who’ve buried corpses in an hour. Anyone who’s planted a tree or put a beloved cat to rest knows better, and that passage forged a confidence in Heaberlin as somebody who cares to get things right.

I used the word “profound” earlier. A common subtext in psychological thrillers (a marketing category that typically means, “It’s a suspense novel, except a woman wrote it”) is the way men use violence to deprive women of their agency. There’s a good deal of that in WE ARE ALL THE SAME, but Heaberlin also shows us damaged men, and lays the blame for both at the boots of their bad and damaged fathers.

Don’t miss this one.

Picture books


I don’t read a lot of kid’s picture books, but this one has everything I look for in the genre. A sympathetic protagonist (or two), an unpredictable storyline, and a positive message. Which, when you get down to it, is exactly what I look for in an adult book. Plus it has really great illustrations.

It’s the largely autobiographical story of a five-legged spider and his close encounter with a slimy three eyed space alien (Stanley), who crash lands in his back yard. If that doesn’t sound autobiographical to you, you probably haven’t known Tom Serafini as long as I have. You’ll probably not be surprised that Ollie is able to help his new friend get home in time for dinner (almost, anyway). What you may not expect is that the story goes on for another eight pages after the main plot is resolved, because the best stories have more to them than plot.

Let’s talk about the art. Serafini combines inks and watercolors to create definition and character in the foreground while dazzling the eye with sumptuous washes of texture and color in the back. And there are those lovely art-only moments, like the way Stanley manages to deploy two pairs of welder’s goggles between his three eyes, and the casual way the goggles show up again at the very end. Or the comings and goings of the ambulatory flowers.

And I don’t want to forget to mention my favorite character, Ralph the Tree, even though there’s no good place to do it. Hi, Ralph, I hope your head feels better.


Order the book from Etsy:  Deluxe hardcover (recommended)  Trade paperback

Contemporary Novels

PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke

As with several other books I’ve reviewed here, the less you know going into Susanna Clarke’s PIRANESI, the better. If I were you, I’d go read it right now and come back here afterward. If you insist on knowing more before you commit, I will try to spoil as little as possible.

The novel is cast as a journal written by one of two inhabitants of a world that consists of a giant, labyrinthine “House.” The House is a seemingly infinite succession of vast marble halls, vestibules, and staircases, each filled with statues. The lower level opens onto an ocean where the narrator (named “Piranesi” by the other inhabitant, whom the narrator in turn refers to as “the Other”) gathers the kelp and catches the fish that sustain him.  (Giovanni Battista Piranesi was an 18th century artist known for his etchings of labyrinths.)

The pace is perhaps too leisurely at first, as the narrator gives us a tour of his world and what he knows of its history. But just as I was starting to get impatient, the anomalies began to pile up. Journals bearing dates from 2011 and 2012. The Other wearing a neatly pressed three-piece suit. Very slowly, piece by piece, bits of what we consider the “real world” begin to intrude. Other characters appear and before long the plot becomes utterly compelling.

Clarke’s debut, the highly regarded JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL, was remarkable for its intelligence, its erudition, its period-conjuring prose, and the darkness beneath its glittery surface. PIRANESI is no less smart, learned, stylish, and unsettling. It functions admirably in literal terms but also carries allegorical heft. I see the House as an embodiment of mental illness, a prison that confines and isolates the narrator’s consciousness even as it provides a refuge from the chaos of consensual reality.

The novel is not entirely satisfying. It posits benign supernatural forces that strained my credulity. There are many parallel worlds in addition to ours and that of the House, but those are the only two we ever see. I’m pretty sure there are a number of dead bodies that are never accounted for. The narrator conveniently neglects to reread his earlier journal entries until late in the story.

These are minor complaints. Clarke so vividly brings the House to life–the booming of the tides below, the swooping birds, the towering marble statues, the echoing vastness of the place–that it feels permanently engraved in my mind. Likewise the narrator’s gradual yet inevitable fall from innocence. To Clarke’s great credit, she never downplays the emotional aspects of the story in favor of the intellectual ones. The House may be made of cold marble, but her characters are warm and alive.