I picked up this book for the wrong reason: it was supposedly set in Sitka, Alaska. The truth is that it is set in an alternate Sitka–a federal district housing millions of Jews, who were temporarily relocated there after World War II. Sixty years later, their residency is about to expire, and the Alaskan Jews are preparing for yet another diaspora. The best reason to pick up this book is for the alien mix of Jewish and Tlingit references, the intricate characterizations, or the classic noir detective story. The narration skips around disconcertingly. It’s a mess of politics, religion, (alternate) history, and fateful coincidence. It’s not quite as good as Chabon’s masterpiece The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (then again, what is?). But what anchors the story and elevates it above a cliched thriller is the characters: Meyer Landsman (detective and protagonist), his partner Berko Shemets (mixed race Jewish and Tlingit), Landsman’s ex-wife and current boss Bina Gelbfish, the deeply conflicted man whose murder sparks the token homicide investigation (and whose identity I will not spoil here, because even though the book came out in 2007, I am proof that some people come late to good books), and others. They are complex, variously flawed, unlucky but optimistic, ruthless, and hopeless. It is the most engaging and varied cast I have encountered since Mink River. We’ll call this Chabon’s lesser masterpiece.
Read if you enjoyed: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell
Find The Yiddish Policemen’s Union at Multnomah County Library
You might think this is a book called The Ship of Theseus written by V.M. Straka, but you would be mistaken. The Ship of Theseus is the book at the heart of the story, but it is not the story. This is S., a novel by Doug Dorst and J.J. Abrams. Take the classic story-within-a-story structure and reverse it–S. is a story-around-a-story. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, because figuring it out is part of the delicious mystery. But here’s the bare minimum: A book is left in a study room at a university library. Two people who have read and loved the book begin writing notes back and forth in the margins. (Side note: As a librarian, I feel compelled to point out that it is not a library book, but belongs to one of them, and that you should NEVER write in a library book, because then someone like me will have to discard it.) The real story in in their correspondence.
As an artifact, it is very convincing. I don’t see how this can ever be made into an audiobook version. The additional dimension demands an extra layer of engagement from the reader (I think I read most pages 3 times so I wouldn’t miss anything), and in return, it provides an unusual sense of involvement in the story. This is more than a book–it is an experience.
Recommended for fans of literary criticism, librarians, intellectual rebels, and conspiracy theorists.
Read if you enjoyed: The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, Night Film by Marisha Pessl.
Find S. at Multnomah County Library
This novel manages to pull off a tricky feat: through an alternating series of he-said, she-said chapters of varying reliability, it paints a vivid, complete picture of a complicated relationship. At its surface, it is a mystery about a woman who disappears. But that is merely the jumping-off point. It quickly delves into the manipulative intricacies of obsession, and how our personalities are shaped by outside pressures and internal forces. This is a gripping story, and one worth obsessing over.
Read if you enjoyed: Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King, Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Look for Gone Girl at Multnomah County Library .
The Club Dumas is a rich, intriguing trip down the literary rabbit hole. Lucas Corso, a rare book dealer in Spain, finds himself drawn into two mysteries: one involving a lost chapter from Alexandre Dumas’s Three Musketeers, and one centering on an old book that is rumored to have been written by the devil. The reader is thrown into a whirlpool of literary history, romance, sinister characters, and the occult—be careful not to drown.
Read if you enjoyed: The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón.
Look for The Club Dumas at Multnomah County Library.
Someone recommended this to me as one of the funniest books of 2012, and it did not disappoint. This smart epistolary novel (mostly told through letters, emails, and doctor’s bills) starts out hilarious and only gets better. Bernadette Fox is the central, mysterious character—a wife and mother navigating the social politics of Seattle’s elite schools, retired architect, and neighborhood eccentric. When she disappears without a trace, it’s up to her teenage daughter Bee to track her down. As she meticulously pieces together her mother’s history and last known movements, Bee learns more than she ever expected.
Read if you enjoyed: The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, One for the Money by Janet Evanovich
Find Where’d You Go, Bernadette at Multnomah County Library.