The Writer's Life
Louise Candlish: Domestic Suspense from Across the Pond
Louise Candlish is a British author of dark novels that deal with family, marriage and the flaws that make us human.
|photo: Jonny Ring
Our House (Berkley, $26; reviewed below) is Candlish's U.S. debut.
Our House is a crime thriller with an unusual premise. What inspired you to write about the theft of a family home?
I wanted to explore a crime I hadn't seen before in fiction. I'd read reports about property fraud in the British newspapers (generally involving a faceless criminal who intercepts the buyers' closing payment), and one in particular caught my eye in the Daily Mail. A woman's house had been sold without her knowledge by a criminal gang who used someone to impersonate her in the process. I thought how terrible and shocking it would be to lose your home in this way and then I thought, imagine if the fraudster was someone you knew and trusted!
I wanted the story to be both an entertaining puzzle and a cautionary tale. As house prices have rocketed and the divide between the haves and have-nots has increased, I've grown worried that we've begun to value property more highly than each other. The main character in Our House, Fi, admits that if she had her time again, she'd concentrate less on her house and more on the people in it.
How did you come up with the idea of writing a book in the form of a podcast?
Since Gone Girl, husband-wife, he-said/she-said stories have become an established subgenre--one that I love to read--and I wanted to try to push the boundaries. Fi tells her story in the form of a transcribed interview for a crime podcast called The Victim, interspersed with her husband Bram's written account of the unfolding disaster. I loved Serial and I listen to a lot of podcasts, audiobooks and radio drama. Audio is a medium about intimacy and persuasion and a spoken interview felt like a natural choice for Fi's story.
It was important to me that the format of the book be integral to the plot, rather than experimental for the sake of it. As the plot unravels, readers might wonder why a private citizen with no ambitions for celebrity would choose to go public in this way. Would you?
Despite all the trouble he causes, Bram is a surprisingly sympathetic character. Without giving away the plot, tell us why you chose to construct Bram in this way.
What I find most fascinating about humans is our flaws and frailties; I'm curious about how we act when threatened or isolated or pushed to the brink by circumstance. Or when we've made a terrible mistake and can't see a way back. Although Bram acts criminally, the story of how he comes to commit his crimes is very complex. He has issues, including anxiety, alcohol-dependency and others that are rooted deep in childhood. Because his acts against his family are outrageous, I needed them to be psychologically watertight. Stealing from the family you love is not a lifestyle choice, it's the behavior of a desperate man. I felt huge compassion writing him and it's a joy to find that early readers have warmed to him, too. I honestly didn't know what to expect.
Trinity Avenue, where Fi's house is located, seems like a place you know well--a realistic portrait of an upwardly mobile suburban London street. Is it based on an actual street where you live or have lived?
It's actually a composite of several streets in South London. These are gorgeous tree-lined avenues with large family homes and a real sense of community. There's a park nearby, a farmer's market, a pub and patisserie, a great school. The dogs are well trained and the hedges nicely trimmed. If you landed here, you would never want to leave. That's why the loss, when it comes, is like grief.
Everyone thinks Trinity Avenue is based on my own street in Herne Hill, South London, but it's not. I can't afford a property as posh as Bram and Fi's, I’m a writer!
People who have read Our House point out its "addictive" quality. How does Our House compare to your previous novels?
It's more complex and ambitious. There are different layers of guesswork: the two main characters', the police's, the reader's. The reader learns the facts before Fi does, and I think that's part of what makes it compulsive--we want to know when she'll find out what the hell Bram has been up to and what she'll do about it when she does.
In some ways it develops themes I've explored before in my writing, such as our dangerous love of property, the pressures of parenting (and marriage), the unluckiness of meeting an amoral person when at your most vulnerable. It's my debut in the U.S., so readers here are definitely starting with the best!
When the book ended I was left wanting more, much more. Do you have a sequel in mind?
Not yet, but it's such a compliment when someone asks that question, so thank you! The characters and their fates are still very fresh in my mind, too. People are talking about the last line, which I hoped quite clearly indicates what's likely to happen to Bram and Fi when the pages are closed. If anyone is in doubt, they can tweet me @louise_candlish
Could you share a little of your writing process? What advice do you have for aspiring writers out there?
The writing process--you mean other than the coffee and salted caramel treats on tap?
Over the course of several novels, I've come to value plotting and planning above all else. On Our House, I collaborated closely with my editor at Berkley, Danielle Perez, and, among the many things she taught me was the usefulness of keeping timelines. I had a timeline for the crime, a timeline for each individual character, even for the car and the phones. Readers are very clever, very well-read, and a plot flaw is not going to go unnoticed.
My advice to aspiring writers is to start with a strong central premise, the hook you can express in a sentence. (With Our House
, you would say, "It's about a man who sells the family home without his wife's knowledge.") Then develop your voice. I always advise first-time writers to start with a first-person narrator: it's so direct, you can get the power and rhythm quite quickly. Oh, and enjoy it! In some ways, the time before you know whether or not you have a career as a writer is the best bit. Anything might happen, your dreams are open-ended, and that's an exhilarating feeling. --Shahina Piyarali
, writer and reviewer
The Bear and the Paving Stone
, trans. by Geraint Howells
This ethereal collection of three stories by French literature scholar Toshiyuki Horie plays with themes of memory and coincidence, illustrating how unrelated events trigger suppressed memories. The title comes from a Jean de la Fontaine fable, "The Bear and the Amateur Gardener," in which a lonely bear befriends an old gardener. The bear kills his new friend after lobbing a paving stone at the gardener's nose to ward off a fly.
Translated by Geraint Howells, the 2001 Akutagawa Prize-winning "The Bear and the Paving Stone" is a gentle, stirring novella of history and memory that simmers with raw emotional ferocity. Two university friends, a Japanese translator of French literature and Yann, a photographer, meet in Normandy to reminisce about their lives. Their discussion meanders across various topics--the impact of war on Yann's family and his interest in granite architecture, the translator's studies of Émile Littré--and converges on the story of a blind teddy bear created by Yann's landlady for a blind son. This unlocks a flood of discomfiting revelations for the narrator, in which "Time had flowed backwards, from my pained lower jaw towards the invisible centre of the nervous system, where everything comes together."
For two other stories as well, Horie uses descriptive imagery in a distanced narrative style. His characters maintain an inner strength and Zen-like independence that wavers under the emotional weight of shared memories, which merge in unexpected ways to convey a yearning for deeper connections.
The Bear and the Paving Stone
adds to the bold collection of contemporary Japanese literature published by Pushkin Press. --Nancy Powell
, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: Three revelatory stories examine the yearnings for human connectedness through shared memories.
$13.95, paperback, 160p., 9781782274377
The Lost Queen of Crocker County
There's no doubt that Iowa has lost one-time Corn Queen Janie Willow. Now a syndicated Los Angeles movie critic known for her acerbic reviews, she has put her Midwestern days behind her, which she refers to as "Before Jane." "After Jane" has one friend (by her own count) and is "ruled by doubt and cynicism." In The Lost Queen of Crocker County, Elizabeth Leiknes slowly reveals what marks "before" vs. "after" for her emotionally elusive protagonist.
Jane is planning a lavish visit for her parents, set to arrive from True City, Iowa. She notes she isn't "brave enough" to go home. Instead, she is immersed in movies, her reality defined by parallels to lines, plots and actors. But her parents' deaths in a plane crash demand her immediate return, and her loss and anxiety are agonizing. They were pillars of the community. (Literally. The grain silos were named for them.) And Janie was the most famous Corn Queen of all. What horror drove her to leave this loving town forever? As Janie-now-Jane navigates the memories, the profuse sympathy and the corn casseroles, a second tragedy leads to deeper sorrow. Eventually Jane faces her 20-year secret and begins a circuitous path to peace, and even joy.
Cinematic references and farm-country details embellish a fast-paced plot. Jane's basic goodness, credited to her wholesome Iowa upbringing, allows for suspension of disbelief as conflicts happily resolve. After all, as any citizen of True City would confirm, Jane's dad was always right when he said, "Believe so." --Cheryl Krocker McKeon
, manager, Book Passage, San Francisco
Discover: A devastating secret from Jane's past is revealed when she returns to the small Iowa farm town she left 20 years before.
$15.99, paperback, 336p., 9781492663799
The Blurry Years
The interrelated pieces that make up The Blurry Years hum with such insight and understanding that the whole feels strikingly personal. Eleanor Kriseman's Callie ("Cal") ages from a child of six to a young adult of 18 under precarious circumstances in late 1970s and early 1980s coastal Florida. Moving between an assortment of impermanent locations (hotels, cars, various boyfriends' homes) with her alcoholic, peripatetic mother, Cal seeks stability in whatever small nooks and crannies she can find it.
The Blurry Years is skillfully unsettling in its unfiltered look at a girl simmering in ongoing crises over which she has no control. Cal's mother, Jeanie, not only fails to shelter her daughter from danger, but in most instances is the source of it. Although Cal is the narrator and focus of the stories, Kriseman's portrayal of Jeanie's alcoholic fall-downs and get-back-ups has dazzling authenticity, all the more striking as viewed through a girl's eyes.
Peace and comfort come in incremental measures for Cal, who wants only "plans, promises, something concrete": things her mother is not equipped to provide. Kriseman packs a perfect punch in a small package, painting 12 years of Cal's life to full-frame in fewer than 200 pages. The picture is bleak, perhaps a reflection of Kriseman's experience as a social worker, but the writing is unerringly captivating. Cal herself describes it perfectly as she curls up on the couch to read Bridge to Terabithia
: "It was obvious something awful was going to happen, but I couldn't stop reading." --Lauren O'Brien
of Malcolm Avenue Review
Discover: In interrelated stories spanning her turbulent adolescence, a girl comes of age with her alcoholic mother.
Two Dollar Radio,
$15.99, paperback, 162p., 9781937512712
Mystery & Thriller
Caught in Time
Julie McElwain (A Twist in Time
) continues her Kendra Donovan series with a third entry, Caught in Time
. The FBI agent is still trapped in the 19th century, but now that it's been a few months since she accidentally slipped through a wormhole, she's starting to adapt to the strictures of the earlier era; and since the Duke of Aldridge declared her his ward, she's allowed much more leeway than most women get.
Kendra and the Duke are traveling to one of his country estates when a heavy fog slows their journey. In the mist they see a group of Luddites, armed with axes, off to destroy the mechanical looms at a local mill. The travelers stop in the town of East Dingleford, intending to remain only for the night, but when the constable discovers, along with the broken machines, the brutalized body of the mill owner, Kendra can't help but intervene. The Duke, fascinated with her hints about the future and forensic science, aptly aids her, even calling in his handsome nephew, Alec, to assist.
Caught in Time
is an excellent historical mystery. McElwain weaves a delicate web that can keep readers guessing until the very last moment, and the time travel framing the story adds a fascinating extra layer. It's well-researched with a fast-moving plot and many quirky village characters. As Kendra walks a fine line between disgruntled mill employees, a nasty local farmer and a squire with gout, she will have to use every bit of her 21st-century wits to guide her to catch a killer. --Jessica Howard
, bookseller at Bookmans, Tucson, Ariz.
Discover: An FBI agent must catch the killer of a 19th-century mill owner in this fascinating time-traveling mystery.
$25.95, hardcover, 464p., 9781681777665
Our House by Louise Candlish is an artful, absorbing thriller that proposes a new level of fear--the fear of losing the one thing that many of us take for granted: our home, our sanctuary.
Fiona and Bram are lucky to own their dream home on picture-perfect Trinity Avenue, in an upwardly mobile London suburb. Sky-high property prices have rendered them millionaires, along with their neighbors. All of their savings and Fi's spare time are poured into renovating and updating the house. A stunning magnolia tree in their front yard symbolizes the life they have built for themselves and their two young sons. Even when things fall apart between Fi and Bram, the magnolia tree stands magnificent, a testament to their intact family home. It's when that home, the center of their family, is sold from under her that Fi finds herself in free fall.
Candlish (The Swimming Pool) has embarked on a daring and ingenious form of storytelling. Fi's version of events is relayed in the form of a podcast in which each episode is a true-crime event told in the words of the victim. Candlish explores what happens when the home that is the fabric holding one's family together slips through one's fingers. How important is the house, anyway? Fi calls the Trinity Avenue house her family's "primary breadwinner." It was so much more than a shelter for her--for better or for worse, it's her family's identity.
is a tempting slice of London life packed with intrigue, suspense and beautifully flawed characters, a winning formula with the added bonus of a cautionary tale about investing too much of ourselves in the outward trappings of success. --Shahina Piyarali
, writer and reviewer
Discover: In this brilliantly dark crime thriller set in South London, a family home is sold without the owner's knowledge.
$26, hardcover, 416p., 9780451489111
Biography & Memoir
The Victorian and the Romantic: A Memoir, a Love Story, and a Friendship Across Town
In The Victorian and the Romantic, Nell Stevens traces her journey through the trials of a Ph.D. program in English literature as well as her misfortunes in love. While writing a thesis on Victorian novelist Elizabeth Gaskell and the community of artists she met in Italy, Stevens begins to see parallels between her literary hero and herself. While Gaskell dreams of a life with a member of the Italian literati, Stevens imagines an intellectual but domestic lifestyle with Max, an old classmate. As both dreams fall apart, Stevens wonders what is it that gives her life purpose and if she needs another person by her side to answer that question.
Like Stevens's debut, Bleaker House
, The Victorian and the Romantic
experiments with the boundaries of nonfiction, seamlessly interweaving memoir, historical research and fictional biography. For all its blurry borders, this book's backbone is the author's often insightful, always charming narrative voice. Never shying away from vulnerabilities and doubts, she relays her inner nature convincingly and sympathetically, even if it may be fictional. The sections dedicated to Gaskell glow with Stevens's self-revelations and wit; the Victorian becomes a mirror for Stevens in addition to being a historical figure. Stevens writes love letters to her, making these sections all the more lovely for the light each woman shines on the other--a light that marks the kind of bright, electrifying clarity Stevens's character is searching for throughout the narrative. --Alice Martin
, freelance writer and editor
Discover: Part memoir, part fictional biography, all love story, The Victorian and the Romantic will delight readers with its humor, buoyant warmth and unintentional joy.
$26.95, hardcover, 272p., 9780385543507
Now My Heart Is Full
When Laura June had her first child at 36, a surprising feeling arose: she longed for her late mother, who suffered from alcoholism and with whom she'd had little contact as an adult. June spent most of her life pulling away from her family's difficult home life, only to realize how much it was a part of her. In Now My Heart Is Full, she recounts her childhood, which was fraught with her mother's drinking and reconsiders that relationship as she becomes a parent. June details her experience of her daughter's first weeks and years, including advice and opinions on nursing and sleep training. She also delves into something much deeper about the realities of motherhood, the ways the past unavoidably affects the future and how complicated it can be to love someone who is flawed.
June's writing is intimate and heartfelt, and often casual and friendly. Many of her stories of motherhood are common, so her memoir is both interestingly personal and comfortingly familiar. She explores the hard truths of being a mother and a daughter, showing that each role can be simultaneously joyful, miserable and loving. June saw the world differently as soon as her baby was born, and one realization is especially nuanced and profound: "I had always thought that when people die, our relationships with them stop evolving," she writes. "But I realized then that this wasn't true." --Katy Hershberger
, freelance writer and publicist
Discover: A new mom contemplates parenthood and her own childhood growing up with an alcoholic mother.
$16, paperback, 272p., 9780143130918
Dopesick: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company That Addicted America
It's hard to read Roanoke, Va., journalist Beth Macy's Dopesick without a mounting anger. A searing account of the U.S. opioid epidemic, it methodically follows that scourge along its murderous path--a 20-year journey that began with a drug company's aggressive promotion of a powerful pain medication to a credulous medical profession, and eventually caused 66% of the 64,000 deaths from drug overdoses in 2016, with no end in sight.
Macy (Factory Man) began reporting on the crisis in 2012, after it had migrated from the poverty-stricken former coal and factory towns of Appalachia to affluent neighborhoods in and around her hometown. The event that detonated this deadly explosion was the introduction of the powerful opioid OxyContin, in 1996, by Purdue Pharma. Encouraged by bonuses, its sales representatives fanned out across the country to promote the drug. Their efforts coincided with a reassessment by the medical profession of protocols for pain treatment that encouraged doctors to be more aggressive in prescribing analgesics. By 2007, Purdue had earned more than $2.8 billion from its sale, and had sparked a massive substance abuse problem.
Although effectively deploying studies and statistics to support her argument, what makes Macy's book so devastating are her intimate portraits of addicts and their tortured families, trapped in the cycle of addiction, recovery and relapse. Macy spares few harsh words for a public response so feeble that "getting addicted is far easier than securing treatment." As long as the system treats addiction as a "crime problem rather than a health problem," she's pessimistic any solution is near. --Harvey Freedenberg
, freelance reviewer
Discover: A veteran journalist's frightening exposé of the American opioid-addiction epidemic.
$28, hardcover, 384p., 9780316551243
Fewer, Better Things: The Hidden Wisdom of Objects
Consider the humble chair. It's a ubiquitous object, and we likely sit in several different chairs each day. But we rarely, if ever, give it much thought. What material is it made of? How was it constructed? Where was it made? Was it designed by a craftsperson or mass produced?
In Fewer, Better Things, scholar and former museum curator Glenn Adamson inspires readers to reflect on the physical items they encounter. Adamson is a passionate advocate of material intelligence, which promotes an understanding of the craft and production of objects in material environments--from the most treasured possessions to mundane items taken for granted. As technology makes objects more abundant, it also makes people less materially intelligent. Adamson's tour of the material world includes a Japanese tea ceremony, with its reverence of objects, as well as innovative museums that allow patrons to interact physically with artifacts. Adamson also considers the influence of tools throughout history, how craft has responded to new materials, and the artisans who are masters in their fields.
But there's more to material intelligence than understanding an item's physical characteristics. Adamson argues that objects cross cultural barriers ("they may require interpretation, but not translation") and provide a shared understanding of culture and history. By creating meaningful connections to objects, we can move towards a sustainable world where we surround ourselves with fewer, but better, things. --Frank Brasile
Discover: Fewer, Better Things aims to help the reader appreciate the craftsmanship, form, function and design of objects in a material world.
$27, hardcover, 272p., 9781632869647
Nature & Environment
The World in a Grain: The Story of Sand and How It Transformed Civilization
Investigative journalist Vince Beiser's first book is a rich study of one of the world's most abundant natural resources: sand. With a balance of statistics, science, history, on-the-scene reporting and some healthy environmental skepticism, The World in a Grain highlights the ways this ubiquitous global commodity has been essential to human development and advancement.
Sand is indispensable to global shelter, mobility and convenience. Mixed with cement it makes concrete. When near-pure sand is melted, it becomes glass. Special quartz sand is refined into flawless silicon to produce computer chips like those that established the eponymous California valley. Scarce round grain sand from Wisconsin and Minnesota provides the raw material for the high-pressure "fracking" of oil and gas wells. Major cities such as Dubai, Chicago, Lagos, Singapore and Hong Kong have created whole neighborhoods out of transported and dredged sand. And, of course, where would the snowbirds go if there weren't miles and miles of coastal sand beaches? No wonder Beiser calls sand "the literal foundation of modern civilization."
Each life-enhancing application of sand and its many manufactured manifestations, however, creates a drain on the supply of this seemingly most common of resources. Beiser also explores the environmental and social implications of sand mining, the interstate highway system, fracking and the overbuilding of shoreline towers and marinas. In lucid prose, The World in a Grain
illustrates the many marvels sand has brought to the world--while at the same time cautioning that without prudent use, the environment and sand's economic availability are threatened. --Bruce Jacobs
, founding partner, Watermark Books & Cafe, Wichita, Kan.
Discover: Journalist Vince Beiser's first book explores the extraordinary role of sand in world development and some of the future risks.
$28, hardcover, 304p., 9780399576423
Children's & Young Adult
The Forest Queen
Sixteen-year-old Silvie and her childhood friend Bird run away to Woodshire Forest after Silvie's tyrannical and abusive older brother, John, is named sheriff of Loughsley. The teens form their own community in the woods that includes a pregnant, towering girl called Little Jane, a midwife named Mae Tuck and a band of fed-up Loughsley residents. As Silvie learns about the common folk's suffering, she begins stealing from her family to help the destitute villagers. Soon, a full-blown rebellion starts and Silvie faces the consequences of turning her back on her bully brother.
Betsy Cornwell (Venturess) sets Silvie's uprising against a lush forest where "light springs out of the leaves" and the snow "threads through the forest, white tangles on a green loom. A scrim of frost on every fallen leaf." Cornwell's vivid, lyrical descriptions in The Forest Queen bring nature to life and showcase the threats each season brings, steadily building tension and pushing Silvie closer to understanding the everyday injustices her band endures.
In this gender-swapping Robin Hood retelling, Silvie is an inspiring young woman who discovers that it doesn't take much to stand up to oppressors--she is a champion, fighting against inequality, who doesn't see herself as a hero. Silvie refuses to be called mistress (she's "nobody's mistress out here") and fails to see that her selfless actions are fanning the revolutionary fires. But when the critical time comes for her to step up to be an official leader, she embraces it, finally understanding that "just living is
fighting, sometimes." --Lana Barnes
, freelance reviewer and proofreader
Discover: An inspiring, female-centric retelling of the classic medieval ballad of Robin Hood.
$17.99, hardcover, 304p., ages 12-up, 9780544888197
, illust. by Raúl Colón
Pat Mora and Raul Colón's third picture book collaboration is a joyful, vibrant celebration of words, books and the imagination.
Mora's opening poem kicks the reading festivities off: "We belong/ together,/ books and me,/ like toast and jelly/ o queso y tortillas./ Delicious! ¡Delicioso!/ Like flowers and bees,/ birds and trees,/ books and me." Colón's accompanying watercolor and Prismacolor pencil illustration features a rainbow-colored girl happily snacking on toast and jelly, queso y tortillas, as she leans against a tree trunk, her body completely surrounded by books. In her non-quesadilla-holding hand is a book, hefty and old looking, clearly a classic. The next spread features the poem "Collecting Words," with a boy in a baseball cap capturing words with a net--"cinnamon," "rambunctious," "wiggle"--as if they were butterflies. The following spreads slowly populate with more and more figures until "Library Magic" features a library full of children, all comfortably enjoying books.
Back and forth the poems and illustrations go, upbeat and exuberant with bright colors, or softer, gentler color palettes combined with the rolling intensity of poems like "Antelope Canyon": "For millions of years, water sculpted this sandstone,/ winding and swirling around rocks, waterfalls/ buffing sharp corners into curves,/ careening around boulders,/ crashing in flash floods, torrents gushing,/ polishing as they roiled and plunged." Mora's poems--in English with Spanish phrases sprinkled throughout--are descriptive and entertaining, wholly accessible to the young reader. And Colón's illustrations perfectly match Mora's text, his art dynamic, full of life and color. --Siân Gaetano
, children's and YA editor, Shelf Awareness
Discover: Bookjoy, Wordjoy is exactly that: Pat Mora and Raúl Colón's collaborative celebration of all things books and words.
Lee & Low,
$17.95, hardcover, 32p., ages 6-9, 9781620142868