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Ruth Ware Won’t Read ‘Bleak House’ Until She Retires

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Too many to list. I mean, literally about 20 or 30 titles. Some are old favorites that I like to dip back into after a hard day — “Howl’s Moving Castle,” by Diana Wynne Jones, would fall into that category. Some are books I finished a while ago and just haven’t moved to the shelves in my office — Sarah Pinborough’s “Insomnia” or Dorothy Koomson’s “The Ice Cream Girls,” for example. Some are books I’m in the middle of or have yet to get to — Lisa Jewell’s “The Family Remains” is one of those. I’m halfway through and got distracted by something I had to read for an event, but it’s waiting for me!

I only recently read “The Shining,” by Stephen King. I had always considered myself too much of a scaredy-cat for King’s work, having been traumatized by “Christine” aged about 13, but actually “The Shining” wasn’t as horrifying as I had feared. Or maybe I’ve just toughened up with age! Regardless, I’m sorry I waited so long. I also took a long time to get into Dickens. I had to read him at school and university and found him by turns boring, twee and irritating. The only one I really liked was “Great Expectations,” but I think now I’m old enough to see the humanity in his work. I’m saving “Bleak House” for my retirement. There’s a temptation to rush through the canon as young as possible, but you can only ever read a book for the first time once, and I like the idea of having that to look forward to.

Pre-smartphones, I would have said something like a cozy sofa with a cat on my feet, or a long hot bath with a glass of wine. But now, I actually think my ideal reading experience is a longish flight (not unpleasantly long, say five or six hours) with a comfortably reclined seat — ideally against the bulkhead so I don’t have to feel guilty about inconveniencing the person behind me. Some nice steward would bring me charming little portions of delicious food and drink at regular intervals (look, this is ideal, not realistic) and most importantly there would be absolutely no cellphone reception and no Wi-Fi. I love social media as much as the next person, but there’s something particularly blissful about a totally uninterrupted reading experience these days, with no possibility of getting distracted by Twitter or pinged on WhatsApp. Kind of like the cinema, but for books?

It used to be “The Blessing,” by Nancy Mitford, but the Mitfords have become much better known in recent years; although that’s one of her less famous titles, I think a lot of people probably do know it now. Maybe a rather obscure memoir called “A London Child of the 1870s,” which details the author’s very ordinary upbringing in Victorian London. Absolutely nothing remarkable happens, but there’s something so charming and real about the characters that you feel they’re your personal friends by the end of the book. Molly Hughes wrote it, in part, to debunk the idea that the typical Victorian childhood was strict and gloomy and suffused with punishment — certainly the one in the book comes across as one you’d want for your own kids, full of friendship, laughter and scrapes.

The two authors that made me fall in love with the genre were probably Daphne du Maurier and Agatha Christie. But my entry drug, one of the first real “crime” stories I encountered, was Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Adventure of the Speckled Band.” My mum read it to me and my sister as a bedtime story when I would have been about 8 or 9, and I had nightmares for weeks. It definitely showed me the power of the imagination!

This is a very hard one to answer because there are so many excellent possibilities. Sherlock Holmes has to be up there for setting so many of the tropes of the genre. Lord Peter Wimsey was one of my first literary crushes. Agatha Christie’s two brilliant outsiders — the war refugee Hercule Poirot and the “superfluous spinster” Miss Marple — both showed that you didn’t need to be part of the establishment to make a difference. Chester Himes’s Coffin Ed Johnson and Grave Digger Jones did the same in a powerful way. I honestly don’t think I could pick just one. Best villain is probably easier — I think for me it would have to be Tom Ripley. I’m not so interested in shadowy Moriartys or psychopathic serial killers. I love antiheroes who let you see through their eyes, ones that you can both hate and cheer on at the same time. Ripley fits that bill.

As a reader, I can read almost anything as long as I feel invested in the characters. I don’t have to admire them; some of my favorite books have deeply unlikable main characters. But I have to care about them. There are some subjects that do put me off in a blurb — violence or abuse, mainly, particularly involving children. As a writer, I suppose what pulls me into a story is a conundrum or “what if” that resonates with me, and that I want to explore. Some fear or phobia or personal terror of my own is seeded through the pages of most of my books — some obviously, some perhaps not so much. The French writer Colette said, I think in reference to what makes for a good writer, “Look long at what gives you pleasure, and longer at what pains you.” I think that’s good advice, although in my case it’s probably more: Look longer at what scares you.

Voracious! And omnivorous. I read anything and everything, from hard sci-fi to totally unsuitable bonkbusters.

I think empathy is in short supply at the moment, so probably anything that encourages that. Perhaps “Razorblade Tears,” by S.A. Cosby, which shows two very different men connected by their unbearable grief over the loss of their sons, or the memoir “Lowborn,” by Kerry Hudson, which lays painfully bare the reality of the harsh choices facing many families.

I abandon books all the time. I won’t name them because that feels like tacitly implying it’s the fault of the book, and 99 times out of 100 it’s not — it’s just not the right book for me in that moment. I sometimes get tweeted by people who are not enjoying my books but are forcing themselves on, and I always want to say, don’t! I give you permission to stop! It’s very strange; we don’t feel bad about turning off the TV if we’re not enjoying a show, but books are too often still treated like medicine. You’ve got to finish the course, even if you’re not enjoying it. I don’t think books should be anything other than enriching. That doesn’t always mean fun, or easy reads — sometimes a book is upsetting or challenging or difficult to read. But if you’re not getting anything out of a book, I think you should absolutely feel free to drop it and walk away.

Me. I would be deeply affronted if anyone else tried. I think you probably can’t write a clause into your will forbidding biographies, otherwise I would probably try.

The temptation here is to say “Chaucer, Shakespeare and Emily Brontë” to show how well read you are, and there would certainly be something quite fascinating about the chance to solve some of the mysteries of Shakespeare’s life, like why did he leave his wife nothing but his second-best bed? However, honestly, I think it would be too much pressure for me to enjoy my food. So, in reality, I think I would have a better time with just a load of crime writer mates. It’s very hard to pick just three because what I would really like to do is have a huge potluck with about 40 writers all crowded around sharing serving spoons and gossip — but I think I would have a very good time with Clare Mackintosh, Laura Shepherd-Robinson and Abir Mukherjee, and I know they are all foodies so they would appreciate my cooking.

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‘Biography of X’ Rewrites a Life Story and an American Century

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X had a 1994 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art; she wrote seminal novels under various pseudonyms; one of her scripts was filmed by Wim Wenders; she produced records for Tom Waits and David Bowie (and wrote the lyrics to “Heroes”). She discovered and recorded a singer who resembles Karen Dalton. She corresponded with Denis Johnson and was photographed by Annie Leibovitz; she crashed Andy Warhol’s parties and spurned Warren Beatty’s advances. She was everything everywhere all at once. She would never use a door if a window were available.

By late 1996, X is dead. The biography that emerges a year later, by a man named Theodore Smith, infuriates C.M. It’s lightweight and literal, and it’s a joy to watch C.M. attack it. She calls it “radiant with inanity.” She says it reads as if Smith “has mixed up a palette of pastels and given himself permission to brighten a Rembrandt.” She notes that he gets crucial facts wrong.

This is a magpie novel, one that borrows snatches of text, that tinkers with reputations, that moves historical figures around in time. When C.M. writes that Smith’s biography is “page by page, line by line, without interruption, worthless,” some readers will recognize these words, altered just slightly, from Adler’s 1980 takedown, in The New York Review of Books, of Pauline Kael. I’m on the Kael side of this divide, and this repurposing, linking Kael with a hack biographer, rubbed me the wrong way, but that’s life, and it’s nit-picking, and it’s a whole other freeway.

C.M. sets out, in her grief, to report her own biography, a project she refers to as “a wrong turn taken and followed.” Her reporting takes her out into an America that is recognizable, but barely. Like Philip Roth’s “The Plot Against America,” this is a mighty work of counterfactual history.

There is room here only to sketch the outlines of the world that Lacey convincingly projects onto the page. The country was divided, in the “Great Disunion of 1945,” into Northern and Southern Territories, and a wall was constructed between them. The South has become a tyrannical theocracy: Women wear long dresses, the radio plays only church hymns. Lacey employs photographs to ghostly, Sebaldian effect. One image is a satellite photograph of America at night, in which the Southern Territory is completely dark; it’s like looking at a nighttime image of North and South Korea. Lacey spoons out the horror:

On that autumn day in 1945, the quiet orderliness began. Phone lines were snipped. Radio stations were shut down — some by violence and executions, others by willing consent. Local newspaper production ceased. Electricity and running water were rationed in the small number of homes that had any to begin with. Sunday church attendance became mandatory. Libraries were purged of unlawful texts. Schoolhouses were abandoned — all education took place in churches now. Armed guards stood attention at the few places where it was possible to cross the border; snipers were stationed along the rest of the wall. No one was allowed in or out, and those who dared to defy these orders were shot dead.

Lacey, whose previous novels include “Nobody Is Ever Missing” and “The Answers,” has long been interested in characters who grew up in religion-deranged families or were otherwise off the grid. We learn that X grew up in the Southern Territory — born Caroline Luanna Walker, in 1945 — and that she was a rare escapee.

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A Sumptuous Historical, a Sweet Paranormal, a Gorgeous Bit of Horror

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There is nothing like the power of a well-set sentence, where every shining word is thoughtfully placed. I offer some of my favorites from this month’s romances, the better to tempt you with.

We begin with a bit of mournful poetry from a legendary king of England. Because why have enemies to lovers when we could have rival medieval monarchs to lovers during the wars of the Angevin Empire? SOLOMON’S CROWN (Dell, 368 pp., paperback, $17), by Natasha Siegel, explores the relationship between Philip II of France and Richard the Lionheart — the queer love story we get hints of in “The Lion in Winter.” I cannot believe this book exists. I want to wrap myself in velvet to read passages aloud beside a blazing hearth that’s taller than I am. Quaffing is absolutely called for.

The prose thrums with the best kind of heartbreak: “I simply brushed a kiss across his temple, left the room, and went to war with a man whose hips were still inscribed with the shadow of my fingertips.” It’s staggering the space that “and” makes between “left the room” and “went to war”: a whole chasm in a single word.

These men are flawed on a grand scale. Philip is melancholy and controlled, Richard tempestuous and violent with an appealing poetic streak to undercut the bloodthirstiness. Their romance is a sin and a crime and an abuse of power in nearly everyone’s eyes; betrayal and tragedy lurk around every corner. And yet there are moments of breathtaking loveliness: a kiss by a frozen woodland stream, light pouring through a stained-glass window, every acid-bright cameo by Eleanor of Aquitaine.


Siegel’s book is geographically expansive, but Freydís Moon’s latest horror-romance, HEART, HAUNT, HAVOC (self-published, 157 pp., paperback, $13.99), keeps everything within the walls of a single house, as a trans not-quite-exorcist with a fraught past finds himself unable to resist the mysterious, nonbinary owner of the building he’s been hired to cleanse. Buildings, of course, are easy metaphors: “He still felt half-framed and hollow. As if his body was a home with too many unused rooms, too much open space. A place still under construction.” And later: “Haunted places never failed to recognize haunted people.” How appropriate to a trans narrative, this fluidity between humans and homes, the one blending into the other across physical boundaries.

Dark romance gets its charge from the friction between innocence and violence. But this doesn’t necessarily require a character to be solely one or the other. Each lead in Moon’s eerie novella bears goodness and darkness in different ways: Colin banishes ghosts and demons using holy powers, but his past is a stain he carries with him. His meeting with lovely, lonely Bishop unlocks a series of bloody secrets both would rather keep hidden.

This is not a fluffy romance. There is animal sacrifice. There are creepy visuals that would make Guillermo del Toro green with envy. The book is deeply concerned about people being made monstrous, a very rich, queer place for a story to go. It knows the weight of terror, and what survival costs, and still wants you to feel that life — and love — are worth it.


Sinister houses were a feature in Diana Biller’s debut, “The Widow of Rose House.” Her newest, HOTEL OF SECRETS (St. Martin’s Griffin, 416 pp., paperback, $17.99), gave me a perfect jewel-box world set in 19th-century Vienna.

Maria is the fourth generation of her family to run the Hotel Wallner, but memories of that glorious past have faded with the years. Now, as the winter festive season begins, Maria is determined to reclaim her beloved hotel’s place among the city’s aristocracy. She has grand plans and a capable team — but there is treachery afoot, there are spies aplenty and secrets from the Wallner family’s past that threaten not only Maria’s business but her very life.

Oh, and a dark-haired, stoic, virginal American Treasury agent whom she absolutely refuses to fall in love with.

I wanted intrigue from this book, and I got it — but there was also more charm and sly humor than I was expecting. Maria is the kind of character who, when she learns her guests are having trysts in the linen closet, dreams up cunning ways to make the linen closets more tryst friendly. Eli, our American agent, is the perfect uptight foil for her sumptuous creativity and one of the year’s best grumps; it was a pleasure to watch him unravel.

One passage in particular sums up the reason I and so many others love historical romance: “Later, they would wake up in the real world, with headaches to nurse and bills to pay and petty quarrels to fight, but right now they were in the magical fairyland of the Hotel Wallner, and they felt as though they never needed to leave.”


I’ve saved the sweetest book for last. BITTER MEDICINE (Tachyon, 272 pp., paperback, $18.95), by Mia Tsai, centers on Elle, a descendant of the Chinese god of healing who makes magical glyphs for a fairy bureaucracy and secretly pines for Lucien, a handsome, half-elf agent. When the glyphs work too well, saving Luc’s life but revealing Elle’s existence to the dangerous family members she’s running from, she and Luc will have to atone for the sins of their pasts while working out what they truly mean to each other.

There are so many joys in this paranormal. The wealth of languages, mythologies, religions and magicks are a weight that balances the emotional tenderness. Healing magic, rather than fighting magic, takes center stage — and without spoiling things too much, it’s also one of the rare paranormals to feature a heroine who loses rather than gains power. Tsai does not flinch from this grief: “The overhead lights cast her shadow, faint and watery, across her threshold, and that’s how she imagines she looks: magic-less and broken, a ghostly husk of herself.” In a subgenre that so often makes supernatural power the answer to problems, how refreshing to find one that says being mortal — being human, and happy, and safe — is purpose enough.

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Three Siblings Get By With a Little Help From a Friend

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Diane is admitted to Orchard Springs, an enormous hospital that appears to have been dropped onto its parklike campus “without any apparent plan.” One might say the same of “Commitment,” which has a meandering, aimless vibe until around Page 75. Simpson lingers for a bewilderingly long time on the minutiae of Walter’s life, then dips briefly into Lina’s (she’s 16, a junior on the honors track at Pali High, a school Diane got her kids into using the address of a woman she met at exercise class). Donnie, the youngest, is twice neglected — first by his mother, then by Simpson, who mostly ignores him until much later in the book.

But once Diane is in the care of a decent doctor, the path of “Commitment” becomes clear: It’s a survival story. Walter, Lina and Donnie will have to figure out how to take care of themselves. Sometimes they’ll be OK; sometimes they’ll flounder. Occasionally they’ll function as a team, but mostly they’ll adopt a solar system model, orbiting the sun (Diane, no matter how long she’s absent from their daily lives) while being steadied on their axes by Julie, who is the moon. A cynical reader might find Julie’s selflessness too convenient; I found it inspiring and wanted to know more about her. Instead I learned a lot about Thomas Story Kirkbride, the Quaker psychiatrist who believed that airy, well-lit hospitals could have a curative effect on patients. He was interesting too.

Simpson seems to have unlimited time and pages as she follows Walter, Lina and Donnie into adulthood, through graduations and first loves and soul-crushing jobs, from Los Angeles to New York City, into the realms of architecture and art and parenthood. Walter and Lina build their adult lives around the creation and destruction of beauty, as if the chance to exert control over a sculpture or a building might make up for the unsteady foundation of their family life. Simpson has clearly done her research on the development of the Pacific Palisades and on the gallery scene in Manhattan in the 1980s, among many other topics, and the fruits of her labor add texture to an already hefty story.

Donnie’s trajectory is less obvious than those of his siblings. He floats where the wind takes him; “trouble became his natural habitat,” Simpson tells us. Of course, “everyone in high school had found out what happened to his mother. He’d never told, but they knew. Girls wanted to talk about it, their voices pitying, hands eager.” When Donnie’s drug addiction becomes too big to ignore, the Azizes finally have to do the work they’ve avoided for so long. The therapy-speak is mine; Simpson would never be so heavy-handed. Her language is subtle to the point of coyness, with an arm’s-length quality that’s equal parts impressive and maddening.

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