Connect with us


The Life and Death of Daniel Auster, a Son of Literary Brooklyn



In a Brooklyn subway station one April morning, as commuters waited for a G train, a 44-year-old man named Daniel Auster was found unconscious on a platform after a drug overdose. He was brought to the Brooklyn Hospital Center, where he died six days later, after being taken off life support.

A D.J. and photographer who had long struggled with addiction, Mr. Auster was the son of the writers Paul Auster and Lydia Davis, and the stepson of the novelist Siri Hustvedt, making him a child of New York literary royalty. Eleven days before his death, he had been charged in the death of his 10-month-old daughter, Ruby.

Ruby had died on Nov. 1, 2021, while in his care. Mr. Auster’s wife, a 26-year-old graphic designer named Zuzan Smith, told the police that the baby was awake and in good health that morning when she left their apartment on Bergen Street in Brooklyn. In a deposition, Mr. Auster said he had injected himself with heroin before taking a nap beside his daughter. When he woke up, he found that Ruby was “blue, lifeless and unresponsive,” according to a police report.

He tried administering Narcan, a drug used to treat opioid overdoses, to revive her before calling 911. Ruby was pronounced dead at the nearby NewYork-Presbyterian-Brooklyn Methodist Hospital. The cause of her death was acute intoxication of heroin and fentanyl. Law enforcement officials have not commented on how she ingested the drugs.

Four months later, in mid-April, the medical examiner declared Ruby’s death a homicide. Mr. Auster was arrested and arraigned on charges of manslaughter, criminally negligent homicide and endangering the welfare of a child. A Daily Mail video shows him shuffling into a van wearing handcuffs, as a reporter shouts: “Daniel, did you kill the baby? Did you kill the baby, Daniel?” On April 20, hours after he was released from Rikers on bail, he was found in the Clinton Hill subway station.

His family remained silent as tabloid photographers staked out the Auster-Hustvedt brownstone in Park Slope. Mr. Auster, 75, and Ms. Hustvedt, 67, declined requests to be interviewed for this article. (“We have absolutely nothing to say about this,” Ms. Hustvedt said.) Ms. Davis, who is 75 and lives in Rensselaer County, N.Y., also declined to comment when reached by phone. Ms. Smith could not be reached for comment.

This was not the first time family members had faced uncomfortable questions about Daniel, who played a part in two New York stories. One was criminal, centered on the most notorious murder in 1990s downtown nightlife. The other was literary, playing out slowly in books written by his father and stepmother, who reckoned with his struggles on the page.

As a teenager, Daniel Auster was immersed in the club kid scene that thrived at rave meccas like Limelight and the Tunnel. He was present in a Hell’s Kitchen apartment when the drug dealer Andre Melendez was murdered by the party promoter Michael Alig and his roommate, Robert Riggs.

Daniel, 18 at the time, was said to have been passed out during the murder, but the precise nature of his actions remains unknown, and the incident cast a shadow that followed him throughout his life. His link to the crime was gradually forgotten, but his arrest and death resurfaced speculation that his last name may have won him leniency with the law.

He was a misfit member of the club kids, a band of downtown personalities who created an underground nightlife universe at the Limelight, a club housed in an old stone church in Chelsea. They partied in glitter and platform heels, and they carried children’s lunchboxes stuffed with ecstasy.

A prodigal son of brownstone Brooklyn, Daniel attended the Packer Collegiate private school and was raised in a bookish milieu. Paul Auster, whose friends included the novelists Salman Rushdie and Don DeLillo, was then at the height of his literary celebrity. When he wrote the 1995 movie “Smoke,” Daniel was cast in a bit part as a thief who shares a scene with ‎Harvey Keitel‎.

By night, he raved at the Limelight beneath cage dancers, often carrying a paperback of “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis. He soon fell under the sway of Mr. Alig, the club kid ringleader from suburban Indiana. As Mr. Alig reigned over the Limelight, and threw lawless parties in trucks and subway stations, teenagers flocked to his chaotic utopia.

“Daniel was a wild child,” said James St. James, a former club kid who wrote the 1999 memoir “Disco Bloodbath: A Fabulous but True Tale of Murder in Clubland.” “When he and Michael met, they were at a rave, and Michael ran over to me and said, ‘I’ve just met the love of my life.’ Then he dragged this boy over. They were inseparable after that. They became a couple from hell.”

“We all knew who Daniel was,” he continued. “It became this joke that Paul Auster had a kid from ‘The Omen’ on his hands.”

The scene changed when meth and ketamine replaced ecstasy, and Mr. Alig got addicted to heroin. It was against this backdrop that Daniel found himself at Mr. Alig’s Hell’s Kitchen apartment on March 17, 1996. What happened next has been told with variations, but this is the generally accepted account.

Mr. Alig’s drug use had resulted in a hefty debt to Mr. Melendez, a club kid known as “Angel” for his habit of wearing giant feathered wings. Mr. Melendez went to the apartment to collect his money, but the two men got into a fight. Soon, Mr. Riggs entered the fray, bludgeoning Mr. Melendez’s head with a hammer. Mr. Alig then suffocated Mr. Melendez before pouring Drano down his throat and sealing his mouth with duct tape.

The dead man was placed in a bathtub, where he decomposed for days on ice while Mr. Alig continued partying with friends. Finally, he dismembered the body in a heroin haze while Mr. Riggs spritzed Calvin Klein Eternity over the corpse to mask its odor. Then the men dumped the body into the Hudson River. They reportedly gave Daniel, who was using drugs in the apartment, $3,000 of Mr. Melendez’s money in exchange for his silence.

As rumors of Mr. Melendez’s disappearance began to spread, Michael Musto, the nightlife columnist at The Village Voice, wrote a blind item suggesting that Mr. Alig had killed him. A mutilated torso washed up on Staten Island, and Mr. Alig and Mr. Riggs were arrested that winter.

After pleading guilty to first-degree manslaughter, Mr. Alig spent 17 years in prison and Mr. Riggs served 13. Daniel pleaded guilty to possession of stolen property with the promise of a five-year probation. He did not testify in court. In the crime’s aftermath, police cracked down on drugs in clubs, and a federal investigation targeted Peter Gatien, the eye-patch-wearing mogul who owned the Limelight, effectively ending an era of New York nightlife.

Mr. Riggs said at his sentencing: “What I am certain is that all of us involved, myself, Michael Alig, Daniel Auster and Angel Melendez, are victims of the same hideous evil, whose name is drugs.”

As the crime entered New York lore, the Limelight was converted into a David Barton Gym and the murder became fodder for true-crime books and movies, notably “Party Monster,” which starred Chloë Sevigny and Macaulay Culkin. Daniel became the rarely mentioned fourth man in the apartment, one who did not appear in the most popular retellings.

“After Daniel’s death, conversation about this thing that happened so long ago flared up again,” Mr. Musto said. “All these theories about why he wasn’t charged had always existed. If he knew more, why didn’t he come forward? Why did he fade from view and not have to testify?”

“I always wondered about him over the years,” he added. “He was an enigma.”

In his 2003 book, “​​Clubland: The Fabulous Rise and Murderous Fall of Club Culture,” the journalist Frank Owen published the theory that the powerful district attorney Robert Morgenthau, who died in 2019 at 99, didn’t pursue Daniel on more serious charges because his priority was to bring down Mr. Gatien, and because he was friendly with his father.

“After the slaying,” Mr. Owen wrote, “Auster had been whisked out of the city by his father to a secret location. Paul Auster then contacted a family friend, who happened to be Manhattan district attorney Robert Morgenthau. Morgenthau had a reputation for treating celebrities with kid gloves.”

Soon after Mr. Alig was released in 2014, he gave fresh details about the crime to The New York Post: “Me and Daniel Auster and Riggs all piled on Angel,” he said in the interview. “I smashed into his face to try to push him down. I either did it for too long or had more strength than I realized or maybe it was a combination of us sitting on top of him and he couldn’t breathe or whatever it was, he just stopped writhing.”

Mr. Alig, who was then almost 50, tried to reclaim his former glory as a nightlife promoter, but the murder’s specter followed him in a vastly changed city. He died of a drug overdose on Christmas Eve in 2020. Mr. Riggs entered academia after his release in 2010 and avoided the media spotlight.

In the wake of Daniel’s death, former club kids began reconnecting to discuss the past, and some reflected that Ruby’s death represented yet one more consequence of the era’s excesses.

“For years after Angel’s murder I thought, ‘Maybe this is all over,’” said Ernie Glam, who went on to be a newspaper reporter in Westchester County. “But the deaths of Michael Alig and now Daniel Auster and his daughter show that it’s not over. Addiction is never over. I don’t think of Daniel as a monster but as an addict who was a really sick person that needed help.”

Sidney Prawatyotin, who appeared in the 1995 movie “Kids” and became a graphic artist, was teenage friends with Daniel in the Limelight years.

“When we hung out, I always felt like Daniel was looking for a family,” Mr. Prawatyotin said. “I thought of him as a boy without a family. Like he was lost. He enjoyed doing normal things with me, like watching movies all night. At my parents’ place on the Upper West Side, he always liked spending time with my mom and hanging out with her. I think he eventually found family in the clubs, but then it got out of control for him.”

The second New York story that Daniel Auster was connected to began playing out on the page shortly after his birth in 1977.

For years, he provided creative fuel for his father, who depicted him in several books until he faded from his writings.

After the Melendez murder, Ms. Hustvedt, his stepmother, published a novel that featured a teenage addict who becomes involved in a killing strikingly similar to the real-life crime.

Ms. Davis, his mother, has examined practically every facet of ordinary life, including parenthood, in countless short stories and essays, but she has avoided including a character who resembles Daniel in her work.

The first literary portrayal of Daniel came in 1982, when he appeared as a child in“The Invention of Solitude,” a memoir by his father. The book explores Mr. Auster’s strained relationship with his father, with Daniel serving as a Proustian vehicle for the author’s self-discovery. It heralded Mr. Auster’s arrival as a bold postmodern voice in American letters, and the theme of the absent father and the searching son would recur throughout his work.

Mr. Auster wrote the memoir during a bleak period. He and Ms. Davis — who met as undergraduates at Columbia and Barnard College before living together as translators in the South of France — had separated after four years of marriage, and his father had just died. While Mr. Auster and Ms. Davis took turns raising Daniel, Mr. Auster moved into a tiny office on Varick Street in Lower Manhattan, where he wrote in isolation.

The book is filled with impressions of Daniel’s childhood, notably Mr. Auster reading Carlo Collodi’s “The Adventures of Pinocchio” to him at bedtime: “For the little boy to see Pinocchio, that same foolish puppet who has stumbled his way from one misfortune to the next, who has wanted to be ‘good’ and could not help being ‘bad,’ for this same incompetent little marionette, who is not even a real boy, to become a figure of redemption, the very being who saves his father from the grip of death, is a sublime moment of revelation.”

He adds: “The son saves the father.”

Mr. Auster’s breakthrough work, “The New York Trilogy,” published in 1987, established him as a fiction writer. One of its three novellas, “City of Glass,” includes a writer named Paul Auster who is married to a woman named Siri and has a gentle son named Daniel.

The depiction of the son character was markedly different in 2003, when Mr. Auster published “Oracle Night,” a novel featuring an acclaimed Brooklyn writer with the surname Trause (an anagram of Auster), the father of a violent addict named Jacob whom he eventually disinherits. Nearly a decade later, in the 2012 memoir “Winter Journal,” which describes the dissolution of his marriage, the author barely refers to his son.

Mr. Auster met Ms. Hustvedt at a poetry reading a few years after his separation from Ms. Davis. They were married in the early 1980s and settled in Park Slope. Ms. Davis moved to the neighborhood to make it easier for Daniel to go back and forth.

Over the next decade, Mr. Auster and Ms. Hustvedt became leading figures of literary Brooklyn. Articles noted the warmth of the writerly household, including a 1995 profile in The New York Times, in which Mr. Auster expressed delight at receiving a postcard from Daniel, who was on an Outward Bound program in Maine. The next year, Daniel was making pilgrimages to the Limelight.

In 2003, Ms. Hustvedt published “What I Loved,” an acclaimed novel that attracted scrutiny for appearing to borrow heavily from reality. The book’s second half focuses on a boy named Mark who grows into a deceitful teenage addict and clubgoer. He torments his father, Bill, and intimidates his stepmother, Violet. He also becomes intimately involved with a nightlife figure who is arrested for the murder of a drug dealer named Rafael Hernandez.

“Violet had long suspected that Mark hadn’t told the full truth about the murder,” Ms. Hustvedt writes. “Mark had fooled him, the way he had fooled us all.”

Of the book’s father and son, Ms. Hustvedt writes: “Bill loved his changeling child. His blank son, his Ghosty Boy. He loved the boy-man who is still roaming from city to city and is still reaching into this traveling bag to find a face to wear and a voice to use.”

The journalist Joe Hagan analyzed the overlaps of fact and fiction for The New York Observer. Writing in Slate, the critic Katie Roiphe defended Ms. Hustvedt and criticized the Observer article as “pernicious” for its “implication that there is something unnatural about Hustvedt for exposing her family to the reading public.” In 2006, when asked by The Guardian if the novel had borrowed from real life, Ms. Hustvedt said: “I’m not going to talk about any of that.”

Ms. Davis married an abstract painter, Alan Cote, after her divorce from Mr. Auster. She began teaching at Bard College and produced translations of Proust and Flaubert. In 1995, when Daniel was 17, she gave him the chance to use her as material: The author photo for her novel, “The End of the Story,” in which she smiles easily at the camera, bears the credit “by Daniel Auster.”

A new wave of appreciation for her body of work came at the time of the publication of “The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis” in 2009. Five years later, she published a story collection, “Can’t and Won’t,” which she dedicated, in part, to Daniel.

In a 2014 profile of Ms. Davis in The New Yorker, Dana Goodyear homed in on “Selfish,” one of Ms. Davis’s stories about parenthood: “That story, with its shifting sense of culpability, is the closest Davis comes to describing her struggles with Daniel,” Ms. Goodyear wrote.

The article also described how Ms. Davis once asked Daniel for his advice on a short story that included an unkind detail about her own mother, who was still alive at the time. He recommended that she remove the detail to spare his grandmother’s feelings, and Ms. Davis followed her son’s counsel.

When Ms. Goodyear asked her about the tradition of lifting from reality to write fiction, Ms. Davis replied: “It’s a shock to see yourself depicted in someone’s writing, even if it’s not particularly negative. It’s a matter of being taken away and used.”

“Hurting children is where I would draw the line,” she said. “Children are off-limits.”

In 1998, not long after the start of his probation, Daniel attended a screening of “Party Monster: The Shockumentary,” a documentary about Mr. Alig and the Melendez murder. His presence came as a surprise to other club kids who were there that night. Approached by a Page Six reporter after the screening, he said he was “going away” and “wouldn’t be reachable all summer.” Daniel then faded from public view.

In his 20s, he grappled with addiction and studied photography at the State University of New York, Purchase, creating portfolios heavy on noirish New York City streetscapes. During class one day, when a teacher referred to the movie “Smoke,” Daniel raised his hand and said he had acted in the film, adding that Mr. Auster was his father.

“He didn’t talk about his past, but I eventually learned he’d had a tumultuous one,” recalled Matt Licari, a fellow photography student at SUNY Purchase. “It seemed like school was meant to be a new start for him.”

“He had a reputation for disappearing,” Mr. Licari continued, “but there’s no question that Dan was a great photographer. It was sensitive work. I still recall one picture he took of a priest watching a burning building. After graduating I remember he started taking pictures of lost gloves around the city.”

After college, Daniel began working at A-1 Record Shop in the East Village and gigging as a D.J. specializing in house music at Le Poisson Rouge and elsewhere. He published his street photos in New York Press, an alt-weekly paper. A black-and-white picture of his was used as the cover art for “A Mown Lawn,” a slim chapbook by his mother.

Announcing himself with a personal website that highlighted his photographs, he wrote on its About Me page: “I grew up in the wonderful borough of Brooklyn in New York City. My first camera (a Pentax K-1000) was given to me at age 11 and I’ve been photographing ever since. People watching was a hobby I acquired early on in life, so this translated naturally into photography becoming an obsession of mine, with an emphasis on people, my favorite subject matter.”

He was arrested several times throughout his 30s, including two charges for drug possession and one for petit larceny.

At the same time, his half siblings prospered. Theo Cote, the son of Ms. Davis and her second husband, established himself as a videographer and photographer. Sophie Auster, the daughter of Mr. Auster and Ms. Hustvedt, became a model and singer-songwriter. Her debut album, which she recorded in high school and released on a small French label, features songs written by her father, who cast her in two movies he directed, “The Inner Life of Martin Frost” and “Lulu on the Bridge.” She also appeared on the cover of French Elle with her mother.

In a 2002 interview with The Guardian, Paul Auster gave what appears to be his only on-the-record comment about his son: “He is currently finding himself — ask me again in a couple of years.”

In 2013, a year after the publication of Mr. Auster’s memoir “Winter Journal,” Tal Gafny, then a graduate student in fine arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, sent Daniel a message on Facebook. An avid fan of Paul Auster, Ms. Gafny said she had found herself wondering why Daniel was largely missing from the recent memoir’s pages. Weeks later, Daniel replied to her. It was the start of a correspondence that Ms. Gafny would include in “Finding and Losing Daniel Auster,” a chapter of her dissertation.

In their exchanges, they shared their struggles about having divorced parents and fractured childhoods. Daniel eventually confided that he had noticed his absence from “Winter Journal.”

“We made a mutual discovery of having a similar internal void,” Ms. Gafny wrote in her dissertation. “The empty space we both carry became the focal point of our encounter. I was hoping that we could use this as a starting point for a collaboration.”

They agreed to meet in New York.

“I’ve never met someone before like this, not knowing them at all, but I’m fully ready to take a chance and see you,” Daniel wrote to her. “I’ve experienced much pain in my life, but much joy too.”

When Ms. Gafny arrived, he abruptly canceled.

“He wrote me saying, ‘I’m not going to be able to make it,’” she said in an interview. “The reason was he’d had some kind of relapse. He said he was sorry and needed to concentrate on himself.”

She kept writing Daniel but never heard from him again.

Over the last decade, Daniel posted photos that offered a rough chronicle of his life: his father’s manual Olympia typewriter in Brooklyn; a woman in sunglasses outside a San Francisco methadone clinic; children playing soccer in Morocco; stray cats in Spain. Along the way, while immersed in Berlin’s rave scene, he grew close to a young artist named Zuzan Smith.

Last summer — eight months after the birth of their daughter — they were married on a boat in a Berlin canal. Daniel cradled Ruby as Ms. Smith stood beside him wearing an emerald green dress and veil. A friend officiating the ceremony recounted how she moved to the United States to be with Daniel and how the couple had emerged from pandemic lockdown with a child. After the exchange of vows, Daniel’s half brother raised a toast, and someone read words of wisdom sent along by Ms. Davis, who was watching the ceremony online from New York.

The young family moved into a small apartment in Park Slope, not far from Paul Auster’s brownstone. Daniel read bedtime stories to his daughter and took her for strolls around the neighborhood. In a photo taken for her first Halloween, the family is dressed up as characters from “The Wizard of Oz” — Daniel as the Tin Man, Zuzan as Dorothy and Ruby as the Cowardly Lion. Later that fall, neighbors noticed a jumble of toys and baby clothes on the Bergen Street sidewalk.

Kirsten Noyes contributed research.


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



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.

Continue Reading


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



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.

Continue Reading


Three Siblings Get By With a Little Help From a Friend



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.

Continue Reading