Best New E-Books: March 4, 2021

  • The Postscript Murders by Elly Griffiths (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Mystery Novel): Who among us–perhaps after binge-watching “Murder, She Wrote” or finishing yet another murder-mystery novel–hasn’t thought we’d be passable crime-solvers, if ever called upon to ferret out clues or mull over motives? In Elly Griffiths’ The Postscript Murders, a motley and charming trio of amateur sleuths gets their chance for the saddest of reasons: Their friend, the intelligent and gregarious Peggy, is found dead in her home. Healthcare aide Natalka discovers 90-year-old Peggy in her armchair, where she liked to look out the bay window at her Shoreham-by-Sea, England, neighborhood and seafront. There is a notebook, binoculars and mystery novel by her side, as well as a business card that reads, “Mrs. M. Smith, Murder Consultant.” That surprising job title seems even stranger when Natalka, Benedict (coffee shop owner and ex-monk) and Edwin (retired after many years at the BBC) sort through Peggy’s extensive collection of crime novels and realize the vast majority are dedicated to her. What, they wonder, does “Thanks for the murders” mean? The trio runs their theories by Detective Sergeant Harbinder Kaur, whom Griffiths fans will remember from 2019’s Edgar Award-winning The Stranger Diaries. Here, Kaur reluctantly considers the trio’s speculation about Peggy’s demise, ultimately partnering with them when a literary festival in Aberdeen, Scotland, becomes the site of additional untimely deaths and other assorted dangers. Griffiths’ strong sense of place–the sea is sparkling yet unsettling, Aberdeen’s cliffs beautiful yet unforgiving–provides a rich foundation for a cleverly constructed story with complex, memorable characters. Each is granted multiple turns to share their innermost thoughts, from feverish yet fearful interest in their detective work to poignant musings on years past. Through them, the societal tendency to underestimate the elderly is examined and defied time and again. The Postscript Murders is a cozy bibliophile’s delight of a mystery that turns writerly research and acknowledgments into fodder for pivotal plot points, offers a tongue-in-cheek peek at the publishing business and pays tribute to friendships that transform into chosen families.
  • The Soul of a Woman by Isabel Allende (e-book available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Memoir): “My anger against machismo started in those childhood years of seeing my mother and the housemaids as victims,” writes Isabel Allende in The Soul of a Woman, her reflection on how feminism has shaped her life. “They were subordinate and had no resources or voice…My feelings of frustration were so powerful that they marked me forever.” Allende, a fixture of Latin American storytelling since the publication of The House of the Spirits in 1982, is well qualified to deliver a feminist manifesto. Those who have followed her career are familiar with the number of times she has struggled defiantly to overcome roadblocks in her path. The House of the Spirits, which addressed the ghosts of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, was rejected by Chile’s macho publishing culture. (Eventually it was published in Argentina instead, to great acclaim.) While many critics have praised her work, comparing her to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, she’s also had many detractors, mostly male writers who seemed determined to dismiss her. In The Soul of a Woman, Allende describes these experiences and others that imbued her with the grit and tenacity that define her today. Allende discusses her past matter-of-factly and directly, without losing her piquante humor. Her mother was an unconventional and vivacious woman who grew bitter under the heavy hand of patriarchy and misogyny. Allende decided to adopt a different way of life for herself, despite the misgivings of her mother and stepfather, the Chilean ambassador to Argentina. She details her career from its roots in feminist journalism through the literary pursuits that made her a success in spite of adversity and personal tragedy. Ultimately Allende tells us of a life lived fully, for better or worse. The passionate choices she has made are boldly laid out without apologies in this slim volume. Allende even reflects on the twilight of her life, though it seems unbelievable that such a vibrant spirit could ever dim. But when it does, the blaze her life leaves behind will illuminate this world for decades to come.
  • Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro (e-book and e-audiobook available on the Axis 360 app with your library card; Speculative Fiction): Anyone who has read Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpieces knows that, in his works, little is as it first appears. Situations are not quite as his unreliable narrators believe. First-person protagonists speak in formal prose that sounds not quite right. And his later works are wonderfully unclassifiable–not quite detective fiction or dystopian sagas but borrowing from these forms while veering into original terrain. He continues his genre-twisting ways with Klara and the Sun, a return to the dystopian tenor of Never Let Me Go that, like that work, explores whether science could–or should–manipulate the future. Klara is an AF, an Artificial Friend available for purchase. Like Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day, she speaks in quirky locutions such as “I was able to bring several speculations together.” She and other AFs are on display in a store, where the prime real estate is the front window. The advantages of that position include access to the Sun, from which AFs derive “nourishment.” A teenager named Josie, suffering from an unspecified illness, insists that her Mother purchase Klara. What follows is the story of Josie’s home life and Klara’s role in the family’s affairs. Among them are the Mother’s trauma from the death of another daughter, a young man sweet on Josie and, most provocatively, the issue of whether science can correct injustices wrought by illness or one’s station in life. Ishiguro is an expert at slowly doling out information to build tension. The wonder of this book is that he incorporates many elements, from environmental damage to genetic testing, without the story seeming heavy-handed. But the predominant theme in Klara and the Sun is loneliness. “Humans, in their wish to escape loneliness,” Klara says, “made maneuvers that were very complex and hard to fathom.” As Ishiguro notes in this brilliant book, each person has their own Sun, a source that gives them strength, and feels enervated when the source leaves them in shadow.

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