Shelf Awareness for Friday, January 24, 2020

William Morrow & Company: Polostan: Volume One of Bomb Light by Neal Stephenson

Shadow Mountain: The Legend of the Last Library by Frank L Cole

Atlantic Monthly Press: The Elements of Marie Curie: How the Glow of Radium Lit a Path for Women in Science by Dava Sobel

Ace Books: Dungeon Crawler Carl by Matt Dinniman

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers: The Millicent Quibb School of Etiquette for Young Ladies of Mad Science by Kate McKinnon

Annick Press: Bog Myrtle by Sid Sharp

Minotaur Books: Betrayal at Blackthorn Park: A Mystery (Evelyne Redfern #2) by Julia Kelly


Wi15: ABA Town Hall

Major topics of discussion at the American Booksellers Association's town hall yesterday included the need for a reimagined business model, updates on the ABA's efforts to provide health insurance for booksellers, and questions and concerns about the imminent launch of Bookshop.

The ABA board

Perhaps the single largest topic of discussion was the need for a new business model for bookselling, with multiple booksellers, including ABA board president Jamie Fiocco of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., commenting that the system is "broken," and that with booksellers' current margins, the business is "unsustainable." In response to these comments, Fiocco noted that the board is looking to redefine how booksellers work with publishers and that this issue was something that the CEO search committee had in mind when interviewing applicants. She added that she doesn't want booksellers to start seeing publishers as enemies, but the board does plan to reexamine everything about that relationship. At the same time, booksellers have to educate customers about the benefits of buying local and find ways to push back against the idea that everything has to be discounted.

Making bookselling a more environmentally sustainable industry was also a significant point. Last fall, the ABA created a Green Bookselling Task Force comprised of around 18 booksellers, and there was a green bookselling panel on the first day of Winter Institute (a write-up of which will appear in Shelf Awareness next week). It was the first education session about the topic since Winter Institute 12 in Minneapolis, Minn., and Fiocco noted that there will be more education related to it in the future. Booksellers also expressed frustration with the amount of metal and plastic swag sent out by publishers that is typically not asked for and often winds up in landfills, and wondered about ways to make shipping and packaging greener and more environmentally friendly.

On the subject of health insurance, the board reported that they had recently listened to a presentation from a group that showed a "great deal of promise," but could not give more details as discussions were still very early. Fiocco pointed out that any solution is going to be expensive "no matter how we slice it," and many possibilities are being looked at, including accounting structures that would allow booksellers to set aside money for employees that would be tax deductible. Kelly Estep of Carmichael's Bookstore in Louisville, Ky., said the board is hoping to find someone who can at least help bookstore owners and frontline booksellers navigate the health insurance process in a streamlined way, and any first step may be a relatively small one. Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books in San Francisco, Calif., also encouraged booksellers to "vote this fall."

With Bookshop set to launch later this month, Gibran Graham of Briar Patch Bookstore in Bangor, Maine, expressed significant concerns about the service and worried that with its launch, booksellers would essentially be competing against themselves and be at risk of cannibalizing their own sales. Fiocco explained that one of the reasons the ABA is going forward with Bookshop is that the association doesn't have the capacity on its own to turn IndieBound into the seamless sort of shopping experience that consumers now expect from online stores. She stressed that Bookshop is not designed to compete with any indie's existing website and noted that at no cost any bookseller can get a piece of Bookshop's revenues. Mulvihill acknowledged concerns about Bookshop and reported that the decision was not taken lightly. He emphasized that Bookshop is a B corporation, its seven-person board includes three independent booksellers and there are legal clauses preventing it from ever being sold. Mulvihill added that while he was initially personally worried that Bookshop would compete against him and steal his customers, he's now been convinced that it will compete against Amazon and steal its customers. (Bookshop creator Andy Hunter held an in-depth session about Bookshop afterwards that addressed many of the concerns, a session that will be reported on in Shelf Awareness next week.)

There were calls for the ABA to expand programming and take further action on a number of subjects, including working to combat the widespread biases against both children's and genre bookselling; bringing more Spanish-language books and books by people of color into the galley room and rep pick sessions at Winter Institute and other trade shows; the creation of a national advertising campaign for independent bookstores; and encouraging independent booksellers to take part in the 2020 Census. --Alex Mutter

Running Press Kids: Your Magical Life: A Young Witch's Guide to Becoming Happy, Confident, and Powerful by Amanda Lovelace

Wi15: Jennifer Finney Boylan on Books as Acts of Defiance, Resistance & Love

Emily Russo and Jenny Boylan

"It is my great pleasure to introduce to you this morning author, activist and my dear family friend Jennifer Finney Boylan," Emily Russo, co-owner of Print: A Bookstore in Portland, Maine, said at yesterday's Wi15 breakfast keynote. Boylan's latest memoir, Good Boy: My Life in Seven Dogs, will be published by Celadon Books in April.

In her moving introduction, Russo observed, in part: "Many of you probably know Jenny Boylan from her numerous accolades: bestselling author of the memoir She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, the first bestselling work by a transgender American; by her New York Times column 'Men and Women'; or by her work on the television series Transparent and I Am Cait; and as a nationally known advocate for human rights....

"But let me introduce you to the Jenny I know and love. In the summer of 1991, the Russo family moved from southern Illinois to central Maine after my dad, Richard Russo, accepted a teaching position at Colby College. We rented a camp on one of the Belgrade Lakes while we looked for a house, and Jenny was the first person to show up on our doorstep and welcome us. Jenny, you see, was to be my dad's office mate on campus. What began that evening.... was not only a lifelong friendship between my dad and Jenny, but also a lifelong friendship and mentorship for my sister Kate and me."

When Boylan took the stage, she joked: "Well, you have your revenge upon me, Russo. Making me cry before I hit the podium. Thanks so much for that."

Noting that it was an honor to speak to this particular audience, she recalled having once "logged some serious time as a bookseller myself at Classic Bookshop, which was actually a Canadian chain but they used to have two bookstores in New York City.... At the bookstore I would sit underneath a sign that read 'Ask Me Anything.' And this being New York City, they would."

Like most authors, her goal was to write books, "but I had to admit that as a Plan B, selling books was pretty great. I know that it outs me as a hopeless nerd, but all I wanted was to be around books. And even now, decades later, I still feel that way."

Boylan ranked booksellers and book publishers among the people she most admires in the world, but cautioned that this world "is in a tight spot right now, clearly enough. It's not just that bookstores and publishers are threatened by the vampire economy; it's also that we're living through a time when the very nature of the truth, and art itself, is under attack."

She observed that too many people who "fall outside the bright lines of the culture are met with hatred and ostracism because whoever and whatever they are is something others have never been compelled to imagine. We don't go to heaven because we hate people who are easy to hate. We go to heaven because we love people who are difficult to love, and who is more difficult to love than someone whose experience of the world is so radically different from our own."

This is where books play a critical role: "They help us to have not just moral imagination, but a profound cosmic imagination that allows us to inhabit the lives of other people and visit worlds that we didn’t even know existed. And so now all of those things can live in us and help us become ourselves."

One of the most important ways to fight back is through "the work that you all do every day," Boylan stressed. "If you want to open people's hearts, if you want to inspire passion and fire and resistance, there's no other way to go about it than by writing books, by publishing books, by selling books. I would be shocked if there were not plenty of days when many of you, many of us, have simply felt worn down by our working lives....

"I'm here to remind you that sometimes the frustrating work that we do makes a huge difference. In a world of bullshit, it is an act of defiance, an act of resistance and an act of love. So, from the bottom of my heart, on behalf of all the authors who are represented by the thousands and thousands of books all of you help to bring into the world, I just want to say thank you. The work we do may not seem glamorous sometimes, but truly, on a good day, we really are all in the business of saving souls." --Robert Gray

G.P. Putnam's Sons: William by Mason Coile

Wi15: Around the Show

It was a very full day of events at Winter Institute (many of which we'll be reporting on in next week's Shelf Awareness), but there's always time to greet old friends and colleagues.

Benjamin Rybeck, Center for Fiction, Brooklyn, N.Y.; Michelle Malonzo, Changing Hands, Phoenix, Ariz.; Jeremy Ellis, MPIBA; Scott Abel and Gwen Hunter, Solid State Books, Washington, D.C.; Joanna Demkiewicz, Milkweed Editions, Minneapolis, Minn.

Matthew Cordell, author and illustrator of Hello Neighbor!: The Kind and Caring World of Mister Rogers (Holiday House); Michelle Montague, executive director, marketing; Christina Uss, author of The Colossus of Roads (Holiday House); Bethany Buck, editor-in-chief, Pixel+Ink; and Richard Fairgray, author and illustrator of Black Sand Beach: Are You Afraid of the Light? (Pixel+Ink).
At last evening's author reception, Emma Straub (l.), co-owner of Books Are Magic, Brooklyn, N.Y., signed ARCs of her forthcoming novel All Adults Here (Riverhead, May) alongside Amber Sparks, whose new story collection is And I Do Not Forgive You (Liveright, Feb.).

Jason Reynolds, who was recently named National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, signed copies of Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You, a YA version of Ibram X. Kendi's award-winning book, coming from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in March.

Californians Jenn Witte, Skylight Books, Los Angeles; Pete Mulvihill, Green Apple Books, San Francisco; and Brad Johnson, East Bay Books, Oakland.

Reagan Arthur Leaving Little, Brown for Knopf; Maya Mavjee Returns to PRH

Reagan Arthur

Reagan Arthur, senior v-p and publisher of Little, Brown, is leaving to become executive v-p, publisher, of Knopf, Patheon and Schocken at Penguin Random House, effective February 11. In other major related changes, Maya Mavjee is returning to PRH from Macmillan to become president and publisher of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, and Jordan Pavlin is being promoted to senior v-p, editorial director, Alfred A. Knopf.

The appointments follow the death December 30 of Sonny Mehta, who was editor-in-chief of Knopf and chairman of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. He was only the third person to head Knopf after founder Alfred A. Knopf and Robert Gottlieb.

Reagan Arthur joined Little, Brown in 2001 as senior editor, founded the Reagan Arthur Books imprint in 2010 and was promoted to her current position in 2013. She earlier worked at St. Martin's Press. Her last day at Little, Brown is January 31.

In an announcement to staff about the changes, Penguin Random House U.S. CEO Madeline McIntosh said that in the months before his death, "Sonny and I began to talk in earnest about the future" and he "identified Reagan Arthur as his first choice for this role, and they were able to meet and talk about the opportunity in the fall."

McIntosh said that "the range and breadth of Reagan's editorial expertise and her leadership qualities are core to what make her the ideal choice for this role. Her writers think the world of her, as do her colleagues. She has a proven track record and a reputation that means her recommendations are trusted by sales reps and booksellers alike. I have envied from afar her accomplishments as a publisher while treasuring her books as a reader and enjoying getting to know her over the years as a person. I was so looking forward to having Sonny introduce her to you, but I know you'll help me provide her with the very warmest welcome in his place."

In an e-mail "I wish I didn't have to write," Hachette Book Group CEO Michael Pietsch also praised Arthur, saying that "as an editor and a publisher, Reagan has embodied the best of book publishing. She has superb taste, works brilliantly with writers of every kind, and leads the charge in bringing enthusiasm and attention to our authors and their work. She has brought equal passion to publishing mega-stars like Tina Fey and new writers who had no audience until Reagan helped them find one...

"Reagan's work ethic is exceptional and her team at Little, Brown and colleagues throughout HBG know what an empathetic, inspiring leader she is. I have loved working with her mightily. We will all miss her enormously."

McIntosh called Pavlin "one of the most gifted editors in trade publishing. The list of award-winning books and bestselling authors she has published is extraordinary. She has an uncanny eye and a transcendent belief in the work of her authors... Jordan also steps into this role with 23 years of wisdom gleaned from working alongside Sonny."

She called the leadership team of Reagan Arthur, Jordan Pavlin and executive v-p, deputy publisher Paul Bogaards "formidable... As a reader and a colleague, I'm so very excited for the ways they will build on the Knopf commitment to new voices, to diverse voices, to works in translation, to books literary and commercial--all while adhering to the highest standards in all aspects of the publishing process, to keeping authors at the center of the imprint culture, and to nurturing in-house talent."

Maya Mavjee will return to PRH, effective March 2. For the past year, she's been president, publishing strategy, at Macmillan. From 2010 to 2018, she was president and publisher of the Crown Publishing Group and left the company when Crown was merged with Random House.

McIntosh commented: "Throughout her career, Maya has published authors and books across a broad range of categories and programs, including spectacular bestsellers and award winners in fiction, biography, memoir, politics, history, leadership, and lifestyle. She has forged and maintained impeccable and strong relationships with authors, agents and publishers here and abroad, and has shown a natural ability to support the creative process and the needs of the business at the same time. These qualities have made her beloved as a leader, a colleague and a publisher, and I believe make her ideally suited for this role."

In another related change, Tony Chirico, who has been president, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, will move to report to McIntosh "in a corporate capacity on an interim basis," she wrote. "He will be working with Maya to transfer his deep knowledge and expertise based on his three decades working with these lists, and he will be working with me on initiatives related to the company as a whole."

N.J.'s Black Dog Books Relocating

Black Dog Books, Newton, N.J., which opened in 2016, is on the move, according to a post by owner Catherine Cassidy on Facebook: "As many of you know Black Dog Books is relocating to Lafayette, N.J. Our new location is 103 Route 15 South, which is on the corner of Rt 15 and Morris Farm Rd. We found a great space in the same building as the Chocolate Goat on the lower level and beside the Millside Cafe. We love the charm of the antique shops and Mill and are looking forward to being in Lafayette."

Black Dog Books plans to reopen February 5. The bookstore noted that photos of the new location will be available soon, but "in the meantime I'm posting my favorite image of our original location done by author-illustrator Bob Eckstein who is an unwavering supporter of Independent Bookstores. You can find his books Everyone's a Critic, The Ultimate Cartoon Book and others at Black Dog Books and other indie bookstores."

Tulsa's Mocha Books Launches Indiegogo Campaign

Mocha Books, an online bookstore based in Tulsa, Okla., that focuses on books by and about people of color, has launched an Indiegogo campaign to raise funds for a mobile bookstore.

Owner Shionka McGlory is looking to raise around $18,000 over the next three weeks. The funds will go toward purchasing a bus, truck or van that will house Mocha Books; a mobile vendor license and other permits; a starting book inventory; and other assorted costs and fees. Backer rewards included signed books, personalized thank-you notes, a bookish party thrown in the backer's honor and more.

"The demand for a business like Mocha Books is apparent and now it's time to take it to the streets," wrote McGlory. "Building a community offline, locally, is the next step and can be achieved by creating a space that is easily accessible. What's more accessible than traveling into our neighborhoods of the original Black Wall Street?"

Obituary Note: Jim Lehrer

Jim Lehrer

Longtime PBS anchorman and author Jim Lehrer, "who for 36 years gave public television viewers a substantive alternative to network evening news programs with in-depth reporting, interviews and analysis of world and national affairs" on The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and, later, NewsHour With Jim Lehrer, died January 23, the New York Times reported. He was 85.

Lehrer was the author of more than 20 novels, "which often drew on his reporting experiences," as well as four plays and three memoirs. The novels include White Widow (1996), No Certain Rest (2002), Eureka (2007) and Super (2010). His memoirs are We Were Dreamers (1975), A Bus of My Own (1992) and Tension City: Inside the Presidential Debates (2011).

The Times noted that "writing nights and weekends, on trains, planes and sometimes in the office, Mr. Lehrer churned out a novel almost every year for more than two decades: spy thrillers, political satires, murder mysteries and series featuring One-Eyed Mack, a lieutenant governor of Oklahoma, and Charlie Henderson, a C.I.A. agent. Top Down (2013) revolved around the 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, which Mr. Lehrer had covered as a young reporter in Dallas."

"His apprenticeship came at a time when every reporter, it seemed, had an unfinished novel in his desk--but Lehrer actually finished his," Texas Monthly said in a 1995 profile.


Image of the Day: Riot Baby at the Strand

The Strand Bookstore in New York City hosted a conversation with Tochi Onyebuchi (r.), author of the just-released novel Riot Baby (Tor), and Marlon James. They discussed science fiction and fantasy, anime, writing craft, race, revolution, music--and their books, of course.

Norton to Distribute Abbeville Press

Effective July 1, W.W. Norton & Company will handle sales of Abbeville Press to wholesale, retail, and library accounts, both bricks-and-mortar and online, as well as to special sales venues.

Founded by Harry N. Abrams and Robert E. Abrams in 1977, Abbeville Press publishes about two dozen fine art and illustrated titles per year. Recent releases include a new edition of Norman Rockwell's autobiography, My Adventures as an Illustrator; the catalogue of the exhibition Auschwitz: Not Long Ago. Not Far Away.; and a new survey of Pre-Raphaelite art by Aurélie Petiot. It also publishes some nonfiction books for children and the Tiny Folio series of minature art books. It has an active backlist of more than 300 titles.

"Like Norton, Abbeville prides itself on being an independent publisher of distinctive, high quality books," Norton president Julia Reidhead said.

Abbeville owner and president Robert E. Abrams commented: "Norton's independence, their commitment to publishing books of the highest quality, and their close relationship with their affiliate publishers--all these things make Norton an ideal fit for us."

Video: 'Your Library--Take a Closer Look'

Libraries Ireland has launched a new national advertising campaign asking everyone to "Take a Closer Look" at what their local library has to offer. A new video features real libraries and librarians and is part a wider national strategy to increase library use in Ireland. At present, around 16% of the Irish population are library members. The "Our Public Libraries" strategy aims to increase that to 30% by 2022.

Media and Movies

TV: Americanah; Rise and Kill First

Corey Hawkins (In the Heights) is set for a leading role alongside Lupita Nyong'o, Zackary Momoh and Uzo Aduba in HBO Max's Americanah, the limited series based on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's novel, Deadline reported.

Nyong'o's Black Panther co-star Danai Gurira wrote the pilot and will serve as showrunner on the 10-episode limited series from Plan B Entertainment, Potboiler Television and D2 Productions. Gurira executive produces with Nyong'o for Eba Productions, Plan B Entertainment, Andrea Calderwood for Potboiler Television, Didi Rea and Danielle Del for D2 Productions, Nancy Won and Erika L. Johnson.


Yuval Adler (The Operative, Bethlehem) will write and direct the first season of Rise and Kill First, a limited series by Keshet International and HBO based on the book by Ronen Bergman, Deadline reported. The series will be executive produced by Adler, Keshet International's Avi Nir, Peter Traugott, Alon Shtruzman and the author.

Books & Authors

Awards: International Dylan Thomas Longlist

A 12-book longlist has been announced for the £30,000 (about $39,175) International Dylan Thomas Prize, sponsored by Swansea University and recognizing the "best published literary work in the English language, written by an author aged 39 or under." This year's list features seven novels, three poetry collections and two short story collections. A shortlist will be released April 7 and a winner unveiled May 14, which is International Dylan Thomas Day. The longlisted titles are:

Surge by Jay Bernard
Flèche by Mary Jean Chan
Exquisite Cadavers by Meena Kandasamy
Things We Say in the Dark by Kirsty Logan
Black Car Burning by Helen Mort
Virtuoso by Yelena Moskovich
Inland by Téa Obreht
Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler
If All the World and Love Were Young by Stephen Sexton
The Far Field by Madhuri Vijay
On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong
Lot by Bryan Washington

Reading with... Raymond Fleischmann

photo: Madeline R. Fleischmann

Raymond Fleischmann's debut thriller, How Quickly She Disappears, was just released by Berkley Books. Fleischmann's short fiction has been published in the Iowa Review, Cimarron Review, the Pinch and the Los Angeles Review, among many others, and he has received fellowships and scholarships from Richard Hugo House and the Sewanee Writers' Conference. He earned his MFA from Ohio State University and lives in Bloomington, Ind., with his wife and three daughters.

On your nightstand now:

The Relive Box and Other Stories by T.C. Boyle: I love short stories, and Boyle's short fiction has been consistently amazing for more than three decades. His collection After the Plague was one of the books that made me want to be a writer, and his latest collection is just as good.

Patience by Daniel Clowes: Before I wanted to write novels and short stories, I wanted to write comics, and my love of that medium persists to this day. Daniel Clowes might be my favorite graphic novelist--let's call it a tie between him, Chris Ware and Adrian Tomine--and my wife recently bought me a copy of Clowes's latest book.

Favorite book when you were a child:

All of the Calvin and Hobbes collections by Bill Watterson. It's a bit strange to admit now, but I wasn't much of a reader when I was a child. Far from it. But the few books that loomed large in my early life were my Calvin and Hobbes books.

Your top five authors:

J.M. Coetzee: I didn't encounter Coetzee's writing until graduate school, but his work had an immediate and lasting impact on me. I pulled his novel Slow Man off the library shelves at random and was instantly hooked.

Alice Munro: An unparalleled master of the short story, Alice Munro's work is near and dear to me. There's so much to learn from her stories, reading after reading after reading.

Ian McEwan: I've read almost all of Ian McEwan's novels, and each is incredible in its own way. For years, I've told people that he's the writer I want to be when I grow up.

Annie Proulx: Have I mentioned that I like short stories? Well, here's another master of the medium. I started reading Proulx's work in college and, like T.C. Boyle's short stories, the vividness and emotional heft of her work made me want to be a writer.

Truman Capote: There's a rhythm and musicality to Capote's prose that appeals to me immensely, and I think that Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood are two of the greatest works of prose I've ever read.

Book you've faked reading:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace: I've started it about four or five times, and I'll admit that I've never gotten past the first 100 pages. I'll read it someday, I swear. Honest.

Book you're an evangelist for:

So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell: like Alice Munro's work, this 1980 novella by the late William Maxwell is one of those books that's rewarding to read over and over again. It's delicate and heart-wrenching all at once, and it's sorely under-read. There's also an audio version of the book read by Maxwell himself, which is very cool to listen to.

Book you've bought for the cover:

What You Have Left by Will Allison: perhaps my favorite book cover of any I've encountered. It captures a moment that's instantly relatable and recognizable, but then you look a second longer and notice that all is not well. And isn't that how good fiction works, too?

Book you hid from your parents:

I never hid any books from my parents. Again, I wasn't an avid reader when I was a kid, and so I think my parents would have been thrilled to see any book in my bedroom.

Book that changed your life:

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck: A lot of books have changed my life, but this is the one that comes to mind most immediately. I read this for the first time when I was in seventh grade, and it was the first book that truly took my breath away. That final scene with George and Lennie--you know the one. I get choked up just thinking of it.

Favorite line from a book:

"Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw." --from William Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow

Five books you'll never part with:

I don't like parting with any of my books! But if I had to narrow it down to five that mean the most to me, personally and artistically, it'd probably be the following:

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: from start to finish, I think that this is one of the best novels I've ever read. It's difficult to say if I have a single "favorite" novel but, if I do, this is probably it.

Selected Stories by Alice Munro: 28 stories you could spend a lifetime reading and still find new things to admire.

The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien: I'm not much of a fantasy guy, but Tolkien is in a class of his own. I read this complete series--footnotes and all--right around the time I was finishing the first draft of my novel, and I have warm and fuzzy associations with it.

In Cold Blood by Truman Capote: apart from how much I enjoy and admire Capote's famous "nonfiction novel," the copy that I have is a first edition that my aunt once gave my grandfather, complete with her inscription from 1966.

Waiting by Ha Jin: this is one of my wife's favorite novels, and I read it on her recommendation very early in our relationship. Later, she bought me a signed copy, and so it's another book that I value emotionally as much as I do artistically.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris: Sedaris is one of my favorite living writers, and Me Talk Pretty One Day is probably my favorite collection of his. All of his work is such a joy to read, and I'd love to encounter him for the first time all over again.

The best book you've read this past year:

Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: I don't think I've ever read a book quite like Eileen. It's uncomfortable to read in the best way possible, and it's a book I wanted to read again immediately after finishing it.

Book Review

Review: Second Sister

Second Sister by Chan Ho-Kei, trans. by Jeremy Tiang (Black Cat/Grove, $17 paperback, 432p., 9780802129475, February 18, 2020)

Yes, it's almost two inches thick and more than 400 pages, but that shouldn't deter readers from procuring this book promptly. Chan Ho-Kei's second thriller available in the U.S., Second Sister, is virtually irresistible, with twisty-turny, didn't-see-that-coming manipulations guaranteed to keep readers wide awake into the wee hours. As with The Borrowed, Chan's award-winning 2017 English-language debut, Second Sister is translated by Singaporean novelist and playwright Jeremy Tiang, who dexterously conveys Chan's amalgamation of prose, text streams, e-mails and blog posts complete with belligerent comments.

Nga-Yee and Siu-Man are sisters who have only each other left in the world: their father died in a construction work-related accident when Nga-Yee was almost 13 and Siu-Man was four; their mother succumbed to cancer a decade later, leaving Nga-Yee to raise Siu-Man on her own. Returning from her librarian job one evening, Nga-Yee is horrified to learn that the bloody corpse on the pavement outside her apartment building is Siu-Man, who apparently jumped from their 22nd-floor window. The quiet Siu-Man had been ferociously cyberbullied after outing a subway groper, but Nga-Yee thought she was doing everything possible to care for her sensitive sister. Devastated and bewildered, Nga-Yee can't accept that Siu-Man chose death.

When the police prove unhelpful, Nga-Yee eventually finds herself in a dilapidated tenement, repeatedly hitting the apartment buzzer belonging to an acerbic, arrogant detective who calls himself just N--"I don't like being Mister anything." He initially refuses to take Nga-Yee's case with a dismissive, "It's too easy." Her tenacity--including surviving a gangster attack by his side--eventually breaks through his protestations, and he sets his unparalleled techno-savvy and unconventional methods to ascertain the whys of Siu-Man's demise. While Nga-Yee remains single-mindedly focused--understandably, of course--on her sister's tragedy, N already has a broader view that recognizes Siu-Man's circumstances as part of a proliferating network of insidious, immediate societal afflictions.

Chan presents what initially seems to be a linear mystery--solve the dead girl's murder--and amplifies the thriller into a multi-layered treatise on overcrowded cities and its overlooked citizens (his native Hong Kong earns character status here), the unchecked power of the Internet, the grey ethics of revenge, and the potential limits of morality in business, friendships and even among family members. Deftly controlling multiple narratives beyond the sisters' tragedy, Chan exposes high tech, high finance, high fraud, high school hierarchies, dysfunctional families, absent parents, relentless surveillance, sexual politics and rape culture. For readers, the provocative mix of urgent contemporary issues and page-turning action won't disappoint: as N eventually admits to Nga-Yee, "It turned out to be so much more interesting than I'd expected." --Terry Hong, Smithsonian BookDragon

Shelf Talker: A woman's determination to understand her teenage sister's suicide leads her to the mysterious N, whose high-tech savvy and unconventional methods reveal Hong Kong's underbelly.

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