Book Reviews

Alan's haunting novel of the AIDS epidemic, As If Death Summoned, was released on World AIDS Day, December 1, 2020, and has won the Foreword INDIES Book of the Year Awards. Watch the book trailer here. Read the reviews here.

Ruth Ozeki

Penguin Books

Actually, I stopped doing that [blogging] a while ago. It made me sad when I caught myself pretending that everybody out there in cyberspace cared about what I thought, when really nobody gives a shit. And when I multiplied that sad feeling by all the millions of people in their lonely little rooms, furiously writing and posting to their lonely little pages that nobody has time to read because they’re all so busy writing and posting, it kind of broke my heart.

                   from  A Tale for the Time Being


Reaching through time to touch and be touched

Hi! My name is Nao, and I am a time being.

So begins the diary of 16-year old Naoko Yasutani, and a rather extraordinary story by novelist Ruth Ozeki (My Year of Meats, All Over Creation.)

Nao’s diary, wrapped in plastic inside a Hello Kitty lunchbox, is among the detritus that is carried across the Pacific following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. It washes ashore in British Columbia where it is found and read by…a novelist named Ruth.

Lonely and bullied by her classmates, Nao (pronounced “Now”) immerses herself in her diary, telling how she plans to “drop out of time,” by committing suicide.

Out of her intense loneliness, she writes to the imagined future reader who will eventually find her diary (How cool is that? It feels like I’m reaching forward through time to touch you, and now that you’ve found it, you’re reaching back to touch me!). She wonders what the person is like who will someday be reading her words (Are you a male or a female or somewhere in between?) as she tells him/her/it about life as a Japanese teenager living in the twenty-first century.

At times she fears that her diary may never be found, and that she is talking to no one: …what if you’re not reading this at all? What if you never even found this book, because somebody chucked it in the trash or recycled it before it got to you? Then…I’m just sitting here wasting time talking to the inside of dumpster.

Weighed down with adolescent despair, Nao is sent to spend the summer with her great-grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun, and it is by learning Jiko’s story that the girl begins to find her place in time.

Ruth becomes captivated by the girl’s voice, at times chatty and whimsical, at other times, sharply observant and profound, and realizes that she, Ruth, is the future reader Nao was writing to. She becomes obsessed with learning more about this girl, whether she did commit suicide, or was she a victim of the earthquake and resulting tsunami?

In its mix of humor and pathos and profundity, the novel reminds me of Muriel Barbery’s The Elegance of the Hedgehog, which captured the experiences and thoughts of another bright, lonely girl planning her own demise.

A finalist for the 2013 Man Booker Prize, A Tale for the Time Being becomes a metafictional meditation on time and how, through time, we are interconnected with all other “time beings.”

Like Ruth, we become Nao’s future reader of her diary and need to know what became of the girl. Take it from me: This book is well worth your time.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Elizabeth Kolbert

Publisher Holt

Very, very occasionally in the distant past, the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted. Five of these ancient events were catastrophic enough that they’re put in their own category: the so-called Big Five. In what seems like a fantastic coincidence, but is probably no coincidence at all, the history of these events is recovered just as people come to realize that they are causing another one.

                          from  The Sixth Extinction


 The future of Earth: There's good news and bad news

This is probably not going to be the feel-good book of the year.

In 2008, an article appeared in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences titled, “Are We in the Midst of the Sixth Extinction? A View from the World of Amphibians.”

Over the past half billion years, there have been five great extinctions during which “the planet has undergone change so wrenching that the diversity of life has plummeted.”

The first great extinction took place during the Ordovician period, about 450 million years ago, when life on this planet was still basically a watery affair. The greatest extinction event happened about 250 million years ago at the end of the Permian period, when life on earth came close to being snuffed out altogether. The most recent mass extinction occurred around 60 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, when a huge asteroid struck the earth; the resulting “nuclear winter” killed all large life forms, most notably the dinosaurs.

The paper’s authors, David Wake of the University of California-Berkeley and Vance Vredenburg of San Francisco State argued that, based on the current extinction rate of amphibians around the world, we are now in the midst of an event of similar catastrophic magnitude. This sixth extinction is of particular interest to humans because (1) unlike the others, we are living during this event, and (2) we are causing it.

Elizabeth Kolbert, science writer for The New Yorker and author of Field Notes from a Catastrophe (2006) about the impact of climate change, set out to investigate this idea. She traveled to various parts of the world, witnessing first-hand the loss of our “biodiversity.”

The scientific data is staggering: “It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all fresh-water mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion.”

This current extinction event probably began around 12,000 years ago (which is like only this morning in geologic time), and the main agent is modern humans, who have continuously spread over the planet and altered the ecosphere of whichever area they have inhabited, in much the same way as an invasive species.

It is a little unsettling to think of humans as an invasive species, perhaps even capable of killing its host. Kolbert quotes Stanford’s ecologist Paul Ehrlich: “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is sawing off the limb on which it perches.”

The good news is that, based on past extinctions, the planet will survive and life will go on in some form; the bad news is that we humans may not be part of it.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


James McBride

Riverhead Books (Penguin Group)

I don’t know what it is, but every time the Old Man started talking holy, just the mention of his Maker’s name made him downright dangerous. A kind of electricity climbed over him. His voice become like gravel scrapin’ a dirt road. Something raised up in him. His old, tired frame dropped away, and in its place stood a man wound up like a death mill. It was most unsettling thing to see…He believed God was on his side. Everybody got God on their side in a war. Problem is, God ain’t tellin’ nobody who He’s for.

                          from  The Good Lord Bird


Riding with the divinely/diabolically inspired John Brown

It’s 1856 on the Kansas-Missouri border; a time when you could be stopped on a lonely road by a group of armed men asking, “Are you Pro-Slave or Free State?” How you answered would determine whether you made it home that night.

The Kansas Territory was a battlefield, being fought between those who wanted it to enter the union a slave state and those who were just as adamant that it become a free state. There was no lack on either side of extremists willing to slaughter families or entire populations of frontier towns for their beliefs.

James McBride, author of the moving and tender memoir, The Color of Water, captures this turbulent time in his novel, The Good Lord Bird, winner of the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction.

The story is narrated by Henry Shackleford, nicknamed “Onion,” who as a 10-year old boy is freed by the abolitionist John Brown, he of Harper’s Ferry fame. Onion is light-skinned and comely, and, dressed only in a potato sack as slave children often were, Brown mistakes him for a girl. Though he at first resents this, Onion soon realizes that it’s in his best interest to maintain this guise. (“You just trying to save your skin.”/ “Why not? It covers my body.”)

Hovering over the story is the character of Brown, the “Old Man”—sentimental, murderous, possibly crazy, and, depending upon one’s point of view at the time, divinely or diabolically inspired. (“He got downright holy when it was killing time. ‘Take thine own hand and split an ax with it,’ he said. ‘That’s Eucclestsies twelve seven or thereabouts.’”)

By the time he’s twelve, Onion has been recaptured and is working (still as a girl) in a saloon and whorehouse, where he falls in love with the beautiful but hardened Pie; and where it’s become increasingly difficult to hide the fact that he’s a boy. He’s freed a second time by Brown, and finds himself on the road to Harper’s Ferry.

In a number of ways, The Good Lord Bird reminded me of another story, also set in Missouri, also set in the pre-Civil War years. It, too, had a boy who like Onion, though white, needed to use all his wits and wiles and flexible ethics to survive a series of adventures; who encountered a number of colorful and memorable characters, and who told his story also in a distinctive voice, employing humor and satirical insight into his society and the institution of slavery. And as I recall, at one point Huck disguises himself as a girl, too.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15-April 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


George Packer

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Clinton wanted to be loved, Gingrich wanted to be feared. They spent 1995 circling around the budget. When they met in the White House, Gingrich dictated terms, while Clinton studied Gingrich. He saw the nine-year-old’s insecurities writhing beneath the fiery words. He understood why none of Gingrich’s colleagues could stand him. He saw how to exploit the grandiosity. Clinton’s need for love gave him insight, and he used it to seduce his adversary while setting traps for him, and when at the end of the year the United States of America was forced to close for business, it was Gingrich who got the blame.

                             from  The Unwinding


The unraveling of America's social fabric

“No one can say when the unwinding began—when the coil that held Americans together in its secure and sometimes stifling grip first gave way.”

How did we get to this point? A deeply polarized society— Democrats distrusting Big Business, Republicans distrusting Big Government, and the Tea Party seeming to distrust Big Anything—where diatribe has replaced dialogue, and politics is reduced to pranks (anyone for Green Eggs and Ham?)

In The Unwinding, winner of the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2013, George Packer attempts to understand what is happening by presenting a social history of America over the past three decades.

This could make for flat reading, but Packer, author of The Assassin’s Gate: America in Iraq, tells the story through a number of different people’s lives—a tobacco farmer in the South, trying to find a new future; a factory worker in the Midwest, fighting to hold her family together as wages and benefits are eroded while productivity and profits soar; a Washington political insider losing the idealism that first drew him to politics.

Along with these individuals, Packer also reflects on people who have become almost iconic when we think about this period of history:

Newt Gingrich—“Donors were more likely to send money if they could be frightened or angered, if the issues were framed as simple choices between good and evil.”

Oprah Winfrey—“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it, I know I can achieve it.”

Walmart’s Sam Walton—“Mr. Sam launched a Buy American campaign, winning praise from politicians and newspapers around the country, and Wal-Mart stores put up MADE IN THE U.S.A. signs over racks of clothing imported from Bangladesh.”

The short story writer Raymond Carver—“a man who had wandered into a book party from the scary part of town.”

Colin Powell, at once noble and tragic—“When the (Iraq) war began, the president said that he was sleeping like a baby. ‘I’m sleeping like a baby, too,’ said the secretary (Powell). ‘Every two hours I wake up screaming.’”

If the social fabric of this nation is unraveling, it is not anything new. Packer notes that there have been other “unwindings” in our history—such as the years leading up to the Civil War, or during the Great Depression—and each time, the nation went through the crisis, regained its equilibrium, and in the process reinvented itself.

His conclusion is ultimately—eventually—positive: “Each decline brought renewal, each implosion released energy, out of each unwinding came a new cohesion.”

Stay tuned.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (Feb 15-Mar 15, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


Louise Erdrich

Harper Perennial

My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done with, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife.

                        from  The Round House


Coming of age, and other mysteries

Louise Erdrich’s The Round House, winner of the National Book Award, is one of those occasional novels that can be classified both as “commercial fiction” (fast-paced, strong narrative, action) and “literary fiction” (complex, literate, multilayered, and “serious”.)

The narrator is 13-year old Joe Coutts, living on an Ojibwe reservation with his father, Bazil, a tribal judge, and his mother, Geraldine, who works as a kind of social worker and whose job is “to know everybody’s secrets” on the reservation.

The novel begins with the brutal assault on Joe’s mother in the Round House, a sacred place of worship for their people. Severely traumatized, Geraldine withdraws into herself, unable—or unwilling—to say who attacked her and why.

Emotionally shut out by his mother, frustrated that the police are turning up no clues, Joe begins his own investigation, assisted by his friends, Cappy, Zack, and Angus.

The austerity and strain of life on a North Dakota reservation provides the backdrop for the story, highlighting the poverty, alcoholism, domestic violence, and tense, mutually mistrusting relations between the whites and the “rez Indians”—“Just yesterday a white guy asked me if I was a real Indian. No, I said…The real Indians are in India. I’m a genuine Chippewa.”

A number of reviewers have compared The Round House favorably to Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird—there is the complex adult world seen through the eyes of a young person, the father as a good and decent man, issues of racism and justice (“Any judge knows there are many kinds of justice—for instance, ideal justice as opposed to the best-we-can-do justice.”)

The mystery of what happened in the Round House drives the narrative. But this is also a coming-of-age story, and amid its bleakness and intensity, there are some very funny scenes: Cappy goes to confession, where he admits to Father Travis that he had sexual relations with a girl…from the visiting Youth Encounter Christ group…inside Father’s church. Joe watches as Cappy comes tearing out of the confessional, running for his life, as Father Travis, an ex-Marine and very fit, chases him throughout the reservation, intent on throttling the boy.

Eventually, Joe and his friends will uncover the truth of the Round House, but will find little comfort in it—“I couldn’t tell anyone. Even I didn’t want to know what I knew”—and learn that the pursuit of truth must sometimes settle for the best-we-can-do kind of justice.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (January 10-February 14, 2014.) Reprinted with permission.


Ivan Doig

Riverhead Books 

Somewhere in the back of our minds lurked the disturbing knowledge that when school started in the fall, I would have to turn into a boy among other boys again and she would have to find a best friend among girls. But that fact of life lay whole months away yet, and in the meantime, all we had to live up to was for each of us to do half the laughing.

                      from  The Bartender’s Tale


The reasoned, seasoned memories of a boy fifty years later

Soon before daybreak on my sixth birthday, my mother’s breathing wheezed more raggedly than ever, then quieted. And then stopped.

The remembering begins out of that new silence…

One of the most evocative and powerful openings I had ever read began This House of Sky, Ivan Doig’s 1978 memoir of growing up in Montana. I was hooked and eagerly read the books that followed, The Sea Runners, Winter Brothers, Prairie Nocturne, The Whistling Season, Work Song. Like Wallace Stegner, Doig is a storyteller of the modern West and a master stylist, meaning that as important as the story he tells is the way he tells it; his books are full of sentences you want to highlight and underline and remember.

In his most recent novel, The Bartender’s Tale, Doig relates the experiences of Russell (Rusty) Harry when he turned twelve in 1960—“that year of everything”—when his life changed and the world would never be the same again.

The events take place in the small fictional town of Gros Ventre, Montana (“where people knew one another’s business almost before it happened”), the setting of several of Doig’s stories.

Rusty lives with his father, who owns the town’s most popular bar, the Medicine Lodge saloon, and who is some kind of legend in the area with his down to earth, no-nonsense philosophy (“All you can count on in life is your fingers and toes.” “Opposites attract, but usually not for long.”)

“Newly hatched from childhood into adolescence,” Rusty begins to explore the strange goings-on and baffling world of adults. To accompany him on his explorations is a girl new in town, Zoe Constantine. Overcoming the typical 12-year old boy’s suspicion of girls, he and Zoe quickly become best friends and co-conspirators in growing up.

Rather than the story of some dramatic, life changing event, the novel instead recounts the daily little discoveries and mini-dramas that together add up to what Rusty realizes was a turning point in his life: The prospect of his dad re-marrying, or as he called it “maddermoany,” selling the bar that had become a manageable microcosm of the world, or being confronted with the possibility that he has a half-sister neither he nor his father knew about.

Through the story of that momentous year, Doig captures the freshness of a 12-year old’s explorations and discoveries filtered now through the reasoned, seasoned reflections of the boy fifty years later: “That’s grown-ups for you. By the time we ever figure them out…we’ll be them.”

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (September 15-Oct 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


Kate Atkinson

Little Brown & Co.

She was eager to get on and earn her independence rather than be cloistered in another institution. “Time’s winged chariot, and all that,” she said to her parents.

“Well, we all get on,” Sylvie said, “one way or another. And in the end we all arrive at the same place. I hardly see that it matters how we get there.”

It seemed to Ursula that how you got there was the whole point.”

                             from  Life After Life


Time and time again

Life After Life opens with the heroine assassinating Adolf Hitler. It’s 1930. Not bad for a beginning.

When a novel starts this way you know that either you are setting out on an extraordinary journey of the imagination, or the novelist has an abysmal sense of history. In the case of Kate Atkinson (Case Histories), it’s clearly the former.

On February 11, 1910, Ursula Todd is born, and dies at birth (No breath. All the world come down to this.) In the very next chapter, she is born on February 11, 1910 (“A bonny, bouncing baby girl”) to live a full life, or several.

Probably most people have wondered: What if I had married that person rather than this one; if I had accepted that job; if I had taken more risks; if I had played it safer; if I had chosen differently. Life is a series of daily choices, with extenuating circumstances and unforeseen consequences. This is a novel about the great What Ifs of history and our personal lives.

Ursula is an odd duck, out of step with time and her family much of the time (“Try not to be precocious,” Sylvie sighed. “It’s a not a pleasant thing in a girl.”) and her life contains different scenarios with vastly different consequences. When she’s sixteen, she is casually raped by a friend of her older brother, and she grows up to be a timid woman who marries an abusive husband, who winds up killing her.

Take two: As a sixteen year old girl, she punches her brother’s friend in the jaw as he tries to kiss her, and he winces away. Same girl, different story; different life.

The book been compared to the film Groundhog Day, where Bill Murray’s character awakes each morning to live the day all over again. But Atkinson’s story rather suggests parallel universes, as if Ursula were living all these lives simultaneously. In one, she is an air-raid warden in London during the Blitz; in another, she is huddling with her small daughter in Berlin as the Russians approach. In its imaginative reach, the novel, I think, more closely resembles Slaughter House 5—“Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.”

Typically, life comes with regrets—for what we did or didn’t do, and with the knowledge that we could have chosen differently, accomplished more, been better persons. It is a kind of consolation of the imagination to think that, maybe in some other universe, we were.

And that in that universe Hitler never lived to become Chancellor of Germany.

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (July 15-August 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


M. L. Stedman

Simon and Schuster 

He traced the constellations as they slid their way across the roof of the world from dusk to dawn. The precision of it, the quiet orderliness of the stars, gave him a sense of freedom. There was nothing he was going through that the stars had not seen before, somewhere, some time on this earth. Given enough time, their memory would close over his life like a healing wound. All would be forgotten, all suffering erased.

                 from  The Light Between Oceans


On love, and the guilt of living with its consequences

Who among us lives without guilt? Probably only the very young and the morally insensitive. Yet some people just seem made for guilt. It fits them like a custom tailored hair shirt.

Tom Sherbourne is a decent, thoughtful and principled man who feels his guilt—for having betrayed his mother when he was a small boy, for what he had to do in the Great War, and perhaps most, for returning unscathed when so many came back badly maimed, or didn’t return at all. Perhaps it is the most decent among us who feel their guilt the sharpest.

Tom becomes a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, perched between the Indian Ocean and the Great Southern Ocean, and a half day’s journey from the West Australian coast. In time, he meets and marries Isabel, a spirited, young woman, and they share an idyllic life together, in time and tune with the tides.

However, after two miscarriages and the still-birth of her baby boy, Isabel falls into a deep depression. Then something miraculous happens: a boat bumps up against the rock, carrying a dead man and a squalling baby girl. Tom wants to report the occurrence, but Isabel convinces him that the infant is theirs, a gift from God, to replace their dead son.

Out of his love for Isabel and concern for the infant—How could they turn her over to the authorities to be placed in an orphanage?—Tom buries the man, sets the boat once more adrift, and they pretend the baby is their own, naming her Lucy (from the Latin word for “light.”)

The joy the three find together continues until several years later when Lucy is a toddler. Visiting the mainland on a vacation, they learn the story of the boat, and of the mother, still devastated by the disappearance of her baby daughter.

Tom wrestles with the moral dilemma: What is best for Lucy? What is best for Isabel? And what about the grieving mother who has held on to a fragile hope that her child still lives? For Isabel, the answer is clear: Lucy is now their daughter.

A number of reviewers have described this story as “heartbreaking,” “heartrending,” and “heart-wrenching.” What’s left for me? They took all the best words. [Hint: Don’t look for a happy ending.]

The Light Between Oceans is a beautifully written, poignant story of the choices good people make for good reasons, and the guilt they must live with when facing the consequences of those choices.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (June 15-July 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


Susan Cain

Random House 

…in 1921 the influential psychologist Carl Jung had published a bombshell of a book, Psychological Types, popularizing the terms introvert and extrovert as the central building blocks of personality. Introverts are drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling, said Jung, extroverts to the external life of people and activities. Introverts focus on the meaning they make of the events swirling around them; extroverts plunge into the events themselves. Introverts recharge their batteries by being alone; extroverts need to recharge when they don’t socialize enough.

                                      from  Quiet


Introverts of the world, unite! (quietly)

We have become an “Extrovert Nation,” says Susan Cain, believing that “the ideal self is gregarious, alpha, and comfortable in the spotlight,” and that introversion is “a second-class personality trait, somewhere between a disappointment and a pathology.”

She says we shifted from being a Culture of Character, defined by virtue (think Abraham Lincoln) to a Culture of Personality, defined and propelled largely by self-promotion (think Tony Robbins).

She attributes this change to the rising cult of the salesperson at the beginning of the 20th century, particularly Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

A self-confessed introvert, Cain asks, “How did we go from Character to Personality without realizing that we had sacrificed something meaningful along the way?” and she examines the contributions of famous introverts, like Eleanor Roosevelt, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, quiet, self-effacing people who changed history. As a lifelong, card-carrying introvert, I found this a compelling argument.

Of course, introversion-extroversion is on a continuum, similar to masculinity-femininity, gay-straight, liberal-conservative, and there probably never was a person who was 100% extroverted, except maybe my Uncle Al, and he was insufferable.

She offers a quiz that helps the reader assess where he or she is on the “introvert-extrovert spectrum.” For example, extroverts get energy from being with people, while introverts feel their energy drained by being around people and need to recharge by being alone. When my extrovert brother and I were children and sent to our rooms as punishment, Gary suffered the torments of prolonged isolation (30 minutes), whereas for me—happy as a clam!

Cain is not saying there’s anything wrong with extroverts (I mean, they’re fun at parties, I suppose) but asks what is lost? She examines the impact on our decisions in business, education, and politics when energy and action are favored over reflection and thought. How many times have we seen situations where a group adopted a plan, not because it was the best idea, but because it was the most loudly expressed? (“Hey, let’s invade Iraq! We’ll figure out the justification later—WMDs or Al Queda or, something…”)

Nor is she saying that everyone should be introverts—Imagine 20,000 people quietly watching a SeaHawks game; or thousands at a political convention murmuring their approval of a candidate—but that introversion should be as valued as its loud and confident cousin.

I foresee a new political movement emerging—Introvert Pride!—flying a rainbow banner of subdued colors, proudly though unobtrusively proclaiming, “Introverts of the world, unite!...quietly.”


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (May 15-June 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.


Lyndsay Faye

G. P. Putnam's Sons

“He asked me if I thought that God could forgive any act, no matter how vile. You know why, naturally. And of course I said yes.”

My eyes fell shut as I blessed the world entire for that one tiny grace. “And then,” Thomas Underhill continued, “he asked if human beings were capable of the same.” 

“What did you tell him?” I whispered.

“I said to keep trying and find out.”

                            from  The Gods of Gotham


RA Long High School grad writes award-winning mystery

It is 1845, and New York City has just formed its first police force. Timothy Wilde is one of these “copper stars,” a job he has received through his older brother’s political connections.  One night as he’s ending his beat, a ten-year-old girl runs in to him as she is dashing through the dark streets. She is dressed only in her nightgown, and the gown is covered in blood.

So begins Lyndsay Faye’s 2012 novel, Gods of Gotham, recently named best mystery novel by the American Library Association, and nominated for an Edgar Award by the Mystery Writers of America (winners will be announced May 2.)

Lyndsay Faye is the pseudonym for Lyndsay Farber Lehner, who with her husband, Gabriel Lehner, graduated from R. A. Long in 1998, and now lives in Manhattan.

The New York City that she depicts is a grimy, seamy, violent world that operates through well-oiled corruption (Some things never change.) Wilde is an uninspired cop, just walking his beat “until someone wanted arresting,” but he soon becomes drawn into the girl’s life. The blood on her nightgown is not her own, but of a boy who is (was) her friend. Both of them work at Silkie Marsh’s brothel—and we don’t mean scrubbing the floors.

Wilde enters this sordid world, and it only gets more and more sordid. The girl, Bird Daly, tells him of a dark-masked gentleman who visits the house, and when he does, one of the children disappears. Eventually, Wilde will discover the remains of nineteen of these children buried on the outskirts of the city.

As he begins his investigation to find the brutal child-killer, Wilde runs up against party politics (no surprise, Silkie Marsh is a major contributor), as well as the Nativist rage against the swelling numbers of Irish immigrants arriving each day, “plentiful as fleas.”

Like most of the characters, Wilde is himself wounded and brutalized in this rough and tumble world where there is little difference between the “coppers” and the thugs they are supposed to control. Yet he engages us because of his self-awareness, which seems often lacking in many of the other people (“I’ve done mad things myself. Stupid things. Never quite that mad or quite that stupid, but after all it wasn’t for lack of trying.”)

Almost against our will, we, like Wilde, are drawn down the gritty, squalid alleys of life we would rather not think about.

[Watch the Book Chat interview with Lyndsay Faye, discussing her first novel, Dust and Shadow: An Account of the Ripper Killings, with her former teacher and mentor Jim LeMonds at]

This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (March 15 - April 14, 2013.) Reprinted with permission.