Honoring the traditions

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a venerable series that’s long been one of my favorites.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

STARGAZER. By Anne Hillerman. Harper. 312 pages. $27.99

Any writer tackling the takeover of a series started by another writer usually has two challenges—keep the qualities that made it popular, and keep the series developing. Anne Hillerman faces another couple of challenges. She’s the daughter of Tony Hillerman, creator of the much-loved Leaphorn/Chee series, and she’s not a member of the Navajo Nation, where all the stories are set. In Stargazer, her sixth novel, the series’ 24th, she demonstrates how far along she has come in meeting those challenges.

Joe Leaphorn and Jim Chee, the mainstays of the series, still show up. Joe is retired, and a stroke has left him struggling with English, but not his native tongue. Jim has moved up in the Navajo Nation police, sitting in for the force’s captain. They are in supporting roles in this story, however. The heavy load is carried here by Hillerman fille’s addition to the series, Bernie Manuelito. A minor character created by Tony Hillerman, Bernie now is a major player in the series, a police officer married to Jim Chee. After an unusual day, in which she discovers a dead baby and a woman bound to a chair, she is called to help in the investigation of what might be a murder. It turns out to be the estranged husband of her best friend in college, Maya. Before the investigation has even started, Maya confesses. Something doesn’t seem right about her admission, and the rest of the book revolves around Bernie’s search for the truth about what really happened.

The victim was an astronomer at the VLA (Very Large Array) radio telescope near the Navajo Nation, the Stargazer of the title. Bernie’s search includes a lot of travel across the Nation, and her journeys give Hillerman a chance to compare modern astronomy to that of the ancient stargazers. Her vivid description of the stars and the countryside under them fulfill the expectations of series fans, land where “First Man covered it with a turquoise blanket, decorated the slopes with dark mists and fable rain, and anchored it to the earth with a stone knife thrust through the sacred mountain from top to bottom.” In passages like this and others, the author pays homage to her father and the People.

The plot doesn’t quite meet up to past exploits, however. Hillerman’s scenario builds to a “Don’t go there!” moment that telegraphs the real killer. It’s a minor blemish, but one that tells us the daughter has not quite caught up to her father yet. Nevertheless, the book will satisfy fans and first-timers, and includes a poignant afterword about the origins of the story.

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When murder and fiction collide

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

KILL ALL YOUR DARLINGS. By David Bell. Berkley. 416 pages. $27 hardcover.

David Bell’s latest thriller has all the ingredients for a great summer read. The fast-moving plot is gripping, with plenty of twists and turns, and more than a few surprises. It’s set in academia, at a fictitious Kentucky Commonwealth University. And the story’s mystery and mayhem are firmly grounded in the real and timely issue of sexual harassment on campus.

Plus, because it’s a book about an English professor who teaches creative writing, it’s also a book about the writing process and how fiction can be an effective way of voicing real-life stories. It helps that Bell is a professor of English at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green, Kentucky, so his insights into the academic scene make the book come very much alive. We see the sometimes-cutthroat competition among faculty and the ways unscrupulous professors can take advantage of vulnerable women students.

Our protagonist, Connor Nye, is an English professor at Kentucky Commonwealth U. who’s been struggling in many ways since his wife and son died in an accident five years earlier. Now, though, his life and career are looking brighter because his newly published novel, a crime thriller, is doing well – relieving him of the intense pressure to publish something noteworthy so that he can get tenure.

Things are looking brighter, that is, until the sudden appearance at Connor’s home of Madeline O’Brien, a former student who disappeared mysteriously two years earlier and had been presumed dead. With her, Madeline has a manuscript she wrote – a manuscript of what is now the novel Connor has passed off as his own. Madeline threatens to expose him if he doesn’t give her all the proceeds from the book.

Things quickly get worse. As people begin to read the book, it’s clear that the story bears a strong resemblance to a real crime that shocked the community two and half years earlier, the murder of a young married woman. That murder has gone unsolved, and the local police take a keen interest in Connor. Because Connor was so wrapped up in his personal problems at the time, he had not paid attention to coverage of that murder and is unprepared for what is happening.

Connor finds himself in a nearly impossible predicament. If he comes clean about having plagiarized the novel, his career at the university will be ruined. But if he doesn’t, he might find himself on trial for murder.

Trying to protect his academic reputation and job, Connor hopes to find the real murderer.

Unfortunately, the real murderer doesn’t intend to let that happen.

Bell skillfully moves back and forth between past and present, gradually revealing more of the truth, until his story reaches a dramatic and satisfying conclusion. Unlike some thrillers, Kill All Your Darlings offers a main character who wins our sympathy as well as our attention; we care about Connor despite – or maybe because of – his lapses and mistakes.

Once started, you’ll finish this story quickly. It’s ideal for the beach, a long plane ride or just a slow summer day at home.

 

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Flag waving, patriotism and spies

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

THE HOLLYWOOD SPY: A Maggie Hope Mystery. By Susan Elia MacNeal. Bantam. 352 pages. $27.

If you believe the inspiring old stories about how patriotism united America during World War II, Susan Elia MacNeal’s latest Maggie Hope suspense novel will be an eye-opener.

When we last spent time with Maggie, a daring young woman who’s been a code breaker, an assistant to Winston Churchill and a British spy, among other adventures and misadventures, she was struggling with the effects of several years of war, danger, espionage and more terrible experiences than most people endure in a lifetime.

As The King’s Justice (2020) came to an end, after Maggie was reluctantly drawn into solving more horrific crimes in London, she decided, with considerable misgivings, to go to Hollywood to look into the suspicious death of a woman found floating in the pool of a posh hotel. The woman was the fiancé of John Sterling, the RAF pilot who had once been Maggie’s own fiancé, and John wants to know the truth of what happened to her.

Maggie realizes the awkwardness of reuniting with the man who broke her heart, not to mention trying to solve what he believes is the murder of the woman who took her place. But John needs help, and Maggie, with all her experience, is well prepared to give it. Then too, she desperately needs a change of pace and scenery, and even though the U.S. joined the war after Pearl Harbor, the fighting is far away from American shores … or so she’s been led to believe.

She’s British by birth, works for MI5 and owns a house she inherited in London, but heading to the United States is a homecoming for Maggie.  She was raised by her aunt, a professor at Wellesley, after her parents were killed in a car crash in England (or so she believed; as this series has unfolded, Maggie has learned a great deal about her British father and her German mother).

Her time in Hollywood in 1943, however, is not as much a break from the stresses of wartime Britain and Europe as she had imagined. People are not as united behind the war effort as the newsreels and patriotic films suggest.

The Zoot Suit Riots disrupt Los Angeles, and the Ku Klux Klan is hard at work sowing hatred and division. Sinister plots and intrigue abound.

Maggie’s investigations give readers an entertaining tour of the people, places and lifestyle of Hollywood’s Golden Age. They also reveal the darker realities – and dangers – behind all the glamor and glitz.

And they help Maggie learn some more truths about her own life and relationships as she looks forward to her next adventures.

This is another fine, entertaining and historically enlightening entry into an outstanding mystery series.

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Tarheel troubadour

Bob Moyer has returned from his latest adventures to give us another fine book review.

 

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

IN THE VALLEY. By Ron Rash. Doubleday. 220 pages. $26.95

 

There’s gold in them thar mountains. North Carolina mountains, that is, and Ron Rash knows how to mine it. Critics frequently call him an Appalachian writer, but he is flat out a Tarheel troubadour. He roams through the countryside and years, gleaning nuggets of stories out of lives and the land. A Union widow in a Confederate area burns her own barn when the Union forces pass through leaving her home unharmed. A Vietnam vet who flies helicopter tours marvels as children run toward his helicopter instead of away when a father barred from his children drops presents to them. A kidnap victim held for ransom descends into drugs but then surfaces to regularly visit the man who held her hostage  in prison. A sea change in mountain ways occurs when a son changes his father’s mountain handshake on business deals for a written contract. Nine new stories in all carry us through daily life, deaths, acts of decency, and a few of bravery.

 

The heart of the book, however, is the novella sequel to Rash’s hit novel, Serena. In it, the lethal widow who ostensibly killed her husband returns to the mountains as owner of the logging company. She continues her murderous ways, destroying the land and many lives to meet a contract. Animals, birds, critters of all sorts flee before her advancing greed, as she and her henchmen push the workers not just to the edge but over it. Rash here brings his knack for speech rhythms that flow like rivers down the mountainsides, phrases and patterns of speech from another time. He also brings in the mountain trope of the visionary crone on the path of the woman who cost her son his hand. This taut tale complements its predecessor with a satisfying resolution.

 

Forgive the double negative, but there’s nothing not to like about this book. Rash is not just a North Carolina writer, he’s the best.

 

 

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The City of Devils

Reviewed by Linda C. Brinson

ALL THE DEVILS ARE HERE. By Louise Penny. Minotaur Books (St. Martin’s). 439 pages. $28.99.

Among the many things I missed during the year of COVID was a long-awaited new novel from Louise Penny, one of my favorite authors. Sometime in 2020, All the Devils Are Here, the latest mystery starring Armand Gamache, was published, and I apparently didn’t even know it.

But the grievous oversight has now been corrected, and I am delighted to report that in All the Devils Are Here, Louise Penny and Gamache are at their best.

Armand and his wife, Reine-Marie, travel to Paris for what should be a joyous family occasion: Their daughter Annie and her husband, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, are about to deliver their second child, a daughter.

The trip also allows a reunion with their son, Daniel, and his wife and two daughters.

Like Jean-Guy and Annie, Daniel now has a career in Paris.

But on their first night in Paris, things go badly awry. The extended family gathers for a bistro dinner with Stephen Horowitz, Armand’s godfather, an influential billionaire who raised him after his own parents died. As they contentedly stroll through the streets of Paris after their dinner, bound for their various lodgings, they are shocked and horrified as Stephen is run down and critically injured.

Armand, drawing on many years of detective work and finely honed intuition, knows what he saw was a deliberate attempt to murder his beloved godfather.

And with that, Armand, and soon the rest of the family members, are caught up in a frightening, confusing, perilous web of – what?

Paris has never seemed less like the City of Light. Dark shadows are everywhere – within the police, in the offices where Jean-Guy and Daniel work, in Stephen’s life… . Armand, Jean-Guy and the others don’t know whom to trust or how far the evil, whatever it really is, might extend.

Jean-Guy, formerly Armand’s second in command at the Surete du Quebec, slips back into detective mode.

Even Daniel, whose long estrangement from his father has been a source of sadness and some bewilderment for Gamache, is drawn into the effort.

The quest takes them to some of the most iconic sites in Paris, and into dark recesses where devils lurk.

A great deal is not as it seems, and Gamache must deal with doubts about old friends and even family, as the stakes grow higher and the danger increases.

By the time all becomes clear, and it eventually does, everyone, including the reader, is glad when the Gamache family heads back to the – usually – peaceful if eccentric village of Three Pines in Quebec.

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A treat for Spenser fans

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a venerable detective series that has outlived its creator.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

Robert B. Parker’s SOMEONE TO WATCH OVER ME. By Ace Atkins. Putnam. 306 pages. $27.

Since Ace Atkins took over the Spenser franchise, he has aptly inhabited not just The Spenser voice, but the habits, peccadillos, and even geography of Boston’s most-loved private eye. He continues apace in the latest installment:  24 beers, nine literary quotes, two “eeks,” a clutch at his fake pearls, and doughnuts galore. Of course, there’s also the sexy innuendo between Spenser and his main squeeze, Susan, the BFF banter between Spenser and Hawk, and the barrage of insults laid upon Spenser by various law enforcement officers. It’s all that Spenser fans can ask for, and more.

Readers also expect a decent plot, and the one Atkins provides is adequate, albeit predictable. It can be summed up in two words — Jeffrey Epstein. If you have followed the arc of this serial pedophile, the details will be familiar.

Never afraid to introduce new characters, Atkins gives Spenser a new sidekick. A slip of a girl when Spenser helped her out of a jam, Marty is now a young woman determined to be a detective. Incensed, she comes to Spenser with the case of a friend’s 15-year-old sister. Groomed by a billionaire’s assistant, the girl was then assaulted by the rich guy, and threatened when she tries to get her laptop and backpack returned. Within a short time, Marty and Spenser uncover wide-ranging exploitation of underage working-class girls, all centered in the billionaire’s mansion on Commonwealth Avenue. The two gumshoes start collecting victims willing to testify, law enforcement willing to prosecute, and, fortunately for the sake of entertainment,  thugs. The rich guy sends an assortment of ruffians to dissuade the victims and Spenser from pursuing the investigation. Needless to say, the average ruffian is no match for Spenser, and numerous very satisfying brawls ensue.

The case and dozens of illicit encounters lead from Commonwealth Avenue all the way to the Bahamas, where the creep owns an island. It is inevitable that Spenser and Hawk will end up there. The drama lies in how they get in, and whether they will get out. The satisfying ending is, in the book cover blurb’s terms, a “final epic showdown.” Although he spends a bit of time pondering his mortality, Spenser does manage to rally one more time. The only demise likely for him is whether Atkins will continue the series, or will Spenser have “eeked” at his last tough guy.

Stay tuned.

 

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A house filled with tears

Rob Moyer loves detective fiction, it’s true. But from time to time, his interest in human nature – including its darker sides – takes him into the serious nonfiction realm, and particularly into the horrors of the Holocaust.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

LETTERS TO CAMONDO. By Edmund de Waal. Farrah, Straus and Giroux. 182 pages. $28.

Edmund de Waal is a potter by trade. “Pottery,” however, is a crude word for the delicate pieces of porcelain he produces, and exhibits around the world — below ground, above ground, carefully arranged, often in the context of other works of art. His work is exquisite.

So are his books. His first, The Hare With Amber Eyes, is a sine qua non of memoirs cum musings. In it he traces the decimation and devastation of his family, the Ephrussis, and their fortune by the Nazis. Titans of the financial world, the extended family owned mansions in Vienna, Paris and Minsk, filled with invaluable works of art and books. All that was left after the war was a collection of Japanese netsuke, small carved objects attached to a kimono sash. By tracing their history, de Waal brings back the lives that touched them, saw them, owned them.

In Letters to Camondo, de Waal approaches the destiny of a family intertwined with his in the French belle epoque, the Camondos. They lived at 63 rue de Monceau, just down the boulevard in Paris from his family at 81. In 1936, Moise Camondo willed that house to the French nation to commemorate his son, a fighter pilot who died in WWI—the Musee Nissim Camondo. He filled it with the greatest private collection of 18th century art, dictating that nothing should ever be moved, nothing loaned, even detailing how objects should be dusted. Remarkably, thanks to a (secret) Jew in the World War II Vichy government, the house was spared the brutal expropriation of the Nazis. In a series of 58 letters to Moise, all in present tense, de Waal illustrates French Jewish history, collecting, and the nature of memory.

He seems to have unlimited access to the house and its archives. In his writing, he inhabits the objects, inhabits the house, and, ultimately, the mind of Camondo.  He unearths lists of luncheons sponsored by the patriarch, organizations and societies he contributed and belonged to, the artists he supported, purchases of objects for the collection, all documenting how much he gave to France, not to mention the life of his son. He roams the house, sits in the room where Moise sat, learns “Objects are not seen by themselves but discovered among others.” He notices that “You put this here  and set off small chords… . You put it there and it is just stuff…”. De Waal realizes “It is what I do in my studio.” Camondo has made the whole house work together:  “The whole place acts as a vitrine where ‘memory weaves, unweaves the echoes.” As he senses later, ”The space holds the chance that they have not gone.” Camondo struggles against dispersion, wants to “… bring things back together.”

De Waal intuits that Camondo chose the late 18th century for that reason; all that royal art at the height of the enlightenment was dispersed by the French Revolution. He also chose the period because it was then that France was the first European country to give citizenship to the Jews. Banishing any work that suggested his Oriental roots, Camondo made a French house, because he, just like the Ephrussis, the Rothschilds, the Reinachs, all feel that they are French, not French Jews. De Waal portrays just how much Camondo gave to his country.

Relentlessly, he also portrays the French descent into anti-Semitism that lumped all Jews together as “Reinachs,” a derogatory joining into one family. In books, articles, society, Jews increasingly are seen as taking, not giving. Inexorably, after all their giving, comes the taking — the collaboration of the Vichy Government with the Nazis to remove all Jewish properties, all Jews. Throughout the book, illustrations on fine paper have shown families together smiling, a son kissing his dog, Moise’s daughter jumping a horse, a gorgeous desk. As the book concludes, the same attention and weight are given to what was taken away — the lives of Camondo’s family. What was grand in presentation earlier is now brutal — the deportation cards that sent his family to Auschwitz.

What was meant to be a memorial for Nissim, the son, now stands as a memorial for all those who were “dispersed” during the Holocaust. The house, full of what de Waal notes in his epigraph lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, sits this very day, waiting for the family, the dispersed — and visitors. If you can’t go, however, de Waal guides you through an unforgettable visit.

 

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A voice of pain and passion

Bob Moyer reviews the latest in a venerable detective series that’s set decades ago but, he finds, has much to say that’s relevant to today’s readers.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

BLOOD GROVE. By Walter Mosley/ Mulholland Books. 307 pages. $27.

Long before Black Lives Matter, before George Floyd, a voice articulated the plight of the black man with detail, pain and passion. Here is that voice:

They gave me a ticket, knowing I’d never pay it.

 The whole process took about half an hour. If I added up all the half hours the police, security forces, MPs, bureaucrats, bank tellers and even gas station attendants had stolen from my life, I could make me a twelve-year-old boy versed in useless questions, meaningless insults, and spite as thick as black tar.

And:

He was acting as if I was oppressing him by asking him to do his job. On top of that he was asserting his God-given entitlement as a white man to banish my rights. These responses called up a feeling in me that I can only describe as revolutionary.

And:

I knew that moment all too well. Most black men of my generation do: born as second-class citizens, living third-class lives. The grandsons, great-grandsons and great-great-grandsons of slaves.

That is Walter Mosley’s most loved protagonist, Ezekiel “Easy” Rawlins, speaking. He’s a black detective in Los Angeles, making his life doubly difficult. This is Easy’s fourteenth novel, all of them set in 1960s L.A. It’s 1969, when “The sleeping giant of white guilt was awakening and there seemed to be some kind of hope for the future. If you were innocent enough, or ignorant enough, you might have believed that things were improving in such a way that all Americans could expect a fair shake.”

Not so much for Easy. A Vietnam vet approaches him, obviously “Shell-shocked by war and stunned in civilian life,” who pleads with Easy to find out if he might have killed a man beating a woman he didn’t know in a place called Blood Grove. Against his better judgment, Easy takes the case. It’s not long before what seems simple has Easy with “…two police departments, two dead bodies, maybe three more dead bodies, a gang of desperate heist men, a gangster, and a grieving mother pressing up against me.”

Getting to that point and out again — alive — is as interesting as always. Familiar characters who add many shades of color to the story, like Easy’s childhood friend Mouse the killer, Fearless Jones the enforcer and Feather, Easy’s daughter, show up. Other characters like the courtesan who makes Easy feel “…like a child staring through bamboo bars at a Siberian tiger,” appear a couple of times. Some appear just once to point Easy to his next clue, like the elderly neighbor  who says of his deceased wife, “We had forever and now it’s gone.”

Easy weaves his way to justice through a landscape of violence, much of that aimed at him. “The Civil War had ended more than a century before but the remnants could still be felt, still killed over on any street corner in the country,” he says toward the end of the book. We can feel it in Mosley’s writing; we can feel it in our country today, not just 1969.

 

 

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Here’s the buzz

My husband, Lloyd Brinson, was a science teacher for many years, and he’s also become a pretty accomplished gardener. He already knew a good bit about the importance of pollinators – he raises eyebrows in our neighborhood by carefully mowing around patches of blooming clover in our yard – but he still found much to interest him in this new book.

Reviewed by Lloyd Brinson

POLLINATOR GARDENING FOR THE SOUTH: Creating Sustainable Habitats. By Danesha Seth Carley and Anne M. Spafford.  The University of North Carolina Press. 168 pages. Paperback, $24. Ebook, $18.99.

By this time in the spring, you probably have already said some pretty unkind words (or worse!) about one insect or another. Before you find occasion to utter another expletive not deleted toward an unsuspecting flying critter, you might consider seeking a remedy for what could be a precursor to insectophobia.

You might consider reading Pollinator Gardening for the South, by Danesha Seth Carley and Anne M. Spafford, a delightful, easy to understand guidebook for keeping pollinating insects in their place – in flower and vegetable gardens that, while attractive, also serve to help shore up our fragile environment.

The authors, both associate professors of horticultural science at North Carolina State University, have combined solid science and delightful art and pictures to help anyone at any level of gardening to begin creating a pollinator-friendly garden of any size at any pace to suit any individual.

Not only is the science impeccable, this outdoor lover’s manual is full of wisdom, history and wonderful observations about nature, even human nature. While describing how some bees behave under differing circumstances in the chapter on “Butterflies, Bees and Beyond,” the authors remind us that:

“With bees, as with angry toddlers, swatting and yelling does not encourage them to settle down.”

As they describe the interweaving life and death struggles for survival of the insects and the plants, Spafford and Carley deliver insights into how dependent we are on the workings of the natural world. Notice I said how dependent we are. They quote biologist O. E. Wilson’s observation about ants:

“We need them to survive, but they don’t need us at all.”

Sometime while reading the first few chapters this book, my mind drifted back more than half a lifetime ago to the few years I spent in Polynesia and southeast Asia, where I regarded with wonder the myriad religious shrines, many surrounded with carefully attended plants of all types.

I believe I remembered those shrines because they were places of peace, reflection and a reminder of the good things in the world, the same feelings you can get while enjoying your pollinator garden.

There are also surprises in Pollinators, one of which puts me in a quandary. I’m a retired science teacher, and the neighborhood kids that come into our backyard to play basketball and frolic with our dog know that. We often discuss nature. They also love to sample the figs on the young trees at the corners of our patio/basketball court. So, as a dedicated, full disclosure scientist, am I obligated, after reading about fig wasps in Pollinators, to tell the whole story of how those tiny fig “flowers” get pollinated?

Probably not….

 

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What he left behind

Bob Moyer takes on a different kind of mystery – not a whodunit, but a look at the strange realm of human love and relationships.

Reviewed by Robert P. Moyer

MONOGAMY. By Sue Miller. Harper. 338 pages. $28.99

 

 

In this fine novel, filled with authentic detail of time, place and demographics, the main characters are or have been married — the larger-than-life bookstore owner Graham, his second wife Annie, his first wife Frieda, and their son Lucas. Only Sarah, the daughter of the second marriage, is not married. Late in the book, she muses about what she wants:

 

             Not marriage — not all the other promises to be made, and then broken. Not the   children, the difficult growing up. The wounds inflicted, back and forth, the inevitable disappointments, the unbridgeable distances. 

            Not that.

           Not monogamy.

By this time in the book, author Sue Miller has manifested in excruciatingly fine detail a litany of the pitfalls (many) and pleasures (few) of Monogamy. It all  begins when Graham unexpectedly dies in his sleep. He leaves Annie with grief, his son with a sense of distance, his ex-wife with resentment and his daughter with her insecurity. He also leaves behind an act of adultery.

Miller takes a page from Anton Chekov’s playbook here. Chekov said that if you hang a gun on the wall in the first act of a play, you have to use it in the second part. Miller loads Graham’s infidelity up in the first few pages and then fires it off in the second part. With finesse that would make Chekov nod in appreciation, she stages a scene in which Annie comes across the mistress weeping at Graham’s desk, and immediately shifts from grief to anger. Miller takes the rest of the book, up to the very last sentence, to resolve that anger.

With an astute eye for detail, she shows how a disturbance like Graham’s resonates through the lives of the other characters. The reader experiences Annie’s anger while she’s in the dentist’s chair, Lucas’ distance from his mother at the dining room table, Sarah’s consternation when she finds a book defaced by her mother. It’s not often that a book about domesticity could be called a page-turner, but Monogamy comes close. There is no mystery here, but there is more drama than one would expect, thanks to Miller’s skill. And many a reader will recognize many of the pitfalls of Monogamy.

 

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