By Yrsa Sigurdardottir
Yrsa Sigurdardottir’s atmospheric thriller The Silence of the Sea crept along like a wraith in the night and snatched away my breath. The book took mercy on me towards the end and gave me back my breath, but then it broke my heart.
The Silence of the Sea first grabbed me when I read the following lines at the end of the book’s prologue: “Mommy dead… Dadda dead…Adda dead…Bygga dead…All dead” (p. 6), uttered by two year-old Sigga Dögg, who, with her grandparents, discovers that the yacht that is supposed to be carrying home her parents and her eight year-old twin sisters, arrives with no one on board.
Yrsa brings along those brave enough on a journey with her to solve this unusual and harrowing mystery of how a boat could arrive without its passengers. We meet Thóra, the lawyer hired by Sigga Dögg’s grandparents Margeir and Sigrídur, who fear that Sigga Dögg’s prophecy that her family is dead is true. Margeir and Sigrídur have no money, their health is failing, and the news that their loved ones may, in fact, be dead has given them one less reason to wake up in the morning. However, in spite of their frailty in mind, body, and spirit, they know they may be all that Sigga Dögg has left and, if they can, they will fight for custody of her.
Thóra, taking on the case, sets out to discover if Sigga Dögg’s family is really dead. In one eerie scene as Thóra is investigating the abandoned yacht, she finds a lone Hello Kitty sock on the floor of the twins’ room. As she peers under the bed to grab the other sock she bangs her head on the bed frame in shock from what she sees:
There was no denying the atmosphere on board was a little creepy, but that was only natural given recent events. Unsolved mysteries were grist to the imagination’s mill, she knew that. It had been nothing but her mind playing tricks on her. What else could explain the little feet she thought she’d seen on the other side of the bed, in Hello Kitty socks? (p. 43)
While we learn about the spine-chilling case in the aftermath of the boat’s arrival, Yrsa takes us back in time to Lisbon, Portugal, where the family is about to board the yacht that will take them home to Iceland. Twins, Arna and Bylgja are lagging behind their parents, Lára and Ӕgir, who are rushing to get on the yacht. In a disturbing foreshadowing of events, Ӕgir is second-guessing his decision to travel home to Iceland by boat, a hasty arrangement that he has worked out as a favor to his boss. Towards the end of the chapter, Ӕgir is sitting with his sensitive and observant daughter Bylgja who notices with trepidation as they begin to sail away, that the statue of Christ who stretches out his arms to protect the city of Lisbon is “rapidly receding into the distance” (p. 29). Ӕgir tries to calm Bylgja’s fears by saying that Jesus will protect them no matter where they are. Nevertheless, Bylgja, sensing her father’s uncertainty, presses on, insistent that Jesus will not protect them at sea because he is watching over the city. Ӕgir quickly reassures Bylgja again but then as he stares into the unfathomable depths of the sea we hear his private thoughts: “Who would watch over them at sea?” (p. 29)
As Yrsa takes her readers back and forth from the present to the past, the mystery and the clues become as confounding as the sea that holds all of the yacht’s secrets. Did someone fall overboard into the sea or was someone pushed overboard? If there was evil on board, was it supernatural or human? And why is there a cloying smell of perfume in places where the scent of perfume should not belong?
To find out how this will all end, check out The Silence of the Sea (Book 6 in Yrsa’s Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series), which also does very well as a standalone.
The Guest Room
By Chris Bohjalian
This novel is so good, I read it in one sitting. But if you need more convincing, how about this book-jacket quote from Geraldine Brooks, author of another great page-turner March: “Bohjalian's deftness as a story teller is on full display here, as he couples the urgency of a compulsively readable crime thriller with a quiet meditation on the meaning of family and relationships.”
Here’s the premise: In a gesture of big brotherliness, married father, investment banker and all-around good guy Richard offers to host a bachelor party for his puerile younger brother--at his well-appointed Bronxville home. He realizes at the last minute there will likely be a stripper hired for entertainment by one of his brother’s frat boy friends, but despite his disapproval, goes along with it to be a good sport. This turns out to be a life-changing mistake, when not one, but two prostitutes arrive with armed bodyguards, and chaos ensues. Without giving away too much, it becomes clear that the “talent” is actually underage victims of sex trafficking fighting to survive the night under the close watch of their captors. Unfortunately for Richard, this clarity comes far too late to avoid major collateral damage to his marriage, his career, his reputation, and his conscience (not to mention his house!)
All that I just described happens in the first chapter. From there, the plot twists, turns, and tells the tale from the point of view of Richard, his shell-shocked wife, and Alexandra, one of the sex slaves. Through Alexandra we learn how a young Armenian girl with dreams of becoming a ballerina ends up abducted and forced into a life of prostitution on another continent. Her story resonates with the stories of so many others, a luckless set of circumstances setting up vulnerable prey to be picked off by an opportunistic predator, and the author does a masterful job of portraying the necessary mindset to survive such a fate. Meanwhile, Richard struggles to regain normalcy and right his moral compass, while his wife and daughter struggle to forgive him for his part in the disastrous evening. Like Bohjalian’s Midwives, the motives and impact on all the members of this little family are rendered with spot-on insight, and you will find yourself immersed in their world until the bitter end.
Gold Fame Citrus
By Claire Vaye Watkins
A glowing hot addition to the expanding category of “dystopia lit," Gold Fame Citrus is on fire. It’s the debut novel from Watkins, whose short story collection Battleborn garnered critical praise and public admiration from writers Annie Proulx, Karen Russell, Louise Erdrich, Ruth Ozeki and Smith Henderson, among others. If the work of any of these writers appeals to you, this book probably will too.
Drought is the culprit in this tale, having decimated civilization throughout Southern California and the Southwest. Diehards Luz and Ray are subsisting on rationed cola and crackers in an abandoned manse in LA when they encounter a feral child named Ig. Sudden parental responsibility changes the focus of the couple’s life from one of mere survival to include ambition and domestic sustainability, not to mention long-lost hope. In search of a better life for Ig, a road trip ensues and its results change the trio forever.
Stylistically reminiscent of Edan Lepucki’s 2014 debut California, the subject matter and tone of this novel is dire. However, GFC is striking, more poetically rendered than its peers in this genre, with sometimes fragmented imagery and a feverish feel. The ruthlessness of drought, brought into high relief by the sweet love of makeshift family, is unrelenting as Watkins describes a world without water with frightening intensity.
Me Before You
By Jojo Moyes
By Jojo Moyes
I’ve heard from many a reader that they wept at the end of this novel. And while I did shed a few quiet tears I must admit that I didn’t feel quite the same level of upset that others have felt. Is it that I just don’t care that much about humans? I will sob uncontrollably at the end of Merle’s Door by Ted Kerasote every time I read it no matter how familiar I am with the story. So, is that it? I mean, yes dogs are clearly superior to people—what was the question again? I actually think the reason I didn’t have quite the sob fest that I was expecting was that I was prepared. This is a book that prepares you for what’s coming almost from the very beginning. Sure, like Louisa, you hope that Will will find a way to accept his new life…but deep down you know. Also, the sequel is called After You, so…
Will Traynor was once the CEO of a high stakes financial company. He was once an extreme sports enthusiast. He was once a ladies’ man. Once. But ever since his accident he has been defined by his disability--he is a quadriplegic. Louisa Clark, recently laid off from her job as a café waitress, is in desperate need of a job to help make ends meet at home. She’s never gone anywhere or done much of anything. She has a safe, dull relationship with her boyfriend Patrick. She’s hired by Camilla Traynor to attempt the impossible: try and convince Will that there is still a reason to live. Will she succeed?
The brightest point of this novel is the sassy, quirky heroine, Louisa. Everything from her name to her taste in shoes is whimsical. In fact, now that I think about it, she’s sort of the anti-Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Sure, she’s weird and beautiful and she’ll do whatever it takes to change Will’s life. But she also has a life of her own: a dark past with painful secrets, a desire to better herself and strike out on her own, and family relationships that matter to her. This book isn’t just a romance (although it is that), it’s also a coming of age story. Louisa starts out content to work in a café for the rest of her life, but she ends up growing into her own, traveling and starting a whole new life. So read this one for the bittersweet romance, sure. But also read it for the dynamic characters, the hilarity, and the adventure.