Weekly Words About New Books in

Independent Bookstores

June 9, 2024

New in Paperback - One-of-a-Kind Love Story With Real Teeth, and Poetic Memoir About

Pain and Hope in Middle Age

Shark Heart by Emily Habeck. Last August's #1 pick by booksellers on the Indie Next list is, safe to say, a unique love story. It has a premise that you either choose to accept or not, but the novel is wildly original and its fans - not just booksellers - are enthusiastic. So here goes: For newlyweds Lewis and Wren, their first year of marriage is also their last. It starts out happily enough, but a few weeks after their wedding, Lewis receives a rare diagnosis. He will retain most of his consciousness, memories, and intellect, but his physical body will gradually turn into a great white shark. That's right, loving hubby will turn into shark boy in less than a year.

Amazingly, given the premise, which includes the fact that another friend of Wren's is pregnant with peregrine falcons, Habeck manages to create a world that at least somewhat believable. And the grief and impending sense of loss that Wren and Lewis feel and express (although Lewis increasingly less so as fins appear) is palpable. The circumstances also cause Wren to resurrect repressed past memories, including ones involving her single mother Angela, whose presence becomes an important piece the story. However the reader chooses to deal with the human-to-animal mutation presumption of the author, Habeck's descriptions of love and pain are compelling and plenty real.

The New York Times Book Review called the novel "beguiling"and added, "Habeck's setup allows her to grapple with big questions... [and] imbues the smallest interactions and moments with poetic weight... Surprising and pleasurably uncategorizable. Shark Heart is wild, in every sense of the word."

You Could Make This Place Beautiful: A Memoir by Maggie Smith. The renowned poet explores the disintegration of her marriage and her renewed commitment to herself in middle age. The book is composed of dozens of vignettes and other short writings - many less than page long, some only a few sentences. It begins with a focus on Smith's personal heartbreak, but she expands her scope to provide a reckoning with contemporary womanhood, traditional gender roles, and the power dynamics that persist even in many progressive homes. Blending self-inquiry and empathy, Smith interweaves snapshots of a life with meditations on secrets, anger, forgiveness, and narrative itself.

The book has received lots of critical praise, but I've seen none more compelling than the review written by my Mrs. Dalloway's colleague, bookseller Hannah deBree: "In this ravishing gut punch of a memoir about a broken marriage, poet Maggie Smith (of Good Bones fame) unveils the fractures that led to her divorce, the bittersweet knowledge born from parenthood, the harrowing solitude of miscarriage and postpartum depression, the unseen weight of labor carried by women in relationship with men, the creative process of writing and living, in prose that is aptly poetic, fierce and unflinching. You don't need to have walked through the fires of divorce to feel the lick of the flame, to be burned and reborn along with Maggie. What a gift."

Saying Farewell to a Beloved Female Detective

The Comfort of Ghosts by Jacqueline Winspear. More than 20 years after the publication of Maisie Dobbs, Winspear brings her iconic detective series to an end with this 18th installment. Maisie has come a long way since being introduced at the age of 13 as a servant in a Belgravia mansion and having her employer - impressed by Maisie's thirst for knowledge - support her education. Following a nursing stint in the Great War, she apprenticed to the renowned Maurice Blanche, a man revered for his work with Scotland Yard. Then, in 1929, psychologist and detective (both professions unheard of for women at that time) Maisie Dobbs goes out on her own.

Winspear's series has been enhanced over the years by its historical settings and themes,in particular the impact of two world wars on England. In The Comfort of Ghosts, that impact remains, as Maisie seeks to help four adolescent orphans with a dark wartime history who are squatting in a Belgravia mansion left vacant by owners who fled London under heavy Luftwaffe bombing. Also on hand is a demobilized soldier, gravely ill and reeling from his experiences overseas, who has taken shelter with the group.

Maisie’s quest to bring comfort to the youngsters and the ailing soldier brings to light a decades-old mystery concerning Maisie’s first husband, James Compton, who was killed while piloting an experimental fighter aircraft.

Not surprisingly, reviews for Maisie's swan song have paid tribute to this popular and well loved series. Here are three examples:

"A fitting finale to a marvelously entertaining series full of finely drawn characters often scarred by the horrors of war."

--Kirkus Reviews

"Winspear gives Maisie the grace to face her pain, and wraps up the series with a deft touch. Like many readers, I will dearly miss the voice of Maisie Dobbs."

--Sarah Weinman, The New York Times Book Review

"Winspear delivers a most elegant and satisfying resolution . . . It's a privilege to experience life with Winspear's determined and maximally resilient woman protagonist."

--Booklist, Starred Review

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Hi, I'm Hut Landon, and I'm a bookseller in an independent bookstore in BerkeIey, CA.

My goal here is to keep readers up to date about new books hitting the shelves, share what indie booksellers are recommending in their stores, and pass on occasional news about the book world. 

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