Weekly Words About New Books in

Independent Bookstores

March 3, 2024

New Paperback Fiction - A Literary Environmental Thriller and a Slow-Burn Love Story from a Rom Com Queen

Birnam Wood by Eleanor Catton. The Booker Prize-winning author of The Luminaries returns with an ecologically themed thriller involving a collective of guerilla gardeners. The authors weaves social issues like cultural appropriation, wealth inequality, and environmental idealism throughout her page-turning plot. It's a great read for book groups to check out now that the paperback edition is arriving - with a much more appealing cover than the somber black-and-white hardcover version.

Here's a description from the publisher: A landslide has closed the Korowai Pass on New Zealand's South Island, cutting off the town of Thorndike and leaving a sizable farm abandoned. The disaster presents an opportunity for Birnam Wood, an undeclared, unregulated, sometimes-criminal, sometimes-philanthropic guerrilla gardening collective that plants crops wherever no one will notice. For years, the group has struggled to break even. To occupy the farm at Thorndike would mean a shot at solvency at last. But the enigmatic American billionaire Robert Lemoine also has an interest in the place: he has snatched it up to build his end-times bunker, or so he tells Birnam's founder, Mira, when he catches her on the property. He's intrigued by Mira, and by Birnam Wood; although they're poles apart politically, it seems Lemoine and the group might have enemies in common. But can Birnam trust him? And, as their ideals and ideologies are tested, can they trust one another?

The book has received much critical praise, including from B.D. McClay writing last year in The New Yorker: "Birnam Wood’s biggest twist is not so much a particular event as the realization that this is a book in which everything that people choose to do matters, albeit not in ways they may have anticipated. Catton has a profound command of how perceptions lead to c oice, and of how choice, for most of us, is an act of self-definition ... Birnam Wood’s true turns are all carefully set up, as long as you’re focusing on the right details ... Birnam Wood, like all good books, doesn’t supply an answer."

Happy Place by Emily Henry. Contemporary romance fiction has become one of the new category stars in bookselling over the past several years. The stories feature mostly young people (white, black, brown, straight, gay, trans - you name it) in contemporary settings, with interesting jobs, social media accounts, and modern-day angst. One of the genre's stars is Henry, whose titles include People We Met on Vacation, Beach Read, and Book Lovers. Happy Place is another hit, and you can expect the paperback version to be prominently displayed in your local bookstore.

The story focuses on three women - best friends since college - and their partners, who have gathered at a Maine cottage that has been the friend group's cherished annual getaway for a decade. This year, one of the couples has big good news (we're getting married!), which makes our main characters' big bad news (we broke up!) impossible to share. Instead, they agree to pretend they're still happy and together for the week, which - this being a rom com, after all - proves more complicated as the days progress.

In a review for Booklist, John Charles wrote, "Henry dazzles and delights by brilliantly deploying her considerable skills in comic timing and crafting characters with relatable, realistically messy lives. Effortlessly toggling between the present-day fauxmance playing out between her protagonists and the origins of their love a decade earlier, Happy Place is a romance that delivers on both style and substance."

New Murder Mystery from Popular Irish Crime Writer

The Hunter by Tana French. Readers of crime novels first got to know and love French through her gritty series of Irish police procedurals featuring members of the Dublin Murder Squad, including In the Woods, Broken Harbor, and The Trespasser. In 2020, she switched gears with The Searcher, which features Cal Hooper, a divorced ex-Chicago cop who moves to an Irish village in an attempt to find peace and serenity. Instead, he develops an unexpected and evolving relationship with a young teen, Trey, whose brother has gone missing. One of the book's great strengths is its characters; in addition to Cal and Trey, there is a colorful group of local townspeople, a potential love interest (Lena) for Cal, and one loquacious neighbor who always seems to know more than he lets on.

French brings back her cast in The Hunter and offers up another compelling mystery. In a recent interview with the Today show, the author herself described the sequel: "It’s been two years since Searcher, and Cal, Trey, and Lena have built up a good, happy life — but then Trey’s absent father comes home, and he’s brought along an English millionaire, a big plan to make the whole townland rich, and a whole lot of trouble. It’s got plenty of Western elements — everything from revenge to a (very small) gold rush."

The book's plot revolves around Johnny Reddy, Trey's fast-talking, neer-do-well dad, whose return home feels ominous from the outset. In fact, his attempt to sell the townspeople on a get-rich-quick scheme involving gold buried on their land is nothing more than an attempt to bail himself out of a debt he can't repay. As the stakes rise and the town roils, a murder takes place and Trey is a person of interest.

In the same Today interview, French was asked what questions she hopes people ask themselves while reading The Hunter. She responded, "It’s a book about revenge in its various forms, but it’s also a book about families — both the ones we’re born with and the ones we forge for ourselves — and about how far we’ll go, what we’ll sacrifice, for our loved ones. I guess I hope it might give readers new angles on those things. And, like every author, I’d love readers to go away wondering what the characters do next."

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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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