Weekly Words About New Books in

Independent Bookstores

February 18, 2024

Debut Novel Is A Brilliant Study of Identity and Loss; New Thriller Reveals the Mysterious Life of A Famed Crime Writer

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar. Iranian-American poet Akbar switches genres, producing an extraordinary debut novel that doubles as a character study and family saga. In Martyr!, a newly sober orphaned son of Iranian immigrants, grappling with an inheritance of violence and loss and guided by the voices of artists, poets, and kings, embarks on a search for a family secret that leads him to a terminally ill painter living out her final days in the Brooklyn Museum. I was prepared to write about the book a couple of weeks ago (it was released on January 23), but had to hold off because the initial print run sold out in bookstores across the country so quickly. I always try to feature books that are readily available in indie bookstores, and Martyr! has been absent in many locations this month. Thankfully, the publisher has begun to send new shipments, so the wait should be over.

The book's popularity has been fueled by both bookseller acclaim and a slew of rave media reviews, including this from NPR: "Wry, blasphemous, grim, grimy and moving ... Martyr! is so much its own creation that comparisons don't help. Maybe you could think of it as something of an Iranian American spin on John Kennedy Toole's comic picaresque A Confederacy Of Dunces, wedded to Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, another meditation on a missing mother and the unpredictable power of art."

End of Story by A.J. Finn. Readers got to know Finn back in 2018 when his debut thriller The Woman in the Window exploded on the scene. The Hitchcock-like story of a reclusive woman - the book's unreliable narrator - who spies on her neighbors was an instant bestseller and had people in the book world wanting to know more about this unknown writer. As it turned out, A J Finn was a pseudonym for writer Dan Mallory, and the success of the book cast a harsh spotlight on his background. According to a scathing New Yorker expose in 2019, Mallory himself was an unreliable narrator - lying about his own background and education, and even falsely claiming to having brain cancer. No wonder he found a new name.

All that said, Mallory/Finn knows how to spin a page-turning tale, and End of Story has the feel of another big hit. Nicky Hunter, a detective fiction aficionado, has been corresponding with mystery writers for years, including reclusive novelist Sebastian Trapp. So when one of Trapp's missives includes the line, "I'll be dead in three months. Come tell my story," Nicki heads to San Francisco to help him write his memoir while living alongside Trapp's second wife, Diana; his wayward nephew, Freddy; and his protective daughter, Madeleine.

And there is definitely a story to be told here. Twenty years earlier - on New Year's Eve 1999 - Sebastian's first wife and teenage son vanished from different locations, never to be seen again. Did the perfect crime writer commit the perfect crime? And why has he emerged from seclusion, two decades later, to allow a stranger to dig into his past? This is a slow burn mystery with plenty of twists, sure to be headed to bestseller lists.

Quiet, Feel-Good Novel About the Comfort of a Bookstore

Welcome to the Hyunam-Dong Bookshop by Hwang Bo-reum. This quiet debut novel about an over-worked woman who walks away from her old life to open and run a bookstore in Seoul has been a big hit in Korea and is now available in English. Here's a brief description:

Yeongju is burned out. She did everything she was supposed to: go to school, marry a decent man, get a respectable job. Then it all fell apart. In a leap of faith, Yeongju abandons her old life, quits her high-flying career, and follows her dream. She opens a bookshop. In a quaint neighborhood in Seoul, surrounded by books, Yeongju and her customers take refuge. From the lonely barista to the unhappily married coffee roaster - and the writer who sees something special in Yeongju - they all have disappointments in their past. The Hyunam-Dong Bookshop becomes the place where they all learn how to truly live.

Although this is her first novel, Bo-Reum is a published essayist, and some reviewers have commented on the essay-like feel of some of the chapters, in which she touches on issues of burnout and aggressive work cultures, as well as mental health issues. But first and foremost, this is a story of small bookstore offering comfort, companionship, and community to those seeking a break from their otherwise harried and competitive lives.

"The prolonged philosophical considerations of reading, community, happiness, and the meaning of work offer moments of reflection and observation. Bo-Reum pleasantly evokes the feeling of spending an afternoon in a favorite bookstore." -- Publishers Weekly

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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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