by Laurel Flores Fantauzzo
The Blaze by Chad Dundas, Putnam
The Holdout by Graham Moore, Random House
Cutting Edge Edited by Joyce Carol Oates, Akashic
Weird Women Edited by Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger, Pegasus
The ground facts of the past may be what they are. But our memories are malleable, ever-shifting, recalling and misremembering the past with countless angles, interpretations, certainties, and uncertainties. This month, Booked and Printed examines books that explore the role of memory, interpretation, and the past, with protagonists troubled by the difficulty of attaining certainty.
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In Chad Dundas’s The Blaze, Matthew Rose’s chief difficulty is his loss of memory. We first meet him during an unspeakably tense scene of the latest Iraq war, when he vomits in the back seat of a combat vehicle and realizes he does not know where he is, or who he is with. Soon after, Matthew returns to his hometown in Montana. His father, a troubled poet, has died by suicide, and Matthew must handle his sparse estate.
A brain injury has rendered Matthew unable to recall the events of his adolescence; every scene before his injury is lost to him, returning only in brief flashes. Upon his arrival to Montana, he cannot recall the close friends who know him well; he only senses their emotional connection, and he must trust their stories about his past. There was, his friends say, an event that changed his personality drastically when he was a young teenager, but he did not disclose the event to them then, and he cannot remember it now.
Suddenly, during his first days home, a house goes up in flames, with a murdered graduate student inside. Matthew discerns a connection between that fire and one from his past; between this death, and the death of his father.
The Blaze is a quietly compelling take on the modern veteran’s return home. Author Dundas immerses us in the Montanan landscape, helping us know, intimately, the small-town roads, bars, and neighborhoods in which Matthew grew up. He is a wholly sympathetic protagonist, wandering the town’s motels, restaurants, and homes of old friends, all while searching for the version of himself he used to be, as a soldier and as a teenager, and uncovering the trauma of his past. He has a worthy companion: Georgie, his former girlfriend, now a hardworking, perceptive, local reporter with a knack for hunting elk, and for confrontation with officials. Matthew and Georgie’s tentative friendship, as adults, is moving and realistic, with all the awkwardness, tension, and intimate knowledge moving between them, sometimes without words.
The Blaze is a literary thriller wrought skillfully and sensitively, deepening readers’ suspense and curiosity with every page. The discoveries Matthew and Georgie make about wrongdoing in their town are genuinely surprising, and the narrative provides a well-constructed ending that feels both shocking and inevitable. Readers will feel emotionally invested in the characters and their journeys, and drawn in by the meditations on the nature of memory: “The fear dissolved into the buried-alive feeling of making himself forget. It cocooned inside him, and when it emerged it had been remade as guilt and anger.” And later: “Matthew was surprised by how little emotion he felt now to know the truth, to see his whole life pivoting. It was like seeing a landmark in the distance, using it to chart your path, and then realizing when you got close to it that it was something different than you first thought.”
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When it comes to interpreting past facts, there are few duties more burdensome than those of a jury. In Graham Moore’s The Holdout, Maya Seale revisits her young adulthood and her role as juror in a notorious trial: the case against Bobby Nock, a young black man charged in the disappearance of Jessica Silver, the white, teenaged daughter of a Los Angeles billionaire. Years later, Maya Seale is a defense attorney eager to leave the trial in the past. But a former juror—her secret ex-lover—begs her to join a reunion television event with their fellow jurors, promising new evidence that proves Nock’s guilt. Maya agrees, but when a juror ends up dead in her hotel room, she finds herself needing a strong defense.
The book alternates between past and present, following the complications of Maya’s predicament and recalling the jurors’ memories during the Jessica Silver trial. The trial takes place in 2008, with Maya fresh faced with optimism; the present-day is a decade later, when pessimism and exhaustion seem to have become Maya’s modus operandi.
The Holdout uses gestures of cynicism that border on satire. The show on which jurors are invited is called Murder Town, a wink, perhaps, at S-Town, and Serial, notorious, real-life, crime-themed podcasts. A murder victim is found clutching a HOPE button, the visual hallmark of the Obama presidency. And the racial politics of the book are perhaps odd in the historical context of Los Angeles and the statistical probabilities of America: in The Holdout, the black jurors are hell-bent on convicting the young black man, while Maya, a white woman, is the lone holdout who leads Nock’s acquittal.
Through the jury’s troubles, the book seems to throw up its hands at our warlike modern moment: “Every day, they woke up fervently hoping for the headline that would prove, definitively, that their guys were the virtuous ones and the other guys were the absolute worst. But news of that certainty would forever elude them. Every new revelation that seemed to damn the people with whom they disagreed would be followed with a new rationalization.” Often humorous and briskly paced, The Holdout will leave readers with a sense of resignation and arch bitterness. The truth of Silver’s disappearance is disclosed during the rushed, last five pages of the book, leaving Maya, and us, exhausted with the damage power and money can do to memory, and what truths might be disposed of along the way.
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During the stress of quarantine, government announcements, and irrevocable national and personal changes, perhaps one’s attention span might welcome shorter literary excursions. Booked and Printed recommends two anthologies of short stories you might turn to while home, to pick up and put down at will.
The indefatigable Joyce Carol Oates gathers a strong list of names for Cutting Edge: New Stories of Mystery and Crime by Women Writers. Emerging and established authors provide attention-grabbing short works: especially notable are Edwidge Danticat’s story on the quotidian horror of domestic violence, Bernice L. McFadden’s comic take on the appropriation of racial friendship, and Lisa Ling’s illustrations of a grotesque marriage. Oates provides a rousing introduction, arguing in the anthology for “a choral affirmation of female autonomy, female self-identification, and female self-possession.”
In the same vein, but traveling back a century, Lisa Morton and Leslie S. Klinger resurrect the voices of women authors from 1852 to 1923 in Weird Women: Classic Supernatural Fiction by Groundbreaking Female Writers. Horrors and mysteries abound here, with well-known writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman published alongside less recognized names like Marie Corelli, an early-1900s author who outsold “contemporaries like Rudyard Kipling and Arthur Conan Doyle,” and whose “admirers included Oscar Wilde.” If the difficulties of enforced domestic life take their toll, it might be worth reading the supernatural dread and unexplained occurrences women recalled, and imagined, from an earlier time of homebound life.
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all points bulletin: The Misadventures of Nero Wolfe—an anthology edited by Josh Pachter and with stories by Lawrence Block, Loren D. Estleman, Joseph Goodrich, Robert Lopresti, and Dave Zeltserman—is available from Open Road/Mysterious Press.