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Gaming, ‘Theft,’ and Dark Humor: Here Are 6 Books To Read This July

A round-up of books by Hannah Rothschild, Matt Ruff, and more

It was never the case that I needed a quarantine to get me settling down with a good novel. Here are 6 titles that run the gamut from nefarious ‘games people play’ to intriguing mysteries in the arts world, to delicious dark comedies.

88 Names by Matt Ruff 

This one is a no-brainer as Ruff is one of my favorite authors. I love how his novels are very different, challenging but ultimately rewarding. Lovecraft Country, Bad Monkeys, and Set This House in Order are my choice picks. Thanks to his love for gaming, the world of RPGs is the setting for his latest, 88 Names. It’s an immersive thriller-mystery, a diabolical romantic comedy, and a satire of our political climate and military-industrial era. As in most of Ruff’s books, it’s a deft performance of juggling several balls in the air, and not dropping a single one. That’s when Ruff is at his best, seeming to fall off the ‘edge of his imaginary world,’ then proves he’s really in control, to our delight and entertainment.

John Chu is our main protagonist, and he works as a ‘Sherpa,’ effectively hiring John and his team to join you in your RPG-world, and enhancing your gaming abilities. For some, it’s cheating, but if you can afford it, John is more than ready to be your guide. There’s a Darla, who used to be a team member of Sherpa, but a relationship blossomed, and died, and Darla is now out for revenge and destroy John. There’s a Mr. Jones who hires John, and it could very well be that Mr. Jones is in North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-Un. If Ready Player One was suffused with nostalgia, this one is more about today, and the obsessive behavior of gamers.

Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts by Kate Racculia

Tuesday is one unique protagonist. Think of her as the nerd in school, who obsessed over Twin Peaks and The X-Files, now all grown up and working in Research at a Boston hospital. She’s tasked to find a stream of benefactors for the fund-raising efforts of the medical center. Perpetually dressed in black, she’s the type who’s actually pretty, but doesn’t know it, or does anything about it. She lives alone with Gunnar, her pet cat, and tutors the neighbor’s daughter, Dorry, who thinks Tuesday is the coolest person she’s ever encountered. Her closest friend is Dex, a frustrated gay theater grad, now turned banker.

When a billionaire keels over and dies at one of the hospital’s benefit dinners, Tuesday finds herself in the middle of a citywide scavenger hunt, inspired by the love the billionaire had for hometown Boston, and the works of its native son, Edgar Allan Poe. Complicating matters is how another Boston Brahmin family is involved in the ‘game within the game’. Oh, there’s also the ghost of Abby, Tuesday’s best friend back when she was a teenager - but Abby became a Missing Child statistic, and Tuesday has stayed haunted by that loss. It’s adventure, mystery, and understanding friendship, and possibly, love— all in one entertaining story.


Theft by Luke Brown

Think of this novel, set in 2016 Britain, right before and during the Brexit vote, as a snapshot of what life was like for the thirty-something’s living in London during that tumultuous time. Paul works at a magazine, writing the literary book review page, and a page devoted to person-in-the-street hairstyle reviews. It’s not a surprise to learn that as the magazine goes through editorial changes to make the publication more relevant to its readership, the book review page falls under the axe. But before it became history, Paul had interviewed Lisa, a female writer of his generation, who lives with a popular intellectual some twenty years her senior.

There’s a very interesting dynamic going on between Paul and his younger sister, Amy. They lost their school teacher mother, who lived in an isolated cottage on the Lancashire coast, in a tragic road accident. And we meet the women in Paul’s life, his mates, and the complications that arise from Paul having such a malleable, rootless personality. It’s the honesty, sly humor, and compassion for his characters, that make Brown such a winning and convincing writer. This isn’t a novel of fireworks or damning passion, but there’s a spark of real humanity that comes through, of moral choices taken, and of regular lives spent in the balance. An intriguing read.

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild

If Charles Dickens were alive today, or we let a writer like Julian Fellowes loose on the contemporary Art world, we could expect a novel similar to what Hannah Rothschild has created with this supremely entertaining work. She takes a long-lost Watteau Rococo masterpiece, places it in a secondhand shop, and has the unlikeliest of heroines, Annie, who aspires to be a chef, purchase the painting without being cognizant of the treasure she’s just purchased. And then Rothschild sets us loose in the rarefied air of auction houses out to fleece their clients, of art historians and so-called experts ready to turn a blind eye at a dubious provenance, plus art patrons just out for status and pride of ownership.

Rothschild has sat on the Board of the Tate, and chaired the National Gallery, so she has created this satire and send-up from first hand experience of the Art world today. What’s there to her credit is how she conjures up a rich tapestry of colorful characters and multiple narratives that careen left and right, often skidding off the road, but somehow, righting themselves at the last minute to reward the reader. From Russian oligarchs, to insanely materialistic rappers, to impoverished English royals, to self-taught American billionaire widows, and all the hangers-on; this is one fascinating world to immerse oneself in.


I Don’t Expect Anyone to Believe Me by Juan Carlos Villalobos

Mexican author Villalobos goes semi-meta by naming his protagonist Juan Carlos; a graduate student writing a thesis on the limitations of Humor in Literature. He’s about to leave for Barcelona on a scholarship when he’s abducted by a crime boss and his gang. He’s brought to a deserted garage where he finds his cousin Lorenzo gagged & tied. Juan Carlos’ Barca mission is to seduce Laila, the lesbian daughter of a highly placed Catalan industrialist and politician. And in order to achieve this, the crime boss known as ‘the lawyer,’ wants Juan Carlos to bring his girlfriend, Valentina, with him to Europe.

From this madcap set-up, we’re treated to a wild novel that finds us in the company of four very distinct, narrative voices. That of JC, of Valentina, of JC’s hilarious mother, and Lorenzo, the forever scheming and foolhardy cousin. It is thanks to Lorenzo, that Juan Carlos lands in this mess in the first place. And there are colorful characters we meet along the way: Chucky, the goon with an MBA degree, Ahmed the gay Pakistani dog lover, the one known only as ‘the Chinaman,’ and JC’s forever cursing Barcelona landlord. Flitting between comedy and tragedy, the novel has a number of things to say about family, about immigration and identity, and about finding humor and meaning wherever you can find it.

Worst Case Scenario by Helen Fitzgerald

Of there are several crime fiction writers from Scotland subsumed under the category of Glasgow noir, Helen Fitzgerald makes a case for creating a sub-genre unto herself, menopausal noir! This excellent crime novel isn’t a ‘whodunit’ at all, but more a ‘whydunit,’ with one of the more unique anti-heroines of recent memory. It’s still Scottish through and through, with edges of dark, gallows humor; but it’s also a terrifying psychological portrait of a woman of authority entering a rabbit hole of her own making, and wreaking havoc on her professional career, her personal life and the people who surround her and she dearly loves.

Mary is a bitter 52-year old probation officer, and most of the cases she handles are ‘run-of-the-mill pedophiles.’ When Liam Macdowall is put under her charge, it opens up a can of worms from which there is no return. Liam murdered his wife by driving off a bridge and leaving her to drown. Now on parole, he’s become a celebrity, thanks to a book he’s written while in prison, that’s been taken up as the new Bible of Men’s Rights. When the daughter of Liam gets involved with Mary’s son, it becomes something even deeper, personal with a capital P. What Mary ends up doing in a disturbing, out of control, manner is what makes this novel as engrossing as a car crash.

What Keeps Me Calm: Reading Alain de Botton


What Keeps Me Calm: Reading Alain de Botton

Lead photos from Amazon