Sometimes, all I want to read is an airplane book. Not a beach book, which according to me, is a sexy caper*; not a book club book, which according to me, is a literary novel with depth**; not a teaching book, which according to me, is a challenging text one could use guidance to fully appreciate***; not a recovering-from-Covid book, which according to me, is scrolling endlessly through enlarged-font Twitter****; not a summer picnic book, which according to me, is a slim volume of poetry*****; and not a betterment book, which according to me, is a biography or nonfiction******. My airplane book is riveting, competently-written, clever, and usually involves a crime. The ultimate airplane books are by Tana French, and the finest of hers is the brilliant Broken Harbor, which sneaks into book club territory. Points if the setting is a quaint village in Quebec (see Louise Penny), a college campus seething with hormones and cults (see Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl; Alex Michaelides’ The Maidens, and the OG, Donna Tartt’s The Secret History); or if the books feature a craggy private investigator or a troubled detective (see Case Studies by Kate Atkinson, Long Bright River by Liz Moore, Tana French’s The Searcher). An airplane book should keep you occupied before boarding, during the entire flight, and make you reluctant to tear yourself away upon landing. In olden times, I might have called it a subway book.
Magpie Lane, British author and smarty (studied at Oxford! Fulbright scholar! Journalist! Oxford tutor!) Lucy Atkins’ latest psychological thriller is perhaps less a thriller and more a creepy character study, explorer of family dynamics, unearther of trauma, and missing child drama. We have police detectives conducting an intensive interview with the prickly Scottish nanny, Dee, interspersed with Dee’s increasingly unreliable version of events as she recounts her growing attachment to the missing child Felicity, whose selective mutism becomes more and more understandable: a dead mother; a gorgeous, pregnant stepmother; an arrogant, absent father; a new school of bullies; a haunted house. Dee’s mysterious past and her own missing child; the bumbling “house detective” Linklater, hired to research the grand lodging that Maria, the distracted stepmother is renovating; the possibly supernatural happenings revolving around a “priest hole” hideaway and agitated ghosts give us a delightful, disturbing plethora of suspicious possibilities to ponder. The ending is unsettling, not exactly satisfying but appropriately nuanced.
An obvious insider, Atkins is both excoriating and admiring of Oxford (both the town and the University), puncturing its sexist, classist traditions while revealing its fascinating history as the characters traverse twisty back streets, graveyards, and pubs. Of the heralded Magpie Lane itself, Linklater explains, “The Victorians renamed it because the original was such a shocker…You know, until relatively recently, this was a dirty, dangerous, filthy little alley full of prostitutes and drunkards knifing each other…That’s why they [Oxford University] built thirty foot walls with spikes on top…to keep townies like us in the gutter.” You’ll have to read the book to learn the street’s original name, and to learn what became of Felicity. Seats and tray tables upright!
*Such as Tipping the Velvet by Sarah Waters (excellent writing and gay Victorian sex!), The Pisces by Melissa Broder (lively writing and merman sex!) or all five volumes of The Court of Thorns and Roses series, Sarah Maas’ soft-core fairy porn books (terrible writing but the erotica gets better with each book. Love me some sexy fairies!)
** Such as The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai or Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones
*** Such as Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse or Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon
****Such as The Volatile Mermaid @OhNoSheTwitnt or New York Times Pitchbot @DougJBalloon or Text ACT to 644-33 @shannonrwatts
*****Such as anything by Ellen Bass or Ada Limon
******Such as Red Comet: The Short Life and Blazing Art of Sylvia Plath by Heather Clark or So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo.