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Book review: 'What Strange Creatures' by Emily Arsenault (w/ event details)

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Emily Aresenault's 'What Strange Creatures'

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Emily Arsenault will appear at R.J. Julia Booksellers on Thursday evening, September 4th, at 7 PM. This event is free and open to the public. Reservations can be made online or by calling the store at 203-245-3959. R.J. Julia is located at 768 Boston Post Rd. in Madison.

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Today, Hartford Books Examiner reviews What Strange Creatures (William Morrow, $14.99) by Emily Arsenault.

Published in July, What Strange Creatures is the author’s fourth novel. Her debut, The Broken Teaglass (2009), was a New York Times Notable Crime Book of the Year; In Search of the Rose Notes (2011), and Miss Me When I’m Gone (2013) followed. Prior to publishing her first novel, Arsenault was a lexicographer, an English teacher, and a Peace Corps volunteer in rural South Africa. Now a wife and mother, she makes her home in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts.

As the story opens, readers are introduced to the aptly named Theresa Battle—a seventh-year PhD candidate who has yet to finish her dissertation. Recently divorced, she’s the mother of an animal menagerie who toils away her days writing copy for a local candle company while spending her nights in the company of Margery Kemp: the medieval mystic that is the subject of her studies. As if that wasn’t excitement enough, she has become the one constant in her wayward-yet-well-intentioned brother’s life. Though found to be a child genius, Jeff is now unemployed and alcohol dependent—and he has little means of defense when he becomes the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s murder.

It starts with an innocent favor: Theresa agrees to watch Kim’s puggle for the weekend because Jeff isn’t allowed to keep pets at his apartment. But when Kim fails to return from her road trip (and thereby to reclaim Wayne), and with Jeff showing some serious lapses in his memory regarding his own weekend activities, Theresa begins to suspect that something foul may be afoot—a scenario that is confirmed when Kim’s body is found in the woods. Not long after, a pair of bloody scissors is found in Jeff’s trunk, and he is arrested for the crime.

Given the circumstances, Theresa is granted a temporary reprieve from work and immediately begins an inquiry into the matter, using Wayne as her bargaining chip (and an alternate identity—“Margery”—when necessary) to gain access to Kim’s friends and associates. But instead of finding answers, she’s met with more questions—and a growing belief that past and present events may have collided to provide the impetus for Kim’s demise. You see, Kim was once a crucial witnesses in a case pertaining to the death a childhood girlfriend—and the prosecutor is now a prominent politician with a reputation to protect. He also appears to have become the object of Kim’s obsession. But why?

Theresa is keenly resourceful (some might say “overly committed to the cause”), though her contemplative nature is occasionally undermined by an impetuousness that results in situations ranging from subtly humorous to downright dangerous. Her unique charms leave two men—one a bartender/videographer with a penchant for misunderstood creatures, the other an author/professor with an informed knowledge of juvenile delinquency—vying for her affections; both offer insights into Kim’s amateur sleuthing while also serving to expand the ever-growing suspect pool.

With What Strange Creatures, Emily Arsenault has crafted an engaging literary mystery that surpasses the realm of the traditional whodunit by exploring the relationship dynamics that inform who we are, what we do, and why we do it—and particularly those of siblings. Every bit as complex and satisfying as her earlier efforts, this one also marks a foray into new territory (legal matters, political intrigue) while maintaining some of the quirky elements from books prior: academia, music, and obscure historical figures among them. The evolution of this author has been impressive, indeed. Her potential is infinite ...

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With thanks to Kaitlyn Kennedy, Publicist at HarperCollins, for providing a review copy of What Strange Creatures.

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