There's Something in the Air: Three Atmospheric Reads

July 22, 2015

Lately, I've been into some pretty atmospheric reads. Google defines atmospheric as "creating a distinctive mood, typically of romance, mystery, or nostalgia," and these three (one forthcoming, two backlist) fit the bill. The next time you're hankering for a book with a setting that's a character in and of itself, consider giving one of these a shot.

The Beautiful Bureaucrat, by Helen Phillips

Disclaimer: I received this book through NetGalley in exchange for review consideration. Thanks to Henry Holt & Company for giving me the chance to read it!
"The person who interviewed her had no face." - Loc 26, The Beautiful Bureaucrat
Josephine Newbury just landed a new job. Sure, it's a bit dull—endless data entry from mountains of files with seemingly meaningless strings of dates and numbers—and her boss has terrible breath (and, as already mentioned, lacks a face). The one coworker she's met so far knows enough about her to give her pause. Still, the work pays the bills, and it means she and her husband Joseph have finally begun the new life they so desperately sought when they moved far from home.

It doesn't take long before the endless rows of identical doors, the confines of her cubicle (no decoration allowed, not even to cover those eerie pinkish claw marks), and the growing realization of what her entries in the master spreadsheet mean begin to take their toll:
"Sometimes, in the depths of the afternoon, Josephine would have a thought—an intense, riveting thought, incongruous with her current task and location, something she ought to share with Joseph, a hint of a scene from a dream or a forgotten memory from when she was a kid, a complicated pun or a new conviction about how they ought to live their lives—then the moment would pass and the thought would be lost, trapped forever between the horizontal and vertical lines of the Database." - Loc 326, ibid.
Phillips deftly balances the ever-mounting horror of the surreal with reflections on the nature of work and its sometimes deleterious effects on our most important relationships, including those we have with ourselves. I can't remember my last encounter with a book this readable; I swallowed it whole in under a day, completely consumed by the question of just what was going on in this drab, paper-pushing hell hole. The ending wasn't what I wanted it to be, but I also don't know how it could have been better. I chalk it up to personal preferences.

In case you need any more encouragement to check this one out, Ursula K. Le Guin digs it. I think any sci-fi horror fan out there will, too.

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

Malorie hasn't looked outside in four years. Her children have never looked at all; they have no idea what things like "trees," "clouds" and "grass" look like. They can't open their eyes out there because they might see something, and, if they see it, they're done for. But Malorie knows that they can't stay in their home, literally stained with grotesque memories, any longer. They need to find help, and that means going outside and getting in a boat.
"As the river comes alive with nature, she imagines the worst. Just like she did those years ago, before the children were born, when the inertia of the front door reminded you that things like insanity were lurking whether or not someone you cared about what out there with it." - pg. 112, Bird Box
For a book in which the characters spend the majority of their time with their eyes closed, Malerman did an amazing job of evoking a world where death and madness could lurk around any corner. This is another that I devoured in days, holding my breath as I both anticipated and dreaded getting a look at whatever mind-bending monsters were causing this mayhem.

Much like The Beautiful Bureaucrat, the ending was missing something for me. I can't get into it without risking spoilers, but it didn't seem to fit with the mood of the rest of the novel. You'll just have to read it to see what I'm talking about. Again, horror fans should find plenty to love here!

The Wives of Los Alamos, by TaraShea Nesbit

I'd never even heard of Nesbit's debut novel before I saw Shannon tweet about it. If memory serves, someone wanted a book written in first person plural, and (of course, because she's a veritable book recommendation machine) Shannon offered this one up.

This is the story of the wives of the scientists employed by the Los Alamos National Laboratory, home of the Manhattan Project (a research and development project that constructed the first nuclear weapons used in World War II). These families moved to the laboratory's compound in New Mexico, and the wives found themselves having to build a home in their parched, isolated environment. They were many people, and they were one:
"We arrived newlyweds, or with a seven-year itch, or still great friends, or no longer in love but trying to keep it together for our children, or for ourselves. Some of us always expected disaster and kept the shades drawn low, some of us were quietly skeptical, although no one could tell, and we were nicknamed Polly. Some of us thrived on gatherings, and we created dance nights and afternoon teas and bridge clubs. ... Like many moving toward an unknown future, we clung to the beliefs that had carried us this far—about people, the world, our husbands, the war—until that strategy could no longer assuage our fears." - pg. 17-18, The Wives of Los Alamos
While the narrative voice isn't for everyone, I think it perfectly captures the sense that these women, though different in many ways, were united in their displacement, their uncertainty, and their fear of the secrets their husbands had to keep. The dust and scorching heat of the New Mexican desert quietly heighten the omnipresent tension. This isn't a book bursting with plot, if that's your thing, but it is a heartbreaking portrait of the sacrifices women make during wartime. It also sent me down a Wikipedia rabbit hole lined with things like tube alloys, uranium-235 and the Trinity test.

History buffs and literary fiction fans alike will find enjoyment here, so long as the first person plural is something you can live with.

What are some of your favorite atmospheric reads?

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  1. Oh my gosh - THANK YOU for clueing me in on what the heck an "atmospheric read" is! I've wondered that for so long now after seeing it in so many reviews...meant to look it up, then would always forget! Anyway - I loved TBB and have The Wives of Los Alamos on my TBR...I heard the author give a talk at some conference (Books on the Nightstand podcast replayed it) and have wanted to read it ever since then!

  2. I loved The Beautiful Bureaucrat (although I thought the ending was a bit lacking, as well), and now I need to read the other two!

  3. I preordered The Beautiful Beureaucrat because it just seems like the perfect book for me. I actually have The Wives of Los Alamos on my shelves waiting to be read. I started the first few chapters and really enjoyed what I read. I keep meaning to get back to it, but there are just too many books clamoring for attention.

  4. I've seen Bird Box around, but didn't really know what it was about until now. All three of these sound good! Nice reviews!

  5. Glad you enjoyed The Wives of Los Alamos! I think it ended up being a letdown for many people who didn't expect the collective voice, but I loved it. AND I loved The Beautiful Bureaucrat.

  6. Amanda @ The Zen LeafJuly 24, 2015 at 6:23 AM

    Not sure about the endings, but those first two sound very good!

  7. Malcolm Avenue ReviewJuly 24, 2015 at 8:51 PM

    I can't read your thoughts on BB yet, because I'm still working on my review, but had to jump in to say how much I loved Bird Box. One of my favorites from last year. Of course, my mind being what it is, I can't even remember how it ended, so can't argue with you on that point. :) I'm not sure why Wives never sold me, despite some fantastic reviews. I may be rethinking that. Thanks for highlighting these, I'll be back to read your thoughts on BB!

  8. I’ve seen the Wives of Los Alamos pop up all over the place and I reeeeealy want to read it. The Beautiful Bureaucrat sounds more interesting than what I had expected. Based on the title it doesn’t sound that exciting to me, and so I haven’t gone out of my way to see what it’s about. But your review has changed my mind!