In Ballou’s debut novel, a troubled bookworm gets her chance to step inside the world of literature.
When 20-something Coral Ambrose was 5 years old, her brother Jet was killed. The trouble is that she can’t remember anything about the unsolved murder or her life before it. In lieu of closure, she takes refuge in her book-filled apartment, finding comfort in the stories lining every wall of her home. But when she runs out of room on her shelves, she knows something must change. After a visit to Red’s Reads: Used Books, Coral invites the owner, Phil “Red” Reddington to assess her collection. Instead of making an offer on Coral’s books, though, Red loans her a curious messenger bag, intended to help her find “clarity.” Coral agrees to try it and soon discovers its magic: when a book is placed within it, it transports its user into a story in that book’s genre. Coral enters a horror novel, a Western, and a mystery before realizing that some characters seem to remain the same across all the stories. A recurring plotline involving a young boy in peril leads Coral to conclude that these adventures all shed light on her own brother’s death, and she dives deeper into different genres to uncover long-buried memories and new evidence regarding Jet’s murder. Ballou’s skills particularly shine when Coral is using the magic bag and the narrative jumps between Coral’s time inside and outside the fictional worlds. Each genre she enters is as recognizable as a celebrity cameo, and it’s a kick to see Coral puzzling out the boundaries of each. She rejects several genres, for example, when she finds herself “marginalized” and finds that she can break out of stories by defying common genre tropes. For example, Coral can’t escape a science fiction story by dying—but she can do so when she starts acting like it’s a cookbook. The specter of Coral’s dead brother gives the novel a throughline of mystery and sorrow, but the heart of this book is in its playful dealings with the nature of story.
A clever genre-hopper that espouses the healing power of books.