The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

nestI was curious about this book because I like funny books and I like family sagas. I was expecting something funny about a family dealing with an inheritance, the Nest of the title, and the book delivered on the funny parts, but overall it abandoned the comedy and silliness, which I wasn’t expecting.

The Nest focuses on the adult siblings of the Plumb family. Leo Plumb is a writer and founder of a media conglomerate. He and his siblings live in or near New York, and their lives center on the money they stand to inherit on their sister’s 40th birthday.

First, you have to be able to be charmed by Leo, the internet millionaire who spectacularly self-destructs at the beginning of the book at a family wedding. Sweeney didn’t get me to be charmed for him, so that was strike one for me.

Second, I felt like there were a few good set-pieces in the book (every family gathering had a bit of ridiculousness), but I never felt the action ramping up. It could have been a true farce of a book with siblings acting truly manic, but it never quite got there. Taking it to an even more absurd height would have worked for me. Instead, there’s emotional heft at the very end after not much of that. It’s hard to read a section asking me to sympathize with a few characters when I’ve just finished a book where the characters were all so wrapped up in themselves. They hardly empathized with each other, which got me into the mode of not empathizing with them either.

I was expecting something funnier, based on the cover copy and what I’d read about the book elsewhere.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Ecco, March 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Highly Recommended: Missing by Karin Alvtegen

missingMissing is one of my favorite reads of the year so far. I picked it up on Saturday morning and finished it in less than a day, which shows that I was hooked from the start. It’s a condensed psychological thriller with an incredibly sympathetic main character, it’s critical of Swedish society, and it’s very well-paced: good stuff all around.

Sibylla is a 32-year-old homeless woman who is wanted for murder, and the story not only takes place in the present while she hides from the police and tries to clear her name: it also covers her devastating upbringing in a small, rural town in a family with money but not much else that led to her homelessness. The book begins with her plan to get a free night in a nice hotel, but she wakes up the next morning to find out that her benefactor for the evening was found murdered in the hotel. She is the prime suspect, and she goes on the run.

I’ve read quite a few wrongly-accused-character-on-the-run books, but this one feels different than, say, Lisa Lutz’s The Passenger. Sibylla’s travels are more circumscribed than some of the longer chase books I’ve read, so the story feels more specific. The story is shorter and the pacing is really good. My only complaint about the book is that there are a few sections in the real killer’s mind, which is never my favorite trick in a book.

This book impressed me more than the only other Alvtegen book I’ve read, Shame, which I don’t remember too well now. I will be seeking out more of her books right away.

Missing by Karin Alvtegen, translated by Anna Paterson

Felony & Mayhem Press, 2009

Originally published as Saknad, 2000

I bought my copy of the book.

Reading Slowly

I seem to be in the middle of a few books at a time lately, which is not my usual reading mode. It also means that I don’t finish books very quickly because I’m hopping from book to book. Here are a few quick thoughts.

one step behindI had no idea Wallander ever tracked down a serial killer. One Step Behind wasn’t my favorite in the series just because of the serial killer plot. And the thriller-y chase happened quite late in the book, which made the first two-thirds drag.

journalist murdererI also tried Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which is a story about the ethics of journalists and their subjects. It’s about the relationship between Joe McGinniss, a journalist interviewing and embedded with McDonald, a man accused of murder, and his legal defense team, and the book he eventually writes about the case. I admit that I don’t gravitate towards true crime or journalism stories, but the first half of this short book were interesting. Ultimately, I gave up after that because I wasn’t invested in Joe McGinniss’s legal troubles.

smileFinally, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile was so incredibly charming. It’s a graphic novel memoir about orthodontia and growing up. For the last several months it’s the non-crime books that I like the most.

Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan

multiple listingsOne of the things I’ve been reading lately is something I thing publishers should market as dramedys. It has less baggage than the term “chick lit,” and since the term has been around in the tv realm for awhile, why not use it in publishing too? Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan is a dramedy written by someone who was a television writer on Mad Men and The United States of Tara, which made me think this would be my kind of book.

McMillan’s background in screenwriting meant I was expecting good characters and drama, and overall I wasn’t disappointed. Multiple Listings is the story of Nicki, a single mother who runs a successful home appraisal business who is at a relationship crossroads and then hits a family crossroads as her long-estranged father returns to her life.  McMillan gets the characters and the emotional beats of a distant family down. Frankly, the only character I felt was lacking fits the category I find in lots of books:  the nearly-perfect love interest who does no wrong sometimes feels like an afterthought of a character.

Overall, though, the characters felt like they were in a kind of indie movie that I like. Some troubles/ troubled people all together. The one thing I didn’t like was when the  self-help focus got a little too tell-y for me, but there was enough to balance out those sections that impressed me.

This book reminded me thematically of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which tried to do more with structure (interlocking stories with characters in the same orbit) than this particular book did. I’m 24not sure why one book is marketed as more literary while this one is deemed more relationship-y, but why not just lump into the non-gendered term of dramedy? That’s my proposal.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Complicated Women

I’ve been thinking a lot about what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl have done to the publishing landscape because I just finished two books with complicated/damaged/bad girl/bad ass heroines: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz and The Murderer’s Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman. On the one hand I’m grateful for interesting protagonists who are women, but on the other hand, I’ve read an awful lot books with women characters like these.

passengerThe Passenger is a very old-fashioned noir-movie-feeling kind of story told by Tanya, a woman on the run for 10 years that changes her identity quite a few times during the short book. Lutz jumps around in time and slowly reveals what happened about 10 years before the present when the main character first went on the lam. I kind of liked the spare narration, I kind of liked the odd steps along the way (she became a teacher in a remote Texas town), and I liked the ins and outs of transforming her appearance, but the plot reveals felt predictable to me just because I’ve read and seen a lot of noir like this.

murderers daughterThe Murderer’s Daughter, like The Passenger, involves some disguises (just like Elisabeth Salander) and a slow reveal of the main character’s backstory that led her from a very troubled childhood to being a super-successful therapist to post traumatic stress sufferers. It feels like a very Kellerman story because the psychologist’s training and the psychologist’s work feel real and very detailed, but the story went off the rails a bit for me at the end. The villain is super-heinous, the main character is super-heroic, but it’s kind of an empty ending.

Both stories felt like they were jamming a super-hero arc into it, Lutz’s by overcoming a lot of people who sent her on the lam and Kellerman’s by having a ridiculously over-the-top villain for the psychologist-turned-freelance-investigator to confront. I wish the last section of each book hadn’t been so over-the-top.

Disclosure: I received review copies from the publisher.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

tsar love technoThis book made me fall in love with literary fiction again. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a series of connected short stories that take place mainly in Chechnya, cover about a century of time, and keep circling around a beautiful landscape painting that ties the characters together.

First, I loved it because I don’t know much about Chechnya and have forgotten what I ever learned about the Russian Revolution many years ago. Second, Marra is so damn invested in his characters. War, drug addiction, pollution:  these are people living through rough things, and I feel lots of sympathy towards most of the characters. Finally, I was impressed by the structure. Characters go in and out of the stories, and I know I missed some connections between people and across generations that I’d love to untangle more.

My favorite stories in the book were in the first half but the last half was in no means sub-par: the first stories just set an incredibly high bar.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Hogarth, 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books

I’m a Little Tired of Writers Writing About Writing

Sometimes I need to talk about my reading trends, and today’s installment is that novels about novelists writing just don’t interest me as much as they did a number of years ago.

I’m currently reading a book about an artist, The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. The first story in the book is about an artist working for the Soviet government who censors art: he erases dissidents in painting. It’s an interesting set-up, I learned a little history and a little art, and it’s a job that makes for a good idea to explore in detail in a set of stories. I’m about halfway through, and the painting of a pasture in Chechnya that appears in the first story continues to appear over a significant span of time (from 1937 to 2013), and in every story I learn a bit more about the overlapping lives and families of the characters. It’s a really enthralling book so far.

On the other hand, I just finished listening to My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout which is a shorter novel told by a novelist and her strained relationship with her mother. It’s a story about their time together during Lucy’s extended hospital stay and how Lucy and her mother failed to talk about the miseries of her childhood. The passages of the book talking about what stories writers write (that a writer always writes the same story, whatever that one story is she needs to write) felt a little too on-the-nose for me. It stood out for me especially because the book as a whole was a lesson in things Lucy and her mother left out of their own stories, the stories they told each other and the stories that Lucy wrote. I guess it kind of boiled down to: the only story I have to tell is the story where I leave big gaps, and that was a little frustrating. I think I admire the book, but I’m frustrated by it because I wanted a book that got out of its small world more.

Strout’s book also stands out to me because a few weeks ago I read a novel by a psychiatrist that continually had me wishing that more psychiatrists write novels: their take on character is quite different than in most novels I read. The book is The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman, and it’s a character study of a woman dealing with years of infertility. If a psychiatrist had written about Lucy Barton, that would have been a book I’d have loved.

 

Catching Up Again

I’ve been reading a few different kinds of novels lately, but no one book has grabbed me enough to want to write a whole post about.

I tried my first Josephine Tey, A Shilling for Candles, this week, and it didn’t win me over. The ending seemed a little out of left field and I lost the thread of the story halfway through when I stopped reading it for a few days. The characters are vivid, but vapid actors and their hangers-on, a religious fanatic, and a tabloid reporter are all characters I’ve read before. Erica Burgoyne, the constable’s daughter who works her way into the investigation, seemed pretty original though. I have a complete set of Josephine Tey so I have more to try.

What I’ve been reading instead of mysteries requiring my utmost attention is memoirs (less of a narrative thread, I think). I just finished the weep-inducing audio of The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe about his mother and their reading endeavors as she went through cancer treatments and now I’m reading the somehow lighter and wryer Disaster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky about growing up anxious in the 1970s and 1980s while her parents divorced. I’ve liked her stuff for ages: funny, smart, and emotionally affecting as well.

It’s not all murder and gloom in my reading life lately, though: there’s lots of Lemony Snicket and other entertaining kids’ books in my reading diet since my oldest daughter started getting interested in non-picture books. I’m still reading and listening to lots of books lately but my energy for blogging in depth about it isn’t there right now.

 

The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen

lionsmouthI’ve read a lot of Anne Holt, in part because her approach on writing a series is to have a few recurring characters whose place in the story varies. Some of the early books in the series feel like thrillers or police procedurals while 1222 is a locked-room sort of mystery, and Death of the Demon felt almost like a novella with a very obvious social conscience. It’s great to read different kinds of stories with different characters taking prominence, but, unfortunately, this politics-heavy installment in the Hanne Willhelmsen series didn’t quite grab me.

This is a political story: prime minister Birgitte Volter is found shot dead in her office, and the Norwegian government is in crisis. There are a lot of characters to introduce both in the investigatory teams and the political teams.  Hanne Willhelmsen appears as an afterthought: she is living in California and on leave from the police but consults with her good friend, Billy T, another unorthodox detective.

Because of the large cast of characters, the book feels a bit long to me. We get inside everyone’s heads. Also, the book veered into political wrangling and party politics where the points got a bit speech-y or maybe preachy. This may have grated on me more because we’re in the middle of presidential debate season here and I’ve had my fill of political speeches. All in all, this is not my favorite in the series, but I’m curious to read the next installment, Dead Joker.

The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen

Translated by Anne Bruce

Scribner, 2016

Originally published as Løvens gap, 1997

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

 

Catching Up

murder at savoyI’ve been a slow reader this winter in part because I haven’t found any super-awesome books to read and in part because I’m busy. First, I tried Murder at the Savoy, the sixth in the Martin Beck series, and I was a bit underwhelmed. I do, however, want to know how the crenelated mashed potatoes with fish on the cover (and on which the murdered man fell) taste!

greatlakes walkI’ve tried and abandoned a few other books since then, I enjoyed the audio version of Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, and I’m slowly working my way through A 1,000 Mile Great Lakes Walk by Loreen Niewenhuis to distract myself from the winter. I’m in the reading zone where I’m trying lots of different things because I’m not quite sure what I’m in the mood for.