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Quick Takes

So my reading lately has been either very plot-driven (a couple more thriller-y reads) or a comfort read in the sense of reading books in a series I like. Ultimately the thriller-y stuff are not my favorites, mostly because I like less explicitly gruesome books.

First for the series I’ve grown to like more as they’ve gone on:  I’ve read the first two Julia Spencer Fleming books, which have a bit of thriller stuff in them, which is surprising because I expected them to be a lot more like the Louise Penny books. I was happily surprised by In the Bleak Midwinter: it’s the first entry in a series featuring two military vets: the police chief in a town of 8,000 covering a district of maybe 20,000 in upstate NY, and the new Episcopalian minister in town, a transplanted southerner who was a badass helicopter pilot. The characters were interesting– just enough backstory to see why they click. The plot was actually twisty, which I wasn’t expecting because I’ve read sort of dour snowbound mysteries (1222, Cover of Snow). And I was expecting less excitement because the marketing plan/covers look an awful lot like Louise Penny books (same publisher), and I don’t think of those as gripping.

Speaking of Louise Penny, I also just finished A Trick of the Light, and what strikes me most is that the characterizations are getting so much deeper as the series goes on. Hopefully her books don’t get bloated, but so far so good.

On the new front, I tried a debut mystery called August Snow by Stephen Mack Jones, which takes place in contemporary Detroit. The main character is a former cop who became a whistleblower (sort of inspired by the real Gary Brown, Detroit cop turned whistleblower turned politician). He lost his job and becomes a private investigator. Plot-wise the book left me cold because the action felt too amped up for me. I do like some big action-filled, conspiracy thrillers (Alan Glynn comes to mind), but this one just felt unreal for me. I think it felt too much like a superhero story for me.

Next, I tried a very dark thriller, The Dime, by Kathleen Kent, about a lesbian detective that moves from Brooklyn to Dallas and becomes embroiled in what appears to be a drug cartel war. The body count is quite high, the last third of the book is over-the-top violent, a move that I assumed was coming after reading books like The Keeper of Lost Causes. I kept on reading (and skimming some) because the book was written well, the workplace scenes worked well with interesting relationships among the characters, but I hate being put through the wringer when an author tortures her main character so thoroughly.

memoir, review

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

This is the best memoir I’ve read this year, and it may be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. A couple years ago I read the absolutely harrowing and heartbreaking Levy piece in the New Yorker called Thanksgiving in Mongolia, which is about her having a late miscarriage in Mongolia. This book contains that piece in part and captures her adult life as journalist and relationship leading to parenthood, and it’s unsparing and direct and doesn’t feel like it’s leaving out tons of stuff, which is my usual complaint about memoirs. The other thing this book has going for it is that she’s writing about her fairly recent past instead of her childhood, like some memoirists do.

Levy has written lots of interesting pieces, and her interview on the Longform podcast was fascinating as well. I mean, of course I’m drawn to this story because her story is absolutely terrifying but it happens every day, without people talking about it. I think it’s important in that respect because the subject is so not talked about. And it’s not couched in self-help or therapeutic journeys, though it is a part of the story. Her narrative voice is so unflinching that it’s compelling.

rules-do-not-apply

The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy

Random House, March 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

review, Sweden, Translated

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito

quicksandQuicksand is a courtroom drama centered on the trial of an eighteen year old girl charged with murder during a school shooting. The story opens in the classroom, which is a classic gambit to hook the reader because it’s unclear who all did the shooting and who all died (it’s a brief opening interlude). A good chunk of the beginning is a courtroom procedural, and I think it was the strongest part of the book. The book slowed down for me as Maja, the narrator, went into the long background story about her relationship with Sebastian, the boyfriend she allegedly incited to murder.

I thought this book would take a more unreliable narrator turn than it did: it really is a story about a senseless crime spree instead, and in that way it reminded me of Laura Lippman. Ultimately, it’s a book about a hugely unsympathetic group of characters, teenagers and adults, and Maja still remained a mystery to me, which I think is the point. The book is also smart about race and class, which was a welcome part of the story.

Quicksand by Malin Persson Giolito, translated by Rachel Willson-Broyles

Other Press, March 2017

Originally published as Störst av allt

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

England, review

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

i-see-you

 

It’s been a while since I’ve read a good thriller so I was especially taken with I See You by Clare McIntosh. I was a little concerned at the outset because the focus on a middle aged woman commuting in London felt too reminiscent of  The Girl on the Train, but I liked the cast of characters in this book much more than I liked the characters in The Girl on a Train (in the first 50 pages or so, which is all I read).

I See You is the story of Zoe, a single mother of nearly-adult children, and the drudgery of her daily commute. She uncovers a crime ring that targets women on the Tube, and the investigation is both done with the police and on her own.I felt unsettled throughout the book, and though I knew what kind of a reading ride I was in for, there were still surprises along the way. If you’re in the mood for a paranoid cat-and-mouse kind of plot that moves briskly, this is your kind of book.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Berkley, February 2017

Disclosure:  I received a review copy from the publisher.

review, U.S.

Desert Vengeance by Betty Webb

It’s been awhile since I’ve read a PI book with a tough female main character, and I’m glad I read Desert Vengeance, book 9 in the Lena Jones series. Fair warning: the subject matter is incredibly tough. The book centers on the murder of Brian Wycoff, the foster parent who abused Lena when she was a child and who is released from prison as the book opens. While Lena did follow him after his release from jail, she did not murder him. Lena works alone during most of the book as she follows Wycoff to a small community hours outside of Phoenix, the Black Canyon City that I believe is in the cover photo, and the lone PI part of the story was not my favorite part of the story. I was more interested in Lena’s backstory, especially the bits of revelation of what happened to her family, which still isn’t entirely clear. Lena Jones clearly compartmentalizes to be able to go about her life, and in some ways that’s what frustrated me as a reader. I think I expected to know more about her since I jumped in so late in the series.

desert-vengeanceDesert Vengeance by Betty Webb

Poisoned Pen Press, February 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

review, Uncategorized

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

I heard about Kristan Higgins from Pop Culture Happy Hour, and since reading one of her recent books I was interested in reviewing what she did next. Marketing wise, the book  seems to be part romance/ part women’s fiction, and I liked it a great deal.

The book description makes it seem like the story relies more on the concept than the characters, but Higgins excels at making her characters real, psychologically at least. On Second Thought is the story of two sisters, or actually half-sisters, one on the brink of becoming engaged and one who becomes a widow at her sister’s presumed engagement party. Kate, the older sister, hadn’t been married long, is mired in grief and conflicted because she didn’t know her husband as well as some of his friends and his family members knew him. Ainsley, the younger sister, on the other hand, is at the end of an 11 year relationship that she believed was headed to marriage, and she’s a bit adrift professionally and personally as the story begins.

This is the second Higgins book I’ve read and the second to take place on an upstate town on the Hudson, it’s also the second book to feature two sisters. It seems like a bit of an aspirational lifestyle kind of setting, but with characters with believable characters. It doesn’t feel as rushed as some books feel, especially with this dramatic a storyline. And what I loved most is that Higgins for the most part makes her characters real.

on-second-thought

On Second Thought by Kristan Higgins

Harlequin, January 2017

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Uncategorized, USA Fiction Challenge

Catching Up: Flyover Country & Genre Mashups

Two things in the book world are bothering me this weekend, and I feel the need to rant.

Thing 1: Since I’m falling short on covering books set in every state in the US, I’ve tried for some regional diversity in my picks for upcoming reviews. I’ve come across some good stuff: the Lena Jones series by Betty Webb set in Arizona was a good find. Lena is a bad-ass PI, the stories grapple with big social issues: I’ve liked what I’ve read so far. A couple things bothering me about books not set on the East and West Coasts: (a) so many books set in the South seem unnaturally populated with quirky characters; and (b) so many books set in say, Pennsylvania or the Rust Belt, deal with miserable characters dealing with a miserable set of circumstances. I would love some recommendations for books that aren’t overrun with wacky sidekicks or that aren’t telling a super-miserable story. I think I need older book recommendations because the recently-published stuff I’m coming across as I try to broaden my geographic coverage isn’t my thing.

Thing 2: It’s really hard for me to find genre mashups I like. I just don’t get the tone, I think. For example, I liked Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters which was a little horror mixed with a crime novel, but I could not get into her Moxyland which seemed too sci-fi for me. I also just finished Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s The Undesired where the ghost-story didn’t really add anything to the crime story for me.