My Favorite Reads of 2016

My favorite reads of 2016 are not all crime fiction. I got a little bored with some of my favorite crime authors so spent quite a bit of time reading widely, and I found some good stuff.

  1. Until They Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson was my favorite crime novel, by far. I like the smart heroines, I like the set-up of young divers drowned in a frozen lake, and I like the tone of these books. I read somewhere that Larsson expects this to be a 7 book series, and I eagerly await the final 2 books.
  2. Bury Your Dead by Louise Penny was a book I admired a great deal structurally: the story of Gamache’s crisis that led him to retreat to Montreal one bitterly cold winter was well-done. And it was nice to see the imperfections of that character.
  3. In Twenty Years by Allison Winn Scotch was a very good story about friends from college reuniting for the 20th class reunion. I liked it not only because I was the target audience, but I think Scotch did a great job making the entire cast of characters believable, which is quite a trick in a novel that alternates points-of-view.
  4. How to Be a Person in the World by Heather Havrilesky is the book I will keep giving as a gift. It’s a collection of existential advice columns that are so great I keep rereading them.
  5. H is for Hawk by Helen Fielding. This was a great memoir about grief and goshawks, and I highly recommend the audio read by the author. It was the most beautifully written book I read/listened to this year.

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets

thistooshallpassThis Too Shall Pass is a slim novel about a forty-something woman going through grief after her mother’s death. I picked it out because I’m always looking for new-to-me translated authors, and it sounded a little like a Ferrante novel. Unfortunately this book suffers in comparison. The main character’s meltdown isn’t nearly as harrowing as the main character’s in Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment, and the easygoing style of a long trip to the beach just didn’t have the same sort of pacing and urgency as the Ferrante. I know I should judge the book on its own merits, but it seems obvious to me that the book was picked for publication to take advantage of the craze over Ferrante, so I’m going to go with it.

This Too Shall Pass by Milena Busquets, translated by Valerie Miles

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

Beyond the Truth by Anne Holt

beyond-the-truthI like to read series I’ve invested in from the start, and thankfully, this entry in the Hanne Willhelmsen series lives up to the ones I really liked in the series. It’s a story revolving around the murder of 3 members of a wealthy shipping family and a seemingly unconnected freelance writer, all around Christmas time.  I prefer the smaller plots in this book and Death of the Demon than the big political plot in The Lion’s Mouth. I also like Hanne in crisis, and the metaphor about the ragged dog at the beginning of the end being Hanne, on the brink of burnout and worse, is not heavy handed.

What else? Annemari Skar finally gets something juicy to do as the police prosecutor. The characters are actually fleshed out, something I find missing in some other books I’m reading lately. And, I almost forgot, we find out about Hanne’s family– the one she grew up in as well as her new family with her new partner Nefis. The plot isn’t as thriller-y as some of the other installments in this series and the Vik and Stubo series, but it’s a solid procedural with an interesting cast of characters. I think this book works best for readers who’ve read other books in the series, not because of plot reasons but because I’m not sure how compelling the characters are without knowing their paths over the last several books.

Beyond the Truth by Anne Holt, translated by Anne Bruce

Scribner, December 2016

Originally published as Sannheten bortenfor, 2003

Hanne Wilhelmsen book 7

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

soulmates-jessica-groseI was interested in this book because I spotted the word thriller in the jacket copy and I was familiar with the author’s journalism in all sorts of places. I was even more interested when I found out the story is about a young lawyer investigating her estranged husband’s death outside a new age retreat in northern New Mexico: I figured the setup was sinister despite the sort of satirical spin the book starts with (the main character finds out her husband is dead in a headline beginning “Namaslay.” Ultimately, the shift in the book at the halfway mark made it very obvious this really wasn’t the kind of investigation I was looking for, and I ultimately wound up not a fan of the book since I was expecting more of a plot-driven ride instead of a book that, all in all, feels like an expose of a utopian yoga commune.

Here is what the book does well: it captures the emotional state of a woman left by her husband as he went off to lead his spiritually actualized life under the thumb of a guru named Yoni Brooks. The psychological portrait of the woman left behind trying to make sense of her life is the most vivid part of the story. When Dana,  our main character, goes to New Mexico to retrace her husband’s last days, it’s obvious that plot is not the strong  suit of the book. Dana stumbles across her ex-husband’s self-help pamphlet that describes the demise of his marriage, and instead of the book focusing on the investigating and the hunt for answers, it feels like the information magically appears in Dana’s lap. There aren’t really many tense interviews in the book. There aren’t a lot of showdowns in the book. Instead there are people who end up unburdening themselves, and there are some things about Dana making progress in letting go of her anger, but the drive as to finding out the mystery isn’t there. It’s an unexpected shift, and the ending is a bit creepy, but ultimately I’m dissatisfied because I feel duped by the jacket copy and the opening chapter.

I’ve noticed quite a lot of skewering of new-age gurus in what I’ve been reading lately. Unlike the Margaret Millar and Emma Straub books this reminds me of, this book, in contrast, gets into the psychology of why someone would get into the group, and it’s the uncomfortable most of all.

Soulmates by Jessica Grose

HarperCollins, September 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

searching-john-hughesThis book didn’t live up to my expectations. I expected the search for John Hughes to be more about Hughes than about the author. I thought it would be more reportage than a memoir, and a pretty harrowing memoir at that. And ultimately I felt disappointed from this turning into a book I wasn’t expecting, and I felt a bit like a gawker at a memoir about a horrible childhood.

Look, I enjoy some meta stories or films, but writing about being stuck is difficult for me to read. Diamond spends so much time establishing why he liked Hughes movies (escapism set in the same neck of the Chicago suburbs as he lived in) and so much time being depressed and trying to write that the arc felt off. There is redemption: he gets mental health treatment, he finds love, he finishes some sort of book, but the actual resolution felt rushed. He never actually meets John Hughes, there is no actual thinkpiece about Hughes buried in this memoir. There are some false starts to a thinkpiece about John Hughes, but not much. It felt short, like the conceit was not that revelatory.

It suffered from the same problem I found in  Middlesex: Diamond, like Eugenides, skipped over the hard parts of grappling with his issues via therapy and medication. How that works, even if idealized or shortened in a novel, would be great.

Searching for John Hughes by Jason Diamond

William Morrow, November 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


What I’m Reading this Week

Okay, I have my crime-fiction reading mojo back since I started Until Thy Wrath is Past by Åsa Larsson. The opening section told from the perspective of a woman dying under a frozen river? lake? was so well done and gripping. I can’t wait to finish this book, and it’s been a few weeks since I said that. Unfortunately it looks like this is the last Rebecka Martinsson book for me, and in my research I don’t see any crime novels on the horizon for her. I did, however, discover this:

  • ÅSA LARSSON, INGELA KORSELL, AND HENRIK JONSSON are the creators behind the bestselling middle grade series PAX, an exhilarating urban fantasy epos in ten parts, set in a fresh new world of magical creatures drawn from Nordic mythology.

Next, I read my first Kristan Higgins novel, If You Only Knew, which I think is the best book in the women’s fiction category I’ve read this year. It’s the story of two sisters dealing with relationship drama and their childhoods, but the switching between sisters’s viewpoints and shifts in time weren’t jarring. It didn’t feel too short or too long, she rounded out her characters very well, and the plot, while not incredibly twisty definitely kept moving.

Finally, I finished reading Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone out loud this weekend, and what struck me most is that there is not much plot in such a long book. It was about 200 pages of setting the scene for the rest of the series followed by 100 pages of a bit of an adventure. I think I read the first two or three books at once so I didn’t remember the details too much, but I’m not sure I would have been so into the books if I had had to wait so long as they were published.

It’s our second snowy day this fall here in Michigan, and I think I’ll have some hot cocoa while I read a bit more. I have to get a little chill time before work and Thanksgiving prep for the rest of the week.


Monthly Update

I’ve been reading lots and blogging less in the last month: I’ve been sucked into election coverage instead of sitting down to write. To balance out the talking heads on TV and the think-pieces online, I’ve been diving into a lot Julie James books, which I heard about on some old episode of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She writes contemporary romances with lots of banter and smart heroines, and I think I’ve read 4 in the last month.  I also finished Emma Straub’s Modern Lovers after seeing Elena’s glowing review. It reminded me too of Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, and I ended up liking the Wolitzer more than the Straub because I felt more involved with the characters in the Wolitzer. Modern Lovers‘s plot veered into the absurd for me a little too much when one character gets sucked into a sort of yoga commune/cult in Brooklyn, a plot that I thought was much funnier in Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good. Finally, I’m well into reading aloud the first Harry Potter, which is great fun. I came to the books as an adult and liked them, but reading them to a 7 year old who’s a super-fan immediately is even better.

Crime-novel wise, I’m looking for something as good as the best Harry Hole books, and so far I’m coming up short. Deon Meyer maybe fits the bill. Any thriller suggestions would be welcome. Happy reading to you.

What I’ve Been Reading and Watching Lately

I’ve been reading slowly for the last six weeks because I’ve spent most of my reading time since Labor Day weekend watching Friday Night Lights. I don’t often finish TV series that I see so many raves about. I gave up on The Sopranos and Lost but finished Breaking Bad, but I’ve never really gone through a set of five seasons so quickly. I’m a sucker for teen angst, I loved a whole bunch of the characters, and the football obsession is a little removed from my daily existence. I am so fond of that show.

What I have managed to read in the last month is a lot of Canadian crime fiction as well as Exile, the second book in the Garnethill trilogy by Denise Mina. Exile grated on me when the main character Maureen kept getting herself into needlessly dangerous situations, but fortunately as I dipped into a couple early Joanne Kilbourn novels by Gail Bowen, the amateur detective didn’t risk her life needlessly so much. Both Murder at the Mendel and The Wandering Soul Murders were published in the early 1990’s, so I knew I could probably avoid the unreliable narrator thing I keep on coming across in recently published crime novels.   What was striking about the books was just how dark they turned in the second half of each novel as Joanne found out that things were not as they seemed. Finally, I also finished Louise Penny’s Bury Your Dead, which wraps up a lot of plot threads from the previous installment in the Inspector Gamache series, The Brutal Telling. It’s the only police procedural I’ve read recently, and it’s the rare book that I loved for its ending. The story involves the murder of an obsessive amateur archaelogist trying to find the remains of Champlain in Quebec, and the backwards-moving storyline involves Gamache involved in an awful police shooting that isn’t completely revealed until the last section of the book.

After this stretch of reading books in series I like, I think it’s time to try something new to me. It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon and I have a little time to dig around on my shelves and my Kindle, whose contents I frequently forget. Have a good weekend.

No Echo by Anne Holt

No echoI was disappointed with this entry in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series. The investigation was too bogged down, and the police procedural elements were so thorough or in such long chapters as compared to the brisk short chapters in the rest of the book that the book didn’t flow for me.

No Echo deals with the murder of a celebrity chef, Brede Ziegler. He remains a cipher through much of the book (he’s the man with “no echo”), and I never felt really intrigued by him, which I was the main reason I was lukewarm about the book. This book also featured Billy T. taking the lead for Hanne Wilhelmsen, who was on leave of absence for several months as the book begins, and while I appreciate the plot point of Billy T floundering without his mentor and best friend Wilhelmsen, Holt laid it on pretty thick in this story. I don’t like being overwhelmed with the details of a police investigation when the investigation flounders for such a long time.

What else? A couple characters felt like caricatures to me, and the plot seemed to depend on clues dropped in mysteriously from above instead of being uncovered organically.  The last book was so good that any follow up would pale in comparison, but this one just didn’t do it for me.

No Echo by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen, translated by Anne Bruce

Originally published as Uten ekko (2000)

Hanne Wilhelmsen book 6

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.


What I Read Over the Summer

I’m writing this post in list-form because I want to get into the habit of blogging again after letting it slide for quite awhile. I’ve been a bit unenthusiastic about what I’ve been reading lately, and, in fact, the last week I’ve been more hooked by the show Friday Night Lights than what I’m reading, which is usually what happens in the middle of winter. I welcome any glowing book recommendations!

  1. I haven’t reviewed much crime fiction lately because it’s either been too gruesome (The Wire in the Blood by Val McDermid) or too harrowing. I’ve read about 3 books in the last couple months where kids are the victims, and while I like Denise Mina, Hakan Nesser, and Margaret Millar generally, I also felt uneasy because Field of Blood, Inspector and the Silence, and Banshee were too much for me.
  2. I’m still having trouble finishing Framley Parsonage by Anthony Trollope after two tries this spring and summer because I get distracted by other books I can read in smaller chunks throughout my work week. This is where having assigned reading in a real life book club would come in handy: I’d feel external pressure to finish it!
  3. I’m still trying to get out of a bit of a reading funk, and my plan to read sample chapters of what’s been sitting on my Kindle for ages hasn’t inspired me yet.
  4. So after browsing my electronic shelves, I browsed at an actual small bookstore in Ann Arbor over the weekend, which led me to a little bit of reading inspiration. I’m looking forward to Jeffrey Toobin’s American Heiress about Patty Hearst. I don’t know much about the 1970s,  my family didn’t live in the US then so I didn’t learn a lot from them re: Hearst, and I grew up with someone whose Dad was in the FBI working on the Hearst case, all which have piqued my interest.
  5. The best book I read this summer was Heat by Bill Buford. I like narrative nonfiction that feels like it’s been researched a long time, and in this case, besides the research, Buford spent over a year working for Mario Batali. Working in a professional kitchen sounds miserable to me on many levels, but it made for an entertaining read.