I think I started reading memoirs centered on mental health well over ten years ago because books like The Glass Castle and Prozac Nation were book club picks. I’ve read a few more since then, but I’m by no means an expert in the genre. The Valedictorian of Being Dead centers on Armstrong’s experimental therapy for severe depression that involved extreme anesthesia instead of electroconvulsive therapy. She’s pretty explicit about her reasons for writing the book: she wants to eliminate the stigma around depression and explain what depression and treatment felt like for her. It makes for rough reading, but it’s also fascinating to hear about the experimental trial and her positive response to it.
The Valedictorian of Being Dead by Heather B. Armstrong
Gallery Books, April 23, 2019
Disclosure: I received a review copy.
The most accurate blurb/ review I’ve read about American by Day is that it’s a hybrid sort of crime novel. But a hybrid of what, exactly? It’s a story about a crime, and it’s a story about a Norwegian police chief taking an unexpected trip to America. But it’s not really a thriller, and it’s not really a methodical investigation like a police procedural. It is a book that has stayed with me, despite the fact that I’m not as fond of it as I was by the first book in this series, Norwegian by Night.
American by Day starts shortly after the shooting at the end of Norwegian by Night. Sigrid, the police chief in the first book, is still grappling with the aftermath of the first case when she finds out from her father that her older brother is missing in the United States, where he’s lived for a number of years. Sigrid reluctantly travels to the US, and the plot slows a bit, and Miller is explicit about his narrative principle when Sigrid explains her investigatory technique: “Observations first. Questions next. Interpretation last.”
And the observations are about America, race, police, and more. Sigrid’s brother is suspected of murdering his girlfriend, and African American university professor who was despondent about her young nephew’s death at the hand of the police in his backyard. Sigrid is skeptical, and eventually she uncovers the truth, and that’s the satisfying part of the read, while the sociology-of-the-US portions are the parts of the book that make me more ponderous.
American by Day by Derek Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, April 2018
I received a review copy from the publisher.
So when I stopped blogging a few months ago I started contemplating starting a booktube channel, and I think I’ll go for it soon. But first, just to get back into the blogging/book-talking in general, I’m writing this to catch up on what I’ve been reading and loving over the past few months.
- The Clare Fergusson/Russ Van Alstyne series by Julia Spencer-Fleming is quite good: I wasn’t expecting as much action as there is in the first 5 books of this series. The books have mystery, romance, and no unreliable narrators!
- Sherman Alexie’s memoir about his mother is harrowing and wonderful, and I can see why he needed to take a break from his book tour because it was traumatizing.
- I’ve tried a couple giant nonfiction books lately, the first LBJ book by Robert Caro and Reformations by Carlos Eire about a couple hundred years of history, and I’ve read about half of each. It’s good to read stuff I don’t normally read and realize how much I don’t know about Texas in the early 20th century or Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries.
I’d love to hear your reading recommendations because I’ve nearly caught up on the Spencer-Fleming series.
I haven’t been reading much fiction lately, and I especially haven’t been reading a lot of crime fiction lately: I tend to go down a rabbit hole reading the news instead, and it’s not necessarily good for my equilibrium. I was happy to get into this police procedural with a new set of characters and with a plot not nearly as gruesome as the Tony Hill- Carol Jordan series by Val McDermid.
Out of Bounds is the story of Karen Pirie, the head of the Historical Crimes Unit. She’s mourning her dead partner Phil by burying herself in work, and she’s not a dour presence at all in the story. Score 1 for McDermid. Karen becomes involved in both a current and a historical murder investigation: a recent death of a young man whose mother died in an unsolved airplane bombing in the 1990s piques Pirie’s interest because she suspects that murder- or at least suspicious death- doesn’t run in families
What I liked most was the matter-of-factness not only of Karen but of a whole slew of highly competent women in police, social work, and forensic science. And McDermid had a damn sympathetic portrait of not one but two lawyers, for which I’m personally grateful. Also, McDermid is so good at populating this book with interesting people during the parade of investigatory interviews, etc. I hope this is the beginning of a new series.
Out of Bounds by Val McDermid
Grove Atlantic, December 2016
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
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.
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 by Kristan Higgins
Harlequin, January 2017
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.
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.
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!
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
I’ve hit a reading patch where either I read slowly or instead read the first half of a book quickly and then get distracted by something new so I never finish the first book. But nevertheless, I have been reading some good stuff I want to mention.
Heat by Bill Buford is part a story about working for Mario Batali as a middle-aged writer for the New Yorker and part history of Italian cooking over the centuries. Since Buford spent over a year (or maybe even over two years) working for Batali and traveling to Italy to learn more, this book is chock full of details. I’m a sucker for long digressions in very thoroughly researched books. And I’m an even bigger sucker for books/documentaries/shows about chefs at work. It seems like such a high-pressure existence, and it’s such a contrast from cooking shows, which make it look so easy. Since Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential I love to dip into chef books.
Moving from obsessive chefs I tried a book by obsessive politicians, Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls. The narrator is Beth, a writer married to a man who moves from the Obama campaign to DC to Texas to work on a statewide race advising a friend. It was a quick read with plenty of political and personal drama, and I liked it quite a bit more than Close’s debut Girls in Pretty White Dresses. This may have been my attempt to debrief after my husband’s primary race for a state house seat, which was a much smaller district than any of the campaigns in The Hopefuls. Anyway, I liked it a great deal.
Next, I read the first entry in Denise Mina’s Paddy Meehan series, Field of Blood, and plot-wise I was a little underwhelmed, but character-wise I was hooked. I hope the first book felt a little slow for me because Mina was setting the groundwork for more recurring characters.
Finally, the book I keep abandoning after 100 pages is Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage. My first attempt faltered when I felt like I didn’t have enough context to read an edition without an introduction or footnotes, and my second attempt faltered when I got bogged down in politics. Now that campaign season is over, I’ll try it again.
Hope you are finding good reads during the last few weeks of the summer. I just started Margaret Millar’s Banshee, and I’m hoping I like it as much as her earlier stuff.
It’s almost the middle of the year, and I thought I’d post a little about my reading goals since I haven’t finished a book review post in awhile.
Long-running reading challenges
When I started checking my Countries of the World list , which I last updated over a year ago, I found I’d only added one new country in that time, Ukraine. Time to start spending some time looking for international reads. I’d love some recommendations for especially non-European books.
I also cleaned up my States in the US list, and happily I’ve finished 20 out of 50 states. It’s also amazing to me just how many books set in California and New York I read.
In the last month or so I find myself reading at least two books at a time, which I don’t think I’ve done often before. I’m slowly working my way through volume 1 of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, The Path to Power, and I’m learning lots about how incredibly harsh the Texas Hill Country is, especially in the era before the interstate highway system. Emily Giffin and Dorothea Benton Frank are also keeping me entertained, and crime-wise I feel the need to dig into some older stuff because I haven’t read anything non-contemporary in awhile. In more recently-published books, I’m really enjoying Sarah Hilary’s Someone Else’s Skin.
Hope you are all having a good summer, and I welcome reading recommendations!