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!
Missing 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.
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.
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.