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.

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.

Hello again!

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.

Summer Reading Update

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.

Summer reading

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!

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.

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.

 

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.

2015 in review

Happy new year, and thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. I’ve been posting less and reading less than in years past, but I very much appreciate your reading and all the reading suggestions you’ve shared. You’ve made my reading life very interesting, and I am very grateful.

2015 is the year I started reading lots of older crime fiction to go along with my love of Scandicrime, and I also went on a few non-crime reading jags to balance out my reading. I anticipate reading lots more Margaret Millar in 2016, not only from my collection of used books but from the new ebook editions that are coming out in the US from Syndicate Books. I’ve also started listening to nonfiction on audio so look for a little variety in upcoming posts.

2015 is also the year I shifted my reading challenges to perpetual mode (read a book from every country and every state in the US). My recordkeeping has a few gaps, but of the about 60 books I read, 11 were set in the US followed by Sweden with 7. I added Ukraine and Cambodia to my countries-of-the-world list but did not fare so well in adding American states to my reading. New York and California were the most common settings in my US reading, and I hope to add more non-coastal states to my 2016 reading.

As for 2016 challenges, I am using two challenges to help combat future reading ruts:

  1. Book Riot Read Harder Challenge– It’s a challenge covering lots of genres and some variety in time periods.
  2. Bustle Reads– It focuses on women and writers of color.

I plan on keeping the challenge categories tucked away in my bag or under my computer keyboard to have on hand when I’m looking for something new to read. I think that works a lot better than committing to a list of intended reads at the beginning of the year.

Finally, I am linking to the WordPress summary of my blog stats for the year for reference and entertainment. The continuing popularity of my Latin American Crime Fiction post makes me realize I haven’t read much if any South American books for the year.

Happy new year, all!

The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2015 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,300 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

Update

I’m about to catch up on book review posts after blogging very slowly for the second half of the year. The main reasons are that I’m busy and that most of my favorite reads of the year were from the first half of the year: it’s hard to keep blogging when I feel so-so about books. Anyway, expect a flurry of posts soon.