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.

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

unlikely eventIn the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Knopf, June 2015

I borrowed the book from the library.

Some authors have earned such a tremendous amount of goodwill from me, I’m willing to try their new books even after a long gap. (But I’m not sure that I’m ready to read Go Set A Watchman.) I’m fairly certain I’ve read almost every Judy Blume novel since I was 9 or 10, and while I don’t remember her adult novels so clearly, her books for kids are super-memorable.

In the Unlikely Event is a story sort of based on Judy Blume’s life: she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the flight-path of Newark International Airport, in the 1950’s during the time of a major plane crash. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say as much because the cover is pretty on-the-nose.

Blume’s stand-in is Miri, a teenager living with her single mother and her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. There’s a large cast of characters surrounding Miri: her friends, her family, and several other people in Elizabeth, so there are stories about the plane crash from many perspectives. It’s a coming-of-age story with the background of dealing with a horrible plane crash in her neighborhood, and Blume’s strength is in creating realistic characters. Some aren’t totally fleshed out because her focus is on a teenage girl who doesn’t know everything about older people’s lives, but that’s not a problem with the story.

I really liked this book: I could tell that it was a story that wasn’t just dashed off, and it didn’t tell stories about a tragedy just for the sake of drama.

I’m counting this as my entry for New Jersey for the USA Fiction Challenge. It’s a reading challenge I’ve been neglecting this year, but I hope to make more progress before the end of the year.



Beast in View by Margaret Millar

beastinviewBeast in View by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1955

This edition: Carrol & Graf, 2004

I borrowed this book from the library.

Beast in View was fantastic. It’s the first Millar I’ve read though I’ve heard of her many times. Though the psychological theories underlying some of the characters have changed in the last 60 years, the book feels fresh to me. It’s a short, thrilling read, and I was very impressed.

Beast in View takes place in a very strange section of Los Angeles, the section occupied by the agoraphobic, rich heiress Helen Clarvoe. She lives in a shabby hotel alone and avoids most human contact (I think she’s agoraphobic), and she receives a mysterious phone call from a woman named Evelyn who exploits her fears of being entirely alone forever. Helen enlists the help of her father’s former investment adviser, Mr. Sheepshear, who tries to track down the mysterious Evelyn for Helen, but the book doesn’t stay with the search exclusively. Instead Millar jumps from perspective to perspective, covering Helen’s family and her brother’s work associates.

Millar is great at dialogue: the pace is brisk. Tone-wise, I felt slightly off-kilter throughout the story. This is not a typical hardboiled detective in LA kind of story: it’s more disturbing to me, and it’s written from the perspective of a female character, which is a huge difference.

I’ll wrap up with just one description of many that I loved, and it gives you a sense of the similes of which she’s fond as well as the menacing/disturbing Los Angeles that she captures:

The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewellry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a  protective net of indifference over his head and  shoulders. (p 18-19)

Other reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog and The Game’s Afoot.

Thankfully Millar’s books are being reissued later this year.



USA Fiction Challenge: Year-End Update

I’m approaching the USA Fiction Challenge as a a perpetual one, and I’m pleasantly surprised that I’ve read books set in 7 states during the year.

  1. Colorado- The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings. This story is more of a family drama/character study than what I usually read.
  2. Maryland- After I’m Gone by Laura Lippman. Lippman imagines the effect of a mobster’s disappearance on his family over the decades in Baltimore.
  3. Pennsylvania- Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet. A story about a guilty pair of brothers in small-town Pennsylvania.
  4. Michigan- Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver. A story of a murder and murder trial in small-town Michigan.
  5. Minnesota- Only the Dead by Vidar Vidar Sundstøl. An exciting hunt for a suspected criminal in the woods in northern Minnesota.
  6. Massachusetts- Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White. The very satisfying conclusion of the President’s Daughter series where Meg leaves for college after recovering from her kidnapping.
  7. Iowa- Some Luck by Jane Smiley. The first book of a proposed trilogy covering the last 100 years covers a generation or so who lived on a farm in rural Iowa.

I didn’t realize the majority of my books took place in small towns, but I’m sure I’ll balance it out with more urban books as I read books from the East and West coasts.

Next year my goal is 10!

Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley

Knopf, 2014

I borrowed this book from the library.

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to read more American fiction both for the USA Fiction Challenge and just for a break from the Scandinavian stuff I read so much of. I’m very glad I read this book. After a few reservations in the first half of the book, I was very impressed with this book.

This particular book has a broad sweep: every chapter covers a different year in the life of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, farmers in rural Iowa. The nearest village is Denby, population 214. The sweep of the story doesn’t sink in until about halfway through the book as World War II begins: the first half is a story of farm life and their family. (I didn’t think the sections from the perspective of the characters as babies were so successful, and I will admit that the Great Depression chapters were a hard read purely for the subject matter). As time marches on and the children get bigger, their stories take off.

There are a few set pieces in the latter half of the novel that are simply gorgeous as one character or another takes a step back and looks at their lives or the land within their view, and I feel like I’m in the hands of a gorgeous writer at those moment: I can’t include an excerpt because it would give away a bit too much of the plot. As much as I feel some of the characters are unknowable, I’m very much invested in the story and these characters. The mysteriousness arises just because this is a novel with a large cast of characters: Smiley can’t get into everyone’s story in just one volume. Book 2 comes out next year.

I’m reluctant to say more about this book because I don’t want to give away significant plot arcs, but I will say that the story broadens as some of the characters move away from home and the years proceed (the book starts in the 1920’s and ends in 1953).

Long May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

long may she reignLong May She Reign by Ellen Emerson White

Feiwel and Friends, 2007

The President’s Daughter book 4

I bought my copy of the book.

Sometime well into adulthood I discovered The President’s Daughter series by Ellen Emerson White. Written in the 1980’s, they feature Meg Powers,  the teenage daughter of a female senator and then first female President of the United States. They are full of teen angst, complicated family relationships, and, in White House Autumn, a horrible crime. Meg is kidnapped and held hostage, and then the series was on hiatus for over ten years. In 2007, Emerson White published the next installment in the series, and it feels like an adult book. Meg is coping with the physical and emotional effects of her capture and imprisonment, and after a long section at the White House, she leaves for college in Western Massachusetts.

It is very much a political novel (Meg is quite interested in a political future), it’s very much a novel about coping with something horrible that happened to you and processing it– that alone allies it with the vast majority of crime novels I’m drawn to. I’m always curious how characters cope with such senselessly horrible things that happen to them and their loved ones. Finally, it’s a novel about growing up and going away to college. The very interesting character of Meg is what kept me going in this long book that has quite serious moments as she deals with her family and friends as she’s coping with trauma and rehabilitation. She’s funny, she’s smart, she’s stubborn: she is a messy character, and I find those so refreshing.

I simply adored this book: it felt like a long, thoughtful book revisiting characters I was very fond of some time ago instead of a rushed novel. I like series in general, and this one is one of my favorites because the conclusion was so damn good. My only regret about the book was that Meg abandoned her beloved drink of choice, Tab, for the more 21-century-appropriate Coke in this novel, but that doesn’t even rise to the level of real regret.

Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl

only the deadOnly the Dead by Vidar Sundstøl, translated by Tiina Nunnally

University of Minnesota Press, September 2014

Minnesota trilogy book 2

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Only the Dead is a short sort of thriller that feels very different than the first book in the Minnesota trilogy, The Land of Dreams. It works best if you’ve read the first book in the trilogy, which involves U.S. Forest Service officer Lance Hansen’s  investigation into the stabbing death of a Norwegian tourist at Baraga’s Cross at the Cross River on the Northern Shore of Lake Superior, but if you’re one for taut thrillers, I’d skip the first lengthy book and start with this one. He believes it to be the first murder ever in the county until he suspects one of his ancestors of having murdered Swamper Caribou, an Ojibwe settler. The two stories alternate in this book as well as in the first book, and they take on a sort of hallucinatory quality.

So what exactly goes on in Only the Dead is a series of hunting trips with Lance and his brother Andy, whom he suspects murdered the Norwegian tourist. Lance is fueled by guilt because another man is in jail facing murder charges, but he can’t prove that his brother is the murderer. Andy in turn is suspicious of his brother, and their hunting excursions in increasingly dire weather in early winter are very suspenseful.

I read this book because I’m invested in the case of the dead Norwegian kayaker, and I’m glad this book felt like a surprise compared to the first one. It’s a thoughtful book as Lance tries to come to terms with his family’s past and his ancestor’s past (he discovered he has Ojibwe ancestors in the last book). I wonder how the case develops in the next installment, entitled Ravens, and I wonder what kind of format that book will take: meditative crime story or a thriller?

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

anatomy of a murderAnatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

St. Martins, 1958

I borrowed my copy from the library.

I am endlessly fascinated by the raw drama of a murder trial, of the defendant fighting so inarticulately for his freedom–his is the drama of understatement–, of the opposing counsel–those masters of overstatement, flamboyantly fighting for victory, for reputation, for more clients, for political advancement, for God knows what–, of the weathervane jury swaying this way and that, of the judge himself trying his damndest to guess right and at the same time preserve a measure of decorum…Yes, a murder trial is a fascinating pageant. p. 245

Anatomy of a Murder is simply the best and most involved legal procedural I have read. After a bit of an unappealing start, the book became very interesting to me and I read the hefty tome in about two days, something which doesn’t happen often for me. First a word about the unappealing start: Traver is a man obsessed with fly fishing, and the first section of the book before lawyer Polly Biegler takes the case of Lieutenant Manion, accused of murdering his wife’s rapist at a bar in the remote Upper Peninsula town of Thunder Bay, is heavy on backstory and pontificating about the law and fly fishing for trout. It has to be trout, not bass, God forbid! The characterizations and backstories at the beginning are a bit cliched and heavy-handed, but character is not the key to this novel. This is a legal procedural par excellence, and the characterizations are what a lawyer in the middle of a huge case would uncover or hypothesize about.

I’m not a criminal lawyer, but this was fascinating nonetheless: there is a lot of discussion of strategy during trial, during the investigation, and during trial preparation. And I have to commend a book for including the bases for objections during the courtroom scenes. Yes, Traver dramatized the murder trial for maximum effect: he left out many witnesses whose testimony was cumulative and the chapter breaks make for maximum impact.

Back to the issue of characters: this novel deals with a lot of undiscussed issues that drive the main characters. Polly is a lawyer in quite desperate straits in his career and personal life. Traver doesn’t dwell on just how desperate Polly is, but it affects his representation of Lieutenant Manion. Traver also doesn’t go into the dynamics of Lieutenant and Mrs. Manion’s marriage, which seems like a crucial part of the story as well. I suspect that their relationship is violent, but Traver focuses only on the violent murder of Laura Manion’s alleged rapist. This may be a sign that the book was written in 1958.

As for other signs that make the book a sign of its era, Traver repeatedly mentions the American obsession with the Soviets and the paranoia of the Cold War, and he has a pointed speech against the then-recently-completed Mackinaw Bridge that linked the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula. And lastly, the casual sexism can be a bit much in spots. Thankfully the courtroom scenes and drama make up for that.

I’m very glad I finally read this book, and I’m eager to watch the film version soon.

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet

save yourselfSave Yourself by Kelly Braffet

Crown, May 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books in exchange for an honest review.

I was interested in Save Yourself both because it’s described as suspense fiction, because it’s by a woman, and because I need to read some books set in different states of the United States if I’m to make any headway in the Reading USA Fiction Challenge this year.

The story takes place in the small town of Ratchetsburg, Pennsylvania, within driving distance of Pittsburgh, and it centers on Patrick Cusimano, an underemployed depressed man in his mid-twenties as well as Verna Elshere, a high school student entering public school for the first time after being homeschooled by very religious parents. Both main characters are in difficult positions: Patrick is ostracized because his father killed a small child while driving drunk and he is the one who called the police 19 hours after the accident, and Verna is relentlessly bullied at school because of her father’s strong stance on abstinence-only sex education, a fight he took to the school board the year before this book takes place.

Action-wise, this doesn’t feel like what I would call a thriller: there is quite a bit of violence and brutality, but it’s not a racing plot: it simmers mostly, I would say. I somehow didn’t mind the pace of the plot because Braffet is quite good at getting me to care for his characters, all of whom are damaged people dealing with big issues. It is a tough read in spots– probably the toughest book I’ve read this year, but thankfully, there is some hope in the ending. If you are in the mood for a tough book, this one is a rewarding read.

Other reviews appear in Jenn’s Bookshelves and Reactions to Reading.

The Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

interestingsThe Possibilities by Kaui Hart Hemmings

Simon & Schuster, May 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I picked up the latest novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings because I loved the movie version of The Descendants. I’ve been reading a lot of non-crime novels this year in my quest to avoid burnout, and while I don’t write about all of the non-crime books I read, this one deserves special mention.

What stuck out most about this story was the tone: it’s a quick read with slightly absurd humor, which is not what I expected in the story of a mother grieving the recent death of her son in an avalanche accident. Hart Hemmings gets the weird feelings that hit you at different times when you’re grieving, and the horrible and funny things that you say as you’re trying to cope. Sarah is in her early forties living in Breckenridge Colorado, hosting a type of infomercial that plays in resort hotel rooms, and living with her widowed father and spending time with her friend Suzanne who’s coping with divorce. There’s one more main character in the story whose identity I won’t call out in this post because I believe it’s best to go into this story blind.

Hart Hemmings is good at dialogue and getting relationships right in the short time frame of this novel, and I’m not surprised that this is being made into a movie. My only quibble with the story is that every once in awhile a line of dialogue seems just too perfectly insightful, but it’s not an egregious problem– and it’s an issue I have with lots of books.