Uncategorized, USA Fiction Challenge

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.

review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

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.

 

 

review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

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

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!

review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

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).

review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

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.

2014 Global Reading Challenge, review, U.S., USA Fiction Challenge

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?