Saturday, December 31, 2011

December Recap and January Goals

Happy new year, everyone!

This December I’ve met my goal of dividing my reviews evenly between crime fiction and literary fiction:  I reviewed two of each genre this month as I did in November.  I have fallen short of my goal of reviewing one to three books per week this month because I took time off from reading over the holidays and because I’ve been reading books whose reviews I will be posting in the coming months.  Also, I have joined the Criminal Plots II Challenge to give some structure and variety to the crime novels I read.  I don’t want to confine myself authors and series I’ve been reading for years.  I’ve enjoyed the books I’ve reviewed this month because I have been jumping between thrillers and literary fiction.  I don’t want to get into a genre rut, so I plan to continue seeking out a variety of books to review here.

Here’s what you can expect from this blog in the coming month and year:  I plan on reviewing 50% thrillers and 50% fiction at a pace of one to three reviews per week.  I also plan on reviewing more women authors than male authors.  I anticipate reviewing both new releases and backlist titles as I catch up on books that popped up on lots of year-end best lists.  I’m a fan of plot over style, so I don’t expect to review lots of experimental fiction.  Finally, I’ve been working on writing longer reviews than the first reviews I wrote.  My hope is that my writing becomes crisper and clearer the more I write.

Thanks again for reading, and happy new year!  What books are you looking forward to reading in the coming year?  I’m particularly interested in Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward, The Submission by Amy Waldman, The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

1222 by Anne Holt

1222 is the story of a train that crashes en route from Oslo to Bergen at an elevation on 1222 meters in the village of Finse.   The survivors are evacuated to a hotel named, descriptively enough, Finse 1222, and they are holed up there for a few days, during which time two men are murdered.  One hundred and ninety-six people live in relative comfort in the main hotel building as the story begins.  This story is very much in the vein of a locked room Agatha Christie mystery, as the author has acknowledged, but this is a Norwegian version.  For readers who are a bit leery of the gruesomeness of some Scandinavian crime novels, this book is a relief:  the murders happen off-stage.

The investigator is Hanne Willhelmsen, a retired detective who suffered a paralyzing spinal cord injury when she was shot by the corrupt police chief she was investigating.  She has been off the force for four years, and in those four years she has become more and more of a loner who spends time only with her partner, their young daughter, and the live-in housekeeper.  Her three days in the hotel are not only her return to investigating homicides, but also her return to interacting with other humans.  She’s prickly but interesting, and she’s definitely not a cliché.  

What Holt does well is capture the group mood during their unforeseen stay in a remote mountain hotel during an extreme blizzard.  Willhelmsen and an impromptu team of investigators—a doctor, a lawyer, and the hotel manager—bond as they investigate the two murders, at first trying to keep the murders a secret by claiming that the first victim “suffered a brain aneurysm,” instead of a bullet wound to the head.  It’s a claustrophobic story of course, with the worsening storm outside.  Besides the inquiry into the homicides, there is a parallel story about the mysterious final train compartment.  Its occupants were evacuated first, and they occupy a wing that is guarded by armed men.

I admit that I don’t read many locked room mysteries—or at least I haven’t lately—but 1222 stands out with its characters.  Holt provides enough back story for not only the victims and perpetrators, but also with Hanne Willhelmsen, of course, and Magnus Streng, the doctor who suffers from dwarfism who becomes as close of a friend as Hanne will allow herself.  This book is the eighth in the Hanne Willhelmsen series, and I am looking forward to previous novels in the series being translated into English.

1222 by Anne Holt
Publication date:  December 27, 2011
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Criminal Plots II Challenge

I'm joining the Criminal Plots II Challenge for 2012, hosted by Jen.

Here are the categories and three of my preliminary picks. 

1. Novel with a weapon in the title
2. Book published at least 10 years ago- Something by P.D. James.
3. Book written by an author from the state/province/etc. where you live- I'm live in Michigan, so I'm thinking Megan E. Abbott or Elmore Leonard.
4. Book written by an author using a pen name
5. Crime novel whose protagonist is the opposite gender of the author- Something by Donna Leon
6. A stand-alone novel written by an author who writes at least one series

I'm looking forward to this challenge!

Friday, December 16, 2011

There but for the by Ali Smith

This is the first Ali Smith book I’ve read, and it’s definitely not my last. This is not a typical novel for me: four stories by four people who know Miles Garth, a man who excuses himself from a dinner party table and locks himself into a spare room for months. The first chapter is the story of Anna Hardie, who became friends with Miles during a high school tour of Europe. The second chapter is the story of Mark Palmer, the man who brings Miles to the dinner party. It contains a set piece of the odd dinner party conversation immediately preceding Miles’s departure. The third chapter is the story of May Young, an elderly woman in the beginnings of dementia, remembering her life. At the end of her chapter we find out her connection to Miles. Finally, the last chapter is told by the word-obsessed ten-year-old Brooke Bayoude. She met Miles at the infamous dinner party, and she tries to write the history of Miles and his time in the room. One word of warning: Brooke’s chapter is a bit difficult to read because there aren’t many paragraph breaks.

This is not a novel about plot; in fact, at the end of the novel I don’t know, with certainty, why Miles locked himself into the room.  All of the narrators know him superficially or for a brief time, but they don’t know him well enough to know why he locked himself in a room for months.  While we don’t get to know Miles, we do get to know each of the four narrators, and I actually cared for them.  Honestly, this book reminded me of the experimental fiction I read in both English and Spanish in undergrad, but this felt so much more humane than the experimental fiction I’ve read before.  It’s a book that’s ripe for writing about, structurally or thematically, but, somehow, with interesting, involving characters.

There but for the by Ali Smith
Pantheon Books
Publication date:  September 13, 2011
Source: public library

Sunday, December 11, 2011

My Year in Books

Find below the favorite books I read in 2011, in no particular order.  I read more than new releases so some of these books were published before 2011.  These are books that I continually recommended to my friends and family this year.

1. The Warmth of Other Suns:  The Epic Story of the America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson 

Wilkerson tells the story of the Great Migration by focusing on the stories of three different people who migrated to New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  It’s fascinating stuff.   It covers both life in the Jim Crow South and life in the north in the last half of the twentieth century.

I recommend this highly because the stories are so involving. I live in the industrial North (metro Detroit), and I learned a lot not just about migration and race relations, but also about how cities developed in the twentieth century.  For a much more complicated take on race relations than you can find in The Help, check out this book.

 2. The Cookbook Collector by Allegra Goodman

This is the story of two sisters in 1999:  one a dot-com executive, and the other a philosophy grad student at Berkeley.  It’s been compared to Sense and Sensibility, which I can see (two different sisters and their love lives), but I think this stands on its own as well.   It definitely felt like a big 19th century novel with a large cast of characters and a rollicking plot.  It follows one sister working in the world of Internet startups and the other sister working in a used bookshop and living in an environmentalist group house in Berkeley while in grad school.

I listened to the audio version for the first half, and then I read the last half because I was anxious to find out what happened to the characters.  That’s saying a lot because not all of the characters were likeable, but they were all complex people.  I’m a fan of the getting-your-life-together-in-your-twenties books.

3. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

This is a very heartbreaking memoir about McCracken and her husband coping with the stillbirth of their first child.  It speaks so well about grief, hope, friendship, and love.  Sometimes I like to read books or watch movies for a good cry, and this fits the bill.  I like this book as a portrait of grief more than I liked The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion.

4. Mystery Writers Whose Stuff I Love:  Laura Lippman, Deborah Crombie, and Louise Penny

Laura Lippman writes the Tess Monaghan, P.I. series of novels as well as stand-alone novels.  Feisty, independent heroines are a thing for me in crime fiction, and Tess fits the bill.  The stand-alone books I’ve read are very involving and sad:  they feel a bit like sociology.  My favorite Lippman book I read this year was The Last Place, part of the Tess Monaghan series.

Deborah Crombie writes the Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James series:  they are detectives in London, but the series takes place in other towns as well.  Her books are very atmospheric.  Some are a bit more like a cozy since some take place in small towns/ villages, but they are not novice detectives.  Each character has emotional drama too, but it doesn’t feel melodramatic for the sake of being melodramatic.  My favorite Crombie book I read this year was Water Like a Stone, which takes place in the world of canal boats.

And, finally, my cozy recommendation in this roundup is for Louise Penny, who writes the Inspector Gamache series of mysteries that take place in the village of Three Pines, near Montreal.  All of her characters are deep, involving characters, which is refreshing after reading more hard-boiled detective fiction.  I’ve only read two books in the series so far, but they have both been wonderful. Start with Still Life.

Thursday, December 8, 2011


I haven’t read many Scandinavian crime novels.  I started with Stieg Larsson and read a few Wallander books by Henning Mankell, and I was a bit leery of venturing further into Scandinavian stuff.   Larsson’s books are quite gruesome for me, and I was mentally exhausted by the end of ever Mankell novel.  He isn’t easy on Wallander at all, and the outlook is pretty grim. Thankfully, Detective Carl Morck and his assistant Assad aren’t nearly as depressed as Wallander.  That’s not to say that Morck is a light and cheery guy:  he has a pretty severe case of PTSD and has issues with the Copenhagen police bureaucracy, but that’s common in police procedurals. 

This novel is the first in the Department Q series by Adler-Olsen.  Morck and Assad are the two employees of the department charged with investigating cases requiring “special scrutiny.”  Translation:  they deal with long-open cases that are somehow high-profile.  Their first case is the mysterious dispearance and presumed death of Member of Parliament Merete Lynggaard.  There are two other investigations occurring in this book:  the recent murder of a cyclist and the less recent murder of one of Morck's colleagues.  The plot was good but not overwhelmingly intricate, the characters are interesting as well, and, best of all, there are some light moments between Morck and Assad.  Is Denmark just less dreary than Sweden?  I’m very much looking forward to book two.

Dutton Adult
Publication Date:  August 23, 2011
Source:  library

Thursday, December 1, 2011


A summary of This Beautiful Life  makes it sound like a ripped-from-the-headlines movie-of-the-week (or maybe like a tawdry daytime talk show episode). Fifteen-year-old Jake receives a pornographic email from a younger classmate, forwards it to his friends, and his life and his family member’s lives fall apart.  It’s a novel about rich people in private school in New York City, it’s a novel about disaffected teenagers, and it’s a novel about the midlife crises of the parents.  So why did this particular story work for me?  Schulman tells the story from the perspectives of the parents, their son, and the young girl at the center of the scandal, and she gets their voices down.  They are all imperfect, lonely people. 

Why have I never read a book by Helen Schulman before?  I gobbled this one up in just over a day.  Her writing is so smart, the characters are so achingly and painfully real:  it’s strange to say that it was a delight to read this book about a family falling apart during the teenage son’s sexting scandal, but it really was a great read.

Publisher: Harper
Publication date: August 2, 2011
Source:  library

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

November Recap and December Goals

Happy belated Thanksgiving!  I was traveling for the holiday week so I dropped my review-a-week blogging schedule.  As a new book blogger, I’m testing out the types of writing I’d like to do, and a monthly recap seems helpful so I can stay on course without taking too much time from my reading. This month I reviewed two works of literary fiction and two works of crime fiction.  They are my two favorite genres, and I anticipate reviewing more crime fiction than literary fiction going forward.  I also expect to review a classic every month or so.  My goal for the next month is to post one review a week, and I intend to post reviews more frequently starting in 2012.

I haven’t experimented much with different types of posts on this blog.  I plan on focusing on reviews because I like to recommend books.  I haven’t tried any weekly memes yet because I’d rather spend my time reading than in churning out posts.  If I find an interesting meme, I may join.  I do plan on posting my favorite reads of 2011 before the end of the year, and in 2012 I plan to post my favorite reads every 4-6 months.  Finally, I have joined the Back to the Classics Challenge 2012  in an effort to round out my reading with books I’ve been meaning to read for years.   I'm still and English major obsessed with reading lists!

Friday, November 18, 2011

THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott (Review)

Note:  there are spoilers below.

This is the creepiest book I’ve read all year, and that’s saying a lot because I read Emma Donoghue’s Room early in the year.  The End of Everything is narrated by Lizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl whose best friend, Evie Verver, disappears near the end of the school year.  It’s a story about more than how she disappeared:  it’s a story about why she disappeared.  Room was easier to read because the five-year-old narrator is so innocent.  Lizzie, at age thirteen, is wiser but more confused:  more confused about relationships, motivations and sex. 

The creepiness started for me in the first thirty pages.  I was leery of Mr. Verver from the opening chapters, and at that point I suspected him of abusing his older daughter, Dusty.  The revelation that he did abuse Dusty on the last page was not a surprise.  My trepidation made the sections where Lizzie described her adoration of Mr. Verver so hard to read. 

So why did I push on past the first 30 pages when I was dreading what I would read?  The writing is fabulous.  Abbott nails Lizzie’s confused, thirteen-year-old voice, or, more aptly put, she nails the voice of adult Lizzie looking back on the summer she was thirteen.  Also, the characters are complex and messy.  Finally, there are more plot twists than what I’ve given away in this review.

All in all, this a great, disturbing read that leaves the reader with a few answers, unlike the ending of The Virgin Suicides, which is a book I thought about often while reading this book.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A FATAL GRACE by Louise Penny (Review)

This is the second novel in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, but it also works as a stand-alone novel.  Yes, there are a few things from the first novel, Still Life, that are referenced in this book, but it’s not a huge barrier to entry.

I don’t read many cozy mysteries, so it’s a bit hard for me to give up the rollicking plots of mysteries with a thriller edge.  The plot is not the main reason to enjoy this book:  the main draws are the characters and the writing.  This series takes place in Three Pines, a small village near Montreal, a village populated with interesting but not too eccentric people.  It’s very reminiscent of Cicely, Alaska from the TV show Northern Exposure:  an isolated, village in northern climes with interesting folks.  Three Pines is full of interesting, artistic folks.

The mystery itself was not a huge draw for me because the murder victim was not a sympathetic sort, unlike the murder victim in Still Life.  For a dash of intrigue, the sub-plot involving Gamache’s relationship with the police department was a lot more interesting than the unraveling of CC’s murder.

I’d recommend this book for people looking for a story with lived-in, psychologically-well-drawn characters.  It’s not a thrill-ride, but it’s a pleasant story about an unpleasant murder solved by a supremely charming detective.  Refreshing is the word that comes to mind:  it's refreshing that Gamache is in a stable and happy marriage, and the story is a refreshing take on dour subject matter.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Back to the Classics Challenge 2012

Here it is not even the end of November, and I've made my first resolution:  to read more classics.  Please read this post for more information about the reading challenge, hosted by Sarah of Sarah Reads Too Much.  It's a great reason for me to read books I've been meaning to read for ages.  Please join in. 

I've included my prelimary list of nine picks below.
  • Any 19th Century Classic:  David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
  • Any 20th Century Classic:  Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carre
  • Reread a Classic of Your Choice:  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation)
  • A Classic Play:  The Tempest  by William Shakespeare
  • Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction:  The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
  • Classic Romance:  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (Lydia Davis translation)
  • Read a Classic that has been translated from the original language to your language:  The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass
  • Classic Award Winner:  The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor (1972 National Book Award for Fiction)
  • Read a Classic set in a country that you (realistically speaking) will never visit:  Petals of Blood by Ngugi wa Thiong'o (Kenya)
Happy reading!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

THE SENSE OF AN ENDING by Julian Barnes (Review)

“[T]he history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.” (p. 46)  A spoiler-laden discussion of the ending of The Sense of an Ending follows.

The Sense of an Ending is the story of Tony Webster, a retired, divorced man in his sixties, remembering his life and musing about the slipperiness of memories.  Early in the book, Tony’s school friend Adrian talks about one view of history as, “something happened.”  What happened here:  Adrian kills himself as a young man, soon after breaking up with Tony’s ex-girlfriend Veronica.  About forty years later, Veronica’s mother Sarah bequeaths Adrian’s diary to Tony, but Tony’s ex-girlfriend refuses to give it to him. 

There are two final twists to the story:  (1) Tony misremembered or blocked out the level of hatred in his letter to Adrian and Veronica after they began dating, a letter in which Tony tells Adrian to seek out Sarah to learn the truth about Veronica; and (2) Adrian and Sarah end up having an affair and a child together. 

I think Tony feeling guilty for Adrian’s affair and subsequent suicide is a bit of a stretch.  He didn’t force them to have an affair.  Should he have realized that Adrian had an affair with Sarah or that she had a child?  I’m not sure he could have known.  He wasn’t in close touch with his school friends after they left for college, and I don’t expect him to keep in touch with his ex-girlfriend either.  I’m not sure why Veronica railed against Tony about not getting it:  I’m not sure how he could have figured out that Adrian and Sarah had an affair and a child.  Maybe he should have just asked Veronica why her mother had Adrian’s diary to bequeath to him in the first place.  Maybe what Tony finally gets at the end of the novel is that he should have asked more questions.  That seems to be the most satisfying reading for me.

It seems like a bit of a lame conclusion for such a big twist:  Tony should have been more aware of the great unrest going on after he broke up with Veronica.  It seems kind of slight compared to the final twists in a few other books with unreliable narrators, like Atonement by Ian McEwan or We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver.  Maybe it feels slight because this is a much shorter book.  Anyway, I’m quibbling with the book because it is so good:  good, but not perfect—but what book is?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

SWAMPLANDIA! by Karen Russell (Review)

I don’t love much contemporary fiction, but this I loved.  I’ve been trying to pinpoint why this worked for me, and it’s not the plot.  The plot is a bit cheesy:  the Bigtree family runs an alligator wrestling attraction in Florida, and they fall apart after the mother dies of cancer.  So what is it that works?  The siblings are oddballs but not cloyingly so.  They’re not a collection of eccentricities like the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums, for example.  Instead, they’re devoted to each other even though they are each solitary.  And though the Bigtrees are a sad bunch, the book never becomes overwhelmingly depressing.  In fact, there’s even humor to be found.

So, again, what is it that works for me?  First of all, I’m a sucker for teen angst stories.  Also, the ghost stories didn’t seem contrived to me.  Finally, the writing sings.  Yes, some spots were a rough go for me (some background discussions about failed efforts to drain the swamps and Ava’s story in the second half of the novel, to name a couple), but, overall, Russell can tell stories, and this book is full of them. 

I’m not sure if this book has been marketed to book clubs, but I think it is a good fit for them.  There are lots of juicy topics for discussion:  family dynamics, growing up isolated on an island, government management of the swamps, the miseries of working in tourist traps, and ghosts.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I AM HALF-SICK OF SHADOWS by Alan Bradley (Review)

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley features ten-year-old Flavia de Luce, an amateur detective who's very interested in poisons. What's most refreshing about this book is the fact that the young heroine is not stuck in the dystopian future:  instead, she lives in a small British village in 1950. She's smart, she's funny, and she's not perfect. It's not a series you must read from the beginning in order to enjoy, and in fact, I liked this book more than the highly acclaimed first book in the series, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Why? I think there were fewer chemistry lessons in this novel than in the first one. Also, this novel felt very movie-esque, and not just because the story revolves around a film shoot at Flavia's home. I think when I say movie-esque I mean self-contained. It's a very charming book.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book for free from Random House as an Early Bird Read. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."