Once again (2019, 2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year, recording brief notes about each book. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!

January

A Shot in the Dark (2018) by Lynne Truss. Crime fiction, sort of, set in the 1957 seaside town of Brighton, England. Inspector Steine doesn’t want actual crime in his seaside town, Brighton. He prefers to rest on his laurels and was happy to let the criminals kill themselves while he and his men ate ice cream during the Middle Street Massacre of 1951. But unfortunately for Steine, the too-clever-by-half, eager beaver Constable Twitten comes to town and immediately starts putting two and two together concerning robberies always preceded by a visit to the burgled house by a phony public opinion pollster, and then when a much-loathed theatre critic comes to town and is shot while sitting next to Twitten in the theatre, there’s lots more to investigate, seemingly related to the unsolved Aldersgate Stick-up Case of 1950. A quirky, slyly silly novel about dastardly crimes and human relationships written with a light, whimsical touch. I would have probably liked it better had it not been yet another mystery novel set partially in the world of the theatre and sideshow.

Arbitrary Stupid Goal (2017) by Tamara Shopsin. I thought it was going to be a non-fiction book about the benefits of an arbitrary stupid goal — a goal that isn’t too important but makes you live in the moment and gives you a driving force, that allows you to “find ecstasy in the small things, the unexpected, and the everyday” — and it is actually that but wrapped in an elliptical memoir of an unconventional upbringing set mostly in the Greenwich Village of Shopsin’s bohemian 1970s childhood, where her parents ran a legendary greasy spoon. Family photos and other illustrations decorate the story, much of it about her father and a family friend named Willy, who were building supers on the same block at one time. One of my favourite lines: “My parents were pretty tolerant. They had this belief in supporting us in whatever we were passionate about, even if it was self-destructive or cost-prohibitive.” A quick, whimsical, imagination-inspiring read.

A Student of History: A Novel (2019) by Nina Revoyr. A novel about Rick Nagano, a half Japanese, half white doctoral student in history at USC in Los Angeles. He’s barely scraping by financially so jumps at the chance to type up the personal and family history of an extremely wealthy woman, Mrs. W– (and that long dash was endlessly confusing, continually making me think there was going to be an aside coming; I don’t know why “Mrs. W” wouldn’t have been adequate as an abbreviation), and soon he’s accompanying his employer to high-level fundraising events dressed in clothes she’s bought him and noticing he’s the only non-white other than the servers at these events. The novel is told in the first person by Rick in retrospect, which is perhaps what gives it such a flat quality, almost journalistic. The plot is simple, and fairly common in fiction, the writing serviceable, the few main characters not quite relatable, a bit wooden. All in all, it didn’t live up to its hype as a “searing novel of thought-provoking complexity,” nor was it “mythical” or “spellbinding.” Perhaps if you live in southern California this novel will resonate more for you than it did for me.

The Man That Got Away (2019) by Lynne Truss. Crime fiction that “couples suspense with dark hilarity in the manner of the British black comedy film The Ladykillers,” says The Wall Street Journal, and if you go into these books expecting that you’ll probably enjoy them, though there’s not that much suspense.  Set in the 1957 seaside town of Brighton, England, where attractive young women called Brighton Belles help tourists with all manner of things, this installment deepens the relationship between Constable Twitten and Mrs. Goynes (which I enjoyed), with smaller roles for Sergeant Brunswick, undercover playing the trumpet at a nightclub, and Inspector Steine, modelling for an inferior wax museum and drooling over one of the Belles. I don’t think I can even begin to describe the plot without giving too much away.

No Way Out (2019) by Cara Hunter, in the DI Adam Fawley series set in Oxford, which the publishers label a ‘thriller’ — I’d say it’s more of a police procedural with elements of suspense, provided by interleaved accounts of the victims (including two young children) of a deliberate house fire. There are plenty of possible psychopaths among the characters, or are they just villains, or neither? The pacing is fast and flawless, and the elements of the story, including details of Fawley’s and other police officers’ lives, all work together to enrich it. If you can’t tolerate children in jeopardy, or worse, avoid this book; I’m not usually very sensitive to this but I found parts of the book painful to read. People who have been traumatised by fire might also want to skip this one. Otherwise, highly recommended.

February

A Bitter Feast (2019) by Deborah Crombie, in the Kincaid/James series. Duncan and Gemma and kids (Kit, Toby, and Charlotte), plus Doug, are spending the weekend with their colleague Melody at her parents’ estate in the Cotswolds (Beck House in Upper Slaughter) but before they’re even all there, Kincaid is in a serious car accident in which two other people are killed, including a famous London chef who, it appears, may have been dead before the accident. Soon an injured Kincaid is working with the local constabulary to look into the chef’s reasons for being in the village, which included visiting Viv Holland, the current chef and co-owner of The Lamb, the local pub. The last few books in this series have left me a little meh but this one was great and I didn’t want it to end. Maybe it was the village setting, the posh charity food event and the food element generally, the several interesting women involved in the plot, Kincaid’s physical vulnerability, Melody’s expanded role, or the relationship between a more mature Kit (now 15) and Gemma, but whatever it was it worked for me.

Many Rivers to Cross (2020) by Peter Robinson, 26th in the DCI Alan Banks series, set in Eastvale, Yorkshire. This one follows directly on the previous book, Careless Love, following Annie’s father’s girlfriend Zelda, a super recogniser (never forgets a face), who is searching for the men who trafficked her from Moldovia. The current investigation for Banks, Cabot, and Masterson (WInsome is on pregnancy leave) is a young dark-skinned boy found stabbed and left in a wheelie bin in a housing estate. Robinson definitely has a point of view on current politics, the racist anti-immigrant far-right, Brexit, etc., but it’s fairly softly pedalled here, while his taste in music and scotch are on display as always. There was a little too much detail and repetition about the intricacies of the local drug ring for my taste so I skimmed some of that. The ending to both stories was no surprise, and the next book will surely continue with Zelda’s situation. Not his best.

Winter Grave (2019) by Helene Tursten, an Embla Nystrom investigation, set mainly in Strömstad, Sweden. Police procedural. It’s a complicated plot that starts out with two young children missing over the course of a couple of weeks, an off-duty police officer found dead while running, and a Norwegian man stabbed to death at a New Year’s Eve party. With all this crime in a small town, Embla, Göran, and Hampus (the Violent Crimes Unit) are brought in from Gothenberg to help find the missing children, but their investigation widens as they learn more. Satisfying.

The Rabbit Hunter (2016) by Lars Kepler, in the Joona Linna and Saga Bauer series set in and around Stockholm, Sweden. Joona has been imprisoned but after the gruesome murder of the (sadistic) Swedish Foreign Minister in his house, the Security Police need his help. Working for the most part separately, Saga and Joona try to track down a focused killer with military training — is he a terrorist? a serial killer? a spree killer? Why has he chosen the men he’s chosen to murder? And why does he leave 19 minutes between his initial assault and the fatal blow? The plot is creepy and harrowing, the murders planned, gory, and horrific, the psychological underpinnings of the killer and other characters interesting. The last short scene (epilogue) seems to be a tease for the next novel.

The Planthunter: Truth, Beauty, Chaos, & Plants (2019) by Georgina Reid and Daniel Shipp, a sumptuous large-format book with lush photos and interviews with interesting plantspeople, gardeners, designers, artists. Provided inspiration and discussion for my permaculture group in the middle of a northern New England winter. A great gift book for any gardener.  My only quibble is that all the people interviewed live in either Australia, New Zealand, or California.

March

Crudo: A novel (2018) by Olivia Laing. When I finished this slim volume (about 130 pages of undense type) and my spouse asked me what it was about, I said I don’t know. But I sort of know: it’s about Kathy, who lives in the UK in 2017, and her constant anxieties about what’s happening in the world specifically with regard to Trump (and Trump tweeting), North Korea, fascism, the threat of nuclear war, and Brexit. It’s also about Kathy, afraid of commitment, who is going to get married, who gets married, and who is learning how to be married (to a husband 29 years older than she is, but that’s inconsequential to the novel). As the book’s jacket sleeve says, she’s “learning to love when the end of the world seems near.” It’s a little stream-of-consciousness, a little journalistic (there are Kathy-referential “sources” as endnotes; she reports news events), a little poetic, and a lot relatable.   I could reread it a few times and enjoy it.

The Drowned Man (2013) by David Whellams, in the (retired) Scotland Yard Inspector Peter Cammon series, set mainly in the UK, Montreal, Maryland, and New York state (Rochester, Buffalo), and a bit in other parts of the eastern U.S.  It’s a complicated plot. Retired inspector Cammon is asked to accompany the body of a murdered Scotland Yard colleague home from Montreal and ends up investigating a seductive and dangerous young Pakistani-British woman, Alice Nahri, girlfriend of the dead man; three perhaps valuable letters written by or concerning Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; and a phone-hacking scandal involving cricket-match fixing by gangs. I had trouble keeping focused on the many plot strands and characters, but the writing and the definition and development of the main characters and their relationships was adept enough to get me through.

April

The Third Rainbow Girl: The Long Life of a Double Murder in Appalachia (2020) by Emma Copley Eisenberg. This one got too much hype. It was OK but I was expecting a lot more based on many glowing reviews. It’s a sort of disjointed mostly non-fiction story about the murders of two young women in West Virginia in Sept. 1980, who were hitchhiking to the annual hippy Rainbow Gathering held that year in Pocahontas County, WV, when they were shot and left on a dirt road, and about the various investigations of about 10 men and the two main trials of one suspect. (If you’re looking for something conclusive concerning the murders, this isn’t the book for you.) Eisenberg weaves into this her own memoir of being an intern and VISTA worker at the Mountain Views non-profit summer school for teenage girls in the same area, beginning, I think, in 2009; and she goes on at length about her relationship with a group of mostly local men who make music, party,  and drink until the wee hours of the morning (as does she), I guess in an effort to demonstrate that her sympathies lie not only with the murdered women but with the men who are part of a psyche-damaging culture. She adds to this odd brew some psychological information about memory-making, suggestibility studies, and the two main ways the brain makes decisions. The original story of the women was interesting — though the third girl, who parts from the other two women in North Carolina, is almost not in the book at all; I wonder if Eisenberg thinks of herself as the “third girl” in some way? — but the rest of it just muddied things without adding mystery or interest.

Under the Snow (1961, 1996) by Kerstin Eckman. A strange mystery set in the remote northern village of Rakisjokk, either in or very near Finland, near the Arctic Circle, with dark winters and light summers. Constable Torsson from Orjas investigates the death of an artist, Matti, with not much result, then returns to the town a few months later with David Malm, an artist friend of Matti’s, after some new evidence (perhaps) comes to light. I got lost along the way, distracted by the shooting of two reindeer, the missing mah-jongg tile and the other painted tiles, the former passesadie (‘place of sacrifice’), the noose with dark hair, and so on. Felt extremely disjointed to the point of nonsensical to me. Others laud it as irresistible, engrossing, thrilling (never, IMO), taut, and so on.  I liked her Blackwater but just couldn’t get on board here. It was atmospheric, I have to give it that.

May

Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (2016) by Dorthe Nors, Man Book Prize finalist for 2017, a stream of consciousness novel set in Copenhagen. I really liked this book. Sonja is our protagonist, a single woman over 40 originally from Jutland who makes a living translating the wildly popular, extremely violent sexual crime fiction of Gösta from Swedish to Danish, and it’s her thoughts we hear throughout the novel. She’s got inherited positional vertigo, which can strike whenever she moves her head wrong, as for instance might occur when she looks in her car mirrors and then over her shoulder before she signals to turn or change lanes during her driving lessons, which aren’t going particularly well. That’s the whole story, really, except for her memories, her unsent letters to her anxious and superficial sister Kate, her ruminations while her massage therapist Ellen is psychoanalysing her every physical symptom, her desire for real wild places instead of the managed parks she encounters. A sense of unease, alienation, and struggle suffuse the story.

Mrs Dalloway (1925) by Virginia Woolf. A favourite book, and a re-read for a bookgroup. Woolf was a post-modernist about 100 years ahead of her time.  This book takes place in London in the course of a June day in 1923, when the shadow of the war and the flu still loom. Fifty-one-year-old Clarissa Dalloway is a woman of privilege and leisure who enjoys beauty and giving parties; as she prepares for a party that night, we follow her on her errands and are privy to some of her thoughts and nostalgic memories of childhood, and we get a glimpse into the thoughts of her husband Richard and a former love interest Peter Walsh who has reappeared from India. She is contrasted with a young war veteran, Septimus Warren Smith, who seems to have PTSD or some other undiagnosed mental disorder, but whereas for Clarissa, “the ‘continuous present’ of her charmed youth at Bourton keeps intruding into her thoughts on this day in London, for Septimus, the ‘continuous present’ of his time as a soldier during the Great War keeps intruding, especially in the form of Evans, his fallen comrade.” The book was to have been called “The Hours,” and time is of the utmost importance to the story — the way we move in the moment through the past, present, and future (Woolf’s stream-of-consciousness writing emphasises this); Big Ben’s clock rings out every half-hour; there is a sense of approaching death for many of the characters –and the character of Septimus, unplanned when she outlined the novel, acts as a sort of double for Mrs. Dalloway. There’s a lot to ponder and to feel in a rather short novel, almost a novella.

A Long Petal of Sea (2019) by Isabel Allende. Read for a book group. I don’t know why I always feel when I finish an Allende book that I’ve been sold a literary novel but actually given a family saga/romantic tale. Maybe she’s just a good storyteller. And I don’t want to imply that the book is light — it concerns the bloody Spanish Civil War, just prior to World War II, leading to Franco’s coming to oppressive fascist power, followed by the hasty and dangerous exile or emigration to South America of many of the Republicans (unionists, communists, anarchists, workers, peasants) as it became clear the Nationalists (army rebels,bourgeoisie, landlords, the upper classes) would win. There’s no shortage of cruelty, impossible decisions, blood and sickness, torture, and death in the book, which follows primarily doctor Victor Dalmau and his family through “typhoid, dehydration, displacement, torture, exile, and death.” Victor and his brother’s wife Roser, posing now as married partners but privately not (they’re friends, and parents to her son), are able to escape through France to Chile as refugees and make a home there, until that home is also threatened in 1973 when U.S.-backed General Pinochet and the military oust (and likely kill) President Salvador Allende and come to power, and Victor and Roser are forced to flee to Venezuela. Allende examines ideas of home, love, humanity: “The question that interests Allende is to what extent love awakens the feelings that make us human even as war and exile work to destroy them. She alerts us to suffering only to investigate the alienation — or personal exile — that drips from the tap of a savage world” (Los Angeles Review of Books).

A Murderous Summer at Bard (2017) by Glenda Ruby, second in the “Hudson Valley Mysteries” series. I found this book (signed by the author, to “Cindy”) at a local coffee shop free for the taking. It’s set at Bard College and among the mansions and cottages of the Duchess County Gold Coast, an area I’d like to visit some time. Lindsay Brooks is an antiquarian, real estate agent, and part-time sleuth, working in this case with Paul Whitbeck, the sheriff of the county north of Duchess, to solve the murder of a theatre student on stage during a play and the concurrent death (suspicious?) of newcomer Cassandra Chappelle,  a wealthy former minor actress with a past.  I was pleasantly surprised by the plotting and most of the writing and I appreciated the several paragraphs of Hudson Valley history interwoven with the mystery.

June 

The Dutch House (2019) by Ann Patchett. Read for a bookgroup. A novel about a family inhabiting (and then not inhabiting) a house near Philadelphia once owned by wealthy Dutch family. Cyril, a real estate landlord, buys the unusual and very large house for his wife, Elna, in the 1950s, but it’s not her thing. Their children — Danny, the narrator, and his older sister by seven years, Maeve — reminisce about the house as their lives unfold, and in some ways cling to it. It’s a modern fairy tale, with a wicked stepmother, exiled orphans, and the castle at the heart of the story. Engaging. It was a world in which I enjoyed dwelling for a time.

Earth User’s Guide to Permaculture, 2nd Ed. (2006/2015) by Rosemary Morrow. Read for permaculture group. Of limited use, as the plant and animal examples are Australian (kangaroos and eucalypt figure largely), but there is helpful info for any permaculture practitioner or newbie about permaculture ethics and principles and their applications. The book has five sections: intro to permaculture and observation of the land; water, soil, climate, trees, and other basics; reading and designing your land in terms of zones (zero to V) and briefly on permaculture practice at work; resilience planning for disasters big and small (from pandemics and tsunamis to pests, weeds, and wildlife); and social permaculture and a sense of place. Each chapter ends with a list of practical things to try.

July

Revolver Road (2020) by Christi Daughtery, 3rd in the Harper McClain series. McClain is a crime reporter for the Savannah, GA paper, and when this novel starts it’s winter and she’s still hiding out on nearby Tybee Island after being warned by a stranger — a stranger with a lot of specific knowledge of her — that someone wants to kill her. Coincidentally, a hot singer, Xavier Rayne, has gone missing after a night of drinking with his housemates on Tybee, and McClain is on hand to investigate by trying to get chummy with his three friends. Soon she’s contacted again by the stranger with more information about the danger she’s in, and she tries to cope with this along with a former boss’s professional and personal overtures, her own newspaper’s financial woes, and her ever-present feelings for Luke, the detective working the Xavier Rayne case. I enjoy these for the setting and the plots.

A Conspiracy of Bones (2020) by Kathy Reichs in the Tempe Brennan series, this one set entirely near Charlotte, North Carolina. Tempe is recovering from aneurysm embolism surgery and dealing with a new boss who doesn’t want her around.  So she’s working unofficially with ex-homicide detective Skinny Slidell to investigate the identity of a corpse found eaten by feral hogs — who turns out to be a man whom she had seen a week before outside her home. That investigation leads to lots of Dark Web research into conspiracy theories, endangered children, and former-defense dept. underground real estate for sale. Tempe’s love interest, former Montreal detective, and now private investigator Andrew Ryan, flies in for a quick visit but is a small part of the story this time. This series is always a good read.

Soldiers of Salamis (2003, transl.2018) by Javier Cercas. Exceptional novel, written like a non-fiction book, in three parts: the middle section is the story of Rafael Sánchez Mazas, a writer with “an irresistible propensity to lordly idleness” who helped found the fascist Spanish Falange (to reestablish “the securities, privileges and hierarchies of his own people”) and incite with his rhetoric the Spanish Civil War, pivoting on a moment in time about 60 years before, near the end of the war, when he escaped execution by firing squad and then escaped death a second time when a soldier found him hiding but walked away without shooting him or revealing him; the first and third sections are set in the present, when the book’s author, a journalist, learns of this story and investigates it by talking with various people including men (and their descendants) with whom Sánchez Mazas hid out on a farm, Sánchez Mazas’s son, a soldier on the other side of the war, and others. The novel looks at memory, “the elusiveness of truth,” heroism and cowardice (and heroism and virtue), greatness and goodness, the freshness and necessity, perhaps, of battle and the disappearance of the story of war as the people involved die. It asks How are stories kept alive? and Whose version of the story is the true one? There are some amazing run-on sentences filled with interesting words and ideas that I enjoyed reading over and over again.

August

The Golden Cage (2019/2020) by Camilla Läckberg. 4.5 stars. A psychological novel about revenge, set in and near Stockholm, Sweden. Faye, a woman in her early 30s with a hidden past, is billionaire businessman’s Jack’s wife and she loves him, desperately, though the reader sees that Jack is not a good guy. Events transpire and now Faye, once one of the top socialites in Stockholm, is walking dogs and seeing her 4-year-old daughter Julienne every couple of weeks while she plans her revenge, which turns on a very carefully calculated multi-year plan, as she relies on a few female friends (those outside the golden cage of high society, that is) for emotional, practical, and monetary support. Fair amount of explicit sex in this book, most of it casual, some of it fun, some of it simply necessary to achieve a goal. The first part of the book is more of a suspense novel, as the reader anticipates what nasty business is certain to come given Faye’s level of delusion, and the rest is more like the movie The First Wives’ Club. I enjoyed it, though it’s one of those novels that makes the reader somewhat complicit with an amoral character.

Catherine House (2020) by Elisabeth Thomas, a debut novel. Creepy, dreamy, slightly gothic novel about Catherine House, a college-level boarding school at which all students must reside without ever leaving the campus, talking with anyone (including family) from their past, watching TV or listening to current music. “Cloistered” is the word that comes to mind, but these students spend a lot of their time drinking the wine provided to them by the college and having lots of sex. The story is told by Ines, who’s left a troubled past behind but who doesn’t fully fit in at Catherine House, either, and she’s suspicious of what the school is really doing besides offering its students a full wardrobe of clothing, continual rich and sumptuous feasts (starting with morning tea on a tray) and a rigourous courseload of far-reaching studies. I liked it, especially the dreamy quality of writing and the expansive campus and its labyrinth-like, architecturally interesting buildings, but I felt uneasy after reading it, which is probably a success for the author.

The Guest List (2020) by Lucy Foley. Suspense novel.  A wedding party converges on a remote island off Ireland’s coast, the groom the handsome star of a survival TV show, the bride a stylish and beautiful magazine publisher. Among the wedding party for this power couple are several classmates from the groom’s prep school, the bride’s closest friend, Charlie, and his wife Hannah, and the bride’s troubled younger half-sister, Olivia. The novel is told in short chapters, most narrated by wedding party members beginning the day or two before the wedding, along with a “Now” narration of events on the night of the wedding. This is the first wedding event on the island for the wedding planners and new owners of the venue, but with the island’s haunted history, its dangerous bogs, its sheer ocean cliffs, the strong winds in the forecast, and the secrets, resentments, fears, and anger bubbling up among those assembled, the party may not go as smoothly as hoped. I enjoy one-venue novels, especially set in atmospheric places like Inis an Amplóra, and reunions of characters who knew each other formerly, so I liked this book, but some of the plotting and coincidence seems preposterous. (If you heed trigger warnings — and I don’t want to say specifically what they are because they’re spoilers — this book may not be for you.)

Suspended Sentences (2006) by Patrick Modiano (2014 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature). A sort of trilogy of novellas, or a dreamy autobiography, rendered piecemeal, the focus jumping, narrowing, widening, of growing up in France during and after the Nazi occupation. I wish I could say what any of it is about. I liked it.

The Lantern Men (2020) by Elly Griffiths, 12th in the Ruth Galloway series. Ruth has moved with her American partner Frank and her now 9-yr-old daughter Kate from Norwich to Cambridge to teach at St. Jude’s College. She’s also finished another book at a retreat center called Grey Walls, and that connection is ostensibly why DCI Nelson pulls her into a case involving Ivor March, a convicted serial killer who has ties to Grey Walls, among them his ex-wife Crissy Martin, who runs the place and with whom Ruth bonded. Nelson, still with wife Michelle and baby Georgie (and their two older daughters), is missing Ruth and jealous of Frank, and Ruth is trying not to miss Nelson and to appreciate Frank’s good qualities. Clough comes back for a cameo, and a new recruit, Tony Zhang, is introduced.

Such a Fun Age (2020) by Kiley Reid. A suspenseful sort of mom-lit book that looks at race, women’s friendships, and as the cover of the book asks “what happens when you do the right thing for the wrong reason?” There are three main adult characters in the book, none of them particularly likable: Alix is a wealthy entitled deceitful white mom in her early 30s who knows what she wants and nurtures unhealthy obsessions, and who has a trio of unhelpful women friends and the most interesting 3-year old ever; Emira is a 25-year-old black woman who has no idea what she wants, is mostly passive until she’s mean-spirited, and also has a trio of unhelpful women friends; and Kelley is a white man in his early 30s with an unhealthy (possibly racist) predilection, no self-awareness, and a cruel streak. The redeeming traits of Emira for me were her total unabashed love and simpatico feeling for Alix’s oldest daughter, Briar, whom she babysits, and her unwillingness to engage in people’s drama … until near the end, when she completely (and unreasonably, but egged on by her friends) does a 180. I like the way the story is told, how it unfolds, what the readers learns and when. I just wish I could have rooted for someone a little.

The Secret Guests (2020) by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). A very straight-forward imagining of what might have happened had the British Royal Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret been sent for safety to “neutral” Ireland during the bombing of London in World War II. The story is narrated but we’re also privy to the thoughts of some of the characters, most notably Anglo-Irish Detective Garda Strafford and the younger princess, Margaret. I thought some of the writing was awkward and the plot simplistic, but the novel was interesting for its historical setting in the Irish Free State, with the contentious and nuanced relationships among nationalists and unionists.

The Tenant (2020) by Katrine Engberg, debut crime fiction set in Copenhagen, Denmark. Police detectives Jeppe Korner and Anette Werner investigate the murder of a young woman on the first floor of a small apartment building, which they soon realise almost mimics  the draft of a mystery novel written by the owner of the building, who is also the third floor tenant. All of those the detectives interrogate lie about something relevant to the crime, but which lies matter? I really enjoyed this crime novel, part police procedural and part thriller, for its plot and for its insight into human feeling and behaviour.

The Truants (2020) by Kate Weinberg, a debut novel that I hoped would be more mysterious than it actually was. The narrator, Jess, is a young college student in England, naive and obsessive, as many are at that age, open to the charm of liars, pretenders, and manipulators. She falls for her new dorm-mate, Georgie, a luminous and voluptuous risk-taker with dark undertones, and also falls for both fellow student Alec and professor Lorna Clay, storytellers who enrapture her with not only their shadowy tragic stories but their glances, their focused attention, their slight touches, their “vibrating, restless souls.” But is either one a murderer? That’s the mystery at the heart of the book, as Jess writes in her journal and dissects every email, conversation, look, and gesture, trying to make sense of relationships, betrayals, and the consequences of her own actions. Like others, I found the writing a little better than average but the plot and relationships fell flat for me soon after the midway point, though I enjoyed the change of scenery to an Italian volcanic island. Christie fans, there’s not a lot here for you.

September

The Absolution (20216/2019) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. Third in the Children’s House series. It’s subtitled “A Thriller” though I’m not sure why. Detective Huldar and another detective, Gudlaugur, of the Reykjavik police are being sidelined by their boss, Erla, but they manage to stumble onto the scene of the second murder by a killer who’s posting Snapchats of the victims’ last moments. When they bring in Freyja, a child psychologist, to help with interviews of the victims’ friends, they begin to realise that the crimes might be revenge killings for bullying, which leads them to children who have been bullied, and their parents. A very well-constructed and complex (but not overly complicated) plot, excellent writing and dialogue, satisfying character depth. Recommended for those who like psychological crime fiction and police procedurals.

Persons Unknown (2017) by Susie Steiner, second in a series. A really well-written crime novel, set in Cambridgeshire, England, with a terrific plot and an extreme amount of character delving and relationship exploration for a 300-page book. The main detective, Manon Bradshaw, is single, quite pregnant, has recently adopted a 12-yr-old black boy who’s having trouble, and she’s living with her sister, a nurse, who has a 3-yr-old; there is a lot of parenting talk in this book, but somehow it all melds together seamlessly with the overall story, and because Manon is mostly miserable and very unsentimental, and because there is some focus on other interesting single non-parent characters, it wasn’t cloying and boring in that way that books about parenting can be for non-parents (and maybe for parents, too). Quite an accomplishment!

Two Girls Down (2018) by Louisa Luna, a novel set in down-and-out (fictional) Denville, PA, about two kidnapped girls (ages 8 and 10) and California-based bounty hunter Alice Vega, brought in by the family, and former police detective Max (“Cap”) Caplan’s search for them (he’s brought in by Vega for local knowledge), sometimes with and sometimes without the support of the police department where Cap was formerly employed. Vega’s character is really interesting — secretive, sad, driven, armoured, highly disciplined — which charming and more laid-back Cap soon realises and appreciates as well. She’s a woman who sleeps little,  taught herself to do a free-standing 15-minute headstand each morning, doesn’t want to waste time eating, and likes to break down rifles to relax. I liked the team and hope there are more to come featuring these two.

Read & Buried (2019) by Eva Gates, 6th in the Lighthouse Library mystery series. It’s a cozy mystery, with a cat who’s fairly prominent, no bad language (the protagonist, Lucy, goes so far as to call one vicious woman “not-nice”), and a plot that’s second to the familial and (very innocent) love relationships. I chose it because of the setting on Nag’s Head, NC, and it wasn’t terrible, just a bit tedious and boring, though the author’s treatment of slavery and the freed slaves — whose history is an important aspect of the plot — was extremely white-washed and difficult to stomach. I don’t think I’ll read any others in the series, but if you’re looking for something light, non-demanding, summery, and filled with mostly nice, polite people and relationships, you might enjoy this.

Autumn Light: Season of Fire & Farewells (2019) by Pico Iyer. A meditation on being in Japan in autumn, playing ping pong, visiting shrines, musing about his wife’s father who recently died, about his wife’s mother whom they recently moved to a care home, about his wife’s brother who’s estranged from the family, and about dying, aging, loss, beauty, life, and death in general. Not as poetic as I had hoped, boring in parts (too much ping pong, for one thing), but overall a calming and thoughtful book that made me want to visit Japan in autumn and that reminded me of what matters.

October

All the Devils Are Here (2020) by Louise Penny, 16th in the Gamache series, this one set almost entirely in Paris. The Gamaches have gone to Paris to await the birth of Jean-Guy & Annie’s second baby and to visit Armand’s elderly godfather, Stephen, a billionaire, who is soon critically injured in a hit-and-run. Meanwhile, Jean-Guy wonders what his role really is at GHS, a private engineering firm where he now works, and Daniel, the Gamaches’ son, is forced to confront his long-standing bitterness and resentment towards his father. As usual, the various stories, complex and richly textured, come together elegantly. Always a joy to read these books.

The Shapeless Unease: A Year of Not Sleeping (2020) by Samantha Harvey, a meditation, memoir, interior monologue on Harvey’s inability to sleep, mainly due to anxiety (though she investigates other causes, like menopause and road noise), and her thoughts about sleep, writing, Brexit, doctor-patient relationships, time, faith, science, childhood events, swimming, more. It’s quite a dreamy book, at times stream-of-consciousness, with many more questions than answers, and I loved it. There’s also a little short story about an ATM robbery tucked into it.

The Split (2020) by Sharon Bolton. Talk about a psychological thriller — there’s more thrills and more psychology in this book than you’ll see in twenty other books combined, plus a dash of detective novel. The story begins in the icy world of South Georgia, near Antarctica, where Felicity works as a glaciologist. We learn early that she’s very afraid of someone, who is soon to arrive on the last ship of the season. Soon, we’re taken back to Cambridge, England, nine months before, and Felicity’s life there, which is unsettled to say the least, and then to seven months before, in Cambridge, after Felicity has left for the hinterlands, and finally back to present-day South Georgia, picking up where we left off but understanding a lot more about what’s going on and who these people are. Excellent and villainously complex plotting, characters, and relationships, with interesting sidelights on ice science, the homeless community, therapy and hypnosis, etc.  Recommended.  

Tea & Treachery (2020) by Vicki Delany, the first in the Tea By the Sea mystery series. An old-fashioned cozy murder mystery set on Cape Cod, in a fictional town near Truro. Lily runs a tea shop next to her outspoken grandmother Rose’s Victorian B&B (where Lily makes full English breakfasts for the guests before her tea shop opens at 11), and both are suspected when a local developer, Jack Ford, is found dead on the beach at the bottom of a cliff on their property. The police in town (one in particular) seem either incompetent or corrupt so of course Lily, her best friend Bernie, and Rose have to do some investigating of their own. The mystery plot is liberally sprinkled with references to baking and tea making, with lots of details about scones, cupcakes, tea sandwiches, tea types and brewing, and so on. This sort of mystery isn’t really my cup of tea, shall we say, but I liked it better than most of its kind, which is a strong recommendation for those who enjoy food-focused cozies set in charming coastal towns.  I’ll read another.

November

Squeeze Me (2020) by Carl Hiaasen. Hilarious send-up of Trumpworld in Florida, just post-pandemic, complete with Casa Bellicosa (the Winter White House), the Potussies (POTUS pussies — extremely wealthy older women who adore the Pres.), loads of Secret Service agents who know their main charges as Mastadon and Mockingbird, a flaming tanning bed, scads of giant Burmese pythons, charity balls for obscure diseases, and Angie Armstrong, a wildlife wrangler and former felon. The ex-Gov. Tyree (Skink) makes an appearance, too, foreshadowed early in the book. All the typical vivid, concentrated description and the fast pace you’d expect in a Hiaasen novel. The Sunday Times of London puts it well: he’s the “undisputed master of organised chaos.” 

The Searcher (2020) by Tana French. A novel more than a mystery novel, although there is a mystery (a few actually) and the book’s protagonist, Cal, is a retired Chicago cop now living in the hinterlands of Ireland. He’s enjoying fixing up his cottage, fishing, and occasional pub nights and cryptic conversations with his nearest neighbour, Mart, when into his life pops the disturbing force of 13-year-old Trey, whose older brother went missing six months ago. Trey wants Cals to investigate, and Cal, against his better judgment and inclinations, does, with powerful repercussions. Beautifully written — slow, almost meditative, in parts (musings on morality, one’s inner compass, raising kids, hunting, life in a small stagnating village, etc.), peppered with violence, action, and cruelty. Recommended.

Still Life (2020) by Val McDermid, sixth in the Karen Pirie (cold case) series. I pulled up maps on my phone to follow the route taken by the two plots in this book, with locales including many in Scotland — the Firth of Forth, St. Monans, Kilconquhar, Perth, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Milton of GlenIsla, Hawick, and more — and across the channel to Paris and Caen in France, and across the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland and County Donegal, Ireland. Karen, Jason, and DS Daisy Mortimer (temporarily assigned to the Historic Cases Unit) are following up the old case of Iain Auld, missing for more than ten years and declared dead by his wife Mary a few years before, after Iain’s brother Jamie is found in the Firth of Forth with his head bashed in. Meanwhile, Karen and Jason are also investigating the death and identity of a skeleton that’s turned up in a garaged camper van after the owner of the house dies in a road accident. Since the book is set from February to March 2020, there are a few hints of the burgeoning pandemic beginning about a quarter of the way into the book, as well as some minor speculation about the Brexit fallout. This is my favourite McDermid series.  

One By One (2020) by Ruth Ware. Staff — and one former staff member who’s a shareholder — of a privately held ultra-hip music tech app called Snoop arrive at a luxurious chalet in the French Alps for a corporate retreat and ski week that pretty quickly devolves, aided by a massive snowstorm and avalanche. The story is narrated from the alternating points of view of Liz, the former staffer, and Erin, who manages the chalet and acts as host to the group along with Danny, the chef. That several people die is no secret; the book begins with a news clipping reporting it. What’s revealed in the novel is how and why the deaths occur. Though we know most of the characters only superficially and don’t develop strong feelings about them, I enjoyed the setting and build-up, the interactions among the characters, but I felt the book became weaker as it went on. There was something flimsy about this one for me.  

The Unreality of Memory: Essays (2020) by Elisa Gabbard. Fascinating set of essays written from 2016-2018 or so, including a prescient one about how the next pandemic would very likely be a flu virus. She writes about disasters and catastrophes (9/11, Titanic, volcanoes and tsunamis, plagues and pandemics; radiation and nuclear destruction, climate change, more); threats — including the big amorphous threats that humans have trouble grappling with, like a volcano (Cumbre Vieja) in the Canary Islands whose tsunami will probably inundate the east coast of the U.S.  to 16 miles inland, and the caldera under Yellowstone that when it blows will boil alive most of Montana and Wyoming and spew ash (really, more like very fine jagged glass) three feet deep in Denver (both of those scenarios discussed in her online 2017 essay, which is reproduced in the book); the evolution of empathy and her own experience of compassion fatigue; the unknowability of the past — even our own past (online here); pandemics and vaccine rejection; the hunting of witches in Salem, MA; and more. I like the subtlety of her thought, her insight and the connections she makes, the patterns she notices, and her homing in on the vivid details of a handful of scenarios.

The Killings at Kingfisher Hill (2020) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. This one is set in the 1930s in England, mostly in a luxurious mansion. Poirot and his  companion, Scotland Yard detective, Edward Catchpool, travel to the estate on a luxury coach after being summoned there by Richard Devonport to prove that his fiancée, Helen, who has confessed and is waiting to be hung, is innocent of the murder of his brother, Frank. On the coach, two women come to Poirot and Catchpool’s attention: one insists she will be murdered if she sits in a particular seat, and other is a beautiful but spiteful woman who tells Poirot an interesting story. Of course both women are connected to the estate to which Poirot and Catchpool are headed. I’m not sure about this novel; I enjoyed it for the most part, especially the setting, but some of the dialogue seemed just a shade uncharacteristic of Poirot.

Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land (2018) by Leah Penniman. Read with my permaculture group. Excellent resource for people of colour (and others) who are drawn to the land, or those who are repelled because farm work = slavery. There’s a lot of history (mostly American, some African), advice about farming/gardening and teaching young people about farming/gardening, business start-up and land-buying advice, herbal medicine info, seed-keeping techniques, (true) soul food cooking recipes, plus so much inspiration and many creative ideas packed into this well-footnoted 300+-page book. Useful photos and charts, too. Highly recommended.   

Life Events: A Novel (2020) by Karolina Waclawiak. Exactly my cup of tea but won’t be for everyone. Evelyn is a woman in her late 30s, living in Los Angeles, unhappy in her marriage, unhappy in many ways, and trying to come to terms with her life and with death, loss, and grief. She trains to be an “exit guide” — someone who helps terminally ill people with emotionally and practically preparing for assisted suicide — which includes among other exercise five minutes spent answering the question “How do you avoid pain?” with a trainee partner; some of her responses: Xanax, a weed pen, wine (a bottle each night, as we later learn), sex, making jokes, avoiding people and relationships, etc. Each client helps her consider her self-destructiveness and her strategies for suppressing pain in a new light. I appreciated her internal monologues, her fraught (anxious, angry, detached, impulsive) reactions to people and situations, and her yen for escapism, including many long drives around California and Arizona backroads, through Mojave, Death Valley, various deserts, where she occasionally spends a night or two alone in a motel. It’s one I’ll re-read.      

The Monogram Murders (2014) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. This one is set in London in the 1920s, beginning when a panicked young woman, Jennie, runs into the coffee shop in which Poirot is dining. Most of the story takes place at the Bloxham Hotel, where it soon transpires that three people have been killed, posed, and had a monogrammed cufflink placed in their mouths; there is also a foray to the small town of Great Holling, where the root of the murders seems to lie. I’m not sure I’ve ever read such a convoluted plot, with more twists than a box of fusilli, and so farfetched as to be laughable; I ended up skimming a bit. Worse, as in The Killings at Kingfisher Hill, Poirot is portrayed in an unflattering light, unpleasant and rudely condescending, and without, for the most part, the humourous and affectionate touch Christie lent him and his foibles. The only aspect of Christie’s novels that Hannah nails (at least in the two of these I’ve read) is the setting — the coziness of the boarding house where Catchpool is living, the luxury and grandeur of the hotel (and the estate, in Kingfisher), the repressiveness and seething emotions often found of small towns. 2.5 stars.

Closed Casket  (2016) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot. I enjoyed this one more than the other two I’ve read because Poirot seemed more “himself,” every bit as immodest but not nearly as pedantic or rude as in the other novels. The plot, though, was just as farfetched in its way as the Monogram Murders, but the telling of this story was better — more concise, clearer, and less repetitive. Briefly, in October 1929, a wealthy woman who writes children’s detective books summons Poirot, Catchpool, her lawyers, and her children and their partners to her estate in Ireland, where she announces she’s signed a Will leaving everything to her research assistant, a charming man who doesn’t have long to live. What could go wrong? I knew (or suspected) early on whodunnit but that didn’t diminish my pleasure in reading the denouement. 3.5 stars. 

December

Remain Silent (2020) by Susie Steiner, 4.5. Another in the Manon Bradshaw series set in Cambridge, England. Sort of a police procedural about Lithuanian illegal immigrants and the risks and traumas they encounter in the U.K. — not only from UKippers but also from their Lithuanian overlords — and alloyed with long sections on the nuanced struggles of marriage and child-raising. An interesting combo! I liked it.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes (2020) by Alexander McCall Smith, a Detective Varg novel. I’m unsure what to make of this fairly amusing novel. The novel is strictly speaking not crime fiction, except in the sense that the Encyclopedia Brown series is crime fiction. Varg and his three colleagues investigate three cases (a knee stabbing, a missing boyfriend, and a hotel haunting) but it doesn’t seem like the crime is what matters here; this book was really about the interactions of Swedish people — and it’s a very different and morally centered Sweden presented by Smith than, e.g., in the Jo Nesbo books — and their sundry chit chat and thoughts, mostly centered on how to behave well in a civil society.  

The Thursday Club Murder (2020) by Richard Osman. A charming murder mystery set at an upscale retirement village in rural Kent, England. Four residents — Elizabeth, Ibrahim, Ron, and recently joined Joyce — meet weekly to talk over old murder cases (co-founder Penny, now in a coma in the hospice wing, is a former Detective Inspector who kept copies of some cases) until a murder takes place involving a contractor who works on their campus. The club members work in an irregular way with PC Donna and DCI Chris at the local police force, though that doesn’t always go smoothly. Most of the book is narrated in the third person, with interspersed short diary entries written by Joyce. Quite amusing, and rather cozy (sherry, lots of tea, drizzle cakes, friendships, possible romance, etc.), though the contractor’s murder is far from the only death and the plotting is actually quite complicated, in a good way.

Snow (2020) by John Banville. This crime novel, written under Banville’s own name, is labelled as the first in the series but it continues the Inspector Strafford series written under Banville’s pseudonym Benjamin Black, set in County Wexford, Ireland, in the 1950s. A priest is killed and mutilated in the Osbornes’ Irish country manor house, and while the Archbishop hushes it up in the press, Strafford and Jenkins investigate the Osbornes and others, as snow piles up and makes driving treacherous. If you’re reading it for the many feelings of snow — the cozy feeling of being in a tavern with friendly folks, the alienating feeling of being in a huge manor house that’s being selectively maintained (many rooms closed off), the claustrophobic feel of driving when you can’t see the road ahead of you and walking through deep snow in an unfamiliar place, etc. — you’ve come to the right place. On the other hand, the plotting and particularly the revelations about the murdered priest seem pretty predictable. 

The Mystery of the Three Quarters (2018) by Sophie Hannah, another of her novels featuring Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot and Scotland Yard Inspector Edward Catchpool, who “writes” the story. Several people come to Poirot with a letter purported to have been written by him accusing them of the murder of a man who was believed to have simply fallen asleep and drowned in his tub. Poirot and Catchpool try to determine the relationships of the letter-receivers to the dead man and to an unknown letter writer. There is quite a bit of discussion about character vs. actions and about estrangements, grudge-holding, guilt, and forgiveness. The book was a pleasant read but it ultimately failed for me because a key scene, in which something is realised by one of the characters, was unconvincing. 

The Christmas Card Crime and Other Stories (2018) ed. Martin Edwards. A collection of eleven British crime stories set around Christmas. The quality of the stories, which are arranged in chronological order of publication from 1909 to 1965, varies fairly widely. By the Sword by Selwyn Jepson was my favourite.

Snow Drift (2018/2020) by Helene Tursten, the third in the mildly police procedural Detective Inspector Embla Nyström series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden, and further north, near rural Dalsland and Bengtsfors. This investigation brings traumatic pieces of Embla’s past into the present — including the disappearance of her best childhood friend Lollo — as she and local police officer (and K9 trainer) Ollie Tillman search for the killer or killers of some wealthy gang members with ties to Croatia.  Extremely prosaic writing, as usual, which may be the translation; and I noticed a lot of mundane description of rooms, clothing, and meals featuring wild game. I like this series because of Embla’s character and the far north setting, and I don’t mind the needless reports of what everyone wears and eats and what their homes and offices look like.

The Janes (2020) by Louisa Luna, 2nd in the Alice Vega/Max Caplan series. Private investigator and hand-stand practitioner Vega is asked to help the San Diego police solve a case involving the trafficking of underaged Mexican girls, and she invites Cap to fly out and help her. Once they find the girls, though, the police push them out in no uncertain terms, along with their own detective McTiernan (who will hopefully make a return appearance in a future novel). Not a book for the faint-hearted: very violent, brief descriptions of torture, lots of blood, gore, and pain; children in peril; and our heroes facing death-defying odds several times a day. But somehow, it ends up being heart-warming. As Cap says he’s learned over the years, “Trust the girl.”

One thought on “Books Read 2020

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