BOOKS READ 2022

Once again (2021, 2020, 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

Let the Dead Keep Their Secrets (2018) by Rosemary Simpson, 3rd in the Gilded Age mystery series set in New York City, this one in early 1889. The title is a good one, because the plot hinges on the practice at the time, by many morticians, to take photos of people just after they’ve died (preferably before rigor mortis has set in) after arranging them with props, makeup, blankets, etc., to look as lifelike and comfortable as possible. For some this was the only time they were ever photographed, so this was the only visual record of the deceased for those left behind. These cabinet photos were affixed to carte de visites that were sent to family and friends. Some morticians, however, also sought to see and capture photographically the soul leaving the body “in a cloud of transparent plasma” at the exact moment of death — even if they had to arrive early and hasten death themselves. In this novel, a singer has come to Prudence and Geoffrey after her twin and her newborn niece have died by what she suspects is foul play perpetrated by her sister’s controlling husband, Aaron Sorensen, who very quickly remarries and makes pregnant his new wife. The carte de visite she’s received may contain a clue. A fairly creepy book.

Mad Enchantment: Claude Monet and the Painting of the Water Lilies (2016) by Ross King. Title is a bit misleading: it’s about much more than the painting of the water lilies, and it’s as much about Georges Clemenceau (Prime Minister of France from 1906-1909 and 1917 until 1920, playing a big role as a WWI leader), a close friend of Monet’s, as it is about the painter himself. Very readable, interesting in its detailed look at Monet’s moods, eyesight troubles, gourmand/gourmet tendencies, many friendships, and of course painting style, struggles, and process. Also worth reading for a view of France during World War I, and as general art history background of the period and place, including how Impressionists were seen then, plus the names of many individual collectors, the prices they paid for paintings, and the institutions that bought or sought his work. One frustration for me is that very few of the paintings are named in the book, and very few (exactly seven) appear in the center images of the book (which in my library copy are duplicated, a double set of the same few images), so it was hard to even look up the paintings discussed. There are ample photos throughout of Monet and his friends and family, and a few of his gardens.

The Paper Palace (2021) by Miranda Heller Cowley. Romance with a bit of suspense and a clunky ending. OK for a beach read. Quite a bit of sex, as well as messed-up relationships, difficult childhoods, death, divorce, lies, betrayal … and lots of swimming in the ponds of Cape Cod, where most of the book is set. Elle (Eleanor) is in her 50s, married to rock-solid Englishman Peter, with three kids aged 9-17 and a sardonic and somewhat unsympathetic mother, Wallace. Her best friend is nature-lover Jonas, married to Gina with kids of their own. Elle and Jonas share a past, some of it known only to them, but the truth is starting to emerge. I didn’t like Elle or Jonas much (or Peter; Wallace was probably the most likeable, which is saying something), but I liked the setting, an old-fashioned main house with cabins on Cape Cod, and the water, which is a big part of the story for good and ill. The ending is ambiguous to say the least.

Autopsy (2022) by Patricia Cornwell, 25th in the Kay Scarpetta series. They’re back in Virginia, in Old Town Alexandria, to be exact, and once again Kay, as chief medical examiner hired to clean up past messes, is working with people she can’t trust (which I love). Benton is with the U.S. Secret Service, and because of his position always more aware of what’s going on on a high level than Kay is; Marino, married to Kay’s narcissistic sister Dorothy, is living nearby and kind of bored as a kept man, so he jumps at the chance to work with Kay contractually; and her niece Lucy, grieving recent life events, is living somewhat reclusively with her cat in a cottage on Benton and Kay’s property, where she works on artificial intelligence projects The main forensic case involves a woman — new to town and employed at a corporation that’s working on making 3D body parts — murdered in her home, which is in the same townhouse community as Marino’s and Dorothy’s. This killing reminds an eager local detective, Blaise Fuge, of another case that was determined to be an accident; it took place a couple of years back on park property nearby, and Kay sees the resemblances between the cases as well. In the midst of these investigations, and just after a tumultuous evening for Kay and her family, Benton and Kay are called to the White House Security Room on an extremely confidential and unfolding matter — could it be related to Kay’s cases? The repetition of the word “and” sprinkled almost indiscriminately throughout the book has always irritated me in Cornwell’s writing, but I sure love the satisfying and slightly bewitching combination she concocts (like her secret garlic bread topping) of domestic details and daily routines, relationship nuances and bonds (particularly her bond with Lucy), an atmosphere of almost constant distrust of those not in their inner circle coupled with Kay’s hopefulness and her attempts to be kind or at least civil; and even though it is an unholy olio of crime plots and motivations here, it all works for me — I sped through the book in a day.

A Stranger in Mayfair (2010) by Charles Finch, 4th in the Charles Lenox series, set in London in the mid-1860s. Soon after Lenox and Lady Jane, now his wife, return from their continental honeymoon, fellow member of Parliament Ludovic Starling asks Charles to get involved in the murder of his footman — but he soon and inexplicably rescinds his invitation, and before long Inspector Fowler arrests Jack Collingwood, the butler, for the murder. Of course there’s more here than meets the eye and Lenox is excited to work on the case with Dallington, no matter how many times Ludo, his wife, and Fowler berate them for their intrusive investigation, while Lenox’s former butler, Graham, takes over very successfully as his personal secretary in Parliament. Lenox is less than excited by the drudgery of being an MP, though he does get fired up about cholera deaths surging in the poor sections of London due to poor sanitation infrastructure, but he’s warned off that topic by everyone from his brother to Graham. Meanwhile, he and Jane are not getting along particularly well; Lenox is envious of McConnell’s new baby and wants one of his own, while Jane isn’t ready to take that step yet. One bit I found interesting was the ingeniously constructed “white meal” served for the baptism of Tom and Toto’s new daughter. (Also read in Aug. 2017)

The Neighbor’s Secret (2021) by L. Alison Heller. Mommylit, with a little suspense, set in Cottonwood Estates, somewhere in the U.S., about the women in a bookgroup (all moms) that meets monthly. Annie, and her kids Laurel and Hank, and Jen and her son Abe, are the main focuses of the book, along with Lena (and her grown daughter Rachel), who is hiding a secret connected to both the death of a neighbourhood boy and of Lena’s own husband 15 years ago. I enjoyed it, mainly for the women’s ruminations about how to balance being aware of what their kids were up to against being oppressive and driving their kids away; this tension, and being judged for how well you manage it, is discussed openly in the book several times. I didn’t think the anonymous short ominous observations scattered throughout added anything to the story or suspense. The ending was satisfying enough but almost glossed over, so briefly handled that it wasn’t as profound or intense as it might have been.

February

An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris (1975) by Georges Perec, trans. and with a substantial afterword by Marc Lowenthal, noting that this slim volume was published months before the time setting of Perec’s 600-page Life A User’s Manual (1978), which is based on details of the lives of the inhabitants of a fictitious Parisian apartment block (23 June 1975). Lowenthal also mentions other novels that work with what Perec calls “infra-ordinary,” “the markings and manifestations of the everyday that consistently escape our attention as they compose the essence of our lives.” An Atttempt is fifty pages of brief notes, a glorified list, of what Perec observes while sitting at place Saint-Sulpice in Paris several times each day between 18 and 20 Oct. 1974: People, buses, cars (so many apple-green Citroen 2CVs), baguettes and tarts being carried and eaten, pigeons, delivery vans, weather, a funeral and a wedding, police and meter maids, and so on. He starts out listing buses as they pass through in some detail but by the second day he’s tired of that. He muses most about the random flight of the flock of pigeons around the square. My favourite observation (uncharacteristically compelling for this book): “A little girl, flanked by her parents (or by her kidnappers), is weeping.”

Voices in the Night: Stories (2015) by Steven Millhauser. (This book won a Pulitzer Prize.) I like Millhauser’s style, his voice, but that said, the 16 stories in the book are mostly alike and some are almost identical. TW: Several deal with suicide. There are two types of stories: in the first, accounting for half the stories, something unusual and/or otherwordly is happening, sometimes just to one person (Miracle Polish, Sons & Mothers, Coming Soon, The Wife and the Thief) and sometimes a whole town is involved, the townspeople experiencing phenomena in varied ways and trying to make sense of it all with various theories (Phantoms, Mermaid Fever, A Report on Our Recent Troubles, Elsewhere, The Place); in the second, a smaller group, Millhauser retells a folktale or fairytale in modern vernacular with lots of imagined details (Rapunzel, Siddhartha – in The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama, Samuel and Eli from the Bible in A Voice in the Night, and Paul Bunyan in American Tall Tale). The only three stories that don’t fit into these two motifs are “Arcadia,” a slyly humourous (even darkly LOL) story about a lovely pampering resort where people finally find the motivation to do what they need to do; “Thirteen Wives,” detailing the varyingly tangible and abstract nature of a man’s thirteen wives and what he values about them (“If I speak of my twelfth wife as a negative woman, it’s because she is the sum of all that did no happen between us.”); and “Home Run,” which is a three-page run-on sentence of an announcer’s colour commentary for a baseball home run using all the clichés in the book and adding the surprise of atmospheric and astronomical discussion (“I’m told the ball has gone all the way through the troposphere, … really skyed it, up there now in the stratosphere, … help me out here Jimmy, stratosphere starts at six miles and goes up 170,000 feet” and onto the Big Dipper, Milky Way, various planets, and beyond). My favourites were Sons & Mothers, The Wife and the Thief, A Report on Our Recent Troubles, Rapunzel, and the Siddhartha story.

Evergreen Tidings from the Baumgartners (2018) by Gretchen Anthony. Humourous, sometimes touching contemporary novel about a family facing ordinary life together in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area. Violet is an over-controlling mother who only feels loved when she’s needed. Her standards are much higher than anyone else’s, and yet disaster and crises seem to follow her, as she tries to adjust to her lesbian daughter Cerise’s life, wife Barb, and the surprising news of Cerise’s pregnancy, unintentionally announced by an acquaintance, with riotous consequences, at Violet’s husband Ed’s retirement party. Violet, already feeling snubbed not to have been told about the pregnancy, is desperate to uncover who the baby’s father is. Good family friends Eldris, Richard, and Kyle Endres are all involved in the unfolding drama, and Barb’s wealthy but estranged parents make a cameo, too. Several madcap scenes and Violet’s Christmas letters from various years make an already engaging book fuller and funner.

The Maid (2022) by Nita Prose. Molly Gray, an unusual 25-year-old, is a maid at the fancy Regency Grand Hotel (somewhere in North America?). She’s a very very good maid, as was her Gran, by whom Molly was raised and with whom Molly lived until Gran’s death several months ago. Molly is an old-fashioned girl in a modern world — she’s trusting, literal-minded, trying to do the right thing, taking people at face value and unable to read people’s character’s, moods, and faces well, though she tries. All these aspects of Molly are at play in this story about the hotel death of a wealthy man, one of the many “bad eggs,” as Molly calls them, in this novel, and the death’s investigation, when suspicion falls on her. The book itself is rather simple, like Molly, though there are a few little surprises. I’d call this a cozy read.

All the Rage (2020) by Cara Hunter, 4th in the Adam Fawley crime series set in Oxford. Complex storylines: a high-school girl is kidnapped, but the crime is interrupted; then another girl in the same area goes missing. Is there a link between them? Similarities between these two crimes are reminiscent of the Roadside Rapist case years ago (1998) that Fawley worked; the man his investigation and testimony helped convict, Gavin Parrie, is up for parole, but these new cases, along with challenges from a group of lawyers and media folks called The Whole Truth, are planting doubt as to whether Parrie was even the perpetrator of those older crimes. Meanwhile, Adam’s wife Alex (age 42) is pregnant and they’re more anxious than most parents-to-be not only because of her age but because of the death of their 10-year-old son Jake recently. The book is quite satisfying if at times a little over-peopled. DI Fawley is a key character in the books, but this really is a team effort, with DS Chris Gislingham, DC Verity Everett, DC Erica Somer, DC Andrew Baxter, DC Gareth Quinn, and, new to the team, DC Tony Asante all playing important roles.

Murder in Morningside Heights (2016) by Victoria Thompson, 19th in the Gaslight mystery series set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. Frank’s started his own detective agency, employing Gino as his assistant, and Sarah, Maeve, and Mrs. Decker are also involved in investigations, which take some of the team at times to Tarrytown NY by train. A young teacher at a woman’s college is murdered on the campus and suspects abound, including the two older teachers she lives with, other college staff, a would-be fiancé, and her own brother. Interesting plot and sub-plots, as always with historical information subtly included (the dawn of private ownership of motorised vehicles, Boston marriages, prevailing mores concerning women). Sarah is a bit bored as a wealthy matron and is thinking about getting back into her midwifery trade (a married woman who works? unthinkable!).

March

A Burial at Sea (2011) by Charles Finch, 5th in Charles Lenox Victorian Era mysteries, this one set almost entirely on the ship Lucy, which is taking Charles, as a member of Parliament, from Plymouth, England, to Port Said, Egypt, on a special mission concerning the newly consructed Suez Canal and, separately, possible war between France and Britain. Quite a good shipboard mystery. Charles is an educated toff (some consider him an albatross) among 200+ sailors, most of whom can’t read or write; but the officers — ship’s captain Martin, several lieutenants, engineer, the ship’s doctor, purser, chaplain — are a different story and come under scrutiny after 2nd lieutenant Halifax is found murdered and evicerated. Tensions are high as lies, mistrust, and violence continue throughout the rest of the trip; and Charles’ arrival in Port Said presents new risks.

The Whole Truth (2021) by Cara Hunter, 5th in the Adam Fawley crime series set in Oxford. Really excellent and gripping police procedural crime fiction series, with plots that unfold in complexity and intrigue. Here the storylines concern Adam and Alex (still very pregnant), the Roadside Rapist case that was central to the 4th in the series, focusing on now-released Parrie’s vow of revenge against Adam, and a very twisty-turny sexual assault case brought by a male student of a female professor at Oxford — who, if anyone, is the predator? Revenge (best served cold) is definitely the theme in this book.

Joan is Okay (2022) by Weike Wang. Joan, an American of Chinese descent, is a young, dedicated ICU doctor working in a NYC hospital, proud to be a cog in a machine and in fact more comfortable with machines than with humans. She prefers life (and death) to be linear, contained, and predictable. Joan is uncomfortable at home, in a spare apartment where she has no TV, books, hobbies, pets, plants, or friends, and she truly loves working at the hospital as many shifts as she can take — the hospital directors wants more like her, “a new breed of doctor, brilliant and potent, but with no interests outside work and sleep” — until a Human Resources functionary informs Joan that she’s not grieving enough for her father’s recent death and needs to take the full paid bereavement period allowed her, four weeks. This can only feel like a punishment to Joan, and even more so when her apartment building neighbour Mark, an overbearing mansplainer, visits her daily, filling her apartment with things he thinks she needs — furniture, a TV, important books to have read. Meanwhile, Joan’s non-doting mother is visiting her brother Fang, a hedge-fund manager, and his family in wealthy Greenwich, CT, a stay that grows longer and longer as the Covid-19 pandemic, which began in Wuhan, China (and has been tracked by Joan since December 2019), begins to sweep across the world. This novel is full of nuance and humour that seems airy and slender but is actually freighted with racism, perverse expectations and standards, and Joan’s simmering rage. The Chinese word “Chuàng ” comes up several times, and we’re told it means “to create something that never was, to forge a new path, to innovate, to achieve, to strive.” Though Joan’s father, brother, and sister-in-law think she is not striving, and she might say she is enduring (in a good and honorable sense), she is actually creating her own way, diverging from the paths her family, work, and friends believe are right for her.

Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls: Essays, Etc. (2013) by David Sedaris. I liked the essays, skipped over the “etc.,” which are short stories, after skimming the first few. The essays explore his usual topics, which interest me: medical things like the dentist and his colonoscopy, judging strangers based on the flimsiest of evidence, collecting litter, travelling, writing his diary, his relationship with Hugh (his now-husband), his relationship with this father and to a lesser extent his sisters, book tours, politics, being gay, his need for attention, his unsqueamishness with and indeed attraction to the macabre, weird, and absurd. He’s a wry, self-deprecating (but not overly), and psychologically incisive observer.

Still Life (2021) by Sarah Winman. About as good as it gets, this novel, set in East London and in Florence, Italy, from 1944-1979, is an enormously rich and whole-hearted book, peopled by an bunch of unconventional men, women, children, and one parrot, who are funny, heroic, struggling, hopeful, grieving, and in the end (and all along), a welcoming and expansive family whose enduring love for each other deepens their compassion for the world and their vision for the creativity, beauty, and connections that are possible in this life. Ulysses is a young solder in Italy in World War II when he first meets Evelyn, a lesbian art historian in her 60s. Both are English, and both love or will come to love Florence. Ulysses returns to London after the war to find his wife Peg has not only fallen for an American soldier whose whereabouts are unknown but borne a daughter, Alys, by him. Before too long, a few years after his good friend Old Cress, acting on a vision, has won them all a bunch of money betting on a long-shot in the 1948 London Olymics, Ulysses learns that because of a spontaneous act of his in 1944 Florence, he’s inherited quite a large flat there. He, Cress, and Peg’s daughter Alys, now a precocious eight or so, leave London, establish themselves in Florence, helped by the local notary Massimo, and eventually open a pensione there. None of this explains anything about this book. Perhaps the toast, “to this moment,” comes closer.

No One is Talking About This (2021) by Patricia Lockwood. A young woman who is slavishly devoted to “the portal” (the internet; being online) and who is in demand as a speaker after posting something trivial, spends her waking life interacting completely, gleefully, ironically, unhappily, gingerly with the online world, even as she recognises the absurdity of much of modern life and online antics, the vulnerability of our split selves, split minds, located both in real space and in virtual space, truly caught up in the lives of people we have met only in the portal, and the volatile mass fervor that attaches significance to words, phrases, concepts, causes, and just as quickly detaches, seeming at random and without reason. Through her fragmentary entries, we watch her as she worries that the portal is taking over her self, her mind, her speech — “Mostly, though, it passed into you, you, you, you, until she had no idea where she ended and the rest of the crowd began” — and we feel her enthrallment to the windows, to knowing all that used to be private, perhaps confided to a handwritten diary, but that’s now published and known and laughed at by everyone. And then, something goes wrong with her sister’s pregnancy, and her days, one after another, become firmly planted in the real world, her mind filled with her own thoughts, her life and the lives of those she loves engaged in necessary work and profound decisions. (Much of the book felt like the antithesis of Still Life, which I read just before, but by the end of the book, I realised they had a lot inf common.)

The Paris Apartment (2022) by Lucy Foley. Enjoyable suspense novel. Jess comes to Paris to stay with her half-brother Ben, a journalist, but when she gets there, he’s no where to be found, though his damaged Vespa and wallet remain. She sets about trying to find him, with very little to go on: the voicemail he left her a few hours before she arrived and a couple of cards in his wallet. She starts snooping around the interestingly designed apartment building and asking direct questions of the other residents, almost all of whom are uncomfortable when she mentions her brother. There’s obviously more here than meets the eye and with the help, perhaps, of an old friend of her brother’s (another apartment resident), Nick, a business associate of Ben’s, Theo, and the woman who serves as the apartment’s concierge, she starts to uncover what others want buried. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the white cat ever got fed, and what happened to it in the end.)

April

Mermaid Confidential (2022) by Tim Dorsey. 25th in the Serge Storms series. More fun and adventure in the Florida Keys, with tech-savvy vigilante Serge, trying to live more slowly by renting a shabby condo, along with mellow sidekick Coleman, who’s never not high. Most of the folks at Pelican Bay (the name of the condo, as well as the name of a California prison) are friendly, organising condo life around spaghetti dinners and board game nights, and Serge and Coleman, with their “alternative lifestyle,” fit right in. But nearby, on Millionaire’s Row and in the many canals all around, hijinks are occurring as two drug gangs battle while Mercado, the son of one drug kingpin, entices the daughter of a fishing boat captain — Julie, who volunteers at a children’s hospice — to come live in his mansion so that their aging fathers can spend their remaining years together in comfort and camaraderie while watching Gunsmoke and Mayberry RFD. Meanwhile, a drugged-up group of four men and one woman (Vix, a psychopathic meth addict named after one of Santa’s reindeer) are on the run from New Hampshire to Florida, causing mayhem and committing murder along the way, and of course eventually their paths cross with Serge’s, who by then is also volunteering at the children’s hospice and has taken up kite sailing.

I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness: A Novel (2021) by Claire Vaye Watkins. The book is branded a novel but Claire uses her own name and that of her parents and other family members as well as at least some of her family’s historical background; her father, Paul Watkins, was a key part of Charles Manson’s “Family” for a while around the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders. I read it as a memoir. Certainly interesting, episodes and memories from her financially impoverished yet creatively adaptive childhood running throughout more present-day events like her open marriage to Theo and recent birth of their baby girl, which has upended her way of thinking about herself, leading to months (years? I lost track) away from Theo and young daughter Ruth. She also recounts dozens of sexual (or lustful or romantic) attractions and interactions with mostly men, a few women, and plenty of occasions getting high on various drugs with an array of childhood friends and strangers. The sporadic inclusion of letters her mother wrote to a cousin while in high school, filled with typical teenage angst and concerns, confuses me; I felt they were a weak part of the book. That said, the only clear through-line in the novel/memoir is Claire’s having lost both parents, and especially her mother, at an early age, and her desire to reconnect with them in a way that gives her something she fundamentally lacks. Claire comes across as impulsive, restless, stubborn, a bit lost, unwilling to take on much responsibility or long-term commitment. Her writing and voice feel fresh to me, pain and hunger laced with something unflinching, irrepressible, alive. Her life is worlds away from mine and yet I felt a kinship with her.

Something to Hide (2022) by Elizabeth George. 21st in the Lynley series, though Lynley, now acting Detective Chief Superintendent, is absent from the novel until page 119 … of 687 pp. This book was far too long, unnecessarily detailed, and at times repetitious in a way that detracted from the story — which is an important one, centering on a family of Nigerian origin living in London and what the parents think needs to happen (female genital mutilation) to the 8-year-old girl to make her “pure” and “chaste” so that she can claim a good bride price and marry someone (of their choosing) who can take care of her. FGM is also relevant to the killing of a female Nigerian-born police detective investigating the practice, and an overarching theme of (mainly) men wanting to change women, whether by force, nagging, pleading, reasoning, or other means, to be the way the men want them to be, to be other than who they (the women) are, winds its way throughout the several interlaced stories. It took me about 150 pages to get into this book, which is far too long, but in the end, it felt worth it, a satisfying read.

Graveyard Fields (2021) by Steven Tingle. Hopefully the first of a series. Davis Reed, a mediocre private investigator living in Charleston, SC, flees to a cabin in the woods of Cruso, NC, after he’s involved in a violent and unresolved scene involving his brother-in-law, during which Davis is shot in the leg. Ostensibly he’s there to write (another) book about Cold Mountain, where he soon hears that a large stash of gold bars may have been dropped in 1946. Actually, he lives on Xanax and beer (some of which he brews himself) and he doesn’t write a word but quickly becomes obsessed with a set of keys he finds while near a trailhead, much to the annoyance of his new, crude friend and drinking buddy, Dale Johnson, the cabin’s landlord and a local police officer. The novel itself is fairly coarse, but our hero, and I use the term loosely — he describes himself as “an alcoholic, pill-popping, temperamental slacker” — has insight, humanity, humour, and quite a bit of good luck on his side. I’d love to read another.

All My Puny Sorrows (2014) by Miriam Toews. A novel that closely follows events in Toew’s life. Yolandi is trying very hard to keep her beloved older sister, Elfrieda, a premiere concert pianist, alive despite Elf’s yearning for death and her repeated suicide attempts. The girls grew up in a Mennonite community of East Village near Winnipeg, Canada, in a somewhat eccentric family that included a gentle, depressed father and an outspoken, sociable mother, and where this book shines for me is in its stories about the entire family, of which Elf is the least interesting, or the least fleshed-out somehow. I wanted to care whether she lived or died but I didn’t really, except that her death would sadden the rest of her family, including her husband Nic. There’s good humour, kindness, and true humanity here, and some very amusing, candid, and relatable scenes amid the central darkness and struggle.

Murder in the Bowery (2017) by Victoria Thompson, 20th in the Gaslight mystery series set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, this one focusing on the newsboys who sold newspapers, and their real 1899 strike. The newsboys (and a few girls) were often orphans, so the Orphan Train, which took kids from cities to rural towns in the midwest from 1854 to 1929 (to be adopted), is also (a small) part of the novel. The story starts when a young man named Will comes to Frank and Gino asking them to find his little brother, Freddie “Two-Toes.” As soon as the detectives start investigating, they realise something is fishy about Will’s request. Meanwhile, Sarah buys a rickety old house in a bad part of town to renovate and turn into a free maternity hospital/hostel for poor pregnant women; the man she buys it from has a connection to the mystery Frank and Gino are trying to solve.

French Braid (2022) by Anne Tyler. I’m an Anne Tyler fan but this book left me a bit flat. For one thing, I just couldn’t keep the family members, over three generations (I think?) and their relationships with one another straight. The book starts in 2010 with Serena, visiting the parents of a boy she’s dating, running into her cousin Nicholas, whom she barely knows, in the Philadelphia train station; then it switches to 1959, when Mercy and Robin are raising their children — Alice, Lily (later to become Serena’s mother), and David (later to become Nicholas’s father), who were 17, 15 and 7 then — and follows the family and their changes and permutations into the pandemic of 2020, when Nicholas brings his son Benny to stay with David and his wife Greta for a couple of months, and during that stay Alice calls David to report on Lily’s latest doings. It all felt a bit haphazard and random to me, but maybe Tyler is showing us how families operate, flowing in but mostly out of each others’ lives as everyone grows older, with sporadic connections if you’re lucky; she explains, near the very end of the book, the “French braid” title, when David says that families are like French braids because “you think you’re free of them, but you’re never really free; the ripples are crimped in forever,” so there’s also a sense of predictability and perhaps of remaining part of a family in some inevitable way even when connection dwindles. The episodes were interesting enough but the book didn’t gel for me; there was a sense of remove, an emotional distance to almost all of the relationships, particularly in the uninvolved parenting of Robin and Mercy. And, this is nitpicky, but it really bothered me that Tyler used the construction, “was why” at least six times in the book, as in “He spent too much of his youth without one, was why.”

Rock Paper Scissors (2021) by Alice Feeney. A creepy book about a crumbling marriage, set in an old chapel on the edge of a loch in isolated Scotland, told in three voices — wife, husband, woman living near the chapel and observing the couple — plus letters written from wife to husband on each of their marriage anniversaries. It’s a bit overly suspenseful (chapters ending with little cliffhangers), and the writing is fairly ordinary, but it’s also truly twisty.

Death Brings A Shadow (2019) by Rosemary Simpson, 4th in the Gilded Age mystery, this one set on a sea island in southern Georgia in 1889, while the South is still working through reconstruction; lynching, the threat of brutal punishment, degradation, and a firm caste system are still very much part of the lives of the former slaves living on the island, who were not protected by — and in fact are imperiled by — the state and local legal system. Prudence and Gregory have come to the island to be part of the wedding between her old friend Eleanor Dickson and her intended Teddy Bennett, whose family has controlled the island for generations, though after the Civil War, Eleanor’s father (a Yankee), built a grand home on it, which doesn’t sit well with the down-at-heel Bennetts.. Soon after their arrival there, Eleanor dies in a swamp at night. The former black slaves, now living in cabins on the island, seem to hold the key to her death, which may be connected to secrets the former slaves, particularly Jessa and Lula, and the Bennetts — Teddy, brother Lawrence, father Elijah, and sisters Aurora Lee and Maggie Jane — hold close to their chests. The killer is obvious almost from the start of the book but that didn’t matter to me, partly because so many others are shown as deeply complicit. The depiction of the setting as sweltering, swampy, and oppressive in multiple ways is perfect for this story, and I appreciated it all the more because I could envision it as Cumberland Island, GA, where I’ve spent some time and saw the wild boar.

May

The Heirloom Gardener: Traditional Plants & Skills for the Modern World (2021) by John Forti. A lovely book, with many short chapters perfect for discussion in our permaculture group, on topics from Angelica to Zucchini and including Yard, Kelp, Organic Growing Practices, May Day, Floriculture, Edible Flowers, Ethnobotany, and Cordials, among many. Some chapters are poetic short essays, some offer casual recipes for medicines, bitters, or cocktails, some provide history. Forti, currently Executive Director of Bedrock Gardens in Lee, NH (a small whimsical, artsy collector’s garden), draws from his experience working at Plimoth Plantation in Mass., Strawbery Banke Museum and Gardens in Portsmouth NH, and with the Massachusetts Horticultural Society. Most North American gardeners would like this book.

A Death in Small Hours (2012) by Charles Finch, 6th in Charles Lenox Victorian Era mysteries, this one set mainly in a small town, Plumbley, in Sussex, England, where Charles and his young family (wife Lady Jane, daughter Sophia, and Sophia’s nursemaid, Miss Taylor) have gone to stay with Charles’s uncle (or cousin) Frederick at his country home to give Charles some peace and quiet to write an important speech for Parliament. Before their arrival, Frederick dangles in front of Charles the carrot of a strange mystery involving vandalism and cryptic, creepy threats, which Charles has barely begun investigating — between stealing peeks at his baby daughter and taking early morning rides on one of the stabled horses — when a more serious crime occurs.

Dava Shastri’s Last Day (2021) by Kirthana Ramisetti. 4.5 stars. Dava Shastri, an extremely wealthy philanthropist who has recently discovered she has end-stage cancer, has summoned her adult children (with in-laws) and her grandchildren to her grand home on a small island over Christmas, planning with the aid of a doctor to undergo euthanasia a day or two afterward. She’s had her lawyer plant her obituary in the papers, because she wants to know how she’ll be remembered — she sees herself as the founding matriarch of a large family philanthropic powerhouse, similar to John D. Rockefeller. Two unexpected things occur: her family, from whom electronic gadgets have been banished, find a smart TV and hear of her death, knowing she’s alive upstairs in her bedroom; and the public remembrances almost immediately turn gossipy with a focus on a relationship she had (while married) with a band member, Tom Buck. It turns out that how she’s remembered privately, by her family, may matter more in the end than the public acclaim. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and the interesting characters (Dava, her children, and the in-laws). The novel is set in 2044, for which I can find no reason; it has no futuristic aspects about it.

We Know You Remember (2021) by Tove Alsterdal. Olof Hagström, accused at age 14 of the rape and murder of a young woman years ago, returns home after more than 20 years to find his father murdered — and accusations against him begin again. Swedish Police detective Eira Sjödin, who was nine when Olof was convicted of the crimes, remembers that frightening time even as she uncovers new information while investigating this new murder — information that might change the town’s perspective and have ramifications for herself and her family. I appreciated the detailed rendering of Eira’s relationships with the other cops, and with her mother, who has dementia. [Interestingly, Rene Girard’s The Scapegoat is referenced by name and quoted in this novel: “Expulsion and victims are a way of stabilizing society, in which violence is channeled through sacred rituals.”]

Crying in H Mart: A Memoir (2021) by Michelle Zauner. Michelle is half-Korean, half-American, born in Seoul but moved to Eugene, Oregon with her family at age 1. She was an only child and the sole focus of her mother’s constant criticisms, many concerning her appearance, intended to make Michelle the best Michelle she could be. This memoir focuses on two things: her fraught but ultimately very strong attachment to her Korean mother, and food. Korean food. So many lists of Korean food. Korean food (which is sold in H Mart, among others things) is a major bond between herself and her mother, and herself and her Korean heritage, which she wanted to downplay earlier in her life (despite pleasant trips back to Seoul every year to visit family) but now embraces. Her mother Chongmi’s death, in 2014 at age 57 of cancer (a rare stage IV squamous cell carcinoma, probably of the bile duct), changed Michelle’s life trajectory, not only because after a rebellious adolescence that got her labelled Famous Bad Girl by her aunt, she became her mother’s caregiver for months, desperate for ways to please her and nurse her back to health, but also because the loss of her mother led her to write an album of songs that ultimately made her band, Japanese Breakfast, quite popular, and it led her to write this book, full of the loss of her mother, the one who loved her more than anyone else ever would or could, and the discovery of cooking, of her own life’s work, and of the unfolding realisation of who she is and where she comes from.

Madam: A Novel (2021) by Phoebe Wynne. Another creepy novel about a creepy girls’ school, this one in isolated coastal Scotland. When ancient classics teacher Rose is tapped to become the first new teacher at Caldonbrae Hall, a very exclusive girls’ school for ages 11 to 18, she’s excited for the opportunity, the money, the honour; but before she’s there a few days she realises there is more than meets the eye to this institution that promises to “support and guide our girls in becoming enlightened, fulfilled and resilient women, ready to serve and enrich the society to which they belong.” The book begins almost at the end, so the reader knows where things are leading, but that doesn’t make the plot any less interesting, chilling, and suspenseful; the scene-setting and characters well convey the sense of oppression, panic, confusion, and dread that Rose comes to feel. Interspersed with the unfolding drama of Rose’s tenure at the school are stories of various resolute and courageous Greek and Roman women and goddesses, whose tales have relevance for these students: Antigone, Dido, Agrippina, Daphne, Medea, Boudicca, and Medusa.

The Christie Affair (2022) by Nina de Gramont. An skillfully imagined retelling of the events of famed mystery writer Agatha Christie’s well-known disappearance from her home for 11 days in Dec. 1926, about which Christie always maintained she could not remember what happened. In this novel, Nan O’Dea, a fictionalised version of Archie Christie’s mistress Nancy Neele, tells most of that story and her own backstory set in England and Ireland before, during, and after the first World War, which includes living as a young woman in a convent home for unmarried pregnant women and having her child taken from her to be given to another family. Some of the story is also seen through the eyes of Detective Chilton, a kind and melancholy WWI veteran tasked with finding Christie. The book includes mysteries of its own, as well as a little romance, a little history (though much of the book is a sort of alternative history), infused with the nuanced psychology of the human mind and within human relationships that Christie so often reveals in her own novels. A favourite line: “The rage that lingers, when one thinks of war.”

June

Beautiful Ruins: A Novel (2012) by Jess Walter. Solid 4, maybe even 4.5 / The novel moves from a very small fishing village in Italy in 1962 to “recently” in the U.S. (mainly), along with brief stops in 1967, 1978, 2008, and probably a few more years and places, following Pasquale Tursi, owner of the Hotel Adequate View overlooking the Ligurian Sea; Dee Moray, an American actress working with Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on Cleopatra; Michael Deane, a Hollywood publicity executive, and his assistant, Claire, thinking of changing jobs; Alvis Bender, a World War II vet who’s trying to write a novel about that experience; Shane Wheeler, pitching a movie about the Donner party; Dee’s son Pat, a musician who can’t seem to grow up; and others, told through narration, short stories, a screenplay, and an autobiography chapter. The plot is complex, and for me it was slow moving, especially the Hollywood parts, but it all came together in the last 80 pages or so, and by the time I got to the last chapter, Beautiful Ruins, a sort of epilogue, I was absorbed. It’s a novel about life (a love story), living it well, the messiness and wildness of it all, redemption, forgiveness, what we can and can’t live with, the richness of every moment, even one moment.

Behind the Lie (2022) by Emilya Naymark. The setting, a suburban neighbourhood in upstate New York where the neighbours are in each other’s business all the time, reminded me of The Neighbor’s Secret by Alison Heller (read January 2022). Laney is a private investigator, and when her friend Holly goes missing during a rather disastrous neighbourhood block party — during which Holly’s husband drives a stolen car into his own house, and someone else is shot in the butt in their home — she sets out to find her, even as she’s anxiously trying to navigate life as a single mother to her secretive 15-year-old son Alfie. Laney thought she knew Holly, but she soon begins to uncover a shadow life Holly never shared. An engaging plot with fairly well-developed characters (some quite creepy), but the amount of alcohol everyone consumes is mind-boggling and makes you wonder how they can function at all, let alone drive their cars all over the place.

The Verifiers (2022) by Jane Pek. I really enjoyed the first 2/3 of this book, and overall I liked it, but the latter part got a little weedy with online-matching terminology, compatibility algorithms, and corporate names. The main plot involves a woman who comes to Veracity, an online-dating detective agency, to investigate a match who seems rather robotic, though interested, and who never wants to meet her. Claudia — a young gay Asian American woman who rides her bike everywhere in Manhattan, who doesn’t want a corporate job in finance (the kind her brother Charles lined up for her), and who loves reading (and citing) Inspector Yuan mysteries — has just begun working at Veracity and is very interested in the case, particularly after the client is found dead in her apartment. I liked Claudia, though I cringed when she seemed to let so many people (particularly her mother) dismiss and denigrate her; both her mother and her co-worker Becks are extraordinarily harsh. But Claudia is resilient and unsinkable and keeps popping back up, which might prove dangerous for her.

Hide in Place (2021) by Emilya Naymark. The first in the Laney Bird series. I read the second one first, a couple of weeks ago, and liked that one better than this. Again the setting is the town of Sylvan, in upstate New York, plus scenes from the recent past in New York City, where Laney was an undercover cop until a failed bust and a busted marriage led her to move upstate and take a job as a school bus driver. Laney’s 14-yr-old son Alfie is the focus of this plot: he’s missing and Laney is working not exactly alongside the local police to find him before it’s too late. Soon she realises that the undercover job she was working in New York, involving some kind of mob and drug dealing, is related to Alfie’s disappearance. I thought the climax was almost eye-rollingly over the top but I do enjoy Laney, Holly, Ed Boswell, and the others in Sylvan.

The Book of Cold Cases (2022) by Simone St. James. Shea Collins, a woman who lives her life in the shadow of one incident from her childhood, runs a website dedicated to musing over cold murder cases. While at her day job in a medical office Shea runs into Beth Greer, infamous rich heiress who 40 years before was found not guilty of two murders in their small town of Claire Lake, Oregon, and of course she follows Greer and eventually ends up interviewing her at Greer’s creepy ugly mansion set on a cliff over an ocean where Greer has lived since childhood. I liked the depth of characters in this book, the depiction of the relationships, and most of the plot, but the supernatural element feels like cheating to me.

Sea of Tranquility (2022) by Emily St. John Mandel. Time-travel novel set in 1912, 2020, 2203, and 2401 primarily, but with important stops in 1918, 1990, 1994, 2007, 2172, and 2195. Edwin St. Andrew is an aimless 18-yr-old British citizen sent to Canada after making some rash comments at a society dinner party. He makes his way to British Columbia, where in a forest he gazes up at the branches of a maple tree and experiences something extraordinary: a flash of darkness, a momentary sense of being in a large echoing terminal, a violin playing, a whoosh sound. In 2203, well-known writer Olive Llewellyn has come to Earth from her moon colony home (Colony Two, later the Night Colony) for a book tour just as a new pandemic starts to spread; the book she’s touring is also a pandemic novel (titled Marienbad), with an interesting passage about a man playing violin in an airship terminal surrounded by a forest of trees. In 2401, Gaspery Roberts, a man who even at age eleven has suspicions that he wasn’t the kind of person he wanted to be, is hired — partly because his sister Zoey is a brilliant physicist at the Time Institute on moon’s Colony One — to visit Earth at specific times and places to investigate what seems to be a serious timeline anomaly in the Canadian wilderness. What he discovers, and what we discover, is the stuff of this fascinating novel. I read the book in a day; it felt like a prolonged short story in the best way: succinct, coherent, penetrating, ethereal.

JULY

Nine Lives: A Novel (2022) by Peter Swanson. Nine people receive a list of nine names. That’s all, just nine names, which don’t seem to have an obvious connection to each other. We get to know each of the nine people — most in their late 30s, a couple in their 70s — some more than others, and then they start being murdered. I liked the “Kennewick” Maine setting for much of it (also the St. George Peninsula, further downeast). The characters are interesting, distinctive, and the peek into their lives and thoughts poignant because we know they’re not going to be around much longer; in this way it reminded me of the TV series Six Feet Under, and in the book the plot is compared with Agatha Christie’s famous And Then There Were None. There’s a bit of a twist, and though I enjoyed reading it and was engaged, by the end of the book it felt too tidy, too neatly contrived and over-explained.

The Deathwatch Beetle (2021) by Kjell Eriksson. Though Ann Lindell is no longer with the police — she’s now a cheesemaker, and she’s taking a break from that to spend time on the island of Gräsö (Sweden) with her lover, Edvard — she can’t help but want to investigate when missing person Cecilia Karlsson surreptitiously returns to the island, four years after her boyfriend Casper’s drowning and her concurrent disappearance. Ann works alongside the police to learn what Cecilia’s parents, the old-fashioned Rune and the unsatisfied Gunilla, and her male admirers (Blixten, Adrian) know about her disappearance and her reappearance, though of course they all lie or withhold information from Ann, who keeps questioning whether she even wants to be involved, and yet she’s drawn to the puzzle. Like others of Eriksson’s novels, I’d say this is more literary novel than mystery. There is a mystery, several in fact, but the book is not really plot-driven; its center is the characters and their relationships, what’s said or acknowledged and not said or acknowledged among them, their memories, their mixed feelings, their stumbling around in their own lives.

Eight Perfect Murders: A Novel (2020) by Peter Swanson. Bookstore owner/manager Malcolm gets a visit from the FBI after they link a couple of recent murders to a blog list he wrote a few years before that named his picks for the eight best murders in crime fiction, including The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie, Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith, and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Soon he’s helping one of the agents try to solve and predict the crimes, or is she just sticking close because of her own suspicions about him? Mal’s got plenty of secrets he’s keeping hidden, most of them concerning his late wife Claire’s death in an auto accident five years ago. I like this book’s focal plot in concept; it started out strong but for me it became progressively more predictable and less engaging as it went on. There’s no one likeable in the book, which isn’t a fatal flaw for me, nor is a protagonist or anti-hero who makes bad decisions when they should know better (don’t we all?); but the crimes weren’t as interesting as I’d hoped (nor, of course, are they perfect) and the relentlessness of Malcolm’s risky and ham-handed actions wore on me. Malcolm is an untrustworthy narrator, and the question we’re left with at the end of the book is, exactly how untrustworthy is he?

Death, Diamonds, and Deception (2020) by Rosemary Simpson, 5th in the Gilded Age mystery set in New York City in 1889. Prudence’s aunt, Lady Rotherton, who lives in England, comes to visit and at a society ball notices that the extremely expensive Marie Antionette diamonds worn in a necklace by Lena De Vries are actually fakes. This discovery sets off a series of murders as the thief tries to evade capture. I guessed the culprit early but still enjoyed the plot and the series characters Prudence, Geoffrey, Josiah, and others, as well as the descriptions of the clothing that high society women had to wear, which limited their ability not only to move but to breathe.

Happy-Go-Lucky (2022) by David Sedaris. Essays, the usual Sedaris fare, some of which I’d read in whole or part in The New Yorker and other places. I particularly enjoyed the essays concerning David’s husband Hugh and his father Lou, particularly Father Time, Hurricane Season, Unbuttoned, Pearls, Happy-Go-Lucky, and A Better Place, as well as his Covid pandemic essays (The Vacuum, Lucky-Go-Happy).

An Old Betrayal (2013) by Charles Finch, 7th in the Charles Lenox series, set in London in 1875. While his protégé Dallington is under the weather, Lenox takes time off from his work in Parliament, agreeing to meet with a potential client at a restaurant, but that meeting goes awry and leads to much mystery, eventually touching even the Queen herself. Meanwhile, it’s the start of “the season” in London, keeping Jane busy with social engagements and party planning, as well as with trying to soothe her friend Toto’s worry about husband Thomas McConnell’s behaviour of late; and Lenox deals with rumours about his secretary Josiah, even as he works to bring about compromise legislation with Prime Minister Disraeli.

Murder on Union Square (2018) by Victoria Thompson, 21st in the Gaslight mystery series set in turn-of-the-20th-century New York. This one centers on a group of actors performing a play at the Palladium Theater, including Parnell Vaughn, the legal “father” of young Catherine (though not her biological father), whom Frank and Sarah Malloy want to adopt. After Vaughn consents to drop his rights to Catherine, Frank returns to the theatre with the paperwork for him to sign only to find him beaten to death by a solid brass quail; immediately, Frank is arrested by the police for the murder, so of course he (after he’s released on bail) and his friends have to find the real culprit among a bunch of people who are adept at acting. There’s more interplay between Maeve and Gino here; less presence of the kids, Mrs Malloy and Mrs Ellsworth; and the return of Serafina, who held a séance to find the killer in a previous book in the series (she does the same here). Theatre-centered crime fiction doesn’t appeal to me, so this wasn’t one of my favourites. Another detraction was the perhaps lifelike but nonetheless repetitious and tedious conversational dithering among the sleuths about who dunnit.

Sister Stardust: A Novel (2022) by Jane Green. Claire/Cece is an ordinary teenager from Devon, England, in 1966, who’s left home for London after her stepmother throws her out. She dreams of meeting rock stars and of mingling with that crowd, while her daily life is spent scraping by as a shopgirl living in a women’s hostel. When her boyfriend brings a few rich and famous people to her brother’s birthday party, Claire/Cece takes off with them on the spur of the moment to Morocco, where she spends several weeks up close and quite personal with oil heir Paul Getty Jr, his charismatic wife Talitha, fashion icon Yves Saint Laurent and his lover Pierre Berge, the designer Bill Willis, antiques dealer and designer Christopher Gibbs, a lead singer and others associated with a (fictitious) rock group (Dave, Eddie, Jimmy, Lissy), some minor royalty, et al. Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful make an appearance, too. I really don’t know how to rate this one. The writing is fair to middling, prosaic, more like a memoir written by a schoolgirl than a novel (though the set-up is that 70-year-old Claire is telling all of this to her grown daughter in 2020). What I liked about it is the little window into both an exotic landscape (Marrakesh) and the alluring drug-fuelled sex+rock’n’roll lifestyle that was often enormously fun, enormously lavish, narcissistic, and wasteful, and that offered a life-affirming sense of belonging, inclusion, and community, while it also acted as an anaesthetic, a numbing agent, for wounded people, and a very dangerous one at that, taking the lives prematurely of many of the real people who are characters in the book.

Hideout (2022) by Louise Luna, 3rd in the Alice Vega series, and the best so far in my opinion. Vega is asked to find Zeb Williams, a football player who went missing after the Cal-Stanford game in 1984, over thirty years ago. Investigating in the last town he was known to visit, in southern Oregon, she stumbles onto a white nationalist group that doesn’t like her snooping and makes trouble for her and her family and friends. Eventually Max Caplan, still very anxious about the safety of his teenaged daughter Nell, gets involved, but this is mostly Vega’s show, and I loved it.

AUGUST

Suburban Dicks (2021) by Fabian Nicieza. Set in the the New Jersey suburban town of West Windsor, this humourous murder mystery begins with murder of an Indian gas station attendant and reaches back to a fifty-year-old murder and its cover-up. Andrea Stern, heavily pregnant mother of four and former potential FBI profiler, is very unfulfilled being a suburban wife and mother, so she jumps at the chance to follow-up on having been accidentally one of the first at the scene of Satkunananthan’s murder by investigating it with disgraced local reporter (and her high school classmate) Kenny Lee. West Windsor is depicted as a town rich in ethnic diversity with a lot of growing pains. I enjoyed it.

Lessons in Chemistry (2022) by Bonnie Garmus. Though a mostly charming novel, it’s hard to read at times, because of the sexism and misogyny directed at the main character, a young chemist named Elizabeth Zott, who is demeaned, undermined, sexually assaulted, lied to, ignored, and generally despised or resented by many for being a smart, no-nonsense woman who is also physically beautiful. She’s finally got a job making much less than her male counterparts in a mismanaged chemistry research institute in California, where lab supplies and any acknowledgement of her talents are systematically withheld from her, when another employee and chemist, rower phenom and Nobel prize nominee Calvin Evans, throws up on her, the start of a lovely and unusual relationship between two misfits without families; but that love affair ends abruptly, leaving Zott a single (and unwed) mother in the 1950s, when such a thing was widely considered and treated as shameful. She reluctantly takes (and remakes) a job on a TV cooking show, exposing herself coast to coast to both many admirers and some haters. In the end, this rather naive, well-meaning woman who’s living in a man’s world manages to prevail with the help of her very smart and empathetic dog, her eccentric young daughter Mad, her stalwart neighbour Harriet, and a few other women and men who support her simple goal of being allowed to do the work she’s good at and get paid a decent wage doing it, and who in the end become her true family. (4.5)

The House Across the Lake (2022) by Riley Sager. Casey Fletcher, an actress whose career and life has been derailed by her husband’s drowning and her abuse of alcohol, is spending time drinking her life away at her family’s summer cabin on Lake Greene in Vermont when she meets her new neighbours, glamorous Manhattan couple Tom and Katherine Royce, after she rescues Katherine from the lake. He’s a social media mogul and she’s a model, and their largely glass house across the lake proves a magnet for Casey’s binoculars. When Katherine disappears after some odd occurrences, Casey is suspicious and enlists handsome ex-cop Boone, now working as a handyman, to help her figure out what’s happened. The writing was skimmable, the plot OK, fairly run of the mill suspense, until a supernatural element surfaced and took over, which really turned me off. If you like supernatural suspense, this might be for you.

The Self-Made Widow (2022) by Fabian Nicieza. Second in this intelligent and often amusing series set in New Jersey, featuring mother of five and former FBI profiler Andrea Stern and muckraking journalist Kenny Lee, who both have their antennae up after Andrea’s friend Molly’s husband Derek dies suddenly, apparently of natural causes. But why would Molly kill her husband, who had a known heart condition that was probably going to shorten his life anyway? Money? Revenge? Boredom? Because she’s the consummate planner and organiser and thought she could get away with it? Soon police and FBI are involved, though with Derek’s pre-existing condition they’re taking more convincing than usual. When the investigation hits close to home, Andrea has to make some difficult decisions, ones with major ramifications for herself and her children.

Hurricane Girl (2022) by Marcy Dermansky. I read this book in 24 hours (it is short, but it’s also compelling). Thirty-two-year-old Allison leaves a bad situation on the West Coast of the U.S. to buy a beach house in North Carolina, which, a week and half after she’s lived in it, is completely destroyed by a hurricane, the only one on her street to suffer damage. She has bugged out to a motel so has clothes, laptop, phone, etc., and of course, her health, as she is fond of saying, mostly ironically. Then she makes a questionable decision to go home with the cameraman who’s taken video of her sad hurricane disaster situation for TV, and the next morning she’s clobbered on the head with a glass vase. (This isn’t a spoiler — it’s on the book liner and in most of the novel’s synopses.) From there she makes more decisions that are at times hard to understand, though now she does have a traumatic brain injury, so maybe that’s why. Her memory, emotions, and general cognition are all wonky. In many ways, she’s a simple woman, before and after the brain injury, someone who lives on turkey sandwiches and loves to swim every day. She doesn’t seem to form strong connections with people, though she has flashes of strong emotion about them. She’s happy with little, she’s “fine” (as she often says) even walking around with a literal hole in her head, she feels (or wants to feel) that things are, at bottom, “okay,” even when they’re mostly a catastrophe in the moment. She has her health! But because we only knew her very briefly before this happened, we can’t know to what extent the brain injury is responsible for her thoughts and actions. Given the little bit of interaction she has with other people before the event occurs, I’m not sure anything integral to Allison has really changed.

Remarkably Bright Creatures (2022) by Shelby Van Pelt. Tova Sullivan, a recent widow in her 70s, works as a cleaner in the aquarium in Sowell Bay, WA, where after an incident one night she begins to spend more time on her shift with Marcellus, a pacific octopus who is also an escape artist and who knows more about Tova than she could imagine, including some details of her only child’s death when he was 18 years old. Meanwhile, 30-year-old Cameron Cassmore, looking for his birth father with the merest of clues, comes to Sowell Bay and eventually crosses paths with Tova when he begins to work at the aquarium. As Marcellus might see it, the several tentacles of their stories begin to intertwine in complex and revelatory ways. A satisfying novel, well-written, heart-warming and optimistic without being at all treacly.

Beneath Cruel Waters (2022) by Jon Bassoff. A very dark book, exploring family relationships, memory, lying when the truth seems too terrible, guilt, shame, the ideas of sin and salvation, insanity, retribution. Hoyt has come home to Colorado after decades away following his mother, Vivian’s, suicide. He visits his older sister Ophelia in the mental hospital where she has lived since she was a teenager, and he finds clues in the family home that help him uncover what happened when he was a child that destroyed his family. “Cruel,” from the title, is really the operative word, a cruelty born of a perverse inability to face the truth; and in creating a tolerable but wholly insupportable fiction, damning those who depend on you to protect them.

SEPTEMBER

A Line to Kill (2021) by Anthony Horowitz. Tony and ex-detective inspector Daniel Hawthorne are invited to speak at an author’s event on the tiny Channel Island of Alderney, where even at the airport and on the drive to their hotel they notice signs that all is not as it perhaps seems among their fellow authors and that the local community seems to be heatedly divided on a proposed new power line. Eventually someone is murdered in a dramatic way and the two sleuths have plenty of motives and plenty of suspects. I don’t really fathom the relationship between Tony and Hawthorne; I guess Tony tolerates Hawthorne’s deliberate secretiveness and mild belittling because writing about him brings in the bucks? I knew whodunnit shortly after the murder took place, so the plot wasn’t as enthralling as it might have been, and the writing and characters are just so-so.

The Word Is Murder (2017) Anthony Horowitz. This is the first novel in the Hawthorne and Horowitz series. I thought I’d start at the beginning after reading the latest (A Line to Kill) a few weeks ago without realising it was part of a series. I was hoping that with more knowledge of the key players, the writer and the former detective, I’d be more engaged in the story, but nope. The story starts when an apparently healthy middle-aged woman goes into a funeral home to plan her funeral; the first of many interesting complications is that she is the same woman who killed one child and seriously maimed another in a hit-and-run accident almost ten years before. The plot’s decent. It’s the writing that killed it for me; it feels plodding, the artificiality of the conceit — a cumbersome relationship between the fictional/non-fictional writer and the detective, the fictional writer wondering aloud how to tell the story, whether to use real names, whether a 50-50 split of book sales was worthwhile, etc. — just off-putting.

The Last to Vanish (2022) by Megan Miranda. Atmospheric suspense novel set in small-town Cutter’s Pass, North Carolina, a gateway to the Appalachian Trail. Abby manages the Passage Inn, owned by her aunt Celeste, but Abby is a relative newcomer to town, there for only ten years (from age 18 to 28) and so doesn’t share the town’s history as a place from which people disappear, never to be found, nor the reluctance of the townspeople to delve any deeper into these mysteries. When the brother of the most recently disappeared person comes to town to do his own investigation, Abby’s interest is reawakened. What happened to Landon West just a few months ago, and to Farrah Jordan in 2019, Alice Kelly in 2012, and the “Fraternity Four” in 1997? And who is watching Abby as she asks questions no one wants to answer and uncovers new information? Tightly plotted, with an eerie chill in the mountain air.

Outside (2021/2022) by Ragnar Jónasson. Suspense novel set in the Icelandic highlands, where four friends of long-standing have gone on a shooting weekend. After an uneasy night together in Reykjavík, they head out and quickly find themselves lost in a blinding snowstorm at night, finally locating an uninsulated emergency hut to shelter in, although that brings with it its own danger, a man sitting all but lifeless (though very much alive) in a chair with a shotgun. Helena and Daniel go out into the storm to find help while Ármann and Gunnlaugur stay behind with the armed man. Things go from bad to worse as the many hostilities among the friends surface, and we learn the thoughts of each unappealing, narcissistic, and perhaps sociopathic person — as the point of view shifts throughout the novel. I felt the ending, promising violence to come some time in the future, was abrupt and unsatisfying.

Killers of a Certain Age (2022) by Deanna Raybourn. A longstanding squad of four female assassins-for-justice (originally part of a group dedicated to killing Nazis who escaped legal justice) is retiring after 40 years in the biz, but no sooner have they started their relaxing cruise vacation together than they realise someone from their organisation is on-board, undercover, and he hasn’t made contact with them. They know what to do, and they do it. The story, focusing a little more on Billie than the others (Helen, Nat, and Mary Alice) alternates sections detailing hit jobs from when the women were younger, in the late 1970s and 1980s, with their current predicament: someone high-up has ordered their deaths and is paying a bounty to anyone who succeeds. Their travels old and new take them to the Caribbean, Paris, New Orleans, Rome, Zurich, Devon UK, Zanzibar, etc. I enjoyed it, particularly the interplay among the women, whose life experiences in some respects vary but who’ve shared this central current from their 20s into their 60s.

October

Hatchet Island (2022) by Paul Doiron, set on fictional islands along the Maine coast, somewhere between Boothbay Harbor and Bristol. Maine Fish & Game warden investigator Mike Bowditch and his very accomplished girlfriend, Stacy Stevens (biologist, EMT, airplane pilot, expert kayaker, to name a few), kayak over to Baker Island, home of an endangered seabird colony and research station, at the request of Kendra, Stacy’s friend and former co-worker on the island. Things are awkward, uneasy, and difficult from the start, and let’s just say that’s as good as it gets. Mike ends up being involved in an investigation of violent crimes, with a fairly full slate of suspects, including lobstermen angry about the station’s advocacy for whales, a guy on a boat who’s been taking photos of the people on the island but who won’t communicate with them, a renowned artist and top sanctuary donor who may have a thing for young people, some racist lobstermen who like to goad the one black sanctuary intern? And is any of this related to the suicide of Evan Levandowski, a recent island intern? Or to the disappearance of the sanctuary’s founder, Maeve McLeary? I liked the setting and the characters but for some reason I lost interest before the end, though I did finish the book.

Cold Cold Bones (2022) by Kathy Reichs. I like Tempe Brennan’s role, her relationships with the cops and morgue workers and others she collaborates with, and the South Carolina locale (also the Montreal locales in other books). This book underwhelmed me, though. I felt the plot included too many cases, with too many intricacies, which I lost track of eventually. I suspected the perp from multiple clues about two-thirds of the way in, but even at the end of the book I wasn’t sure what the motivation was; it was briefly explained and I felt like I should have been aware of information that rang no bells whatsoever for me — I kept waiting for more info but none came. There were some moments of genuine creepiness, and sadness, and some bantering and fun, but mostly I felt like I was reading a spreadsheet instead of a a crime fiction novel (or maybe I should have been making my own spreadsheet to keep track of everyone).

Local Gone Missing (2022) by Fiona Barton. Crime fiction. The story is told in two close time periods, Before and Now, and from multiple perspectives, six in all I think, but mainly Charlie Perry, the missing man; Dee Eastwood, a housecleaner; and Elise King, on leave after breast cancer surgery and chemo from her job as senior officer on the Major Crime Team in Ebbing, West Sussex, UK. We know Charlie is in danger when the book opens but we learn his background only slowly as the chapters unfold. DI King, not officially on duty nevertheless gets involved, a bit to DS Caro Brennan’s dismay, because she’s curious, bored, and influenced by her rambunctious neighbour Ronnie’s eagerness to solve a crime. The plot is complex, involving a staged burglary gone terribly wrong in London 20 years ago, a fraudulent money scheme, drug addicts and dealers, and much more that I won’t say to avoiding giving too much away. Excellent plotting and tempo, interesting characters. My only quibble is with feeling manipulated to accept that that violent crimes are somehow justified by their victims’ smugness.

November

Lucy by the Sea (20220 by Elizabeth Strout: Told in a simple, direct style, the novel is narrated by Lucy, who, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in March 2020 is swooped off to an old house in coastal Maine by her ex-husband William (with whom she’s friendly), so that she doesn’t get sick. He also tries to get their two grown daughters to move out of New York; one does, with her husband, and the other doesn’t, at first. Immediately friends in New York begin to die, but Lucy still doesn’t understand what the fuss is about, why William brings masks, why they have to quarantine for two weeks on reaching Maine. So the story, which takes place over a year, is about the beginnings of the pandemic and how hard it is to fathom the seriousness of what’s happening and to watch it unfolding in the city from a relatively safe and isolated spot; but it’s more about Lucy’s memories of her family, her upbringing in poverty, her daughters’ choices and their consequences, how the Mainers variously accept and reject out-of-staters, how she feels her mind is going at times, how she and William accommodate each other’s personalities and quirks, the grief and concern she feels over many things, her intuitions and emotions, her daily life, her inner life. It’s a quiet novel, although crises and difficulties occur, as do joyous occasions and moments, and Lucy has hope. Through it all, Lucy tries to understand people and where they’re coming from, including herself and those closest to her. 

The Bullet That Missed (2022) by Richard Osman, 3rd in the Thursday Club Mystery series. Love the humour in these books, so many delicious phrases, sentences, paragraphs, and absurd situations. The Club is investigating the unsolved death of a local on-air news personality years ago, Bethany Waites, and at the same time Elizabeth is kidnapped by a “Viking” who tells her she has to kill her old KGB boss friend Viktor or he will kill her friend Joyce. It’s nice to read a book where almost everyone is likeable or relatable, including ruthless assassins and wanna-be assassins. Particularly enjoyed Bogdan’s, Ibrahim’s, and Stephen’s roles in this installment, and the interplay between Joyce and Elizabeth.

Daisy Darker: A Novel (2022) by Alice Feeney. A family with dreadful secrets and profound rifts reassembles on a small tidal island (near Cornwall, in the UK) that can only be reached by foot during low tide for the 80th birthday celebration of Nana, its matriarch, who is famous for her children’s book, Daisy Darker’s Little Secret. Twenty-nine-year-old Daisy, the youngest of three daughters of Nancy (the girls’ mother and Nana’s daughter), arrives first, filled with a feeling of foreboding but also much affection for her Nana. Soon after the others arrive, Nana reveals that she’s leaving the oceanside house, Seaglass, to her granddaughter, Trixie, then almost immediately afterward there’s a midnight scream and an eerie poem appears on Nana’s chalkboard foretelling the deaths of each of the family members. I had high hopes for this novel, described as similar to Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None, but it didn’t live up to my expectations.

Livid (2022) by Patricia Cornwell, 26th in the Scarpetta series, set this time mostly in Alexandria, VA, where Kay is testifying for the defense in a highly volatile murder trial. Someone kicks her ankle as she leaves the courtroom into a torrential rain storm and her day only gets worse, as she and Marino head are diverted to an estate, owned by the trial judge, where a woman has been found dead — and the strange circumstances surrounding her death make Kay and Marino uneasy. As usual in the series, Kay and the team (Marino, Benton, and Lucy, now with the Secret Service) are beset by corrupt, inept, and malign bosses, employees, and others who seek to hinder their work and do them harm. And as usual, Kay and team have friends in high places who help them make end-runs around the meddlers. I could read a book a week in this series.

December

Unlikely Animals (2022) by Annie Hartnett. This novel is set in Everton, New Hampshire, a fictional name for the town of Newport, so it was of special interest, as everyone around here knows about the Corbin Animal Park (or Hunting Grounds) and Corbin Mansion. It’s a hard book to summarise. Emma Starling, who as a child had healing gifts, comes home to New Hampshire from California — where she is supposed to be enrolled in Medical School — to help care for her dying father, a college professor who spends a lot of time with Ernest Harold Baynes, a naturalist who’s been dead since 1925. In fact, the book is lightly narrated by the ghosts of people buried in the town cemetery, who care about Emma and all the people of the town. Her father has also been obsessed with finding Crystal Nash, Emma’s best childhood friend who got hooked on heroin and has now been missing for months. Speaking of heroin, Emma’s brother Auggie, in recovery from his own drug habit, resents Emma’s 2-year absence and his parents’ focus on Emma as the competent one; and speaking of parents, Clive’s wife Ingrid has had about enough of Clive’s embarrassing and financially depleting antics as his mysterious brain disease progresses. As the ghosts watch and comment, Emma gets involved with Mack Durkee, a guy she liked in high school, and then gets a job a a long-term substitute 5th grade teacher, which eventually ties together all the plot lines. This story is not in any hurry to tell itself, and if you can adjust to the leisurely pacing you’ll be rewarded.

Ryan’s Christmas (2019) by LJ Ross. 15th in the DCI Ryan series. I haven’t read any others in the series, but may (though my library doesn’t have them). Events of past books were mentioned or hinted at in this one. DCI Ryan, his wife Anna, and their friends and Ryan’s coworkers DI Denise MacKenzie and her husband DS Frank Phillips are heading home from Edinburgh to Northumberland on the Friday before Christmas when a blinding snowstorm stops them near a castle in Chillingham. There, two couples and a mother and daughter are ensconced as guests of this supposedly haunted castle, which is being run in the absence of the owners by housekeeper and cook Carole, her husband who is a butler, and a groundsman, Dodds. Soon, the phones are out, just in time for our first murder, and we’re off on a winter cozy stuck in a grand, completely isolated house with strangers whom the murder crew hasn’t the ability to research. I’d call the writing and plotting serviceable, the characters somewhat simplistic; but, at least partly because I coincidentally read it on a weekend when we got two feet of heavy snow and our power was off for 27 hours, it was quite atmospheric.

The Man Who Died (2016; transl. 2017) by Antti Tuomainen. Funny, philosophical, and a bit gory, this novel starts when we learn that Jaakko, 37-year-old mushroom entrepreneur, is undergoing organ failure, dying from slow poisoning that’s already gone too far to be counteracted. Of course he suspects his wife, Taina, whom he quickly learns is hiding quite a lot from him, but there are other possibilities. His search for the culprit (and proof) is complicated after he walks into a newly established competing mushroom company facility and removes, then replaces, a samurai sword from the wall. Eventually he has a police detective questioning him about the disappearance of the sword and one of the mushroom competitors. It’s a really well-written wryly amusing book.

To Kill a Troubadour (2022) by Martin Walker, in the Bruno series, set in the Périgord region of France. Bruno is dealing with the discovery of a bullet from a Russian sniper’s rifle found at a nearby car crash when a song penned by Joël Martin, a local folk hero who is about to headline a concert with Les Troubadours in St. Denis, is banned by the Spanish government for its Catalonian sentiments, and the two events look like they might be related. Is Joël a target of nationalist terrorists? Meanwhile, the probable imminent release from prison of Florence’s abusive ex-husband has Bruno and others scurrying to keep him in prison and help Florence cope with this turn of events. Eventually Bruno is once again liaising with Isabelle and others on the international terrorism team as they follow links through the Catalan region of Spain, France, and Russia to prevent catastrophe at the concert. There’s also a tennis tournament going on, lots of food being prepared (it’s a little awkward, the recipes and food prep not quite integrating with the rest of the tone), and basset hound Balzac and his son, the Bruce, whom Bruno is taking care of temporarily, trailing along. I liked this one better than the last few.

How To Live When You Could Be Dead (2022) by Deborah James. I followed Deb on Instagram until her death in June 2022. She accomplished an amazing amount after her diagnosis with stage 4 bowel cancer over five years before, including raising over $7.5 million for Cancer Research UK through her BowelBabe Fund (as of mid-Dec. 2022), being named a Dame of the British empire, and helping untold fellow cancer patients navigate their new world. Besides advocating for bowel cancer awareness and care, she was also raising two kids with her husband, hosting a cancer show with others, writing newspaper articles on cancer, travelling, and enjoying her life, family, and friends around all the obstacles she faced. So she has a lot to say to most people about how to live when you could be dead. Some of what resonated most for me in this down-to-earth chatty book (with some references to articles and other books on the topics she’s covering) were that having hope isn’t a magical cure but it does help us find solutions, because we are looking for them; that the more specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely, and actionable your goals are, the more likely you are to accomplish them (just having goals is not enough); that grit — the “outright refusal to yield, … to always find a way to persevere and keep going” is “vital to living like there’s no tomorrow”; and that resilience can be learned and improved, particularly by avoiding seeing crises as insurmountable problems, accepting that change is part of living, and keeping things in perspective.

2 thoughts on “BOOKS READ 2022

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