There are a lot of thrillers on the market, so it takes a particularly intriguing premise to get my interest piqued in one of these trendy books these days.
Need to Know is about Vivian, a bright CIA analyst on the trail of Russian sleeper cells in the US. It is a unique blend of domestic and spy/political thriller that I personally have not encountered and that is definitely one of its strong points. Originality is key for thrillers in my book!
After a cursory Google search (call me naive, but I know nothing about sleeper cells and this book had me feeling more than a little paranoid) it seems that the initial concept is not at all far-fetched. Also, if you've seen the TV show The Americans, it probably seems like a similar setup.
But this book is set in modern-day Washington DC and the story follows Vivian's perspective as she uncovers huge information about a sleeper cell that puts everything she holds dear—including her husband and four young children—in danger.
It is hard to talk about this book without revealing the first twist (yes, I said first, as in there are more), but I don't want to ruin it for you!
The author herself is a former CIA analyst who specialized in counterterrorism, so that was definitely a plus when it came to the more technical bits and the behind-the-scenes portions of the book. But this also showed in her writing, as it felt a bit juvenile at times and could use some strengthening.
It is a very fast-paced read, one that I got through in just one night—I guarantee that once you read the first chapter, you'll be sucked into the second, and from there it is difficult to leave the story without knowing what happens next.
While this definitely is a fun book, I wouldn't consider it very deep or engaging. It leads the reader around the plot threads on a leash and doesn't offer much in the way to let the reader in to a deeper level where they could participate in solving the twists themselves. I found it to be a fairly surface-level book.
I definitely appreciate the domestic angle, but kids-in-peril plot lines never hold a lot of stock for me personally. I never felt that close to the children in the book as their characters are not well-developed, nor did I feel them to be in immense peril. The story is definitely Vivian's and that is where the bulk of the characterization goes.
This is the sort of book that is perfect when you just want to let your brain go on autopilot and let the book drive. It feels very cinematic and would make for a great movie.
Overall, I found it to be a good, but not overly engaging read.
Thank you to Ballantine Books for my copy to read and review.
I had a slow reading month in October, but November is already off to a whirlwind start with a thrillerthon weekend.
I missed out on Lapena's wildly popular The Couple Next Door, so when sent copies of both of these just in time for Halloween, I figured I'd dive in and here is your double-hitter review.
The Couple Next Door begins with a bad parenting decision that only gets worse: when Anne and Marco's babysitter cancels last minute, they decide to attend their next door neighbor's dinner party anyway, bringing along a baby monitor and checking in every half hour, but leaving baby at home. Not good.
Of course, when they finally arrive home for the night, they find they front door unlocked and the baby missing. What follows is a tangled web of lies, deceits, and unsteady foundations that come crumbling down around the family and everyone they are connected to.
While the pacing might be quick enough to keep a reader turning pages, the writing is so simplistic and (sorry to say) boring that it was hard to imagine someone actually tearing through the pages of a book like this actually caring about the characters.
Have thrillers really come to this? That all that matters is finding the twist, the whodunnit, that crucial unmasking-the-murderer, I-would-have-gotten-away-with-it-if-it-weren't-for-you-meddling-kids scene?
When books can't deliver on style, I find myself just scanning the pages and drifting off. I'll probably solve the mystery, but who cares? If you aren't invested in the people, in their story, what's the point of figuring out who took the baby?
This book was so easy to read. 308 pages and it probably took me less than two hours to read. There just wasn't any substance, no sentences you wanted to stop and read again, no interesting turns of phrase, no indication at all that the author was in fact interested in writing. It's all just plot device spewed out on the page.
And if you want to talk about that ending, feel free to send me a note. Because I have some thoughts.
All that said, there was a germ of an interesting idea here, so I didn't want to give up.
A Stranger in the House follows Karen, who, while driving erratically in a bad part of town, causes a car accident that gives her amnesia. When it turns out that her car is connected to a grisly murder scene nearby, all the lies connected with her past and present start to come uncovered. And perhaps she's not the only one with a few secrets.
I fell into the story of this one a lot more naturally, though the writing definitely had not improved. There are a lot of similar elements: a husband and wife at odds over a criminal situation they are involved in, neighbors who know more than they let on, and a familiar homicide detective makes an appearance.
But I just don't think a somewhat interesting plot can make up for tedious and uninspired writing. Aren't we here for the writing? Or does that not matter anymore? I guess I'm honestly interested to know what people consider "good."
For example, in these books, even as it switches between the different character's perspectives, there is no differentiation in the writing. It feels as though the only reason for the change is because that specific character knew something we needed to know, so they got the floor. It is so stilted.
And as far as the plot of A Stranger in the House goes, I have three words: gunshot residue test. That's all I'm saying.
I can't exactly recommend these books. But there are plenty of people who loved them. If you are looking for a fast, brainless, twisty, whodunnit sort of read, one where you don't have to do a lot of thinking or puzzling, this will totally be your jam. If you have higher aspirations for crime books, we'll have to keep looking.
My thanks to Pamela Dorman Books/Viking for my copies of these books.
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The Couple Next Door
A Stranger in the House
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Cute pumpkin carving templates sent by Viking. What a cool idea!
Having (somehow) not picked up Fiona Barton's debut The Widow last year despite the fervent admiration that went around for it, I jumped at the chance to read her second book early. When I finished after two intense sittings, I scrambled to the book store and quickly devoured her first as well!
I do enjoy reading thrillers, but generally I feel let down by them by the time I finish. The plots tend to be too predictably easy to solve—my personal rule is that if I've figured out the "twist" within 50 pages, it isn't a very strong narrative. (The downfall of the rule being that I have to read the whole book to find out if I'm right or not!) But Barton's books felt very different from that model of storytelling.
The characters are just as crucial as the plot, or perhaps even more so, and while this may seem like a small detail or even an obvious statement, I feel that it is something that is lacking from a lot of thrillers on the market. There is a lot of care put into these characters—you get to know them and through them you feel the story more than just read it.
For me, that is what makes a story. It isn't just the straight telling of a narrative, it is how the characters lead you to their story, through their eyes, and through them you fall into the story and find yourself truly caring about what happens.
The Child centers around the skeleton of an unidentified infant that is uncovered at a construction site in London. There are four alternating perspectives that swap between each chapter:
Kate, an intrepid reporter, takes an interest in the case and starts writing about it and asking questions.
Angela reads the articles and is certain the skeleton is her first born child, who was stolen right out of her hospital room decades earlier.
Emma sees the articles too and she is completely shaken, fearing some deep-buried secret from her past may be coming back to haunt her.
And Jude, Emma's mother, who only recently came back into her daughter's life after throwing her out when she was sixteen.
Kate's digging will uncover the connections between these women, the past, and the secrets they've hidden from each other and themselves.
There are a few recurring characters in Barton's books, but it isn't really a series; the story isn't about the reporter, Kate, and her dogged search for the truth, though both books include her and she is integral in both. Each book instead felt very much like its own entity.
Similarly, both books alternate perspectives of characters, but while temporal fluctuation between the past and the present was a crucial factor in The Widow, The Child often marks the how the same time passes for each character—a different but very effective technique that kept me turning the pages!
By no means are these characters perfect—they are flawed, sometimes even despicable—but they are human and their mistakes make them real and relatable.
By the time I got to the conclusion of The Child, I realized I'd been holding my breath a lot, waiting to see what would happen—I was really emotionally invested in these characters! That's what good writing will do and it's worth running out to get Barton's books to see what I mean.
This post is part of The Child's release blog tour! Thank you for inviting me to be a part of this, Berkley Publishing!
You can visit Fiona Barton online at fionabartonauthor.com and on Twitter @figbarton. Join the conversation using #TheChild.
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“Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”
--Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene II
There is something a little mysterious, a little intoxicating about Shakespeare. Of course, for many of us, it is a lot mysterious—in fact, nothing but mysterious—and conjures up memories of long afternoons in dusty high school lit classrooms trying to puzzle through the meaning behind every line, sometimes every word, of Romeo and Juliet.
But to see it performed, that is truly something else, that is the way it was meant to be consumed. It filters down to a part of your soul that feels right, feels true, and even if you can’t quite grasp the meaning of every phrase, you feel something special burning at the core. Or maybe just a tingle.
For the seven students in their last year of theatre study at the elite art school in the novel If We Were Villains, Shakespeare is like this, but also, he is more. They live in the bard’s texts, studying him with such constant devotion that it filters into their real lives.
They talk in texts, frequently, having Shakespearian conversations that all seem peppered with double meanings, hidden layers, and sometimes it is unclear whether you are speaking with an actor or their character.
Each of the seven has their type: strong, leading man Richard; his opposite, the sultry Meredith; the beautiful hero James; the wispy maiden Wren; the fool Alexander; and then there’s Filippa and (our story’s hero) Oliver, who seem to get the leftover roles, slipping into whoever is secondary, but never playing the lead.
Who are they really? Is there a separation between the stage and reality? What happens when that line seems to bend, and then snap?
And snap it does. Oh, yes.
Aren’t you all waiting for the turn?
The book is set up in five acts, much like a play, and while the main action of each follows the seven during their fourth and final year at school, each one begins with a prologue, set ten years in the future.
Oliver has just been released from prison, sentenced for something that happened at school, something that he may or may not have done, and now he’s going to tell the real story. To the man who put him away.
And the curtain rises . . .
Rio holds onto the tension of seven characters very well, stringing them along in an even way, making sure they are all developed characters, and I thought she had a great voice for natural dialogue. I can’t claim to know that much about Shakespeare, but I do dabble a bit and I actually quite enjoyed the Shakespearian language spilled across the pages; it developed the characters in unexpected ways when I stopped to really examine what was going on with the bard’s text. I think it even helped me figure out the twist . . .
The seven kids flit in and out of reality, fighting and giving in to obsession, mimicking the violence and drama of the plays (or is it that the plays begin to mimic their lives?) and they begin to come apart at the seams, each breaking down in their own way.
A very promising debut and interesting character study type of novel from a bold and inspiring voice. The only thing I’d ask for in a follow-up book is to cut down on the adverbs—let your descriptions do the work! Ah, well. Room to grow.
One final thought: The ending will rattle your soul.
Whether you like Shakespeare, don’t remember a bit of it from high school, swoon over the lilting words, or shrink away from them in pure fear, this book has a bit of mystery for everyone and it might even bring you a bit closer to learning the mysterious staying power of the bard.
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Find out more about the publisher, Flatiron Books (Macmillan)
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I always say California is going to fall into the ocean someday. Those fault lines, man. You are just living in denial if you don’t think that entire state is one minuscule step away from a shattering natural disaster. But there they go, building their skyscrapers and freeway systems like it’s no big deal.
Shaker has a powerful, cinematic setup of an enormous earthquake crippling Los Angeles. Enough to put you off going to the beach for a while, or at least rethink your dreams of a glamorous Hollywood life.
Enter Roy Cooper—a New York hitman, quick, reliable, and good at his job, sent to LA to clean up some loose ends. He’s never been on a plane and wants to get in and out quickly, unless he might be able to catch a Dodgers game; he loves baseball and his favorite pitcher is about to break a record.
But then, right after he completes the job, everything goes to hell in a hand basket. He intervenes as a few gangbangers attack an older man in an alley and the whole thing gets recorded by a bystander and goes viral, making him look like a hero.
His anonymity goes out the window—the last thing any hitman wants—and it places him just a few blocks from the crime scene of his hit, which they will surely discover is connected sooner or later, since the bangers stole his gun and used it to kill the old man.
And that wasn’t just any old man, he was the favorite candidate in the upcoming mayoral election and now that he’s dead, the current mayor is being accused of killing off his competition. And why isn’t he doing more about fixing up the city after the quakes, by the way?
The gangbangers have a witness, Roy, and they need to find him and get rid of him. But he’s looking for them too. He knows his employers are not going to be happy about his face plastered all over the news.
LAPD detective Kelly Maguire has been bumped from the gang division due to abuse of an African American rapist/murderer she was interrogating. But she’s onto something with the city’s new hero and something isn’t quite right. And there’s someone more sinister looking for Roy, someone from his past, someone who thought he was dead.
While Roy is definitely the central focal point of this story, all of the characters are attached to him, mostly through those few moments in the alley, whether that’s how they come to know him, or that’s how they come to find him.
It seems that everyone in this book is a shaker—on some form of unsteady ground, the earth splitting beneath their feet and they need to act, to choose one way or the other.
The fact that the earth is literally shaking beneath their feet and causing extra chaos is like an externalization of how these characters' lives are falling to pieces.
I really loved how each character was really humanized--the book gets into each of their heads alternatively and shows how things are not black and white. Ray may be a hitman, but he is a person, and he is a lot more than what is revealed on the surface. Kelly has a lot of anger issues and the city may now see her as a racist pig, but there is a whole 'nother life bubbling beneath her bones, and she is really good at her job. She wants to make a difference.
I didn't really know what I was getting into with this book, but it is a tightly written, cinematic, fast-paced novel, and I definitely expect more great work from Scott Frank in the future. He has already shown us what he can do with the screen, since he wrote the screenplays for Get Shorty and Out of Sight, among others. I would love to see what an adaptation of this would look like. . .
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Find out more about the publisher, Vintage Crime/Black Lizard (Knopf Doubleday, Penguin Random House)
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Cruel Mercy is my first foray into the Detective Sergeant Aector McAvoy series following the burly, fiercely determined, and strongly moral Scotsman (of which this book is the sixth).
I was a little apprehensive to dive blindly into a series following a character I had not yet read anything about—I imagined attempting to read Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince without having the faintest idea of what a Muggle was, or a Dumbledore, or what expecto patronum meant, or barely even knowing that Harry Potter was the one with the glasses and the unlikely scar on his head shaped like a weather phenomenon.
Fortunately, the only thing I felt after being glued to the pages of Cruel Mercy, was that I needed to find the other books in this series as quickly as possible!
While you’ll definitely be missing out on some important character building—I couldn’t help but feel that Pharoah, McAvoy’s boss, and Roisin, his wife, are extremely important characters who do more than occasionally call on the phone in the previous installments--Cruel Mercy does an excellent job of working as a standalone novel while introducing new readers to a vivacious, intelligent, and rugged detective in a fish-out-of-water situation.
McAvoy is sent across the pond to New York City to investigate the disappearance of his wife’s brother, and a lot is resting on the investigation since the two people he was last seen with, an up-and-coming Irish boxer and his promoter are attacked in an apparent mob hit in the woods upstate.
There is a tangled web of lies, mob secrets, and long hushed-up mysterious deaths and disappearances that don’t seem connected at all until McAvoy starts digging deeper than is wanted by everyone involved.
The U.S. authorities are deep in the pockets of the rival mob groups and have their own aims in sight, including keeping McAvoy in the dark. But it only takes one black sheep, or one solitary figure who wants to see justice done. . .
The plot of this book is so complex and completely bursting with very realistic details about the city, the organizations involved, and the potential corruption, that it definitely was one of the most realistic crime fiction books I have ever read. Things are not black and white, there is not just a cast of four or five characters, it isn’t always about a serial killer with multiple personality disorder.
David Mark’s book shows a full spectrum of ideas, I learned about the underground boxing world, mob factions and families, corruption in police departments, and seeing the U.S. through the eyes of a foreigner (always an enlightening experience).
It is definitely a dark book, especially in flashbacks where we eventually realize there may be no hope of escape or release for the characters therein, but I think, in the end, it is a redemptive one and one that reflects on the struggles of our own times.
We do not live in times that are black and white, we live in the murkiest grey. Whether it seems easy to label people one way or the other, it is not—just look at our most current election cycle, people being branded one thing or the other, it is so easy in these times of instant media.
I think it is important, maybe more important than ever to read fiction that speaks truths.
We need to delve into what makes us uncomfortable about not having things strictly separated into right and wrong, true and false, black and white. And sometimes, fiction speaks truer than fact. Sometimes the light at coming full circle in a story helps you hold onto what really matters.
And now, a special interview with author David Mark!
Shelf Stalker: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
David Mark: As ever, I’m reading several books at once. I sometimes wish I had more eyes. Am loving The North Water by Ian Maguire, and Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. I tend to leave books in different rooms of the house and read whatever I’m nearest.
SS: Who are your top three authors and why do they inspire you?
DM: John Connolly, because he has shown how to keep an ongoing series fresh and relevant. Sebastian Faulks, because his use of language is so beautiful it makes me want to kill him out of jealousy. And Hilary Mantel, as she is Hilary Mantel.
SS: If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
DM: I would quite like to be invisible, but as a novelist who spends most of his life in a darkened room, I’ve kind of already got my wish. So I think I would opt for some sort of mind-reading powers. I’d love to know what on earth people are thinking, or if indeed they actually are. Characters in novels have to have some degree of consistency and causality to their actions. Sadly, real life is not so obliging.
SS: Though this book could definitely be read as a standalone, it could be some readers’ first foray into the series—as it was mine, though I think I’ll go back and start from the beginning now. You’ve got me hooked! For readers who might not be familiar with the McAvoy series, what are a few important (or interesting) things to know about this Scottish detective and his past experiences before diving in?
DM: I’m pleased to hear that it works for newcomers as well as seasoned McAvoy fans. That was the idea. I would rather new readers approached it without knowing too much of what has come before but here’s some of the basics. Aector McAvoy is a sergeant on the Major Incident Team in Hull, Yorkshire. He’s a huge Scotsman with a tendency to blush and knock things over and who looks like he would be more at home holding a claymore and wearing a kilt in a bygone age. His life revolves around his wife and children, whom he adores, and his boss, Trish, who is a little bit in love with him. He’s brave, but doesn’t really believe he’s any type of hero, and while clever, he knows he’s not a genius. He follows the evidence wherever it goes, which is why he has so many scars. He doesn’t like upsetting people, and if he hits you hard enough there is a good chance your head will come off.
SS: This is the first McAvoy book set in the United States, or anywhere overseas for that matter. What was the motivation to take Aector so far away from his comfort zone?
DM: I know that McAvoy is synonymous with Hull and I don’t intend for that to change but I felt the time was right to remove a few of his comforts. Without his wife, Roisin, and his boss, he is never quite as sure of himself or whether he is on the right path. Given that there are some real moral ambiguities in this story, I thought that would be an interesting dynamic. I had planned to write a very different kind of New York novel. I had in mind something that was very Ed McBain or a Manhattan version of David Simon. But it occurred to me that to do those kind of stories justice, I would need to write with an authentic voice. I would need to write from the perspective of somebody who knows those streets and given that I had never been to America before, that just seemed absurd. So I decided that the "stranger in a strange land" concept might be a better fit. I wanted the reader to experience New York through the eyes of a blundering outsider, and that is definitely a voice I can find within myself.
SS: While reading this book, I really felt like I had a good picture and feel of that crazy city that never sleeps and the places described. I heard you were able to visit NYC while doing research for the book. Can you share some of that experience? What are some of the most striking differences from your hometown?
DM: There is an air of madness to New York. It’s not just one city—it seems like several different places all crunched together. The result is this patchwork of disparate cultures and influences. And yet it fits together to form this one homogenous entity that is inherently New York. People identify as New Yorkers before they identify as Americans. In that regard, it’s not dissimilar to my usual setting. People in Yorkshire say they are from the North. That’s the bit they’re proud of. In almost every other aspect, it’s a whole new world. If people in Hull were given access to the kind of foodstuffs that Manhattan has to offer, the whole of the UK would sink inside six months thanks to increased bodymass.
In terms of how I researched the book, I’m not 100 percent sure I can remember. There was a lot of drinking! But it would be fair to say that I don’t feel able to write about a place until I have experienced it and there was no way I could write the book without at least breathing in the New York air. So in essence it was a case of coming up with some good ideas for locations and trying to find a real place that worked. If I needed an old church and a boxing gym and two Irish bars, it was a case of looking at a lot of websites and coming up with a shortlist of places that might be right. It was important to me that I didn’t just pick places at random. Certain characters would only visit certain locations and live in certain types of place. There has to be a truth to your fiction. Characters need to behave like real people. Eventually I had a good long list of places that the characters would be likely to visit and where I would enjoy taking McAvoy and I booked myself and my partner a three-day break. We stayed in the hotel that would eventually become McAvoy’s hotel room and dined and drank in the restaurants and bars where he spends his time. We stood shivering outside the police precinct where the New York detective who becomes his ally would have worked. It is such a city of contradictions. It seems to be at once incredibly affluent and utterly destitute and proof of both can be glimpsed in the same panorama.
SS: Might you also talk a bit about your writing process? Your daily process while you are writing as well as what is it like to write a series—keeping all those plot threads straight! Wow!
DM: I’m very lucky that I have the kind of mind that is perfectly suited to writing fiction and which is horribly ill-suited to everything else. I take notes now and again and sometimes find scraps of paper with random words and aide-memoirs scribbled upon them but by and large I think of my skull like one of those candyfloss machines. I just swirl a stick around in there and ideas stick to it. The story I’m living and breathing then squats there in my head and pushes everything else out. Sometimes I look at the clock and I’ve lost a day and I realize I haven’t been to the bathroom since dawn. I write a chapter a day, no matter what. I’m at my desk by 9 am, drinking coffee and grinding my teeth. It’s delightfully masochistic. I kind of enjoy the agony of it, which sounds very pretentious for a writer of dark thrillers! As soon as it’s done, my brain just kind of flatlines for a bit. Then it starts preparing for the next project. Two years later, when the book is in people’s hands, I’ve largely forgotten what it was about. Sorry!
SS: What is essential to writing good crime fiction? Do you stick to some sort of formula or do you break all the rules? Do you read a lot of crime fiction or thrillers as well?
DM: I read everything I can get my hands on. I love thrillers and psychological fiction but it is rather difficult to read them for pleasure now that it’s my day job. It’s hard not to read with an air of comparing the market. I don’t really take any notice of rules, either in the writing process or in life. Actually, I do have one—if the novelist has mentioned the make and model of a car by the end of the first paragraph, the book isn’t for me. And for God’s sake, don’t start off with a dream. For me, it’s just a case of meeting interesting people and twisting preconceptions on their head. Listen to the radio a lot. People who phone DJs are particularly inspiring—they always seem like the sort of person who could be a killer or the killed. Listen to your inner voice. When some dullard is telling you about their tedious problems, think of ways to kill them, and why. It’s less risky than actually doing it. And you think I’m joking.
SS: Do you have plans for many more adventures with McAvoy and company? Where might he travel next?
DM: I’ve just got back from Iceland, and some of the next book will happen there. My American publishers still haven’t made an offer for that one yet so if you want to read it, start bombarding them with demands.
SS: Thank you so much for your time! I so enjoyed reading the book and look forward to more mysteries and crimes to solve with Aector!
DM: Thank you. If you ever come to Hull, I’ll show you around.
Get your copy of Cruel Mercy or the other DS Aector books
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Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
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A month into the new year, I’m still looking back. Though I read over 100 books last year, I didn’t quite squeeze in everything I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still satisfied with my numbers. A great year. When you consider that most of the population didn’t even crack the cover of one book. . . well, I know the people reading this are the exception to that sad statistic!
I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking back, as I’ve spent this January in a fierce re-read of the Harry Potter series with my boyfriend, who never had the joy of reading these magical books. How sweet, how beautiful to delve back into this world, like spending time with an old friend who you know so much about, but still has some surprises up their sleeve.
Harry Potter represents childhood and growing up for so many of us. Maybe those books were the first escape you ever learned, the first fiction you ever clung to outside of your own reality. I know the magic was strong for me.
It has definitely been a way to escape this month, into a place that is familiar, but where evil seems insurmountable and yet the light finds cracks, however small, to break through. That’s something then, when the real world outside seems only worse every day, in a way that I can’t really affect change.
Following Harry, Ron, Hermione, and all the others on their journey to their final battle has put me in mind about so many things. About my younger self and how I saw the story then: my anger and disbelief as some characters passed from its pages, my triumphant realization of figuring out things before the trio, my reveling in their magical moments, and the wistful loss when I’d shut the book and come back to myself, realizing that magic wasn’t real at all.
Books preserve things. Perhaps not so dissimilar to Riddle’s diary, books keep a record of the moments they encounter, the readers that inhabit them. While a piece of my younger self might be embedded in these books, being revealed to the light for the first time in many years, I’m preserving a new piece of myself and the current turmoil around me in the pages for the next time they awaken.
With all that in mind, I decided to do a short round-up of my top ten books of last year, though the time for top lists has been out of vogue for some weeks now. That doesn’t mean that these books are any less good than they were when everyone else was being more timely about top lists, nor that they shouldn’t be picked up and read this year.
It's also sort of a year in review for me and for this blog, as I started it at about the end of January last year.
Weirdly, I didn’t do reviews for some of these books and so plan to cover them more fully as their paperback dates approach. If I did review them, the link is there, so click away if they sound intriguing to you. I’ve also listed the dates they are due to come out in paperback, for your wallet, and perhaps so this list still seems relevant.
Of course, I still have a list of books from last year sitting in a tall stack beside my bed (it’s just sitting there, haunting me every day, threatening to crush me in my sleep) and a lot of them look like potential top books: Hagseed, Thus Bad Begins, Barkskins, The Mandibles. . . Ah, well. Another year, another stack! And next Tuesday, four more books coming out that I want to get. . .
This list is in no particular order, though it may, psychologically, be in some sort of order.
The Girls—Emma Cline
I knew this one was instantly in my top 10 the moment I began it. I read it first in March when the second (or third or fourth?) wave of advance copies were making rounds and then read it again in June when it came out. Gosh, this book really gets it. This coming-of-age story centers on a girl who wishes to become more, but finds she is stunted by society, the time period of the 1960s, her situation, and even the supposed friends she surrounds herself by. Well, how are you supposed to know when you are only 14 and experiencing life for the first time? But what happened then freezes Evie—she is more of an antihero than a portrait of perfect girlhood advancing into womanhood. Rippling sentences, superb characters, this is an excellent debut. (May 9, 2017)
Imagine Me Gone—Adam Haslett
I did not know when I was struck by this incredibly simple but ingenious cover that the book therein would be one of my favorites of the year. Yes, I admit it freely: I do sometimes buy books solely based on design alone. I’m definitely a sucker for a well-designed book—but I think publishers know that. (Three of the books on this list [though not this one] were by Mendelsund, and he’s no newb.) Haslett’s book is an intensely character involved miasma of truly thought-provoking writing. He’s dealing with heavy-hitting topics in a very internal way, depicting a mind under siege, a conflicted family, and people that effortlessly come off the pages. Not to be missed. (February 21, 2017)
An epic, sprawling, incredibly ambitious debut, this is one that will truly envelop you. For African American fiction, it was Whitehead’s Underground Railroad that got all the 2016 attention, and while that was excellent, Gyasi’s work definitely wins out in my book. The book is almost set more as interconnecting short shorts that follow one family as it branches out down the lines of slavery. Beginning with two sisters, who never even knew they were related, every other chapter tells of the next generation of one side or the other. One side tells a story of Africa, while the other side tells a story of American slavery and the two intermingle heartbreakingly, heartwarmingly, and with such exquisite storytelling, I can’t imagine what will come from Gyasi next, I can only tell you that I will read it immediately and love it. (May 2, 2017)
The Crow Girl—Erik Axl Sund
Crime fiction hitting my top list! Truly a surprise. Though I do like to muck around with crime fiction/suspense/thrillers/mystery books, generally I find them disappointing, over-plotted, too generic, and I solve them much too easily. This book, actually 3 books when it was originally published, is none of those things. Sprawling and epic, this book has an extremely realistic characters and a complex and uber-dark plot that I found way more interesting than even The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series that so captivated the world. Scandi-noir is on the rise again, but be warned, it does not hold back. This book may scar you. (June 27, 2017)
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial—Maggie Nelson
I don’t read a whole lot of nonfiction (so sue me) but I try to branch out a bit here and there. This book is astonishing, incredible, and completely worth reading in every way. Nelson writes about the resolution of the murder of her aunt, Jane, and how she coped with finally finding out what really happened after growing up with a horrible mystery in her family. As a devotee of crime fiction, I was like GIVE IT HERE, but this book also has so much more to offer—an insistence on relating to why our society is so obsessed with crime and continues to be, in increasing numbers. A personal story filled with indelibly gorgeous writing, only the way Nelson could do it. Find it immediately. (April 5, 2016, paperback original)
Mongrels—Stephen Graham Jones
This guy. He somehow pumps out these literary lowbrow horror genius masterpieces and this one is no exception. A werewolf coming-of-age tale? Bet you didn’t see that coming. Werewolves have never been explained quite like this, but honestly, if they’ve made it this far in modern society, it seems like Jones has their number. One of the most original writers I have ever read, he never ceases to surprise in the most honest (and sometimes gory) ways. (January 24, 2017)
Before the Fall—Noah Hawley
A small private plane loads up, takes off, and less than 20 minutes later, crashes into the ocean, leaving only two survivors, a four-year-old boy, and a struggling artist who wasn’t really supposed to be there anyway. What this book encapsulates is the unraveling of what happened on that plane: was it an accident? A planned hit on a high-powered business man? Murder over love? What went on in the cabin of that plane and how it captivates a nation, pushing in on the private lives of the two survivors is the main thrust of the story, casting the artist in the light of hero and villain as the people around him try to create a sensational story. Does what happened even matter to the media? Or the world? Brilliantly written as well. I’d love to see a movie version of this. (June 6, 2017)
I didn’t read as much poetry this past year as I usually do, but this collection is standout for sure. Her use of the page and white space gives the reader time to really think about her use of the language, while the denser parts force the reader onward, reading through the difficulty even without grasping the meaning of every line and every word. It seems almost omniscient at times and at others, hopeful in a heartbreaking way. (No paperback date available)
The Fat Artist and Other Stories—Benjamin Hale
I love reading short story collections. I think they lay bare writers in a way that novels do not; there is no place to hide in the condensed space of a short story. While a lot of good collections came out this year, I’ve chosen this one for my top list. The stories within are consistently great and even challenging, showing a wide range of creativity, character work, and writing styles. Hale mixes humor and darkness and absurd situations. I particularly adored the title story, where a failing experimental artist makes himself the main exhibit. (May 30, 2017)
All Things Cease to Appear—Elizabeth Brundage
This book was a quiet wonder. Simply brilliant and sneakingly dark, set against a stark wintry, country landscape, it tells the story of a murder backwards. We already know who gets murdered from the first chapter but not the murderer’s identity, and then the story rewinds to the beginning. A beautiful, haunting story of more than one broken family with so many more repercussions than just whodunit, this one left me breathless. (February 7, 2017)
I realized lately that all I really know about law and courtrooms and lawyering is what I’ve seen, heard, and read about through criminal trials (both real and imagined). True crime and crime fiction is generally my scene, but when given a chance to expand my knowledge, I’m game.
Big Law is about a different side of the justice world. One where lawyers from big name firms make boatloads of money working all the time on cases representing big syndicates and companies who are probably in the wrong and have done horrible things, like spill oil all over the habitat of a bunch of poor birds or force people to work in an unhealthy environment that led to early lung cancer related deaths.
Somehow, those corporations seem to skive off without much damage and it’s always Big Law lawyers who are seen skulking away.
Welcome to the world of totally unfair bullsh!t. Oh, wait, I think you’ll recognize it since we are all currently living there for the next four years.
Anyway, back to the story. Big Law follows an up-and-coming newly minted partner, Carney Blake, who is pretty fresh from law school and still rosy-eyed and a bit idealistic about the whole law game.
When he’s given a case fighting against the corporation, for the plaintiff, the people who have been wronged, it seems a bit fishy, but he figures his company is just turning over a new leaf.
The story is told from a point in the future, so the reader gets bits of Carney’s more hardened, mature narration throughout and we can’t help but wonder, where is he telling this story from? The top of his own executive office in a crisp Armani suit? Or a jail cell in a nice orange D.O.C. jumpsuit?
Because things don’t seem to be going so well for Carney. Not in his personal life, where his father is an alcoholic mess and his brother is a drug addict, and not at his job, where every decision he makes for this case seems to send it spiraling out of control—and right into the hands of the firm’s biggest enemy.
This is an extremely fast-paced novel that spins out the world of corporate law in a way that is not only intelligible, but exciting and effortless. It drew me in and I didn’t feel like it stopping to explain every step of the process to me—instead the book treated me like an equal while still giving me all the information I needed. The mark of an experienced and great writer.
I think it definitely helps that this book is written by someone very much in the know: Ron Liebman is a former top litigator himself.
Interestingly, this book has some very clear lines demarcating good and bad, with only one surprise character (who I had a sneaking suspicion about anyway). People who the narrator thinks are bad (and are therefore cast in a bad light throughout) invariably turn out bad, through and through.
No real grey area in law, I guess.
Though the book definitely wraps up with a nicely tight bow, a bit neat for my taste, the story is definitely satisfying and gave me a buzz to read. It puts you right in the action of making the decisions with Carney and floods your brain with just a small bit of the constant wave information that lawyers’ brains must deal with.
Can’t say I’m envious of that life, but it’s nice to take a peek inside for one heck of a wild ride.
Get your copy of Big Law
Find out more about the author, Ron Liebman
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Find out more about the publisher, Blue Rider Press (Penguin Random House)
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This is a book for deep winter, a cuddle-up-with-hot-cocoa kind of book, a keep-the-light-on-all-night kind of read. You don’t have to be a fan of Nordic noir or Scandinavian crime novels to get into this book. It has a truly unique and compelling story that honestly kept me guessing and kept the pages turning!
It is told from three alternating perspectives, with each one leaving off in such a way that you are almost forced to continue, compelled from one section into the next.
Peter is a police detective who is married to his job (though he can’t quite muster up that same type of commitment to people) who is called to the scene of a grisly murder—a woman had been horribly brutalized and left decapitated in famous clothing CEO and womanizer Jesper Orre’s house. No one knows who she is and Orre himself has gone missing, but the scene is uncannily similar to a crime committed some years ago.
Hanne consulted on that case and she is brought in to look at this one too. But Hanne has a secret to hide—she’s got early onset dementia and she doesn’t want anyone to know, especially Peter, with whom she shares a painful history.
Emma is Jesper Orre’s secret girlfriend and her side of the story is told from the past, slowly leading up to the present where Peter and Hanne are trying to solve the murder. She though they were in love, about to be married even, but when strange things start happening to her, she thinks Jesper is to blame—but who can she go to for help? Who would believe her, since their entire relationship was a secret?
You’ll have a sinking feeling in your stomach throughout the book—is she the girl in Jesper’s apartment? The only way to know for sure is to read on. . .
This book gave me that very satisfying moment where I had just enough clues and all of a sudden, everything clicked into place. I didn’t feel that the plot had been fed to me and I didn’t feel gypped, as though I hadn’t been given a chance to figure out what was going on.
There was a perfect balance of hints given where I probably could have figured it out sooner, if only I’d been paying attention! Sneaky author! These are my favorite types of books—the ones that make me crave to be smarter next time!
The bleak atmosphere and more intricate police procedural bits of the story that are commonly found in crime novels (especially Nordic ones) are really softened by the depth of character that Grebe reaches. Through the rotating chapters, the reader sees their internal worlds, like Peter and Hanne’s struggles that are going on outside of the investigation, and that turns them into 3D people rather than just characters on the page.
Emma is more of an enigma; I never knew quite what to expect with her, but I loved her independence and spirit in the face of her adversity. As time winds her toward the conclusion you find yourself hoping more and more that she is not the girl who is headless on the floor of Orre’s apartment.
I don't want to give the story away—but there are plenty of twists and a pretty shocking revelation in store. The book moves so quickly because of the shifting perspectives, but there are details you don't want to miss out on!
I really enjoyed the translation—I felt I was stalking the streets of Sweden and scarfing cardamom buns with the characters! (Not quite sure what those are, but they eat them like U.S. cops eat donuts!)
All in all, this is worth a read. In a sea of less than interesting thriller-types, this one will weather the storm. If you need to get out of the house after the Christmas hullaballoo (aka, get away from your family. . .) head on down to your local indie and pick this one up. But don’t say I didn’t warn you—you’ll be glued to the pages until you turn the last one.
Get your copy of The Ice Beneath Her (out 12/27)
Find out more about the author, Camilla Grebe
Find out more about the publisher, Ballantine Books (Penguin Random House)
Recently, I had the great joy of being able to read not one, but two of Erik Therme's books and he even put up with me long enough to give us a peek behind the author's curtain—see below the review for a special author interview!
If you missed my review and interview with Erik on his book Resthaven click here.
Mortom centers around Andy who was surprised to learn he inherited his recently deceased cousin’s house and assets. He was never all that close to Craig and didn’t even attend the funeral, but who’s going to say no to some free stuff, right?
Craig’s unexpected death was deemed accidental, but things are already fishy when Andy and his sister Kate show up to the house and the first thing they find is a dead rat with a key and a secret message shoved in its mouth.
It seems that Craig is not quite finished with them yet—there’s a mysterious trail of clues that Andy will have to solve and follow if he wants to find out what Craig really left him. Kate thinks there is more going on: there’s a little girl next door and an angry old man who seem to hold one key to the puzzle, and Craig’s mom definitely knows more than she’s letting on.
Is it a conspiracy? Is the whole tiny town of Mortom out to get them? What’s with the trail of clues? Did Craig really leave some treasure at the end? Or is it something worse? And why did he leave it for Andy?
Andy focuses in on finding the clues—he’s convinced there’s something hidden at the end of this that is worth having, that Craig wouldn’t set up this elaborate scavenger hunt without there being something to win at the end.
But Kate isn’t so sure and although she isn’t feeling well, she starts doing some digging of her own, asking questions about Craig to his neighbors, to their aunt, and she starts to uncover something with much bigger repercussions than just the silly material gain that Andy was hoping for. Now, if only she could get Andy to pay attention!
This is a book that keeps on twisting! Once you think you’ve figured it out, there’s another twist, another surprise waiting around the corner.
I was interested in the polar opposition between Andy and Kate: Andy is so focused in on the small details, on following this trail of clues that he just can’t wrap his head around the bigger picture. Kate, on the other hand, couldn’t care less about some silly scavenger hunt, but winds up getting sucked into the town of Mortom and her family’s past in a way she never expected.
Craig is really an enigma throughout the book; I got a sense that he wanted to create this larger-than-life mysterious persona that would almost haunt Andy. But though you will find out the truth behind what drives Craig, I’m not sure we ever find out who Craig truly is.
Creepy old houses in small towns where everyone seems to be watching, jaunts through graveyards at midnight, and scavenger hunts with seemingly no end—this is a speedy read with a lot to unpack!
And now for a continuation of my interview with author Erik Therme!
Shelf Stalker: What is your favorite under-appreciated novel?
Erik Therme: Bridge Daughter, by Jim Nelson. I don’t know how this book hasn’t sold a million copies. It’s a beautiful, haunting tale of an alternate America, where first-born children are carriers of their parents’ “real” children. I don’t want to say more for fear of spoiling anything, but it’s one of the most original tales I’ve read in a long time.
SS: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
ET: I could always relate to Spider-Man, as he’s just a geeky kid with real life problems. And what’s the best way to escape problems? Walking away on ceilings and walls. Ha!
SS: Any story behind the origin of this book? Any relatives leaving you cryptic messages with their estates?
ET: The town of Mortom is based on Farmington, Iowa, where my father grew up, and where I spent many summers of my childhood. The original draft was heavily influenced by Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot and went through numerous drafts before it became what it is today. As of right now, I haven’t heard about any estates from deceased relatives, but I also haven't checked my mailbox today . . .
SS: Andy is so completely obsessed with solving the puzzles, the materialistic side of it all, and is so intent that there is something at the end of it for him that he isn’t able to see the bigger picture. On the other hand, Kate isn’t really interested in the puzzle at all. Once she gets involved, it’s in the human element, piecing together the people surrounding their cousin and his death. Their focus is so different and they constantly clash throughout the book. Is this just sibling rivalry? Gender commentary? What were your thoughts on developing these characters?
ET: The main intent for the constant arguing (between Andy and Kate) was to show that Andy is so fixated on solving the riddle that he has no regard for anything—or anyone—around him. In retrospect, I probably should have scaled the bickering down a bit, as some readers have commented it felt unnecessary and bogged down the story.
SS: What was the most difficult scene to write?
ET: I always struggle writing “action” scenes. The finale in Mortom took a fair amount of tweaking before I was satisfied, and it took me forever to write the dog scene in Resthaven. One of the golden rules of writing is “show—don’t tell,” but whenever I write action-heavy scenes, it always feels like forced description, and I’m never fully satisfied with the end result.
SS: In this book (and Resthaven too) there are definite blurred lines about who the “bad guy” is. There are multiple characters who do bad things, make bad decisions, and don’t seem to have the best motives, including the main character, Andy. What was your thought behind creating characters in shades of grey?
ET: There’s no question I love blurring the lines between right and wrong. I think it’s because I don’t believe anyone is inherently good or evil, and I’m endlessly fascinated by people’s motivations and the choices they make. Life is complicated and messy, and even the best of us have dark moments. Do the ends justify the means? Do two wrongs make a right? These are the types of questions that drive my characters to do what they do.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ET: My third novel, Roam, is going through the editing process and will be released in February 2017. The story follows a young man who believes he’s being haunted by his dead father, and the only way he can redeem himself is by “saving” someone else. It’s a very character-driven story and very different from Mortom and Resthaven. Readers can follow me on Amazon to be notified when the book is released.
Get your copies of Resthaven and Mortom
Find out more about the author, Erik Therme
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Assistant editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.