Winter 2018 Rainy Day Reads

We couldn’t decide on the winter equivalent of a beach read. It couldn’t be snow related—it’s a push to call this time of year in San Diego “winter” as it stands. We settled on the optimistic, in drought-ridden California, with the hope that our winter would provide some rainy days. These are some of our picks, but if you’re got your own suggestions for books, movie, or TV, email Susan and let her know.

Himself by Jess Kidd

The Guardian review
When we tell you the main character sees dead people, you may be thinking horror, but this book is a delight, requiring just a little suspension of disbelief, more along the lines of A Midsummer’s Night Eve. Featuring a charming small town cast of characters, set in Ireland, this novel is a mystery. True to the classic form, a stranger comes to town and trouble gets stirred up. When Mahoney’s talking to people, not quite asking questions, he’s certainly stirring them up amongst the villagers. And the biggest question quickly becomes what happened to Mahony’s teenage mother decades ago. Did she leave town, or was she murdered? It’s not clear any longer who left Mahony at the Dublin orphanage 25 years ago. As William Faulkner once wrote about small towns in the American South, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And his small towns were only metaphorically haunted by ghosts, Kidd’s small town has literal ghosts sitting around everywhere, signaling, if not talking, to Mahony, so the truth begins to be clear. And you know when a long-dormant killer finds their secret may yet be revealed, more deaths are coming unless the crime is solved quickly. (yes, movie rights are sold.)

Golden Hill by Francis Spufford

The New York Times review
We seem to have had a bit of a run on first novels in this post, but all the more reason for you to check out our picks and discover some new talent. Spufford’s had a distinguished career as a nonfiction writer, but this is his fiction debut. It starts 30 years before the founding of America. I guess we have a weakness for small town gossip in plots, because we’ve got another stranger come to town where contemplation of his motives stir up all kinds of trouble. In this case, the small town is an early New York City, and the rumors (understandably) circle around the 1,000 pound promissory note he’s got in hand. A rich stranger in town, named Smith, no matter how much the gentleman, can’t possibly be up to any good—at least for the local power structure. You wouldn’t think it to look at the description but Golden Hill is a page-turner. Luckily not a long book, because you’ll need to stay up late and finish it once you start reading.

Presidio by Randy Kennedy

The New York Times review
When Lee Child (of Jack Reacher fame) writes the review in The New York Times, you have to pay attention—or at least you do if you’re a fan of the Jack Reacher books. And if that doesn’t sway you, he’s earned praise from Larry McMurtry, who has to be the reigning expert of Texas of the past. Kennedy doesn’t go all the way back to the old west, but this is a western, if set in 1970s Texas. Perfect for fans of the recent movie Hell or High Water, the novel tells a tale of small-town Texas panhandle life and small-time crime in the 1970s. The story is told partly through a journal looking back as well as the current events. When you stop to consider the reasons we—and our friends and family—go about our lives focused on the future, you realize life is very different for people whose only focus can really be on the present. This book is like the love child of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy memoir and Larry McMurtry’s Berrybender Narratives and is well worth your time.

The Witch Elm by Tana French

The New York Times review
Fair warning: If you’re a fan of all of French’s previous books, collectively known as the Dublin Murder Squad, this book isn’t part of that loose series. (The Dublin Murder Squad is an unusual series as each book tells a murder story from different squad members’ points of view, so you’re always seeing previous stories slightly recast—making it tough on hardcover fans who run out and buy every book and can’t remember the details a year later, but ideal for a vacation reader looking to binge on paperbacks). This novel gives us Toby, a privileged late-20s social media professional, who is only just realizing (maybe) how lucky he is. And then his home gets broken into and everything falls apart. The detectives and the doctors promptly tell him just how lucky he has been, but it doesn’t seem this crime will ever be solved. Toby’s luck goes to hell “gradually, and then all at once” as he goes to stay with a terminally ill uncle in an old home that’s been in the family for generations and a skull turns up in a tree in the garden. Here the mystery revolves around whether we (or Toby) can trust Toby’s narration, whether he’ll ever get back to where he started, and only secondarily about whose skull that is and how it got there. (Note that Susan has a weakness for unreliable narrators, which might make her an unreliable reviewer as a result.)

Vox by Christina Dalcher

Publishers Weekly review
The premise is priceless, we’re sure a movie, if not a Netflix series, will be made. The book itself has weaknesses, but worth bearing with it just to ponder the overall idea. Women in American are now limited to 100 words per day. Any more and you get a shock from your monitoring bracelet. Sign language gets you hauled away, never to be seen again. Pens, paper, books—they are all locked up. Definitely a little heavy-handed. (Gotta ask how many people are both the parent of four and a genius researcher, even before the dystopia kicks in?) It’s in those details the author heaps things on, but the idea itself is fascinating, and the book is a fast read, so we’re still comfortable recommending it.

Look at Me by Jennifer Egan

The Guardian review
We deliberately picked a review link from the re-release of Jennifer Egan’s Look at Me, circa 2001, on the heels of her rave reviews for A Visit from the Goon Squad. It’s a great novel, a riveting story, well-written. But when you consider how shockingly prophetic her discussion of identity remains—after the 17 ensuing years of the issues between public and private selves as magnified by social media’s rise. And while the book was written pre-9/11, the chameleon Z, a terrorist on a mission to open all eyes to the seductive lie of the American dream, is shocking not only because of the later events of 9/11 but because, oddly, he most resembles the bitter American conspiracy theorists of today, most of whom lay claim to patriotism as their sole purview. Amazing book in any scenario but the meanings have shifted a bit in the ensuing years, making it even more fascinating. Highly recommend this for book clubs—you could write a thesis, there’s so much here. Egan is one of the best American writers alive today—all of her books are page-turning, thought-provoking, with characters you don’t forget.

 

Maybe the End of the World Won’t Be So Bad

The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters

Wired review
With the latest climate change report out, we’re not sure whether this will lead to a boost in the sales of apocalyptic fiction or a downturn. If you’re in the mood for some beautiful meditations on the meaning of life and work against a background of a fading earth, you probably thought you couldn’t do better than the Nevil Shute’s 1957 post-apocalyptic classic On the Beach. And it was hard to beat for decades. While we still recommend it, the genre has become a magnet for talented, literary fiction writers—you’ll find the “Best of” lists each year always have a couple of novels that fall into this category (we covered American War in our Summer 2018 list).

Ben Winters’ trilogy, The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble, starts as your basic detective novel. Our hero, newly promoted to detective in light of a spate of recent resignations and departmental suicides, thinks something is fishy about this particular suicide. Concord, New Hampshire—like everywhere else—has been impacted by the news of earth’s impending demise. An asteroid, Maia, is on track to hit in October and wipe out all life. So, technically, this trilogy is pre-apocalyptic, if you usually just can’t face life after the fall.

If you’re only going to have one case, it’s important to find out the truth. Like all noir detectives, Hank isn’t looking for an answer that’s going to bring anyone peace, but the work itself has honor and meaning, while it doesn’t look like anyone else’s approach to the end of the world has much to recommend itself. This is a beautiful series of books, written by a talented writer, and like many in the genre, is a reminder of what really matters about our work.

Summer 2018 Beach Reads

We read a lot for fun, for work, and just to get some different perspectives. As much as we love to read on airplanes and in hotels, it’s pretty great to stretch out and read at the beach. Summer opens up some time for recreational reading for all of us, so we thought we’d provide some suggestions.  While we note a few of these books are already in development for TV or feature films, almost all of them seem likely to end up there eventually.

Macbeth by Jo Nesbo

NY Times review
Hogarth has been publishing a few Shakespeare plays retold by contemporary authors each year, and Nesbo’s is the latest. The whole series is great, but if you want to give your beach noir reading a sheen of respectability, this is the thriller to make you look smart while you relax. While set in the 1970s, the theme of addiction to drugs and power feels incredibly relevant today.

The Nix by Nathan Hill

NPR review
Okay, it’s 600+ pages, but it may be one of the fastest reads on this list, so we’re saying it’s a beach read. With John Irving missing in action for the moment, Nathan Hill’s book reads like a variation of The World According to Garp. The shared premise: People are all a little nuts, time just makes us more so, and inevitably over a lifetime we’re on a collision course with our past that’s going to be ridiculous and heartwarming all at the same time.

The Dry by Jane Harper

NY Times review
This debut mystery, set in a drought-ridden Australian farming town, makes clear the environment can be scarier than a murderer on the loose and you definitely can’t go home again. The detective has a secret past, which required he leave town as a teenager. Now he’s back for his murdered best friend’s funeral. This one is pretty dark, but set in a sun-seared landscape, so it seems just right for a beach read. Californians will find the drought state itself pretty terrifying. Ms. Harper’s second novel, Force of Nature, features the same detective, in a different, but equally hostile physical environment, wrestling with some other people’s difficult pasts, and is also excellent. The Guardian review.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer

NY Times review
This book is funny and light with an undercurrent of meaning, a completely enjoyable comedic beach read, and yet, when queried, you can give it the gloss of respectability by noting Mr. Greer just won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize for the novel. An author’s midlife crisis runs from country to country, on a shoestring budget, it’s a book about running away from your problems, which seems like perfect vacation fodder. Of course it doesn’t really work, so you won’t feel bad not being on permanent vacation yourself.

American War by Omar El Akkad

Washington Post review
Set in a dystopian future America this is a story about a country fundamentally changed by an unwillingness to compromise, where a new set of irreconcilable differences have required a second civil war. What’s terrifying is how easily you can imagine the split occurring in the next 20 years and there’s no other special sci-fi suspended judgement jump required to get to this book’s view of 2075. If you love The Hunger Games, it’s an easy win, but if you run from anything dystopian, you are missing some of the most interesting social commentary being written right now. The author is a journalist who spent time in Afghanistan and currently covers the Black Lives Matter movement in the US, so he’s able to create very believable scenarios.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

The Guardian review
A definite must-read for fans of Agatha Christie. Horowitz, who also writes extensively for BBC mystery shows like Foyle’s War, recreates a Christie mystery within another modern-day mystery. It’s perfectly pulled off, and both stories are fully enjoyable for mystery fans. (If you’ve got video-gaming boys in the house, who need a push to read a book this summer, tip them off that Horowitz’s Alex Rider books were a big hit 10 years ago with current Houston Outlaw Jake Lyon. (There’s a piece of Overwatch League trivia you can’t get anywhere else.)

I’ll be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

The Guardian review
We had to have a little true crime in any list of beach reads, so we went with this fascinating story about the search for the Golden State Killer and also about the writer obsessed with the story. The book was ultimately finished from the writer’s notes after her death, and that’s an interesting story in and of itself. HBO has optioned the story for a documentary series, so this is one that you’ll be hearing more about for some time to come. This story continues to unfold in the press with the DNA testing that helped discover the killer hitting not only the life science breakthroughs of the last decade but the data privacy issues we’re all newly wrestling with this year.

You Think It, I’ll Say It by Curtis Sittenfeld

NPR review
We felt we needed at least one book of short stories and luckily Ms. Sittenfeld’s first collection, after several novels (Prep, American Wife, Eligible, etc.), was released in late April. We are otherwise a little California-heavy, so it was ideal to pick up a smart Midwestern sensibility here, too. If there’s no way the Eve Babitz collection about 1970s LA is to your taste (see below), this book might be the perfect counterweight. And if you like the stories, you can delve into her novels and cover the whole summer quite enjoyably. (Eligible is a delightful retelling of Pride and Prejudice set in a modern Bachelor-type reality TV show, while American Wife is a fascinating imagined life of someone much like former First Lady Laura Bush, if you need a paperback entry point to a great writer.)

The Strange Case of the Alchemist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss

NPR review
If you were ever a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the idea of bringing together a set of mismatched, but unconnected, set of literary characters as in Showtime’s recent Penny Dreadful series, you’ll enjoy this book. Not billed as first in a series, it’s still hard to imagine it isn’t. Actually, it’s hard to imagine HBO or Netflix won’t scoop up the rights and make a TV series. The monstrous daughters of a variety of England’s nineteenth century fictional mad scientists find each other and set off on a mission. Ms. Goss teaches at Boston University, where she wrote her doctoral dissertation on 19th century Gothic literature, and as you might imagine with those credentials, she pulls this off flawlessly.

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

NY Times review
If you’re under 30, you’re not going to believe that kids used be this unsupervised all summer long. You’re also not going to believe that before parents spent their time helicoptering into kids’ lives, they lived their own lives without regard for the trail of damage they were leaving in their wake. If you’re over 30, you don’t have to get over the shock factor and can just enjoy a hell of a good story. It’s also not too late to go back and read Ms. Patchett’s breakthrough success, Bel Canto. Ms. Patchett is also a bookseller (Parnassus Books in Nashville), and gave a great talk about trends in books at UCSD last year, which will give you some more recommendations.

Slow Days, Fast Company by Eve Babitz

The Paris Review review
Ms. Babitz wrote about 1970s Hollywood and had slipped largely out of print until a few years ago, when a couple of the books were re-issued as forgotten classics. She writes strikingly funny lines about deeply observed people, more current memoir than actual fiction, and a deep love of the people, time and place comes through it all. We’re not the only fans, film producer Amy Pascal, producer of The Post, has picked up four of her Hollywood books for production as a Hulu dramedy series (L.A. Woman), so you might want to get cracking on one of the books now.

You Say to Brick by Wendy Lesser

Washington Post review
In this case, a movie was already made about the life of architect Louis Kahn. Like Frank Lloyd Wright, Mr. Kahn’s personal life makes for scandalous reading but there’s no denying the cultural contributions made by his work all over the world. Among other buildings, his work includes our neighbor on the Torrey Pines Mesa, the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. We thought that San Diego link too good to ignore, and the book is fascinating.

A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

NPR review
This book, the first in a series, imagines Sherlock Holmes as a brilliantly observant  young woman trapped by the social mores of Victorian England. Ms. Thomas intricately plotted out how to cover every character in Sherlock’s world around this premise, and it’s very well done. Just when you start to wonder how she’ll handle a loved character, they appear, with a rational reason why they would buy into this deception, and without asking that they are all secret feminists with ideas a hundred years ahead of their time. A classic beach read, you’ll want to read it in a day or two, and probably have the second one, A Conspiracy in Belgravia, on hand. Ms. Thomas is a former romance novelist, so if that doesn’t give her beach read credibility, nothing does. However, if that résumé scares you off, then you probably won’t have enough respect for Charlotte Holmes to enjoy the books either.

You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessi Klein

NY Times review
Ms. Klein is a former Inside Amy Schumer writer. She’s also married and a mother, so the terrain here is a little different than Ms. Schumer’s focus on single life, but it’s equally irreverent and very funny. If you’ve ever been a nursing mom back at work, her essay on trying to pump after a win at The Emmys, dressed accordingly, will make you laugh out loud in commiseration. You’ll be profoundly thankful your job doesn’t require evening attire at 2 a.m. while you’re still out on maternity leave.