What to Read and Watch in a Pandemic

While we’ve continued to have work throughout the California Shelter in Place order (our animation business is booming), we’re all looking to be distracted in our free time. And we know it’s the same everywhere, because this time, we had requests to get a new post up on the site—a first for our Spare Time menu. Here are some our recommendations, with a little bit about why we think each one is a fit for the unique March-May 2020 period.

A Long Petal of the Sea
by Isabel Allende

The Guardian review

Isabel Allende’s novels consistently build up a window into the past where you can be transported each time you pick up the book to read a few more chapters. Some writers propel you through their stories, but with her you linger, you want to spend time with the characters and in their lives. This book dives into the Spanish Civil War and fleshes out all the characters so well, it’s hard to know whose story you’ll be following. The research is amazing, so you learn a lot about the 20th century from a different viewpoint, as the action runs from fleeing Franco’s takeover of Spain to Chile and Venezuela. This is a great read right now because it’s transporting and because it is an excellent reminder than humans have been through worse and gone on to thrive.

Blue Moon
by Lee Child

Publishers Weekly review

If you’ve never read a Jack Reacher novel, now’s the time to start. (You can start with the first, Killing Floor.) One reason to get to know Jack Reacher is that Amazon has a TV show in development, so you’ll be streaming it soon enough. (Do not consider the Tom Cruise-starring movies to be in any way representative of the novels.) We’re not going to give away the plot of this story (although the fact that the innocents he decides to help are into a crime syndicate loan shark to cover their adult daughter’s medical bills because her boss didn’t tell anyone he stopped paying the premiums when his tech company started to find funding drying up is perfect for our American era.) Here’s why you might want to read this right now: Jack’s a simple guy, living a simple life, on the move in the US. He owns a toothbrush and an ATM card, and little else. And he tackles each day as it comes, dealing with each problem as it appears, whether it’s Ukrainian or Albanian gangsters, where the second punch needs to land, or when it’s time for his next cup of coffee. It’s oddly soothing.

Everything Happens for a Reason (and Other Lies I’ve Loved)
by Kate Bowler

Gates Notes review

If you’re not a reader, then you can listen to Kate Bowler’s podcast or her TED Talk. If you are a reader, then this is a great little book. Bowler comes from a prosperity gospel upbringing, is a professor of divinity at Duke University, and yet her overarching message is that sometimes bad stuff—really bad stuff—just happens. And you can’t fix it, or give it a larger meaning. You just need to step into the unreasonable, undeserved events with as much love as you can muster for the moment and whatever that moment holds. She thinks you can find beauty and love in all of it. She might be someone you want to get to know right about now. She recently wrote about her thoughts on the coronavirus pandemic in the New York Times.

Babylon Berlin
Streaming on Netflix

Vulture review (Season 3)

I don’t know what we can say that the reviewer linked above didn’t say, but here‘s the basic idea. We had a ton of recommendations for this, just didn’t really feel like it, but the pandemic kicked in and suddenly three seasons of subtitled German noir detective in Weimar-era Germany sounded like a really good idea. (Maybe our recent binge of FX’s Fosse/Verdon (now on Hulu) had put Cabaret back in our heads.) The story is complicated, and you flinch every time you find out someone is Jewish, because you know how that’s going to turn out way down the road, but the main characters are compelling, from the darkly can-do Lotte who has the odds stacked against her, but for whom you never feel any pity, and the new-to-Berlin Gereon, who is hiding just about everything, maybe even largely from himself. It’s a fascinating dive into the end of the roaring ’20s, one we’ve seen a lot on American fiction and film, but this is noir, so it’s dark and seamy, and it’s never clear if the good guys are really good or the bad guys really bad. It’s a thoroughly diverting show, and I think the subtitles are a big plus right now, because you must get off your phone and stop reading the news before bedtime.

Nothing to See Here
by Kevin Wilson

NPR review

Kevin Wilson’s work defies genres. He tells contemporary fiction, with one completely unrealistic, almost insane, detail. In this case, two old frenemies get back together when one of them reaches out for help with her two new stepchildren. They have a very unfortunate disability—every once in a while they spontaneously combust, and it’s pretty tough on their senator dad trying to conceal this. You’d think that was the the story, but that’s really just a side note. The real story here is about their new governess and her journey into an unexpected, challenging parent role. So why read it now? Well, it’s sweet and funny, and, if you’re now homeschooling your children while live streaming your corporate life, we figured a little humor about how hard it is to be a parent might be appreciated right now.

The Count of Monte Cristo
by Alexander Dumas

The Guardian review

First, be sure to get an unabridged edition. There’s a really interesting subplot that gets cut out of the abridged version. This is one of the great serials back when there wasn’t any TV. It’s a long, winding plot, with tons of interesting subplots, and was designed to keep you hot to buy the next issue as soon as it came out (HBO didn’t invent this idea). The language is a little stuffy, but complete understandable. It’s a great story of injustice and a long-planned revenge, pulled off beautifully. There’s political corruption, found treasures, lost fortunes, secrets (lots of secrets), murder, and a long, perfect revenge, with scores settled through the next generation, when necessary. This is escapism as its best, perfect for fans of Netflix’s Money Heist or HBO’s Game of Thrones or Westworld. Why this and why now? Corruption never goes out of style, but honestly, it’s just a thrill ride in a totally different world.

Ravensburger Jigsaw Puzzles

The New York Times: How They Make Jigsaw Puzzles

Either you’re into jigsaw puzzles or you’re not, we get it. But they are oddly soothing, because they put you in Jack Reacher mode–you just deal with one color or texture at a time. First the edges, then then the sunflower seeds, then the yellow areas, the red areas, the dark brown soil, the sky and so on. It’s basic, it’s simple, you can solve this problem, and it’s quiet. perfect for doing alone, with a soundtrack, or to welcome a household member who wants to join you for a while. Except cats. Cats and jigsaw puzzles are a bad combo. If you have cats, don’t throw out the full vacuum bag, you may need to go through it later when you discover a piece is missing at the end. We tell you this from experience. If you’re not a regular puzzlerer, word to the wise, try and locate a Ravensburger puzzle. The cardboard is thick, the printing is top-notch, and every piece is a joy to handle. You’ll be handling them for a while, so it matters. Their site is no longer shipping, but Amazon has some, and your local toy store probably does. In San Diego many of the Geppetto’s Toys locations will text you photos, let you make your pick, pre-pay over the phone, and pick up curbside. (They must be essential because mental health is essential, and jigsaws can help. Or buying toys to bribe your kids for another day of meetings is essential. Anyway, we agree with the essential nature of their services. )

Summer Reading 2019

We’re back with a new set of summer reading. Seems like everyone we know has a little more downtime in the summer (even working-outside-the-home parents). Here’s our set of recs, and, in case you don’t believe us, we always have a link to major news site’s review.

The Mermaid and Mrs. Hancock
by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The New York Times review

This is an intriguing first novel. It was a bestseller in the UK and made many of the Best of 2018 lists we scour each January. It appears on the surface to be an historical novel, set in 18th century London, on the seamier side of society. It reads a bit like Mark Twain’s The Gilded Age, or scenes out of any Dickens novel in that no one escapes the exposure of their character flaws to the reader. The book takes a slight left turn into the shallow end of mystical realism as our different characters collide and the story arc swings to crisis. And with that in stride, it moves from historical fiction and magical realism to the sneaking dread you find in classic gothic horror novels like Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Really a great book, genre-defying overall, and a page-turner. The author doesn’t hold back on the specifics of prostitution (in an age without antibiotics) so likely not appropriate for most younger teens. The movie rights have been sold, although we suspect it’s more likely to appear as a short TV series like Wolf Hall or The Night Manager.

Golden State
by Ben H. Winters

The Verge review

Even if you love the tendency towards a bit of the well-meaning nanny in some of the legislation in the state of California, you can easily buy into the premise of Winter’s newest novel, where we may have gone too far. After the world has been damaged by unbridled lying, at some time in the past, California has legislated absolute truth at all times. Each citizen records their day in a journal, sealing the pages in your own files, with the authorities able to access this information any time the facts need verification. Our detective has an allergy to lies, he can sense them as they are told. So when he shows up to an inquiry and doesn’t buy that it’s an accident, he starts digging, and has to begin to question the entire power structure. Like all dystopian futures, no one started out with a bad intent when the big change happened, it’s just likely the pendulum swung too far and certain that there will always be a corrupt elite who figures out how to work any system. Not a cheery book, but a great detective story with some interesting thoughts on truth and lies, which lets the reader reflect on our current reality. Winters has a knack for asking big questions via a detective story, so if you’re a Blade Runner fan (in the Philip K. Dick short story title—Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?—discussion sense), you’ll enjoy this book. (We previously recommended his Last Policeman trilogy.)

On Turpentine Lane
by Elinor Lipman

Washington Post review

If this is the first you’ve ever heard of Elinor Lipman, you’re going to busy this summer, because if you like one thing she’s written, you’ll want to read them all. Like a much funnier version of Anne Tyler or a more down to earth John Irving, Lipman takes a pretty simple set of ordinary circumstances for some very normal, regular folks, and all kinds of craziness ensues. In On Turpentine Lane, our hero, Faith, works for a local prep school’s development office writing really great thank you notes to donors in her hometown. While her 40-year-old fiance is walking across America as part of a self-discovery process, she decides to buy a house. While you worry that this relationship might not be a good one and that the house might be a money pit, the story takes a turn when a donor accidentally writes a big check to Faith and not the prep school, the house basement needs to be ripped up by the police as there may have been a murder, and that fiance is always posting photos on social media where he seems to be with other women, while hanging onto the joint credit card he has to be used just in case of emergency. While you have a feeling of (lighthearted) impending doom for much of the novel, each scene is funny with great dialogue between characters you really like, and it’s a great novel to escape the regular world. Excellent beach read, and if this one works, move on to the others. She’s never had a dud and there are a dozen or so. (One novel was made into the movie of the same name, Then She Found Me, but the movie is different than the book, and had mixed reviews.)

Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams
by Matthew Walker

The Guardian review

I loved this book! You can preview the basic idea in Walker’s new TED Talk, but I really do recommend the book. Walker is a PhD, not an MD, but he knows all the research and he makes it simple to understand. Much of the books scares the hell out of you with all the things that go wrong in your body over the long haul when you don’t get enough sleep, so it’s a page turner, but the nature of this kind of books is each section and chapter logically follows, but it’s just not as fast a read as a history would be. If you know anyone that thinks they are doing great on 4-5 hours a night, he makes it clear that it’s statistically unlikely. To be the very rare person for whom that is true you need a very specific gene mutation. If you’ve already got problems sleeping, you don’t want this book as bedtime reading. If you need a little motivation to do all the things you read about when you click on headlines, this book is perfect. It’s very motivational. It is impossible to read even part of the book and not make a serious effort to improve your sleep hygiene and set yourself up for success. After reading I passed it one to my mom, and she recommended it and passed it on to her friends, and almost every single person made some little adjustment to their habits after reading the book. Highly recommended for students, because there is a lot of information about how to manage studying and sleeping in order to make retention of new information much easier. Must-read book for anyone who likes to lifehack.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation
by Ottessa Moshfegh

New Yorker review

This book is a love it or hate it proposition. It’s set in the immediate pre-9/11 NYC so as a reader you can’t avoid anticipating that horror the whole time you read. Meanwhile, the unnamed narrator is looking to get back on track by putting herself in a drugged coma for a year. If you appreciate the black humor of Heathers and its unlikable mean girls or American Psycho and its dark anti-hero, you’ll enjoy this book. It’s a great take on the year 2000, when the nineties tech boom was coming to an end and the pharmaceutical industry was going to save us all at an affordable price point. The last 20 years of revealed side effects, pharma bro pricing, and the opioid crisis make it possible to see the innocence of the novel’s time period. At the same time our narrator is such an incredibly flawed person, you can be pretty sure that a year of sleep isn’t going to help. Still, like one of those mad-dash caper movies through an crazy landscape (Scorsese’s After Hours comes to mind) you find yourself reading to find out where this going. However much you know it won’t end well, you really can’t predict where it is going, and once our heroine starts blacking out regularly, she begins the most unreliable of all narrators. If your sense of humor leans towards the dark, you’ll love this book, it’s dark, ridiculous, and funny. If you want a realistic story of someone trying to productively better themselves, stay away, because every wrong turn and terrible companion will frustrate you. No one has the kind of life she does, so this book is definitely a great escape from regular life. Any project manager or producer will have to admit to a sneaky admiration for a really well-planned project, even if the core project idea is insane.

The Mars Room
by Rachel Kushner

The Guardian review

Rachel Kushner is an amazing writer. This review isn’t going to be able to give you any comparisons to other books or movies. She’s more like the smartest friend you’ve ever had and once she goes down some rathole, you find yourself mesmerized by some obscure subject you would swear you had no interest in understanding. She make most TED Talks seem like Sesame Street. My closest comparison would be a war reporter, like Sebastian Junger, because she moves really fast, the stakes are high, and you don’t have a clue where the dangers are or what is coming next. The Mars Room tells you the story of American mass incarceration through the eyes of single-mom Romy. She’s got a backstory like every stripper in every movie you’ve ever seen, except this time you really feel it—and feel a lot more trapped by her circumstances than she does—as the story unfolds. It’s not a feel-good book, but it’s a mesmerizing story, and it’s important for all of us to really understand the downside of bare-knuckle capitalism. If you don’t feel lucky right now, you will after you read this book. Kushner is a writer whose books will be read 50 years from now. She does her research and she’s utterly fearless. She’s also one of the best prose stylists writing today and her books are propulsive, they speed you through, way too fast for comfort and you know there’s genius at work. If you’re old enough to have been a teen or young adult who had enough freedom to run a little wild outside the purview of adults, you’ll appreciate the accounts of Romy’s teen years in the Bay Area and how close we can accidentally skate to danger when we’re too young to know better. Geniuses can be difficult, but they are always worth the trouble, so Kushner is one to seek out.

Daisy Jones & The Six
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

The New York Times review

Let’s confess right off the top that we read a rave review of the audio version of Daisy Jones & The Six, and that’s how we initially consumed it (for free via San Diego City Library apps, BTW). The audio is narrated by an all-star cast, including Jennifer Beals as Daisy. Since the book is a fake documentary with all the interviews woven together through the story in chronological order, it makes for an excellent audio experience as well as a very easy reading experience. Seven points of view can be covered on a single page when enough of the characters have something to say about an event. If you’re reading this blog review, you know us at LYON and can imagine how this appeals to us as storytellers who spend a lot of time in the documentary genre, interweaving multiple interviews into a cohesive whole. Daisy and The Six have separate paths in the music industry of ’70s California, but when they meet up, things take off personally and professionally. The book isn’t high art by a long shot but it’s just a fast-moving lot of fun with a nostalgic look at the ’70s, California, the music business, and life in general. Like any story that features voices looking backwards in time, there’s a certain amount of reassurance that it all worked out one way or another. Some days that’s a really welcome reminder to take a long-term perspective as you thrash your way through the difficulties of your present. Still don’t think this is fun? Well, Reese Witherspoon already snapped up the rights and has a 13-episode deal with Amazon Prime. If nothing else, reading the book and arguing with your friends about your respective fantasy casting picks would make for a great day off from work.

White Houses
by Amy Bloom

The Guardian review

Amy Bloom is another long-time favorite author with an interest in all the different ways love manifests in our lives, for better or worse. (Her short stories on parent-child relationships will rip your heart out.) This book focuses on Eleanor Roosevelt’s longtime relationship with Lorena Hickok, told by Hick herself. It’s a front-row seat to a pivotal presidential administration, in a key moment both in world and US history. if that isn’t interesting enough, it’s told by an outsider with limited power to influence the outcome, a journalist’s eye for the story, rooted in the all-too-familiar idea of a White House mired in sexually scandalous behavior behind the scene. The book doesn’t try and make any big comments about the current state of American politics, but reading about the incredible charm and deep flaws of people in power always makes for a great story. When you can add in the curve of a love over 15 years as the book goes back and forth from 1945 to the early ’30s, you’ve got a riveting mix. I’m not sure how certain historians are about whether the Roosevelt/Hickok friendship veered into a lesbian romance, but it works for the novel (and modern-day sensibilities) to assume the relationship was sexual as well as emotional.

Bitter Orange
by Claire Fuller

The Guardian review

I have a weakness for SoCal Noir. There’s just something about really dark things happening in a sunny location that always gets me. Imagine my surprise in picking up a British novel set in a manor during an oppressive hot spell. The book’s main character, Frances, is an old woman dying of an unspecified ailment, and she looks back to the long, hot summer of 1969 she spent with the charming Peter and Cara. Peter is onsite to catalogue the interior of the manor, Lyntons, for the new, rich, absent, American owner while Frances is there to record the fascinations of the outside rock gardens. Frances at 39 during the earlier hot summer at Lyntons has missed out on much of life, and is free for this job only because her mother has recently died. Not the bona fides of a reliable narrator, and when the people she’s so charmed by might be actively lying to her, the danger thickens as you read on. Frances is that great fictional character combination of very bright and very naive—something you rarely find in real life, particularly in someone old enough, at 39, to be trailing the sense of a perhaps irredeemably wasted life. A great escape book, if you enjoy your escapes with some high-level tension. Perfect for fans of Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Also best started on a day when you can afford to stay up late for a couple of nights to finish the book.

Small Fry
by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

NPR review

I was determined not to read this book. Sure, I’m an Apple fan and it’s clear from all accounts that Steve Jobs was a brilliant, flawed human. But what got me was reviewer after reviewer raving about Lisa Brennan-Jobs’ actual writing. This book was on a ton of Best of 2018 lists for the writing talent as much as the personal story she tells. The writing lives up to the hype. While you know who her father was, what really makes this a great read in the spirit of Tara Westover’s Educated is the contrast of a person trying to make a life between two extremes, starting as a young child. Her mother makes her welfare income ends meet by cleaning houses while her father takes Apple public and spends much of his lifetime in the 1%—and in the top echelon of super star business geniuses during the decades they±ve routinely become household names. It’s impossible to imagine anyone, at any age, could be truly comfortable in both of those milieus, but most biographies tell you a story about moving from the bad fit to the good fit. It’s pretty clear Lisa doesn’t feel the fit is right in either one. I imagine her childhood extremes gave her that writerly ability to step back and assess the scene and the players, including herself, with an incredibly keen eye. As much as I love an unreliable narrator in fiction, I love a truly astute observer in non-fiction. I’d read whatever she writes next—I think she can probably take even a less torn-from-celebrity-headlines subject fascinate me. If you still aren’t sure about the book, try her essay Waterloo where the California outsider tells a story about Harvard insiders.

The Wolf and the Watchman
by Niklas Natt Och Dag

Washington Post review

If you thought modern-day Swedish noir was grim, try this one set in 1793. We’ve still got corruption, lies, and irrational beliefs but we’ve also got all kinds of very real problems from the 18th century. Our odd couple detectives, are polar opposites. A lawyer named Winge—intellectual, idealistic, and dying of consumption—is teamed up with the watchman of the title—a cynical, brutal, one-armed survivor of the recent war with Russia. The clock is ticking as they look for the murderer but in 1793 it seems possible no one will survive. A good fit for Game of Thrones fans with a fondness for detective novels.

A Lucky Man (Stories)
by Jamel Brinkley

NPR review

This book of short stories was a 2018 National Book Award finalist along with some other books and writers I liked, so I had to check it out. While it’s a slim volume with nine stories, Brinkley packs a lot into every story. Some short stories are a charming slice of life view, that tell you a single thing about a character or moment in time. These stories tell you as much about the characters as some novels do. He’s wrestling with masculinity, which is a big topic to tackle. What it is, what it should be, how we got these ideas in the first place, how it ages over time, and where we go from here. While he’s focused on the experiences of men of color and the stories are located in Brooklyn and the Bronx, we all have families, friends, and homes and ponder variations on these themes. I’m not sure what the stats are on a debut making the National Book award finalists, but Jamel Brinkley is clearly a writer to watch going forward. These short stories are a great summer read if you are short on time, because with the small investment of time to read one single story, you’ll have a lot to think about. This collection could easily be read over a long period of time—there are no fluffy forgettable snippets in here.

Netflix: Comedy

Sebastian Maniscalco: Aren’t you Embarrassed?

New York Times Review

Sebastian Maniscalco is a half-Italian, half-Sicilian American-born Chicago native, and, man, does all that show in this special. The honesty in his comedy and the pride he has for his upbringing comes through this quality set of jokes and stories. He looks like he belongs on set of MTV’s Jersey Shore with skin-tight clothes, spiked hair, and that amazing natural Italian tan, but the way he moves would suggest otherwise. He acts out his comedy with the best of them.  Nobody uses the stage and space around them better than he does.  From facial expressions to full-body gestures, the guy can move!  You also get a real “fly on the wall” feeling during this special. It felt authentic and intimate. Coming from an Italian immigrant family who also settled in Chicago, he was ultra-relatable at times. His comedy also brings in a ton of observational humor (if you’re on Instagram or Twitter he’s worth a follow for that single reason alone), and anyone who’s ever stepped into a Catholic church, or a Catholic family’s home, will get it. Overall, this is a great watch for anyone. I’d even challenge you to watch it with the sound off for a bit! Weird Movie Rating: A good cross between Saturday Night Fever and Saturday Night Live! (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti)

Sebastian Maniscalco: Stay Hungry

Chicago Tribune Review

Before you read any further, if you haven’t watched Sebastian’s Aren’t You Embarrassed? (reviewed above), go watch that first. For those who have watched…continue or proceed at your own risk. Stay Hungry is not Sebastian’s best stuff, but if you’re a fan of his already, you pretty much know what you’re getting yourself into, and you’ll enjoy it.  He brings his typical facial and body expressions to his routine, although they did seem a bit over-the-top this go-round.  This special did have some personally enjoyable moments for me as someone who also just welcomed a new baby into the world, as part of the the first few years of the balancing act called marriage. He does stray from his harsh stance on things in this special, showing a small crack in that strong Chicago/Italian/Catholic upbringing. He pokes fun at how his harsher upbringing compares to that of his wife’s ultra-positive and encouraging Jewish one. Overall, good for some laughs, better for those who already like him, but not his best work. He also has a couple of cheap jokes, that could be misconstrued, I expect more from him, but this special was never going to be as good as Aren’t You Embarrassed?.  Weird Movie Rating: This is a good mashup of Father of the Bride and Married with Children. (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti)

Ellen DeGeneres: Relatable

Vulture Review

One of the best at observational humor, Ellen DeGeneres’ new standup special Relatable shows she still has her finger on that late-night standup pulse, even with her daytime success. Her life has changed since her truly relatable (non-star, millionaire) days, but she delivers the same types of jokes that made her a hit early on in her career, while giving them the added new flavor of her new life as one of the most successful women in show biz!  As unrelatable as her new life may seem, her jokes and quips still feel relatable, just in a different way. She ends the special by answering questions from the audience. It seemed to pull away from the standup, and geared more toward Ellen fandom. So if you’re an Ellen fan, you might like that bit too, everyone else can stop a little early. Overall, very funny.  I highly recommend. Weird Movie Rating:  Huge cross between Trading Places and Godfather Part 2. (Reviewer: Nick Pignotti)

Dead to Me

NPR Review
We watched this in two nights—and were sorely tempted to stay up late and get it all done in one. Christina Applegate’s Jen has lost her husband to a hit and run accident and meets her new best friend, Linda Cardellini’s Judy at a grief group. It’s an odd couple comedy, with the full suite of highly unsympathetic problems that SoCal upper middle class white characters are prone to in fiction, but this show manages to hang on to all the humor while also diving into some very real issues. While Jen’s handling of her grief is truly funny (heavy-metal screaming in her car), the broken sobbing is completely serious. The great thing about comedy like this is that it can tell you some really scary big truths about life, while also making you laugh out loud. It takes a lot of talent to deliver on this balance and the writers and stars completely pull it off. If you loved Santa Clarita Diet, and are waiting for Season 2 of Big Little Lies, this is the show for you. (BTW if you never saw Cardellini in Bloodline and want a dark family story instead of comedy, Netflix has all three seasons for you.) (Reviewer: Susan Lyon)

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.

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.

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.)

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.

Foreign Adventures at Home

If your summer vacation was relaxing, but didn’t let you see the world in a big way, we have some Netflix/Hulu/Amazon Prime suggestions to fill the gap.

The Time In Between

NY Times Watching
We had a lot of fun watching this soapy Spanish show. The star, Adriana Ugarte, does a great job with this historical drama. She moves from a childhood spent in a working class neighborhood where she trains as a seamstress, to a pre-WWII Morocco, back to Madrid (as a spy for the Allies) running a clothing salon for society wives, and then on to Portugal. The clothes are amazing, the people are gorgeous, the Nazis are plentiful and easy to hate, so you’ll forgive a few silly plot devices. Episode one, being a lot less glamorous, makes the series effectively blow up into color as it takes off with Sira as a young woman on the move.


This Norwegian political thriller seems to fly under the radar, perhaps because it was just one season, so more of a mini-series than a TV show. We couldn’t find a standalone review to give as a backup link! All the more reason to watch it. It’s set in the current day with the protagonist a soldier, recently returned from Afghanistan, who is married to a fast-rising government political player as the machinations of selecting a Nobel Peace Prize winner are kicking into gear. The show seems to really understand foreign policy and not to shy away from the tricky trade-offs that have to be made in any kind of government.

Bron/Broen (The Bridge)

This mismatched detective TV show has been remade in several languages, but this is definitely the most gorgeous murder location ever. The characters are terrific, with well-fleshed out back stories, and it’s got a good twist with the female detective somewhere on the spectrum, while the male is married with several children. We liked it so much, we’ve knocked out two versions in full already. There’s a murder on the Oresund Bridge between Denmark and Sweden, exactly on the midline, so it’s tough to know which police force should investigate. We’re not going to spoil how they decide, but invite you to watch the show. The British/French is the same story for Season One only, then it goes a different direction. We found it amusing how good the serial killers were each season, not just at killing in service to a larger social agenda, but in the British/French version how really good they were at making short little horror animations as clues. To be clear, we’re not seeking any felons out as a new client base, but there’s clearly a market.

Call My Agent!

The New Yorker
If you enjoyed Entourage, Barry, or 30 Rock, you’ll enjoy France’s Call My Agent! Set in a Parisian talent agency with all the background character drama, you get to see behind the scenes of the running of the agency with a much less yelling than in Entourage and problems that seem very much the stereotypical French dilemmas (as Entourage was so clearly an LA show). As you would expect the people are stylish, whether young and casual or wealthy society, and the sets are all gorgeous–movie star houses or locations. We suspect if you actually had a strong knowledge of French actors, there are a lot more inside meta jokes that largely passed over our head. Even so, it’s impossible to miss Isabelle Adjani and Juliette Binoche, clearly playing some funny variation on themselves. Each episode has a one-word, first name title so the named client is the focus of the self-contained episode, while the cast of regulars fail to work out their problems over all the seasons available so far. One of those shows that could be good not to binge and keep on the back burner for when you have less than an hour and need a laugh. As a side American recommendation, if you like this, you might check also out Party Down in which actors working a catering business host a different party each episode.

Hard Sun

The Guardian
While Hard Sun has some flaws, what SciFi work doesn’t? We didn’t want to leave the genre unrepresented and we were hooked, binge watching it all in two nights. Hard Sun shows its solid detective credentials, coming from the creator of Luthor, and it’s just hard to nail down an alternate world that makes everyone happy. While the inspiration is said to be a David Bowie song, detectives racing to solve a crime before the world ends has to owe a debt to Ben Winter’s excellent The Last Policeman trilogy, which has long been rumored to be in pre-production as an American TV show. Netflix doesn’t have any credible entries in apocalyptic TV, nor do they need to get it right with their lock on the Marvel TV properties, leaving the field open for Hulu and Showtime. Both networks do a good job, but just don’t make the volume of shows, so if you like this kind of stuff, Hard Sun is worth watching. And if you think times are dark now  as we live through the hottest year on record, hey, this might just cheer you up with the idea that things could be a lot worse.


The Guardian
Another crime series, our one gripe is that it requires a significant suspension of disbelief—how many murders can you have on one tiny little Scottish island? (Shades of Agatha Christie and those little English villages.) The scenery is unbelievably beautiful, the accents seem to be pretty authentic–every once in a while we’d have to back up and put on the English subtitles, but if you binge watch, you get the hang of it. DI Jimmy Perez seems to be the best TV boss around–the right mix of caring, unselfish, and yet distracted by his own life just enough to be human.

Things we’re just going to assume you’ve already seen because they are so universally acclaimed:

  • Broadchurch
  • Money Heist (La Casa de Papel)
  • The Honorable Woman
  • Occupied
  • Catastrophe
  • Borgen

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.

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.

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.

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.