I’ll end 2017 with 63 books read. Pretty good and higher than the last few years.
I came up short on my goal to read 12 non-fiction books, only reading 7 as the second half the year I started really concentrating on learning more about story, genre, craft and doing more of my own writing again. To learn writing, you need to read and I read a lot in the mystery/crime/thriller genre.
In no particular order, these are the books that stuck with me (when you read as much as I do, if you can remember the plot after a few days, it’s the sign of a good book) and that I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend to a friend.
If you need a book to read over the holiday break or start the year right, I promise you could do much worse than any on this list.
The Dry by Jane Harper
This book jolted me out my mystery/thriller rut. My routine is typically to read the heavier stuff during the day and then relax at night with a thriller or mystery. But for the past few weeks nothing had been clicking. I started and discarded numerous books. Either the book wasn’t grabbing me or I wasn’t committing. The best mysteries just totally suck me in and leave me wanting to do little else but eat, sleep or read until I finish the book. I was craving that hit and The Dry delivered.
It’s not a high concept story or one that offers a killer hook on page 1, it actually mostly offers common mystery elements (old murder, secrets, new murder, haunted detective, severe setting), but they are mixed and executed so well, you are reminded why they work so well for so many plots.
The Dry is Harper’s debut but you’d never guess it. The plot is tight, lots of clues along with red herrings are set out and the characters (mostly) three dimensional. It all combines into a compulsively readable thriller.
The Thirst by Jo Nesbo
The return of Harry Hole did not disappoint. Despite these being almost unrelentingly bleak (even when Harry is feeling a modicum of happiness) and Nesbo often reaches into the same narrative bag of tricks (undistinguishable pronouns), his plotting is so intricate and Harry such a strong character that I can’t resist.
I will admit the almost four year lag since the last book and Nesbo’s habit of letting characters and plots span books made it difficult to remember some of the smaller plots, slights and conspiracies that were carried through, but it was a small complaint. If you’ve liked previous Hole books, you’ll like enjoy this one. Like Bosch’s daughter in Connelly’s series, it’s interesting to see Oleg slowly inching more into the spotlight.
Memory Man (Amos Decker #1) by David Baldacci
Last month, I expressed some disappointment in both of Grisham’s latest, neither the plot nor the characters ever really clicked for me. I have a similar reading relationship with Baldacci. I read a number of his early novels when he was first published back in the 90s, but eventually stopped. I even remember the book, The Winner. I just felt like I’d seen and read enough.
A huge commercial success, it felt, to me, that he was going down the Patterson path of plot over everything else. I’m a plot reader, I just said so above, but you still need the basic rigging around that to hold my interest: some level of characterization, a solid level of writing and a basic grasp of grammar.
So it was to my own surprise when I found myself both picking up Baldacci’s latest, being intrigued enough to buy it, then reading it in less than two days before going back out and getting the next in the series.
Reading Memory Man was the type of experience I love as a reader, just total entrancement and an almost physical need to keep reading.
I’m not sure if in the intervening books, if Baldacci has upped his game (I plan to go back and read some others) or he just found a really great character in Amos Decker. He’s just that rare character that you bond with, want to root for and generally want to spend time with.
The Driver by Hart Hanson
Given some of the tepid reviews, I wasn’t expecting much out of Hanson’s debut, but found myself pleasantly surprised. This was a fun book (odd to say give the body count) mostly for the characters and the banter (here is where his television experience, he created Bones, comes through most). The plot was a bit of a shaggy dog but just about every character, however minor, made an impression.
It reminded me of early Elvis Cole. Yes, there’s some wise cracks that fall flat or quips that make you cringe, but overall you forgive him and want him to get away with whatever shenanigans he’s embroiled in. There also no Joe Pike to balance out the lightness, but Skelling has enough darkness in him to mostly check his joking ways.
I hope the book does well enough that we get more of Skelling’s adventures.
The Blinds by Adam Sternberg
I have vague memories of reading Sternberg’s debut Shovel Ready a cross genre sci-fi/hard boiled thriller. This book keeps the high concept hook, but is more a straightforward thriller. And what a hook it is.
Imagine a place populated by criminals and innocents—people plucked from their lives, with their memories altered, who’ve been granted new identities and a second chance. Welcome to The Blinds, a dusty town in rural Texas populated by misfits who don’t know if they’ve perpetrated a crime or just witnessed one. What’s clear to them is that if they leave, they will end up dead.
Of course things begin to happen to disrupt the fragile peace that exists in the small town. I won’t spoil anymore but found the themes of identity, second chances, memory and violence all well incorporated into a book the hums along to an inevitable and surprising conclusion.
Two Kinds of Truth by Micheal Connelly
The latest Bosch book from Connelly delivers again. It’s amazing after 20 plus books with this character that Connelly is still finding ways to keep his detective (and his readers) invested in his series.
This time Bosch is still working cold cases as a volunteer in the tiny San Fernando PD and like the past few books, the plot revolves around two unrelated cases and does a good job of showing how cops are often juggling multiple investigations. The two cases also let Connelly highlight different aspects of Bosch’s personality, sending him undercover into a “pill mill” operation and delving back into his past to show how close to (or over?) the line he used to go to stay on his mission.
His half brother Mickey Haller gets a few cameos and it will be interesting to see where that relationship goes after the conclusion of this book. Is there anyone better writing cops and cases than Connelly?
The Late Show by Michael Connelly
The showing versus telling that frustrated me in Camino Island came into clearer focus while reading Connelly’s latest right. The Late Show introduces Renee Ballard, a new character (perhaps series), as a female detective working the overnight shift in Hollywood. For my money, Connelly is still the best writer today doing police procedural, detective stories and departmental politics.
Even though she’s not carrying the (series) history of Bosch, Connelly quickly and ably orients us in her world and her psyche without simply stating it. He show us and demonstrates through actions and conversations what this woman is about.
Like a few of his recent Bosch books, he’s not content with one plot, though one mostly dominates, but uses multiple cases, some intertwine, some don’t, to show us what it’s like to work the late show. When the cases are solved and Ballard is presented with a big decision, it’s no surprise which way she goes. Connelly has had ample time to show us who Ballard is. I hope there are more stories from the late show.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
So much has been written about this book and it’s garnered so many rewards and accolades that this isn’t much I can add. We read this one for my book club and while I found the first 50-75 pages a bit slow as it set the scene and assorted players with a traditional slave narrative, once Cora goes on the run and some of the magical realism drips into the story, I thought it really took off.
One interesting note, a fellow book club member really, really, really hated the more fantastical elements to this story and just found them unnecessary to the story and thought they would engender a lot of confusion in readers who might think certain events did happen or that 12 storey buildings were possible in the 1800s. I politely disagreed.
The very definition of cringe-reading for me. I needed to keep reading but was almost afraid to turn each of the last 50 pages knowing that good things were hard to come by in this story. I’d bet money both of my daughters will one day have to read this in high school.
The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis
What a deliciously strange and unique book this is. This was another book club pick and 100 pages in I got a little worried what the others would think of this pick. Happily (for me) everyone really enjoyed it even though it gets very dark in places. But I can see this book as a love it or hate it book. Not a lot of middle ground when you are talking about a post-apocalyptic Huck Finn raised by and then trying to escape a killer mountain man.
Still, I was in the love it camp. A brutal yet honest treatment of nature, love and family. The voice Elka is bracingly fresh and different. It might also be the hardest thing to wrap your head around at the start. Keep going, it gets easier and the payoff is easily worth the investment of deciphering the early pages. I’m intrigued to see where Lewis goes next.
A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
Disliking this book feels like saying you don’t like It’s a Wonderful Life. You just come off looking like a curmudgeon I can’t say much more about this book that hasn’t already been said elsewhere. I’m just surprised it took so long to come to my attention and for me to actually pick it up and read it.
It’s the rare pop culture piece that lives up the hype. The type of book that you are sad to see end and would happily keep reading another 300 pages of just the characters you’ve come to know living their lives.
Sourdough by Robin Sloan
Almost a month after reading this and thinking about this book still brings a smile to my face. The best word I can think of is enchanting. Just a fun little book to read and not just because I share the main character’s affinity for technology and baking bread. Just like his previous book, Mr Penumbra, you can feel the authenticity and love Sloan has for his characters and his character’s obsessions whether it’s books, computers or a sourdough starter.
Like a delicate strand of gluten, I felt like the book wobbled and threatened to collapse on itself in the last quarter as it almost shifts into magical realism before it pulled back and stuck the landing.
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
I wrote up my thoughts much more completely in my Book Notes post, but please, I beg you, do not be put off by the superficial subject matter on the book jacket. This is a beguiling book that goes far beyond a woman scientist’s struggles in a male dominated field.
This is a book where the voice and passion of the author comes screaming off the page. That is a rare and beautiful thing in a book.
It’s that voice and the stories she tells and the facts that she relates that linger. A month later, I still find myself thinking back on the strange and enduring adult friendship depicted in this book and how rare it is to see in today’s world. That is something to be truly cherished, just like this remarkable book.
Seinfeldia by Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
More than you probably need to know about Seinfeld. Or maybe not. This quick, but not lacking in depth, read might be perfect for the pool or beach. Told almost like a long form oral history that appear to be the hot journalistic take of the moment, this book is an engaging and insightful look at how Seinfeld ultimately made it on the air and then succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination almost despite itself.
Armstrong gets a lot of people, mostly writers and producers on record and the behind the scenes anecdotes and war stories about some of the, now iconic, episodes are the standout parts of the book. A good read for someone that’s seen all the episodes, but also not so arcane that the person that’s only seen the re-runs won’t find interesting, too.
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
The standout read this month was Amazon’s recent #1 book of 2017, Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann. Unwieldily title aside, this is an incredible book that tells an amazing story of the systematic murders of the Osage Indians for mineral rights, that, if it were fiction, would be almost too diabolical to believe.
I’ve read a lot of history and for whatever reason (and there could be plenty) this brutal, sad and chilling portion of American history had never come up. I walked around the house for three days while I read it just outraged, flabbergasted and heartbroken, but perhaps not surprised, at the lengths humans will go for money and avarice.
A truly shocking story, but very well told. If you enjoyed this and haven’t read Grann’s Lost City of Z, I highly recommend that, too.
Pizza Camp by Joe Beddia
Pizzeria Beddia is in Philly and was named the best pizzeria in the US a few years ago by Bon Appetit. Beddia makes all the pies each day and when he uses up the dough, that’s it. There are long lines. I’ve never been (and if rumors are that’s closing it up soon are true, probably never will), but I’m glad to have this cookbook to add to my collection.
Let me get this out of the way upfront. I hate the font used in this book. The book’s aesthetic follows the late (lamented despite our design differences) Lucky Peach look and feel: great photos, humor, well laid out, but man, that font. I just found it distracting and hard to read. Other than that, I loved this book’s recipes. I’m pretty happy with my personal dough recipe and prep, so I skipped right to recipes. The most eye opening ones for me are the many white pizza recipes. I’m not a traditionalist on pizza, but I hadn’t tried many white sauced pizzas. I have now and many will be added to my pizza recipe rotation. If you are looking to shake up your usual pizza routine, this is a great book to push you out of your comfort zone. Or maybe you’d just enjoy the great photos of Philly. Or the hoagie recipes at the back.