Recent(ish) Reading List

My grades are in, my wrapping is done (much earlier than usual!), I’m nearly done updating my course schedule for next term, my stockings are hung by the chimney with care. Time to catch up on blogging! I’m thinking about my “reading year in review” post and my reading goals for next year, but in the meantime, here are some things I’ve been reading (and listening to) this fall.

Lots and Lots of Mysteries

This has once again become my genre of choice. Some highlights:

I listened to all of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö’s Martin Beck series except for the final book, The Terrorists, which my library doesn’t have. I’ve read them all before, so I listened to them out of order, depending on what was available. Jumping around seemed to make me more aware of how the series becomes more political over time (it was written in the 60s and 70s). This series is less dark (or maybe just less gory) than contemporary Nordic crime, and reflects a society in the midst of change, with some criticism of a militarized and inept police force that felt quite timely.

I also listened to a couple of Anne Holt’s Hanne Wilhelmsen books, but these are very dark and gory and I decided not to go on. Misogynist serial killers are not what I need these days. Hanne is a good character, though–I like a competent female cop.

I read The Marx Sisters by Barry Maitland and loved the setting, quirky Jerusalem Lane in London, and the elderly sisters at the center of the case with their connection to Karl Marx. I wasn’t that interested in the detectives, though, and don’t know if I’ll try another. (I stumbled across this in my library’s new books, but it’s actually a reissue and the first in a 12-book series.)

Another book where the setting was the most appealing part was Elly Griffith’s Blood Card, the third of her series set among fading variety stars in post-war Brighton. The ties of all the mysteries to magic and the theatre are fun, but the characters are pretty flat. I find that her contemporary series featuring forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway has much more interesting character development.

I thoroughly enjoyed Dick Francis’ Break In. I’ve been guided in my introduction to Francis by Rohan’s top ten post, and she has not steered me wrong yet! Francis’ smart women and honorable men are very appealing. My library does not have the sequel, Bolt, but my local used book store obliged, and I picked up Proof as well.

I read Abir Mukherjee’s A Rising Man, set in 1919 Calcutta, after seeing it on the Publishers Weekly best mysteries of the year list. Captain Sam Wyndham, traumatized by WWI and his wife’s death in the flu epidemic, is a newcomer to Calcutta. Sam is a fairly familiar type of character, and I found myself wishing that his Indian Sergeant, “Surrender-not” Bannerjee, had been the narrator instead. Still, Mukherjee’s take on the Raj of this period is, not surprisingly, far less romanticized than that of other mysteries set in this period, like Barbara Cleverly’s (which I did also like). PW has a brief interview with the author addressing that. The book has some issues–it didn’t create an entirely convincing period atmosphere or fully develop its characters–but a good twisty plot.

More India

Vivek Shanbhag’s Ghachar Ghochar is a novella translated (by Srinath Perur) from the South Indian language Kannada. In her review, Deborah Smith comments that the book is “fascinatingly different from much Indian writing in English,” and if you think of Indian fiction as “epic” or about abject poverty, that’s a reasonable take. The cover blurb describes Shanbhag as an “Indian Chekhov,” and that too seemed reasonable by the time I finished the book. Narrated by an aimless, passive young man, Ghachar Ghochar focuses on one family and takes place mostly in their house(s), reflecting on their complex, deeply dependent relationships and the mess that new-found prosperity gets them into. Shanbhag is a master of telling details that gradually reveal the truths the narrator has avoided looking at. I loved this book, which I just read–a good reason not to make a “best of” list before the very end of the year!

Non-Fiction

Here, too, I’ve been reading and listening to things off of best-of and awards lists. The best of the bunch, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Lawmakes a masterful case that residential segregation is the result of deliberate government policy and law, at all levels, not of individual prejudices. This book is enraging and necessary.

Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals is a sweeping (1740s to the present sweeping) history of evangelicalism in America and the role of evangelicals in politics, particularly in recent decades. It gave me a much better sense of parts of US history and of evangelical doctrine, theology, and divisions, than I had before. It can be a bit dry, but it’s even-handed and thorough.

I found David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon a bit disappointing, maybe because the superlatives heaped on it inflated my expectations unfairly. Or maybe it was the audiobook narrators: I liked it better when I upped them to 1.25 speed. The book tells the story of a series of mysterious murders of oil-rich Osage in the 1920s, which eventually became one of the first major cases of the fledgling FBI. Grann’s research is meticulous and he uncovers new information–including interviewing Osage people who remind us that these events aren’t just a fascinating historical mystery but have left scars on the community to this day. I think I wanted more cultural context or maybe the writing didn’t engage me. It’s certainly a powerful story.

What Now?

I’m re-reading (for the umpteenth time) Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising, prompted by a Twitter readalong that I’m not really participating in. Still love it. Re-reading via audio: Dorothy Sayers’ Strong Poison, because listening to Gaudy Night during a recent nasty illness/maybe migraine made me crave more Peter and Harriet (why doesn’t Audible have Have His Carcass?). Finally, I’m reading Kapka Kassabova’s Border because of Rebecca Hussey’s praise for it–she discusses it in this Book Riot post, but I think tweets got my attention.

Hope to be back between Christmas and New Year’s to ponder 2017 in reading and look ahead to 2018. Happy Holidays and good reading!

 

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11 Responses to Recent(ish) Reading List

  1. banff1972 says:

    Totally agree re: Rising Man (would have been much better with Bannerje as narrator—but will still read sequel, I think). Also re: the David Grann. Fascinating but left me cold. I didn’t think the writing was up to much.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      Yes, I think I will read the sequel to Rising Man too. There was lots to like.

      Maybe my problem with the Grann is the people never really came to life for me. That could be the writing—I find that harder to pin down when I listen to a book rather than reading it.

  2. I had the same problem with Anne Holt’s novels. I really enjoyed the first two or three I read but gradually found them becoming uncomfortable reading. I also thought about re-reading The Dark is Rising and even went so far as getting my copy out of the book case, but life and reviews which need finishing have caught up with me and I think it will have to wait for another year.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I am only 2 chapters in to Dark is Rising but enjoying revisiting it very much. I need to catch up so I can read Christmas Eve tomorrow!

      I have really lost my taste for super dark and graphic mystery. The world seems grim enough. At least having a female detective (and in book one a smart female lawyer) helped to balance the violent and misogynist crimes. But I don’t need that in my head!

  3. Sunita says:

    I’m really interested in the Mukherjee. I’d meant to check it out from the library and then forgot. But lovely, lovely break is coming and maybe I can get through all the holds that have come in at once!

    Mysteries have become my comfort reads of choice as well, along with older category romances and now manga. I really enjoyed Francis’s first Sid Halley on audiobook. They’re just the right length for me. And I can’t read the super-gory mysteries now, either, although I have a few on my TBR I want to get to (Derek Raymond is at the top of the list but he is so brutal).

    TheHusband read about half of the Grann and then set it aside. He said the story was great but the prose was workmanlike at best.

    Happy birthday! And happy holidays!

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      I will be interested to hear what you think about the Mukherjee. I think I told you my favourite thing was the jute baron from Dundee, because I spent a surprisingly fascinating afternoon at the jute museum there once (and it had a whole section on India).

      Happy holidays, and happy break reading!

      • Sunita says:

        I’m a little more than halfway through the Banerjee and I have very mixed feelings. It’s so obviously a first novel, and his editor could have helped him more than she did (although who knows where the manuscript started). There are anachronisms galore, and I’m really put off by the “Surrender-Not” thing. It was amusing the first couple of times, but if Wyndham is supposed to be sympathetic to Indians, or more sympathetic than his fellow Brits, couldn’t he adjust to Banerjee’s real name? Surendranath just isn’t that hard once you’re heard it a few times, and unwillingness to respect a person’s name and try to use it isn’t that funny if you’re the one experiencing it. Maybe it’s supposed to show that Forster is wrong and we can’t connect, or something. But I found it a bad choice.

        The infodumping constantly interrupts what is an otherwise decent police procedural. Some of the lectures on colonialism, Bengalis, Anglo-Indians are not only annoying but extremely stereotyped. I’m wincing a lot.

        • Sunita says:

          Argh, of course when I complain about a name I mis-name the author. Hello hubris my old friend. Mukherjee is the author, Banerjee is the character. No, all Bengali names are not the same.

          I will slink off into a corner now.

        • Liz Mc2 says:

          The name thing really bothered me. “Surrender-not” really isn’t easier to say, so for Wyndham to keep using it just seemed thoughtless. Maybe that was the point (I wasn’t too impressed by his attitude to Annie Grant either) but it seemed out of keeping with the more thoughtful character Mukherjee seemed to be trying to make him. I also noticed that Bannerjee was ALWAYS at work at all hours, as was the rickshaw guy, and Wyndham just took that for granted.

          I noticed anachronisms too, although I didn’t feel confident in calling them out because this isn’t a period I know well. (DM me on Twitter when you get to the solution to the mystery, because I thought that was a GIANT anachronism/implausibility in what was being covered up by the murder, i.e. it wouldn’t actually have mattered, and am curious to know what you think).

          I’m willing to read another one to see if the characters develop in interesting ways and whether the info-dumping gets ironed out. These aren’t unusual problems for a first historical mystery, though you probably notice them more when you know more about a setting.

  4. Sunita says:

    @lizMc2: I will definitely DM you so we don’t spoil the book for new readers, but I’ll say here that I completely agree with you. It’s part of the overall presentation of the way the British viewed their position as an imperial power, which I didn’t think was quite on target in this book. But then, I’m most definitely not the target audience. I’ve written on this period for many years, in books and articles, and I’ve spent a lot of time in the archives reading official and private papers. So I have a strong sense of the “voice” of the period, which doesn’t come through here the way I expect to hear it. But that shouldn’t put other people off reading and enjoying the book. History contains multitudes of voices, only some of which we are able to hear. The more attempts at capturing those voices, the better.

  5. Happy holidays!! I had a chance to get The Evangelicals for five American dollars at the start of 2017, and I deeply regret that I didn’t do it. The thing was that I had just bought a book called PROTESTANTS for two American dollars, and I felt like I shouldn’t necessarily buy two books about religions. I REGRET IT SO MUCH. Sob.

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