Reading a lot. Writing a lot. Hoping you are all safe. Blogging regularly is always on my list of things to accomplish but with current events I haven't been had the headspace for it. I am, however, working on three separate novel projects that I'm excited to see to completion.
What are you reading?
Another year down, an another reading challenge crushed! In 2019, I was drawn to books set in new places. I continued my fascination with compelling but unlikable characters and, in retrospect, I clearly didn’t read enough non-fiction. I’ve linked to the books I recommend.
Fishy Business, ed. Linda Rodriguez (my story “Exit Interview” was published in this anthology of Sisters in Crime Guppy chapter members!)
Ghost Stories, ed. Tanya Eby (audio-only; my story “The Clockmaker” was included!)
Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (this collection was so good I hated to finish the last story and give it back to the friend who lent it to me but at the same time I hated to keep it in the house with its whisper of “why aren’t you writing like this?”)
The Ostrich Street Anthology, ed. Ashley Melucci (A collection from Prague writers!)
Strange Stones by Peter Hessler
Rogues, ed. George RR Martin
Wrong Turn, ed. Tanya Eby
Literary fiction/contemporary fiction/women’s fiction
Nine Perfect Strangers by Liane Moriarty
The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty (As you can see, I was on a huge Liane Moriarty kick this year!)
The Vegetarian by Han Kang
The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Less by Andrew Sean Greer
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert
Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver
Something Might Happen by Julie Myerson
Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante (We went to Naples so I was curious! I enjoyed this but I don’t know if I’ll read the sequels.)
Salem Falls by Jodi Picoult (One of the only books from this year I don’t recommend. It follows a character falsely accused of rape. Maybe edgy when it came out but a hard plot to sit down and enjoy now.)
Mystery & thrillers
The Marsh King’s Daughter by Karen Dionne (So! Good!)
The Lost Man by Jane Harper (This, The Current, The Marsh King’s Daughter and the Inheritance Trilogy were my favorite reads this year.)
The Current by Tim Johnston (I want to write like this guy. Great book.)
The Gatherer by Colleen Winter (I met Colleen at ThrillerFest in 2017 and am excited to recommend her debut futuristic adventure story set in Canada)
Little Voices by Vanessa Lillie (Vanessa and I are in an online writers group. I loved this twisty novel—her first—which came out this year!)
Dark Picasso by Rick Homan (Rick is a fellow member of Sisters in Crime and the Guppies. I beta-read a previous installment in this series. Love the characters and the art plots!)
Hunting Annabelle by Wendy Heard (This was a dark, twisty, fun book that I bought because I listen to the author’s podcast Unlikeable Female Characters. Check both out!)
The Lost Night by Andrea Bartz (I bought this one because the author was on the aforementioned podcast. An exciting read set in New York City.)
The Tourist Trail by John Yunker (I loved the setting of this one—a penguin sanctuary at the southernmost tip of South America—and the environmentalist plot and subplot)
Keep This to Yourself by Tom Ryan (I recommend this to anyone who enjoys young adult mysteries! Really good small-town plot.)
My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite (I read this for the Nigerian setting but the plot was just as interesting.)
The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood
Trust Me by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Pretty Girls by Karen Slaughter
Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood
Wife of the Gods by Kwei Quartey
Skeleton Run by John DeBoer (The author is a Twitter friend of mine. I enjoyed this thriller and will seek out more of his work!)
Scrublands by Chris Hammer (Set in Australia—I read it while we were preparing to go on our own trip there this summer.)
In a Dark Dark Wood by Ruth Ware
Hallowe’en Party by Agatha Christie
This Night’s Foul Work by Fred Vargas (Read this for the French setting, which was fun. But the plot did not work for me.)
The Forgotten Girls by Alexa Steele
Next Girl to Die by Dea Poirier
The Paris Diversion by Chris Pavone (still! so! many! lists!)
The Suspect by Fiona Barton
Blinded by Stephen White
Simisola by Ruth Rendell
The Fifth Woman by Henning Mankell
Swimsuit by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro
Death of the Demon by Anne Holt
Nemesis by Agatha Christie
Killer Takes All by Erica Spindler
Shocking Pink by Erica Spindler
Night Film by Marisha Pessl (This was a strange book but after a few months of reflection, I think I kind of loved it, kind of hated it. It was original, at least!)
A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny
The Woman in the Window by AJ Finn (Read it because of the controversy. If you’re not familiar, enjoy the ride!)
Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton
A Stranger in the House by Shari LaPena
Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie (A re-read. Sadly, I didn’t like the new movie with Kenneth Branagh—did you?)
Night Moves by Jonathan Kellerman
Bone Box by Faye Kellerman (I love love love this author but this novel’s plot was super tone-deaf (it centered on a transwoman who Rina Decker finds murdered and did not pull off the balancing act required for that subject). I can’t recommend it.)
When by Daniel Pink (I’m going to need to read this again so it soaks in!)
The Last Days of August by Jon Ronson (An Audible original about bullying and the porn industry. I’m counting it as a book.)
The Inheritance Trilogy (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, The Broken Kingdoms, The Kingdom of Gods) by NK Jemisin (As a whole, one of my favorite reads this year)
The Light Between Worlds by Laura Weymouth (Sad but compelling Narnia tribute. The author is a Twitter friend of mine. Can’t wait for her next title!)
Melmoth by Sarah Perry (This is a quiet, weird, fantasy set in Prague and if you like creepy stuff you should read it.)
Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler (I enjoyed this but didn't realize when I started it that she never finished the storyline in this series.)
A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R R Martin (Read before I watched GOT S8, so my positive thoughts about this book are from a happier time.)
What were your favorite reads last year?
Exciting news for this fall! My short story “The Clockmaker,” a paranormal thriller set in Prague, has been released as part of an audio-only anthology from Blunder Woman Productions.
Find it at your favorite audiobook source, including…
(Not signed up for any audiobook service yet? Hot tip: you can usually do a free month-long trial!)
See the video linked below to learn more about the setting and the story!
Well, 2018 was an excellent year for me for reading! Last year I didn't quite make my Goodreads Challenge goal, but this year I exceeded it. I set a goal to read one book a week but at the end managed 66 books! I was especially surprised I pulled that off because I had intended to switch to audiobooks for almost the first whole half of the year because I was training to do the Camino de Santiago. (My blog post about audiobooks here.)
In the summer, I summarized the books I’d read so far (this post). Here’s my year-end update:
I read nine books that I highly recommend in the second half of the year. As you’ll see, my fascination with unlikeable-but-interesting characters continued.
Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn
I was on the lookout for unsympathetic but mesmerizing female characters and I found it with more Flynn. Sharp Objects started out in a way I’ve seen before for a female-led psychological thriller (big-city journalist goes home to small town and stays with estranged family) but the way that it unfolds gripped me. Flynn likes to take her characters dark and I am happy to read it. This was also made into an HBO series this year. I haven't finished the show yet, but it seems to be a faithful adaptation of the book, in case you feel like checking that out as well.
The Darkest Secret by Alex Marwood
Shoutout to my critique partner Jeremy for recommending this and lending me his copy. This was a dark past-present narrative about a toddler who went missing in England and what happened to all the people who were at the house party the night she disappeared. It has a lot of twists, in both past and present, that I enjoyed. I must say that both Jeremy and I did actually want it to be even darker than it was (!)—but that probably says more about us than about the book.
The Confidence Game: Why We Fall For It…Every Time by Maria Konnikova
I picked up this nonfiction book while researching a project, and then just really enjoyed the read. Recommended if you're interested in how grifters persuade other people and in some of the great tricks to getting someone to do what you want—and of avoiding getting conned yourself. It includes some interesting contemporary and historical case studies.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I'm late to the party by a couple years on this one, but Big Little Lies was fantastic and I’m looking forward to reading more by this author. I watched the series first and then decided to pick up the book. Since I’d already seen the show, I expected to fall back out of the book after trying it and I was going to give myself a free do-not-finish pass. But I ended up enjoying the differences between the book and the TV show. The show (also highly recommended) is set in California, but the book is set in Australia and I enjoyed some of the turns of phrase and the characterizations from the novel. I’m now reading one of Moriarty’s earlier works, The Hypnotist’s Love Story.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins and The Wych Elm by Tana French
I wrote about both of these in my October blog post about spooky books.
The Nightwatchman by Richard Zimler
This book was given to me by my friend Tamah when she was clearing out some unwanted belongings. I think she picked it up on a trip to Portugal, which is where the book is set and where the author currently lives. It was amazing! It’s a police procedural about a detective who is half Portuguese and half American who is investigating the seemingly politically motivated death of an influential building contractor. At the same time, the detective is wrestling with his own terrible childhood and the impact that had on his younger brother and the echoes of his past on his marriage and two young children. From that synopsis, I know it sounds like a by-the-numbers kind of cop book, but it wasn't. I will be looking for more by this author in the future.
The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh
I do look at reviews, but sometimes I like to pick up a book that I know exactly nothing about and start it with zero expectations. I’d heard of this author but didn’t anticipate how much I’d like this slow yet tense journey of an arrogant translator, an earnest marine biologist and an illiterate boatman through the typhoon- and tiger-plagued river deltas in India in search of dolphins. It stayed with me long after I finally closed book.
The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware
This was a surprise book for me this year—I didn’t think I’d get to read it. I know a lot of my friends reviewed it several years ago when it first came out, but I had never been able to get a copy of it at the necessary price point. But this summer while visiting family in the States I signed up for a library card and now can borrow ebooks! The story is: an anxiety-ridden alcoholic travel journalist takes a luxury cruise to the Norwegian fjords for work and thinks she hears a body being thrown overboard from the next-door cabin. This is a psychological thriller in the same vein as Hawkins’ Into the Water or The Girl on the Train. If you liked one of those, you will probably like this.
These are the books that I enjoyed but, in most cases, they didn't stay with me as long as the ones in the highly recommended category.
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
Thanks to my friend Caroline for recommending this and lending me her copy (I need to get that back to her still—oops!). Set in Scotland, this is about a woman who has a very small life—home, work, vodka—but seems satisfied with it. One day, she decides to make some self-improvements and ends up changing even more than she planned. It’s a quirky book but has a lot of heart.
11/22/63 by Stephen King
My second Stephen King book this year was one I've meant to read since it came out a few years ago. I'm not always in the mood for Stephen King, but when I am I devour it. This is a time travel story about a guy who tries to stop the assassination of US President JF Kennedy. It does an outstanding job of exploring some of the ripple effects in time and the characters, as always, are so real. This was a slower book than some of King’s others but in retrospect I liked it more than The Outsider which I read earlier in the year. There is also a show about this book, but I haven’t seen it. Any good?
The Freedom Broker by KJ Howe
I’ve met the author in person—she runs ThrillerFest—and I was excited when one of my online writers’ groups selected her book to discuss this summer. I was unfortunately never able to make it to any of the discussions, but I'm glad I managed to read it even without the discussion. It follows a rich, beautiful heiress—who’s also one of the world’s best operatives at getting captives released from their kidnappers. She’s a kick-ass heroine and the book is a very high-octane international romp. It would be a great action movie.
The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence by Gavin de Becker
Another nonfiction book. This book was recommended to me many times over the years, especially by writers when talking about how to make a good villain or how to elicit the idea of scary situations and tension and scary characters. But I kept forgetting to buy it. Then I was at a thrift store in the States this summer and found it for two bucks! The book explains how people can often use their intuition to avoid perilous situations. It gives a lot of fascinating real-life examples.
Motive by Jonathan Kellerman
I just love this author. It's another of his Alex Delaware series and is on par with the other ones. One thing I like about these books is that you can pick them up out of order and they're still good. Like episodes in a long-running TV show, I sometimes find it hard to remember which book was which afterward, but I always love the story while I’m reading it. In this one, psychologist Delaware tries to help his cop friend Milo find a murderer who leaves an elaborately set dinner at each crime scene. I'm currently listening to Night Moves, Kellerman’s latest.
Prior Bad Acts and Ashes to Ashes by Tami Hoag
I enjoyed Hoag’s plots, but these books ran together in my head after the fact which is why I put them in the recommended instead of highly recommended category. These are both police procedurals with a lot of heart and characterization. Hoag’s style reads a bit slower than Kellerman’s, but sometimes I’m in the mood for that.
The Masquerading Magician by Gigi Pandian
Gigi is an online friend – we are both Sisters in Crime members – and I had loved her Jaya Jones adventure series, but I hadn't gotten to this urban fantasy crime fiction series yet. This is the second in the series and I kind of wish I didn’t start it out of order. It's about a centuries-old alchemist who is now living in Portland, Oregon trying to save her gargoyle friend from turning entirely to stone. It's fun and witty and whimsical—and I just heard the series is maybe going to become a TV show!
An Untamed State by Roxane Gay
This is a devastating book that’s not easy to read (I listened to it which made it even heavier because it was a longer experience). It's about a Haitian-American woman who goes to visit family in Haiti and gets kidnapped. It goes deep into what happens to her and also into her past, which helps her hang on during her ordeal. The story stayed with me for a long time but I didn’t put it in “highly recommended” because it’s so emotionally difficult to read I don’t think everyone is going to enjoy it. I would also like to note it’s another excellent example of an unlikeable but fascinating and sympathetic character. Another one for my run!
Adrift by Micki Browning
This is from another Sisters in Crime member! I’m trying to collect more by these authors. Adrift is Micki’s first novel. It follows a marine biologist who is working in a dive shop in Florida and comes across some shady people who want to investigate a “haunted” wreck that is also a popular dive site. A committed scientist, the protagonist knows something else is going on when the chief investigator disappears on a night dive. I loved the scuba diving aspect, and the mystery plot was fun too.
Wool by Hugh Howey
My friend Dan recommended this to me several years ago, and I'd started to read it and then for some reason put it aside and then couldn’t find my copy of the book again. Luckily, this is another book I managed to get to thanks to the library card I got this in the States the summer. I burned right through it and thoroughly enjoyed the dystopian concept of humanity buried in a silo. There are several main characters, each of whom tries to figure out “what’s really going on” even though they are threatened with being put outside the silo’s air purification system and into the post-apocalyptic world the common people know nothing about. I also enjoyed the Romeo and Juliet allegory.
The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
This story follows slave girl Cora as she escapes from the brutal life on a cotton plantation in a fictionalized version of the American South in the 1800s and seeks freedom farther north, using the underground railroad—shown here as an *actual* railroad—to move undetected. This book will stay with me for a long time – the subject matter almost guarantees it – but as I read it I wished that the writer got deeper into the thoughts of Cora and the other characters. I also wondered if, like the harrowing An Untamed State, a first-person narration wouldn’t have been appropriate. Anyway, those are small notes on a book that is otherwise good. You should read it.
The Missing by Caroline Eriksson
This was a kind of crazy book and I enjoyed it while I was reading it. It's a Scandinavian indie noir: A woman is on vacation at a lake with her husband and child. They take a boat out to an island and the husband and daughter disappear. The woman tries to find them but…did they really disappear? Who are they, anyway? Some of the scenes might stay with me—I'm not sure yet. It’s worth picking up if you like something dark and where you're not quite sure what you're reading. It's a good psychological thriller in that respect.
It was OK
Now here are the books that I liked but I had a hard time recalling after a few weeks. I enjoyed them when I read them, but now that I’ve shelved them, the magic faded.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson
Another nonfiction book, lent to me by my friend Andrea. This was kind of a refresher on Buddhism lite. A good book with some good ideas but nothing I hadn’t read before.
The Crow Girl by Erik Axl Sund
This is actually five books in one, I guess? I started reading and couldn't put it down but now that it's over I don't actually know what it was about. Some Scandinavian noir—part police procedural, part serial killer horror—that gets super messed up. I recommend it if you're looking for a dark diversion.
The Girls by Emma Cline
This book became famous on my Twitter feed because the author’s boyfriend sued her. That's not why read it, but it’s why I remembered the title when I was looking for something to read on the library app. It’s a portrait of growing up in the 1970s and features a Manson-like cult that eventually murders someone. I enjoyed the setting, and the descriptions of that particular time and the intense friendships that form when you're an early teenager.
The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
We’ve all seen the movie. The book is good too (despite having less Matt Damon). I may check out the others in the series but I wasn’t as transported as I had hoped to be.
The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie
I read this book and then realized that a TV adaptation had been made! I don't know if I'll watch the adaptation yet. The mystery was classic Agatha Christie, but I think I like her other work better. Poirot is always enjoyable, but the other characters weren’t as fun for me.
Didn't Really Love
I didn't dislike these books. I just didn't love them.
The Accident and The Travelers by Chris Pavone
I’m going to pick on Chris Pavone here. I love his plots; some of his concepts are fantastic. But he writes with so many lists! Every paragraph is full of lists! I don't need to know every thing in a room. Not every person who passes on the street and in the scene is important. In both of these books, the writing got in the way of the story for me. I will keep reading him. But I'm going to complain every time.
The Girl In the Ice by Robert Bryndza
This author lives in Slovakia and is well marketed here in the Czech Republic – advertisement posters for his books are even put up in the metro! So I have been curious about his books for years and I was glad I finally had a chance to check out this book. The concept is great, but I didn't really love the main character’s portrayal. The Slovak-British detective is a series character, though, and so I might pick a book later in the series to see if she develops a bit more.
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
This author wrote one of the books I most enjoyed reading this year. That was not this book. There's nothing too wrong with the book, which is about an artist who goes back to teach at a summer camp her friends disappeared from years before. But the narrative just seemed to go on and on in a lot of places where I wanted quicker action. At times, I also didn’t believe the main character would make the decisions she did and the villain was both over-signposted and not believable enough.
I am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells
I picked up this book because I enjoy the podcast that the author contributes to, Writing Excuses. I like his take on writing craft and the perspectives that are explained in the podcast. On reflection, I think my problem with this book was not the story or writing but my expectations going in. I knew it was a YA book – that's fine, I sometimes like to read YA – but I didn't realize it was a paranormal book. I also would not have minded the paranormal hook, as I can enjoy that, but it seemed like the first half of this book was just a straight-up young Dexter serial-killer-dealing-with-his-urges and then all of a sudden there was a paranormal villain, which made my reader expectations take a nosedive because it seemed like the set-up for the paranormal hadn't been there since the beginning. It also felt like the paranormal monster and the serial killer’s “monster” self didn’t play off each other as well as I wanted it to. I might try another one by this author in a different series.
One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters
I was thrilled to pick up this book, which is set in medieval Britain and follows a monk detective. But I found ultimately that the book took a deep look into the politics of the time – which I know is going to appeal to some readers, but didn't to me. The actual mystery was overshadowed by both the political plotline and a romantic subplot.
I try to read some craft books each year about writing and storytelling. I don’t think I remembered to include them all in my Goodreads Challenge this year, but here are two I did!
The Story Grid: What Good Editors Know by Shawn Coyne
This was recommended to me by an online writing group friend, Kate, and then also by my critique partner Jeremy. This demonstrates a very analytical way of looking at how to edit your novel. And I'm excited to use some of these practices when I finally finish my next manuscript! It’s also helped me analyze books as I read them.
Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel (Before You Waste Three Years Writing 327 Pages That Go Nowhere) by Lisa Cron
This was one of my favorite books from this year, along with Lisa Cron’s other book, Wired for Story. You should also check out some of her talks that are available on YouTube if you’re interested in how we create stories and how to engineer the elements of a good story. Here’s one of her hosted by the Creative Penn podcast.
So there they are, my books of 2018! I have set 52 books as my goal for this year too (and am already two books in!). Let’s see how it goes!
What’s on your shelf? Happy reading!
Well, writers, NaNoWriMo has almost finished.
I’m at 46,000 words at the moment, but I know from looking at my calendar that I won’t have 50,000 before the clock strikes midnight on November 30. That’s OK, though—I’m still happy with this year’s progress!
It's always an amazing feeling at the end of the month to see how many words I was able to corral into sentences – today, I had the opus so far printed so that I can start a read-through and plan some of the larger editing that it will need– and that reminds me again why I still like this challenge and why the NaNoWriMo challenge is still valuable for me, even 15 years after I first attended a write-in.
This project (in my last post I called it an “Agatha Christie homage”), is still fun. As I told my critique group tonight, it's the kind of project that becomes more fun as I work on it. Which is great! It is, however, a bit less Agatha Christie-ish then in my original conception, but I think it will definitely be a stronger book for some of the changes that I have made to it while I wrote.
As I told some friends when I started out, my goal had been to do an 80,000-word challenge this month, not just the usual 50,000-word challenge. But I am fascinated with the idea of being able to put out an entire rough draft in the time span of one month (I also tried this in August with a different manuscript) and each time I learned something, and each time I am happy that I did it.
I will catch up on the other 30,000 words in December – after 50,000 in November, 30,000 seems like a breeze.
The challenge I set for myself in August was slightly different—I wanted to dictate the entire manuscript. This month, I alternated between typing and dictation. I dictated large amounts of the manuscript, but then I went back over the dictated areas and filled in those passages a bit more. I don’t seem to think as visually when I’m narrating out loud as I do when I’m tapping on a keyboard. I am going to try to train myself into being able to do both as well.
I’m still learning how to be an effective and efficient writer with dictation. (If you have any tips, please let me know in the comments!) It really saves strain on my wrists, and I'm finding that it is opening up the creative side of my brain in ways that I hadn’t expected. (An example: my husband alerted me to the fact that I “do the voices” when I’m dictating dialogue.)
One technique that a guest of Joanna Penn recommended on her Creative Penn podcast was to dictate each scene three times. Once as a short summary, then as a slightly longer summary, then as a full scene. The technique I’m currently using is evolving, but so far it seems most natural to write a short summary by hand in my general outline, then dictate the the scene in ten-minute increments and then finally go back through and embroider some bits later, either by hand on a printed copy or typing into the transcription. That brings me to what I'm calling the zero draft. I'll bring the rest of that up to a more readable standpoint and look at some of the big picture things on my next go round.
Then I'll let it sit.
And then I'll ask for feedback.
(Gosh, this is a long process!)
NaNoWriMo is a good thing for several reasons. One of the biggest reasons is the community. Even when I lived in China, I still found people to talk about NaNoWriMo with. I met them in Hong Kong, and Guangzhou and other cities, where we would meet at a cafe, write and talk about novels. NaNoWriMo is also good as a daily discipline. While I already have the discipline of writing every day, I don't always move fiction projects forward every day.
This month, I still had more fiction binges than steady work, but the NaNoWriMo participation, and the general hubbub of other people on social media and in Write-ins, really do move me forward on things in a way that reinforces some of my own daily discipline. And it's also a challenge!
One of the most important things that NaNoWriMo has taught me is that I can manage long documents. That's important also for my freelance work. I recently had to edit several 50-page reports for clients. That's a large amount of text to take in at once! But when you compare that report to a 50,000-word fiction document, it’s a lot more manageable.
Did you participate in NaNoWriMo this year? How did it go?
And I’m hosting Write-ins at my coworking space to help support local writers. See the blog post about it on the coworking website here: http://blog.locusworkspace.cz/2018/10/making-dreams-reality-with-nanowrimo.html. If you’re in Prague, please attend!
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo?
What’s your project this year? I’m working on a kind of Agatha Christie homage. It's pretty fun!
Now, go write 1,667 words and reward yourself for a day well done.
Happy Halloween! In honor of the spooky season, here are three haunting books I’ve read recently. (Figuratively haunting; none of the plots are truly paranormal.)
The Witch Elm (UK title: The Wych Elm) by Tana French
You knew this book was going to head the list, didn’t you? I’ve been jabbering on to anyone who will listen about French’s Dublin Murder Squad novels (including at last weekend’s Halloween party, where someone confessed he wasn’t on board, WHAT? It’s OK, we can still be friends…).
The Witch Elm is her first standalone novel, and when I started it, I’ll admit to being worried. In the first half, it seemed like it stepped out of the crime genre a bit too far for my expectations. But soon, the plot got going and the immersion in the main character’s psyche hooked me.
The book centers on the question of what it means to be “lucky.” And what happens when you aren’t lucky (we could also put here, “privileged”) any longer. I don’t want to spoil anything (I’d say you shouldn’t even read the Goodreads interview with the author) so I’ll leave this really vague. Just go read the book.
Into the Water by Paula Hawkins
Hawkins wrote the blockbuster novel The Girl on the Train, later made into a movie with Emily Blunt. That book was a domestic suspense novel with an unreliable, alcoholic narrator. When Into the Water came out, I read a bunch of lukewarm-to-bad reviews that said it didn’t measure up to to the first, so I didn’t buy the book right away.
But, as usual, I shouldn’t rely on reviews other than for content expectations. I really liked it!
Into the Water goes deep into local myth about a pool in the UK where, historically, women were once tried by drowning—if she floats, she’s not a witch—and where, more recently, local suicides have drowned themselves. A woman who had once lived in the nearby village has to come back to take guardianship of her niece after her long-estranged sister dies in the pool. It has a past-present narrative that I loved, with lots of different point of view chapters from minor characters, and, while I guessed the ending a bit earlier than I usually like, it was still worth the read all the way through.
The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
And since I just said I don’t think that reviews have that much to do with whether I’ll like a book or not, here’s a book I didn’t love but you might! Goodreads has given it 4 stars, with a lot of the reviews stating that they preferred it to Sager’s first book, and I heard it’s been picked up for a TV series.
In my Goodreads Challenge blog post earlier this year, I wrote about The Final Girls, Sager’s first novel, which I gobbled up in a day or so. I liked that one so much I spent a whole Audible credit on the new book when it came out. Well, maybe I should have read it on my Kindle instead. Maybe it was the audiobook format that didn’t work for me. It had all the usual things I generally like—a creepy situation (teenage girls go missing from summer camp), another past-present narrative, a seemingly unreliable narrator—but somehow I was just finishing it because, goddamnit, I only get one “free” Audible credit a month (yes, I realize I actually pay for those credits). I’d say, give this one a try if you’re in the mood for something creepy. But go get French’s and Hawkins’ books first.
What have you been reading? Anything deliciously creepy?
For the past few years, I’ve made a habit of going over my goals every few months. Usually, I focus on financial, creative and professional goals but I realized this year that, since I’m doing the Goodreads Reading Challenge (with a goal of a not-so-exciting 52 books this year) it might be fun to look back on the books I’ve read so far in 2018.
Here they are:
Books I've Finished
The Less You Know the Sounder You Sleep by Juliet Butler. Really amazing true story about conjoined twins in Russia. (I should add that Juliet is a friend but know I would recommend the book anyway!)
Final Girls by Riley Sager. Shoutout to my critique partner Jeremy for recommending this book about a woman who survived a mass killing. I loved it and am looking forward to the author’s next book, which came out recently. I’ll read that soon!
What Doesn’t Kill Her by Carla Norton. I listened to this cat-and-mouse audiobook about the survivor of a childhood kidnapping and her captor who escapes from prison and was super excited to find out that it’s actually a sequel and so I have more to explore from this author.
The Healthy Writer by Joanna Penn & Dr. Euan Lawson. (nonfiction) Just what I needed to kick myself into a healthier 2018!
The Casual Vacancy by JK Rowling. This book set me off on a spur of reading books that have unlikable but fascinating characters. That’s my thing this year, and Rowling does it well!
The Fantastic Book of Everybody’s Secrets by Sophie Hannah. A book of short stories that stayed with me long after I finished the last one.
The Dante Connection by Estelle Ryan. I really like Ryan’s series of books about an autistic art insurance fraud investigator, and this one was an excellent example.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides. Yeah, I’m late to the party on this one. Thanks to my critique partner Robin for giving me a copy!
Dear Martin by Nic Stone. Told partially through letters that a young black man in Atlanta is writing to Martin Luther King, Jr. as a school project. I’m glad I picked this one up.
The Punishment She Deserves by Elizabeth George. Another Lynley novel! I swoon. I gave my husband two weeks’ notice that this book was coming out and not to expect me to do anything that day. If you haven’t already, I would recommend reading the others in the series first, though.
Blindsighted and Criminal by Karin Slaughter. I think I read these two stories out of order but enjoyed them anyway. Looking forward to picking up more of Slaughter’s work when I thin out my ‘currently reading’ pile.
Dark Places by Gillian Flynn. I’ve read two books with this title this year! I picked this one up once I recognized I was on a fascinating-but-unlikeable character binge. It did not disappoint.
Last to Die by Arlene Hunt. The pacing in this serial killer book was fantastic! I just kept reading.
The Girl Before by Rena Olsen. I listened to this as an audiobook, and it really gripped me. About a woman who was helping groom little girls for human trafficking—but doesn’t realize it.
It was OK
Maids of Misfortune by M. Louisa Locke. This was a fun historical mystery. I liked the characters and may pick up the sequel next year.
Driven by Andrea Badenoch. Another in my line of fascinating but unlikable characters, this time a streetwise girl in London.
Dark Places by Jon Evans. Fascinating premise (and more fascinating but unlikeable characters) this is a thriller with a travel aspect. Loved that! But I wasn’t enthralled by the writing.
The Good Neighbor by AJ Banner. I listened to this as an audiobook while training for the Camino de Santiago. It was a good distraction from foot pain. I wished the ending was darker, but that might just be me.
The Outsider by Stephen King. So I love Stephen King and really enjoyed the experience of this book (I also listened to it) but I think that I can only put it in the “OK” category because I think his other books are stronger.
Didn’t really love
Laundry Man by Jake Needham. I liked this book more when I finished it than I do now. I like Needham’s writing a lot and also his setting and characters. But it didn’t stay with me.
At Risk by Patricia Cornwell. It was fun to read but didn’t stay with me.
Pretty Girls Dancing by Kylie Brant. A fun-to-read serial killer book but didn’t stay with me.
Man Overboard by JA Jance. I really like her characters and premise but the techno-thriller aspect wasn’t believable to me.
Caraval by Stephanie Garber. This fantasy book got huge reception on Twitter and book blogs, and I heard there’s a movie coming out too so I thought I’d try it. I wanted to love it but didn’t—characters were too thin, and I wanted more of the crazy magic world than romance.
Vigilante Dead by DV Berkom. More fascinating but unlikable characters! I wanted to like this more than I did—not sure why—perhaps there was too much backstory, and I haven’t read the others with this character? I would give another book by this author a chance, though.
I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes. A friend ran up to me at a party and pressed this book into my hands, shouting about how much she liked it. I was really disappointed that I didn’t very much. It should have been three books all focusing on different aspects of the eponymous superspy. Instead, we just get a whirlwind that felt disjointed and left me wanting more detail.
Other Books and Currently Reading
Not counted in the books I’ve finished are the manuscripts I’ve critiqued for writing pals. This is known as “beta reading” (like beta testing for software). So far this year, for my writing pals I’ve read and given feedback on three fantasy novels, a thriller with speculative elements, a suspense novel and a paranormal romance. I love them! These are usually done on a swap basis, so when I finish my next project I’ll send it out to these authors and see what advice they have for me.
Books in progress
So here’s something that happens to me—does it happen to you too?—I start a book, am enjoying it, and don’t want it to end. So I switch in the middle. This has happened to me twice now with books by the lovely Jennifer Alderson (an American based in the Netherlands, she writes mysteries with a travel bent, and you should definitely follow her on Twitter to learn about other international reads!). Also in this category are The Hungry Tides by Amitav Ghosh (which I’ve been reading a hard copy of in the bathtub) and Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver (reading in bed).
I’m also currently reading on one device or another (or in hard copy): 11/22/63 by Stephen King, I Am Not a Serial Killer by Dan Wells, Losing Venice by Scott Stavrou, One Corpse Too Many by Ellis Peters, Strange Stones by Peter Hessler, and Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman.
I’m also working through some nonfiction books, including The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck by Mark Manson, Wired for Story and Plot Genius by Lisa Cron, So You’ve been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson and The Emotional Craft of Fiction by Donald Maass.
So, what’s next? I tend to pick up books compulsively and read whatever seems to catch me at the moment. But there are two books I know I’ll read soon. A group of writers in the Sisters in Crime organization will be discussing K.J. Howe’s The Freedom Broker. I met the author at ThrillerFest last year (she’s the Executive Director) and have been meaning to read it, and I’m very excited to discuss it with other writers. And later this year, the only book I know I’m going to shoot through is Tana French’s upcoming standalone The Witch Elm, which should land on my Kindle in October. Can’t wait!
What are you reading?
I've just posted my digital July rewards for Patreon supporters and my $10 backers have a (couple of, actually!) postcards in the mail to them from my trip to Spain.
Here are the covers for the $5 reward (a short story about a backpacker in Thailand who gets involved in a situation that looks like a kidnapping) and the $3 reward (a travel tale about being hungry in an unfamiliar city).
If you pledge today, you'll get these rewards plus previous months' stories as well! Take a look at all the reward tiers here: www.patreon.com/BethGreen
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