Happy new year! I started working on my annual reading retrospective when I got back to Prague from a campervan trip with family in Arizona last week but haven’t been able to get Goodreads to play ball. It says I read 67 books last year but persists in showing two titles I didn’t actually read—even though I’ve tried to remove them from the shelf. So I think it was 65 books. But then I started wondering if I’d actually remembered to add everything I’d read…
After a few days of back and forth on this with myself, I'm calling it 66.
It’s a good number.
Of these, in 2023 I read 20 books by authors who are not located in North America. Most of these were UK-based writers, it seems, but not all were writing about the UK.
Last year I read books that were randomly recommended to me as usual but also sought out titles set in countries/locations that I was visiting or that I would like to visit one day. That’s how I found the book that was probably my favorite read of the year, 10 Minutes, 38 seconds in this Strange World by Elif Shafak, which is set in Turkey. I picked it up (along with Belshazzar’s Daughter, Labyrinth and Silent House, all described below) because I traveled to Istanbul for a client’s conference in September. (Deadlands, another favorite, evoked the Arizona desert I just drove through. *chef’s kiss*)
My reading journey this year led me to revisit some favorite authors (including 2 books each by list-toppers Leigh Bardugo, Rachel Howzell Hall & SA Cosby). I pounced on the newest titles from Andrea Bartz and Shannon Chakraborty (who wrote the Daevabad trilogy as SA Chakraborty). I also tried to keep current with some of the books that had “everyone” buzzing (who is “everyone”? can I unsubscribe?) with less satisfying results: RF Kuang’s Babel, This is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone and Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney all ended up at the low end of my recommendation lists. I did enjoy Kuang’s Yellowface and the buzzy cosy fantasy blockbuster Legends & Lattes by Travis Baldree.
Speaking of Legends & Lattes, it kicked off a mini trend in my reading material of “books where nothing is happening but I’m riveted,” as I described it to my husband. This vibes-only reading also describes other books I very much enjoyed this year, like The Nakano Thrift Shop and Inspector Imanishi Investigates, both set in Japan, Deadlands by Victoria Miluch, and Labyrinth by Burhan Sönmez.
On the opposite spectrum, non-stop action, tension, and excitement kept me flipping pages in Falling by TJ Newman (do NOT, I repeat DO NOT, read before getting on an airplane), Ninth House, and The Adventures of Amina Al-Sirafi.
I’m super proud of several friends who published books last year too, and it was a joy to read their works: Sarah Tatoun’s Raise the Wind is a historical adventure set in colonial Georgia; Colleen Winter wrapped up her Canadian-set dystopian eco-thriller trilogy with a bang in The Storm; and fellow Mid-May writing group members Vanessa Lillie and Marie Hoy-Kenny added to my thriller list with Lillie’s Blood Sisters, about a Native American archaeologist who seems to dig up trouble as often as bones, and Hoy-Kenny’s YA romp The Girls from Hush Cabin, about four friends from summer camp who team up to solve a murder. (Shout out to Brian Hathaway from the Mid-May group too—his middle grade contemporary fantasy Hope for the Hounds came out in November and I’m currently reading it!)
What did you read last year?
Click through to see my full list and recommendations.
I just re-read my blog post from last year, when I said that I wanted to read more Hispanic or Latino voices, but I did not successfully add enough to my TBR, I guess. I will look for more authors there and also more Czech authors in translation (My first book of 2023 is Katerina Tuckova's harrowing Gerta).
In terms of format, almost all of the books I read last year were ebooks. I don't think I finished a single audiobook (or maybe one and forgot to count it on Goodreads? Yikes. More for 2023!) I did pick up a crop of second-hand paperbacks while we were visiting my in-laws in Australia in August and that's where I found the two novels by Balli Kaur Jaswal and the one true-crime nonfiction book A Murder without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle by Martin McKenzie-Murray.
Uncharacteristically, I spent a *lot* of time this year reading two books that I didn't enjoy that much but that I wanted to finish as an educational experience: Ulysses by James Joyce, which I decided to finally give a shot at since it was the centenary last year when I traveled to Ireland, and the 100 Years of The Best American Short Stories collection from 2015. Also uncharacteristically, I am "cheating" at this challenge because I am still reading that goddamn Ulysses. (I get about two pages done every night before falling asleep) but decided to count it as finished anyway because I am emotionally DONE with it. I'm afraid to look at how many percent left in the ebook I have to go.
There were a few quick, snappy reads, too, by Lucy Foley and Liane Moriarty. And the longest book I read, by pages, Empire of Gold, the final installment in the Daevabad trilogy by SA Chakraborty, certainly didn't feel like a long read. In addition to that one, I continued with a few other series: Australian author Jane Harper's Force of Nature, a follow-up to The Dry using the same investigator character; two of Patricia Highsmith's Tom Ripley novels; my ThrillerFest pal Colleen Winter's second book, The Disruptors; another friend, Jasmine Silvera's, witchy, sexy, Prague-set Conjuring Moonlight; and Elizabeth George's latest in the Lynley series, Something to Hide. Aaranovitch's novel I mentioned above is also part of a series, as is the best-selling Thursday Murder Club and I may pick up more in those lines later, though I don't think I'll follow the other House of the Seasons novels by Jenn J McLeod.
What did you read this year?
Crime Fiction (Thriller, Mystery, Suspense, Dark)
*in no particular order*
Bath Haus by PJ Vernon. Excellent thriller writing, from the very first scene in a gay men's hookup spot through the ritzy lifestyles of DC to the twisty ending.
We Lie Here by Rachel Howzell Hall. Perhaps my favorite reading experience from 2022. A domestic thriller, this gets in deep to family secrets. I am probably going to auto-buy this author from now on. I've eaten up everything she's produced lately.
The Paris Apartment by Lucy Foley. Fun and fast.
56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard. The first book I've read that's completely set during the pandemic. It follows two Irish strangers who become romantically involved on the eve of the COVID lockdown and move in together. And then there's a twist.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. Kids living in poverty in India try to solve the disappearance of their school classmates. So good, so sad, and so well written.
Something to Hide by Elizabeth George. If you've read the other TWENTY mammoth Lynley novels, c'mon, you're reading this doorstop too.
Arsenic and Adobo by Mia P Manansala. Don't read this book hungry! Very fun cozy mystery (a category I haven't been reading much of lately) set in a restaurant run by a Filipino-American family.
My Sweet Girl by Amanda Jayatissa. Delightfully dark. I was disappointed when I got to the end only because I wanted to keep reading. This, as was the case for many books I've read in the past few years, was a recommendation from the Unlikeable Female Characters podcast. The podcast is on hiatus for the moment (sadly!) but I recommend browsing their backlist for other recommendations and author interviews.
Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier. Also wickedly fun. Hillier is also becoming one of my recent favorites.
The Finalist by Joan Long. Joan and I are both members of Sisters in Crime and I was excited to read her debut this year after corresponding with her over the years. If you liked the concept of a mystery set on an exclusive island, such as the recent movie Glass Onion, or Rachel Howzell Hall's They All Fall Down, you might want to check out this one!
One by One by Ruth Ware. Great setting in an Alpine chalet â guests of a work retreat are trapped inside with a killer.
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware. One of her earlier books and a bit different to her later style. I found this one stayed with me for a while after I closed the book.
The Body Man by Eric P Bishop. I met Eric at ThrillerFest, along with Colleen Winter. So excited to read his first book, a political thriller set in DC and dealing with taut international secrets and laconic federal agents.
Like a Sister by Kellye Garrett. Another fellow Sisters in Crime member. I just devoured this book. Kellye writes thrillers that include a fun spark of humor along with the urgency needed in the genre.
Force of Nature by Jane Harper. Set in the Australian bush. This, and The Hike, below, have similar premises and I enjoyed them both.
Dead End Girls by Wendy Heard. Perhaps the only young adult title I read this year? Definitely a satisfying read for adults too, about two teenagers trying to pull off their own disappearance. Wendy is one of the Unlikeable Female Characters podcasters and I have *loved* each of her recent novels.
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. Also a cozy mystery, this one set in a retirement community, and very fun.
A Slow Fire Burning by Paula Hawkins
Kismet by Amina Akhtar. Watch those ravens! Perhaps this can be categorized as social horror?
Her Dark Lies by JT Ellison
Leave No Trace by Mindy Mejia. My favorite part of this was the wintery, outdoorsy setting.
Her Perfect Life by Hank Phillippi Ryan
Ripley's Game & Ripley Underground by Patricia Highsmith
The Final Girl Support Group by Grady Hendrix. If Kismet can't be defined as horror, then this is possibly the only horror novel I read this year? I have been watching a lot more horror on TV though, so I may incorporate more in my reading list for 2023.
Have You Seen Me? by Kate White
A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle (Nonfiction) by Martin McKenzie-Murray
Descent by Tim Johnston. As I said before with The Current, I love his writing.
The Quarry Girls by Jess Laurey. This was set in the 90s and is inspired by real events.
Over Her Dead Body by Susan Walter
The Hike by Susi Holliday
Cold River by Liz Adair
Apples Never Fall by Liane Moriarty
Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty
The Last Anniversary by Liane Moriarty. I have now finished all the books I can get my hands on by this author. Hope she's publishing more soon!
Ulysses by James Joyce. Ugh. Will I ever truly finish?
Dava Shastri's Last Day by Kirthana Ramisetti. This was a touching book with a lot more edge than I had expected. I would recommend it if you like a bit of near-future sci-fi in your family tales.
Simmering Season by Jenn J McLeod
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi. I read this when I was woozy with COVID and so need to go back and re-read.
The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters by Balli Kaur Jaswal. I love how this author, like Moriarty above, mixes in wry humor and *almost* absurdist scenarios.
Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Balli Kaur Jaswal
Cloudstreet by Tim Winton. This is a beautiful novel set in Perth, about two families who share a house over a few decades. This is the second book I've read by this author (The Riders was the first) and I really like the edge of mystical paired with the nearly humdrum realism of many scenes.
100 Years of the Best American Short Stories, edited by Lorrie Moore & Heidi Pitlor. I read this because I wanted to work on more short stories but I nearly stopped several times in the middle. Many of these stories felt completely joyless to me and not even that artful. Maybe it was me. I'll move on to a few other anthologies I have collected.
The Widow Killer by Pavel Kohout. I found this paperback of the English translation in a dusty second-hand store in Nevada but it's set right here in Prague. It's a police procedural about a serial killer during the end of World War II.
The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I am so late to the party on this one. Beautiful.
Inland by TÃ©a Obreht. Not what I expected when I picked this one up, but Iâm glad I read it.
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
The Disruptors by Colleen Winter. Excellent second piece in this series. Looking forward to the third book!
Conjuring Moonlight by Jasmine Silvera. More please!
The Echo Wife by Sarah Gailey. Probably my second favorite reading experience this year, but I don't think all readers are going to enjoy it. Could this also be social horror? Possibly.
Meet me in Another Life by Catriona Silvey. I really liked this concept of strangers who keep meeting and re-meeting through many lives. Much of it was touching.
The Empire of Gold by SA Chakraborty. Sad the series ended, but I enjoyed this last installment.
Klara and the Sun by Kazuo Ishiguro. A necessary read if you like stories about androids, and a beautifully written and quite nostalgic one.
The Grace Year by Kim Liggett.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. This was so atmospheric! As with the other book I have read from this author (Mexican Gothic) I wanted to stay in the world after I finished the last page.
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by VE Schwab. Also very touching.
Whispers Underground by Ben Araronovitch. Witty and fun.
Like Me by Haley Phelan (ebook)
They Never Learn by Layne Fargo (audiobook; the author is another of the Unlikeable Female Characters podcasters)
Next up? Not sure!
I have Little Pretty Things by Lori Rader-Day and Daisy Darker by Alice Feeney on hold at the library and a bunch of thrift store paperbacks I collected last summer.
Any other recommendations?
Last weekend I took a long walk through a dripping, autumnal forest and somewhere in the mist came upon the ruins of a gothic castle. It certainly put me in the Halloween mood. Here’s some books I read this year that evoke this same spirit.
The Daughter of Doctor Moreau by Silvia Moreno-Garcia. I’m actually reading this right now and am going to have to slow down a bit so I don’t run out of pages before Halloween. Yes, the tropical heat of the Yucatan is quite different than the cold gray fall of the Czech Republic, but the creeping suspense of this gothic retelling certainly makes it a good Halloween read.
The Grace Year by Kim Liggett. Part feminist survival tale, part minimal sci-fi/fantasy blend, this gave the same vibes as The Witch movie. Despite some plot holes, I found most of the tale chilling and immersive.
56 Days by Catherine Ryan Howard. The first novel I’ve read using the pandemic as a plot device and I LOVED IT. Two young people who have recently moved to Dublin are falling for each other when the pandemic lockdown starts. They move in together to get around the restrictions—and instead of this being a love story, it’s a horror story. I usually predict twists before they happen, but some of these surprised even me.
We Lie Here by Rachel Howzell Hall. I am a sucker for descent into madness type books. And while this is not strictly that, it has that same inexorable progression, that creeping dread that keeps up to the end. It’s a story about toxic families, gaslighting (and the horrors of party planning).
The Lying Game by Ruth Ware. A decaying house on a sandbar, falling into the tide. An all-girls boarding school. Secrets. This was so fun to read! And very atmospheric.
What’s on the shelf for you?
Hello from the tail end of 2021! I have not found much I wanted to blog about this past two years, but today the Goodreads Reading Challenge has shaken me out of my apathy.
In 2021, I read 61 books. This is fewer than I have read in any of the past four years (though I am also not sure what happened in 2017! I l know I read more than that, but A LOT happened that year so I think perhaps I forgot to add them), though looking at page count, it may be that this year I just read longer books, which took me more time.
As always, and by intent, I read mostly in the crime fiction arena: 32 titles I comfortably shelved as crime (thriller, mystery, suspense) plus five titles I count in the “general/lit fic” category deal with crime in some way. I read only one non-fiction title this year but read more fantasy and scifi than ever, and let’s be real, that’s probably because of the pandemic.
I read two pandemic-adjacent books and both were excellent though heavy—sci-fi pandemic tale The Wanderers by Chuck Wendig and historical magical realism novel The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia, which is set in the 1918 influenza pandemic.
This year I was drawn to immersive experiences, finishing two trilogies and several multiple works by the same authors: I completed a sci-fi/fantasy trilogy (NK Jemisin’s The Broken Earth) and all three available from Irish-Australian thriller author Dervla McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series (give me more soon, please!). Similarly I fell into the Daevabad fantasy trilogy (from SA Chakraborty) but am still waiting for my library hold of the third book. I also read two books each from SA Cosby and Rachel Howzell Hall. I recommend all of these, heartily. (Wendig’s book above, at 800 pages, should basically count as two books as well.)
Speaking of immersive, several books were single-day binge reads for me, including the one non-fiction title (Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow) and, surprisingly, one of the books I bought solely for analysis in order to develop my own craft as a writer (The Divorce Papers, which is told only through memos, letters/emails and legal papers). Other binges were the first book in McTiernan’s Cormac Reilly series, Lucy Foley’s The Hunting Party, and Howzell Hall’s These Toxic Things.
On the opposite side, I had a heck of a time getting into any audiobooks this year, probably because I haven’t been going on solo walks because of the pandemic, and later, recovering from surgery. I am loving the story and narrator in Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke, but I have not been in the needed listening headspace at all this year. I may just get the ebook and read it that way and restart my audiobook listening when I get back to daily walks. I also did not finish a few books that I think were more of a “it’s not you, it’s me” situation and which I will try to wrap up at some point in the future.
I’m still pretty much a magpie in terms of how I select books—if it falls in my lap and it’s shiny, I read it—but I do make an effort to look where I can find the “shiny” from diverse authors, and I think I was overall successful in doing that this year. About a third of the authors I read are not from the US, and a vast majority of the authors were women, which I also wasn’t surprised by. However, after looking at the authors from this year’s reading, I think in 2022, I would like to seek out more fiction by Latinx voices, as I was surprised to note this year that I didn’t end up reading much in that space. Any recommendations?
What did you read this year?
Books I finished
Crime Fiction (Thriller, Mystery, Suspense, “Dark”)
*In no particular order*
Winter Counts by David Heska Wanbli Weiden
I don’t want to play favorites but this one was maybe it this year for standalone thrillers? Great characters, pacing, setting, everything. Check it out.
Blacktop Wasteland by SA Cosby
All the hype is deserved. Read this if you haven’t already.
We Were Never Here by Andrea Bartz
I was a fan of her first two books, and just as I’d hoped, this story of backpacking, murder and toxic friendships was right up my alley.
The Ruin (Cormac Reilly # 1 ) By Dervla McTiernan
I was missing Tana French this year, so luckily I found McTiernan for my Irish police procedural fix.
The Scholar (Cormac Reilly # 2) by Dervla McTiernan
The Good Turn (Cormac Reilly # 3) by Dervla McTiernan
The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
Super atmospheric novel set on the now-touristed grounds of a Southern Plantation, and the reason I picked up Bluebird, Bluebird for audiobook. I really need to do that better justice.
Razorblade Tears by SA Cosby
Also getting lots of hype. Also deserved.
Long Gone by Alafair Burke
I really liked her writing and will seek out more of Burke’s work in 2022.
For Your Own Good by Samantha Downing
Read this and the next one for a sinister look at prep schools. This one is more “fun” than the next one.
My Dark Vanessa by Kate Elizabeth Russell
Did you read and like Lolita? Then read this. If not, well, you were warned.
Nightblind (Dark Iceland # 2) by Ragnar Jonasson
I picked this one up because we were going to Iceland. It shares a location with Netflix’s Trapped so I made my husband drive all the way up to Siglufjörður to see it. Buy me a drink and I’ll tell you the story about getting there.
Snare (Reykjavik Noir Trilogy # 1) by Lilja Sigurdardottir
A tense romp dealing with international smuggling. It caught my eye because of the Iceland trip and I’ll be on the lookout for her other books.
Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton
If you like a main character with a descent arc (as I certainly do!), read this.
The Best American Mystery Stories 2020 edited by CJ Box
These Toxic Things by Rachel Howzell Hall
And Now She’s Gone by Rachel Howzell Hall
Conviction by Denise Mina
A writing critique partner suggested this twisty story about conspiracies and sunken yachts and podcasts to me. Thank you, Helen! I loved it.
The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley
Hunters and toxic friendships in Scotland.
Long Range (Joe Pickett # 20) by CJ Box
Hunters and malfeasance in Wyoming.
Thirty-One Bones by Morgan Cry
Goodreads tells me that this is the least-popular book I read this year. I don’t know why—I enjoyed it! It’s set on the Spanish coast and has British conmen and many hi-jinx. Suffers a bit from the typical men-writing-women thing but not enough to complain about.
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris
This was sold to me as a thriller but I think it might be more in the social horror category? Anyway, if you liked Jordan Peele’s Get Out or Us, you will like this. Excellent read.
The Interior (Red Princess # 2 ) by Lisa See
This is an older novel I picked up in used paperback. I haven’t read much about China since we lived there, and this novel did such a great job at picking tiny details up and bringing them to life—on top of a very interesting thriller plot about factory workers that I found really believable, even for the time that I lived there. There is also an overarching political thriller aspect to it, which is not my usual cup of tea, but I liked this.
You Were Made for This by Michelle Sacks
The Next Accident by Lisa Gardner
A Matter of Latitude by Isobel Blackthorn
This is set in the Canary Islands and is super atmospheric.
The Shadow Box by Luanne Rice
Influenced by Eva Robinson
The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks
Home Before Dark by Riley Sager
Cross and Burn by Val McDermid
People Like Her by Ellery Lloyd
The Survivors by Jane Harper
Harper’s first two books I read were fantastic thrillers set in Australia. This has a crime aspect too, but I think it disappointed fans looking for more strict thriller tropes and for that outback Aussie feel (this is set on the coast in Tasmania). I still enjoyed it very much.
There There by Tommy Orange
This is told in short chapters by different, related people all getting ready to go to a powwow where (um, no spoilers, so—something dramatic!) will happen. Beautifully written.
A Burning by Megha Majumdar
A young woman in India is accused of setting a train on fire. Told in several points of view. Really moving and stayed with me for a long time afterward.
Transcendent Kingdom by Yaa Gyasi
Like her first book (Homegoing) I wish I knew someone who had read this so we could talk about it. Anyone game?
We Came Here to Forget by Andrea Dunlop
Argentina, pro athletes, and a toxic sibling relationship. Great read.
Circe by Madeline Miller
A great dive into Greek myth from Circe (remember? The witch with the sheep in the Odyssey)’s point of view. If you liked Wicked, read this.
The Secrets of Lost Stones by Melissa Payne
The Flight Attendant by Chris Bohjalian
I read this because of the TV show, which I loved. The book does not feature the same things that I loved about the show (oddly!) but it is still a good read about guilt and loss.
American Spy by Lauren Wilkinson
I liked this so much, until the end. It felt like we were just getting into the story, so I hope there’s a sequel!
The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger
Hey Ladies! The Story of 8 Best Friends, 1 Year, and Way, Way Too Many Emails by Michelle Markowitz & Caroline Moss
Another book told only in emails and messages, etc.
The Murmur of Bees by Sofia Segovia
These Women by Ivy Pochoda
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave
This stayed with me afterward. Women accused of witchcraft in a tiny whaling village in Norway hundreds of years ago.
Sci-Fi & Fantasy
The Fifth Season (The Broken Earth # 1) by NK Jemisin
The Obelisk Gate (The Broken Earth # 2) by NK Jemisin
The Stone Sky (The Broken Earth # 3) by NK Jemisin
Shut up, stop talking about it, and just read these books already!
The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin
This is harder sci-fi than I really like to read, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good book. Oddly has some of the same premises as The Broken Earth?
The City of Brass (The Daevabad Trilogy # 1) by SA Chakraboty
The Kingdom of Copper (The Daevabad Trilogy # 2) by SA Chakraboty
I got really into these stories about djinn. C’mon, library hold, hurry up and give me number 3!
Mexican Gothic by Silvia Moreno-Garcia
Beautiful and immersive gothic story set in the 1950s in Mexico. I think it counts as magical realism, but maybe not.
Under the Pendulum Sun by Jeannette Ng
I really really loved the concept of the world in this book. But the twist at the end makes it hard to recommend unless you are really into reading dark, dark things.
The Midnight Library by Matt Haig
Goodreads says this is the most popular of the books I read this year. I thought it had a not very responsible take on the use of antidepressants. Other than that, nice premise.
Wanderers by Chuck Wendig
Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators by Ronan Farrow
Just devastating. Really good read. Thank you to Fiona for lending it (& The Mercies) to me.
Started & will finish sometime later
The Gringa by Andrew Altschul
The Best American Mystery and Suspense Stories 2021 by Alafair Burke and Steph Cha
I’m sipping this like a fine wine.
Bloodline by Jess Lourey
The Gospel of Loki by Joanne Harris
Ripley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
Ripley’s Game by Patricia Highsmith
Did not finish
Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Fake Accounts by Lauren Oyler
Bath Haus by PJ Vernon—on my ereader
Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke—audiobook
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—in paperback
Next up—friends’ books
I have my ThrillerFest pals Colleen Winter’s and Eric Bishop’s books coming in fast on my TBR pile. Colleen published The Disruptors, her sequel to speculative fiction adventure sci-fi tale The Gatherer this year, and Eric’s debut political thriller The Body Man was also recently released.
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?
News from Beth
Updates and musings.