3 Short Reviews

The Suspect by Fiona Barton

Barton, Fiona. The Suspect   
Penguin Audio, 2019   
Narrated by Susan Duerden, Fiona Hardingham, Nicholas Guy Smith, Katharine Lee McEwan   
ISBN 9781524779962

cover: The Suspect

When two British girls spending their gap year in Thailand disappear, journalist Kate Waters senses a possible big story. Always looking for the latest big scoop, she doesn’t hesitate to insinuate herself into the investigation as much as possible. In this case she gets as close as she possibly can to the girls’ families to keep up with all the latest developments.

But Kate is dealing with a personal issue while she’s chasing this story. After a period of sporadic, noncommital phone calls, she and her husband now haven’t heard from their son Jake in quite a while. They are surprised to hear that he dropped out of college a while ago. As they novel continues, they discover that Jake may also be in Thailand. Kate’s attempts to follow up on the missing-girls story while also looking for her son raise the question of how closely a journalist can and should get personally involved in her work.

This is the third book—after The Widow (2016) and The Child (2017)—featuring Kate Waters but can be read as a standalone novel. My favorite of the three is The Child, so if you’re not familiar with the Kate Waters series, I’d suggest starting there.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


Saratoga Payback by Stephen Dobyns

Dobyns, Stephen. Saratoga Payback
Dreamscape Media, 2017   
Narrated by George Newbern   ISBN 9781520067070

cover: Saratoga Payback

Published in 2017, this book is the 11th in Dobyns’s Charlie Bradshaw series, though the first since 1998. Much has changed in Charlie’s life. The police have revoked his private investigator’s license, and he’s now trying to get used to life as a retired senior citizen. And he is now married to Janie, whose youngest child, a 14-year-old daughter, is still at home. Charlie and his stepdaughter have a good relationship. 

Still, household repairs just can’t replace investigating, so when a corpse lands on Charlie’s front sidewalk, he has to decide whether to hand the situation off to the local cops or to risk breaking the law by investigating without a license. When the cops show little interest in the case, Charlie begins to sniff around surreptitiously; he reasons that, since the dead man was obviously coming to see Charlie, he has a right to look into how and why the guy was killed in Charlie’s front yard.

Fans of the series will be gratified to learn that Charlie’s friend Victor Plotz and The Queen of Softness are still together. I doubt if anyone who has not read at least some of the previous books in the series will be interested in this one. 

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown


She Was the Quiet One by Michele Campbell

Campbell, Michele. She Was the Quiet One   
Macmillan Audio, 2018  
Narrated by January LaVoy  
ISBN 1250205166

cover: She Was the Quiet One

This novel might have been better if it were about 1/3 shorter. But the drawn-out story just emphasizes the book’s shortcomings. 

Two orphaned fraternal twin girls are sent by their emotionally cold grandmother to a prestigious New England boarding school for their sophomore year of high school. The twins fit a stereotype: one, Rose, is light; her sister, Bel, is dark. The girls are assigned to different rooms in the same dormitory. The heads of the dormitory, both also teachers at the school, are devastatingly handsome Heath Donovan and his wife, Sarah.

Rose, although feeling alienated among the cliquish student body, flourishes academically at the fiercely competitive school. But Bel gets pulled into the wrong crowd—the bratty, trouble-making, cruel clique of seniors—as soon as she arrives. For an entire semester Rose harps at Bel to get away from those kids, and Bel continues to defend herself and her new friends, accusing Rose of being jealous.

As the twins’ relationship sours, the Donovans have their own problems. Sarah hears rumors about her husband but refuses to believe them. A little of such behavior would be credible, but Sarah gradually becomes so emotionally needy that her thoughts and actions descend into melodrama. At the same time we see Heath become increasingly unstable and unreliable. This process drags on long enough to become quite annoying and to lose, eventually, any semblance of credibility. 

The ending brings about a sense of relief rather than any semblance of closure. In fact, the book ends with a bizarre epilogue, the only purpose of which seems to be to suggest that a sequel may be in the works. If so, I won’t be reading it.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

Is ‘devouring’ books a sign of superficiality in a reader?

Louise Adams discusses the history of the metaphor of eating as applied to reading. While the historical applications of the metaphor are informative, I’d like to focus on this point:

This metaphor, however, hasn’t always seemed so benign. Two hundred years ago, describing someone as ‘devouring’ a book would have been an act of moral censure. The long, turbulent relationship between reading and eating is invisible to modern eyes, yet in our media-soaked culture, it is more pertinent than ever. The unexamined language of ‘devouring’ idealises one kind of reading at the expense of others, leaving readers impoverished.

At the end of the article Adams comes back around to this same point:

The reading language of the past contains something precious that needs to be preserved, indeed celebrated, in the present. For centuries the rich contrasts of the reading-eating spectrum expressed a conviction that different kinds of reading mattered, and this conviction would serve us well in our media-fraught world. ‘Just reading’ is not good enough: we need to revive reading’s diversity. The language of digestion encourages slowed-down reading habits (along Slow Food lines). It reminds us to be more attentive to the subtle ways in which texts have been put together by their creators – to think before just bingeing upon pages.

In other words, she’s advocating that we slow down and consider while we’re reading. 

I’m a big fan of the slow reading movement. Although I never thought about the literal application of eating as a metaphor of reading, I do understand the distinction between devouring a novel (consuming it whole, quickly) and digesting it (reading deliberately, slowly enough to appreciate and analyze how it works).

And I admit that I always think of this distinction when people brag about reading 100-150 books a year. I’m retired, and I still can’t read anywhere near that number. And sometimes I can tell from comments on sites like Goodreads and Amazon that commenters have merely skimmed the book because they criticize the author for leaving out points that are in fact in the text. 

And see the next article for the latest research on “speed reading.”

Can People Really Learn to ‘Speed Read’?

“true speed reading — a boost in reading speed by at least three times without any loss in comprehension — isn’t supported by the science.”

Marcus Woo reports for Live Science. 

What happened when schools used science to revamp how reading is taught

Katherine Long reports in The Seattle Times on new methods of reading instruction showing promise in Pennsylvania.

Ralph Ellison’s Slow-Burning Art

Kevin Young, director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture at the New York Public Library, discusses the recent publication by Random House of Selected Letters of Ralph Ellison. In 1967 a fire at Ellison’s country house destroyed the manuscript he was working on, “the much anticipated and already belated follow-up to his 1952 début, ‘Invisible Man.’” 

Young sees the publication of Selected Letters, which covers 60 years, “as another Ellisonian magnum opus, one necessarily unfinished.”

How Chinese Sci-Fi Conquered America

The publication of Ken Liu’s translation of The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin in 2014 “opened the floodgates for new translations of Chinese science fiction. This, in turn, has made Ken Liu a critical conduit for Chinese writers seeking Western audiences, a literary brand as sought-after as the best-selling authors he translates.” Often Ken Liu has to proceed carefully because:

Some of the writers Liu translates use the framework of science fiction to explore the dystopian consequences of China’s rapid economic and technological transformation, setting a story in the distant future or on another planet in order to tackle taboo issues like the lack of social freedoms, the exploitation of migrant workers, government land seizures, economic inequality and environmental destruction. In an odd inversion, some of the stories he has translated into English have not been officially published in China, at times because of their politically sensitive nature.

Here Alexandra Alter interviews Ken Liu about his life and translation work for The New York Times.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Books You Can Read in One Day or Less

You’ve still got almost a month to hammer away at your reading goal for 2019. Here’s a list of short works (around 200 or fewer pages) that I’ve collected. And below my list you’ll find a list of other lists.

Good luck. Read on!

As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner

Can You Ever Forgive Me? by Lee Israel

The Deal of a Lifetime by Fredrik Backman

The Mezzanine by Nicholson Baker 

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy

An Untouched House by Willem Frederick Hermans

The Hole by José Revueltas

The Dry Heart by Natalia Ginzburg

A Week at the Airport by Alain De Botton

I Am Sovereign by Nicola Barker 

The Grownup by Gillian Flynn

The Crying of Lot 49 by Thomas Pynchon

Sweet Days of Discipline by Fleur Jaeggy, translated by Tim Parks

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Hit Your End of Year Reading Goal with These Fast Reads

14 Feel-Good Books to Read in a Weekend

Lamenting that her reading time is often confined to weekends, Lorraine Berry here offers a list of books that can be finished over a weekend, which “means a book that clocks in with fewer than 300 pages — and sometimes, even fewer than 200.” An added bonus is the wide variety of titles here.

50 MUST-READ SHORT BOOKS UNDER 250 PAGES

This list includes fiction and nonfiction.

50 MUST-READ SHORT BOOKS IN TRANSLATION

This list will help me tick off two categories on my reading plan for this year: (1) total number of books read and (2) translated works. Pierce Alquist says she has included here books of “less than ~200 pages.”

11 Short Novels from Around the World that You Can Read in One Sitting

A Very Short List of Very Short Novels with Very Short Commentary

From writer Alice McDermott

7 SHORT BOOKS TO READ AT THE END OF THE YEAR TO FULFILL YOUR GOODREADS GOAL

“If you are looking for quick reads under 300 pages to help increase the number of books you’ve read this year, here is a list of short books to read to fulfill your Goodreads goal.”

The 5 Best Audiobooks Under 5 Hours

10 New Books You Can Read in One Sitting

These books all clock in at “around 300 pages or less.”

7 SHORT READS THAT YOU CAN FINISH IN ONE SITTING

32 Short (and New) Books to Help You Crush Your 2019 Reading Challenge

Goodreads suggests both fiction and nonfiction books of fewer than 300 pages.

12 Addictive Reads You Can Finish in a Single Flight

From Danielle Bucco for Off the Shelf comes this list of “books that you can absolutely finish in one flight!”

25 (MORE) CRIME BOOKS YOU CAN FINISH IN AN AFTERNOON

Because who doesn’t want to read more crime books?

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

‘Your throat hurts. Your brain hurts’: the secret life of the audiobook star

If you think narrating audiobooks is a dream job because all you have to do is sit there and read, you’d be wrong. Way wrong. Read all about the complex matters of matching specific books with appropriate readers, of preparing, and of carefully avoiding extraneous noise in the recording studio. At the end of the article is an added bonus of a short history of talking books.

The Joys of Reading with a Second Grader

The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall
The End of the Day (1900) by William Sargeant Kendall

Writer Alison B. Hart rediscovers the joy of reading for pleasure—“ that swoosh of momentum that carries you past the letters on the page, straight into the heart of a story”—by reading Anne of Green Gables aloud to her 8-year-old daughter.

Giving life experience its due

Older adults, particularly older women, often feel invisible, ignored and completely misunderstood by the younger world moving quickly around them. This article by Peter McDermott showcases several Irish authors whose recent novels feature older adult characters. There’s much insight here. For example, McDermott asked about younger authors portraying older characters:

Asked about possible pitfalls in depicting older characters, [Caoilinn] Hughes [the 34-year-old author of Orchid & the Wasp (2018)] said they would be exactly the same as a “writer can fall into when writing any character: undermining their humanity through lazy writing by privileging assumption over observation.”

Joan Didion’s Early Novels of American Womanhood

This article caught my eye because, although I’ve read quite a lot of Didion’s nonfiction, I haven’t read any of her fiction. 

What no Didion heroine can entirely reconcile herself to is the split between what she wants and what a woman is supposed to do: marry, have children, and keep her marriage together, despite the inevitable philandering, despite her other hopes and dreams. Didion’s women have an image in mind of what life should look like—they’ve seen it in the fashion magazines—and they expect reality to follow suit. But it almost never does. In Didion’s fiction, the standard narratives of women’s lives are mangled, altered, and rewritten all the time.

Women’s writing began much earlier than supposed, finds academic

Scholarship has generally dated the first writing by English women to about the 12th century. But here Alison Flood discusses a new book, Women, Writing and Religion in England and Beyond 650-1100, by Diane Watt that places the emergence of women’s writing much earlier, in the 8th century. “Watt, a professor at the University of Surrey, lays out in the book how some anonymous texts from the period were probably created by women, and contends that men rewrote works originally produced by women.”

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Let the Best of 2019 Lists Begin!

A few of these lists began appearing in early November, but I refuse to start my year-end summaries that early. I haven’t put my Christmas decorations up yet, either.

Our Fiction Editor Shares Some Favorites From the Best Books of 2019

From the fiction editor of Kirkus

The Best Books of 2019

Amazon’s portal to its choices in the following categories:

  • literature and fiction 
  • mystery, thriller, and suspense  
  • romance  
  • cooking, food, and wine  
  • children’s books

Best Books: 2019

This is the portal to Publishers Weekly’s many lists of the year’s best.

Reader’s Picks: Favorite Books of 2019

From publishing conglomerate Penguin Random House comes this list of readers’ choices in categories such as romance, historical fiction, and memoir.

Best Books of 2019

From The Washington Post. At the bottom of the page you’ll find links to the Post’s list of best books in the following categories: thrillers & mysteries, romance, science fiction & fantasy, children’s books, poetry, nonfiction, audiobooks, graphic novels, memoirs, and story collections.

Best Books of 2019

From the New York Public Library

THE BEST BOOKS OF 2019

“In our efforts to increase and diffuse knowledge, we highly recommend these 45 titles released this year,” declare the editors and writers of Smithsonian Magazine. Their subject matter includes “science, history, art, world cultures, travel and innovation.”

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Because 2019 is the final year of the decade, there’s also an emphasis on “best books of the decade” among the lists.

The 20 Best Novels of the Decade

From Literary Hub

THE 10 BEST CRIME NOVELS OF THE LAST DECADE

From CrimeReads

The Breakthrough Books of the Decade

Editors at BookBub present one book from each year, 2010-2019, “that resonates deeply — the book that caused a sensation, revolutionized a genre, established a cultural touchstone, or launched itself into the zeitgeist.”

THE RISING STARS OF CRIME FICTION IN THE 2010S

From CrimeReads comes this “celebration of the best new crime and mystery writers of the decade.”

The 10 Best Translated Novels of the Decade

From Literary Hub

The Best Books of the 2010s Nudged the World in a New, Better Direction

Esquire’s choices, both fiction and nonfiction

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

The first fairytales were feminist critiques of patriarchy. We need to revive their legacy

Melissa Ashley finds the origin of fairytales to “a coterie of 17th century French female writers known as the conteuses, or storytellers.” Fairytales “crystallised as a genre” in this time when women, sometimes as young as 15, were married off—often to men many years older than themselves—to protect family property. Women could not divorce, work, or control their inheritances. The conteuses’ stories “invited women to imagine greater freedom in their lives, to be their own authors of the most fundamental of all human endeavours – to be able to choose whom to love.”

THE LAST UNPROBLEMATIC OLD WHITE MALE AUTHORS (WE THINK)

In this age of #MeToo and disparagement of the Western literary canon as outmoded products from the minds of dead white guys, Dylan Brown argues that “there are, by my count, at least three old white guys (all of whom are alive!) who are still ‘safe’ to read.” Read why he finds the work of these three men “stands the test of time — even in these times. It is, in other words, enlightened despite their era”: Charles Portis (True Grit), Nicholson Baker (A Box of Matches), and Steven Millhauser (Martin Dressler).

WHEN YOU WRITE YOUR WORST FEARS IN YOUR NOVEL—AND THEN THEY COME TRUE

Six days before the publication of her first novel, Amber Cowie’s brother died. When she visited the room he had last inhabited, she sickeningly realized “the space was nearly identical to a scene I had written in my book.” Cowie found help in understanding her situation by examining the lives of writers Lois Duncan, who wrote about her daughter’s murder, and Shirley Jackson, whose last diary entries before her sudden death suggest she felt “a portending sense of loss and mystery.” 

Jackson, Duncan and I created stories that both reflected and predicted the things that scared us the most.

From Iliad to Inspiration: How Homer’s Epic Inspired My Debut Novel

Probably the question writers hear most often is “Where do you get your ideas?” Here Shannon Price describes how Homer’s Iliad, required reading in a required college course, inspired her first novel.

How Literary Translation Can Shift the Tides of Power

Whether it came from a news report, travel blog, film or work of fiction, our understanding of these far-flung countries [China, Japan, Korea] is limited by what gets translated into our language. But who and what determines which voices and whose stories we get to hear? Whose voices are we not hearing?

Jen Wei Ting explains the responsibilities she feels as a translator.

The Disappearance of John M. Ford

When a friend insisted he read The Dragon Waiting by John M. Ford, Isaac Butler was dazzled by the book:

The Dragon Waiting is an unfolding cabinet of wonders. Over a decade before George R.R. Martin wrote A Song of Ice and Fire, Ford created an alternate-history retelling of the Wars of the Roses, filled with palace intrigue, dark magic, and more Shakespeare references than are dreamt of in our philosophy. The Dragon Waiting provokes that rare thrill that one gets from the work of Gene Wolfe, or John Crowley, or Ursula Le Guin. A dazzling intellect ensorcells the reader, entertaining with one hand, opening new doors with another.

Yet when Butler tried to buy more of Ford’s works, he found they were out of print and mostly not available even in used copies. He set out to discover how Ford had written such amazing books and why he was so unknown today. Butler’s investigation into Ford and his works makes for fascinating reading. Best of all, his work resulted in an agreement to republish Ford’s work, beginning in 2020.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

America’s First Banned Book Really Ticked Off the Plymouth Puritans

A portrait of Thomas Morton, an English businessman who came to the New World with the Puritans but didn’t share their religious zeal. Morton “had the audacity to erect a maypole in Massachusetts.”

The Rise and Fall of Booth Tarkington

“How a candidate for the Great American Novelist dwindled into America’s most distinguished hack.”

Recently I read The Magnificent Ambersons, one of Booth Tarkington’s two—yes, TWO!—Pulitzer-Prize-winning novels, and just about choked on it. This New Yorker profile tackles the question “How to explain this remarkable career—the meteoric ascent to fame, the impregnable reputation over several decades, and then the pronounced plunge into obscurity?”

All of Our Good—and All of Our Evil—Lies in Wait in the Archives

“The more time I spend in archives, the more I realize how important they are,” writes Sara Sligar. Here she explains why archives are such “good fodder for fiction” and discusses some of her “favorite novels about archives and documents: thrilling reads that turn seemingly dreary record-keeping into nail-biting suspense.” Her list includes, among others, Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood, Possession by A.S. Byatt, and Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple.

THE CURRENT STATE AND FUTURE OF GOODREADS

Steph Coelho discusses the history and still-growing popularity among readers of Goodreads. Despite its popularity, Coelho writes, the site hasn’t changed much since its inception in December 2006. Here she looks at “what’s not working according to Goodreads users” and “what people love about Goodreads.” She discusses the issue of what the future holds for Goodreads with Goodreads CEO Veronica Moss and, if you’re more dissatisfied than satisfied with Goodreads, offers some current alternatives for keeping track of your reading.

But, she writes, “I wouldn’t recommend abandoning the platform anytime soon. I’m excited to see what’s on the horizon.”

My friend, my self

“Female friendship is central to much recent fiction and film. What can it say about the role of relationships in identity?”

Susan Bright examines the role of female friendships, with a focus on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels and Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s TV comedy drama Fleabag:

What makes both these examples of friendship resonate is their intimacy and vulnerability, not only between the two women, but within the main characters themselves. These women are flawed but honest. Their fallibility, loneliness and insecurity might not make them likeable, but they are totally relatable. In short, seeing ourselves reflected in fiction makes us feel less alone. And so it seems that the most compelling stories are not really about friendship at all, but about self-awareness, self-deception, loneliness and self-confidence (or its lack). These stories focus on female friendship to show that there can be competitiveness and jealousy, transgression and guilt, but also genuine love; the relationships between women can be acutely observant and thought-provoking guides to deep emotions of the self.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

Literary Links

In the rush to harvest body parts, death investigations have been upended

Maybe I just read too many crime novels and watch too many cop shows. Or maybe I’m just gruesome by nature. Yet I often think of exactly this problem when I’m reading a novel or watching a show. A medical examiner needs time to conduct a full investigation (autopsy and lab tests) to determine manner of death (natural causes, accident, suicide, homicide), yet time is of the essence if the dead person is an organ, bone, and/or tissue donor. So who takes precedence, the medical examiner or the transplant team?

This article from the Los Angeles Times also has a local angle for me. If you click through to the article, you’ll see that the photo of a corpse at the top is from the Pierce County medical examiner’s office in Tacoma, Washington—my home town. The reason for this is probably that Melissa Baker, a former investigator in the Pierce County medical examiner’s office, filed a whistleblower complaint in 2015. She is quoted in this article:

“One of my biggest concerns … was the mere fact that someone could potentially get away with murder because evidence has been bungled, lost or not collected,” she said.

While most of this article focuses on Los Angeles County and California law, many of the issues it brings up are informative for anyone interested in what happens after someone dies. I found the graphic labeled “How much is a body worth?” particularly eye-opening.

ADAPTING ADULT BOOKS FOR YOUNG READERS

Adapting books for young readers can mean a variety of different things. It can mean adding pictures, changing slurs to slightly less harsh words, or cutting out passages that may seem a little boring to young readers. There are many great books adapted for young readers that come out of this process, and it is a helpful way to introduce kids to new historical and contemporary figures that don’t have as many books for all reading levels as, for example, Abraham Lincoln.

Here’s an interesting article about adapting nonfiction texts for younger (say middle-grade) readers. Such adaptations can contribute to providing children with diverse life stories and new paths of encouragement—for example, Life in Motion, the memoir of pioneering dancer Misty Copeland. “Being able to choose a book with a picture or drawing on the front that looks like yourself is still a privilege, and should not be taken for granted.”

American Gothic: The Woman Who Escaped the Asylum

This excerpt from Nightmare Factories: The Asylum in the American Imagination by Troy Rondinone focuses on two images of Woman that pervaded the 19th century: the woman in white, the angel of the house; and the woman in black, representing woman’s roles as caretaker and moral guardian of society. “Both images are archetypes, two sides of a rubric of femininity that simultaneously empowered and smothered the 19th-century female.”

In “a culture that demanded that women know and accept their place . . . the asylum became a tool of discipline in the gothic world of sentimental fiction.”

What Greta Gerwig Saw in ‘Little Women’: ‘Those Are My Girls’

Cover: Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

Greta Gerwig’s film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women will debut on Christmas Day 2019. In this article Amanda Hess writes that Gerwig’s treatment is “less an update than it is an excavation” of a novel that portrays the March sisters as “posed unnaturally in the conventional narratives of their time.” 

‘A Walk in the Woods’ vs. A Walk in the Woods: On Reading as a Substitute for Experience

Jacob Lambert learns a lesson:

Reading is an incredible thing, but it’s a poor substitute for life. I’m amazed, and embarrassed, that I’ve had to learn such an obvious lesson. Yes, adulthood is tiring, children will suck you dry, and it’s easy to stay inside. But I remember now: though I packed The Grapes of Wrath on that long-ago, six-week drive, I read almost none of it. And I didn’t miss it at all.

© 2019 by Mary Daniels Brown

“Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us”

Monsters, villains, and antiheroes are largely just like us—with one key difference. They have the power to fulfill self-interests because they live beyond the dictates of morality. They care little for how their actions affect others, so nothing is forbidden. For them, it’s not a matter of “Should I do this?” but “Can I do this?” And whether that means seeking vengeance or stealing the crown or setting fire to an entire city, these characters can and do act on their desires, regardless of the consequences. Their depravity—their freedom—allows us readers to explore the darker side of our own natures in a safe way. Because even though we might fantasize about eviscerating our enemies, we don’t actually want to.

Shelby Mahurin