This blog hopes we’re all doing our part to stop the spread of the coronavirus out there by staying in here–wherever our respective “in heres” happen to be. Luckily for me, one of the last places I visited before everything locked down was the local library, so I’m holed up with a few thrillers. They are unquestionably late by now, but I’m going to assume the late fee policy will be relaxed when everything opens again.
At the moment, I’m reading Michael Connelly’s “The Night Fire.” It describes itself as a Renee Ballard and Harry Bosch novel, but it also guest stars Mickey “The Lincoln Lawyer” Haller. It’s actually a smart move on Connelly’s part, since it allows the novel to span three different crime genres: police procedural with Ballard, pulp detective with Bosch and courtroom drama with Haller. Nothing feels underdeveloped or overlong. Toss in a solid plot and smooth prose and it might be one of the best thrillers of the year, although I am only halfway done.
As for the stuff I have actually finished, keep reading. As for the stuff I haven’t actually finished… Well, keep reading. Everything will be accounted for. Like always, best toward the top and worst toward the bottom.
The Fox and Dr. Shimamura: I can’t say that this was the best book of 2019–it was translated from German, and I’m always wary of translations since I can’t read them in the original prose–but it was easily one of the most interesting. More like a psychological fairy tale than psychological thriller, Christine Wunnicke’s short novel about (the real life) Dr. Shimamura investigating kitsune phenomena in turn-of-the-last-century Japan manages to examine relationships between East and West, male and female, and sane and insane all on one long hook.
The Heavens: I found the conclusion a little weak in its attempts to explain everything, but the majority of Sandra Newman’s mashup of many-worlds and end-of-the-world literature is quite satisfying. The prose is good, the characters are well sketched and the dialogue is sometimes quite funny. There’s also a wealth of themes, including mental wellness, destiny and the difficulties of utopia, although you might see something different.
The Memory Police: Almost the opposite of “The Heavens,” Yoko Ogawa’s novel starts off like no more than a clever take on “1984,” but it evolves into its own creature, sort of a dystopian slice of life that even morphs into something metaphysical as it moves along. More of a fantasy than a thriller, although the low key translation fits it well.
String City: What can I say? The more I thought about “String City,” the more I realized I liked it. Graham Edwards’ pulp thriller with a fantastic edge was clever, well paced and asked some big questions along the way. Its questions were bigger than its characters, but I’m sure the book’s unnamed gumshoe would be the first to admit that nobody’s perfect.
Cari Mora: I’m going to put this high on the list, if only because it was the first Thomas Harris novel in a while, but it was far from the best book I read all year. It’s a crime thriller that dances around the grotesque rather than embraces it (or, admittedly, trips in it). It’s well written and has interesting characters, but it never achieves its potential and frequently disappoints.
The Secrets We Kept: A novel about spies, women in the workforce and how “Doctor Zhivago” got to America. It’s also a love story and it’s about identity, mid-century politics, and… Well, Lara Prescott’s novel is about a lot of things. Maybe too many. The myriad plotlines and perspectives make up a structure that never quite gels. However, the prose is good, and there’s tons of interesting research for those who like their Wars Cold.
The Need: A decently composed parental nightmare thriller that starts strong, with solid prose and pace, and ends up being just a bit predictable.
The Institute: Stephen King shows his age. There’s plenty of cute Stephen King-isms, and it gets better as it moves along, although the concept–psychic children kidnapped by the government–isn’t all that original, even for him. It also doesn’t help that many of the characters are those children, and that they don’t sound like real children. Still, it’s King-style prose, so it’s sometimes fun and definitely readable.
Cold Storage: A science thriller with some science and some thrills, “Cold Storage” is easy to read and has interesting information for people into plagues (not an unpopular topic as of this writing, perhaps). It’s also populated by some pretty lame characters throughout. Writer David Koepp is touted as the guy who wrote the “Jurassic Park” screenplay, so it’s not too hard to see where he gets his authorial inspiration.
The Reign of the Kingfisher: An acceptable attempt at a “if superheroes were real” story, once again posed as a sort of crime thriller. It reads OK, but it feels like it misses the chance to ask the pertinent questions along the way.
The Silent Patient: A very readable psychological thriller with some twists and turns and a lot of lapses in psychiatric ethics. The result is an increasing loss of believability and a big reveal that falls a little flat.
Antiques Ravin’: It’s a cozy mystery about a long-suffering daughter and her kooky police chief mother. I don’t think I’m the target audience. I read it because it had Edgar Allan Poe on the cover.
The Long Call: I’m going to say I finished this, but that’s kind of a lie. It’s a new detective from Ann Cleaves, the author of the Vera novels. I found the detective dull. I was more interested in the background characters, who obviously got less attention. When I had about 50 pages left, I made a guess about who the killer was. I looked at the last chapter. My suspect was still there, so I guess I guessed wrong. I didn’t read any more.
Actually, since I’ve already introduced a book I didn’t finish, and since it’s my blog, here’s the rundown of books I have yet to complete:
Imaginary Friend: Stop me if you’ve heard this one. A child with latent psychic powers has to stop an evil entity–called “the hissing woman”–from breaking into our reality via a small American town. Also, there’s a sheriff hero and a bad case of the flu. Stephen Chbovsky, who wrote “Perks of Being a Wallflower,” tries his hand at Stephen King fan fiction. Except there’s already a King book about psychic children this year (also, where’s the alcoholic writer character?). OK, this is more literary than King, but it’s also much less snappy. At one point I realized I was more than 300 pages in and still not halfway through. I stopped. But I will finish it. Probably. Someday.
Quichotte: Sort of a psychological drama/immigrant narrative by way of a Pinocchio/Don Quixote fantasy? Maybe it was too scattered. It never quite engaged me, and the oh-so-clever tone didn’t help. I’m glad the book was so fond of itself because I never warmed up to it.
Bunny: I read the first chapter, and I realized the characters were all MFA candidate types. This was billed as a “Heathers” experience. “Heathers” was a fun murder drama that took place in high school. I went to high school. I’m not an MFA candidate. Sorry, and I’m sure this is my fault, but I didn’t think this one was for me.
Last, perhaps because short fiction has become my medium (two published, three upcoming, I swear!), I’m allowing myself to pretentiously end with some short story anthologies.
In truth, the best fiction of 2019 I read might have been in “Orange World and Other Stories,” a collection of recent work by Karen Russell. I’ve liked Russell since the novel “Swamplandia,” but I’ve gotten to really like her through her short stories, and “Orange World” collected some great ones. The tales assembled here are all nicely literate and either intriguingly fantastic and delightfully weird. The best might be “The Gondoliers,” which is one of the most creatively set post-apocalypse stories I’ve read. It thrillingly combines the mystery of sisterhood and family with the psychic rush of the end of world.
Coming up just behind that collection was Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation,” which was exactly what readers of Chiang should expect: sci fi that’s both well-composed and highly intelligent, almost guaranteed to give you something to think about after you’ve finished reading. It’s the perfect book for genre fans to meander through, even if they don’t hit all the stories cos it has to go back to the library…
Finally, I also buzzed through a couple of crime fiction anthologies, but all I can remember was there was a disappointing Dean Koontz story in one of them.
So that’s about everything with a 2019 tag I read. What did I miss? What should I be reading in 2020? Give me something to look forward to when the library opens again.