Continuing with my Best lists (though if I can swing it I am going to try to get a little detour and have the kids recommend books next week, fingers crossed) and today we have the genre I read the most, which of course also means it's the one I am the most critical of. More critical than ever, these days, but I think my Bests this year are as good as they've ever been.
If you haven't read Catherine Ryan Howard yet, lucky you. This is a much simpler story than Howard's previous novel, The Nothing Man, though it also has a non-linear structure and plenty of twists. Built around that hook we all thought up: what if at the beginning of the pandemic you found yourself in lockdown with a brand new romantic partner you barely knew?
Moriarty is compulsively readable but her books don't always work. But this might be my favorite of hers, because it is not just interested in a potential murder, it's interested in a family. Even just giving you the pitch makes it sound so menacing, for me the mystery was always second to learning about this family, diving into their past, and seeing who they are. It's also particularly good on the Boomer parents and Millennial adult children generation gap.
Maybe the most overlooked book on my list, which is an absolute crime because this is so fantastic and wild. (There is a movie coming so I hope this will be rectified.) A truly thrilling thriller, about a group of shady characters--including several assassins--on the titular bullet train who run into one another during the course of their jobs. The title is apt because this book runs at top speed the whole trip.
Great to have these two in a row because they were the two books where I thought early on "there's no way they'll sustain all these twists for the rest of the book" and then they did. This is dark and funny and sharp, it manages to have more twists than should be legal and yet they all feel earned. Set in a private school of rich, spoiled students and underpaid, overworked teachers, there is so much to sink your teeth into here, from the author of My Lovely Wife.
This book is doing about ten things at once, like one of those acts where someone keeps a dozen plates spinning, and not a single plate falls. Yes, it takes place during a bank heist where one of the unlucky people inside just happens to be a teenage con artist. But it's also got a queer love story and a ex's-learn-to-become-friends story that are both some of the most well-drawn and full I've seen. And on top of that it's one of the most deep and impactful considerations of trauma I've seen in a crime novel (which usually ignores trauma unless it is a motive, ew).
One of Whitehead's most readable books, a mid-century-style crime novel full of mobsters and fences and guys who do "odd jobs." A spectacular New York novel, taking care with every corner and landmark, and including the riots of 64. The clipped prose fits the pulpy subject matter, but this is still absolutely Whitehead through and through, bleak and morbidly funny and considering the big questions all at the same time.
The hook here is that many of our main characters are psychopaths, all attending college together as part of a scientific study. They appear to be normal college students and maybe they want to be normal college students or maybe they have murderous intentions. I was skeptical because crime novels are often very bad about mental illness but this book exists in the real world where 1-2% of people fit the diagnosis of psychopathy (the author has a PhD in Social Psychology). This is lots of fun, full of twists, and really gets you to care about the characters.
A cozy-ish mystery with a mix of amateur detectives and police procedural that is a real mystery-novel-lover's mystery novel. Most of the main characters are a mismatched bunch who grow more chummy and close as we follow them. And it is the rare novel that your grandma would probably enjoy while it also has a majority of queer main characters. More of this, please! (It is a standalone, so you don't have to worry about Harbinder Kaur #1.)
Ben H. Winters writes the most depressing crime novels and I love him for it. Not a legal thriller really (too slow) but a book with a lot of legal elements that are so well executed I would have thought Winters was a lawyer. And despite the slow pace, I was nearly doubled over with anxiety at the end. Set in a double timeline (personal fave) it follows medical malpractice lawyer Jay, his son Ruben, and the Keener family who Jay represents in a case in 2009 and another in 2019. There is so much to dive into with parents and children and there is so much heart here, I think Jay is one of my favorite characters I read all year.
I will be giving you the full review of this in two weeks when it comes out, so I will keep this brief except to say that Keigo Higashino writes very very very good mysteries and this is one of his best. Chef's kiss.
Because you subscribed to this newsletter I have to assume you already know Megan Abbott can do no wrong and that you've probably already read this because you know this. A bit of a switch-up from her very-real thrillers of late, this is a dreamy one, but it is as always concerned with the darkness of teenage girls, and the even darker world they are coming into. Set in the ballet studio of sisters Dara and Marie, it also shows us that even fully grown women still keep this darkness inside of them. If you always found The Nutcracker a bit squicky and if a contractor who never leaves is truly your nightmare, this book has so many pleasures for you.
The author of Mexican Gothic takes noir to 70's Mexico City during a time of deep unrest. Maite is a secretary who longs for a more romantic life like in the comics she reads. Elvis escaped a rough childhood and found his place as a gangster in the famous Hawks. Despite their different circumstances, they are two lonelyhearts filled with longing that they never show, and they will both be brought in to one big knot of trouble. A lot of people who never read gothic before got into Mexican Gothic and a lot of readers who have never tried noir are going to discover they love it.
Let's get this out of the way: it's a bad title and a bad cover. Pay no attention to them. There's been a wave of Highsmith-ian novels but this is the absolute best one I've encountered that also has a notably modern feel. It shapeshifts from one thing to another one entirely, just like our old pal Ripley. It is an insider publishing novel, a story of the great artist and their protege novel, a travel adventure, and more. I have probably already said more than I should, this is definitely a go-in-cold novel.
A delectably weird little bonbon of a book. Immediately unsettling, pulling dread from thin air, and happy to leave you with plenty of unanswered questions. At its heart this book is about that unnameable thing that makes some people the center of attention and others always outside of it, about obsession and observation. You can see a lot of similarities to the domestic thrillers that remain so popular and yet this is totally different in terms of tone and perspective and pacing.
What I've Been Reading
Release Date: Available Now
The general concept here hits you repeatedly over the course of the book. You remember all the old novels you've read, where the wealthy gather with their friends for a season at their country estate, seeking peace from troubles in the city, and you can see them superimposed on these characters, gathered in upstate New York as the pandemic throws the city into danger and chaos. Friends gather, love sparks, relationships stumble, drama ensues. It is familiar and it is somehow new in these new circumstances.
We have an unusual cast of characters. The landowner's livelihood hangs in the balance. (To remind us of where he is drawing from, Shteyngart refers to his fictional counterpart as "the landowner" more often than he calls him by his name.) And the pandemic hangs over everything. It was both too much and comfortingly familiar to see the characters' attempts to distance and protect each other, especially in their first weeks together. Covid hangs over everything the way a war would hang over one of those novels from the 1800's you read years ago.
I enjoyed the depictions of the characters, some of which are truly scathing. (The wealthiest of them, though, somehow remains mostly above reproach, which I found odd given how much class plays into the story.) There is humor everywhere despite the dark cloud. But there is also a deep distrust for everything outside their little set of bungalows, especially as the rural white people around them start hanging thin blue line flags and the sounds of gunfire in the distance increase in frequency.
By the end of the story everyone has changed. Well, mostly. There are some things Shteyngart dives right into and other things he leaves weirdly off the table. (Sasha, the aforementioned landowner and central character, is practically an absent father who takes almost no interest in his child that we see on the page, particularly noteworthy as his wife who is still working is managing all the childcare. And it just sits there without any real consideration.) There is a diversity of characters, many of them immigrants or children of immigrants, four of them of South or East Asian descent, though they are almost all relatively wealthy. (Even if the landowner has squandered most of his reputation and savings, but that sure sounds like many of those 1800's novels, doesn't it?) They have conversations about the pandemic, about their work, about race, and about class and mostly these do not feel like you are being beaten around the head by the book's themes or the time and place of the setting.
But I still felt the limitations of the book. There were so many things left unexplored. The one character who has no real assets and no prestige is given the least attention until the very end of the book. Sasha is so annoying that I wanted to shake him, even though I knew this was that excess of self-deprecation by proxy that can happen in novels where you've created a fictional stand-in of yourself so as to appear somewhat humble and self-aware, but mostly I just didn't like him at all and didn't see what the others saw in him. As much as the concept did the heavy lifting, there were still times when it felt like it was playing a bit too safe and I can't quite put my finger on why.
Release Date: May 17, 2022 (ughhh this was February when I started reading, all these changing release dates are messing with me!)
Shelves: Historical Fiction, Horror sorta
I was so excited at the idea of a gothic by Sarai Walker, who wrote the weird and wonderful novel Dietland. But this ended up being just fine, which was a real disappointment given how much I was hoping for. It's got several gothic elements--big old unusual house, possibly ghosts, the shadow of death hanging over everything, a group of sisters practically cloistered--but it never really felt haunted. It just does exactly what it says it's going to do, which I guess I shouldn't fault it for and yet I am doing it anyway.
Bookended as a flashback by artist Sylvia in her 80's, we are introduced to the life she left behind as one of the Chapel girls, six daughters born into a family who made their fortune in firearm manufacturing. In this world Chapel is as well known a name as Colt or Winchester. The six sisters are close to each other and almost seem separate from the world at large, in their big Victorian house. And we know right off what is going to happen thanks to a rhyme the locals invent: the Chapel sisters, first they get married and then they get buried. And, indeed, we then proceed to watch 5 of the 6 sisters (minus our narrator, of course) die.
The buildup to the first death, of oldest sister Aster, is slowly built up and works quite well. As does the second, of second sister Rosalind, where no one believes the same thing would ever happen again. But after those two it stalls. Because you wonder, how can we keep repeating this? Are we just going to keep doing this same thing. And with some variations, yes we are. And why? Well, that's not really clear.
This is where it lost me. There is so much that Walker piles on these sisters--a legacy of ancestral women who all died in childbirth, their own mother who was virtually forced into marriage and who never recovered from the trauma of it, their father's wealth made from guns and death, patriarchy and how marriage is women's only option while also robbing them of identity--that it feels rather muddled. And it's never clear why any of this happens, and that it happens so many times (including, to my chagrin, to one sister who's a lesbian and never even gets married!) I just couldn't figure out what the purpose was beyond saying that women in 1950 didn't have it so good. Which, I mean, yes. I needed it to take me somewhere, I needed it to open something up, and instead it felt like many things I'd read before.
I kept reading, waiting for it to turn, waiting for it to shift into something more, but it never did. To be fair, I never cared much for The Virgin Suicides, which this definitely reminded me of, though it also lacked the tone and perspective that at least made that one noteworthy if not enjoyable for me.