Books I have read lately (May 2019)

Continued from here. Hopefully I’ll finish writing this before the subsequent month is over.

Highly recommended

Bridget Collins, The Binding. A young man discovers his calling to the trade of bookbinder, in a world in which books are used as tools to purge oneself of memories one can’t cope with. Recommended on my local library’s webpage. This is the most compelling fantasy book I’ve read in years.

Rachel Ingalls, Binstead’s Safari. A woman in an unhappy marriage (and her husband) rediscover their relationship while pursuing his research on safari in Africa, with shocking results. Very reminiscent of the surreal elements of Angela Carter, and I loved both the female main character and the way the book ended. A reprint, picked up after reading this retrospective of Ingalls’ work on Lithub (she died this spring).


Katharine Duckett, Miranda in Milan. Recommended on Bookmarks. What happens to Miranda after she and her father return to civilization. The Tempest is my favorite Shakespeare play but I had never considered this question. A very non-traditional answer to the question, but in many ways a satisfying response to the multiple troubling aspects of the play. (No, I didn’t listen to it — I read it as a conventional paperback.)

Dani Shapiro, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity and Love. Picked up because I loved her early novels and I heard an interview on NPR. The author, who casually took a commercial DNA test, learns that her father was not Paul Shapiro, but rather a medical student who worked in a lab operated by a fertility doctor consulted by her parents. The revelation causes her to re-evaluate everything she knows about herself in relationship to her family. If a disaster like this has to happen to anyone (and cases of fertility doctors who impregnated their own patients seem to be emerging daily at the moment), it sure happened to an insightful writer.

Recommended – genre fiction

Rachel Caine, Stillhouse Lake. Picked up because Herba enjoys the series. A Midwestern woman whose ex-husband was a brutal serial killer struggles to reorient her and her children’s lives, but can’t quite escape the past. I think readers will immediately recognize this as a book written by a Texan (the protagonist didn’t seem much like a midwesterner to me), but that’s not necessarily a flaw. The male-heavy narrative can get a bit tiring at times, but it’s a suspenseful page-turner on the level of Dan Brown, and there are two more of them to read.

Zhao Haohui, Death Notice (originally published as 死亡通知单 in 2014). Recommended on Crimereads. A killer who takes the pseudonym of Eumenides goes on a revenge spree in Chengdu, Sichuan (China), and it turns out the members of the commission formed to locate him are not entirely free of connections to a disturbing related cold case. This is the first of a trilogy that’s supposed to be tremendously popular in China, but the only one currently available in English. It took me a bit to get used to the naming conventions, but I thought the narrative was lean and suspenseful. I would read sequels if they appear in a language I can read.

G.M. Malliet, A Fatal Winter. Second in a series I started reading last year. Vicar Maxen Tudor must solve a murder that takes place in a stately home near his parish before the murderer gets to close to him. Fun English cozy with the ongoing twists that Tudor is a former MI-5 man, and seems to be falling in love with a pagan woman. Nothing earth-shattering, and it does have that tedious final chapter where the plot is re-explained for the reader’s benefit, but given the skill with which the clues in this were laid (and the fact that I was tricked while reading it), I’ll be reading more of them, if only to sharpen my observational skills.

Abir Mukherjee, Smoke and Ashes. Picked up because I enjoyed the previous two, but this is the best one yet. Herba approves, too (she put me onto them). Main character Sam Wyndham must solve a series of murders, against the background of his own discovery of the first murder while exiting an opium den, the WWI past, and the developing Indian independence movement. His faithful sidekick Surendranath is torn between his loyalty to the job (where he is treated with a typically imperialist tonedeafness) and his family’s support for the movement and the figures who appear in this installment (Chittaranjan Das is one of them). Much better plotting than the second one, and the conclusion implies that the fourth novel, which has already been announced, will have an intriguing beginning.

Recommended if something about it interests you

Matthew Levin, Cold War University: Madison and the New Left in the Sixties. I think I heard an interview on Wisconsin Public Radio about this book. A decent overview of left activism in the decade before the bombing. However, beyond interviews with a few early activists whose work I was unaware of, I didn’t find much material new to me. This read like a dissertation that went nowhere. It happens.

Michele Filgate, ed. What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About: Fifteen Writers Break the Silence. A number of essays about the writers’ relationships with their mothers. This came out around Mother’s Day and was a productive antidote to the hype. As with any collection, some essays are more interesting or successful than others.

Casey Cep, Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee. Harper Lee apparently made one last attempt to write a book in the 1980s; her prospective subject was W. M. Maxwell, an insurance fraudster and repeatedly acquitted murderer who was eventually himself murdered by a relative. This book is more about Maxwell — Lee isn’t really discussed until over halfway through, and very little accessible material survives about her interest in Maxwell’s exploits and murder. The author doesn’t really pursue an argument, either about Maxwell or about Lee, or unearth any new information. The book was overhyped — but may be interesting to Lee’s fans or people fascinated by early insurance fraud.

Osha Gray Davidson, The Best of Enemies: Race and Redemption in the New South. A history of the decision to integrate the Durham, NC public schools in the 1970s. Picked up after I saw the (disappointing) film with with Taraji P. Henson. Not only is the film yet another white savior narrative about U.S. race relations, it turns out that most of the story as told in the film is a fabrication. This book is a solid history that tells the real story, but probably primarily of interest to specialist readers.

Meh / not recommended

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, The Shape of the Ruins (originally published as La Forma de las ruinas, 2015) . The arrest of a man trying to steal a relic from a political murder turns into an examination of conspiracy theories and the crumbling of politics in Colombia. Multiply recommended, but after several tries, I couldn’t get into it.

D. J. Palmer, Saving Meghan. Don’t remember where I learned about this one. A young woman is suffering from a mysterious illness — or is it simply her mother’s Munchausen by proxy? Unfortunately the unsubtle beginning of the novel gives away who didn’t do it and the solution is obvious by about forty pages in. Flipped to the end to confirm my solution and returned to the library forthwith.

August Norman: Come and Get Me: A Caitlin Bergman Novel. Possibly recommended on Crimereads. A successful investigative reporter returns to her alma mater to receive an honorary degree, come to terms with her own history in the town (where she was raped as an undergraduate), and solve the mystery of a missing student. I really wish men would stop writing like they understood anything about female sexuality. It’s a pet peeve of mine at the moment.

Madeline Miller, Circe. A retelling of the life of the mythical nymph. Picked up because NBK loved it, but it did not hold my attention.

Samantha Harvey, The Western Wind. A cleric in an English village in 1491 tries to solve a suspicious death in his hamlet. This is a novel with aspirations a la Geraldine Brooks or Hilary Mantel, but the third historical error in the first half of the book caused me to return it to the library. The thing that’s really annoying — pre-Reformation English churches would not have had confessionals. The explanation of why it’s in the church is just. plain. lame.

~ by Servetus on June 26, 2019.

15 Responses to “Books I have read lately (May 2019)”

  1. Haohui has another English book. Valley of Terrors. Maybe Kindle only.


  2. Glad you enjoyed ‘Smoke and Ashes’ like I did. Can’t wait to read the next in the series!


  3. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy Circe. Feeling kind of guilty, but I really loved it more than any other book I read in the previous 1.5 years.


  4. “The Binding” sounds really good. Just bought the ebook through Bonus was that it was on for $2.99! (Mind you, as I searched for the title, Amazon seemed to think that I might really be searching for “Binding His Virgin”!)

    Thanks for continuing to do your “Books I have read” posts.


  5. I loved both Circe and The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller 😊


  6. […] I read since the last installment. This month’s headlines: I’m increasingly uninterested in much of what the literary […]


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