This book was a revelation! Originally published in 1970, Daddy Was a Number Runner by Louise Meriwether is a book I should have read long ago but I wasn’t aware it existed. This book has many parallels with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith, which has been one of my favorites since I was a kid. They both follow young girls named Francie growing up in NYC, but instead of a young white girl in Brooklyn in the 1910s/20s, Number Runner focuses on a young Black girl in Harlem in the 1930s. Francie faces challenges like poverty and family stress while navigating the particulars of her Harlem neighborhood and the racial oppression of the 1930s. It’s definitely a classic that should be read more widely, and one I know I will revisit again.
Favorite backlist reads of 2020
I read mostly brand new books, which is an occupational hazard of constantly reading pre-pub reviews for my job and seeing all the new books when they come in to the library. I do sometimes make time for classics and older books, and probably should try to do so more often because two of them were among my favorite reads this past year.
The Tall Woman by Wilma Dykeman probably isn’t technically a “backlist” book because I think it is out of print, which is ridiculous because I should be a well-known classic. I had never heard of it before I saw an essay about it on CrimeReads earlier this year. It was published in 1962, and is the story of Lydia McQueen, a resilient woman striving to take care of her family in post-Civil War Appalachia amid personal hardships and the tensions of the Reconstruction era. I loved following this deeply developed character over a lifetime, and all of the details of the challenges women of this particular time and place faced in just keeping themselves and their families alive. (If you are looking to read this one, interlibrary loan is probably your friend, as I could not find it at any local libraries here.)
Most everyone is already familiar with Lonesome Dove, and I have had a copy of it sitting around in my house for awhile. I kept putting off reading it because it is LONG (the paperback copy I read was almost 1000 pages, and I alternated with the audiobook which is about 37 hours). I’m glad I finally made time for it because it is a deeply enjoyable story with some unforgettable characters (I particularly enjoyed the parts that focuses on Clara, and it is hard not to fall a little in love with Gus). Be prepared, though… McMurtry is an incredibly wordy dude. It takes something like 200 pages before they even set out on the cattle drive, and he is forever adding additional characters and switching to their point of view. But, if you happen to need a distraction from the current state of the world, the troubles of a band of charming and difficult men on a rather misbegotten cattle drive might be just what you need!
2020 Fiction Favorites
There were so many novels that I loved this year. Apparently I was in the mood for fiction, who can blame me? Here are some of my favorites that were published in 2020:
Series entry honorable mentions:
Still Life (Karen Pirie # 6) by Val McDermid
Once You Go This Far (Roxane Weary #4) by Kristin Lepionka
Network Effect (Murderbot Diaries #5) by Martha Wells
2020 Nonfiction Favorites
What is there to be said about this year that we haven’t already said a million times? Like many people this year, I had a brief time early in the pandemic where I had trouble focusing enough to read as much as usual. Thankfully it didn’t last long, because a bunch of great books came out this year so there was always something new to read.
Here are some of my favorite nonfiction books I read this year:
Mudlark: In Search of London’s Past Along the River Thames by Lara Maiklem: This book is so lovely and fascinating and I recommend it to almost anyone. There are just so many nuggets of British history, all told through items that the author has found while mudlarking on the banks of the River Thames.
Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss by Margaret Renkl: This was one of the first books I read in 2020, way back in early January, but it has stayed with me. It’s a really moving blend of nature writing and memoir, and definitely made me cry more than once.
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo: This was my favorite book about race that I read this year, in a year when the racial divisions in this country were thrown into heartbreakingly stark relief. Ijeoma Oluo is particularly adept at explaining potentially fraught topics in frank and straightforward language that gets to the heart of thorny racial issues. Not gonna lie, I wish I could assign this one as required reading for a lot of people that I know!
Nobody Will Tell You This But Me by Bess Kalb: This memoir, told in the voice of the author’s grandmother, is incredibly charming and very funny. It really made me miss my grandma!
Favorites 2019: Romance!
I loved this book so much! It is seriously sweet and romantic and delightful. It’s also a nice alternate universe political fantasy, in case you are need of one of those these days (and who isn’t?!). In fact, maybe I should reread it right about now…
Evvie Drake Starts Over by Linda Holmes
The Bookish Life of Nina Hill by Abbi Waxman
Favorites 2019: Nonfiction!
I read quite a bit of nonfiction this year, and apparently my favorites were all quite depressing. Choose from historically depressing (The Five, which vividly details how absolutely horrid life could be for women in the Victorian age); environmentally/existentially depressing (Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore); or depressing looks into pressing current issues (immigration in The Death and Life of Aida Hernandez and violence against women in No Visible Bruises). The only selection here that I would not describe as depressing is She Said, which does illustrate some atrocious behavior but is a really great and empowering journalism story and shows how exposing sexual abuse and harassment can eventually at least begin to hold perpetrators accountable. Even though they may not exactly brighten your day, all of these titles are illuminating and powerful and I highly recommend them!
Favorites 2019: Memoirs!
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado: Wow, this book! In short snippets, the author vividly illustrates her experience of being in an abusive relationship with a woman, while also reflecting on the lack of societal understanding of abusive lesbian relationships. It is an extremely visceral read, especially if you have experience with any sort of emotional manipulation, abuse, or gaslighting in a relationship (so be forewarned!). Very innovative and emotionally powerful.
Know by Name by Chanel Miller: I think everyone should read this book, especially anyone out there who has ever wondered why someone would not report a sexual assault. You are probably already familiar with Chanel Miller, although not by name, from her devastating victim impact statement that went viral during the trial of the man who assaulted her at Stanford University. Here she reclaims her story and describes the nightmare of navigating the criminal justice system as an assault victim, and the lengths that our society goes to to try to defend sexual predators.
Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls by T Kira Madden
The Yellow House by Sarah M. Broom
Favorites 2019: Fiction!
Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk: I found this one to be completely mesmerizing! I loved getting sucked in to Janina’s remote Polish village and her strangely off-kilter voice. If I had to pick only one fiction favorite of the year this would be it. I hope more works by Tokarczuk are translated into English now that she has won literary awards for both this one and Flights (which I’m reading right now).
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: This autobiographical novel by Vuong, an acclaimed poet, is told in the form of a letter from a young man, known as Little Dog, to his illiterate Vietnamese-American mother. Try this if you are in the mood for beautiful and emotionally powerful writing about growing up and complicated family ties.
Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips: This novel, set in the remote Kamchatka peninsula in Russia, has a mystery involving two missing young sisters at the center but is really more of a character study of the lives of various women who are connected to the disappearance in different ways. The unique setting and the daily lives of the characters added extra interest to the suspenseful plot.
Olive, Again by Elizabeth Strout: Strout excels at turning ordinary moments of ordinary lives into meaningful and surprisingly moving stories, and crotchety, complicated Olive Kitteridge is perhaps her best character to date. I loved catching up with her in Olive, Again. It made me realize how few fiction writers depict the lives of elderly characters with any real depth, which is something I found particularly moving in this one.
Favorite books of 2018
2018 was a pretty shit year for most things, huh? At least there were good books to distract us. I read 272 books this year, which is the most since I began logging my reading in Goodreads several years ago (and definitely makes it sound like I need some new hobbies). Here are some of my favorites:
The Murderbot Diaries novellas by Martha Wells (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Exit Strategy, Rogue Protocol): I just really loved these. Super fun, quick-paced science fiction with a tortured, snarky hero. I’m really looking forward to the full-length Murderbot novel the author is working on now.
The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai: A touching and often quite sad novel of friendship that alternates between a group of friends in 1985 Chicago amidst the AIDS crisis and 30 years later, as one of them tracks down her estranged daughter in Paris.
Into the Drowning Deep by Mira Grant: Killer mermaids! Awesome diverse scientist characters! What’s not to love?
Broken Ground by Val McDermid: The fifth entry in the Karen Pirie series, and my favorite one to date. It centers on DCI Pirie, the head of a Historic Crimes Unit in Scotland. I love the mix of cold case investigation procedural, tough female detective, great character development, and atmospheric setting. I definitely recommend these if you are into any of those things.
The Trespasser by Tana French: The newest entry in the wonderful Dublin Murder Squad series, and my favorite so far. Each book in this series features a different detective as the main character, and this one is Detective Antoinette Conway, a bitchy badass with a chip on her shoulder. I love her.
Stray City by Chelsey Johnson: This novel centers on Andrea, a young woman who escapes her conservative Midwestern family for the insular lesbian community of 1990s Portland. When she finds herself pregnant after a short affair with a man, it upends her new found community. I found it to be charming and sweet, and I loved the 1990s setting.
Royal City by Jeff Lemire: As I’ve mentioned before, I am a sucker for sibling stories. And I’m a big fan of Jeff Lemire’s work, so I loved this series about a family coming to terms with past tragedy.
Hey, Kiddo by Jarrett Krosoczka: This memoir tells the author’s story of growing up as the son of an addicted mother. A beautifully done tearjerker.
The Library Book by Susan Orlean: I loved everything about this one. Lots of wonderfully eccentric characters from the world of libraries and Los Angeles history. I knew nothing about the story of the library fire going in, so it was all fascinating.
Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon: The best memoir I read this year. A powerful heart-punch of a book about the author’s childhood and his relationship with the abusive mother he idolizes.
Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st Century by Jessica Bruder: A compelling and really rather depressing look at the way our society is totally failing older adults (and really, let’s face it, most people). It follows several people who lost out in the 2008 economic downturn who are struggling to afford the basics (shelter, health care, food) with little to no security.
Educated by Tara Westover: This one has already gotten a ton of attention, so I don’t really have much to add, except for that it was really hard to read her descriptions of physical abuse and medical neglect. Infuriating.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara: Another one that has already been written about everywhere. Super compelling, well-written true crime. Also, it scared the bejesus out of me!
Adventures in (Fictional) Crime
Recently I set out on a quest to find crime novels that would fit my persnickety tastes, sparked by finishing the most recent entry in Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, The Trespasser. I have enjoyed most entries in this series, all of which feature rich character development, setting, and atmosphere. The Trespasser was my favorite by far due to the main character, Detective Antoinette Conway. If you are not familiar with this series, each book focuses on a different lead detective, although they may also end up playing smaller roles in other entries. I loved Antoinette Conway, a bristly yet sympathetic character with huge chips on her shoulders, one from being a woman in a male-dominated, sexist department and one from growing up working class in Dublin. After finishing the book, I wanted more stories like this right away but didn’t know where to start. I don’t read many series, and the only other mystery series I have read all the way through is Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels.
So I went looking for recommendations, both on various book sites and from friends on Facebook. Here were my guidelines:
- A woman main character preferred, but not required, but must have at least one female character that is not a corpse (or soon to be corpse).
- Adequate character development.
- No cozies allowed.
- Nothing too gruesome or anything with overly-detailed violence against women. I don’t want to spend a bunch of time in the mind of a sicko misogynistic killer stalking women with a bone saw (which was exactly why I quickly gave up on the one C.J. Box book I tried to read).
- I want investigation of the crime to be a large component, so police procedural stories rather than psychological thrillers are best.
- Present day or at least post-1950 time period preferred. I have liked some historical mysteries, particularly Amy Stewart’s Miss Kopp books, but they aren’t my favorites.
- Realistic crimes, no paranormal nonsense please. I like fantasy and horror but it isn’t what I am looking for here.
I got quite a few recommendations from reader friends, so I started with those. Here they are ranked in how much I enjoyed them and how they fit what I was looking for.
A Distant Echo by Val McDermid: This was the book that was closest in style to the Tana French books I loved. It was very atmospheric, good character development, intriguing crime and investigation. However, it is billed as the first of the Karen Pirie series, and she barely makes an appearance until the end, so I didn’t get a feel for her character. I will have to read the second book in the series (A Darker Domain) to get a better feel for the series. (Bonus: I learned Scottish term that perfectly describes this gloomy spring weather we are having, “dreich”.)
Garnethill by Denise Mina: This one was very dark but definitely intriguing. It is not a police procedural as such, but involves an amateur sleuth who sets out to solve her boyfriend’s murder after she and her brother both find themselves under suspicion. I enjoyed the feminist revenge aspect of this one, and will definitely read the second in the series.
Indemnity Only and Dead Lock by Sara Paretsky: These are the first two V. I. Warshawski books, and I enjoyed them. I find, however, that I just don’t enjoy private investigator books as much as do ones that involve police investigations. I did enjoy the gritty early 80’s Chicago settings, and all the tough female friends that are always ready to help Vic out. It gets pretty unbelievable at times, with Vic putting herself in ridiculously risky situations that you know she’ll get out of, but it’s fun. I’ll read more when I want a quick, fun read.
The Cold Cold Ground by Adrian McKinty: This is the first in the Detective Sean Duffy series, set in 1980s Belfast. I found the setting and the main character pretty compelling, but the mystery was just okay. I may give the second one a try someday, but it’s not high on my list.
A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton: This one was fine, but it’s another private investigator series, and I did not find it to be as compelling as V.I. Warshawski. I did like that is was more realistic, but there just wasn’t enough there to make it memorable. I doubt I will continue with this series.
Devil in a Blue Dress by Walter Mosley: He’s popular so I thought I’d give this a try, the first in the Easy Rawlins series. I enjoyed the time period and the setting, but in general I found it rather sexist and a little gross. I doubt I’d read another by him.
If you know of any other authors or series I might like, please let me know! I haven’t sought out many mystery series before, so I know there is a bunch of good stuff I have probably missed.