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Scattered Thoughts on the Novels I Have Been Reading Lately

By Dustin Rowles | Books | June 6, 2018 |

By Dustin Rowles | Books | June 6, 2018 |


I know there are a ton of readers out there in Pajiba-land, and although the traffic doesn’t support frequent discussions of books here, several folks suggested they’d nevertheless like to see more of it last week when I reviewed the latest Stephen King novel, The Outsider. I don’t know how suitable I am to the task, however, because while I do read a lot of new books, I don’t as often read the “important” or “buzzed about” books. My book selections tend to be made on a whim, and often based on book recommendations from random Goodreads friends or online advertisement, for which I am a sucker. I also don’t read a ton of genre, and I know that a lot of our readers here do. Sorry!

But here’s a look at what I’ve been reading, of late (which is mostly an invitation to our readers to talk about what they’re reading):

I just finished The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, and it is fine, but not as good — or as Gillian Flynn-like — as some of her previous efforts. It’s about a young woman in desperate financial straits who receives a letter telling her that she will receive a portion of a dead woman’s estate, although she believes that she is not the intended recipient. She decides, however, to pretend to be the intended recipient and see if she can leave with a few thousand dollars and escape her debt. Things get complicated, however, when she finds out that almost the entire estate will be left to her, and also when she also develops an affection for the family passed over in the will. It’s good, although it drags on a bit, gets very repetitive, and none of the murder-y bits arrive until the third act, but it’s a mostly satisfying read and necessary for Ruth Ware completists.

The best book I’ve read this year — and probably since last year’s The Hate U Give — is Fredrik Backman’s Beartown. It’s about a small hockey town that is destroyed by a sexual assault, and it’s probably the closest thing I’ve ever read to the Friday Night Lights TV series (and that includes the Buzz Bissinger book upon which the show is based). It’s a small-scale book — like Backman’s A Man Called Ove — with an immense amount of heart. I’m currently in the midst of the follow-up (Us Against Them), and it’s basically season four of Friday Night Lights. The only thing I want to be doing is reading that book. Backman — who is like a Swedish Richard Russo — has quickly become one of my very favorite authors, and anyone who loves FNL or Russo or even hockey should check out this series (and I say that as someone who has little interest in hockey).

The two best murder books I’ve read this year are probably Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing and Lou Berney’s The Long and Faraway Gone. The latter is more of a traditional private dick novel, but Berney’s got a very nice Dennis Lehane thing going. Meanwhile, Peter Swanson’s novel is more of the femme fatale variety. I consumed both very quickly.

Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen’s The Wife Between Us kept showing up everywhere — on Goodreads, Facebook, bestseller lists, and I believe even in ads for me on Pajiba — and I finally relented and read it. It was disappointing, in large part because I thought it was a murder book, but it’s more of a gaslighting mystery. It’s good for what it is — a psychological mystery about a woman and her abusive ex-husband — but I had really hoped it would be a book about a woman who killed her abusive ex-husband and got away with it.

I read Liane Moriarty’s Truly Madly Guilty because she wrote Big Little Lies and I was hoping for something similar (I believe that Reese Witherspoon has also optioned this book). It’s agony. It’s really long, really boring, and really repetitive, although it might make for a decent movie or short television series if it is streamlined, but it’s probably my least favorite book of the year (discounting a reread of The Alienist, which I found as insufferably dull this time around as I did when it originally came out).

I’ve read two Celeste Ng books, Little Fires Everywhere and Everything I Never Told You, and both are very good, but Little Fires is modestly better. They’re both exquisitely written, fantastic character studies, and both about families set in Ohio. I’m really looking forward to Reese Witherspoon’s TV adaptation of Little Fires (I’ll also admit that I’ve been reading a lot of books being adapted by Witherspoon. She’s like my Oprah, I guess).

C.J. Tudor’s The Chalk Man was clearly being pushed a lot earlier this year, because those ads found me, too, and wouldn’t leave me alone. It’s a serial killer novel, but I gotta say: Most serial-killer novels written by men bore me silly these days. It’s just the same shit rearranged differently.

I read Patton Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend: Learning about Life from an Addiction to Film, which was a quick fun read, and his late wife’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, which was not. I read it before the Golden State Killer had been apprehended, and I think I would’ve liked it more if I’d known the ending.

I finally got around to reading Noah Hawley’s novel, Before the Fall, and it is as great as I expected, though a more conventional book than I might expect from the guy behind Legion. I didn’t really care that much for George Saunders’ Lincoln in the Bardo despite all the awards that have been showered upon it. I read Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation ahead of the movie, but didn’t find it that compelling. I read David Benioff’s City of Thieves but didn’t realize until halfway through that I’d read it before, years ago. It’s still great. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s The Nest was a mostly amusing family drama, kind of in the vein of Crazy Rich Asians, though better edited.

Jennifer Nivens’ All the Bright Places was compared to Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor and Park, which I loved, but it failed by a long mile to live up to that comparison.

Finally, I’ll just say that one of my other favorite books this year was Abby Fabiaschi’s I Liked My Life, a wonderful, heartfelt, heartbreaking novel about a mother who died by suicide but is trying, from the afterlife, to help her broken family move on. It’s a bit like Lovely Bones without the murder. I drank a lot of wine while reading it.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention here that tomorrow and Friday, Cannonball Read will be holding a book discussion over Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Do stop by.

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Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.