Reading List 2023


How Big Things Get Done by Bent Flyvbjerg and Dan Gardner, Currency 2023
might have been titled “get done so badly”; eye-opening analysis of those mega-projects that seem always to be over-budget and over-schedule

Life and Death of Harriett Frean by May Sinclair, (c1922) Penguin Books/ViragoPress 1980
well crafted psychological novel prompted good discussion (book group)

I Will Have Vengeance: The Winter Of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurizio De Giovanni, translated from the Italian by Anne Milano Appel; (c2007) Europa ed 2012
it’s 1931 in Naples, the first story of the Commissario set at the opera; distinctive delightful noir

Making the Cut by Jim Lusby, Orion 1995
Irish mystery, well-drawn characters and an entertainingly twisty story

Like A Sword Wound by Ahmet Altan, translatd from the Turkish by Brendan Freely and Yelda Turedi; (c1997) Europa 2018
marvelous language, an engrossing many-layered story of the last days of the Ottoman empire; first in the Ottoman Quartet

The April Dead by Alan Parks, Europa 2021
one of Europa’s World Noir imprint; Parks is an intelligent and skillful writer but his ’70s Glasgow is a very very dark place


The Engagement by Simenon, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis; (c1933) NYRB 2007
early non-Maigret novel; unsettling, pitiless and cold even for a noir

American Midnight: The Great War, A Violent Peace, and Democracy’s Forgotten Crisis by Adam Hochschild, Mariner Books 2022
author is a notable writer of popular histories; examines the social hysteria, paranoia, and cruelties triggered and given license with America’s entry into WWI

Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders At America’s Edge by Ted Connover, Knopf 2023
life on the rural margins if not quite off-grid, a close look at the San Luis valley in south central Colorado (includes Great Sand Dune NP)

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey, Soho 2018
ambitious effort to portray the social and cultural complexities of 1920’s India in a mystery story

Fragile Cargo: The World War II Race to Save the Treasures of China’s Forbidden City by Adam Brookes, Atria Books 2022
fascinating and well-told story of the extraordinary efforts made by the museum’s staff to protect the many fragile precious pieces of the collection

Age of Vice by Deepti Kapoor, Riverhead Books 2023
sprawling gaudy story of crime and wealth in contemporary India

The Rabbit Factor by Antti Tuomainen, translated from the Finnish by David Hackston; Orenda Books 2021
a unique voice in Nordic noir crime fiction; a warm, hilarious, absurdist thriller

Blood Curse: The Springtime of Commissario Ricciardi by Maurizio De Giovanni, translated from the Italian by Antony Shugaar; (c2008) Europa 2018
Naples, 1931 mystery story; beautifully written, wonderfully atmospheric

The Greatest Slump Of All Time by David Carkeet, Harper and Row 1984
an exceptional, insightful comic novel of depression; players on a baseball team struggle with personal “slumps” as the team is mysteriously successful


Tokyo Zodiac Murders by SHIMADA Soji, translated from the Japanese by Ross and Shika Mackenzie; (c1981) Pushkin Vertigo ed 2015
complex puzzle story

Killshot by Elmore Leonard, William Morrow 1989
tremendously entertaining, great dialogue leavens the tension

52 Pick-up by Elmore Leonard, Secker and Warburg 1974
first of his crime novels; a blazing fast read because I couldn’t put it down

The Boat of Longing by O.E. Rolvaag, translated from the Norwegian by Nora O. Solum; (c1933) Minnesota Historical Press 1985
a moving story of immigration, its hopes and costs; lovely, lyrical language in the descriptions of the sea and life in Norwegian fishing village (book group)

Picture in the Sand by Peter Blauner, Minotaur Books 2023
pure storytelling pleasure; a young Egyptian man caught up in the political turmoil of post-British Egypt in the 1950’s while working on the deMille production of The Ten Commandments

Nights of Plague by Orhan Pamuk, translated from the Turkish by Ekin Oklap; Knopf 2022
a tremendous novel, expansive in themes and engrossing in character and story; bubonic plague strikes a small island in the waning days of the Ottoman empire

Crashed by Timothy Hallinan, Soho Press 2012
a Hollywood comic crime novel with sharp writing and great characters; if you like this kind of thing, which I do, it’s a delight – I rationed the pages to savor the dialogue

In The Morning I’ll Be Gone by Adrian McKinty, Seventh Street Books 2014
1980’s Belfast, police detective solves a classic locked room mystery to catch an IRA bomber

Counting Sheep, A Celebration of the Pastoral Heritage of Britain by Philip Walling; Profile Books 2014
a remarkably interesting and enjoyable guide to all things sheep in the UK, historically and today; really a delightful book, especially for anyone who has enjoyed the sight of “woolies” dotting the hills and countryside of Britain

China After Mao, The Rise of a Superpower by Frank Dikotter; Bloomsbury 2022
a superbly readable account, dense with economic and historical detail and enlivened with anecdotes and personalities; the consistent repression and economic mismanagement described should finish the foolish expectations of democratic change; the chapter on the Tiananmen Square massacre is masterful and devastating

Iced In Paradise by Naomi Hirahara, Prospect Park Books 2019
another enjoyable, well written story from Hirahara; the mystery has a nice twist but the chief pleasure is in the picture of life on one of the smaller Hawaiian islands

Three Roads Back: How Emerson, Thoreau, and William James Responded To The Greatest Losses Of Their Lives by Robert D. Richardson; Princeton Univ. Press 2023
a slim, thoughtful reflection on the impact grief had on the thought and lives of the three men and how their resilience can be models for each of us


Idol, Burning by USAMI Rin, translated from the Japanese by YONEDA Asa; (c2020) Harpervia 2022
sympathetic portrayal of a teenage girl and her obsession with a J-pop idol; winner of Akutagawa Prize

Billie Starr’s Book of Sorries by Deborah E. Kennedy, Flatiron Books 2022
2nd grader Billie collects the “Sorry” excuses and explanations she hears from adults

Second-Class Citizen by Buchi Emecheta, George Braziller 1975
strongly autobiographical novel of a woman determined to be educated and independent; propulsive narrative takes Adah from childhood in Nigeria to the London slums as a young mother

A Death in Tokyo by HIGASHINO Keigo, translated by Giles Murray; (c2011) Minotaur Books 2022
a classic procedural with Detective Kaga; psychological insight, deeply moral

Evil Things by Katja Ivar, Bitter Lemon Press 2019
solid mystery story set in early 1950’s Finland, introduces an interestingly complex female detective who solves a tricky case in Lapland

Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo, Tom Doherty Books 2022
modest novella about the value and importance of stories, personally and culturally; set in an appealing China-ish fantasy world

Gravel Heart by Abdulrazak Gurnah, Bloomsbury 2017
deceptively powerful novel; a story of lives disrupted in the post-colonial turmoil of 1970’s Zanzibar told in such measured subtle prose that I was immersed before I noticed my feet were wet

O Caledonia by Elspeth Barker, (c1991) Scribner 2021
a very witty, very odd novel, a bit unsettling but wonderfully entertaining for the language and dark comedy (book group)


Murder After Christmas by Rupert Latimer, (c1944) Poisoned Pen Press 2021
a delightful entertainment, like the classic elements of a Golden Age mystery exuberantly exploding from a Christmas Cracker

The Heretic by Liam McIlvanney, Europa 2022
intricate procedural in darkest Glasgow

Gaia, Queen of Ants by Hamid Ismailov, translated from the Uzbek by Shelley Fairweather-Vega; Syracuse Univ. Press ed. 2020
the stories of intriguing empathetic characters, all shaped by the political turmoil of their homelands, are intertwined with myths and folktales of Central Asia; lots of food for discussion in Book Group

Double Wide by Leo W. Banks, Brash Books 2017
I’m calling this very entertaining western mystery/thriller ‘noir light’ – lots of tough and snappy dialogue, characters on the fringe of Southwest society, but the exbaseball player protagonist is just too likeable for Noir (that’s a good thing)

The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by R. Costigan-Humes and I. Stackhouse Wheeler (c2017) Yale University Press 2021
an intense, gripping story of war at the Ukrainian-Russian border as a trip across town to reach the orphanage becomes a three day nightmarish journey; brilliantly conveys the confusion of identity and loyalty in the community, the confusion and uncertainty of the military action, and the misery and suffering of everyone

The Marshal at the Villa Torrini by Magdalen Naab, (c1993) Soho Press 2009
one of an excellent series of mysteries set in Florence; beautifully written with a very appealing and singular detective character

The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman, Viking 2022
the Thursday Murder Club solves a cold case in this third book of the improbably entertaining, witty, and warmhearted series

The Slowworm’s Song by Andrew Miller, Europa 2022
subtle, exquisite prose; a story of finding a way out of the trauma and guilt from a tragic mistake, the possibilities of healing and reconciliation

Highway Rest Areas Bucket List?

10 Interstate Rest Areas to see before you die? Doesn’t seem a likely list but, if it exists, I will nominate this one on I80 westbound near Tiffin IA (near the University of Iowa and its writers program).

I walked all around the building to enjoy the frieze of book spines like a super long library shelf and the sturdy book stack pillars at the corners. The celebration of Iowa’s literary culture, both serious and playful, gave new energy to a tired traveler!

The eastbound rest area is said to be even more fun and elaborate in its displays. If only I’d known I would have made the equivalent of a highway “around the block” to see it!

looking for books in the old Habsburg empire, a tale of three cities: pt 3 Prague

Prague is the fifth most visited city in Europe. Millions of travelers are attracted to this remarkably beautiful city by its art, architecture, history, and, it must be said, the amazingly cheap beer. It’s good beer, too, so the price is all the more surprising to the American craft beer drinker used to a ten dollar pint. This is the only place I’ve ever been where the beer in a restaurant costs less than the tap water.

But even with the thousands of holiday revelers filling the narrow streets of Old Town it’s possible to find a quiet pocket and an uncrowded museum. The Postal Museum, for example, where we were (by the guest book) the third visitors in a month. “Yes, yes, we’ve come to see your museum,” we assured the startled security guard. He flitted upstairs and fetched equally startled but welcoming staff who unlocked the cash box and took our admission fee.

Postage stamps carry a lot of political and cultural history between their tiny perforated borders. The Czechs are rightfully proud of their authors and literature so it’s no surprise to see them represented on stamps.

We’ve come to our last day in Prague and the end of our trip. We’ve honored the pledge to buy no books more in the spirit than the letter, but, still, I can lift our suitcases. We decide to reward ourselves and ask the hotel concierge for the best bookstore in Prague. With no hesitation she directs us to Luxor bookstore on Wenceslas Square. A little map study told us it would be a longish walk but doable. A few wrong turns turned it into a very long walk. On the bright side, we saw more of the city and enjoyed a really excellent pastry and coffee just when we needed reviving. And we did reach the Square and had a very pleasurable browse through the large selection of history books. Tired legs are forgotten when you find something special!

looking for books in the old Habsburg empire, a tale of three cities: pt 2 Vienna

Vienna at Christmas time is purely wonderful. All the constant pleasures of the city – the coffee houses and cafes, the museums, the arts and music performances, the shops – are magnified by the seasonal festivity. Huge displays of lights, decorations, and Christmas markets seemingly around every corner make it a delight to stroll the streets.

We did pop in to a couple of bookstores as we passed by, just to enjoy the sight and smell of books, but didn’t go looking for them. For new ones, anyway. The Tyrolia bookshop behind St. Stephan’s Cathedral is an old favorite. Not a big store but it always has something to add to my husband’s library.

Books have a way of finding me, though, or perhaps, being a bookish person, I just notice them more. I was casually viewing the Lower Belvedere’s collection of medieval art when I noticed a book in a saint’s hand. Then another, writing in a book, and another in his study with untidy bookshelves behind him!

The best and most unexpected book appearance was at the Weltmuseum (Ethnographic Museum). Was it really chance that led me down that bland hallway or were my steps guided by some magnetic force pulling me to discover Chaekgeori? And why was the exhibit extended by more than a month until I would be there? Methinks there be mysterious bookish powers at work.

Someone thought it would be a good idea to celebrate the 130th anniversary of Austrian-Korean diplomatic relations. I don’t know that I would have, but I am delighted that it prompted this terrific exhibit. Chaekgeori translates as “books and things” and refers to a tradition of painting an arrangement of books, shelves, small treasures and objects. The style moved from scholarly court paintings into Korean folk art and continues to engage contemporary artists. All completely new to me and so interesting and so much fun.

I bought the catalog, of course, but it’s small and hardly added any weight to the suitcase. Oddly, though the exhibit captions included English, the catalog is only Korean/German. Good thing I’m happy just to look at the pictures!

looking for books in the old Habsburg empire, a tale of three cities: pt 1 Bratislava

Strictly speaking, we weren’t looking for books on our holiday trip. “We’re packing light, right? Only carry-ons, right? So we can’t buy books this trip.” I said. “Only carry-on, keep it light!” my husband agreed, “No books. Unless we find something really special, of course. Surely one or two would fit?” Our good intentions lasted into the second day.

And to be fair, I was the one who broke first. When touring the Bratislava castle the visitor must pass through a really attractive museum shop to reach the medieval tower. One would think it safe for the non-Slovak speaker to walk past the abundant displays of books. One would be wrong. “Oh look,” I said. “The exhibit catalogs are bilingual!”

2022 in books

My reading fell off a little from 2021 as the world reopened. I read 77 books, 57 fiction and 20 non-fiction. 30 titles were translated from other languages; many of those were mystery/crime novels but I still get points in the “exploring other cultures” category, right?

The non-fiction “best of” portion is easy this year. These four books would make such a list in any year.

Travels with Herodotus by Ryszard Kapucinski (transl. from the Polish)
We Don’t Know Ourselves, A Personal History of Ireland by Fintan O’Toole
The Black Sea by Neal Ascherson
From the Holy Mountain, A Journey in the Shadow of Byzantium by William Dalrymple

Making choices among the novels is always a little harder. The best shine out but some of the very good must be left behind.

The Devils’ Dance by Hamid Ismailov (transl. from the Uzbek)
Reading in the Dark by Seamus Deane
Lady Joker, vol. 1 and 2 by TAKAMURA Kaoru (transl. from the Japanese)
Afterlives by Abdulrazak Gurnah
Augustus by John Williams
Olav Audunsson, vol. 1: Vows by Sigrid Undset (transl. from the Norwegian)
Country by Michael Hughes
The Seventh Cross by Anna Seghers (transl. from the German)
Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea
Eight Dogs or Hakkenden, An Ill-considered Jest by BAKIN Kyokutei (transl. from the Japanese)

World Noir favorites

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (transl. from the French)
The Princess of Burundi by Kjell Erikson (transl. from the Swedish)
Northern Heist by Richard O’Rawe
Silver Bullets by Elmer Mendoza (transl. from the Spanish)
Fatale by Jean-Patrick Manchette (transl. from the French)
The Body Snatcher by Patricia Melo (transl. from the Portuguese)

Best “off-beat, make you smile, life-affirming story” category

Long Live the Post Horn by Vigdis Hjorth (transl. from the Norwegian)

And finally, special recognition in the “best book I bought for its title” category

How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard (transl. from the French)

reading what I like, affirmed

Denise Mina, award-winning Scottish author of crime/mystery novels, defended reading for pleasure in a recent interview in The Guardian (Sept 30, 2022). It’s an engaging interview and prompted an addition to my library “hold” list. This writer of Scottish noir is a huge fan of P.G. Wodehouse. Clearly a woman I should get to know.

My comfort read
All my reading is comfort reading. On my 50th birthday I gave myself the gift of throwing aside any book I wasn’t finding engaging. There are plaster chunks out of the wall in my study. Life’s too short for reading things that aren’t for you.

looking for books, a road trip coda

Two days driving across the beautiful plains and prairie of southern Colorado and Kansas, we reached the end of the Flint Hills Scenic Byway and the official end of the grand Western Road Trip. Just a drive for home along the familiar sights of I70 ahead. But an unexpected final treat awaited in Council Grove, the small town at the end of the Byway.

Flint Hills Books is a delightful shop in a fine old bank building in the center of town. The space wasn’t large enough for a big collection but it was very well chosen with a particularly choice case of local interest. The bookseller was friendly and chatted while tallying our stack of books. We’d made her day, she said, but I assured her that she’d made ours.

Nothing more but to head for home and start reading!

looking for books, part 2: the road home from CA

The landscape of northern Arizona is so endlessly interesting and beautiful that I really wasn’t thinking of books at all. But books are where you find them and the true book lover is ever alert.

Marble Canyon is a tiny community (Wikipedia calls it “a populated place”) at the Navajo Bridge near Glen Canyon. A “wide place in the road” we would call it in the Midwest, but there’s a little services cluster of lodge/trading post/gas station. I get some gas and go into the station for a cold tea. What a surprise to find shelves of local interest books where one usually sees the beef jerky display.

I picked up a couple of histories of the Powell expedition and expressed my pleasure to the clerk. He beamed and gave himself a quick pat on the back. His doing, he said, and told us that he stocks a really big selection next door in the Trading Post. He did not exaggerate; it was an excellent collection of regional interest titles.

One of my favorite bookstores anywhere is Maria’s Bookshop, an essential stop in our periodic visits to Durango. It’s not especially large, it doesn’t feel overcrowded, yet the collection is so well chosen that I always find something unexpected and interesting.

The Southwest Book Trader is another favorite in Durango. This used book store might be the archetype of the “pack ’em and stack ’em” style. One threads the paths carefully through several rooms that, quite literally, could not hold another volume. Probably. We browsed a while and selected half a dozen or so interesting titles, brushing off a little soot from the smokestack of the famous Durango-Silverton Railroad steam engine. All part of the charm, as is conversation with George, the longtime bookseller and teller of tales.

looking for books along CA49, the Golden Chain Highway

The Gold Rush country of Northern California is a beautiful area of mostly small to very small towns. Not too promising as an environment for bookstores, but we found that books – like gold – are where you find them.

First strike in Nevada City. Harmony Books packs a good, balanced selection of books into its historic storefront. Right by the front door is a case of local interest material with the Gold Rush guidebook we’ve been looking for.

Murphys is small but bustling with tourists looking for wine instead of gold. Amongst the tasting rooms is the bright and cheerful Books on Main.

Auburn is an attractive county seat town where we were able to find both real gold – a massive nugget displayed in the fine county museum – and a few literary nuggets at William Smith Books. Smith Books is a very good general used bookstore, an increasingly rare find. The shelves are well filled and meticulously organized.

Museum and Park gift shops are often good sources for books too. The Visitor’s Center at Calaveras Big Tree State Park had an excellent selection and gave us a fine tote bag to carry them.