When I cancelled my Book of the Month subscription last month, the customer service representative asked why I was ending my membership after only one year. I hemmed and hawed, not quite sure how to explain that the monthly arrival of a new book was adding to my mountainous to-read pile rather than to my reading enjoyment.
Despite making a point to try and read books as soon as they came into my apartment, I still had three unread books from Book of the Month on my shelf and was expecting one more to join the pile by month’s end. After confirmation of my cancelled membership came through, I decided to pull all my Book of the Month selections off the shelf and make reading them a priority over the month of October. (A decision I have similar success with back in April.)
I took one of those books, Things You Save in a Fire by Katherine Carter, on a recent trip with me, even though I dislike lugging hardbacks through airports. The other three, I tackled on a cold, windy weekend when all I wanted to do was stay inside and read. Below are brief thoughts on each one.
‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens. G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 2018. 370 pgs. Purchased.
First, Kya’s mother abandons her, leaving one morning in her fake crocodile heels and without a backwards glance. Then, her older siblings start leaving one by one, including her beloved brother Jodie who makes Kya promise she’ll stay out of their father’s way. Finally, after a few months where he was kind to her, Kya’s father leaves as well.
Alone by the age of thirteen, Kya sees solace among the gulls, snails, and other creatures that call the marsh home. Unbeknownst to her, Kya relies on the kindness of a black man named Jumpin’ and his wife, who trade clothes, fuel, and food products for the unappetizing smoked fish that Kya makes. No one in the white part of town will talk to Kya, reviling her as the dirty, crazy “Marsh Girl”.
Except for Tate, the son of a local fisherman and former friend of Jodie, who forges a friendship with Kya over their shared love of the marsh and promises to teach her to read. But, after two years, Jodie leaves Kya too, deciding that she is too wild to ever make it at university with him. His disappearance both shatters Kya’s trust and makes her long for contact with someone, leading her into a relationship with the hometown hero, the former high school quarterback.
When he is found dead under a lookout tower, the town immediately suspects Kya and the sheriff moves to arrest her on circumstantial evidence. The only hope for Kya is that a well-respected lawyer has agreed to take her case with Jumpin’ and Tate standing behind her the whole way.
On GoodReads, I gave Owens’ novel 3.5 stars. Three stars for the quality of the writing with an extra half star for the couldn’t-put-it-down element that made this a read-in-one-sitting book. The courtroom drama certainly kept me hooked into the story, and the alternation between that portion of the novel and the past made it impossible to set the novel down.
I also enjoyed the setting; Owens’ descriptive writing made the marsh come alive for me. But I thought the ending was rather abrupt, and the overall story — marginalized outsider is taken advantage of by men and the criminal justice system — is one I’ve read before. Other than the setting, there isn’t anything really unique about this book.
‘Dominicana’ by Angie Cruz. Flatiron Books, 2019. 323 pgs. Purchased.
Fifteen-year-old Ana Cancion marries Juan Ruiz, a man twice her age, because he promises to take her to New York City. The plan – hatched and nurtured by her mother – is that Ana will go to New York City as Juan’s wife, get a legal foothold in America while sending money she and Juan are bound to make back home, and then send her mother and middle brother to join them.
Arriving in America on New Year’s Day 1965, Ana quickly learns that life in America will not involve the freedom or wealth that Juan promises her. Confined to a six-floor walk-up in Washington Heights, Ana has no friends and no ability to learn English or make the money her family is asking her to send. Her plan to leave her abusive relationship and return to the Dominican Republic is thwarted by Cesar, Juan’s younger brother, and the revelation that she’s pregnant.
As political turmoil reaches fever pitch in the Dominican Republic, Juan returns to protect the family’s land and half-built restaurant, leaving Cesar to take care of Ana. Cesar becomes Ana’s confidant and friend, taking her to Coney Island and Radio City Music Hall and allowing her to leave the apartment on her own. But her freedom is short-lived as her due date approaches and Juan returns to New York City with Ana’s mother in tow.
Fast read, but an unremarkable story. Teenaged girl is forced into an early marriage by her parents because they see her as their ticket to America. Abused by her husband, she eventually finds love with an unstable person and must decide between fidelity to love, to her family, and/or to herself.
Ana’s transformation felt inauthentic to me; perhaps because she came across as more of a placeholder, insert-yourself-here character rather than a person in her own right. I also found the lack of quotation marks or other delineation for dialogue made the story difficult to follow. Is Ana really saying that out loud? Or, are we still in her head?
‘The Chestnut Man’ by Søren Sveistrup. Translated from the Danish by Carolien Waight. Harper, 2019. Originally published 2018. 528 pgs. Purchased.
Naia Thulin is eager to leave the Major Crimes Division of the Copenhagen police force. The newly created cybercrimes division is eager to recruit her, and Thulin is eager to join a unit with a bit more excitement behind it. She’s also eager to escape her new partner, Mark Hess, who has returned to Denmark after being unceremoniously relieved of duty by Europol.
The day Hess rejoins the squad is the day the minister for families and child welfare returns to Parliament one year after her daughter went missing. It is also the day a body is discovered in the community park of a Copenhagen suburb. The victim is found with one hand missing, which would be curious enough if it weren’t for the tiny doll made from chestnuts left at the crime scene.
The doll seems innocuous enough; people make them to celebrate fall. But this particular doll is found with the fingerprint of the minister’s missing daughter, who has been long presumed dead and whose murderer was convicted of the crime.
For me, the mark of a good mystery/thriller is one where the author keeps me guessing as I fall for one red herring after another. Sveistrup’s novel absolutely met that mark as I feel for every single red herring in this story, even when I knew the case couldn’t be that easy because there were still 200+ pages to go. I couldn’t put this one down, reading well into the wee hours of the morning. (And then sleeping fitfully because, woah, the ending.)
I also liked the characters, especially the dynamic between Hess — the non-communicative, moody, drunk male detective typical of Scandinavian crime novels — and Thulin. As creepy as this novel was, I hope I get to see more of this duo in future novels.