My year in reading

bookshelf Xmas decorations

I was on Sundial, WLRN’s excellent locally produced show, today talking books with Connie Ogle and to prepare I went through some of my favorites for the year. Here they are along with the answers to some of host Luis Hernandez’ questions.

Number of books read: 51, according to my Goodreads account

Favorite books published this year: Transcription by Kate Atkinson, Circe by Madeline Miller

Favorite work of nonfiction: (I’m still reading this and it was published last year but … wow): Bunk by Kevin Young, an amazing work of scholarship and historical/social analysis about hoaxes, humbug and fakery, from the Sun newspaper’s 1835 Moon hoax and P.T. Barnum to “reality” TV and …

Most immersive reading experience of the year: The seven books (so far) in James S.A. Corey’s Expanse series. I got interested via the TV show, but as usual the books offer a much richer world and so much more information about the characters. Also: they really know how to move along the plot. And the good news: the two guys who write under this pen name seem to be much better than George R.R. Martin – one of them used to work as his assistant – about keeping the books coming despite having an ongoing TV show at the same time.

Best read of the year: The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. Published in 2015, it’s a series of interlinked stories set in the Soviet Union and after, with a particular painting that ties it together. Brilliant, heartbreaking, beautiful. H/t to my husband Mark for the recommendation.

Biggest disappointment: The Witch Elm by Tana French. Unlike some readers I know (Connie, cough cough), I am willing to go with the sometimes preposterous plots in French’s Dublin murder squad series because I so love spending time with these characters. This book was French’s first where the protagonist was not a detective but was a victim/witness/suspect. But I found it a real slog to spend 700 pages inside that guy’s head. Please go back to the squad room!

Looking forward to in 2019:

Black Leopard, Red Wolf by Marlon James, the first in a proposed fantasy series. Yes, please!

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson – a return to the excellent Jackson Brodie series. Thank you!

Tiamat’s Wrath by James S.A. Corey – next in the Expanse series. Keep it up, guys!

There were other books by writers I admire that I enjoyed very much this year. They included: Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, Time’s Convert by Deborah Harkness (how fun to return to that world with the unexpected bonus of spending time in late-Colonial Hadley, Mass. Hadley!), Lethal White by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) and The Winter of the Witch by Katherine Arden – that’s the conclusion of a trilogy based on Russian history and folktales and isn’t officially published until January, but I got my hands on an advanced copy.

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Here be dragons

I read a couple of Anne McCaffrey books as a kid, but I was never all that into dragons. I like them when they show up in George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire — and especially in the HBO Game of Thrones adaptation — but that series is really about the people. Dragons are just a superweapon.

league of dragonsBut in Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, dragons are characters and that’s the genius of the series. She just wrapped it up with League of Dragons, and she did it well. Fortunately there are nine books in all so if you’re feeling bereft about the end of the series you can just start from the beginning again, with His Majesty’s Dragon.

I can’t really suggest these books for people who are jonesing for Game of Thrones between TV seasons or the much longer wait between books. The better comparison is with Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series — because both are set in the British service during the Napoleonic wars and have a friendship at heart that is the deepest in both parties’ lives. But Naomi Novik is obviously writing an alternative/fantastical version of history (there are dragons!), which makes it even more fun in a lot of ways. Some dragons only allow women to be their captains/companions. Napoleon ranges even farther afield — all the way to South America. And most importantly, our protagonists and the society as a whole are forced to wrestle with their treatment of the dragons, many of whom are more intelligent than most people. Temeraire is an exceptional dragon, to be sure, but he is expert at mathematics and speaks multiple languages.

Really, these books are best suited for anyone who has ever felt strongly connected to an animal, like a dog or a horse. The fantasy isn’t so much that there are giant, flying reptiles but that your companion from another species could communicate with you directly — and both delight and exasperate you with his or her idiosyncrasies. Dragons, in Novik’s world, are imprinted on the first human who harnesses them and will do everything in their considerable powers to protect that person. Many are intelligent, though they have a weakness for treasure, especially the shiny kind.

That consideration of how dragons should be treated within society as a whole is really the heart of this series, and what elevates it above just another fantasy … with dragons. Though it may have inspired me to give Anne McCaffrey’s books another look (it’s been more than 30 years). And also to finish the Aubrey-Maturin series, which I have been drawing out for well over a decade now.

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Read these, not that

Not this

Let’s get the negative out of the way: Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia. This is a serialized novel from the creator of Downton Abbey – I heard an NPR interview with him about it, I like historical fiction, I figured I’d give it a go. I also like to check out innovative or slBelgravia-by-Julian-Fellowes-250ightly different modes of storytelling – though the serial format is a bit of a throwback, too, it’s one that’s rarely seen anymore.

First, the app. It sucked. You had to sign in every time, it never remembered where you were, simply turning pages was far glitchier on the same device than it was in the Kindle or iBooks apps. You had to reload everything every time. New chapters didn’t appear until the day after they were promised. Overall, not pleasant.

Second, the content. I listened to the first (free) chapter on audio. Hiring the actress Juliet Stevenson to narrate the audiobook was the best decision anyone made regarding this enterprise. I liked it enough, and was feeling supportive enough about the whole idea, that I invested in $14 to get the rest of the book, delivered in weekly installments.

I started reading the next few chapters and …  see page-turning glitchiness complaints, above. Also, it soon became clear that while Fellowes may be a supremely talented creator of high-end soap operas, he’s not a great writer, even in the context of historical romance. I read enough of those to know. This wasn’t, strictly, a romance — I’d call it more of a melodrama. But it was insanely predictable and two-dimensional even within those standards.

Which made me very surprised to read in Entertainment Weekly an interview about his latest project, Julian Fellowes Presents Doctor Thorne (for future reference: avoid projects where the creator’s name appears in the title). Fellowes said this: “Trollope is one of my favorite writers of all time. His emotional position is very similar to my own in that nobody is all good or all bad.”

And my immediate reaction was, what the hell are you talking about? Your villains are so bad they practically twirl their mustaches and the good guys are so good you almost want to smack them. I was glad when I saw that the good critics at Slate had also noted this odd contradiction, as Laura Miller wrote Fellowes “professes to love Trollope and to value the “moral complexity” of his characters, then proceeds to strip all such complexity out of their portrayal.” (She credits the TV critic Willa Paskin though Paskin’s review is kinder toward the TV show than Miller’s — enough that I might give it a try since we have Amazon Prime anyway and I’m curious to see Fellowes-as-Hitchcock. Or maybe I should just, you know, read Trollope.)

I went back to listening to the chapters on audio and found it improved considerable – thanks, Juliet Stevenson! Maybe Fellowes just writes better for dramatic presentation than old-fashioned reading anyway. Plus no more glitchy page turning. There’s nothing that makes you feel stupider than repeatedly swiping and tapping your iPad so you can read the next page of a book you don’t like that much that you paid real money for. Was it a waste of time? Kind of, though once I’d plunked down that $14 I was going to see this melodrama through to the melodramatic finale. I think that’s what I’m most annoyed about – if I’d gotten this book from the library or even paid a dollar or two on the Kindle, I would be OK with it. But $14 is real money, bookwise, and I feel like I fell for a British-accented, elaborately costumed scam.

And I didn’t even watch Downton Abbey.

Read these!

city of mirrorsEnough with the negative. Let’s move on to gushing about highly hyped entertainment reading that delivered on its hype: The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin. This is the third in the dystopian trilogy that started with The Passage, back in 2010. I was working at the library then and jumped on the train. Loved the first book, liked the second enough to get through it all (these books are loooooong) and I was damned sure going to finish the last.

It had been awhile (four years!) since The Twelve, though, so I was a little worried about what I remembered about the plot. And it’s not like you’re going to plow through a thousand-plus pages AGAIN to refresh yourself. So I used the same method I do on the rare occasions that George R.R. Martin produces a book – I read the plot summaries of previous installments on Wikipedia. Plus, Cronin used a future-history-of-the-chronicled-events plot device that reminded me of the events of book 2. And we were off.

I loved it. I spent the entire weekend wallowing around in that book – not rushing through thought it was a page-turner, not savoring though I was perfectly happy hanging out in that world. It wasn’t one of those giant tomes where you’re like, “This thing could easily lose a couple hundred pages and no one would notice.” The extended backstory was interesting and, as it happens, a fun return to the 1990s and a refreshing break from the dystopic present of the novels. I liked it at least as much as the first novel and much better than the second. So I was very grateful to my local library for buying several copies and wish I could take that $14 back from Julian Fellowes and give it to Justin Cronin.

My local library was also kind enough to supply a copy of Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld. This update of Pride and Prejudice (should that be Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice?) got a rave in the New York Times Book Review so I figured I’d like it. eligibleAnd I liked the earlier installment I’d read in this series of contemporary Austen updates. It was also the perfect antidote – or remedy is maybe a better word — to my City of Mirrors book hangover. It’s not like I wanted to live in Justin Cronin’s created world — but I had been so intensely immersed in it that it was hard to focus on minor things like my life and my job. Eligible is a frothy social comedy in the best sense – and it was just so much fun to both learn about these new versions of Bennets and Bingleys and Darcys – as well as watch them reach the happy endings I knew were in store. My only complaint about Joanna Trollope’s version of Sense & Sensibility were that I felt she did some contortions to fit the plot into the 21st century. Sittenfeld’s use of a Bachelor-like reality show (the titular “Eligible”) was brilliant.

I loved how she adapted and changed the characters’ roles and ages but managed to hold onto the essentials – Liz is smart but sometimes a little too sharp, Darcy is uptight but honorable, Jasper Wick (ie Wickham) is a charming douchebag, Mrs. Bennett is pretty awful but hey, she’s your mom and Mr. Bennett is smart and funny but disastrously disengaged. Though my favorite change might be the most radical – Kathy DeBourgh as a formidable Gloria Steinem-like feminist icon.

I did gallop through this one – really, really short chapters made me feel like I was supposed to be doing that – but I was happy to do so. And immediately went to the library and got the two Austen updates I hadn’t read yet, Northanger Abbey by Val McDermid and Emma by Alexander McCall Smith. I really can’t wait to see who gets Persuasion.

colin firth

Just because.

So … five stars to Justin Cronin, Curtis Sittenfeld, their editors and publishers and of course my local library.

Two stars to Julian Fellowes – mostly for trying something a little bit out of the norm. Stick to screenwriting, dude, and next time hire a much better app developer. Though I will check out Downton Abbey one of these years.





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True crime on page and on air: A fan’s notes

Read this

Dreamland by Sam Quinones showed up on a lot of year-end best lists last year. I still resisted it. I know the opiate epidemic, fueled by pill mills, has transition

ed into a heroin epidemic, especially in the midwest and the Northeast, where I’m from. I know they are related, and have been devastating to families and communities.

But I had a hard time getting past the difference between the societal and governmental reaction to this drug scourge, versus crack in the 1980s — which begot the whole three strikes policy that saw people going away for life for a lousy $30 drug buy. Prescription pain medication abuse wasn’t treated the same way. Plenty of people died from the crack epidemic, too. Plenty of lives, families and communities were destroyed. But now pain meds and heroin are affecting white middle class kids and their parents! So suddenly it’s everybody’s problem.

Still, when I saw Dreamland on the table at our new Books & Books at The Studios of Key West I couldn’t resist picking it up — and I’m so glad I did. This is one of the best works of reported nonfiction I have read in years.

Quinones expertly traces the two streams that converged to create our current opiate epidemic: the over-prescribing of opiate medications, on the (mistaken) assumption that they weren’t terribly addictive and the marketing of black tar heroin by young men from one particular region of Mexico.

The pain pills were the result of doctors who genuinely wanted to help people – and drug companies (and less scrupulous doctors) that wanted to make money. All of them relied to an inordinate extent on a short letter to the New England Journal of Medicine about the addictive qualities of opiates – a letter that was later cited as a “landmark study” in the popular press and pharmaceutical sales pitches.

The Mexican heroin trade looks almost admirable by contrast — because the “Xalisco boys,” as Quinones calls them, created an insanely successful, resilient web of heroin sales that relied on pagers (and later cell phones), moving small amounts and an apparently infinitely sales force. They didn’t carry guns and they only imported small amounts and carried even smaller amounts when they sold. It was far easier to deport them than to prosecute them. And the drugs were delivered to clients in fast food parking lots, not scary street corners.

Quinones assembles an astonishing amount of information and tells the story so well you don’t feel like you’re reading a treatise or a sociology text. And he takes time, when appropriate, to address that beef I have with the way the opiate epidemic has been treated – because now the kids of people in power are getting affected.

Listen to that

The other piece of excellent reporting I’ve come across recently is the second season of Breakdown. That’s the podcast produced by the Atlanta Journal Constitution. They said forthrightly that they were inspired by Serial but in some ways I prefer it. It’s more straight-up reporting, with less introspection. And in the first season, they really addressed the systemic problems facing the defendant — and all poor defendants in Georgia.

Ross Harris left his son in a car and the boy died. Was it murder, or a horrible accident?

Like Serial, the second season is not a question of did-he-or-didn’t-he. It’s a what-crime-did-he-commit (if any). And they’ve picked a doozy — Ross Harris, the young Atlanta father who left his toddler son in the car all day. The son died. Harris, it turns out, was a serial philanderer, making the defense’s case even harder.

Throughout, AJC court reporter Bill Rankin is a terrific guide to the case and to the court system in general. He’s knowledgable and good at explaining proceedings for laypeople, as well as consulting attorneys and other experts who know the system from the inside. It’s all exactly what I want from a journalism podcast — going deeper into a story than you possibly could in a 15-inch newspaper story or a 4 minute radio feature. Bravo.


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Crime fiction, here and there, cozy and not, on page and screen

Roberta Isleib by Carol Tedesco.jpg

Lucy Burdette, aka Roberta Isleib. Photo by Carol Tedesco

I recently interviewed Lucy Burdette, who is really Roberta Isleib, who lives in Key West and writes the Key West Food Critic Mysteries. The seventh installment in the series, Killer Takeout, publishes on April 5.

It’s a “cozy” mystery, which means no blood or sex on the page, as Roberta tells me during the interview. Not my usual thing but I enkiller takeout coverjoyed her book, which is set in the run-up to Fantasy Fest … with a hurricane bearing down. It didn’t even give me too much of a Wilma flashback. I especially admired how she addressed the tensions among Conchs, yearround locals and snowbird socialites. That’s a large — and growing — aspect of life down here, at least from my perspective.

At the same time, my husband and I have been watching the second season of Bosch on Amazon Prime (no spoilers, please — we’re only halfway through). I liked the first season fine but the second one is much better. The best part is that I haven’t read any of Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch books. Most of my crime fiction reading is


Titus Welliver plays Harry Bosch.

historical and just about all of my contemporary crime fiction reading has been set in Florida (Carl Hiaasen, James Hall, et. al.). But now I’ve got the first Bosch book, The Black Echo, on order from the library.

And I feel like I’m primed for L.A., not only by watching the TV show — which manages to make L.A. look fairly attractive, probably because nobody on there ever spends time stuck in traffic — but also because I just finished Shaker by Scott Frank. I read a short story about it in Entertainment Weekly and my most exshakercellent local library already had a copy. Frank is a screenwriter and this is a first novel – my opinion has been that screenwriters write excellent thrillers and crime fiction because they know how to move a plot along, as well as how to write dialogue. This one bolsters my theory and is also an excellent option for people who are jonesing for Elmore Leonard now that the master has left us. Frank wrote the screenplays for Out of Sight and Get Shorty and it shows, though he doesn’t really have Leonard’s funny vein. He’s not trying to be funny, though, so that’s cool.

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Tennessee Williams, Remembered

I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up, but it seems like March is my month to do a story about Tennessee Williams.

tennessee williams porch

Tennessee at home in Key West. Photo from the Monroe County Public Library, Ida Woodward Barron Collection.

Last year, it was about the efforts of the new(ish) Tennessee Williams exhibit to boost the writer’s profile in Key West. And good thing, too — he was much more of a Key Wester than that Hemingway dude, for all of his fishing and his cats and whatnot.

This year, I did a piece about the Rose Tattoo – sixty years ago this month, Anna Magnani won an Academy Award for her role as Serafina Delle Rose. And a lovely Italian couple has recently bought and restored the house that was used in the movie, partially filmed here.

It’s not one of Williams’ better known works at this point. But it is interesting especially for one aspect – it has a happy ending.


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Girls, Gone and On Trains

I finally got around to reading The Girl On The Train — I feel less obliged to occasionally read hot bestsellers now than I did when I worked at the library. But I still like to keep up with the zeitgeist, at least with a book that I might like anyway.

And I’m a little predisposed to root for books by female crime fiction writers, because feminism and also because I was so impressed with our all-star lineup from the 2014 Key West Literary SeminarGirl on train cover.jpg (Lippman! Flynn! Abbott! Locke! Nunn! Faye! Gerritsen! George!).

It took me two tries to really get into The Girl On The Train and I found it harder to read, generally, than Gone Girl. The two have been frequently compared and not just for the overlap in the titles. Both feature alternating, unreliable narrators and a wife gone MIA. And I must say the finales of both strain plausibility. But these are crime thrillers.

I found Girl On The Train’s narrators are much more difficult — by which I mean uncomfortable — heads to live inside. Rachel is a mess and Megan is a pain in the ass, at least initially. Both of Gillian Flynn’s narrators in Gone Girl, Nick and Amy, had problems but both were attractive or maybe charismatic in some weird way. At least to me.

I stuck with Girl On The Train the second time, though, and I’m glad I did. Both because I got to find out who did it, and because now I’ve read the book before it becomes a big deal with the movie. And I will admit that after I finished it resonated for me a little more than Gone Girl. Not enough for a full blown book hangover, where I can’t really get into another book because my head is still in the last one. But more than I expected.



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Going home again

dickinson homeI have written previously about my hesitation in reading books about places I consider home, fiction or non. Yet they do have a strong appeal — which is why my husband and I have for the last three years led a group at The Studios of Key West called Reading Key West. So when I stopped by the Key West Library a couple months ago and saw a novel in the new books section called Amherst, I grabbed it.* Then I circled around it for a week or two.

I had another reason to worry about this book. Besides the familiar territory thing, I’m wary of novels about real people, especially writers. These seem to be having a moment, with the works of Paula McLain, Erika Roebuck and the like. I’m not dead set against them. But I worry, because the fictional representation of any real person’s life feels even more fraught when that person is a writer.

Eventually, though, I picked it up. And wound up loving it – especially the historical sections, which recount the infamous love affair of Emily Dickinson’s brother, Austin, with a young neighbor, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Their story is interspersed with a contemporary story, a young British screenwriter wants to write a movie about the love affair and is visiting Amherst for research. Oddly, the contemporary part felt less authentic to me though I appreciated it as the story of a young woman coming to grips with love and what it may mean in her life. But the entire book was propulsive, even if I kind of knew the broad outlines of the Todd-Dickinson affair and the role Mabel Todd played in getting Emily Dickinson’s poems out to the world. I’d like to read more of William Nicholson’s books – and since he’s a screenwriter, too, I’d really like to see him take a shot at the movie about that passionate, a little bit tragic, ultimately Victorian couple. With Emily lurking around upstairs in her white dress, of course.

Reading and enjoying Amherst gave me the courage to finally pick up another Emily Dickinson book  I’ve had around for awhile – Nobody’s Secret by Michaela MacColl. I don’t want to give this book a bad review, because I think it was well-done. But I am definitely not the right reader. It’s YA, for one thing, and though I do read some YA it’s almost all in the fantasy/dystopia area. More problematic is it’s in the genre corner I have a real problem with, which I usually refer to as Jane Austen Solves Crimes. Only in this case it’s Emily Dickinson. And she’s a teenager! Some of it just didn’t make sense to me, for how people in 19th century small town New England would behave. I wonder what I would have thought of this book as a younger reader. I might have liked it a lot – and it might have led me to get really into Emily Dickinson’s poetry.


* Here I would like to offer some props — and thanks — to the good people at the Key West Library who are responsible for ordering new books. Twice recently I have come across books that I hadn’t previously heard of in the New Books section and in both cases, Amherst and The Fair Fight, they were books I really enjoyed. I appreciate a serendipitous discovery via browsing more than I can say in this age where everything is linked and recommended. So thank you, Key West Library staff! As a reader I appreciate your discernment and your commitment to bringing us books. So do many other readers, even if they don’t realize what you’re doing for them.


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New books by writers I have met in real life and interviewed

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Olivia, subject of From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess. Illustration by Meg Cabot.

Meg Cabot has recently returned to the world of the Princess Diaries with two new books, one for adults and one for middle schoolers. As an (alleged) adult, I can attest that Royal Wedding is a fun read. Princess Mia is all grown up and facing some regular grown-up issues as well as some only-royalty-of-a-small-European-principality issues. And interesting fact about From The Notebooks of a Middle School Princess: Meg illustrated the book — which is copiously illustrated — herself. I talked to Meg about the books, as well as about why she lives in and sometimes writes about Key West. The interview ran in one form on WLRN and in another in The Miami Herald.

I can’t help, while I’m talking about Meg Cabot, to give a shout-out to a couple other series by her that don’t get anywhere near the attention of the Princess Diaries or some of her other books but that I think are worthwhile reads. The first is Insatiable and its sequel, Overbite. They’re vampire books for adults that both riff on and gently satirize Bram Stoker’s original. They’re fun and funny, without being outright satire. The other is the Abandon trilogy, which is a YA series of books based on the Greek myth of Persephone — and set in Key West!

And I recently read the The Fatal Flame, the final volume in Lyndsay Faye’s excellent trilogy about Timothy Wilde, an early New York policeman or copper star. I interviewed Lyndsay for Littoral, the Key West Literary Seminar’s blog, before she came to the 2014 Seminar about crime fiction. When I got hold of this final volume, The Fatal Flame, I read it as slowly as possible, savoring my first immersion. I almost never do that, especially with crime fiction. If you’re interested in historical fiction, historical crime fiction, 19th century New York or any of the above, give these books a try. Can’t wait to see what Lyndsay gets up to next.


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Photo by Stuart Miles via

Photo by Stuart Miles via

One of my favorite terms to come out of Internet TV criticism is hate-watching — which obviously describes the syndrome of compulsively watching a TV show that annoys you. I’ve found a similar syndrome with books: hate-reading. I don’t do it much, because why would you, especially when you no longer work at a library where you may be called on for your assessment of Fifty Shades of Grey or the latest Dan Brown? Though I recently had an unhappy experience with an audiobook on a road trip that could be called hate-listening. That’s particularly bad because you can’t skim, which is what I’ve done when hate-reading titles like Angels & Demons or Fifty Shades of Grey. With an audiobook, in a car, your choices are to give up or to keep suffering so you can find out what happens in this crappy book that you’ve already given your attention for way too many hours.*

Lately, though, I’ve been trying to just quit reading books that annoy me. Like The Marriage Game by Alison Weir. (Dear Alison Weir, you are such a good writer of history. Please stick with nonfiction.) The Nancy Pearl rule is a good one — give every book 50 pages and then you can quit. If you’re over 50, subtract your age from 100 and that’s the number of pages you have to give it. I aspire to the Nancy Pearl rule.

Except … it doesn’t really help in the situation I recently found myself in, which can only be described as meh-reading. It was especially uncomfortable since it was a digital advanced review copy that I had requested. I gave it an honest and not malicious review on the site that gave me access to it, which I think is your primary obligation. And I don’t think it was a bad book. It wasn’t one of those cases where it may well be a good book just not to my taste. It was an OK book, just good enough to keep me going but with enough drawbacks that I was kind of annoyed with myself for devoting the time to it.

I suppose this is no worse, and possibly better, than spending the time watching sports or TV re-runs or whatever other ways we waste our time these days.

The book, in case you’re wondering, is Newport by Jill Morrow. Historical fiction, which is my most-read genre these days. But it just didn’t pass the plausibility test for me, and I’m a pretty generous suspender of disbelief in fiction.

*The audiobook that tortured me on my recent road trip was The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler. Don’t do it! There is so much better-written crime fiction, even specifically Scandinavian crime fiction, out there. This one was just ridiculous. Stieg Larsson, if you weren’t dead you’d have a lot to answer for …


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