Once again (2011, 2010, 2009,2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’ve kept track of what I read this year.
Red Mist (2012) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Kay Scarpetta series. This one is set entirely in Savannah, GA, which was fun for me because I’ve visited it four times and recognised street names and places. The first-person narrative doesn’t really work well at the start of the book, and the writing for the first 50 pp or so feels somewhat contrived, because “Kay” has to explain who she is, who her husband and niece are, and, particularly, what happened in the last book, Port Mortuary, because this one is directly connected — and I can’t say more without revealing too much. As usual, I wish Lucy were more present in the plot (she is there at the end, and off and on throughout). Marino and Jamie Berger are featured, with Benton in a small role. Some say the old Scarpetta is gone, that something is lacking in the more recent books, but I like this Scarpetta: I like her flaws, her need to shield Lucy and to not make any mistakes or let anyone down, her weird marriage to the too-calm, too-rational and too-jealous Benton (do they respect each other? does he treat her like a child while she hides things from him? are they dysfunctional or perfectly matched, secure with each other?), her often-too-careful negotiation of volatile relationships, her fearlessness (carelessness?) when it comes to her own safety and reputation, and so on. These things seem to me to flow directly from her childhood experiences and from the life she’s chosen since then, and for me, they make her soulful and human.
The Rope (2011) by Nevada Barr, a prequel in the Anna Pigeon National Parks series, this one set in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in Arizona and Utah. Anna, a New York stage manager, signs on as a seasonal worker in the park after her husband Zach dies. Unbelievable amount of damsel in distress in this book, from beginning to end. There is some character development for Anna, as she comes to love silence and darkness. This was a welcome return to the wilds — canyons, cliffs, lakes, sandstone, and trails — after Barr’s last book in this series, set in New Orleans.
Believing the Lie (2012), in the Inspector Lynley series. Lynley is covertly sent to Cumbria (northwest England) to investigate the apparently accidental drowning death of Ian Cresswell; he takes his friends Simon St. James and Simon’s wife Deborah (Lynley’s lover from a long time ago) to play undercover roles. Deborah is agonising about not being able to have a child; she and Simon are considering a surrogate, and though Simon wants to, Deb realises this route is not for her. Her angst about this, and their conflict about it, is important because one of the many subplots involves the cousin of the deceased, a prodigal son whose wife is not getting pregnant, much as he wants her to. Havers stays in London, where her neighbors (her little friend Haddiya’s parents) are having their own conflict. I’ve enjoyed the last two books in the series; I think Lynley is a better character with Helen gone (even though she’s never far from his thoughts).
1222 (2011) by Anne Holt, in the Hanne Wilhelmsen series, set almost entirely at a hotel 1,222 meters above sea level during a snowstorm of historic proportions. Wilhemsen, almost 50 and somewhat misanthropic, is a former Norwegian police officer who was paralysed when shot on duty in 2002. She finds herself trapped with about 200 other people in a hotel (Finse 1222) after their train crashes into a tunnel on its way to Bergen. Two murders and several other deaths occur, but the focus of the book is as much on group behaviour under stress as anything else, with much description of and dialogue between people of various backgrounds, professions, roles and ages – dog owners (and 4 dogs), a teenage girls’ sports team, a church group, doctors, a TV personality and her followers, some Germans, etc. — as they coexist together with life-and-death events and changing expectations. This seems to be the first book published in the series, but the first book IN the series (which takes place before this one) is to be published this summer.
No Mark Upon Her (2011) by Deborah Crombie, 14th in the Kincaid/James Scotland Yard series. This one takes place mostly in Henley on Thames and involves the sport of rowing, as the woman murdered, Becca Meredith is a serious rower and possible Olympics contender as well as being a senior police officer with West London Major Crimes. Duncan and Gemma’s domestic arrangements now that they’re married with 3 kids is also front and center. Good plot, some interesting relationships. A sort of cozy police procedural.
Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture (2009) by Toby Hemenway. Non-fiction, philosophy and practice of permaculture gardening, which looks to nurture and cultivate conditions for natural processes to occur in the garden/yard/home forest. Helpful.
Before the Poison (2011) by Peter Robinson, a stand-alone about two people, primarily: Grace Fox, a woman who was hung in 1953 for murdering her physician husband in their home, Kilnsgate House, during a snowstorm that stranded them and their dinner guests for a night; and Chris Lowndes, a film score composer and native Yorkshireman, newly widowed, who returns from years of living in southern California and ends up buying that same house. He plans to write a piano sonata but becomes fascinated by Grace’s story. The story alternates between Chris’s first-person narration (set in fall and winter of 2010) and both a contemporary account of Grace’s trial and her wartime journals. I love the Banks/Cabot series and found this novel a little lackluster for some reason.
Cutting for Stone (2009) by Abraham Verghese, about twin orphaned sons born in Ethiopia to an Indian mother who’s a nun and a father who’s a surgeon. Interesting look at Ethiopia (and Eritrea) in the 1960s-1980. Much description of various surgeries, diseases, and other medical whatnot. Read for bookgroup.
Helsinki White (2011) by James Thompson, in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. Kari has just had successful surgery for a brain tumor, leaving him unable to feel emotions, and he’s been asked to run a covert (extra-legal) operation that strays onto morally ambiguous ground. I couldn’t finish (no pun intended) this book; it was too gruesome and the violence too graphic. I got about 3/4 through it and decided I’d had enough. Very Nordic noir.
A Field of Darkness (2006) by Cornelia Read, first in the Madeline Dare series. This one is set in Syracuse, NY (a place Madeline despises). I almost gave up 10 pages in, because I felt I was reading a creative writing class manuscript, the phrasing and word choice seemed so self-conscious, but I had nothing else to read so I kept going. The plot, involving blue-blood Madeline putting herself and others in danger while trying to determine if her adored older cousin, Lapthorne, was involved in the killing of two young women years ago, was better than the writing. I’ll try another.
The Beginner’s Goodbye (2012) by Anne Tyler, a short quiet novel set in Baltimore, as usual. It’s a story of grief, ghosts, family, and negotiating relationships. After Aaron loses Dorothy in a freak accident, he considers their relationship and ponders how to go on in life.
The Crazy School (2010) by Cornelia Read, 2nd in the Madeline Dare series, this one set at a boarding school for disturbed teenagers in the Berkshires (Mass.) I liked this one better than the first.
Death and Judgment (1995) by Donna Leon, 4th in the Commissioner Guido Brunetti series, set in Venice. “High-powered lawyer Carlo Trevisan is found shot to death on the Padua-Venice train. The police write it off as a robbery gone bad, but Brunetti isn’t so sure. When an accountant who worked for Trevisan is found dead a short time later, Brunetti sees a connection, which eventually leads him to an international drug and prostitution ring run by some of Venice’s most influential citizens” (per Booklist). This is my third try with this series and it’s just not working for me.
The Leopard (2011) by Jo Nesbø, in the Harry Hole series. Harry is retrieved from Hong Kong to help solve a two murders that look suspiciously alike. Quite grisly and atmospheric (some of the action takes place not in Oslo but in remote ski huts and in the Congo), with the usual internecine political machinations of Nesbø’s series.
The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838), a novella by Edgar Allan Poe, “one of Poe’s least accessible works … ‘at once a mock nonfictional exploration narrative, adventure saga, bildungsroman, hoax, largely plagiarized travelogue, and spiritual allegory’.” Later works Melville’s Moby Dick (1851), Conrad’s The Secret Sharer (1910), HP Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness (1936), and Yann Martel’s The Life of Pi (2001) all seem to derive from this novella in some way. Lots of inconsistencies, obvious fabrications and seemingly hallucinogenic scenes in this sea story, which winds from Nantucket to the South Seas to the Antarctic, to an island of natives, to a white, vapourous, and ashy chasm. Themes of order and chaos, natural and unnatural, white and black, satiation and starvation, water in all forms, etc.
Pym (2011) by Mat Johnson, a sort of satirical continuation of Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, focusing on the racial aspects of the original (black and white, tropical island and snow-land, etc). Very funny, especially if you’ve read the Poe and if you’re familiar with the craft of American painter Thomas Kinkade.
Appointment with Death (1938) by Agatha Christie. Poirot. When I checked Wikipedia, I realised why it seemed familiar and yet not … the film adaptation varies considerably. Set in Jerusalem/Transjordania (?), plot concerns a tyrannical mother and her long-suffering children. Not one of her best, IMO.
The Writing Circle (2010) by Corinne Demas, for bookgroup. Set in New England. With some wariness, Nancy, who is writing a novel based on an event in her father’s life, joins a writing group and finds herself in the midst of minor dramas among her fellow writers and their families. The story is told from multiple points of view, but Nancy’s voice is the primary one. It was OK, though none of the characters felt entirely real to me, and the ending — Gillian’s response to events — felt out of character.
Invisible Boy (2010) by Cornelia Read, in the Maddie Dare series, this one set in New York City. This is the third book I’ve read in the series and the last … I can’t get past the unbelievable amount of drug-taking and constant swearing in the books (and swearing doesn’t offend me, but this feels very gratuitous, harsh and not in character with the ethos of the characters); and in this one, I couldn’t stop gagging at the constant exclamations of outraged pity for the victim. Not that one wouldn’t feel pity and sadness, but it was so far overdone and overexpressed as to be at best a sign of poor editing and hitting the reader over the head to make a point, and at worst, patronizing, self-congratulatory (“What great humans we are to care so much!”) and almost satirical.
Vienna Blood (2006/2008 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, second in a series featuring turn-of-the-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt, solve a series of gruesome and seemingly unconnected murders. Lots of interesting elements here: Freemasons, Aryan sentiment and movements, opera and classical music, dueling, misogyny, Darwinism, Freud and psychoanalysis, HG Wells’ idea of a human and subhuman race (one living above ground, the other below), and so on. One of the better written books I’ve read in years. Highly recommended. Now I have to go back and read the first one, A Death in Vienna (aka Mortal Mischief).
Burned: A Novel (2010/2011) by Thomas Enger, set in Norway, with Henning Juul as an investigative reporter just back to work after two years away, following a house fire that scarred him and killed his young son. A woman has been murdered by being buried, flogged, and stoned, and her Muslim boyfriend has been arrested. But did he do it? Plot fairly complicated, writing pretty good, but I was spoiled by Tallis’s deftness.
A Death in Vienna (2005/2006 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, the first of a series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt. When a medium is killed, the locked room and vanishing bullet lead some to wonder if the murder was supernatural. The Riesenrad, a gondola-ferris wheel contraption also seen in The Third Man (1949), is mentioned several times.
Fatal Lies (2008/2009 U.S.) by Frank Tallis, third in the series featuring turn-of-the-20th-century Viennese psychoanalyst, fencer and amateur crime-solver, Dr Max Liebermann, who helps his friend, detective Oskar Rheinhardt. This one features trouble at a boy’s boarding school, some espionage, and Liebermann’s love life. Also waltzing, Freud, absinthe drinking, police politics. And I notice a lot of description of pastries in this series….
The Coffin Trail (Lake District Mysteries; 2007) by Martin Edwards. Daniel Kind, popular historian, and his new girlfriend, Miranda, leave Oxford and on impulse decide to chuck their jobs and settle in the Lake District, in a house where Kind’s friend Barrie Gilpin had once lived; Gilpin was the main suspect in the murder of an attractive woman several years ago, but he fell to his death before he could be questioned. Now that case is about to be reopened by Kind’s father’s protégé, DCI Hannah Scarlett. The detective story, and exploration of several relationships, are interesting enough but something is lacking.
The Swerve: How the World Became Modern (2011) by Stephen Greenblatt. Non-fiction, for a bookgroup. The book is about how Lucretius’s poem, On the Nature of Things — which is full of Epicurus’s ideas about many things, including how all things are made of atoms, the nature of the afterlife (a void) and the soul (material and therefore mortal), the un-centrality of humans in the universe, the cruelty and superstitious nature of all religion, and his proposal that the pursuit of happiness is the highest good in life — was rediscovered in 1417, centuries after it was written. Started out interesting, bogged down in the middle, and never quite grabbed my attention again. Felt very padded.
The Weird Sisters (2011) by Eleanor Brown, fiction for bookgroup. About the three grown Andreas sisters, all avid readers, daughters of a Shakespearean scholar who named them for characters in the bard’s plays and who often speaks in couplets (so do the girls, having been trained from an early age). All three are failures in their own ways, and they are not close to each other but now are spending months together at their childhood home with their parents, while their mother is undergoing breast cancer treatment. Light and engaging.
Vienna Secrets (2009/2010) by Frank Tallis, 4th in the Liebermann series, set in 1903 Vienna. Brutal beheadings amidst an atmosphere in Vienna of animosity between Christians and Jews, with anti-Jewish sentiment running through corridors of power. An Hasidic sect, plague statues, Jewish mysticism (kabbalah) and Freud, the myths of the golem and of Lilith, the domes of Brunelleschi, the Catholic newspaper Das Vaterland (which both advocated Catholic socialism and was anti-Semitic and anti-Liberal; capitalism and the ‘Jewish spirit’ were seen as synonymous; more here) all figure in the plot.
Walking into the Ocean (2012) by David Whellams, a debut novel and the first in a projected trilogy featuring Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Peter Cammon. One of the better written crime novels I’ve read. The plot is complex – a mechanic seems to have murdered his wife before himself drowning in the English Channel, and meanwhile several girls have been murdered at various intervals along the nearby cliffs, all leading Cammon back and forth from London to Dorset, and Devon to the island of Malta — but it’s almost beside the point. And don’t get me started on the several churches and priests, and the Annunciation-themed shadow boxes Cammon likes to construct in his shed. If you like atmospheric, careful (almost ponderous) prose, you’ll like this. Reminds me of some of Reginald Hill’s books.
Dead Scared (2012) by SJ Bolton. Bringing back characters DC Lacey Flint and DI Mark Joesbury from Now You See Me (2010) and psychologist Evi Oliver from Blood Harvest (2011), this novel is set at Cambridge, where too many students, mostly females, have been committing suicide in usually complex and violent ways. Lacey is sent in, posing as a student, and finds herself drawn into a deadly game. A page-turner.
Murder in the Bastille (2003) by Cara Black, 4th in the Aimee Leduc series, set in Paris. This book was interminable. The pacing was off, the plot and cast of characters got so convoluted I had no idea and didn’t care whodunit, and the ending was completely unsatisfying. The only thing that kept me reading was the Aimee’s character is mildly interesting (and I had nothing else else to read).
Have Mercy on Us All (2001/2003) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. This is the first book I’ve read in the series (the only one my local library had) and I promptly interlibrary-loaned the rest. Well-written, interesting plot — this one has a Black Death connection — and characters (not just the recurring flics).
Broken Harbor (2012) by Tana French. Set in the languishing seaside development of Ocean View, at Broken Harbor, not far from Dublin, this novel’s protagonist is Detective Sargent Mick Kennedy (also in Faithful Place) of the murder squad. He and his new rookie trainee, Garda Richie Curran, are assigned to the case of a family killed in their home. The plot is complex and interesting, character development solid, philosophical musings and explorations somewhat nuanced. I think I still prefer French’s first book, In the Woods, but this novel is very good.
The Chalk Circle Man (1991 L’Homme aux cercles bleus/2009) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. This is the first book in the series and very similar in many ways to the plot of Have Mercy on Us All. Someone is drawing blue circles around items on the sidewalks in Paris; eventually a corpse shows up in one, as Adamsberg has been expecting. This book introduces Matilde, Camille’s mother.
The Prague Cemetery (2010/2011) by Umberto Eco. Interesting book reminiscent of The Secret Sharer. Set in mid-to-late-1880s, mostly in Paris. Forger Simonini, at age 68, seems to have developed amnesia, or does he have two personalities (or states), or is he actually sharing his flat with a priest? To determine what’s up, he writes down his life story, hoping it will reveal what’s caused this gap in his consciousness. His life seems to have been spent spreading a conspiracy theory about the Jews/Masons/Jesuits. A bit difficult to follow, mainly because there are so many characters!, but interesting and well-written.
Night Watch (2012) by Linda Fairstein, the 14th in the Alex Cooper (Manhattan sex crimes prosecutor) series. Set first in France, then in New York, much of the plot is based loosely on the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case in 2011, with the usual history lessons thrown in. Alex is still dating Luc, who is opening a restaurant in NYC.
Wash This Blood Clean from My Hand (2004/2007) by Fred Vargas, in the Chief Inspector Adamsberg series, set in Paris. A killer from Adamsberg’s past commits new murders with the unmistakeable signature of a trident weapon. Set in Paris and in part of Quebec province in Canada.
Main Street (1920) by Sinclair Lewis, for bookgroup. A classic I had never read, the book takes on issues of conformity, anti-immigration sentiment, progressivism vs. conservatism, class stratification, sexism, reform vs. revolution, idealism vs. contentment, and more in the 1910s, before, during and after World War I.
John James Audubon: The Making of an American (2006) by Richard Rhodes: For a bookgroup. This was a slog. More than 400 pages of small print, but what made it difficult is that there are hundreds of names and dates that turn out to be insignificant to the layperson, but the (conscientious) reader doesn’t know what’s going to matter so has to read them all, and it’s slow going. I think the book is meant to be a scholarly, comprehensive biography of Audubon (1785-1851), but its audience is likely not scholars. I learned some things, like for how much of a marriage couples might live apart in frontier days (though the Audubons were unusually separated), and about early American economic crises and mass bankruptcies (e.g., following the War of 1812 and the Louisiana Purchase).
An Uncertain Place ( 2009/2011) by Fred Vargas, in the Adamsberg series, this one set mostly in Serbia and concerning a (true: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_Plogojowitz) vampire story. Interesting, and well-written, as always.
When We Were the Kennedys (2012) by Monica Wood. Excellent memoir of one pivotal event in Wood’s own life in 1963 and its reverberations. Set mostly in the paper mill town of Mexico, Maine (near Rumford).
The Beautiful Mystery (2012) by Louise Penney, eighth in the Chief Inspector Gamache series, but this one is almost entirely set at Saint-Gilbert-Entre-les-Loups monastery in remote Quebec, home of the Gilbertines, who sing Gregorian chants. One of their order has been murdered in a private garden, and Gamache and Beauvoir have to find the culprit while learning about neumes, chants, church history and chickens, and in the midst of tension between two factions of monks, between Gamache’s boss (who eventually joins them at the monastery) and his underlings, and between Gamache and a still-fragile Beauvoir.
Bones are Forever (2012) by Kathy Reichs, 15 in the Tempe Brennan forensic anthropology series. Not her best. A newborn baby found wedged in a vanity cabinet in a rundown apartment near Montreal leads Brennan and Ryan to the Canada’s Northwest Territories, to Edmonton and then farther north to Yellowknife in a convoluted plot that involves diamond mining, prostitution, Cornelia de Lange Syndrome, Edmonton’s growth and conflict with indigenous peoples, etc. Boring.
The Bone Bed (2012) by Patricia Cornwell: 20th in the Scarpetta series, set in the Boston area. Not a gripping read but pretty typical of a Scarpetta crime novel. In this one she does a harbor dive to bring up the body of a woman (who was attached to a very large sea turtle that was clinging to life when discovered), who might or might not be the wife of a wealthy man on trial for her murder, at whose trail Scarpetta has to unwillingly testify. Lucy figures a bit (not enough, IMO), Marino less than usual. Her relationship with Benton is as fraught with distrust and anxiety as always. Scarpetta spends a lot of time worrying about whether Benton’s had an affair, and he’s worried she is going to have one. Jealousy fuels their sex life and their dysfunctional marriage. I also noticed that the connector “and” is used entirely too much in Cornwell’s books.
DaVinci’s Ghost (2012) by Toby Lester. One of the worst books I’ve read in a long time. (Read for a bookgroup.) It’s disorganized, the writing prosaic in the extreme, and, like The Swerve, a book it strongly resembles — in fact, I am starting to feel that this sort of forced enlargement of one small historical work or event is the template for non-fiction these days — it fails to make its point, which is, I think, based on the subtitle, that Leonardo “created the world in his own image” — because he sketched Vitruvian Man based on proportions in a 1st-century B.C. text? There is so much conjunction and supposition throughout this book that eventually it felt to me that there was little substance here.
Introduction to Permaculture (1991) by Bill Mollison and Reny Mia Slay: Read this for my permaculture discussion group from Oct-Dec. Some of it was useful in a northern, temperate climate, but about 1/3 of it was really geared to tropical or desert areas. Mollison is from Tasmania and the frequency with which he talks of volcanoes, bamboo, acacias, etc., makes the book not quite as useful for most of North America as it might have been. There were also a few chapters devoted to raising animals, which is not something I plan to do. That said, it was a good reminder of some permaculture principles and practices. The chapter on Understanding Patterns in Nature was my favourite.
Phantom (2011/2012) by Jo Nesbø: In the Harry Hole series. Harry returns from Hong Kong when he’s told that Oleg, the son of his sometime girlfriend and true love, Rakel Fauke, has been arrested for the murder of his flatmate and drug dealing pal Gusto. The engine of this book’s plot is an injectable drug called Violin, a homemade super-heroin now all the rage in Norway. The story is told in the present and through the pov of the dying Gusto. Quite gritty, even for Jo Nesbø.
Kissing Christmas Goodbye (2007) by M.C. Beaton: In the Agatha Raisin cozy series set in the Cotswolds. A domineering, cruel matriarch contacts Agatha because she thinks one of her family will kill her, and, surprise, one of her (rather nasty) family does kill her. Agatha has a new assistant, Toni, 17. who is already a gifted detective but has family problems of her own. This is the first I’ve read in the series and it’s pretty bad, even for a cozy. The writing is pathetic (especially the dialogue), the plotting is fair, there are almost no descriptive passages, and this book — which was billed as Christmas fare — is set in late fall, with only the last 20 pages or so having anything to do with Christmas.
Busy Body (2011) by M.C. Beaton: In the Agatha Raisin series. I took this one and Kissing Christmas Goodbye out of the library before Christmas, so I went ahead and read this one, too. The plot — first an oppressive codes enforcement officer is killed; next, someone who hires Agatha to clear her name, and then that woman’s American relatives are involved and Agatha goes to Philadelphia, and so on — was slightly more complex than KCG but it was also quite preposterous in places. The writing was slightly better, I thought, though there were some dialogue clunkers. Again, purported to be set at Christmas but only the first and last bits were (though it is somewhat central to the plot motivation). Probably my last of this series.
A Holly, Jolly Murder (1997) by Joan Hess: In the Claire Malloy cozy series. Malloy runs a small bookstore in Arkansas (though the place hardly matters) and solves murders in her spare time. This one really is set at Christmas: the subplot involves a mall Santa, while the main plot involves a small community of neo-Druids, Wiccans, and other assorted solstice-celebrating pagans who keep involving Claire in their business then accusing her of being involved in their business. This book is much better and more amusingly written than the Agatha Raisins (above) but the plot device of the amateur sleuth being unable to say “No” to the most ludicrous, dangerous and inconvenient requests is old.
Sugar Cookie Murder (2004) by Joanne Fluke: “A Hannah Swensen Holiday Mystery with Recipes.” Predictable plot and disappointing ending, but amusing writing, interesting cast of characters (Hannah, her boyfriends, her mother, her sisters). Set in small-town Lake Eden, Minnesota, the action begins at a town-wide Christmas recipe-testing buffet party. The whole book is 341 pp but the mystery is only 168 pp … the rest is recipes! If you like culinary mysteries or are looking for something with a Christmas feel, this one’s for you.