Books Read, 2009

Books read in 2009:

(previous lists: 2004, 2003, 2002)

January

Scarpetta (2008) by Patricia Cornwell. Forensic crime fiction.  Excellent.

Offshore (1979) by Penelope Fitzgerald. For bookgroup. Won Booker Prize. Not sure why …

February

Before the Frost (2004) by Henning Mankell. Police procedural/thriller set in parts of Sweden and in Copenhagen, Denmark. Begins with the killings at Jonestown, Guyana. Good.

Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (1996) by Richard Rohr. Some quibbles, but in all, I liked it and found it inspirational.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) by Barbara Kingsolver. Tedious, amusing, informative, interesting, irritating, engaging, by turns. She makes lots of arguments for eating locally, sustainably, and humanely grown everything, including animals.

The Oldie Annual 2009 (2008). Hardbound collection of essays and articles from The Oldie magazine. Mostly LOL hilarious, sometimes poignant, occasionally baffling.

One Step Behind (1997; transl. 2002) by Henning Mankell, a Kurt Wallander crime novel, set mostly in Sweden. Liked it, found it very engaging (read it in three days), though in some ways it was too similar to his only Linda Wallander crime novel, which I read earlier in the month.

March

Firewall (1998; transl. 2002) by Henning Mankell, a Kurt Wallander crime novel, set mostly in Sweden, and a bit in Angola. Again, there were plot aspects in this novel that were similar to bits in the other two novels of his that I’ve read. And as in the other two, the killers’ pov is offered at times.

Lethal Legacy (2009), 11th in the Alex Cooper series, set in NYC, by Linda Fairstein. So-so. I like the tone and ambiance of this series, but often there’s too much historical information packed in, awkwardly.  This one was about rare books and maps, rare map and book collecting,  and the history of the New York Public Library.

The Man Who Smiled (1994; transl. 2005) by Henning Mankell. Another in the Wallander series. First one I’ve read in the series that didn’t include the killer’s pov.

The Fifth Woman (1996; transl. 2000) by Henning Mankell, in the Wallander series. This one includes killer’s pov. Motive is revenge for others’ sakes, or for the sake of ‘justice.’  Besides the murder plot, there is a small sidebar on vigilante justice and citizens’ militias in the face of perceived police ineffectiveness and rising societal violence.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), the classic by Carson McCullers. I liked it. Set in the poor South in the late 1930s, it’s a bit dismal and it also seems true.

Scattered Graves (2009) by Beverly Connor in the Diane Fallon series.  Set in Georgia. As usual, the constant level of action that Fallon is involved in without actually being killed (or even breaking a bone) requires major suspension of disbelief, but I like the series. This one focused on cybercrime.

April

Donna Leon’s The Girl of His Dreams (2008), in the Commissario Guido Brunetti series. This is the second I’ve read in the series and as with the first, I just couldn’t get into it.  Kind of boring, the mysteries not complex or satisfying,  the dialogue only OK. I do like the talk of food and the regular references to the leisurely pace of eating in Italy. This one was about political corruption and ethnic tensions, particularly between the Venetians and the Gypsies (Romanies) living in Venice.  Doubt I will read another.

Still Waters (2007) by Nigel McCrery, apparently the first in a new series set in the UK and featuring DCI Mark Lapslie, who has synaesthesia — he tastes sounds.  The plot focused on a traumatised child who grew into a (seemingly friendly and harmless) psychopathic serial killer.  (Think Miss Marple if she had turned to a life of committing crime instead of a life solving it.) I liked it, though two or three times I found it melodramatic and too obvious.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows is probably best described as a romance novel. Our bookgroup is reading it this month (casting about for something light and quick after The Heart is  a Lonely Hunter) , and like many popular bookgroup reads, it’s pretty bad.  It’s an epistolary novel, set in 1946 in the immediate aftermath of the 5-year Nazi occupation of Guernsey, an English island among the Channel Islands between the UK and France. It’s very obvious very early on how it will end and it’s a bit of a slog to get there. The letters are charming, the heroines exceptionally kind and brave, and the plot boring as can be.

Mind’s Eye (published as The Wide-Meshed Net in Sweden, 1993; transl. 2008) by Håkan Nesser,  an Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery, set some place in northern Europe, in a city called Maardam (which Wikipedia says is “in a country which is never named but resembles Sweden, the Netherlands, Poland and Germany. The names however are mostly Dutch.”) First in the series. Felt unbalanced, with most of the book taken up in abstraction, leaving the plot condensed and almost limited to the last few pages. Sometimes people weren’t named, so the reader has to guess whose pov we’re getting, or whose actions are being described.

The Glass Devil (2003; transl. English 2007) by Helene Tursten, apparently the second in the Irene Huss series, set in Göteborg,  Sweden. I liked it a lot. This one concerned Satanism, Christian religion and child pornography, and was set both in Sweden and in London (and briefly in Edinburgh).

The Torso (2000; transl. English 2006) by Helene Tursten, third in the Irene Huss Swedish police procedural series. Set in Göteborg, Sweden and in Copenhagen, Denmark.  Excellent, if very graphic and dark, as you might expect with sadistic necrophilia as its focus.  The characterisation in this series is strong,  and the plotting elements are tight. My only major annoyance with this book was that I knew who did it 100 pages before the police figured it out.  I wondered if they ever would.

All the Colours of Darkness (2008) by Peter Robinson, the 18th in the Alan Banks police procedural series, set in Eastvale (Yorkshire) and London.  I was 3 months on the library waiting list for this! Always worth the wait; Robinson is one of the best crime fiction writers, and Alan Banks and Annie Cabot are sympathetic figures. This one took its cues from Othello, with its successful incitement of jealous rages, with some M16 thrown in for good conspiracy measure.

Ladder of Years (1995) by Anne Tyler. A re-read, for bookgroup. Lovely fiction, set in Baltimore (Roland Park) and the Eastern Shore. My favourite of hers.

May

Detective Inspector Huss (1998; transl. English 2003) by Helene Tursten, first in the Irene Huss Swedish police procedural series. Set in Göteborg, Sweden. My least fav. of the three in this series so far available in English.  Involved Hell’s Angels, skinheads, drug dealing, and a wealthy family and their associates. Set at Advent.

Sidetracked (1995; transl. 1999) by Henning Mankell, a early entry in the Wallender police procedural series. Set in Sweden, mostly in Ystad and Malmo, in summer. Killer’s pov included; motive is avenging injustice done to others via sacrificing the unjust as propitiation.  Other plot aspects include relationships between parents and children, and political corruption and trafficking of under-age prostitutes from South America to Europe.  And betting on World Cup soccer.

Faceless Killers (1991; transl. 1997) by Henning Mankell, the first the Kurt Wallender series. No killer pov. His least dark book, imo, but one that evokes a sense of sadness, grief, loss. Focus on asylum-seekers and the tension between liberal immigration policies and racism. Set from January to early fall, in Ystad, Malmo, Lunnarp, Kristianstad.

Borkmann’s Point (1994; transl. 2006) by Håkan Nesser,  an Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery, set some place in northern Europe, in a town called Kaalbringen. Excellent plot, deft writing. As with so many of these books (crime novels? Swedish/Northern European crime novels?), the motive is ostensibly to avenge another of a perceived injustice.

He Who Fears the Wolf (1997; transl. 2003) 3rd in the Sejer/Skarre series in Norway. An elderly widow in a small village is killed, and the troubled boy who finds the body also reports seeing recently escaped (and roundly feared) mental patient Errki Johrma in the area. Then Johrma turns up as the hostage in a bank robbery, and he’s taken by the robber to hide out in a cabin.

Don’t Look Back (2002; transl. 2002) by Karin Fossum, an Inspector Sejer mystery, set someplace in Norway.  Very readable,with good balance of interior monologue, dialogue, plot activity, atmosphere, etc. Plot OK though stretched believability in spots (especially at the end). Character development, oddly, seemed stronger for the deceased than for the police (Sejer and sidekick Skarre) — unusual in a police procedural series! Children and teens prominent in the book.

Winter Study (2008) by Nevada Barr in the Anna Pigeon National Parks series. This one is set in winter at Isle Royale in Lake Superior, as was Barr’s Superior Death (1994).  Fast-paced, lots of plot and lots of setting. Some animal-on-animal killing and human-on-animal killing, as well as the usual interhuman crimes.  What I like about this series is primarily Anna — her dark humour, her no-frills ‘yes you can!’ approach, her psychic damage, her innate humaneness coupled with an edge that’s both anxious and cynical.

The Indian Bride (2005; aka Calling Out For You), by Karin Fossum in the Inspector Sejer series. Exploration of small-town relationships: gossip, adulteries, repressions, observations from the shadows, whispers, broken friendships, etc.  Though someone is charged with murder, it’s all left rather open-ended whether he’s actually guilty, whether someone else in town did it.  Pet dogs are also a bit of a sidebar. Rather a sweet book, really.

Back When We Were Grownups (2001) by Anne Tyler. Another lovely book. Tyler’s writing is so perceptive, funny, compassionate, down-to-earth honest. When I read her books, I feel that I am really inhabiting the world of the story. This is the story of a widow, a young grandmother who is the step-mother of three daughters and mother of another, who feels in her 50s that she is living a false life, so she gets in touch with a jilted college boyfriend to try to find her true life.

The Return (1995, transl. 2007) by Håkan Nesser,  an Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery, set in fictional Maardam in northern Europe, in which the police return to two old murders, for which a man who has now himself been murdered was convicted on very little evidence. Morally, a particularly interesting ending.  In this case, none of the murders was committed to avenge another.

The Clock Winder (1972) by Anne Tyler. I read this about 15 years ago and much of it came back to me as I re-read it. It’s a novel about a somewhat aimless, passive, agreeable young woman who is terrified that she will inflict permanent damage to others if she acts decisively. She gets a job as a handyman for an older widow in Baltimore’s Roland Park and becomes enmeshed in the woman’s family.

Earthly Possessions (1977) by Anne Tyler. Sort of a variation on, or a rehearsal of, Ladder of Years. In this one, the disaffected woman is kidnapped instead of making a definite choice to leave. I sympathise with her desire to remove clutter.  This book is not set in Baltimore. It’s a road trip to Florida.

June

Sun and Shadow (1999; transl. 2003) by Åke Edwardson, an Erik Winter police procedural novel set in Gothenburg, Sweden. Quite a lot about Winter and his personal life (his father dies, his girlfriend becomes pregnant and moves in). The mystery plot was OK; I felt that the ending was rushed and unsatisfying, and there seems to have been a huge red herring, but I’d have to go back and reread to make sure of that.

Never End (2000; transl. 2006) by Åke Edwardson, an Erik Winter police procedural novel set in Gothenburg, Sweden.  Involves rape and murder. The ending didn’t feel so abrupt in this one as Sun and Shadow but it still wasn’t very convincing. I felt there were lots of threads left hanging. The writing is pleasant to read, though.

Black Seconds (2002; transl. 2007) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series, set in Norway.  Again, children and teens prominent, and again, someone with a developmental disability and/or autism a focal point. Plotting felt good to me. Ending not a big surprise, made sense. Sejer and Skarre are likable characters.

Jar City (2000, transl. 2004, aka Tainted Blood) by Arnaldur Indriðason, the first (in English) in the Inspector Erlendur police procedural series. (The cover blurb calls it a ‘thriller’ but it’s not.) Set in Iceland, mostly in Reykjavik. Not bad. Plotting elements: rape, genetics, parent-child relationships.

Woman with Birthmark (1996, transl. 2009) by Håkan Nesser,  an Inspector Van Veeteren Mystery, set in fictional Maardam in northern Europe.  Killer is avenging wrong done to her mother by systematically killing the men involved. Not much story beyond the plot, which is a little slow.

The Draining Lake (2004, transl. 2007 ) by Arnaldur Indriðason, the fifth (in English) in the Inspector Erlendur police procedural series. Set in Iceland, mostly in Reykjavik, and in East Germany (Leipzig) in the late 1950s. Strong emphasis on socialism and how far from its ideals it strayed in Eastern bloc countries after WWII. Could be considered a reservoir noir novel; although a town isn’t uncovered, a long-dead body is when an Icelandic lake is suddenly drained of water due to an earthquake. Another theme in the book is coincidence.

Voices (2003, transl. 2006) by Arnaldur Indriðason, the fourth (in English)  in the Inspector Erlendur police procedural series. Set in Iceland, mostly at a hotel. There are two plots, one the murder of a middle-aged hotel doorman who had once been a choirboy with an amazing voice, and the other the court case of a boy who seems to have been abused by his father. Much of Erlendur’s interior monologue concerns a pivotal incident from his own childhood.

Olive Kitteridge (2008) by Elizabeth Strout, a Pulitzer Prize winner, read for bookgroup. Not a novel but a series of short stories set mostly in Maine, some of  which focus on Olive Kitteridge, a former math teacher with a strong personality, and some of which simply mention her in passing.  Very quick read. A bit disappointing. The idea is that the reader would see Olive from various angles and perspectives (her son’s, her husband’s, her former students, other people in town, her own sense of herself) but I felt that that was told to us rather than shown to us in most cases. Still, lovely slice-of-life writing, with some insight and humour.

The Princess of Burundi (2006) by Kjell Eriksson, a debut novel that won the Swedish Crime Academy’s award for best crime novel. Set in Uppsala, focuses on the torture and murder of a family man, tropical fish hobbyish, and small-time criminal. I sort of lost the plot somewhere but the writing is good and I look forward to learning  more about some of the police officers.

July

Missing (2000, transl. 2003) by Karin Alvtegen won the Best Nordic Crime Novel in 2000. It’s about a woman on the margins of society who is wanted for brutal murders she hasn’t committed. This is not a police procedural, and in fact police are rarely mentioned other than as faceless dangers to be avoided, because they and the media, sure that this woman is guilty, are relentlessly trying to track her down.  Not so much a crime novel as a thriller, I’d say. Strong development of the primary character (including through flashbacks of her oppressive childhood), good pacing, somewhat disappointing denoument.

Frozen Tracks (2001; transl. 2007) by Åke Edwardson, an Erik Winter police procedural novel set in Gothenburg, Sweden.  No actual murder takes place. This is very much a ‘sins of the fathers’ sort of novel, in which damage done by dads to sons is instrumental in perpetuating further damage in the larger world, with other children and teens as prominent victims. The ending was abrupt again (though the reader has known for a while who the main perpetrator is).  What I particularly enjoy about the series is the rather dark viewpoint of Winters and other cops, and the camaraderie among them.

Awakening (2009) by SJ Bolton. I liked her first book, Sacrifice, and this one was even better. It features Clara, a wild animal vet with a disfiguring scar on her face, and a plague of snakes in a small Dorset village. Clara’s character is interesting, complex, and sympathetically drawn, and the minor characters are also realistically portrayed. The plot is also complex — perhaps a little too. I enjoyed reading it and didn’t want the book to end.

After the Flood (2002) by Peter Turnbull, a British police procedural featuring DCI George Hennessey and DS Yellich, set in Yorkshire. The editing and printing by Severn House were sloppy and distracting  — several typos, and the large font is clunky.  The dialogue was a bit strange in places — again, distracting, though I’m not sure why. I didn’t get a good sense of either Hennessey or Yellich – don’t think I can tell them apart. The mystery plot was solid and satisfying, so I will try another one.  A blurb on a more recent book in the series said that if you like Peter Robinson’s Banks series, you’d like this, but so far that seems quite a stretch: Robinson’s writing and character development is far superior.

Dark Secrets (2002) by Peter Turnbull, a British police procedural featuring DCI George Hennessey and DS Yellich, set mostly in Yorkshire and a bit in London. Better than the previous one I read (After the Flood), though there was one glaring error: the battlefield at Gettysburg was sited in Virginia! Another problem with the series is that too much backstory is repeated from one book to the next, as though each were read as a standalone and the reader needed filling in. This is done more elegantly in other series I read regularly. Even within this particular plot, one observation was repeated at least four times, which just feels like sloppy editing. Otherwise, the mystery was well-plotted and -paced, and I did feel I got to know (and appreciate) both main characters better.

Suite Française (2006) by Irène Némirovsky, a novel written during the German occupation of France in WWII. Actually, it’s just the first two pieces of what Némirovsky envisioned as a 5-part novel; she was arrested and died in a concentration camp in the summer of 1942, before she could finish writing it. The heart of the novel as it exists — which covers the 2-3-week mass exodus from Paris on the eve of the Germans’ occupation of the city in 1940 and the occupation of the provincial villages by the Germans for months afterward (1940-1941) — is the lives of ordinary humans living in extraordinary times, and it is a witness both to the extreme demands made on people of all classes and to their varying abilities to acclimate to the unthinkable — and to maintain the strong boundaries of class distinction while doing it! It was a bit of a slog, especially the second section, but it was also witty, insightful and above all humane throughout. Reading the appendix, letters, and preface to the French edition, which includes a short bio of Némirovsky (whose family had fled Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917), adds depth to the story.

The Cruel Stars of the Night (2007) by Kjell Eriksson, in the series featuring Inspector and single mother Ann Lindell and the others on the Uppsala violent crimes squad. The novel follows Ann at work and home (her young son, dating) as well as the alternately ruthless and befuddled serial killer they’re searching for, whose relationship with her parents  has been complex and unhappy (to say the least) and who feels she has been “abused by words” all her life.  Well-plotted, with characters, even minor ones, who feel real.

August

The Spider’s Web (1998) by Nigel McCrery, one of the ‘Silent Witness’ series featuring Cambridge (England) pathologist Sam(antha) Ryan and Serial Crimes Unit Superintendent Tom Adams.  Set in the small fictitious village  of  Sowerby in Norfolk (not the real one in Yorkshire), the clever plot starts slow and builds momentum as it goes.  Unfortunately, Sam is yet another career-driven and lonely woman (she seems to have only one female friend, whom she doesn’t have time to see socially) who is desperate for the wrong man, a type seen all too often in crime fiction. Besides the atrocious editing of St. Martin’s Press — I counted more than 10 typos and other errors —  the other distraction was that much of the plot centers on ‘the Net’ as they apparently called it in 1998, and the lingo and processes related to ‘the Net’ are dated. This book offered an interesting puzzle and kept me reading well into the night, but I like his newer series better.

The Pure in Heart (2005) by Susan Hill, second in a police procedural series featuring DCI Simon Serrailler and DS Nathan Coates, set in the fictional cathedral town of Lafferton, England.  This one focuses on families: the kidnapping of a child and the disintegration of the family involved, the unpleasantness of an ex-con’s sister and her family, Serrailler’s own family-of-origin dynamics before and after the death of his sister Martha and the birth of his new nephew, Felix.  The plot is really secondary to relationship dynamics and character development in this novel.

The Risk of Darkness (2005) by Susan Hill, third in a police procedural series featuring DCI Simon Serrailler. This one follows directly on the heels of The Pure in Heart and solves the case. Rather a sad novel: much death, people leaving and destroying relationships, leaving jobs, a pervading sense of ‘the damage done. ‘

Our Lady of Pain (2008) by Elena Forbes, a Barnes Murder Squad Mystery, featuring DI Mark Tartaglia and DS Sam Donovan (female), set near London. Sexual deviation (S&M, bondage, incest), cruelty disguised by an angelic face and body, secrets and lies, the poet Swinburne, and the blurred jagged line between love and hate are elements of this story about the murders, about a year apart, of two young women.  Well-written, with characters I cared about and an interesting plot.

Die with Me (2007) by Elena Forbes, the first in the Barnes Murder Squad Mystery, featuring DI Mark Tartaglia and DS Sam Donovan (female), set near London. This one was referred to from time to time in Our Lady of Pain, so I already knew some of the plot and outcome — about a serial killer who preys on vulnerable, depressed, lonely women and girls and involves them in suicide pacts that are not as mutual as they seem — when I started the book.  The motive given for the killer’s actions is twofold: his pathetic childhood and his (perhaps) innate urge to kill, which he likens to an urge to eat when one is hungry. Side plots involve the creepy and apparently charming criminal profiler brought in on the case, the aftermath of Mark’s affair with a pathologist, and adjusting to a new DCI brought in to head the murder team.

Blackwater (1993, transl. 1995) by Kerstin Ekman, is more novel than it is crime fiction. Set in a remote area of Sweden and Norway, mainly at  Midsummer’s Eve in 1974, and then 18 years later.  The pov and times blend together, and the characters interact over time in changing configurations, so I was utterly confused for about 50 pages.  But the writing is compelling and wondrously strange, and the book is complex: long-held secrets and beliefs turn out to be illusions; many events converge as one and a single event disperses itself into many (as in life); the landscape and flora and fauna, and all the six senses, are key elements; the story weaves into itself philosophical views of politics (particularly pertaining to clear-cutting), sex, educational theory, communal living, etc. There is a police officer on the case, at least at first, but in the end it’s the doctor who is really the investigator. . Moody, atmospheric, tense, and at times very dark and primitive, like the smell of woodland soil, a dank well, a thick and ancient eel.

The Zookeeper’s Wife (2007) by Diane Ackerman, a non-fiction book about the Zabinskis, a Polish couple who, horrified by the Nazis and their actions, act humanely and courageously during the unspeakably tragic and harrowing ghetto-ising, liquidation and bombing of their city of Warsaw by the Germans in WWII. Though their zoo is destroyed early on — most of the animals bombed, shot or plundered — the Zabinskis manage, with humor and grace, to care for hundreds of Jews seeking temporary refuge, as well as for a number of pets both wild and domestic.  With threads detailing Nazi SS hunting machismso, eugenics theory and the desire to recreate extinct ancient animal breeds, the Polish Underground, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, zoology, the Polish forest primeval of Białowieża, the constant conflict, danger and risk assessment inherent in living in a war-torn country, the charming ways that wild animals adapted to the household, and the bravery it takes to maintain a “spirit of affection and humor” through 5+ years of strife and upheaval, this should have been a much better book. Instead it felt like a quilt constructed by a novice seamstress in a hurry. It just didn’t hang together. Most of the chapters were somehow boring and meandering, and those that weren’t vividly depicted awful things happening to animals while offering little in the way of insight or charm (though there was some, which is why I wished so ardently for more).  The book was marred too by the author’s repeated conjectures as to what the characters would likely have done, where they would likely have shopped, what they would surely have eaten; the book is pieced together from diaries, interviews, photographs, and other records, and Ackerman is scrupulous about reminding the reader when the absolute veracity of facts is in doubt, in a way that I found very distracting and detrimental to the flow of the story.  One scene that did capture my imagination was that of some of the zoo animals, released late in 1939 from their cages by sortie bombing, fleeing through the city of Warsaw, side of jowl with each other and the town’s people: “Seals waddled along the banks of the Vistula, camels and llamas wandered down alleyways, hooves skidding on cobblestone, ostriches and antelopes trotted beside foxes and wolves, anteaters called out … as they scuttled over bricks. Locals saw blurs of fur and hide bolting past factories and apartment houses, racing to outlying fields of oats, buckwheat, and flax, scrambling into creeks, hiding in stairwells and sheds.”

Unspoken (2004, transl. 2007) by Mari Jungstedt, police procedural featuring Det. Superintendent Anders Knutas and DI Karin Jacobsson, set mostly in the town of Visby on the  Swedish island of Gotland, and also in Stockholm. A 14-year-old girl goes missing and an alcoholic photographer is brutally murdered. Side story involves a woman trying to decide whether to stay with her husband and kids or leave them for a Stockholm-based TV journalist.  Writing, plotting, and character development are all serviceable, even strong in places.  The setting isn’t as primary as in many Swedish crime novels.

What Never Happens (2004, transl. 2008) by Anne Holt, a Norwegian police procedural set mostly in Oslo, including killer’s pov. About 1/3 of the book is taken up with the family life of detective Adam Stubo and his wife, Johanne Vik, who is a profiler. They have a 10-year-old daughter with severe impulse-control issues, as well as a newborn. The couple’s relationship is at times contentious, at times tender in a way that bewilders me but might be true for some relationships. The plot is solid and intriguing, the writing on the prosaic side but thoughtful and pleasing. I like the treatment of some of the larger issues, such as the way a murder investigation has a ripple effect (generally, a damaging one) on even those peripherally involved. Also the focus on boredom, or desire to feel life more strongly, as a motivator for crime.

September

Cheating at Solitaire (2008) by Jane Haddam, a Gregor Demarkian crime novel set in Margaret’s Harbor (thinly veiled Martha’s Vineyard) in winter and featuring lots of vapid movies stars. Demarkian is a sort of consultant on high-profile crimes. The crime plot was so-so and some major events are left unexplained. This is my first in the Demarkian  series and the narrative (non-dialog, non-plot) writing struck me as overdone. There’s just too much pondering the same topics — mostly, how stupid or uneducated people feel devalued by and resentful of others, and how smart or educated people think that others are shallow — over and over again. (I’ve just begun another in the series, Living Witness, and am finding the same acres of writing about the same topic!)  There’s also way too much about Demarkian’s personal life: his engagement, the extravagant wedding plans, the community of Armenian women in the Philadelphia neighbourhood he grew up in, etc. Many of the characters are likable, though, and I do appreciate some of the narrative and philosophising, especially when it’s more subtle, which is why I’m reading another one.

Living Witness (2009) by Jane Haddam, another in the Demarkian series. This time he’s in Snow Hill, a rural community outside of Philadelphia, where a battle has long been enjoined between the forces of secularism and the forces of conservative Christianity, this time in the context of the place of evolution and  ‘Intelligent Design’ in the public schools, and to a lesser extent, of ‘town’ folk vs. ‘development people’ — the small-town people who have always lived there and the new, educated, wealthier people who are viewed as infiltrators. The Christians  — with two notable exceptions — are almost all depicted as extremely narrow-minded and ignorant (if not downright stupid), and proud of their ignorance and stupidity; the secularists (some townies, some development people) are depicted as either contemptuous of the Christians or completely unaware of them.  As in Cheating at Solitaire, the primary tension — even beyond evolution/Creationism, secularism/religion, and old town/new development — is between people who value a liberal education and those who don’t. The plot has a nice twist at the end but the book is a bit hard to read because the hateful, spiteful thoughts of many of the characters are repeated over and over, with the result that the novel feels largely populated by hardened and extremist positions instead of actual people.

The Water’s Edge (2007; transl. 2009) by Karin Fossum, in the Inspector Sejer series, set in Norway.  Yet again, children and teens prominent as victims and perpetrators, as well as pedophiles, teachers, and mothers who’ve lost children or who haven’t had children they’ve wanted. The book is short by modern crime fiction standards (227 pp) and felt short and rather spare, economical, in the way it managed multiple related threads. Didn’t learn much more about Sejer and Skarre but the thoughts and feelings of the mothers were explored at some length.

The Headmaster’s Wife (2005) by Jane Haddam: I liked this one better than the later two  I read (Cheating at Solitaire and Living Witness). It has by far the better title, referencing the central mimetic figure of the story who [spoiler alert] ends up having little to do with the crimes being investigated. Demarkian is at a private boarding school in Massachusetts at the request of a 16-year-old family friend who seems to be losing his mind and whose roommate  has just seemingly committed suicide.  There are certainly caricaturish rivalries in this story, as in her others, but the treatment here is a bit more subtle, and very little of Demarkian’s private life intrudes. (Usually, I like reading about the detective’s private life but not in this series.)  I want the series to be more police procedural but instead they remind me most of Carolyn Hart’s Annie Darling series, with short chapters expressing the varied viewpoints of the suspects interspersed with narrative about Demarkian’s activities.

October

Silence of the Grave (2001, transl. 2005 ) by Arnaldur Indriðason, the second  (in English) in the Inspector Erlendur police procedural series. Set in Iceland, the emotional action of this crime plot is set mainly during WWII and involves graphic descriptions of domestic abuse and its terrors. The contemporary emotional center involves Erlendur and his drug-addicted daughter, who’s pregnant. Harrowing and excellent.

When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998; trans. 2004) by Karin Fossum, in the Sejer/Skarre series set somewhere in Norway. Equally told from the first-person pov of a woman implicated in the disappearance of a teenage boy  who comes to her home to try to rob her, and narrated as a mystery. Though Sejer and Skarre are police, the books aren’t really police procedurals. In this book, two teens, their relationship, and their activities drive the plot, as well as the actions and inactions of the unusual older woman who tells her side of things. Though three non-natural deaths take place (and another is mentioned), there is only one murder and it may not be the worst of the crimes committed.  This book is very much about responsibility and complicity, and it asks the question: Can we watch someone else die, and do nothing to help, without being in some respect their killer? Sejer’s and Sara’s relationship is also explored further; they seem to be a case of extremes attracting.

What Is Mine (2001; transl. 2006) by Anne Holt, the first in the Johanne Vik and Adam Stubo series.  Vik is a former FBI profiler, Stubo a police detective in Oslo. They meet in this book. Most of the story is set within a few hours of Oslo, though Vik takes a short trip to Cape Cod, MA.  I thought this book was better written and better plotted than the third in the series (What Never Happens, which I read earlier this year). The plot is complex and solid; it’s actually two distinct plots that eventually weave together convincingly. The first involves young children abducted and killed by someone taking revenge for what’s been lost in his own life.  The second concerns an old case in which a man was wrongly imprisoned for murder.

No Trace (2004) by Barry Maitland, a David Brock and Kathy Kolla police procedural set in the ultra-modern art world of London. It’s been a few years since I read one of his books, which always feature a little non-fiction learnin’. This time the focus was modern art of the scandalous and mimetic variety, particularly art modelled on and in conversation with that of Henry Fuseli. Brock and Kolla are investigating the disappearance of three young girls, including an artist’s daughter, Tracey. Her father makes her disappearance the basis of a new art installation, as he did with his wife’s suicide 5 years previously. Within a couple of weeks, two more people with ties to the artist are murdered and the the investigation begins to focus on the artist, his girlfriend, his in-laws, and his neighbours.

Midnight Fugue (2009) by Reginald Hill, in the Dalziel and Pascoe series — but this one is almost all Dalziel, which means it’s mad funny. Andy is still trying to adjust to his new role in the force, after having been recuperating from his injuries for many months and two books. All the action in this one takes place over 16 hours (a sort of mysterious Yorkshire-set Mrs Dalloway :-)), with cameo appearances, set pieces of farce, memories and past events pulled in from various directions, and a number of characters, including Andy, slipping in and out of fugue states.  As usual, there are some priceless turns of phrase and imagery, and the plotting is fast-paced and elegant. This is a series you read once for the mystery and a second time for the sheer enjoyment of the language and thematic connections.

November

Careless in Red (2008) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers police procedural series set in England. I had stopped reading the series about 6 years ago, partly because I couldn’t stomach Lynley’s girlfriend (eventually wife), Helen. So I missed With No One As Witness (2005), in which Helen is  murdered by a 12-year-old boy, and its follow-up prequel, What Came Before He Shot Her (2005). I was desperate for a book recently and decided to take a chance on this one. It’s fabulous, one of the best novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s also long, almost 700 pages, but I didn’t want it to end. The setting is Cornwall, the plots are complicated and involve rock climbing and surfing, neither of which interests me, and the writing and weaving together of various plot lines is masterful. It starts out with Lynley sort of on auto-pilot in the aftermath of Helen’s murder, walking the South-West Coast Path in Cornwall in a daze and sleeping rough as he goes, when he comes upon the body of a young man. Characters include a female veterinarian with something to hide, a completely dysfunctional family whose father is a classic enabler and whose mother is a bottomless pit of sexual need, a female DI and her estranged husband (also a cop), some teens and young people trying to figure out what to do with their lives even as their parents are disdainful, contemptuous and fearful of their choices; and of course Barbara Havers comes down from London to pitch in and try to help Tommy get back on his feet. This book could easily be read as a standalone and I recommend it.

The Cruelest Month (2007) by Louise Penny, set in the fictional village of Three Pines in Quebec, Canada, is a hybrid mystery, one part police procedural and two parts village cosy. Three Pines is peopled by quirky B&B and cafe owners, artists, poets, herbalists, etc.  It’s not my normal fare, and it did feel like a somewhat insubstantial read, but it was also well-written, by turns amusing and philosophical, and I could see reading another one.

Necessary As Blood (2009) by Deborah Crombie, part of the Kincaid/James Scotland Yard police procedural series.  The crime plot, which occupies about half the book in total, centers geographically on London’s East End/Brick Lane area and involves Bangladeshi immigrants, an elite private club, and some sordid activities involving children; the rest of the book, weaving in and out of the crime plot, is novelistic, a story about Gemma and Duncan’s home life and their kids and friends, their halted wedding plans, Gemma’s mother’s cancer and treatment,  and subplots concerning the personal lives of two sargeants, Doug Cullen and Melody Talbot. The intersection is found among Gemma and Duncan’s friends Hazel and Tim, and in 3-year-old Charlotte, the de facto orphaned daughter of a mixed race couple, one of whom disappeared several months ago and the other of whom (Tim’s friend) has turned up murdered.  One aspect of the book that I especially admire is Gemma’s ongoing struggle to balance the competing needs, desires and dysfunctions of those around her. She is very much duty-bound, she wants to save the world, and yet even she, with her almost superhuman energy and drive, can’t save all those who need saving and can’t do her duty (or what she believes to be her duty) to everyone at once, and it’s often her friends who help her see more clearly.

Arctic Chill (2005; first US ed. 2009) by Arnaldur Indriðason, is part of the Inspector Erlendur police procedural series, set in Iceland. A Thai immigrant boy is killed and a woman is missing; the cases aren’t related but they intertwine with each other through mysterious calls to Erlender’s cell phone.  The central concern of the book is the reaction of Icelanders to Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino) immigrants and mixed marriages. Erlendur’s ambiguously named friend and former boss, Marion Bream, dies in this book and the conceit concerning Marion’s gender is maintained except for an apparent slip on page 157 (Minotaur Books ed.).  The book is a bit dark, as usual.

The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters.  “A chilling and vividly rendered ghost story set in postwar Britain.” At 450 pages, it felt to me like an inexorable, too predictable, and somewhat tiresome  progression towards an inevitable ending — and maybe that was the idea. The central figures are a country doctor with a chip on his shoulder about his low birth (he’s the narrator), and a mother and her unmarried daughter and war-wounded son who own a large and now decaying Georgian house and estate called Hundreds Hall, which they can’t afford; but the main character in the book is undoubtedly the house.  At the end, it’s up to the reader to determine whether something supernatural has taken place or whether it’s a matter of psychology, a shadow-self or ‘little stranger’ whose thwarted negative energy finds its outlet. Reminds me of many other stories, including Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House.

December

The Scarpetta Factor (2009) by Patricia Cornwell: I think I’m addicted to this series. The plot, which concerns the murder of one woman and the disappearance of another — harkens strongly back to Point of Origin, which ended with Benton’s murder — or so it seemed, as we learned in Blow Fly that he had ‘merely’ assumed another identity for 6 years.  The emotions from that time run high in this book, reawakened by events and the resurfacing of people from the past. In fact, not just for Kay and Benton, but for Lucy and Marino as well, past actions and experiences play a strong role in their present. I appreciate the series’ recent focus on Lucy and Jaime Berger. My main complaint is that I couldn’t keep all the ancillary characters straight and had a hard time figuring out what some of them had to do with the plot or the other characters for quite a while; I don’t know if I missed a key sentence early on or if this was Cornwell’s intention. Another reviewer notes that Cornwell has “developed an enjoyable way of beginning novels in the middle of a story, letting her audience watch the characters carry out conversations and actions which they don’t yet understand” — so perhaps it is intentional, but if like me you read about 20 or 30 pages before bed each night, it’s easy to think you’ve missed something. Finally, the ‘communion’ at the end felt a little like it was tacked on to bring all the cast together again in a rare happy(if not sappy) moment. That said, I like the core cast, which is what keeps me returning to the series, even when the crime plot is not the main feature.

That Old Cape Magic (2009) by Richard Russo,  fiction about a middle-aged man, Griffin, and his conflictual relationships with his snobbish academic parents, whose only respite from the hated Midwest was a yearly family vacation on Cape Cod (never the same rental twice), his wife Joy, and to a lesser extent, his grown daughter, Laura, and his screenwriting business partner, Tommy. The narrative, spanning a year and interspersed with memories, gets its emotional energy from a short story Griffin writes about one summer with his parents on the Cape, and is framed by two weddings, his daughter’s and his daughter’s longtime friend.  It’s the first novel of  Russo’s I’ve read and I thought it was similar to Anne Tyler’s writing, with some amusing lines and situations (Griffins spends most of the novel with one or both parents’ ashes in urns in his trunk) and insight into human relationships, though (unlike Tyler) some of Russo’s depictions didn’t ring true for me.

Still Life (2005) by Louise Penny, the first in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series — part police procedural, mostly cozy —  set in fictional Three Pines, a rural village south of Montreal. I figured out who did it pretty early on, partly because I had read a later book in the series already and knew who hadn’t done it — this is a problem with village cozy series, with their limited number of characters  The title is a good one, as the emotional heart of the book concerns lives that are stuck, and a central aspect of the plot is a painting, which, though not technically a still life, captures scenes and people at one point in their lives. Another central theme is blindness, with a hunting blind as a metaphor for other blindness.

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4 thoughts on “Books Read, 2009

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