Books Read 2010

Once again (2009, 2004, 2003, 2002), I kept track of what I read this year.

January

A Fatal Grace (2006) by Louise Penny, in the Three Pines series with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set near Montreal. Because the series is set in this very small fictional village, the killer is likely someone who’s not a ‘regular,’ which narrows the field quite a bit.  In this one, set in snow and frigid cold from Christmas to New Year’s Day, a vapid and cruel woman is killed in a ridiculously contrived manner during a curling game, and then a bag lady in Montreal is found dead as well. How are they connected and who killed them? As the police team works to solve the mystery, Gamache continues to deal with political fallout of a previous case. The central element of this series is its insistence on the intrinsic value of a heterogeneous community of people, who, whatever their differences, act in love and courage, and thereby create a magical place.

February

With No One As Witness (2005) by Elizabeth George, in the Lynley/Havers (and Nkata) police procedural series. A serial killer who believes that life consists solely of suffering through whatever you’re handed is ‘releasing’ his victim’s souls after a ritualised process of judgment, admission, repentance, and punishment. The killer seems to choose his victims from a youth offenders rehab center in London, so the team focuses their investigative energy there, while each has his or her own personal problems to sort out: Barbara, recently disgraced and demoted, has put a foot wrong with her Pakistani neighbour and friend; Lynley and 5-months-pregnant wife Helen are trying to find christening clothes that won’t offend either family as Lynley navigates the treacherous political waters in the cop shop; and Nkata, elevated to DS mainly because he’s a black face for the media, persists in his desire for Yasmin and his anxiety on behalf of her fatherless son. I read the 772-page paperback and while I often put the book down, I looked forward to returning to the story each time. (I’m particularly happy with the turn taken in Lynley’s story!)

The Monster in the Box (2009) by Ruth Rendell, the 22nd and last in the Inspector Wexford series. Part police procedural, part social critique, part small-town cozy, this book is set contemporaneously but includes much reminiscing of Wexford’s young adult days (professional and personal), triggered when he once again runs into Eric Targo, an animal lover whom Wexford believes, with no evidence, to have committed at least two murders over the decades, including one when Wexford was a rookie. The social commentary track concerns the mores and beliefs, particularly concerning dating and marriage, of Moslem women and their families living in England. I found the book rather weak, thin and disjointed, though the stories dovetail in the end and the topic of marriage could actually be said to be the focal motif of the whole book.

Nothing to Envy:  Ordinary Lives in North Korea (2009) by Barbara Demick, is a very readable, engaging, enlightening account of life in North Korea, from the end of WWII until 2008, focusing on the years of economic collapse from 1970-present. Demick tells the larger political and cultural story through the smaller stories of several eventual defectors (most to South Korea) and their families. The editing isn’t as tight as I would like: some of the same points were mentioned three times or more, in much the same phrasing from chapter to chapter. Otherwise, I recommend the book for anyone interested in learning the basics about the totalitarian regime that is North Korea under the Kims (Kim Il-sung, and his successor and son, Kim Jong-il).  Demick clearly details the factors that led to North Korea’s economic collapse, after being touted as ‘the Korean miracle’ in the 1960s,  and its consequent widespread famine. She offers numerous examples of privation, propagandising, the cult of personality created and maintained by the Kims, and systematic repression of individual rights ostensibly on behalf of ‘the people.’ The endnotes recommend books and reports for further study of various aspects of the culture.

Dust to Dust (2009) by Beverly Connor, in the Diane Fallon forensic anthropology series, set in Georgia. All the cases Diane is working on come together as one case:  an archaeologist severely attacked in a home invasion, an investigation into an apparently solved  murder that’s re-opened when there’s a new death related to the case, and an even older mystery concerning human bone used in tempering a pottery glaze. Complex mystery plot, less ‘lady in distress’ chaos than usual, and Diane’s usual aplomb and grace amidst violence, mayhem and recriminations; but one rather big editing error marred my enjoyment of this book: On page 33, there’s a copy of note left behind by someone unknown, and when it’s referred to again on page 114, a handwriting analyst suggests that the age of the note can be determined by how the letters in the word ‘missing’ are written — but ‘missing’ isn’t a word in the original note on page 33. Grrrr.

March

Friday Nights (2008) by Joanna Trollope, fiction about women in London of various ages and lifestyles. The oldest, Eleanor — single, childless and retired from her engaging career — becomes the catalyst for their intertwined relationships when she invites two young mothers  who live on her street to come over on a Friday evening. The group grows to include friends, coworkers, the children, and sisters, and then it morphs again as the women change: marriages and relationships founder, new men enter the picture (one in particular), kids grow up, jobs change and the women move. It’s a book about women’ choices — raising children with or without partner, devoting oneself to work, falling in love and negotiating marriages and friendships, etc. — but somehow manages to feel quite dated.  I don’t know why.

The Brutal Telling (2009) by Louise Penny, in the Three Pines series with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, set near Montreal. This is the best of the series so far, a novel at whose center is a story of greed, fear of want and fear of being exposed, and betrayal, and around which twin themes of grace and a fall from grace, and imprisonment and freedom are entwined. The plot includes a hermit found murdered in the bistro; a couple from away who buys the Hadley place with the aim of making it an upscale spa hotel; a Czech son and father whose jobs place them close to the murder; and a child with Downs syndrome and an ‘asshole’ saint who once worked with Downs syndrome and who reappears after many years absence. There’s a lovely Ruth-shaped aspect of the book, too.

Hell Gate (2010) by Linda Fairstein, in the assistant DA Alexandra Cooper series, is crime fiction about human trafficking and prostitution, political corruption, and New York City architecture and history, particularly about the three mansions in Manhattan (Gracie Mansion, Hamilton Grange, and the Morris-Jumel house). I got a bit confused trying to keep track of the many politicos and their motives but overall liked the book for the reasons I like the series: the interplay between Alex, Mike, Mercer, and some of the other recurring characters.

Stealing Athena (2009) by Karen Essex. Historical fiction. Two parallel stories, one about Lady Mary Elgin, the wife of the Scottish Lord (Bruce) Elgin who in the early 1800s went to Greece and Turkey and brought back what are now known as the Elgin Marbles or the Parthenon Marbles, and the other a story that takes place more than 2000 years earlier, around 500 BCE, focusing on Pericles and his concubine Aspasia.(Socrates also figures in this story.) Threads common to both stories include the goddess Athena, women’s lack of legal and societal rights, women’s power (real and attributed) and powerlessness, types of communities (the democratic city-state of Athens, shipboard, Turkish harems, etc.), and especially women’s relationships with men (loved or abused wife, concubine, prostitute, sister-in-law, children, acquaintance) and women’s relationships with each other (sisters, friends, within harems,  as wary peers). Aspasia, the concubine in ancient Greece, seems to have a much better time of it than Mary, the wealthy wife in 19th century Scotland. It was genius to address these two periods and stories together, and the points of comparison and contrast are intriguing (and lead to a good book discussion), but the writing and plotting sometimes felt like a Harlequin romance.

April

The Demon of Dakar (2005) by Kjell Eriksson, in the Swedish crime fiction series featuring Ann Lindell. Disappointing. I just never got into the book; when I had to choose between playing a word game on my smartphone or reading this book before bed, I almost always chose the computer game. The plotting feels soooo sloooooow. The focus is on Manuel Alavez from Mexico,  in Sweden to visit his imprisoned brother and perhaps exact revenge on those who were complicit in his other brother’s death in the drug trade, including a  restaurant owner and his partner. The action mostly takes place around the restaurant and involves a single mother who’s a waitress there.

The Sound and the Fury (1929) by William Faulkner, for book group. Hard going at first, until I popped over to Wikipedia for the plot synopsis. After that, much easier and I ended up really liking this book, especially the second section, in Quentin’s voice, which seemed to flow so naturally, to match so well his obsession and his disintegrating psyche.  I also loved that the major emotional force in the book, Caddy, doesn’t have a voice at all and is barely even active in the book.

May

The Black Cat (2010) by Martha Grimes, #22 in the Richard Jury crime series. Jury and Plant (and sociopath Harry Johnson’s dog Mungo) team up to figure out who is killing high-class escorts wearing very expensive and stylish shoes, in and around London. There are one or two chapters from the dog’s point of view, including dialogue with the cat — all of that is just a little too cute. Meanwhile, Jury struggles with his ambivalent feelings about Lu Aguilar, who is in a coma.

The Help (2009) by Kathryn Stockett, about race relations between white and black women (employers and maids) in Jackson MS in the early 1960s.  For bookgroup. Also quite a lot about the exclusionary tactics of Junior League women in small Southern towns and the narrow range of beliefs, clothing, leisure activities and social mores that were (and in many places, still are) “acceptable” for society women.  Some in my bookgroup thought it lightweight but I didn’t.

June
The Choir (1988) by Joanna Trollope, fiction set in modern-day England about clerical and other politicking around a boys’ school and cathedral church choir.  Took me forever to read, although the subject matter should have been interesting: relationships among lovers, friends, clerics, parents and children, and the political scheming and ordinary plotting that goes on among people in a small village.

The Secret Hangman (2007) by Peter Lovesey, in the Peter Diamond police procedural series set in Bath, UK.  My first of this series. I’d definitely read another. Rather equal parts police procedural and focus on Diamond’s private life, which in this case (spoiler!) dovetails with the murder plot, involving couples being strangled and then hanged in public spaces.

Noah’s Compass (2009) by Anne Tyler. Somewhat slower paced than her other books, this one focuses on an older man, his three (mostly) grown daughters, his ex-wife, and a new love interest. And, as is often the case, in Tyler’s book, a quirky sort of obsession that drives the plot.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2005) by Stieg Larsson, recommended by a friend. Took me a long time to get into it — there is about 150 pages of stage-setting — but in the end I enjoyed it and find the two protagonists (Blomkvist and Salander) compelling and appealing, fr the most part, though Salander seems her own worst enemy in many ways and I’m not sure I really feel I know Blomkvist. Not sure why the books are so popular — Val McDermid’s books are better, imo, though more brutal. I think there may be a lot of wish-fulfillment going on for readers, particularly with Salander’s ability to break the law regularly and with relative impunity, and to destroy people who treat her and others badly.

July

Blood Harvest (2010) by SJ Bolton, a thriller by way of ghost story, set in the rural Pennines (UK), where the townspeople continue to perform age-old rituals.  A newly arrived vicar and a psychiatrist with a physical disability are both involved with the mothers and children at the heart of the story — a story about little girls missing and murdered, little ghostly girls whispering and leading real children away from their homes, mothers grieving and frightened.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2006/2009) by Stieg Larsson, the second in the trilogy. Some interesting revelations in this one, and a lot of brute and gory violence. Ending is in a way a bit of a cliffhanger.

Faithful Place (2010) by Tana French, her third crime novel, this one set in Dublin and told from the pov of a lower-class kid turned undercover cop. The plot is secondary to the exceptionally good writing and the exploration of dysfunctional families.

August

Run (2007) by Ann Patchett, a really good (bookgroup) read, set in Boston (and Cambridge), that explores family: what constitutes a family, how a family’s history matters, what secrets families keep, how parents’ dreams shape their children. I don’t usually like books about good (dutiful, compassionate, kind, unselfish) people, but those are the only ones inhabiting the world of this novel and I loved it. Somehow Patchett makes it palatable; I was glad she didn’t trod the well-used path of racial conflict or  bitter sibling rivalry for the sake of drama and sociological theorising.  Instead of exploiting the obvious, she’s nuanced. The several speeches and reflections about life and relationships, given by Doyle and by Father, appealed to me, too.  

The Ice Princess (2008) by Camilla Lackberg, the first in the Erica Falck series, set in a small town in Sweden. Erica’s friend from childhood has been murdered and she and Patrik, a local cop, begin dating as they work to find out who did it. I agree with another reviewer that it’s annoying when Lacksberg allows the a character to have a key bit of information but doesn’t share it with the reader — this happens three or four times at least in the book.  It wasn’t an enthralling read — more measured and pleasant.

Borderline (2009) by Nevada Barr, in the Anna Pigeon series. This one is set in Big Bend National Park, straddling Texas and Mexico, and is very timely with the heightened discussion recently about that border.  The frantic outdoor action, mayhem and carnage starts early in this book and never lets up. The plot’s prongs, which dovetail, are an ill-fated rafting expedition of which Anna and Paul are part (as vacationers) and a politico with a strong anti-immigrant platform working her way up from mayor to governor. 49-year-old Anna’s thoughts and feelings about (potential) motherhood also figure largely.

September

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2009) by Stieg Larsson, the last of the Millennium trilogy. And by far the best. I really liked the plot this time, and I liked the legal aspects (though I don’t usually like legal thrillers). What I liked most [SPOILER alert] was that Lisbeth was safely locked inside the hospital for most of the book and therefore out of harm’s way. I could relax and read. Much less brutality in this book, and much more computer hacking and legal and logistical strategising and cat-and-mouse ploys. I’m glad Berger had a bigger role in this one, too.

Burn (2010) by Nevada Barr. Some people won’t read this book, in the Anna Pigeon series, because its focus is the trafficking of children for the sex trade. <Spoiler> It’s only in the last 30 pp or so that there is any description of these abusive acts or situations, and not at great length or with much graphic detail. (Still, some won’t like it; I wouldn’t if the focus were animal abuse.) I wouldn’t recommend the book, though, because the writing wasn’t really up to Barr’s usual standard — the plot was slow, the characters weren’t appealing, and if you read her books to feel you’re in  the great — if dangerous — outdoors, this won’t satisfy you: the characters are gangs of homeless teens, jazz singers, sex workers, and new age voodoo types, all set on the streets of New Orleans (except the very early scenes, in suburban Washington state).

Contentment Cove (2006) by Miriam Colwell. This book, by a Maine author, was written in the 1950s and set in that time period but only published in 2006. It’s a barbed and nuanced account of the social and emotional intersection of natives and incomers in a small coastal Maine town during one summer, told by three women: a somewhat naive and romantic native in her 20s who runs the local drugstore; a worldly and jaded artist in her 40s who was among the first outsiders to move to the island; and a snobby outsider in her early 60s, lately from Texas, who with her husband bought a summer house three years ago and immediately renovated it; then they decided to build a community pool for the islanders’ benefit. For 3/4 of the book, it’s just a slice of life, and I think it’s best as such; the last 1/4 brings plot movement and tragedy. Some have compared it to The Great Gatsby and I can see why, especially in the party scenes. (Read for bookgroup.)

October

In the Shadow of Gotham (2009) by Stefanie Pintoff, historical crime fiction set in New York City in 1905. First crime novel by this author, whose protagonist, Simon Ziele,  is a recently bereaved police detective of age 30. He joins forces with a professor of criminology at Columbia University to try to solve a murder in a town about 20 miles north of NYC, where Ziele is working after leaving his job in the city after his fiance’s accidental death. Most of the action takes place in the city, though, at Columbia Univ., in Chinese restaurants and opium dens, gambling houses, bordellos and brothels, and in various locations from the Bowery to Morningside, and bribery is ubiquitous throughout the story at all levels, from a Tammany Hall election to the personal dealings of the some of the characters. The women’s suffrage movement, and biased treatment of women, are also important. Plot and characters are average, IMO; what I like is the historical detail, setting and ‘mood’ of a period I’ve read little about.

Bay Boy (2010) by Peter Robinson, in the Alan Banks and Annie Cabbot series. For the first part of the book, Banks is on holiday in the U.S. and Annie has center stage. Then the roles reverse.  The plot involves an illegal gun, a botched attempt to retrieve said gun, big-time drug dealing, an exciting escapade turned armed kidnapping, and a number of ‘bad boys’ — from psychopaths who enjoy inflicting pain to criminal masterminds who are pillars of society to greedy and ruthless young men who attract young men. And all of it centers on Banks’ daughter, Tracy.

Year of Wonders (2001) by Geraldine Brooks, historical fiction about a plague outbreak in the 1660s in a small rural town in England. Told from the pov of a 20-yr-old woman, the book is sort of death, death, death, childbirth, death, childbirth, death, until the last 20 pp or so, which are just weird and felt completely jarring and rushed to me (and just about everyone else in my bookgroup).  Anna (the narrator), the town’s minister, and the townspeople have to make a series of choices about their response to the disease that is wiping out their town, chief among them: should they flee, probably carrying the disease with them to other places, or should they remain in self-quarantine, risking more and more illness themselves? They make their choice and suffer the consequences, which many in the village believe to be a punishment from God. From a Girardian perspective, the bits about superstitions, “witches” and the sudden movements of the mob were interesting.

November

Hypothermia (2007; 2009) by Arnaldur Indriðason. A police procedural that’s not; Erlendur’s police team is mentioned early on but soon he’s alone and investigating a bunch of closed or very cold cases, including an apparent suicide, three 30-year-old missing persons cases, and an apparent accident from decades ago. Erlendur’s own life (estranged wife, son and daughter, and the brother lost in a blizzard when they were children) is also part of the story, as usual. It was was pretty clear to me whodunnit  about halfway through but I still enjoyed the book much.

Bury Your Dead (2010) by Louise Penny is not as ‘cozy’ as usual. It’s actually three mysteries in one: a reinvestigation of the crime from the last book, the murder of the Hermit in Three Pines, by Jean-Guy Beauvoir; the murder of a Samuel Champlain fanatic in an Anglo historical institution in Quebec City (and the attendant historical, factual question of where Champlain’s body is actually buried); and flashbacks to a recent, haunting terrorism incident that Gamache,  Beauvoir and other members of the Sûreté were involved in. Less than a third of the book is set in the welcoming Canadian border town of Three Pines, and some historical sites, architecture and food of Quebec — and especially the Anglo-Franco divide — are described pretty extensively throughout. I enjoyed it.

Spider Bones (2010) by Kathy Reichs, in the Tempe Brennan series. This one is largely set in Hawaii, as forensic anthropologist Tempe goes there to work on a case at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, and Ryan and both of their daughters tag along. Lots of jargon, acronyms, and facts and history about Hawaii — too much of all of it. I lost track somewhere of what and who we were trying to find. The low point was when Reichs has a cop tell a suspect that he may watch Bones (the TV show based loosely on this series!) but that it’s probably over his head. Only for devoted fans.

Never End (2007) by Åke Edwardson, second in the Erik Winter series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden, this time in a heat wave. An accidental re-read (I interlibrary loaned it, then realised I had read it a few years ago.) A young woman is raped in a park, then another is killed in the same park, and Winter realises the M.O. is similar to a 5-year-old murder case. He spends a lot of time reading the case files and looking at photos that show the murdered women standing in a setting with the same backdrop. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with his wife and daughter; wife is becoming less tolerant of the job all the time. Meanwhile his coworker Halders is having his own personal problems, and then a big professional one.  Sort of slow moving but not a bad read.

December

Port Mortuary (2010) by Patricia Cornwell, in the Scarpetta series. Most of the book is concerned with Scarpetta’s guilt and ruminations about her actions in the past and present, and her frustration and despair at being excluded from several current connected investigations. Lucy and Marino figure, but the main event is the strained relationship between Scarpetta and Benton. The plot itself is heavy on nanotechnology and the actions of military, governmental and quasi-governmental  organisations. Somehow the plot doesn’t hang together all that well, and the writing, particularly at the beginning, is not up to snuff. Not her best.

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