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.

Books Read 2009 – Summary

Shamelessly copying Jessamyn, I’ve compiled stats for my 2009 reading:

number of books read 2009: 74
average read per month:  6
average read per week:  1.4
number read in worst month: 2 (January)
number read in best month:  11 (May)
percentage by male authors:  41%
percentage by female authors: 58%
(one was a compilation written by men and women)
fiction as percentage of total: 96%
crime fiction as percentage of fiction: 83%
non-fiction as percentage of total:  4%
percentage of total liked:  70%
percentage of total ambivalent:  20%
percentage of total disliked:  10%

Notes:

Non-fiction: I read more non-fiction than is reflected here:

(1) Instead of finishing most of the non-fiction titles, I read several chapters from each and will eventually return to finish some of the books. The months with low reading totals are probably months when I was selectively reading non-fiction titles.

(2) I read most of my non-fiction online, as essays and articles.

Crime Fiction: Most of my fiction reading this year has been crime fiction and the fiction that  wasn’t crime fiction was generally bookgroup reading.

2009 was a tough year — crime fiction is comfort reading for me, for a number of reasons:

(1) I read almost all series titles, so the main characters become familiar and sometimes beloved. Often they are depicted as having less-than-perfect lives and relationships, a healthy (or sometimes unhealthy) degree of self-doubt, and complex motivations. I like these people.

(2) There is an element of order and puzzle-solving in crime fiction that appeals to my desire to understand the workings of the human mind. Many of the novels I read this year include the killer’s pov, and from the killer’s pov, the murder is always rational and done for a reason. That awareness — that even seemingly irrational and insupportable actions stem from someone’s meaning-making apparatus and appear logical to that person — gives me insight, I think, into real people.

(3) Crime fiction is generally — though not always — predictable in its progression (build-up to murder, body found, investigation begun, witnesses interviewed, body #2 found, etc.), particularly in the series I like, which are police procedurals and forensic novels. Within that predictable formula, though, anything can happen, and I like both the predictability of the format and the unpredictability of the story.

(4) The dead in crime novels (those I tend to read, anyway) are often accorded high status and dignity and are given almost loving attention. That comforts me and reflects my own sensibility.

(5) Crime novels reflect the violence that lives in each of us, and that usually lies just under the surface of most communities. They feel real to me and bring me solace in a world that often seems fraudulently focused on the positive and in denial of what’s not.

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.

Reading

I’m in the middle of several books:

Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life 1500 to the Present (2000)

Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (1996) by Richard Rohr, for a book group

Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life (2007) for book group

and

Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds by Charles Mackay (1841)

Here’s the opening of the preface in Mackay’s book:

“The object of the Author in the following pages has been to collect the most remarkable instances of those moral epidemics which have been excited, sometimes by one cause and sometimes by another, and to show how easily the masses have been led astray, and how imitative and gregarious men are, even in their infatuations and crimes.”

House Rules Booklist: If You Like House MD …

housemd

… you might like these books, suggested by members of various library listservs.

The query I sent out was:

I’m looking for fiction that will appeal to someone who likes the FOX TV show, House MD, starring Hugh Laurie. The appeal factors could include medical diagnostics or medical mystery, interesting dynamics among medical professionals, cynical smart doctors, close co-dependent friendships between male doctors or men generally, an underlying belief that ‘everyone lies,’ and so on.

Here are the suggested authors, series, and titles.  I haven’t read any yet. I’d love additions, and comments if you have read them:

Ariana Franklin (pseudonym for Diana Norman). New historical thriller series set in the 12th century about cynical, smart female physician Adelia Aguilar who is brought to England to solve murder mysteries for King Henry II. She’s a coroner. First in the series: Mistress in the Art of Death (2007). Last (and second): The Serpent’s Tale (2008).

Eileen Dreyer. Standalone medical mystery thrillers featuring cynical, world-weary nurses and EMTs. Also writes a series featuring Molly Burke, forensic nurse and death investigator in St. Louis, MO. First in series: Bad Medicine (1995). Last: Head Games (2005).

Sequence (2006) and The Silent Assassin (2007) by Lori Andrews, medical thrillers featuring geneticist and forensic specialist Dr. Alexandra Blake, described as smart and edgy. (Reviews compare the books to the popular TV series NCIS).

CL Grace’s series featuring Kathyrn Swinbrooke, a female doctor in medieval times when only men could be doctors. Titles: 1. A Shrine of Murders (1992); 2. The Eye of God (1994); 3. The Merchant of Death (1995); 4. The Book of Shadows (1996); 5. Saintly Murders (2001); 6. A Maze of Murders (2003); and 7. A Feast of Poisons (2004). Some romance. (Grace is a pseudonym for writer P.C. Doherty.)

Echo Heron’s medical thriller series featuring nurse Adele Monsarrat, who has a quirky sense of humor. Titles are Pulse (1998), Panic (1998), Paradox (1998) and Fatal Diagnosis (2000).

Lifelines (2008) by C. J. Lyons. Set in a Pittsburgh hospital, involves the new attending physician whose first night doesn’t go well. When she’s accused of negligence in the death of the son of the Chief of Neurosurgery, she starts investigating to save her career.

The Bugman novels by Tim Downs: 1. Shoofly Pie, 2. Chop Shop, and 3. First the Dead. The main character, Dr. Nick Polchak, is a forensic entomologist in North Carolina who helps solve crimes based on what the bugs say. He has a wry sense of humor. The books are marketed as Christian fiction but are not preachy; values are implicit, not explicit.

Current Reading: 19 June

A smattering of online ideas, opinions, images that are intriguing, amusing, perplexing, and inspiring me right now:
1. America Assimilates Terrorists. Source: Onion: “After 5 Years In U.S., Terrorist Cell Too Complacent To Carry Out Attack.” TV addiction, weight gain, and debt has done ’em in.
2. Sorted Books Project. (via Blog on a Toothpick.) Fabulous. Books and journals shelved to tell a story. Example: A Day at the Beach. The Bathers. Shark 1. Shark 2. Shark 3. Sudden Violence. Silence. Also: Genealogy of the Supermarket.
3. Eye contact and shame as invitation to violence at Preaching Peace: “Using shame to keep order will ultimately result in violent chaos and death as the citizens and community become each others’ police. While there are laws and agencies to prevent this, the fact that the leadership has resorted to invoking shame suggests that they’re not working…”
4. Sex and death, reminders of mortality, from Experimental Theology: “[I]t appears that there are good theoretical, observational, and scientific reasons to believe that religious faith is operating as an existential buffer, as a defense-mechanism to repress death anxiety. This will not prove to be the final story about faith. But it is the beginning of all faith.” Believers who remain in “this ‘defensive stage’ of faith … never fully confront the anxiety that necessarily accompanies an existential sifting of faith. This adventure is, simply, too scary a prospect. Thus, most retreat from this work and remain, keeping with Freud’s metaphor, intoxicated.” Hence, bodily sins (sex and drug use) are most shameful in American society and in Christian (among other faiths) culture. Hence, our ‘animal-reminder disgust’ triggers: Body products (e.g., feces, vomit), Animals (e.g., insects, rats), Sexual behaviors (e.g., incest, homosexuality), Contact with the dead or corpses, Violations of the exterior envelope of the body (e.g., gore, deformity), and poor hygiene.
5. Photo of a Royal Poinciana in bloom in Miami in June. Mmmm.
6. How to keep lettuce and other greens ‘bright, firm and flavorful’ for a week.
7. In Seattle, 31 church-goers report their experiences at (or almost at) 31 faith community worship services, including the Seventh-day Adventists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Catholics, Episcopals, a mosque, a synagogue, Sea-Tac’s (airport) meditation room. church on TV, and ‘the Jesus freaks at Mars Hill.’ (The prospective attender couldn’t find the Baha’i worship space and no one would answer the phone.) They weren’t that chuffed with what they found. (If you’re skimming, read #10, #13, #15, #18, #19.)