Books Read 2019

Once again (2018, 2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!

January

Light Thickens (1982) by Ngaio Marsh, the 32nd and last of the Inspector Alleyn series. Much less detective work, no Troy, and lots of MacBeth. The first 2/3 of the book is the casting, staging, and rehearsing of the Shakespeare play, “MacBeth,” at the Dolphin Theatre in London, directed by Peregrine Jay, just as his play “The Glove” was in #24, Killer Dolphin. If you’re a “MacBeth” aficionado you’ll love this; if you wanted more detecting, you won’t. But I still wish there were more books in the series.

Kingdom of the Blind (2018) by Louise Penny, 14th in the Gamache series. Gamache is suspended due to events in 2017’s Glass Houses, but when he, bookstore owner and psychologist Myrna Landers, and a young man — Benedict Pouliot, a builder/custodian who lives in Montréal — are named as liquidators (executors) for the estate of a deceased woman none of them knew, a house cleaner named Bertha Baumgartner, who called herself The Baroness, he’s drawn back into crime and detection, along with the now-acting head of homicide at the Sûreté du Québec (and his son-in-law), Jean Guy Beauvoir. Meanwhile, more spillover from previous events, rebellious police cadet and former homeless drug addict Amelie Choquet is out on the streets searching for the Carfentani opiates that Gamache, for a greater good, let flow into Canada from the U.S. There’s a lot about revenge, secrets, and lies here. I read it in two days and was sad when it was over.

The Witch Elm (2018) by Tana French. Charming, easy-going Toby is involved in a dodgy scheme at the art gallery where he works, then is attacked at home and winds up recuperating from the attack at Ivy House, where his Uncle Hugo lives and where Toby and his cousins, Susanna and Leon, who are more like siblings to Toby, spent summers together growing up. When a skull is found in the trunk of a tree, events of a decade ago are revisited with a fine-tooth comb by the detectives investigating and by the family members. Atmospheric, gripping, terrifying in multiple ways, so well-written with characters you come to know.

Miss Marple: The Complete Short Stories (1985 compilation) by Agatha Christie. The coziest of cozy books, a compilation of Christie’s 20 short stories featuring Miss Marple, from The Tuesday Club Mysteries (in the first seven, Miss Marple, her nephew the writer Raymond West, clergyman Dr. Pender, solicitor Petherick, retired head of Scotland Yard Sir Henry Clithering, artist Joyce Lempriere each present an unsolved mystery and try to solve the others’ … includes “The Bloodstained Pavement;” in next six, including “The Blue Geranium” and “A Christmas Tragedy,” it’s Miss Marple, Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Sir Henry, actress Jane Helier, and Dr. Lloyd trying to solve each other’s mysteries; and in the last, “Death by Drowning,” the mystery is current, with Sir Henry Clithering on the spot); The Regatta Mystery (“Miss Marple Tells A Story,” to Raymond and Joyce); Three Blind Mice (“Strange Jest,” “The Case of the Perfect Maid” (with Inspector Slack), “The Case of the Caretaker” – Dr. Haydock writes this mystery for Miss Marple to solve as she’s recovering from illness and feeling depressed, and “Tape-Measure Murder,” again with Inspector Slack) ; and Double Sin (“Greenshaw’s Folly,” featuring Raymond West, and “Sanctuary,” featuring Miss Marple’s goddaughter Bunch Harmon, a vicar’s wife).

Lilac Girls (2016) by Martha Hall Kelly is a novel based on real people and real events, set from Sept. 1939 to 1959, told from the points of view of three strong women: Caroline Ferriday, a 30’s something (when the book starts) high-society do-gooder working at the French consulate in NYC and living on an estate in Connecticut with her mother; Kasia Kuzmerick, a Polish teenager, living with her parents and older sister Zuzanna in Lublin, Poland, when the book begins; and Herta Oberheuser, an ambitious young German doctor who answers an ad for a government medical position at a “re-education camp.” The sections with Kasia and Herta, who end up at the same concentration camp, Ravensbrück — where deforming and life-threatening surgery is done on perfectly healthy girls and women to give them infections so that sulfa drugs can be tested …with varying success, — are often harrowing and sad. The Caroline section, set in or near NYC, or in post-war Paris, is a relief throughout the book, although Caroline herself is often sad and heart-hardened because the man she loves, a French actor, is married. The first 300 pp of the novel is set during the war, with all of its cruelty, cowardice, suffering, bravery, and confusion; the last 180pp are devoted to the years and events after the war, as each woman, but especially Caroline and Kasia, struggles with the war’s aftermath and seeks justice. Both Caroline Ferriday and Herta Oberheuser, as well as other concentration camp staff, were real people. The writing and plotting are clear, detailed, and nuanced, with images that will haunt the reader, an unflinching, unsettling, and embodied expression of living in this horrific time.

February

Milkman: A Novel (2018) by Anna Burns. To say, as Wikipedia starts with, that it’s a novel “set during The Troubles in Northern Ireland …. follow[ing] an 18-year-old girl who is harassed by an older married man known as the ‘Milkman'” doesn’t really summarise this book. For one thing, neither “the Troubles” nor “Northern Ireland” is mentioned, nor is any other country, city, or place other than with archetypal, mythic names like “the 10-minute place” (a borderland or no-go area), “the usual place” (cemetery), and “the country over the water.” People aren’t called by their names, either. The narrator, “middle sister,” is someone who by personality, habit, and training keeps herself to herself, so much so that she makes a blank slate of herself onto which the “intricately coiled, overly secretive, hyper-gossipy, puritanical yet indecent, totalitarian” community, which doesn’t trust her because they don’t know what she’s thinking, writes whatever gossip they like. This leaves her vulnerable when the married milkman, a paramilitary fighter twice her age, starts wooing her in a creepy, not-quite-wooing her way that soon has her hyper-vigilant to avoid him and second-guessing herself constantly. But even this description of the main plot doesn’t relay the humour of the narrator and the book nor does it mention the many detailed digressions concerning people’s motivations and actions, the many reasons for marrying the wrong person, the community’s irritation with women with issues (the feminists), the ordeal of finding a cat’s head after a small bombing, the community’s uneasiness with sky colours and the sunset, her mother’s dismay concerning her own aging body, her wee sisters’ delight (along with other young girls in the neighbourhood) in mimicking the dress and dancing of the now-famous international dancers from their area, the thoughts of “tablets girl,” the community’s very successful poisoner, and so on. Lack of many paragraph breaks is annoying, but the unimpeded flow of the writing, or sometimes overly-impeded-with-commas-and-hyphens flow of the writing, expresses the complexity of the situation and the narrator’s thoughts perfectly.

March

book cover: Careless Love by Peter Robinson

Careless Love (2019) by Peter Robinson, 25th in the DCI Banks/DI Annie Cabot series set in Eastvale, Yorkshire. A young woman is found dead in someone else’s disabled car. Then an expensively dressed older man is found dead in a gully in the moors, and despite differences, there are also certain similarities in these possible suicides/accidents/murders. Meanwhile, Annie’s father Ray’s new love interest, Zelda, who works in exposing sex trafficking rings, reveals shocking information about Phil Keane, the psycho that burned down Banks’ home and betrayed Annie in a previous book. Good, as usual. Lots of references to music, classical, jazz, and 1960s pop/rock, more than usual, I think.

The Hunting Party (2019) by Lucy Foley, a suspense novel about a group of friends who met (most of them) at Oxford ten years before and who always celebrate New Year’s Eve together. This year, Emma has planned the event for Loch Corrin, a pricey lodge in the remote Scottish Highland wilderness, but all does not go smoothly. The novel is very dark, with lots of drinking, a bit of drugs and sex, and much reminiscing, often in a harrowing way, about the past. There’s also a nasty game of Truth or Dare. The story is told from the perspectives alternately of Miranda, the golden girl; Emma, who admires her; and Katie, her best friend from before college; and from the pov as well of Heather, who runs the Lodge, and Doug, a war veteran who’s the gamekeeper, and events “now” (2 Jan 2019) are intertwined with events from one to three days earlier. Besides the three women (Miranda, Emma, and Katie), Miranda’s husband Julien, Emma’s boyfriend Mark, Nick and his boyfriend Bo, and married couple Giles and Samira along with their infant Priya make up the group. The writing is serviceable, certainly not poetic or complex, and the plotting well-paced, though unfortunately the killer is strongly hinted at about 1/3 of the way through the book. Still, I enjoyed it.

April

Look Alive Twenty-Five (2018) by Janet Evanovich, in the Stephanie Plum, NJ bounty hunter, series. I haven’t read one of these in about 10 years but they are always a quick, amusing read, if formulaic and predictable. In this one, Stephanie and side-kick Lula, and even Ranger and some of his team, find themselves working (sandwich-making, waitressing, cleaning, managing) at a local Trenton deli after several deli managers disappear, each with only one shoe left near the dumpster. Turns out, of course, there is a connection between one of Stephanie’s failed-to-appears and the disappearing managers. Unlike other readers, I’m fine with Stephanie never choosing between durable Morelli and mysterious Ranger, though I’m happy to have Ranger feature large as he does in this one.

Beyond the War on Invasive Species: A Permaculture Approach to Ecosystem Restoration (2015) by Tao Orion, an excellent and extremely well-researched book, with lots of real-world examples, about rethinking the concept of “invasive” species and advocating a systems-thinking approach in considering and (sometimes) managing them. The main point is that we can (and should) look at invasive species — terrestrial and aquatic plants and animals, though she mainly focuses on plants — as a reflection of the ecosystem they’re part of; they tell us about the underlying conditions of the ecosystem: the soil and water health and makeup, the nutrients and metals in the soil/water, the climate and changes to the climate, the other plants and animals in the ecosystem, etc. The “invaders” don’t change the ecosystem so much as the ecosystem determines which species will grow rampantly. Invasive species fill a niche in the ecosystem and provide benefits to the other plants and animals as well as challenges. A secondary point is that no ecosystem is static; all ecosystems are dynamic and characterised by constant change. Ecosystems move through various states (a process called succession) toward a brief –in geological time — state of equilibrium, and all the while they are subject to natural and human disturbances (fire, storm, flood, drought, human encroachment and fragmentation). An ecosystem that’s unrecognisable to us over time isn’t necessarily a dysfunctional ecosystem; it may just have transformed itself, or been transformed and adapted to become, a different and functioning ecosystem.

Broken Ground (2018) by Val McDermid, in the DCI Karen Pirie series, set in and near Edinburgh, Scotland. I’d stopped reading McDermid because many of her books are too full of torture and disturbing images for me, but this series is a police procedural and much easier for me to handle; I’m going to go back now and read the others in the series. In this novel, recently bereaved DCI Pirie, head of the Historic Cases Unit, is working on several cases at once, two of them historical in nature and one, which she stumbles into, very current. The focus is on a crime (or crimes: war looting and murder) dating partially from 1944 and 1995 in rural Wester Ross, Scotland. Pirie is also under fire from her new boss, Asst. Chief Constable Ann Markie, who has personal reasons for undermining her at every step and who has saddled her with a spying detective sergeant.

No Sunscreen for the Dead (2019) by Tim Dorsey. Zany crime fiction/thriller set in the Sunshine State (known as the bastion of former Cold War era spies), among the retirees of Boca Shores Retirement Trailer Park, featuring lovable manic psychopath Serge and sidekick druggie Coleman. This is the first Dorsey I’ve read and I’ll be back.

Out of Bounds (2016) by Val McDermid, in the DCI Karen Pirie series set in Edinburgh, Scotland. Karen investigates a 1994 plane bombing that killed four people, including a Northern Island minister (a bombing presumed then to be the work of Irish terrorists), which she learns about when someone related to one of the plane bombing victims dies, either by suicide or murder. Meanwhile, the DNA of a joyriding teen in hospital turns out to be related to the perpetrator of a 1996 rape and murder, but the teen was adopted, so it’s not as straightforward as it seems. A further plot involves Syrian refugees that Karen meets on her nocturnal wanderings. Complicated and engaging plot.

A Darker Domain (2009) by Val McDermid, the first in the DCI Karen Pirie series set in and near Fife, Scotland, and, in this novel, partially in Tuscany, Italy. Pirie, DS Phil Parhatka, and DC Jason Murray are working on two investigations, one the disappearance of a miner during the 1984 miner strikes, and the other the disappearance of a young boy in 1985, kidnapped with his mother, who was killed in a shootout during the hostage hand-over. An ambitious investigative journalist, Bel Richmond, is also assisting the family in the second search. McDermid’s writing is a pleasure to read.

The Stranger Diaries (2018) by Elly Griffiths. I guess I’d call this a gothic suspense novel, set in modern-day England, not too far from Cambridge. The story is narrated in turns by Clare Cassidy, her 15-year-old daughter Georgia, and an investigating officer, DS Harbinder Kaur. Clare is an English teacher at Talgarth comprehensive high school, which is situated partly in the home of R.M. Holland, a Victorian writer of Gothic novels, whose creepy short story The Stranger begins the book and is interleaved throughout; Clare is writing a biography of Holland. When another teacher at Clare’s school is found murdered, and a line from The Stranger is found next to the body, DS Kaur starts to look with suspicion at Clare. Then a note addressed directly to Clare suddenly and unsettlingly appears in her own diary. The three main characters — mother and teenage daughter (both of whom keep diaries and are readers), and Harbinder Kaur, a gay policewoman who in her mid-30s lives at home with her Indian parents — are engaging, and I enjoyed reading their perspectives on each other, especially as Harbinder and Clare evolve from distrusting and disliking each other to cautiously sharing information and seeking each other out. But the other characters, including victims and the other potential perpetrators, are cardboard; I never felt anything one way or the other about them, which lessened my interest in the plot. I noticed Louise Penny’s blurb on the books cover — “I loved this book!” — but Penny’s novels, IMO, have significantly more depth and complexity of character development.

Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach. Lovely meditation on spending 50 days alone on the coast of Maine (Sargentville) in the winter of 1993, mostly without speaking or listening to the spoken word except for 40 minutes of NPR news per day. I read it in about an hour but I marked many passages to copy and consider more fully later. I also learned a few new words (inguement, endolithic — neither of which my spell-checker seems to know either). She quotes from many other writers (and a few visual artists), including some of my favourites on solitude like May Sarton and Henri Nouwen. Politics oozes in, as she mentions Bill Clinton’s election and inauguration and the AIDS epidemic particularly. Besides musing on solitude and loneliness, she talks about writing, community, the self, art, winter, planning and serendipity, among others.

May

The Reckoning (2015, transl. 2019) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a thriller with police procedural elements. A grisly, harrowing, complexly plotted novel that begins with a young girl in the wrong place at the wrong time. Twelve years later, Icelandic Detective Huldur, languishing at the bottom of the investigative team, is given the task of following up on a strange time-capsule message — a prediction of six people who will die in 2016, giving initials only — written by a schoolchild ten years ago when the capsule was buried. He enlists the help of Freyja, a child psychologist with the Children’s House, who is not particularly eager to help, given that she has also lost her position because of recent work-related incidents involving Huldur, but she becomes curious about the list and about the court records concerning the list’s writer that seem to have been expunged from all the official files. The characters (not just Huldur and Freyja) are interesting and believable, and the dialog, motivations, and actions ring true for the most part. Not for those who can’t bear to read about children in jeopardy.

The Skeleton Road (2014) by Val McDermid, 2nd in the DCI Karen Pirie series, set in Scotland. When skeletal remains are found on a rooftop in Edinburgh, it’s up to DCI Karen Pirie and team to identify the remains, determine how the body ended up on the roof, and find a killer, all of which requires lots of backstory of the Balkan civil wars (1991-2001) and alliances made there. Not my favourite in the series.

Murder By the Book: The Crime That Shocked Dickens’ London (2019) by Claire Harman. A quick and cogent read about the murder of 73-year-old “unobtrusive minor aristocrat” Lord William Russell in Mayfair, London, on 5 May 1840, including the investigation, trial, execution, and aftermath, and with emphasis on the sensational novels of the time, especially William Harrison Ainsworth’s Jack Sheppard, which seemed to lionise a ne’er-do-well. The chapters about that novel, the many plays and broadsides it spun off, its influence, and its critics (including Dickens and Thackeray), are the least interesting, but the whole book was a bit disappointing somehow. I got completely lost in the many names of Lords, Dukes, Duchesses, etc.

A Curious Beginning (2015) by Deanna Raybourn, set in the 1880s in and near London, featuring lepidopterist Veronica Speedwell, whom we meet when the last of the two sisters who raised her dies, followed immediately by someone ransacking their house and attacking her, followed immediately by another someone rescuing her and bringing her to a warehouse on the Thames in London where he entrusts her life to his unkempt taxidermist/natural historian friend Stoker and then is himself promptly murdered. So begins a feisty friendship between Veronica and Stoker and a series of narrow escapes from whoever is hunting them. I figured out the “mystery” fairly early on but enjoyed the plot, the characters, the relationship development, and Stoker’s bulldog, Huxley. Some amusing writing, too: “Most of the furnishings had been carted away and sold, leaving the few pieces that had come with the cottage — a couple of chairs, a kitchen table, a grievously worn rug, and a poorly executed still life that looked as if it had been painted by someone with a grudge against fruit.”

Stalker (2014/2019 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 5th in the Joona Linna series, set in Stockholm. A weakened Linna is back, just as unconventional in his methods as always, though not officially on the police force; he’s helping his replacement, very pregnant Margot Silverman and her associates, including a hypnotist, try to track down a killer who, minutes before killing in a gruesome and brutal way, first sends a video to the police of the victim (always a woman) doing ordinary things. Page-turning.

Monday Night (1938) by Kay Boyle, a work of modern fiction I saw recommended by Doris Grumbach in her Fifty Days of Solitude. Takes place in France (various cities) on a Monday night into an early Tuesday morning. I lost count of the number of drinks had by the long-winded alcoholic protagonist (?), Wilf, as he dragged around Bernie (who, thanks to Wilf, has had no sleep and no food for too long — “lost between a whine and a yawn,” as the New York Times review of the book aptly puts it), a young American who’s recently graduated medical school and who has come to France looking for Sylvestre, his toxicology idol, a man who is connected through his damning evidence at trial with the conviction of several notorious poisoners. The writing is dense but not beautiful, the plot grimy and full of diversions, and would-be-writer Wilf’s verbosity and intense focus on a mission — perhaps on behalf of Bernie at first, to locate his idol, and then on behalf of others as time unfolds, or perhaps simply for his own benefit, as he envisions the book that will come of his suspicions, and even if no book comes, for the moment his vision of it is enough — is frustrating to witness, particularly the way he goes about it, steamrolling all and sundry with his baseless speculations, his “subterranean fantasy.” The contemporary NYT review of the book captures well the feeling of the reader: “The abnormal is not only obvious, as Gertrude Stein remarked; it’s also darned fatiguing. It’s true, of course, that Miss Boyle does not always concern herself with the abnormal as such; but when your people are never anything but sufferers, when they are always trapped between a blow and a scream, it’s difficult not to want a little more light and air.” The Kirkus review of the book in 1938 includes this line: “Her concentration on the gutter side of life is unpleasant.”

Blood Oath (2019) by Linda Fairstein, 20th in the Alex Cooper series. Alex is back and immediately presented with a cold case of sexual abuse to a minor that has consequences for the present District Attorney bid now that Battaglia is gone. At the same time, a co-worker is taken seriously ill a few blocks from Alex’s welcome-back party, and it soon becomes clear that Mike and Mercer will be working that case. The plot is solid, and I liked the pacing, though the ending was more “thriller” than I thought it needed to be. Rockefeller University/Hospital is the NYC centerpiece, though it doesn’t come into the story until later in the plot. This series is comfort food for me.

Mouthful of Birds (2019, and in translation) by Samantha Schweblin, a book of 20 short stories, each one creepy and strange. Schweblin is from Buenos Aires, Argentina, and lives now in Berlin. Her stories are otherwordly, sometimes gruesome, sometimes just horrific. I read the whole book in about 2 hours. My favourite story was “The Size of Things,” about a toy store, but the title story will stay with readers for a long time. There were a couple I really didn’t follow at all (“Rage of Pestilence,” for one, and “Olingris” for another, at least the ending).

June

Looker (2019) by Laura Sims, a debut psychological novel about a 30-something woman, living in New York City, slowly losing her grip on reality. The woman (not named) has lost a lot — her husband has just left her after they couldn’t conceive the children they desperately want — but she still has some life (including work she enjoys) when we meet her but she quickly puts everything at risk as she entangles herself in obsessions and makes poor choices. I felt empathy for her but also frustration when she sabotaged herself over and over. A good beach read but not much more.

The House Sitter (2003) by Peter Lovesey, an Inspector Peter Diamond mystery, #8 in the series. I couldn’t get the first several in the series right away, so I started with this one, which is equally Diamond (inspector in Bath, England) and another senior investigator, Henrietta Mallin from Sussex. A woman is strangled on a busy beach, and her profession ties her to a serial killer who’s announced his future victims and who is using “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” as the stylistic basis for the killings. I enjoyed it; it’d be a creepy beach read.

The Circle (2005) by Peter Lovesey, one of the two Henrietta Mallin crime novels, though she only comes in to it about halfway through. Pure luck I read this one after The House Sitter, which it apparently follows on and references. “The Circle” refers to a Chichester writing circle, which Bob — a widowed single father, van driver, and doggerel writer –attends a day or so before a publisher who had recently spoken to the group is found dead in his torched house. When the chair of the writing circle comes under suspicion, Bob and the others start to investigate each other as well as others on their own to find the real culprit, but the arson and killings continue. Eventually Hen and Stella are called in to help. Interesting.

Bloodhounds (1996) by Peter Lovesey, 4th in the Peter Diamond series. Another sort of coincidence, I guess: like the previous Lovesey book I just read, out of order, this one is again about a literary circle, in this case fans of crime fiction. When one of the Bloodhounds, as they’re called, is implicated in a stamp heist, and then another of their own is found dead on the first member’s canal houseboat, in a classic “locked room” murder, all eyes are on the Bloodhounds as not only unravelers of mysteries but perpetrators.

Diamond Dust (2002) by Peter Lovesey, #7 in the Peter Diamond series, set mostly in Bath, England. Peter’s wife Stephanie is gunned down in broad daylight in a public park, and there is no lack of suspects, including her ex-husband, several of the men Diamond has put away in prison, wives of the men Diamond has put away in prison, possibly a stranger she’s gone to meet there? Of course, Diamond can’t investigate his own wife’s murder, officially, so unofficial it is. Great, twisted plot.

Diamond Solitaire (1992) by Peter Lovesey, the 2nd in the Peter Diamond series. Diamond, after being fired from the police, is working as a security guard at Harrod’s when a young abandoned Japanese girl is found in the store after closing. She can’t or won’t speak, and no family can be found for her, so she is given the name ‘Naomi’ and taken to a local school, where it’s determined she’s autistic. Diamond spends a lot of time with her at the school trying to communicate so he can return her to her family. Then a Japanese woman appears and claims her, whisking her away to New York … so Diamond follows and works with the NYPD to find Naomi. Meanwhile, there’s another plot that eventually dovetails with this one, about an American pharmaceutical company working on a promising drug for regenerating brain cells. And then there’s the Japanese sumo wrestler. Complex but it works fairly well, though I don’t buy the reason Naomi was removed from her mother (given four pages from the end of the book).

Upon a Dark Night (1997) by Peter Lovesey, the 5th in the Peter Diamond series. A young woman awakes in a hospital with no memory of who she is, what her name is, where she lives. She (nicknamed “Rose” for now) and her new friend Ada seem to be making headway in learning more about her when a woman who says she’s Rose’s sister comes and whisks her away. Meanwhile, a cantankerous old farmer has died of a shotgun wound through the jaw, and a young woman is found dead after a fall from a roof during a party. Of course, everything is connected.

The Vault (1999) by Peter Lovesey, the 6th in the Peter Diamond series, this one set in and near the vault under the Bath Abbey churchyard, where a hand has been found in concrete. Mary Shelley wrote most of Frankenstein while living in Bath (see news article), and this novel imagines the discovery in modern day Bath of her copy of Milton’s poems as well as her writing desk and sketchpad.

The Secret Hangman (2007) by Peter Lovesey, the 9th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. Someone is stringing up couples, the woman first, then the man, in parks, from bridges, at other public structures in Bath. Meanwhile, Peter has a female admirer. Not my favourite; I don’t care about the detective’s love life.

Skeleton Hill (2009) by Peter Lovesey, the 10th in the Peter Diamond series, set mostly around Lansdown Hill in Bath and also a bit in Bristol, England. Not a favourite: Ukranian sex trafficking, British Civil War reenactments, horse racing, another case of injury-induced amnesia.

Cattail Moonshine & Milkweed Medicine: The Curious Stories of 43 Amazing North American Native Plants (2016) by Tammi Hartung. A permaculture group book discussion choice this spring, and a good, light, easy-to-read with not too much to think about, antidote to our previous book. I think we took it in four or five sections of about 45 pp each, which took me less than an hour to read. Lots of photos, illustrations, anecdotes, trivia, and facts about the different medicinal, health, food, instrument-making, fiber arts, industrial, and Native American (a variety of tribes named) uses of each plant, including Agave, Cranberry, Echinacea, Horsetail, Nettles, Panic Grass, Pine, Squash, Valerian, Wild Rice, Witch Hazel. Many of the plants grow in New England, where our group is located.

July

Stagestruck (2011) by Peter Lovesey, the 11th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. A pop idol turned leading lady is sticken in the first moments of the Bath Theatre Royal’s production of the play I Am a Camera, apparently burned by tainted stage makeup, and then someone else connected with the play is found dead, apparently of suicide. Meanwhile, Diamond is dealing not only with his own theatre phobia, stemming from childhood, but with a new and garrulous policeman assigned to his team against his will. Reminded me, of course, of Ngaio Marsh’s Inspector Alleyn series, often set in theatres.

Cop to Corpse (2012) by Peter Lovesey, the 12th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England, and nearby. A very complicated plot; I lost count of the number of crimes and criminals involved. Basically, three policemen walking their beats have been killed by a sniper, including Bath’s own Harry Tasker. Diamond’s team is a part of the investigation headed by Serial Crimes’ senior officer, Jack Gull, which is challenging for Diamond’s need to be in control. Much of the action — and there is a lot of action — takes place in Becky Addy Woods in Wiltshire, with Diamond in mortal danger more than once. One of the more suspenseful and action-packed in the series, which isn’t a compliment, but the plotting is tight for all that.

The Tooth Tattoo (2013) by Peter Lovesey, the 13th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. This one revolves around a string quartet, and anyone who enjoys classical music of the sort a string quartet plays will find a lot to appreciate in this book. Mel Farrar, a jobbing violist, is offered a spot with the Staccati Quartet a few years after their previous violist went missing in Budapest, not long after the body of a young Japanese woman is found in a canal in the city where they had their last gig, Vienna, which, coincidentally, is where Peter Diamond and girlfriend Paloma are spending a vacation looking at locales from the film The Third Man. Coincidentally, again, the string quartet gets a 6-month residency in Bath, where, surprise, another Japanese woman is found dead in a canal. Besides lots of info about string quartets and classical music, there’s also info on netsukes, mammoth ivory, Japanese gangsters (the yakuza), and more.

The Stone Wife (2014) by Peter Lovesey, the 14th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath and Bristol, England. The title refers to a heavy stone sculpture, the Wife of Bath (dating from around the time of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales), up at auction and fetching far more than expected when three people break in and kill one of the high bidders, a local Chaucer professor, with a Webley automatic revolver. Ingaborg goes undercover in a dangerous bid to learn more from a known arms dealer in Bristol while the others zero in on the man’s widow and her ex-husband and one of the victim’s co-workers.

The Island: A Thriller (2019) by Ragnar Jonasson, 2nd in the Hulda series (Detective Inspector Hulda Hermannsdottir of the Reykjavik Police department; the trilogy works backwards; this novel finds Hulda in the middle of her career) set in Iceland, in this book mainly in the Westfjords and in Elliðaey as well as Reykjavik. It’s a confusing plot to follow because several stories are started but not connected or explained (and some key names are omitted) until about halfway through. We first learn about a young couple on a romantic trip to a remote cabin in the Westfjords (5 hours or more northwest of Reykjavik), ending in something catastrophic, followed by a conclusive police investigation. Next, it’s 10 years later and some friends are meeting after years apart at a hunting lodge on the remote island of Elliðaey (about 3 hours southeast of Reykjavik), in the archipelago of Vestmannaeyjar. Meanwhile, Hulda is dealing with her own personal and work issues over these ten years. More suspense than police procedural, though there is some of that. Lots of description of Icelandic landscape and specific mountains. The second half reminded me strongly of The Hunting Party by Lucy Foley, which I read earlier this year: old friends with secrets reunited uneasily in a remote place with a creepy vibe. Suspenseful but not all that satisfying for me.

Down Among the Dead Men (2015) by Peter Lovesey, the 15th in the Peter Diamond series, set in and near Sussex, England, this time. This is one of my favourites, for three reasons: Peter and his boss, Assistant Chief Constable Georgina Dallymore, are paired in an internal investigation of a colleague in Sussex; that colleague is Peter’s old friend, Hen Mallin; and also in Sussex, some art students at a private girls’ school are infatuated with an attractive male teacher with an MG — their replacement after their previous teacher goes missing — who hosts live drawing sessions and nighttime parties on weekends for adult artists.

Beau Death (2017) by Peter Lovesey, the 16th in the Peter Diamond series, set in and near Bath, England. A skeleton is found — sitting in a chair in a building that’s being demolished — in a 1760s Beau Nash costume, complete with black wig. When it turns out the man died more recently than the 18th century, and by being stabbed, Peter and team get to work to try to identify the victim so they can perhaps find the killer. This turns out to mean mingling with the glitterati of the Beau Nash Society. So-so plot, a little too much history for me. The interplay of the police (it’s not all Peter) is definitely a strength of this series.

August

99 Nights in Logar (2019) by Jamil Jan Kochai, fiction about American 12-year-old Marwand’s visit (99 days and nights) to his family home in Logar, Afghanistan, with his parents, his brothers, his many cousins and other relations. It centers on the search for a wolf-dog, Budabash, that Marwand tortured on his last visit six years before and was bitten by (leaving him with an infected stump on one finger) soon after he arrived for this visit. During a search for the dog, he and his brothers and cousins get lost in or near a maze, along with a thief, some American soldiers, some Taliban fighters (“T”s), some drug dealers and users, and others, who all appear again later in the book. Marwand spends a lot of time either escaping the family compound or secretly listening in on the conversations of his parents and other adults. He is also sick the whole time, with “land-induced seasickness” that leaves his bowels a mess. I can’t say I enjoyed this book but it gave an interesting perspective on living in Afghanistan as the war(s) continue to be waged there.

A Beautiful Corpse: A Harper McClain Mystery (2019) by Christi Daugherty. Really enjoyed this novel, whose protagonist is a relatable crime reporter for a paper in Savannah, GA (it was fun knowing where some of the places mentioned are). A young law student is shot on River Street in the wee hours of the night, after her bartending shift ends; is the killer her boyfriend, the bar owner or a bar customer, the local district attorney’s son, or someone else? The plot was tight, though a bit obvious (but satisfying), and I enjoyed the newspaper background and goings-on. I’m looking forward to the next one already, and may go back and read the first, The Echo Killing, in which Harper thinks she’s found the person who murdered her mother, though I know how it ends and all the fallout from it after reading this book.

Magpie Murders (2017) by Anthony Horowitz, crime fiction. Lengthy, about 500 pp, and it felt long, though I enjoyed the first half the crime story within the crime story, set in a 1955 English village with the usual classic crime suspects (lord of the manor and family and servants, vicar & wife, village busybody, and so on) and a private detective (Atticus Pund) working with the police. That story, cut short before the murderer is announced, has been written by Alan Conway, whose eight previous novels have been published by Cloverleaf Books; editor Susan Ryeland is curious about the manuscript’s abrupt end and becomes all the more so when foul play moves from the 1955 story to modern day real life. I’d rate it a 4/5: It was fun to read, with a plot and characters (especially in the manuscript section) that held my attention, but the second half dragged in parts and overall I thought the book was too clever by half. Still, I think most Agatha Christie fans will find it engaging

The Echo Killing (2018) by Christi Daugherty, first in the investigative crime reporter Harper McClain series, set in Savannah, GA. A young woman is murdered and the similarities between her crime scene and that of Harper’s mother, killed when Harper was 12, is too much for her to ignore. As she digs deeper, taking greater risks that eventually lead to a 2-week suspension, the evidence seems to point to one of the women’s ex-lovers, including a police detective.

September

Normal People (2018) by Sally Rooney. Fiction. This book is exactly what it’s marketed as: a coming-of-age love story. Marianne and Connell are high-schoolers in Carricklea, County Sligo, Ireland, when we meet them, Marianne an independent intellectual misfit from an abusive but wealthy family and Connell a smart and popular guy who needs to feel popular, with a good mother (Marianne’s family’s maid, in fact) from a poor family. They start a secretive friends-with-benefits relationship, and over the course of their college years at Trinity in Dublin and beyond, they continue an on-again-off-again emotionally and sexually intimate relationship. The story is told from the points of view of each, though not in a formal way. It’s a simple novel on some levels, made complex by its incisive emotional nuance, and the way it weaves ideas of power, passivity, shame, secrecy, safety, and of course normality throughout. One of my favourite lines is Connell’s thought about Marianne early on: “She’s not living the same kind of life as other people.”

Killing with Confetti (2019) by Peter Lovesey, the 17th in the Peter Diamond series, set in Bath, England. The Deputy Chief Constable’s daughter is marrying a crime baron’s son — what could go wrong? Peter is chosen to make sure nothing does, either at the Abbey wedding or the reception in the Roman Baths. But of course, the crime baron, recently released from prison, has a lot of people who’d like to see him dead, including not only rival gang leaders but enemies dating back to an attempted prison break three years before (which takes up the first 50 pp of the book). No mention of Peter’s girlfriend Paloma in this one (did they break up between books?), but several mentions of his deceased wife Stephanie.

Clock Dance (2018) by Anne Tyler, set near Harrisburg, PA, Tucson, AZ, and in Baltimore, MD, the story of a woman whose life is mostly disappointments and whose overarching concept of relationships is either be Gandhi or marry Gandhi — either be the self-sacrificing one or be the self-centered one. Her mother (and therefore her childhood) is unstable; her first and second husbands are both tedious, thoughtless, and mildly demeaning of her (not Gandhis); her sister and her two sons are emotionally and geographically distant. Then she gets a call out of the blue from Baltimore to come help someone she doesn’t know in the midst of a little crisis, and her life changes. Or does it?

Three Women (2019) by Lisa Taddeo, non-fiction about three women and their sexual desires, disappointments, traumas, risks, sacrifices, needs. It’s about how these women, and how women generally, define themselves by their sexuality, their sex lives, their sexual desires, what they want, what they allow themselves to want and the desires they hide, what they don’t want but acquiesce to anyway again and again. All the stories, oddly, IMO, are about transgressive sexual relationships, those outside the accepted norms of the culture.

I actually skipped most of the Maggie story, knowing that North Dakota’s “Teacher of the Year” walked free after criminal court cases in 2015 and is teaching even now. The court cases against him for corrupting a minor and statutory rape ended in either acquittal or mistrial. Of the other two, the Sloane story — about a privileged young woman (42) who lives in Newport, RI, and runs a restaurant with her chef husband, Richard — is by far the more complex. Sloane’s husband wants sex at least once every 36 hours and prefers it when another man (for Sloane), or sometimes another woman (for both him and Sloane), joins them; Sloane defines herself as a “submissive,” so she wants to please her husband even though she doesn’t need or really want a third person in the sexual constellation, and in fact she feels “everything inside herself evaporate” when her husband has sex with other women, even though she knows (somehow) that he cares only for her. Sloane keeps herself very thin, through eating disorders, starvation, and compulsive exercise. Lina, living in Indiana, is a bit younger, in her 30s, married for 10 years to Ed, who won’t French kiss her and with whom she hasn’t had sex in 3 months (she’s been counting every day) when she reconnects with her high school lover, Aidan, on Facebook; Aidan is no prize — selfish, careless of Lina, texting her for sex on the spur of the moment when he feels like it and when there is an opportunity away from his wife and kids (“he almost never considers her heart”) — but having sex with him, and being kissed by him, makes Lina feel alive, not like she’s dying, which is how living with Ed feels. Her section feels mildly pornographic, I think because it’s so repetitious: all the same graphic anticipation and fantasy, all the same graphic sex (with Aidan) repeated over and over so that I feel like I know his body parts, in particular, all too well. The Sloane section focuses more on Sloane’s personality and the complexity of her desires.

In each of the three stories, someone is having a sexual relationship with someone not their spouse (Maggie’s teacher, in his late 20s, is married with 2 young kids; Sloane and Richard are married and including other men and women, some also married, in their trysts; Lina is married to Ed, with two young kids, and Aidan is also married with young kids). Is desire that transgresses cultural norms the only desire worth writing about? It’s interesting to me that Taddeo ends the book with a vignette about her mother, dying in an assisted living home, not interested in the chicken wings her daughter has brought her at her request: “I was angry. At her lack of want. I was angry because she was barely trying to want.” Her mother also tells her: “Don’t let them see you happy. … Other women, mostly. … They can see you down. They should see you down. If they see you are happy, they will try to destroy you.”

The Summer Book (1972) by Tove Jansson, just a charming book of stories — days, moments — set in summer on an isolated Finnish island, where a 6-year-old girl, Sophia, and her father have come to stay with the girl’s grandmother. Sophia and her grandmother spend the summer in exploration, conversation, pretending, accommodating each other, having a real relationship in a real place. I bought 5 copies for friends.

A Better Man (2019) by Louise Penny, 15th in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series, set in Quebec province. Spring flooding of epic proportions, a missing battered young wife, and vicious tweets about Clara’s latest art (miniatures) and Gamache’s recent harrowing police raid create the drama, and the plot is fairly intricate, but it’s the characters we’re really here for.

An Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack (2002) by Deborah Daw Heffernan. Excellent non-fiction about Heffernan’s surprise massive heart attack due to a spontaneous coronary artery dissection at age 44 in a yoga class (she was fit, ate well, didn’t smoke, had good cholesterol and blood pressure numbers, etc.), her care at nearby Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, her recuperation at her home in western Maine (near Bridgton, it seems, with a Reny’s on Main Street), and all the questions, struggles, emotions, revelations, and realisations attending it. What comes through clearly is that her support system of 15 or more close friends and family, with her husband Jack at the rock-steady core, was crucial to her immediate and long-term healing, along with the very rapid arrival of cardiac EMTS and her swift transfer initially to Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge, the devoted care of her physicians, surgeons, nurses, and therapists at Mass General, a raft of medications, an implanted defibrillator (for deadly ventricular tachycardia) , various complementary health practices, and her own otherwise very healthy body at the start of the ordeal. Half of all women in American will have heart disease, and it’s the number one cause of death of white and African-American women in America, killing 1 in 3 women (vs., e.g, 1 in 31 women dying per year of breast cancer).

The Whisperer (2016/2019) by Karin Fossum, transl. Kari Dickson, 13th in the Inspector Sejer series, set in Kirkelina, Norway. Ragna Riegel is a lonely woman who works as a shop clerk and whose primary happiness is derived from the scantest postcards and Christmas cards from her only son, Rikard Josef, living in Berlin and apparently running an upscale hotel. Her whisper, due to a botched operation, alienates her from most people. When we meet her, she is being gently interviewed by Inspector Konrad Sejer about a murder in which she’s implicated; chapters detailing events in her life and her thoughts are interwoven with the interview.  I thought it was actually going to be much darker than it is, though it’s plenty dark, in the usual quiet Sejer series way.

The Last House Guest (2019) by Megan Miranda, a slowly building suspense novel set in fictional seaside Littleport, Maine, where the wealthy, powerful Lomans and others like them (summer people) use the services of the locals like Avery Greer, who is our narrator and the Lomans’ rental manager. Avery’s past is checkered, but somehow she & Sadie Loman became best friends a number of years ago, which has made her life not only much easier but also much better — until Sadie dies in a cliff fall during a “Plus-One” party (held a week after most of the summer visitors leave), and now Avery’s world is turned upside down. The book moves back and forth between Summer 2017 (when the incident occurs) and Summer 2018.

If She Wakes (2019) by Michael Koryta, a thriller set partly in southern Maine and partly in a hospital in Massachusetts. The “she” of the title is Tara Beckley, a college student charged with driving a speaker to a conference; after a car wreck, neither makes it there, but Tara remains alive and in a coma. Abby Kaplan, an insurance investigator and former stunt driver realises early on that the car crash is not all it seems, but this knowledge only leads her into the path of ruthless killers who want the speaker’s phone, which has vanished. Very gripping, full of action, with a plot lead by strong and smart female characters (Tara, Abby, and Tara’s sister Shannon) who negotiate their way among heroic guardians and opportunistic sociopaths. A little too heart-thumping for me but I liked the internal monologues and thought processes of the main characters.

October

In the Dark (2018/2019) by Cara Hunter, #2 in the DI Adam Fawley series. A woman and child are found locked in a basement in Oxford, England, barely alive;  the old man who owns the house, who has dementia, persists in saying that he doesn’t know them. But then this case is tied to a similar unsolved case years ago, when another young woman and child went missing, from a house behind this one, and things get exciting.  A twisty, turning police procedural with a very satisfying plot, interesting characters, a good mix of crime fiction elements, and excellent pacing.

Big Sky (2019) by Kate Atkinson, with former police detective Jackson Brodie. As one review puts it, this book is in no hurry to get where it’s going but it doesn’t tread water. With writing that’s often amusing and a plot short on graphic violence, the novel feels light in some ways, but most of the crimes committed are related to the gritty and exploitive sex trade industry, selling naive 14-year-old girls to businessmen. Several plots meet in this book, with Jackson involved in all of them, but the complication level is satisfying, not overwhelming, helped by several strong and interesting female characters (detectives Reggie & Ronnie, wives Rhonda and Crystal).

The Scholar (2019) by Dervla McTiernan. Police procedural with a dash of suspense, set mostly in Galway, Ireland, featuring Garda detectives Cormac Reilly, Carrie O’Halloran, and Peter Fisher, investigating the hit-and-run killing of a young woman on a college campus, whose body was discovered by Reilly’s partner, Dr. Emma Sweeney. It’s soon clear that the murdered woman has some connection to Carline Darcy, heiress and granddaughter of billionaire John Darcy whose biotech lab operates on the college campus, where Carline also works. One of the best modern-day (set in 2014) crime fiction plots I’ve read, twisty and compelling, with particularly excellent relationship nuances among the often-conflicted characters. Recommended.

Hunting Game (2014/2019 transl) by Helene Tursten, crime fiction set in rural Dalsland, Sweden, introducing Detective Inspector Embla Nyström, who’s 28 and also a prize-winning boxer and accomplished hunter. She, with her uncle and some friends, are spending a week or so at the hunting cabin as they do each fall, hunting moose together with a small group of wealthy men from the city who have a “hunting castle” nearby. Naturally, there is a lot of talk of killing and gutting animals. This year, Embla’s group is joined by attractive and mercurial Peter Hansson, who used to live in the area and has returned to his birthright. Everyone’s eagerness for the hunting vacation ebbs as nasty little surprises crop up, building to a conclusion that most readers will see long before getting there. The book is very prosaic, possibly due to the fact that it’s in translation or possibly that’s just how it’s written by Tursten. I’ve enjoyed her DI Huss series and liked this one as well, but if you’re looking for lyrical writing or a breathtaking read, try elsewhere; this plot moves at a steady pace that feels muted and understated most of the time, which I like for a change from overblown thrillers that grip and don’t let go. Character development is strong here, too.

November

Liberty or Death (2003) by Kate Flora, 6th in the Thea Kozak series. Educational consultant Thea is moments away from marrying Maine state homicide detective Andre Lemieux when he is kidnapped by a Maine militia group as a bartering tool for release of a political prisoner. Against the wishes of the Andre’s colleagues, Thea goes to the backwater town of Merchantville, ME (fictitious) and goes undercover as a waitress, working overtime hoping to learn anything she can to help find and free Andre. What she learns is that the town is in the grips of a violent, arrogant, ultraconservative pastor and his similar cronies, all armed to the teeth, who suspect, berate, grope, threaten, intimidate, stalk, and attack her, partly because she’s a woman (a pregnant woman) and they just enjoy treating women this way, and partly because they think she’s a cop, which isn’t too far off the mark. The women in the town tell her to stop asking questions and try to be invisible to avoid attracting the militia’s attention. The novel is nerve-wracking, with Thea (and others) in danger constantly, but mainly for me because it’s obvious, 16 years since the book was published, that there are many places and people in the U.S. just like those described: men (primarily) who are defined by their resentments, their sense of themselves as victims, their dual anti-women and anti-government stance, and who are psychopathically and indifferently cruel, a law unto themselves in their quest for male and white supremacy. The novel is well-written and complex, with various driving motives among many of the main characters (not all believe the complete militia doctrine), though how Thea survives on so little sleep, much less manages to be persistently energetic, is pretty unbelievable.

Stalking Death (2008) by Kate Flora, 7th in the Thea Kozak series. This one is set on the campus of St. Matthew’s, a private boarding school in central New Hampshire, where educational crisis consultant Thea is asked to rubber-stamp a letter to parents in the midst of stalking allegations by an athletic black student (age 16). She quickly realises that the school administration has not investigated the matter seriously and plans on scapegoating the accuser. Anyone who likes boarding school mysteries will like this one, tightly plotted, with a chilling and frenzied climax.

Alice’s Island (2019) by Daniel Sánchez Arévalo. This novel is a sort of mystery but really more a psychological novel about loss, betrayal, redemption, hope, community. Alice and Chris have a good marriage, loving and trusting, but when Chris dies at age 35 of a car crash resulting from a brain aneurysm, on a road 100 miles away from where he should have been, Alice starts to question everything, quickly becoming obsessed with discovering why Chris was there and what other secrets he hid. As she starts on a desperate and decidedly reckless path to finding out, she’s led to Robin Island, a small (fictitious) island near Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, off Cape Cod, where her water breaks and she immediately gives birth to her second daughter, Ruby, delivered by a veterinarian and a dentist.  Soon she, Ruby, and her 6-year-old Olivia, who is beginning to struggle with compulsive behaviours (not unlike her mother), are living on Robin Island and Alice is inserting herself into people’s lives, often at their invitation, and making a list of people she suspects were the reason Chris came to the island. She slowly pieces together bits of the puzzle, running into deadends but learning a little more all the time. The plot’s pace is steady but not plodding. The characters and their intimate lives interested me. Would be a good bookgroup read.

Americanah (2013) by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a longish but very readable novel set on the east coast of the U.S. (Philly, New Jersey, Boston, Baltimore), a bit in London, and in Nigeria. Ifemelu, a young Nigerian (Igbo) woman, gets a U.S. visa after her Nigerian college repeatedly shuts down for strikes, leaving behind her family and her boyfriend, Obinze, who can’t get into America and instead goes to live in London as an undocumented citizen always anxious he’ll be found out and deported. The two spend fifteen years apart, each learning more about who they are, what they want, how race and class work in the western world, and in Ifemelu’s case (we learn many more details of her story) how being a non-American black differs from being an American black person, a contrast she explores in her blog.  Obinze ends up back in Nigeria, where he marries and becomes very financially successful; fifteen years after leaving Nigeria, with lots of education, work experience, and relationships under her belt, Ifemelu also returns after a family crisis, and the two former lovers reconnect. It sounds like a romance but it’s not; it’s more an exploration of race, identity, coming of age, and did I mention race? I loved it.

December

The Old Success (2019) by Martha Grimes, a Richard Jury/Melrose Plant crime novel. It’s a short book — 230 pp with largish type and plenty of white space — and I could have read it in an afternoon, but instead I re-read it after getting almost to the end and feeling I had missed something (I had). For a short book, it’s got a lot of characters packed into it, including police, suspects/victims, a handful of kids, and the usual Northants gang, wealthy friends of Plant’s. The story starts with a woman killed on the Cornish coast of a remote island requiring a ferry from Land’s End to reach it. Jury is called in to help and soon Plant is part of the team too, along with Sir Thomas Brownell, former head of the Metropolitan Police. It’s a fun romp, if a plot with four or five murders can be said to be such. I particularly enjoyed it because of Plant’s enlarged role. Horse training and racing are once again an aspect of the story.

Seratonin (2019) by Michel Houellebecq, pretty much his usual fare, a lot of sex to start with, described as mechanically as possible, then no sex at all but lots of thinking about aging and dying (at not even age 50ish), and lots of regretting, and a fair amount of fooling around with firearms. Our “hero,” Florent-Claude Labrouste, thinks he could have made two women happy but instead he cheated on them and they split up years ago. His professional work promoting local cheeses in France has been overtaken by globalization and the demise of the French farmer, leading to national and personal despair that not even a prescription anti-depressant can ameliorate. A few really incisive lines in the midst of it all, like this one: “… he was bound to be happy, that brief happiness that comes with having just escaped a considerable misfortune and finding oneself confronted again with ordinary unhappiness.” Also, a brief but horrific description of factory chicken farming.

A King Alone (1947) by Jean Giorno. A strange little novel, called by some “an existential detective story” but though the book is mysterious, poetic, even mystical in some ways, the crux of it is not crime fiction, though it is a book about a police officer, Langlois, an outsider to a small French alpine village who arrives first to investigate the disappearances of several people and returns a few years later to guard the town from wolves. This description is apt: “This novel about a tiny community at the dangerous edge of things and a man of law who is a man alone could be described as a metaphysical Western. It unfolds with the uncanny inevitability and disturbing intensity of a dream.”

Books Read 2018

Once again (2017, 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2005, 2004, 2003, and 2002), I’m keeping track of what I read this year. I’m always looking for recommendations for fiction, crime fiction series, and non-fiction titles!

January

Nature’s Everyday Mysteries: A Field Guide to the World in Your Backyard (1993) by Sy Montgomery. Short essays (3-6 pp each), organized by season, about the natural world of plants, animals, weather, soil, underwater life, and so on. Some of the essays felt like they ended abruptly,  but most were interesting and informative with an easy-to-read style. My favourites were those on lightning, skunks, beavers, and geology.

Murder for Christmas (1949/2017) by Francis Duncan, a cozy Mordecai Tremaine mystery. Tremaine, an amateur detective, is invited to spend Christmas at a country house in England, whose owner, Benedict Grame, likes to play Father Christmas, complete with full costumes and presents placed on the tree on Christmas Eve for each guest. But from the start, Tremaine feels that the whole tableau is not quite as it’s presented, and when Father Christmas is murdered right next to the tree on Christmas Eve, he and the police have lots of questions for the uneasy guests.  I quite liked it.

Fair and Tender Ladies (1988) by Lee Smith. For a bookgroup, along with Hillbilly Elegy. Really excellent fiction about the life of Ivy Rowe, from her time as a girl in a big family growing up on Blue Star Mountain in western Virginia (Appalachian mountain country), around the turn of the 20th century, through her life into the mid-1970s, all told through her letters to various people. Ivy’s confiding voice is authentic, and Ivy herself is impetuous, poetic, sometimes naive and sometimes insightful. Her character profiles of family, friends, and others are adroit. Her writing reflects the poverty and hardship of living hand-to-mouth on a hardscrabble farm, the beauty and consolation of nature in rural places, both the warmth of community and the squalor and ugliness of the coal mining town she lives in for a time, and how life changed in Appalachia in the 70+ years of her life (including the introduction of electricity, radio, TV, and store-bought clothes and foods). Highly recommended.

The Old Wine Shades (2006) by Martha Grimes, a re-read of this 20th book in the DCI Richard Jury series, introducing us to Harry Johnson, who appears in later novels in the series. Johnson tells Jury — on suspension due to events in the previous book, The Winds of Change, a story about the disappearance of a woman, her autistic young son, and their dog Mungo (but the dog comes back), which leads him and Melrose Plant to investigate. Quantum physics plays a role in the story. I particularly appreciate Grimes’ wry sense of humour and her depiction of animals and children in these novels.

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J.D. Vance. After reading Lee Smith’s Fair & Tender Ladies, this book was a bit of a let-down. Prosaic, a bit boring and repetitive, Vance’s memoir takes us from his chaotic childhood — multiple men in his mother’s life, lots of screaming and fighting that are part of the hillbilly code apparently, the unpredictability and lack of stability of his home life, his mother’s opiate addiction, the family’s irrational behaviour of spending their way into the poorhouse, etc — through his success, finally, in school, acceptance to Yale Law School, and his life as a conservative hedge fund manager (and on the book tour circuit) since.  He makes a number of points, including that the working poor didn’t like Obama because he was an elite (pretty much no mention of race, which seems highly disingenuous) and that people from Appalachia need to stop cutting off their nose to spite their face, stop making irrational choices because it feels good to lash out.  What’s clear in his story, and he does emphasise this a bit, is that without a lot of luck — a lot of encouragement from teachers and mainly his hillbilly grandmother, and a lot of financial help, emotional support, practical advice, Yale old-boy networking — he’d never have succeeded in the way he has.  His time in the Marines also mattered because it was the first time he saw people in much worse conditions than those he was raised in, yet with a good attitude and without his resentment of rich people. This interview with Elizabeth Catte (author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia) is a good critique of the book’s thrust.

February

The Legacy: A Thriller (2014/2018US) by  Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, crime fiction set in Iceland. The book flap says it’s the first installment in a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and police officer Huldar, who in this book are thrown together when a young child is found in the bedroom where her mother has been gruesomely murdered; but they have met once before, hooking up for a one-night stand after meeting in a bar (and in the morning, Huldar crept out before she woke up), so there is some tension. The crime plot is complex and as the title suggests, the action that erupts now has been many years in the making (though triggered by a recent event), born perhaps of a few decisions that were the best that could be made at the time. Characters are well-drawn, even those we know are going to meet their end in a torturous way a few pages later. Looking forward to the next in the series.

March

Snowblind (2010/U.S. 2015) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, new to the tiny town of Siglufjörður, a small fishing village on the northern coast of Iceland, near the Arctic Circle. Although nothing ever happens there, soon after his arrival in the winter of 2008-2009 things start to happen, including the aged co-head of the dramatic society dying after a fall down some stairs and a woman found in the never-ending snow bleeding from stab wounds. Meanwhile, Ari Thór has left his girlfriend behind in Reyjkavik and is interested in another woman in Siglufjörður. I liked it until the end, where I felt it fell flat.

Nightblind (2015/U.S. 2016) by Ragnar Jónasson, in the “Dark Iceland” series featuring rookie cop Ari Thór Arason, set in the tiny town of Siglufjörður, Iceland. This is apparently the fourth book in the series, but the others aren’t available yet here in the U.S. Ari Thór’s old boss has moved to Reyjkavik but soon returns to help solve the case when the new boss is shot. The current plot is interspersed with diaries from a man in a psychiatric ward, date unknown, and of course the stories dovetail at the end. Not particularly thrilling or gripping, and again the end was a let down. I like the sparsely descriptive quality of the writing, though.

Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants (2013) by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for a group. Everyone else in my group loved it but I felt Kimmerer was trying too hard to sound poetic. There were a few chapters I really liked (I gave the book to someone else and can’t recall them now — one about moss in the rain) but mostly it felt repetitious, overdone, and tedious to me. I think the idea was to meld and/or compare her experiences as a woman embracing the indigenous, traditional stories and rituals with a scientist looking at data.

A Thousand Acres (1992) by Jane Smiley. Novel, read for bookgroup. Set in rural Iowa over a few decades, the novel features Ginny Cook & her husband Ty; Ginny’s sister Rose Cook and her husband Pete; their other sister Caroline Cook, a city slicker lawyer who lives in Des Moines; and their father, Daddy (Larry), who’s not easy to get along with. Two things happen that trigger changes in all their lives: Daddy decides to deed his property to his daughters; and Jess Clark, a neighbor draft-dodger who’s been away on the west coast, returns after 13 years to try to mend his relationship with his father. It’s a poignant, King Lear-ish story (even down to the letters that begin the first names of Ginny/Goneril, Rose/Regan, Caroline/Cordelia, and Larry/Lear) that also reminded me of Wendell Berry’s novels, with the sharp dividing line between those who remain on the farm and those who leave — and those who wish they could leave and those who leave but come back.  Themes include gratitude and ingratitude and how they’re communicated and understood; the importance of appearances and the way that being known in a small community shapes personality and actions; sibling rivalry; marital conflict and the silences and secrets that often mark it; revenge and rebellion; the vagaries of memory; the differences in the way that men and women suffer; condemnation vs. pity toward someone who’s tyrannical.

Mephisto Waltz (2018) by Frank Tallis: #7 in the Liebermann Papers crime series set around the turn of the 20th century in Vienna, featuring psychoanalyst Dr Max Liebermann — single, but now with a live-in lover, the scientist Amelia Lydgate — and his friend, the married father and detective Oskar Rheinhardt of the security service. Not quite as good as most of the others, because there were too many disparate threads that were confusing and probably extraneous. The plot concerns anarchists who, believing they are working toward world peace, the end of poverty, and some kind of equality of gender and personhood, act to assassinate emperors to destroy empires. Newfangled crime tools like fingerprinting and lie detectors are just beginning to be used. Liebermann speaks with Freud about mob psychology and the diffusion and indeed debasement of the individual’s morality in the midst of a crowd.

April

Sleep No More (2017) by P.D. James, subtitled “Six Murderous Tales.” None is a whodunit, most are sort of murder retrospectives. A quick semi-satisfying read.

The Knowledge (2018) by Martha Grimes, in the Det. Supt.  Richard Jury series. A convoluted plot set in London and Kenya is a bit hard to follow and somehow not all that engaging. A husband and wife — whom Jury had met very recently and come to like very much — are shot outside Artemis, an exclusive London casino/art gallery, by a shooter who commandeers a black cab to the airport, where a 10-year-old homeless girl attaches herself to him. Her exploits after her landing in Kenya, then combined with Melrose Plant’s after Jury convinces him to go there as well, are interleaved with Jury’s and Wiggins’, and with Marshall Trueblood’s (who’s gotten a job as croupier at Artemis), as similarities between this murder and a past shooting at another club, in Reno NV, owned by Artemis’s owner, come to light. Grimes seems to be in a nostalgic mood as she references many of her other books in this series, and their past plots and past characters, while telling this tale. Always a few very funny lines (often Melrose’s words or thoughts), but the plotting felt almost ridiculous at times, and there was a red herring I wasn’t fond of.

Everything Happens for a Reason: And Other Lies I’ve Loved (2018) by Kate Bowler. Non-fiction, about Bowler’s Stage IV colon cancer diagnosis in 2015 and her journey before and after. Previously she studied and wrote about the prosperity gospel and churches, so when she gets incurable cancer at age 35, a year after her son is born, lots of folks associated with those churches write and say to her things like “everything happens for a reason” — you sinned, you’re being taught something or other people are being taught something by your illness, God needs a new angel, whatever — and even worse things. About 1/3 of the book is about the terrible things that well-meaning people say to her; the other two thirds are her life before and after her diagnosis, and the way prosperity churches frame life events. Could have used a little more editing — some jagged edges — but all in all, a useful, moving book about one woman’s experience of living in the awful and beautiful moments between the certainty of life and the shadow of death, plus short lists of a. things never to say to people with cancer and b. things to say and do for people with cancer. Recommended, especially for friends and family of people with cancer.

May

Murder by Yew (2009) by Suzanne Young, a cozy mystery set in coastal Rhode  Island, first in the Edna Davies series. Edna Davies is a new resident in town, still exploring and wondering about the previous owner’s penchant for poisonous garden plants. The owner has left journals and herbal recipes, which Edna is trying out, and after her handyman Tom has some of her homemade tea and dies, Edna is suspected in his death. Not bad. Features a sort of nosy, friendly neighbour, Mary; Edna’s cat, Benjamin; and Edna’s daughter, Starling, who lives in Boston.

The Sandman (2012/2018 U.S.) by Lars Kepler, 4th (I think) in the Joona Linna series. Featuring the psychopathic serial killer Jurek Walter, who’s in a max-security prison and yet people are still being held hostage and are still dying. After one of Walter’s victims, Mikael Frost, is found walking along a railroad track and eventually reunited with his father, who has held continual parties and been continually drunk and surrounded with people since Mikael went missing 13 years ago to avoid killing himself, young and beautiful Inspector Saga Bauer goes undercover in the prison to see if she can get Walter to talk so that they can find Mikael’s sister, Felicia, still being held.  At the same time, a new naive, and sexually sadistic, doctor, Anders Ronn, is temporarily in charge of the prison. (What could go wrong?) Nail-biting plot, well-written.

Tangerine (2018) by Christine Mangan. A rather simple novel, told in two similar voices, about two former college roommates with a fraught past, in their 20s now in Tangier, Morocco, Alice with her husband, John, and Lucy who has come to Tangier to find Alice. There’s been a lot of hype for this book, which begins promisingly with descriptions of Tangier (that reminded me of  Camus’ The Stranger with the constant mentions of oppressive heat) and hints of psychological entanglement and abuse but then becomes both predictable in plot and at the same time, unfathomable in character (except for Lucy’s character, which is predictable throughout); and it’s just hard to believe that everyone — family, acquaintances, officials — who could question what they’re told never seem to consider doing so. The first chapter or prologue basically gives the plot’s ending away, but still I was disappointed once I knew how it was all going to go (by p. 176 of 388) and from then I skimmed the rest. Still it took me two weeks to finish, because it wasn’t captivating anymore. I read Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, to which this book has been (laughably) compared, and Tartt’s book was so much better, so much more complex and nuanced.

A Man Lay Dead (1934) by Ngaio Marsh, 1st in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series. Funny, nicely written, with some Briticisms of the 1930s that may sound quaint or be opaque to the modern American reader but which add to the stylish tone of the book. The plot was convoluted, to say the least — — wealthy man is killed at a country estate weekend, Russians abound, plus a love triangle and other murder motives — and not up to Agatha Christie’s elegant standards at all, but I’ll read a few more.

Enter A Murderer (1935) by Ngaio Marsh, 2nd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again with reporter Nigel Bathgate as sidekick. The setting this time is the theatre, where at rehearsal one of the actors shoots a gun with a supposed prop bullet cartridge and kills his fellow actor.

The Dark Angel (2018) by Elly Griffiths, 10th in the Ruth Galloway series.

June

The Nursing Home Murder (1935)  by Ngaio Marsh, 3rd in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with Nigel Bathgate).  My favourite so far. The British Home Secretary, Derek O’Callaghan, is introducing a bill in Parliament to clamp down on anarchist activities and has been threatened by anarchists/Bolsheviks, while at the same time his dalliance with a young woman (and nurse) has led to threats on his life from her and the man who loves who (who’s a surgeon). When Derek is taken to the hospital with a burst appendix and dies within an hour of the surgery, there are many personal and political suspects. Complex and interesting plot. I love this bit of musing about the relationship between Derek and his wife, Cicely, who is remote and aloof: “Their very embraces were masked in a chilly patina of good form. Occasionally he had the feeling that she rather disliked him but as a rule he had no feeling about her at all. He supposed he had married her in a brief wave of enthusiasm for polar expedition.”

The Moving Finger (1942) by Agatha Christie, a re-read, and I’ve got it on DVD as well, so when I read it I saw the sets and actors. Nominally a Miss Marple Mystery, but she only enters into it 3/4 of the way through and though she is of course pivotal in unmasking the murderer, she has very few lines. One of my favourites, anyway, because of the plotting, the setting (in the quiet little village of Lymstock), the characters (especially Jerry and Joanna, the brother and sister who come to stay in the village while he recuperates from a flying accident, and 20-year-old Megan, a sort of rural sprite), and it’s also a bit of a romance novel.

Three Act Tragedy (1934) by Agatha Christie, nominally a Poirot mystery but he plays a minor role at the start and a somewhat greater one at the finish. Instead of Poirot throughout, a Mr. Satterthwaite, who enjoys observing people, is the head sleuth until Poirot finally takes over. I rather like this one, set mostly in a British harbor town (Loomouth) and featuring a former actor, Charles Cartwright, as well as a vicar, a doctor, an actress, a playwright, and some gentlefolk. When Rev. Babbington dies after drinking a cocktail at a party, opinion is divided on whether it was a natural death. Not too long later, Sir (doctor) Bartholomew Strange, who had attended the previous party, dies of nicotine poisoning after drinking some port at his own party, attended by many of the same people; and meanwhile, after an exhumation, the verdict is nicotine poisoning in Babbington’s death, making it murder as well.  Charles, Satterthwaite, and Egg Lytton Gore — a young woman in love with Charles — begin to investigate the party attendees of the two linked murders. I felt the murderer was obvious very early on but I still enjoyed the plotting.

Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie, a favourite Miss Marple re-read.  Colonel Lucius Protheroe, disliked by one and all, is found murdered in Rev. Leonard Clement’s home study, and two different people confess to the killing. Jane Marple happens to live next door and exercising her deductive reasoning skills, along with the vicar’s, she gets to the bottom of the matter. I especially enjoyed the relationship between the vicar and his younger, somewhat unconventional wife Griselda.

The Gap of Time (2015) by Jeanette Winterson, a modern retelling — complete with webcams and a complex virtual reality video game, but also with a medieval and also perhaps futuristic BabyHatch for leaving unwanted babies —  of Shakespeare’s A Winter’s  Tale. Interesting as a retelling –I especially liked how MiMi becomes essentially a living statue — and also interesting on its own, though I can’t say I really liked it or any of the characters all that well, though Pauline was probably my favourite. The plot: Leo and French singer MiMi (Hermione) are married, but Leo is jealous of this best friend, the bisexual Xeno, and irrationally, groundlessly believes that Xeno and (pregnant) MiMi are having an affair and the unborn child is Xeno’s, not his. Bad things ensue.  Themes and motifs: Falling; being trapped; gaps in time (stopping time; what we can or can’t do to change the past or future; can we make things unhappen?); dark fallen angels of death, the trapped fallen angel of Gerard de Nerval’s dreams, who folds in its giant wings as it falls into a courtyard amid buildings filled with people and who will die if it can’t escape but can escape only by opening those wings and destroying everyone in the buildings; “What do you do, said MiMi, if to be free you demolish everything around you?”; redemption: can one generation’s evil and death (“necrotic longings”) be escaped by the next generation — how does the past mortgage the future, can the past be redeemed, can time be redeemed or are we ineluctably trapped in it and in ourselves? As Winterson remarks in the last pages, A Winter’s Tale and this retelling are fairy tales of a sort, but in this case the danger or threat is not external (dragon, army, sorcerer), but “Shakespeare, anticipating Freud, puts the threat where it really is: on the inside.”

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie, an early one I hadn’t heard of until now, featuring neither Poirot nor Marple nor Tommy & Tuppence. (And also published as Murder at Hazelmoor.) Christie recycles the last name of the sleuth in this book, Emily Trefusis, later in a Poirot mystery (1951’s short story “The Underdog”). The plot is that Captain Joe Trevelyan is murdered while a bunch of people miles away in a snowstorm who are table-turning (a common pastime, like playing with the Ouija board) get a message that he is dead. His friend, Major John Burnaby, is worried and tromps to his house to check on him, finding him indeed dead.  When Inspector Narracott arrests Jim Pearson, his girlfriend Emily Trefusis seeks to exonerate him by finding the real murderer. I enjoyed it.

Death in Ecstasy (1936) by Ngaio Marsh, 4th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series (with journalist Nigel Bathgate). Another good one, this time set at the House of the Sacred Flame, a religious cult situated across the street from Bathgate and headed by Jasper Garnette, whose rituals involve a host of pagan gods, initiation ceremonies, and a Chosen Vessel. When Cara Quayne, the latest Chosen Vessel, drops dead at the ceremony of cyanide poisoning, Bathgate is on the spot, his curiosity of a rainy evening taking him to the monthly service, and he calls Alleyn in to investigate. Lots of clues lead to a satisfying ending.  (The book’s paperback cover, on a 1983 reprint, is ridiculous and bears no resemblance to the story.) The setting, in part: “The signs of the Zodiac decorated the walls, and along the aisles were stationed at intervals some remarkable examples of modern sculpture. The treatment was abstract, but from the slithering curves and tortured angles emerged the forms of animals and birds — a lion, a bull, a serpent, a cat and a phoenix. Cheek by jowl with these, in gloomy astonishment, were ranged a number of figures whom Nigel supposed must represent the more robust gods and goddesses of Nordic legend. The gods wore helmets and beards, the goddesses helmets and boots. They all looked as though they had been begun by Epstein and finished by a frantic bricklayer. In the nearest of these figures Nigel fancied he recognised Odin. The god was draped in an angular cloak from the folds of which glared two disconsolate quadrupeds who might conceivably represent Geri and Freki, while from behind a pair of legs suggestive of an advanced condition of elephantiasis peered a brace of disconsolate fowls, possibly Huginn and Muninn.”

Vintage Murder  (1937) by Ngaio Marsh, 5th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand and without Nigel Bathgate. Another theatrical mystery, my least favourite kind. Involves a troupe of British actors en route to and in New Zealand to perform. When the producer is killed by a surprise rigging of his own (a jerboboam of champagne to be lowered to the stage for this wife’s birthday), Alleyn — who is in New Zealand on a medical leave  of some vague sort — is there to assist Inspector Wade and his team as they investigate the other players and crew.

July 

Death in a White Tie (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 7th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [The 6th, Artists in Crime, which introduces Alleyn’s love interest, artist Agatha Troy, was not available through inter-library loan in NH.] This one is set during débutante season in London, with a blackmailer extorting money from wealthy women and the sociable Lord Robert informally on the case for Scotland Yard — until he is murdered in a taxi cab after a ball. My favourite so far — I just love English high society crime fiction. Complex plot, though it was fairly obvious who dun it three-quarters of the way through.

The Late George Apley (1936) by John Marquand, a classic novel, told mostly in letters, about an elite Bostonian man and his family, dating back to 1636 but mostly set during the span of George’s life, from 1866-1933, with all the cultural, sexual, literary, political, and social changes occurring then.  Lots of noblesse oblige (taking care of the poor and giving them respect), the need to adhere to tradition and convention, the need to do one’s duty rather than seek pleasure. George is often appalled and perplexed by the newfangled mores of his children, John and Eleanor, and of that generation — girls entering speakeasies; girls unchaperoned with boys; men having any physical relationship with any woman not already their wife (chaste kissing might be allowed); people rejecting membership in the posh social clubs, debating societies, and Harvard-related clubs; Bostonians courting and marrying crass New Yorkers or worse, Mid-Westerners; radical agitators wanting to be paid more and not be cared for like children at the mills; and so on. Don’t even mention the Irish or other lower classes. He struggles at times with his own conformity, which he believes to be essential for the common good, even as he recognises that”conforming to type” has perhaps made his life unhappy and less vital in some way. He is also very concerned with his country house and the minute details of its upkeep. An interesting insight into that time period, quite well written, often amusing. Most of the letters are from George to his son or his (male) friends from college; women are better unseen and unheard in this book.

Artists in Crime (1938) by Ngaio Marsh, 6th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series. [Read out of order.] Alleyn meets independent and somewhat iconoclastic artist Agatha Troy on a cruise ship, falls in love with her painting and with her, then meets her again shortly after landing back in England when someone is murdered at her group studio session. Nigel appears in this one, as does Alleyn’s lovable and wise mother.

Death at the Bar (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 9th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, this one set on the Devon coast in Ottercombe. Alleyn and Fox are called in to sort a cyanide death — accident or murder ? — during a darts dare at Abel Pomeroy’s pub. Complex. I liked this: “If Nark’s theory of how cyanide got on the dart was ever understood by him, he had no gift for imparting it to others. He became incoherent, and defensively mysterious. He dropped hints and when pressed to explain them, took fright and dived into obscurities. He uttered generalizations of bewildering stupidity, assumed an air of huffiness, floundered into deep water, and remained there, blowing like a grampus.”

August

Death of a Peer (1940) by Ngaio Marsh, 10th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, set mostly in London. The plot involves a quirky, charming, somewhat dysfunctional family — similar to some of Anne Tyler’s families or HE Bates’ The Darling Buds of May —  who are investigated by Alleyn when a wealthy relative is killed in a gruesome manner at their home after refusing to give the family any more money. I enjoyed it.

Death and the Dancing Footman (1941) by Ngaio Marsh, 11th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector Detective Roderick Alleyn series, again set at an English country house, this time at the diabolically planned party of Jonathan Royal, who is bringing together romantic, family, business, and other sorts of enemies — to see what kind of drama they create. If you consider murder dramatic, he is successful. Not a favourite.

The Plot Against America (2004) by Philip Roth.  I found this somewhat autobiographical alternative history novel hard to get into but eventually I did. It reminded me faintly throughout of Neil Diamond’s song “Brooklyn Dreams,” with two brothers living on the second floor of an apartment building in a city, in this case in the 1940s in Weequahic, a Jewish section of Newark. For me, it was an extremely depressing novel to read now, with the alt-right on the upswing again everywhere.  The plot, which I’ll describe below and which contains spoilers (sort of), moves from the personal and intimate family portrait to the national and international political scene seamlessly, for the most part. The effects on brothers Philip and Sandy of political rhetoric, public policies, media coverage, whispered conversations among frantic adult neighbours and their own classmates, and differences of opinion among family members are subtly and elegantly delineated. The political is shown to be extremely personal in an ordinary person’s daily life.  Plot: Philip and Sandy, two brothers ages 8 and 11, and their parents Bess and Herman Roth — an insurance salesman who makes less than $50/week — live happily if frugally in an apartment house in a Jewish section of Newark in 1940, when German- (Nazi-) sympathizer Charles Lindbergh becomes president of the U.S. The neighbours are stunned and dismayed; they gather around their radios each evening to listen to gossip columnist Walter Winchell speak against Lindbergh and fascism. Soon after the election, the family takes a vacation to Washington DC and experience anti-Semitic discrimination. Phil’s brother Sandy goes to rural Kentucky to live with a gentile farm family for the summer as part of the federal Office of American Absorption’s ‘Just Folks’ program — “a volunteer work program introducing city youth to the traditional ways of heartland life” — and comes back enamored of this kind of opportunity and bitterly derisive of his parents and other adults (whom he calls “ghetto Jews”) who seem to him to be paranoid, plagued by a “persecution complex.” Their older and much-admired cousin, Alvin, joins the Canadian Army (the U.S. not taking a side in the war under Lindbergh) to fight against the Nazis and returns changed. Phil’s aunt Evelyn marries a collaborationist rabbi; they attend a fancy and highly publicised state dinner at the White House in honour of Nazi Foreign Minister von Ribbentrop. Another federal policy, “Heartland 42,” aimed at dispersing Jews from urban communities and into the American ‘heartland,’ is put in place, and when “the Metropolitan,” Herman’s insurance company, is ordered to send this family to Kentucky as part of this relocation program, Herman quits and goes to work hauling fruit and veg for his brother, Monty, so they can stay in Newark. When Walter Winchell is assassinated at one of his own rallies in Louisville, Kentucky, riots break out around the country with anti-Semites smashing store windows, burning synagogues, and killing Jews.

Peculiar Ground (2018) by Lucy Hughes-Hallett. I loved this sumptuous, “densely patterned” novel, which is an historical novel-family saga, not my usual type. It’s primarily set on the large estate of Wychwood, Oxfordshire, England, in 1663-1665, 1961, 1973, and 1989, and told in the voices of a landscape designer, a gay art dealer, a journalist, an art historian, the land agent’s young daughter, the estate owner’s wife, and others, as well as narrated. The creation and destruction of the Berlin Wall separating East from West Germany is central to the plot/theme, and the Wall’s significance in terms of imprisonment, sanctuary, choosing and not choosing to be walled in or out, and exclusion and inclusion are echoed in the estate’s landscaping, with a wall around the property within which the estate owners and staff can live and walk vs. the villagers who are allowed in on occasion. Trespass, boundaries, a sense of entitlement and ownership, spying (secretly gathering information across borders), infiltrating, fleeing, internment, the Biblical Garden of Eden, prison, home, and the building of walls are all explored directly and subtly, in real time and in a handful of folkloric stories. Other motifs are celebrity, theater, illicit acts, religious oppression and stereotyping, women’s roles and the treatment of women, the force of water, et al. A fascinating book, beautifully imagined and written.

Overture to Death (1939) by Ngaio Marsh, 8th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series [read out of order due to ILL vagaries], set in the fictional village of Pen Cuckoo in England, several hours from London. When one of two nasty town busybodies is murdered while providing music on stage during an amateur production, Alleyn and Fox and team are called in.  Complicating the investigation is the fact that the other nasty town busybody may have been the target, making the list of possible suspects about 100% of those with opportunity. This isn’t really a theatre crime, more of an English village cozy, and it held my attention.

Colour Scheme (1943) by Ngaio Marsh, 12th in the Scotland Yard Chief Inspector  Detective Roderick Alleyn series, though Alleyn only enters midway through and without Fox, Bailey, and the others on the police force. This one’s set in New Zealand at (fictional) Wai-ata-tapu Hot Springs in Harpoon Inlet, near the real town of Rotorua on the North Island, a place teeming with geothermal activity and Maori culture (the Maoris are integral to the story). The spa is run by the hapless Claire family (parents, son, daughter, and brother/uncle), who from the start of the novel seem to variously resent, fear, suspect, and fall under the influence of Maurice Questing, a businessman staying there. When he dies in horrifying circumstances, there’s no lack of suspects. Not a favourite, though I gather from online reviews that for many who’ve read the series, it is. The scenery is dramatic, but I prefer Alleyn throughout and in full police persona. Also, I figured out a key piece of the solution fairly early in the plot, even before the murder. Favourite quote: “‘But you can’t miss your way, really,’ [Mrs. Claire] added. ‘There are little flags, white for safe and red for boiling mud. But you will take care of him, Mr. Bell, won’t you? Come back before dark. One would never forgive oneself if after all this …’ The sentence died away as a doubt arose in Mrs. Claire’s mind about the propriety of saying that death by boiling mud would be a poor sequel to an evening of social solecisms.”

Died in the Wool (1945) by Ngaio Marsh, 13th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set in New Zealand (South Island). Flossie Rubrick, a formidable member of New Zealand Parliament,  disappears in 1942 after heading to the wool shed to rehearse a patriotic speech; three weeks later she turns up packed inside one of her own bales of wool.  Alleyn, doing counter-espionage in New Zealand during the war, isn’t on the case until 15 months later, when Flossie’s husband’s nephew Fabian Losse invites him to re-open the case. Alleyn has to investigate the cold case by interviewing family members and staff, including Flossie’s niece Ursula, nephew Douglas (who with Fabian is working on a secret anti-aircraft device for the Allies), secretary (Miss) Terry Lynne, manservant Markins, and wool workers Cliff Johns and his father.  Not one of her better plots, though the method of murder is unique.

Final Curtain (1947) by Ngaio Marsh, 14th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Alleyn is back in England and reunited with wife Troy again after a 3-years absence to NZ during the war. Just before his return, Troy has gone to the Ancreton estate, a ways from London, to paint the portrait of Henry Ancred, noted Shakespearean actor and wealthy family patriarch, but when he dies in the night after his birthday party, it’s Troy’s who’s back in London and Inspector Alleyn (and Fox) at Ancreton to sort through the temperamental family  members and their motives. Good.

September

Murder on the Links (1923) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Golfing really has nothing to do with the setting of this book (except that the body is left on a golf course), or with the plot, which is one of Christie’s most complicated (convoluted?). Most of it takes place in Merlinville-sur-Mer, France, after Paul Renauld writes requesting Poirot’s help; of course, as happens with some regularity in these stories, when Poirot and sidekick Captain Hastings arrive, Renauld is already dead, stabbed in the back with a special letter opener, and his wife has been bound with rope. During the investigation, Hastings — who is presented in a somewhat different light than usual — unexpectedly runs into a woman he’s met and become infatuated with on a recent train trip, known to him only as ‘Cinderella.’

Easy to Kill (1938) by Agatha Christie. Re-read. Not a Poirot or Marple. A young policeman recently returned from the Mayang Straits,Luke Fitzwilliam, meets Lavinia Fullerton, an old lady, on a train into London. She tells him she’s heading to Scotland Yard to alert them to several murders  by the same person (whose identity she knows but doesn’t tell him) in her town of Wychwood. When Luke learns she’s been hit and killed by a car, he decides to visit the town, staying with a friend’s cousin, Brigit, to investigate Miss Fullerton’s claims. I like this book but the killer is “easy to suss out” fairly early on.

A Wreath for Rivera (1949, aka Swing Brother Swing) by Ngaio Marsh, 15th in the Inspector Alleyn series. I liked this one. A bit complicated as to plot and characters’ relationships, with jazz, drugs, blackmail, an Agony Aunt column in a rag, uncooperative wealthy  eccentrics, servants and lowly cops in trouble with their superiors, etc., as Alleyn and Fox investigate the murder of a Latin American piano-accordion player on stage during a jazz act in London.

Night at the Vulcan (1951, aka Opening Night) by Ngaio Marsh, 16th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Another theatre mystery, this one from the point of view of a young, aspiring actress, Martyn Tarne, who hails from New Zealand and is in London auditioning with no luck. Hungry, tired, and homeless, she takes a job on the spur of the moment as a leading lady’s dresser at the Vulcan theatre. There are undercurrents of jealousy, resentment, envy, fear, and outright rows before murder occurs and Alleyn (with Fox, Bailey, et al) investigates. As one reviewer writes, “Although the play being performed exudes Existentialism, the characters (and Alleyn too) are forever quoting Shakespeare. This is fun.” It was one of her better theatre pieces, I thought, mainly due to Martyn’s engaged, wise, compassionate attitude. The killer was not a surprise, though the motive was.

Spinsters in Jeopardy (1953) by Ngaio Marsh, 17th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Asked to investigate a drug ring in the French countryside, at a chateau in which black magic is practiced, Alleyn and wife Troy decide to combine his work with a holiday for their family (including young son Ricky), possibly to meet a cousin Troy’s never met before (P.E. Garbel). While on the train heading to Roqueville, Troy and Alleyn both glimpse through a window what seems to be a murder in the chateau (as in Agatha Christie’s The 4:50 from Paddington,aka What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw!, published in 1957); also while they’re on the train, a middle-aged woman becomes ill with acute appendicitis and needs immediate medical attention — so the Alleyns take her to the chateau, where an eminent surgeon, known to be working with the drug ring, operates. After Alleyn’s cover is blown, he, the local police, and Alleyn’s driver, Raoul, enact schemes to catch the bad guys. A bit fantastical, but I appreciated Alleyn and Troy’s understated parenting, Raoul’s character, and the French slant.

October

Scales of Justice (1955) by Ngaio Marsh, 18th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Colonel Carterette — enthusiastic fisherman, husband of Kitty, a lower-class outsider, and father of Rose, enamored of Dr. Mark Lacklander — is killed soon after he’s asked to publish the controversial memoirs of Sir Harold Lacklander, head of the feudal Lacklander family of  the English village of Swevenings. Beside Carterette’s body is a freshly killed trout. Alleyn is very interested in the trout. I liked this one a lot.

Death of a Fool (1956) by Ngaio Marsh, 19th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in the village of South Mardian (England), a community that re-enacts the pagan Morris Sword Dance of the 5 Sons each year on the Wednesday before Christmas. The five sons in this case are the Andersen brothers, sons of the irascible William Anderson, the town smithy and Fool. When German Mrs. Anna Bünz of the Friends of British Folklore Guild of Ancient Customs comes to town to research the dance, she’s rebuffed by the men (“My dad don’t rightly fancy wummen”) but she’s persistent. After the Fool is killed during the dance, one of his sons accuses Mrs. Bünz, but Alleyn’s got a wider net of suspects. Not a favourite, but if you like folklore, you’ll probably like this.

Singing in the Shrouds (1958) by Ngaio Marsh, 20th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set aboard the Cape Farewell, a cruise ship out of London, with a handful of suspects on board. Alleyn is incognito on the ship on the slimmest of clues tying one of the passengers to the Flower Murders, a recent spate of stranglings involving broken necklaces and flowers placed on the victims (all female). So-so.

False Scent (1959) by Ngaio Marsh, 21st in the Inspector Alleyn series. Setting is a large house, probably in London. Mary Bellamy, stage star in comedic plays, is turning 50 (shh) but she’s in a very bad mood, not improved when her adopted son Richard shares with her a serious play in which she’s obviously not meant to be the lead (someone much younger is) and a couple of her acolytes are found to be involved in another play she’s not part of.  Before her big party, she receives a gift of a “vulgar” perfume called “Formidable,” which she insists on dousing herself in, much to her husband, Charles Templeton’s, dismay. Templeton asked her to not to use it, and he’s asked her to throw out an insecticide, Slaypest, because it’s much too dangerous to have around, but again she refuses. Once the party starts, she has a major “temperament” (temper tantrum) and things go from bad to worse.

Hand in Glove (1962) by Ngaio Marsh, 22nd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Mr. Pyke Period, a genteel old bachelor has regrettably opened his home to Harold Cartell and his dog, both somewhat disagreeable. Things look up a bit for him when typist Nicola Maitland-Mayne, a friend of Alleyn and his wife Troy’s, arrives to help with Period’s book on etiquette, and things look up for Nicola when she falls for Andrew Bantling, Lady Desiree Bantling’s son by her first marriage, and he returns the feelings. But then things look down when a slippery thief and his besotted girlfriend, both quite without manners, make trouble for several people, and they further deteriorate when a scavenger hunt at an upper-class house party leads to murder and lots of lying.  Fairly good.

Dead Water (1963) by Ngaio Marsh, 23rd in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set on fictional tiny Portcarrow Island (14 acres in size), in the UK. After a mysterious “Green Lady” speaks to young Wally near a hilltop spring and apparently rids him of his many warts overnight, the Island becomes a mecca for medical tourists who want healing and a boon to shop owners, the pub and inn landlord, the mayor, and even the doctor and the rector, all making much more money than ever before. But then Alleyn’s friend and mentor, Emily Pride, who now owns the island after her sister’s death, decides to put a stop to the crass commercialism of the Green Lady cult. Her visit to the island, to make her announcement, leads to murder and mayhew, of course. Not a favourite.

Life in the Garden (2018) by Penelope Lively, a Booker Prize winning horticultural memoir. Six fairly simple essays about gardens in history, in literature and painting, as metaphor, and in her own life. A pleasant read, nothing earth-shaking.

November

Killer Dolphin (1966; UK: Death at the Dolphin) by Ngaio Marsh, 24th in the Inspector Alleyn series. Set in London at the newly restored Dolphin Theatre, with playwright and director Peregrine Jay at the helm — and eccentric magnate Vassily Conducis his silent partner. The plot revolves around a glove — originally worn by William Shakespeare’s doomed young son, Hamnet — that’s recently surfaced and provides the focus of the play Jay writes and directs with a handful of temperamental and star-crossed actors.  I found it hard to get into but interesting enough as it went along.

Clutch of Constables (1969) by Ngaio Marsh, 25th in the Inspector Alleyn series, this one set largely on a small boat, the M.V. Zodiac, cruising for 5 days on a river with locks between (fictional) Longminster and Norminster, England. Troy — Alleyn’s wife and now a quite famous artist — spontaneously decides to book passage on the ship after seeing a card posted in a window of a last-minute cancellation (Alleyn is in the U.S. on business).  Of course, someone on the ship is a master-mind criminal, coincidentally the same one Alleyn is hunting (Foljambe, or the Jampot), but Troy knows nothing of that; still, she gradually notices small but nagging incidences that she brings to the local constabulary’s attention, and which they all but ignore. Alleyn doesn’t really appear in the book until 3/4 through, although the story is framed by his telling it to a detective class a couple of years later. One of my favourites for the way it’s told, Troy’s outsized role, and the setting on a boat in the ancient English countryside.

When in Rome  (1971) by Ngaio Marsh, 26th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in Rome. Alleyn is incognito as part of an expensive tour group, investigating international drug smuggling and sales. The group leader, Sebastian Mailer, seems a rum character (as Marsh likes to say), and in the first chapter we learn he has returned a lost book manuscript to author Barnaby Grant with a blackmailing demand that he lend his name and himself to tours of the basilica of San Tommaso.

Case Histories (2004) by Kate Atkinson, a novel/mystery involving several “case histories”: a small girl goes missing during a night tent-camping in the yard with an older sister;  a father mourns his daughter and seeks her killer; a man is killed by a woman in a frenzied moment; a former cop, now private detective, tries to piece together his own life while searching for missing persons, killers, and the truth.  I enjoyed it, the way I enjoy Carl Hiaasen’s crime fiction (Jackson, the PI, reminded me of many of his PI characters), and I appreciated the plot and thematic connections among the stories, but I thought her Life After Life was richer.

Tied Up in Tinsel (1972) by Ngaio Marsh, 27th in the Inspector Alleyn series, back in England. Alleyn’s wife, Troy, is painting Hilary Bill-Tasman’s portrait at his country home, Halberds, which is staffed entirely by one-off murderers (who have done their time, if found guilty), when dangerous practical jokes occur one after the other to the guests staying there, each evoking the elements of one of the murderers’ crimes. During a Christmas performance in which a guest is to dress up like a Druid and give out Christmas gifts to local children to much fanfare, a manservant named Moult goes missing. Alleyn is called in to help the local constabulary find him.

December

Black As He’s Painted (1973) by Ngaio Marsh, 28th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set mostly in London near the fictitious Capricorn Mews and the Embassy of an African  British commonwealth country-cum-independent nation Ng’ombwana, whose president, colloquially the Boomer, is a former public school chum of Alleyn’s. The president’s visit to England is fraught with security issues both because of the transitional and unstable nature of the country and the devil-may-care nature of the president himself. Coincidentally, former Foreign Service official Mr. Whipplestone is recently ensconced in Capricorn Mews, along with stray cat Lucy Lockett, who has a penchant for porcelain white fish. I liked this one.

The Craftsman (2018) by Sharon Bolton, a stand-alone suspense/crime novel set in 1969 and 1999 in the town of Sabden, Lancashire, England, featuring WPC Florence Lovelady, new to the police squad in 1969 and the only woman officer. She and other officers investigate several cases of missing children (later found dead) and make an arrest, her landlord and the local casket & coffin maker Larry Glassbrook; the story of the 1969 investigation is sandwiched within Lovelady’s visit back to Sabden for his funeral and her subsequent re-investigation of the case. Witchcraft is an element of both parts of the story. A quick and well-paced read.

Last Ditch (1977) by Ngaio Marsh, 29th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in a fictitious seaside village (Montjoy, Deep Cove) not far by boat from Brittany (France), where the rest of the book is set. Alleyn and Troy’s now-grown son Ricky is on the spot when murder occurs at an equestrian stable, to Dulcie Harkness, known to be a bit loose with the boys, daughter of a fire-and-brimstone preacher. Alleyn himself ends up investigating the murder along with drug running in the area.

Grave Mistake (1978) by Ngaio Marsh, 30th in the Inspector Alleyn series, set in “Upper Quintern,” not too far from London. When Sybil Foster goes to Greengages Hotel & Spa for a rest cure, she gets more rest than she bargains for.  She seems to have killed herself, but when the autopsy casts doubt on this idea, Alleyn turns up; he smells a rat, so he and Fox look at the motives, opportunity, and means of Sybil’s obnoxious ne’er-do-well son Claude, her seemingly loving daughter Prunella — who has just become engaged to wealthy Gideon Markos against her mother’s wishes, Sybil’s new gardener, named Gardener, and the new medical practitioner at Greengages, Basil Schramm, to whom Sybil has become engaged and whom her best friend Verity Preston knew years ago, among other suspects. I liked the setting and characters, especially Verity; the plot was a bit much.

Bubba Heard a Whale (Trying to Sing) (2018) by Bubba’s Dad, illus. Faryn Hughes. Children’s book about a French Bulldog helping a shy whale who is struggling to belong and find her voice.

Photo Finish (1980) by Ngaio Marsh, 31st in the Inspector Alleyn series, set on a lavish island estate in New Zealand. Troy has been invited to paint a portrait of temperamental opera diva Isabella Sommita, and Alleyn has been invited to find out who’s been taking and publishing ugly surprise photos of Sommita (meanwhile, Scotland Yard wants him to investigate the drug trade, as usual). When Bella is murdered during a “Rosser” (a lashing rain and wind storm that cuts the island off from the mainland), Alleyn takes charge.

 

Noir Quotes

Just finished reading James Thompson’s Helsinki Blood (2013), in the Kari Vaara series, set in Finland. I couldn’t finish the previous book in the series, Helsinki White (2011), because it was too gruesome and the torture and violence too graphic for me at the time. This book is probably just as gruesome, but Kari is changing, becoming less morally depraved, as the effects of his brain tumour and the surgery to remove it dissipate.

That said, there is still a lot of killing, and his two companions are sociopaths. The humour is dark.

‘I cruised by Veikko Saukko’s mansion,’ Milo says. ‘Sure as shit, just like his calendar says, he was out behind the house, knocking golf balls into the sea. Kind of weird, isn’t it? I’m going to kill one man practicing golf and two men playing it on the same day. Generally, people don’t consider it a dangerous sport.’

and

‘Drove him [a corpse] out to the countryside, packed his mouth with Semtex to get rid of dental records, then duct-taped is hands to his face to blow off his fingers, the point of course being to destroy his prints. And then, well, you can imagine the result. I walked about ten kilometers through woods until I came to a road with a bus stop, so no one would recall me being in the vicinity.’

“With practice, we’ve become quite good criminals.

Invention

He thought of Dante struggling with the napoletana and went into the kitchen. The inventor was trying to assemble the machine upside down.

“‘What an odd contraption,’ he said.

“‘Give it to me.’

“‘I was almost there, you know.’

“Bordelli took the pieces out of Dante’s hands.

“‘See? This goes here.’

“‘I’d thought of that, but it seemed too banal.’

“‘Not everyone has your imagination.’

“‘Compliment accepted….’

— from Marco Vichi’s Death in August (2011)

Xenophobia in Scandinavia: Crime Fiction

The recent killings in and near Oslo, Norway, seem to have come as a surprise to many people, but not to me, because I read crime novels set in Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Denmark, and Finland, where xenophobia, fear of multi-culturalism, anti-immigrant sentiment, racism and home-grown terrorism are common themes! Obviously, some crime novelists have been aware of these undercurrents in Scandinavian societies for years.

To wit:

Both of Kerstin Ekman‘s books, Under the Snow (1961/trans. 1997) and Blackwater (1993/transl. 1996), take on local racism. The first is about murder in a small town in the far north, whose “subject is hate, poverty, and racism in a small town, touching on Sami-Swedish relations. The position of the Sami is also central to Blackwater, set in Sweden and Norway, which … [uses] a very violent double murder to talk about racism as well as small town hatred….” The Sami are a northern indigenous people living in Sweden, Norway, Finland and part of Russia.

Faceless Killers (1991/trans. 1997) by Henning Mankell: The first Kurt Wallander novel, set in Ystad, a small city in southern Sweden. An aging farmer and his wife are brutally killed on their farm. When Wallander tentatively mentions that the wife, before dying, said a word that sounded like “foreigner,” immediately the media seize on the word and soon a Somali refugee has been shot dead, with another promised to die “for the wife.” At the same time, Wallander’s daughter is dating a man of Syrian descent, which seems to make Wallander a trifle uneasy.

Racism is an aspect of most of Åke Edwardson’s books in the Erik Winter series, set in Gothenburg, Sweden. His ex-brother-in-law has racist ties. Aneta Djanali, who works on the police force, has African (Burkino Faso) parents but is herself a native Swede, born in Gothenburg; she is sometimes mistaken for a refugee because of her skin colour. Books include Death Angels (1997/trans. 2009); The Shadow Woman (1998/trans. 2010); Sun and Shadow (1999/trans. 2005); Never End (2000/trans. 2006) and Frozen Tracks (2001/trans. 2007)

When the Devil Holds the Candle (1998/trans. 2004) by Karin Fossum: In the Inspector Sejer series, set in Oslo, Norway. Bored, two teen bullies taunt Sejer’s adopted grandson Mattheus, a Somali immigrant trying to fit into Norwegian society, then rob a house in which an old woman lives alone (which turns out to be a mistake).

The Redbreast by Jo Nesbø (2000/trans. 2006): Set in Oslo and other parts of Norway, as well as in Germany. The first in the Harry Hole series. Neo-Nazism is key to the plot; a Barnes & Noble review includes this description: “present-day Oslo, a city perched on top of a powder keg: a restive Muslim immigrant population and a resurgent neo-Nazi movement.” The second in the series, Nemesis (2002/trans. 2008), involves prejudice in Norway against gypsies. Another, The Redeemer (2005/trans. 2009), provides a grimly realistic portrait of the Norwegian capital — druggies shooting up in public; refugees being exploited in private ….”

Detective Inspector Huss (2002/transl 2004) by Helene Tursten. Set in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this book, the first in the Irene Huss police procedural series, Huss’s 13-year-old daughter becomes involved with a group of neo-Nazis and Huss investigates murder involving motorcycle gang members, skinheads, immigrants, and neo-Nazis. As Booklist describes the novel, “the overview of Swedish society, its liberal foundation cracked by racism, drugs, and a new wave of vicious crime, forms a compelling backdrop for the story.” Another description: “The picture Tursten provides in her first novel, Detective Inspector Huss, of Sweden’s growing anti-immigrant resentment — embodied in Huss’ skinhead daughter — imbues this novel with a cold chill of dread.”

Kjell Eriksson‘s novels in the Ann Liddell series also include references to immigrants and outsiders, including The Princess of Burundi (2002) and The Demon of Dakar (2005), with many mixed-race characters and a look at the immigrant community in Uppsala, Sweden.

Arctic Chill (2005) by Arnaldur Indriðason. Set in Iceland. Erlendur investigates the stabbing death of an immigrant Thai/Finnish boy and the disappearance of his half-brother, which soon “unearths tensions simmering beneath the surface of Iceland’s outwardly liberal, multicultural society.” As an Amazon reviewer notes, one of the kids’ “teachers is especially hostile to immigrants while others are more circumspect, alluding defensively to the dilution of Icelandic culture.” The central concern of the book is the reaction of Icelanders to Asian (Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino) immigrants and mixed marriages.

Snow Angels (2010) by James Thompson: Set in Finland, which is almost 100% white. In this book, a Somali woman is killed and racial epithets are hacked into her body. Additionally, the detective, Kari Vaara, is married to an American woman who is having a lot of trouble being accepted into the Finnish town where they live. (They move to Helsinki in the next book). Thompson, an American, has lived in Finland for over 10 years.

I haven’t read this one:

The Shadow in the River (2008) by Frode Grytten. Set in a small Norwegian town called Odda, in western Norway, the story concerns the murder of a local man, assumed by other locals and the media to have been killed by a group of immigrant Serbs who had been arguing with him. The investigator-journalist, Robert Bell, doesn’t agree and resents that the media are stirring up racial tensions.

<> <> <> <>

An article titled “Why Scandinavians Really Write the Best Crime Novels” by Larissa Kyzer (in The L Magazine, 17 July 2009) briefly mentions racial tensions in Scandinavian countries:

“In Denmark, whole debates have been sparked over whether second and third generation immigrants — ‘New Danes,’ as they’ve been dubbed — should ‘be like everyone else.’ Tensions between Danish biker groups (really!) and gangs of immigrant youth frequently bubble over, most recently exemplified in a manifesto published by a group called The Hell’s Angels, which encourages young Danes to rally against ‘jackals’: those who “hate Danes, the mentality, lifestyle, Christianity and its symbols.” In Sweden, neo-nazi/nationalistic activity has been on the rise since the mid-eighties (not long, one might note, after the as-yet unsolved assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme) and anti-immigrant, racist tendencies have also become increasingly prevalent. Norway has seen a similar shift, with popularity for the staunchly nationalistic ‘Progress Party’ growing rapidly — this being the same party which utilized blatantly anti-immigrant scare tactics to gain support during a political campaign, and whose leader recently warned against the risk of ‘sneak-Islamisation’ in Norway.”

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Similarly:

<> Crime Writers Expose Scandinavia’s Dark Side by Sylvia Poggioli (NPR, 27 July 2011), with comments by Anne Holt, Norwegian crime writer and former justice minister. I especially liked this:

“Holt says politicians would do well to read crime fiction. It’s ‘the best genre to reflect society,’ she says. ‘Crime fiction is a mirror.’ It’s a mirror that reflects what a society is afraid of and, as Holt notes, ‘what people are afraid of says a lot about the society.'”

<> In Norway, The Past Is a Foreign Country by Jo Nesbo (NYT, 26 July 2011).

<> Breivik: Bad man from Scandinavian crime fiction? by Malini Nair (Times of India, 28 July 2011). Mentions Nordic crime writers Pers Wahloo and Maj Sjowall, Jo Nesbo, Henning Mankell, Stieg Larsson, Haken Nesser, and Zac O’Yeah,

The Redeemer

The Redeemer: That’s the (translated) title of the Jo Nesbø book I just finished, in the Harry Hole series set in Oslo, Norway.

Near the end of the book is this:

“It’s chance and nuances that separate the hero from the villain. That’s how it’s always been. Righteousness is the virtue of the lazy and the visionless. Without lawbreakers and disobedience, we would still have been living in a feudal society. I lost, Harry; it’s as simple as that. I believed in something, but I was blinded, and by the time I regained my sight I had been corrupted. It happens all the time. “

And before that:

“Imagine you are at the heart of what you think is justice and then suddenly lose all sense of direction and become the very thing you oppose.”

 

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.