What I’ve Been Reading

Since I tend to let this blog get covered with cobwebs and dust, I thought I would share what I read last month. It’s a sign the crop was good that I have more books by Anne Holt and Elly Griffiths on my bedside table, waiting for me after I finish Michael Stanley’s DEATH OF THE MANTIS, which is terrific so far.

Anne Holt / FEAR NOT
What a fun ride, blending a puzzling plot with serious social issues. When the bishop of Bergen is stabbed to death late at night at Christmastime, her husband and son seem able or unwilling to explain why she was alone at night outdoors. Adam Stubo tries to sort out the high-profile case, unaware of the related cases unfolding around him. Because the deaths are explained as suicides or drug overdoses or inexplicable but unremarkable acts of violence visited on people on the margins, nobody connects the dots until Stubo’s wife, Johanne Vik, meets with an American friend who fills her in on a new kind of hate crime. This is a deeply involving novel with a big cast of characters whose stories are skillfully interwoven. As in the preceding book in the series, Death in Oslo, things hinge on a coincidence, but it wasn’t a wallbanger. Another feature that seems a common thread in her books is the uncovering of a conspiracy, which in this case is fairly fanciful but an interesting way to think through the implications of religious fervor and bigotry. The final pages touch on religious faith in a way that is highly unusual in Nordic crime fiction, but then Anne Holt often pulls out a surprise at the end, and not the usual plot twist. I thoroughly enjoyed this complex and well-plotted mystery.

Archer Mayor / PARADISE CITY
Like Anne Holt’s book, there are a lot of characters and things to piece together, but Mayor is a pro and it all comes together without too much work on the part of readers (all of whom must pretty pretty smart, anyway, if they are reading this excellent if overlooked series). In this case, a robbery turned arson in Vermont turns out to be related to a robbery and assault in Boston, some dodgy going-on in Northampton, Mass, and a smart craftswoman from China who is a virtual slave, paying off an impossible loan to human traffickers, but who has her own ideas about a worker’s paradise. Very good, as usual. I was actually intrigued to read two books back-to-back that have large casts and multiple plot strands by authors who were able to keep me – oh, look, a butterfly! – on track, with the characters clearly-drawn enough to keep straight.

Sue Grafton / A IS FOR ALIBI
I can’t believe it took me all these years to read the first in this classic series. It was surprisingly good – not as political as Paretsky, not as semi-cozy as Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first of the Sharon McCone series. We don’t learn a whole lot of backstory about Kinsey Milhone, but we can tell she’s a tough, independent, somewhat lonely and thoroughly competent professional. I like her a lot. It reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and I was tickled to find out that she named the location after a place in his books. Also loved the ending – blunt, unsentimental, but not without a personal impact on the detective. I suspect that denouement was in itself a feminist revolution in the genre. Blam.

Gunnar Staalesen / THE WRITING ON THE WALL
I’ve been wanting to read this series for ages, particularly after seeing the Norwegian television series, thanks to a friend who sent the DVDs to me. This book, unfortunately, was a disappointment, as it was hard for me to get through. I think I’ve reached the age where small font size can make reading just difficult enough to make a difference, and while I hate to blame translators when I can’t tell what the original was like, it seemed a particularly choppy narrative with odd word choices. It wasn’t awful, but wasn’t very engaging. I thought the television episodes were great fun, though, and I’m thrilled to see a new translation (COLD HEARTS) out, translated by Don Bartlett who always does a good job.

Elly Griffiths / THE CROSSING PLACES
I read this for discussion at one of my favorite crime fiction communities, 4_mystery_addicts, a Yahoo list where people share their reading insights and the moderators (of which I am one) guard the door to give BSP (blatant self promotion) the bum’s rush. It’s all about reading, not selling. I enjoyed the book, especially the moody fens setting and the professional life of the main character, an academic archaeologist, but was disappointed by the ending on several counts, including the who dunnit and the sequence of events. I’ll read on in the series, though.

Non-mystery
Carla Buckley / INVISIBLE
This was randomly sent to me by a publisher that earns its name by randomly sending people review copies. When a girl whose mother faces kidney failure contacts her long-estranged aunt to see if she might be a donor, a family secret faces exposure. The aunt returns to her small hometown in Minnesota, where she learns that her sister has been investigating the possibility that a factory in the town, its main employer, may be poisoning the residents. This novel has a mystery or two and some thrills but is really a book about relationships in a family and small town facing a big problem but mostly focused on how they approach their own relationship issues. I enjoyed it, but it had ingredients that I wanted to see used differently. One of the main character is as a demolition expert. I wanted to see more of that in her life, but it’s off on the sidelines and seems something she randomly fell into rather than a profession that says something about her or might come in handy in a small town in Minnesota. It’s not the author’s fault that I kept wanting it to be crime fiction rather than a novel about family secrets, but it did make me feel a little itchy, as if there was some unrealized potential that no doubt was realized perfectly well if you weren’t so attuned to the expectations and rhythms of another genre.

I thought I would also toss in a few other things I have saved to Diigo in November:

Jen Howard – “With ‘Social Reading’ Books Become Places to Meet” – profiling a project to share annotations and comments on More’s Utopia, the sort of book that I might want to socialize over. This has great pedagogical and scholarly potential, though truth be told, I find students prefer jotting notes on paper copies, given the choice.

Pew Internet Project – How Teens do Research in a Digital Age – interesting to compare teacher’s impressions with those of students reported by Project Information Literacy, and of the employers the PIL folks talked to in their most recent study.

Craig Mod – Post-Artifact Books & Publishing – one of those things you bookmark intending to read closely one of these days. It may seem snarky to say it, but I probably would be more inclined to process it carefully if it were an artifact. But then, there are many artifacts I intend to read closely, and don’t.

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