have books, will travel

I haven’t been keeping good track of my reading this year, so I haven’t checked my passport stamps as I progress through the Global Reading Challenge or the Scandinavian Challenge. But it seems like a good time to take stock, halfway through the year. I signed up for the medium challenge – to read two books from these regions:

Africa

Malla Nunn / A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE
Set in the 1950s, just after apartheid laws have gone into effect, this novel takes an “English” South African police officer into a rural area to investigate the murder of a white Afrikaner police chief and patriarch of a patriotic Afrikaners-on-a-mission-from-God family. It does a good job of exploring the creeping sense of a noose tightening around the country as black, “colored,” and white citizens are separated and isolated into legally-constricted groups. Quite good.

Jassy Mackenzie / RANDOM VIOLENCE
In modern-day Johannesburg a woman is set up and murdered at the dysfunctional gate to her house. A woman who chose to be a PI because she’s too independent to follow her father into the police gets involved in the investigation. Two plot lines – her anxiety about a murder she committed to avenge her father’s death and the present case – are nicely woven together, though the plausibility of a PI being invited to solve a crime was a bit of a stretch for me. Does a good job of evoking the siege mentality of wealthy South Africans barricaded behind their gates, but doesn’t deal much with the majority of the population.

Asia

I’ve just finished reading three of Tim Hallinan’s Poke Rafferty series – set in Bangkok, where the author lives. These are wonderfully-written thrillers that are particularly noteworthy for the depiction of the relationships of three people who have formed an ad hoc family. Quite a while ago I read the first, A NAIL THROUGH THE HEART; this month I gorged on the rest: THE FOURTH WATCHER, BREATHING WATER, and the soon-to-be-published fourth book in the series, THE QUEEN OF PATPONG – which I loved, loved, loved; it definitely will be on my top ten this year. I’ll post a review here shortly.

Australasia

I have just got my hands on Adrian Hyland’s GUNSHOT ROAD and have sipped from the first pages, in which aboriginal boys are leaving camp to become men. The scene is wonderful, intoxicating. “It was the songs that did it; the women didn’t so much sing them as pick them up like radio receivers. You could imagine those great song cycles rolling across the country, taking their shape from what they encountered: scraps of language, minerals and dreams, a hawk’s flight, a feather’s fall, the flash of a meteorite.” I’m forcing myself to hold off until I deal with some books I’m reviewing, but I’m really looking forward to it. I’m not sure what else I’ll read from Australia, but it might be Peter Temple’s TRUTH.

Europe

I’ve read far more than enough for this challenge. I’ll go with these two:

Stieg Larsson / THE GIRL WHO KICKED THE HORNET’S NEST
which I reviewed at my Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog, as I also did

Johan Theorin / THE DARKEST ROOM
reviewed there; an excellent book, I thought, and very different. Where Larsson has a bold, large scale and busy canvas, slapping on the paint a little sloppily, Theorin works with a fine-nibbed pen, drawing in the detail with a delicate touch.

To catch up on the Scandinavian challenge of reading six books, I can add these:

Karin Fossum / DON’T LOOK BACK
Conrad Sejer and his young sidekick Skarre are called to a small community to find a missing child, but instead the child finds a dead teenager. As usual, Fossum strips away the layers of social convention surrounding the characters with a delicate touch, showing that things are never what they seem and that nobody is immune from evil. Fossum doesn’t ‘do’ suspense like other writers. She just lets it emerge as she quietly goes about her archaeology, brushing away the mystery until the truth is showing, like bones. And she doesn’t let you leave the story congratulating yourself that justice has been done and order has been restored. She gives any comfort you might be feeling a sharp tug in the last pages, leaving the reader a little off-balance.

Henning Mankell / THE MAN FROM BEIJING
An ambitious and frustrating book that positions the slaughter of every person in a small, remote Swedish village in a web of colonialism, exploitation, and revenge spanning centuries and continents. A naive judge finds a clue – a red ribbon dropped at the scene was taken from a lamp at a nearby Chinese restaurant – and with that sense that things are not what they seem begins to investigate. A section of the book is told from the perspective of a Chinese man who was put to work on the brutal labor of building the Trans-Continental railroad in the American west and was mistreated by a Swedish immigrant. Fast-forward to the present, where the Chinese man’s ancestors fight over the future of China, a conflict that plays out when a Chinese delegation visits Africa, intending to exploit it as China becomes a world power.  In this case, I think the author’s reach was not matched by his grasp.

Jarkko Sipila / VENGEANCE
…which seems to be theme of the day, though this book is the polar opposite of Mankell’s. It is a stripped-down, unadorned crime novel about a biker gang, an undercover cop, and an informant in Finland, with no sweeping moral dilemmas or insights on globalization (though the Russian and Baltic connections actually do give it a globalized twist). Reviewed at my Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog.

Yrsa Sigurdardottir / LAST RITUALS
a surprisingly light-hearted look at satanic rituals, obsessions with the occult, and murder in Iceland – also written up for my other blog.

So it looks as if I may have actually completed the Scandinavian challenge. I have library holds on Nesbo’s THE SNOWMAN and Arnaldur Indridason’s HYPOTHERMIA as well.

North America

John McFetridge / LET IT RIDE
Reviewed at Reviewing the Evidence – a complex story about police and criminals in Toronto, both of them involved in their own power struggles. It’s an ambitious book, teaming with characters, creating a map of Toronto that would startle those who think Canada is the kingdom of nice. If Balzac moved to Toronto in the early 21st century and read a lot of Elmore Leonard, this might be his human comedy.

Jess Walter / THE FINANCIAL LIVES OF THE POETS
also at Reviewing the Evidence – a spot-on snapshot of the zeitgeist of the moment and very well-written besides, funny in a manic, crazed, and touching way. Walter is one of our greatest and most underappreciated writers, or so say I.

South America

Leighton Gage / DYING GASP
Another one submitted to Reviewing the Evidence, part of the Mario Silva series that travels the country, this time offering a criminal profile of a part of Brazil – steamy, seamy Manaus. The books in this series are quite brutal examinations of the impact of Brazil’s inequalities.

I’m not sure what I’ll read to complete this part of the challenge, but there’s plenty of choice.

6 Responses to have books, will travel

  1. Kerrie says:

    You’re doing well Barbara. You look like you are nearly at Expert!

  2. I’ve only read one of the Timothy Hallinan books so far but I loved it and you’ve reminded me to get my hands on the others. Thanks Barbara.

    What a way to complete a challenge – without even realising. Well done :)

  3. Barbara – I’m impressed! Thanks for this summary/review. I felt, by the way, precisely as you did about Random Violence, which I also chose for the Global Reading Challenge. Great minds think alike : ).

  4. Dorte H says:

    Great selection of books, especially your Scandinavian challenge.

  5. Keishon says:

    I am reading Adrian Hyland right now and I also have the Malla Nunn – both books, in my stacks. Just so much to read and so little time. Sigh.

  6. Willa says:

    For the Scandinavian Challenge I suggest you try Jo Nesbo – he is a great writer of crime fiction! I love his books. They are slightly reminiscent of Stieg Larsson. Also Peter Hogh (or Hoegh, don’t remember) his written some amazing books.

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