My 2015 Top Ten and a 2016 Resolution

January 1, 2016

I’ll start with the resolution. Let’s get the craziness out of the way.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that I like, but which isn’t the kind of thing that people in publishing call “commercial fiction.” It’s not literary fiction, either. It’s just this . . . thing about a young person whose brother has been unjustly accused of planning a terrorist attack and about the surveillance state we live in. On new year’s eve I took a deep breath and told Twitter:

tweet1In case you’re not a librarian or academic (or an academic librarian) OA stands for open access. All of my scholarship is available in some flavor of open access – all available for free online and most under a Creative Commons license. I’ve decided for a  couple of reasons to go that route with fiction, too.

Reason One: You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

Reason Two: You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world – hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

“Would anyone want to read it?” That was a silly question! Some of my Twitter pals said they would, because they are sweeties, but a piece of that new year’s resolution that I didn’t express properly is that I’d be happy if someone reads this story, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of actively competing for their attention. That’s part of the doomed economic model that’s making such a mess of things, including culture and the internet.

Here’s a bit more of my Twitter stream . . .

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Happy new year to all. I’ll be using Pressbooks to serialize this thing and will be blogging more about it here later. I just solved a gnarly problem with the ending this morning! Now I just have to sort out all the other gnarls. All in good time . . .

But now without further navel-gazing, here are my top ten crime fiction reads from 2015. I read a lot of good stuff, but these stood out to me at the end of the year. The list could be much longer.

Kristina Ohlsson / HOSTAGE1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Don’t read this on a transatlantic flight. Swedish detectives team with intelligence officers to find out if a threat found aboard a full jet headed for New York is real and, if so, how to deal with it. They only have as long as the jet’s fuel lasts. The author worked in European counter-intelligence and her take on Swedish versus American intelligence practices was engrossing. I also was happy to have some police procedural aspects mixed in with the thriller aspects of the story.

0802123961-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Belinda Bauer / RUBBERNECKER
My mystery pals at 4MA chose this book for discussion, and I’m glad because I found it deeply entertaining. A young man with Asperger’s and a troubling fascination with dead things takes an anatomy lab course. Meanwhile, we follow the fate of a man gradually coming out of a coma after a car accident who unluckily witnesses the murder of a fellow patient. Nicely assembled puzzle that combines humor and emotion quite satisfyingly.

Jari Jarvela / THE GIRL AND THE BOMB1503946355-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
An engrossing psychological thriller involving a black teenager in Finland who wants revenge when her good friend, a street artist, is pushed by a security guard to his death from a building after he has been “bombing” train cars with brilliantly-executed graffiti. The story is told in two voices – that of the disaffected girl and of her chosen enemy, who wasn’t actually responsible, but who grows increasingly angry and defensive. Full of ethical issues and vivid characters – really good story, well translated.

1616954469-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Timothy Hallinan / THE HOT COUNTRIES
Yeah, I know. This series is always on my top ten. So sue me for being predictable. Visitors to Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They’ve been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he’s come to Bangkok to claim. My full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Martin Cruz Smith / HAVANA BAY0345502981-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Another 4MA group discussion book. Arkady Renko, with little left to lose, tries to find out what happened to an old enemy found dead in Havana Bay. Wonderful juxtaposition of a post-Soviet Russian’s experiences with its former ally, now struggling to manage on its own. Really fine. I dithered between this and TATIANA, which I also enjoyed, though not quite as much as the earlier book which, somehow, I had missed reading.

0062197738-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Laura Lippman / AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Fascinating story about a woman who decides to open her own business – as a “madam” providing services to D.C.’s elite after things go badly wrong with her pimp. When her cover story as a lobbyist for women’s employment is threatened, she has a problem, particularly because she doesn’t want her son to know what she really does. Lippman does a great job creating a character who is both vulnerable and tough as nails as well as brilliant at business.

Lisa Brackmann / DRAGON DAY754aa9e539cbb42597046596b67437641414141
The third and final Ellie McEnroe story in which the veteran of a confused and pointless war tries to find her feet in a confused and confusing China. Her cheerful, scary billionaire acquaintance, Sidney Cao, has a job for her. He wants her to find out what’s going on with his three kids (the one child policy is optional for the powerful) and in particular whether the American adventurer who’s hanging out with his youngest son is bad news. Readers of this trilogy will guess fairly soon: they’re all bad news. There are two strengths in this trilogy.One is the fascinating picture it provides of the New China, a place that’s aggressively under construction and chaotic after a seismic cultural shift toward consumerism. The other is Ellie’s voice – casual, unsettled, constantly searching for something she can’t identify, faced at every turn with a need to figure out the least bad of terrible options. She’s a fascinating woman and a nifty guide to a place that has changed beyond recognition. I’ll miss her (but I won’t write whatever Brackmann writes next).

125004474x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Julia Keller / LAST RAGGED BREATH
A fine entry in the series featuring a tough, vulnerable prosecutor who wages war on the problems facing her beloved West Virginia county. This one asks us to remember the unnatural disaster of Buffalo Creek, when a mining company’s dam broke and their toxic sludge swept away a town, killing over a hundred people in minutes, but also to appreciate the work of miners made redundant by machines. I wrote a more detailed review for Reviewing the Evidence.

John Scalzi / LOCK IN0765375869-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
After an epidemic leaves millions “locked in,” conscious but unable to move, scientists develop a way to link their brains to “threeps” (androids); others affected are “integrators,” able to host locked in people who want to borrow a human body. Our locked-in hero joins the FBI (getting around with a threep) and is quickly involved in strange murder case in which it appears a murderer was an integrator hosting someone else when committing the murder. Sounds preposterous but it worked for me – the scene-setting was handled so efficiently it had a great pace. Scalzi primarily writes SF, but handled the crime aspects of this near-future story very well. Inventive and compelling. There’s also a highly-intelligent handling of gender issues that . . . well, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book which is the whole point. It would be a spoiler, but there’s a great analysis of it here. Scalzi is not only good fun, he’s wonderfully wise about the world.

0312621280-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alan Glynn / BLOODLAND
This is a terrific conspiracy novel that is a bit challenging in that there are lots of characters and multiple points of view, but sharp writing, excellent plotting, and an appealing young Irish out-of-work journalist as a protagonist. He has a commission to write a biography of a silly celebrity but stumbles upon a multinational scheme to make money off a mine in Congo run by people who will dispose of anyone who gets in the way. Cracking read. Excellent narrative skill. Loads and loads of rage burbling under tasty ethical dilemmas. Yvonne Klein wrote a review at Reviewing the Evidence that explains why it’s far more than the bog-standard globetrotting conspiracy thriller. In fact, it’s very nearly its opposite.

Here’s to good reading (and, for me, more stress-free just-for-fun writing) in the new year.

 

 


Enchantment Lake by Margi Preus – a review

June 28, 2015

Like so many adult readers, I’m expanding my reading exploration into YA literature. Some titles I’ve enjoyed recently include The Doubt Factory by Paul Bacigalupi, Adaptation by Malinda Lo, and Glory O’Brien’s History of the Future by A.S. King, (which is aMAzing).

In a way, this is my third return to YA, the first being when I actually was Y myself and a wise librarian pushed a bunch of good books into my arms, the second during my undergraduate years when I discovered a branch library for the education department and decided to do an independent study on trends in young adult fiction just for fun (which it was). Now there’s a lot to catch up on as this turns out to still be one of the most intriguing segments of the book industry.

So when I was offered the chance to read one of the University of Minnesota Press’s YA titles, I jumped at it. Here’s my review.

Enchantment Lake
A Northwoods Mystery
by Margi Preus
University of Minnesota Press, March 2015

When 17-year-old Francie gets an emergency summons from her eccentric great aunts, she abandons an audition in New York to fly (and bus) home to Enchantment Lake, where many of the residents on the side of the lake that can only be reached by boat have died unexpectedly in bizarre accidents. Francie isn’t a detective, but she played one on TV, and many of the residents of Enchantment assume, despite her protests, that she is a skilled investigator. What else can she do but try to find out what’s really going on? Who is behind the effort to build a road to the side of the lake that is home to long-time residents living in modest cottages – and is that why residents are dropping dead?

Though billed as a YA book, it’s really for the young end of the age spectrum and reads like an old-school Nancy Drew adventure, including the conveniently absent parents and a teen who in a matter-of-fact way has nice things, like a New York apartment and an established if precarious career as an actor. There is a lot of investigating, introducing a cast of local characters (in every sense of the word), but also a healthy dose of action and a (very) light touch of romance.In this otherwise light-hearted mystery there are the moments when Francie wonders what happened to her mother, who disappeared before Francie had a chance to know her. Those passages are a bit like walking barefoot on a sun-warmed path and feeling a momentary chill as you pass through a patch of shadow – only to step into the sunlight again. Angsty this is not, but it benefits from those moments of depth. The sense of place is also evoked nicely with bits of description that will evoke a sense of nostalgia in anyone who has ever visited a lakeside cabin up north and wishes nothing would change, knowing it will.

As an example: “From here it seemed as if the forest stretched on forever. North and north into the great boreal forests of Canada. On days like this, when the wind blew from there, the smell of endless pines and lakes and granite filled the air. She felt herself snuffling the scent like a dog does, filling her lungs with it. It was a smell that called up some primal part of her, her wild, natural self. Her real self, she thought suddenly.”

To be honest, though, what delighted me most about this book was its design – it’s gorgeous. The cover is a Wanda-Gag-inspired patchwork of flora and fauna that includes visual hints of the mystery. Every chapter begins with a small, unique image and a page number framed by tiny loon silhouettes. It’s an old-fashioned children’s mystery with an old-school attention to design that is all too rare to find in book production today. And, for all that, the price for the hardcover is no higher than a typical trade paperback. Kudos to the University of Minnesota Press which kindly provided me with a review copy.


review of The Bone Seeker by M. J. McGrath

August 3, 2014

The most recent issue of Reviewing the Evidence has a review in it I thought I’d share here (thanks to the editor’s generous policy – do visit the site, as it has a search feature for its over 10,000 mystery reviews, all provided through that mysterious process that Yochai Benkler calls commons-based peer production. You know, that part of the Internet that works as it should rather than being a vacuum for monetizable personal information and platform for showing off. It also has a “sixty seconds with” feature with this author, who manages to find some funny and informative things to say in under a minute.

THE BONE SEEKER
by M.J. McGrath
Viking, July 2014
328 pages
$27.95 in it
ISBN: 0670785806

One of the pleasures of a hot summer day is cooling down with a book about Edie Kiglatuk, a smart and principled guide to the culture and climate of the far north. But it’s much more than a refreshing beach read.

Edie’s people are the Canadian Inuit who over generations developed ingenious ways to survive the rigors of life beside Hudson Bay. Unfortunately for them, the government decided during the cold war to forcibly relocate many of them to a more northern and remote terrain, Ellesmere Island, to discourage world powers from considering it an uninhabited and available. (This historical injustice is described in McGrath’s 2006 nonfiction work, THE LONG EXILE.) While McGrath, in her fiction, introduces readers to the ingenuity of people who have adapted to life in the high arctic, she’s unsparing in counting the costs to individuals and their society.

That’s not to say the book rubs readers’ noses in misery and hopelessness. Edie Kiglatuk has fought her way out of alcoholism and despair by caring fiercely for her neighbors. As this third volume in the series opens, she has taken a position teaching summer school. When one of her students disappears, she’s not willing to chalk it up to teenaged flightiness. She badgers the local law enforcement official, Derek Palliser (known to locals as the Lemming Police, thanks to his off-duty fascination with lemming colonies) into launching a search, and the girl’s body is found in the shallow waters of a lake. It’s a significant location. The locals avoid it, considering it an evil place.

When Palliser can’t get adequate help for the investigation, he buys out Edie’s school contract to put her on the case with him. She can help, both as a scout who understands the landscape but also as a liaison to the community. But as soon as they start to look into the possibility that the girl’s killer is one of the soldiers at a nearby military installation, they run into interference from the Department of Defence, which is already well acquainted with the girl’s family. Her father has spent years fighting the federal government over land claims and has pushed to have the area where his daughter’s body was discovered, the site of an old radar station, decontaminated. It seems likely that the murder will be more than a family tragedy; uncovering a killer might just reveal uncomfortable state secrets.

This is a thoroughly fascinating book that gives readers a glimpse into a part of the world that very few people know about, a place that has the austere beauty of nature when it’s bigger than its human inhabitants. Edie Kiglatuk is a tough, resourceful, and tender-hearted sleuth with a foot in two cultures. Apart from a disappointing moment when she puts herself in unnecessary jeopardy to advance the plot, the story unfolds in a well-paced puzzle that does a beautiful job of balancing setting, character, and story. Though the investigation uncovers something bigger than Edie and Palliser anticipated, the loss of a girl’s life is never overshadowed. All in all, M. J. McGrath proves that it’s possible to honor the conventions of the genre and provide good entertainment in a story that provides even more.


May Pick: Can Anybody Help Me? by Sinéad Crowley

June 6, 2014

This book by a first-time Irish novelist (who is not a first-time writer, as she is RTÉ’s Arts and Media Correspondent) was a first for me. I heard about it from a Quercus publicist, and thought I probably was out of luck having a US address. But she told me it was on NetGalley and would tweak things so that if I requested it, I’d get a digital review copy. Though I’m not a fan of reading devices and the rights readers give up (privacy, for one), I have grown accustomed to having a few books on my iPhone for emergencies. Yes, there are times when I let such things trump my passionate desire to reset the net and stop having the Internet turned into a surveillance-industrial complex. So I read this one on my phone and enjoyed it very much (though would probably have enjoyed it a smidge more on paper).

I wrote a review of the book for Reviewing the Evidence, which has recently published its 10,000th review! Holy cats! RTE’s editor has kindly allowed reviewers to repost reviews after they’ve run on the site. If you haven’t previously discovered that remarkable site for mystery reviews, do make a visit.

An added bonus for me with this novel is that it’s about online communities, the subject of my sabbatical research. Crowley does a good job of seeing both the good side of these kinds of digital communities and the potential for bad things to happen. Oh, yeah, privacy is at issue, too. You can see why it ticked all my boxes.

CAN ANYBODY HELP ME?
by Sinéad Crowley
Quercus, May 2014

from the May 24th issue of Reviewing the Evidence

Caring for newborns can be an isolating experience, and some young mothers turn to the Internet for company and advice. Set in Ireland after the property boom went bust, Crowley’s first novel focuses on a virtual community of isolated new mums and the investigation into the murder of a single mother found in a flat at a mostly-vacant ghost estate, led by a driven (and pregnant) detective.

 Guard Claire Boyle has a real puzzle on her hands. There’s no obvious reason her victim was murdered, and the company that let the flat where her decomposing body was found has little information about the tenant who stopped paying rent and vanished. The deceased seemed completely occupied by caring for her young child when not at work as a university lecturer. The night she left the baby with her parents to go out to “meet friends” for the first time since becoming a mother, she vanished. No sign of sexual assault, no theft, no clues to who killed her – or why.

 Meanwhile Yvonne, a transplant from London, is at home with a new baby, bleary with exhaustion and unable to get any help from her irritatingly charming husband, Gerry, whose job in television production keeps him constantly busy. She finds going out to baby yoga or other social events that the visiting nurse urges her to participate in draining and dispiriting. Instead, she relies on an online forum, Netmammy, where mums chat with each other under nicknames, dispensing advice, sharing good news and troubles, finding company in moments snatched while their babies are napping. When one of their number stops posting, Yvonne grows concerned.

 Between Yvonne’s chapters and those that focus on Claire Boyle’s investigation, postings from the Netmammy group are interspersed. At first these seem irritatingly shallow and chummy and a test of one’s patience for Internet acronyms. (“OMG” is the opening of the first of these passages, which are replete with references to DH, DS, and DD – dear husband, son, or daughter – and banal chatter about diapers and BF – breast feeding). However, these passages grow more and more informative and integral to the story. The participants’ voices begin to distinguish themselves and it becomes clear that the key to the mystery will be found in the group. The title, which seems a tacky and melodramatic hook, turns out to be a clever play on the seemingly trivial questions posted to an online forum.

There are a couple of moments when the detective makes choices that seem unlikely for a professional if handy for the plot, and though there are twists, some of the villainy is signalled a bit too clearly for seasoned crime fiction readers. That said, the story is cleverly assembled, the characters are well drawn, and the suspense nicely regulated to increase as the pages turn. The chatty sections are insightful about how a group of strangers who don’t even share their real names can get to know and care about each other through social media.

Yet the warning the book provides about how such innocent sharing can, over time, provide a far more detailed portrait of our lives than we realize is timely. Shortly before this book was released the former director of the NSA, participating at a public event at Johns Hopkins University, testified to the value of such aggregated information: “we kill people based on metadata.”

 


January Pick: Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton

February 4, 2014

I didn’t have high expectations for this book, which I picked up more or less on a whim, and if I had read a description of the plot first, I probably would have put it down unread. That would have been a shame, because it was a terrific reading experience.

Here’s the part that will make it sound awful: it’s narrated by a woman in a coma and is addressed to “you,” her husband. She has landed in a coma after rushing into a school that has caught fire. Her small son and the other students were safely evacuated, but when she realizes her nearly-adult daughter who is working at the school is inside, she Afterwardsdoesn’t think; she acts. Now, she’s in the same hospital as her daughter (who is suffering from extensive burns and is sedated), and they find they can wander the halls of the hospital and talk to each other, if not to anyone else. Leaving the hospital is trickier – it’s painful, and the further they go, the more difficult it becomes – but they can manage it, just. In this way, they do what they can to learn who was responsible for the fire, which becomes particularly urgent when the police focus on an innocent person.

Lupton does an excellent job making this unlikely scenario work because she’s really good at writing about emotional responses and the relationships among the characters and manages to whip up an excellent plot, as well. It includes touches of commentary on the wider world (why are privately-run schools attractive to British parents? How might money influence decisions made at the school?) but is mostly a character-driven story told with imagination and perfect-pitch language.

One of the reasons I picked this book up is that I’m trying to do a better job of balancing my reading choices this year so that I don’t favor male authors though inattention. There are a lot of reasons that so much of the crime fiction I read is by men. I prefer books at the dark end of the spectrum. A lot of the books I read are sent to me by publishers to review, so they tend to be books with a publicity budget. My guess is that those budgets correlate loosely with hardcover publication, and men are more likely than women to be published in hardcover in this genre, at least going on the hundreds of books submitted annually for Edgar award consideration. I also pick up on ideas about what to read from reviews, which tend to favor male authors. All of these factors are interconnected and subtle and I’m not blaming anyone, because these biases are subtle and systemic. But what I can do is be conscious of my own choices. I have no doubt that plenty of women are writing books that will suit my tastes. I just need to make sure I’m not overlooking them.

As I finished this book, I did ponder whether male readers would enjoy it as much as I did. The protagonist is a woman. Her strongest passions revolve around the need to protect her children. The drama is doing that while being disembodied and voiceless. The resolution of the crime was not entirely satisfactory for me for reasons I can’t explain without a massive spoiler. But the way the author wraps up a central dilemma in the book – one involving a mother and her children – was both satisfying and emotional. In many ways it fits the definition of a category of book I’ve always bristled at: women’s fiction. It’s by a woman, stars a woman, and is primarily about her relationships (though in this case there’s a meaty mystery to go with it).  To me, books by women about women and focused on relationships are novels and I’m not sure why they shouldn’t appeal as much to male readers as to female. Thinking about the appeal of this book, though, I found myself thinking “would a man feel differently about this book than a woman reader? Would he find the relationships overdone and the emotional part of the story manipulative or mawkish?” That’s hard to say – but for me, it was great fun to read and full of narrative invention.


A Good Year for Mysteries

December 30, 2013

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I read some really terrific mysteries this year. Two are by new-to-me authors and several are by authors who have been on my top ten list in the past. The nationality of authors is fairly varied: two Swedes, two Danes, two South Africans, three Brits, one Irish, one book by a Norwegian set in the US and one Norwegian-set novel by an American. It’s not well balanced in terms of gender – eight male authors, four female (with two men and two women writing together). A new year’s resolution is to get around to reading more of the fine women writers in the genre in the coming year.

Here they are, in no particular order, with links to reviews . . .

Sundstol, Vidar – THE LAND OF DREAMS
A moody story about a Norwegian murdered in Minnesota and a forest ranger who finds connections between the murder and his family’s immigrant past. A touch a woo-woo, an occasional info-dump, but a book I really enjoyed. First in a trilogy.

Faye, Lyndsay – SEVEN FOR A SECRET
Second in a historical series starring Timothy Wilde, who (with his dangerous brother Valentine) try to help a mixed-race woman recover her family when they are abducted by slave traders. Evocative language and gripping history that we shouldn’t forget.

le Carre, John – A DELICATE TRUTH
A rather silly diplomat is called to Gibraltar to oversee a dodgy terrorism task force operation which goes wrong. Later he joins forces with an energetic young officer and a Welsh soldier to find the truth. At times parodic and bitter, but also impassioned and thrilling.

Kaaberbol, Lene, and Agnete Friis – DEATH OF A NIGHTINGALE
A young mother who has sought asylum in Denmark is caught up in violence that has its roots in the famine Stalin caused in Ukraine in the 1930s. Difficult reading at times, but unforgettable.

Stanley, Michael – DEADLY HARVEST
The amiable and principled detective Kubu investigates crimes that may be “muti murders” – in which young people are killed so that wealthy believers can gain power. The Botswana setting is, as always, a main attraction.

Miller, Derek – NORWEGIAN BY NIGHT
An elderly New York Jew whose granddaughter has brought him to Norway finds himself in charge of a small Balkan immigrant, pursued by violent men and his own regrets about war. Reminded me of Kate Atkinson.

Mark, David – ORIGINAL SKIN
An imposing, kind, and socially awkward detective in Hull investigates some brutal drug murders and a suicide of a young man with a peacock tattoo that perhaps isn’t. Brilliant writing.

Dahl, Arne – BAD BLOOD
Don’t let the gruesome opening put you off. This is an interesting take on the tired serial killer story, originally published in 1999 but strangely topical.

Herron, Mick – DEAD LIONS
Charming, oddball, busy, entertaining espionage story featuring an office full of losers. Herron is a terrific writer.

French, Tana – BROKEN HARBOR
A creepy, slow-burning fuse of a novel about a family attacked in their falling-down house in one of Ireland’s “ghost estates” but really about the trauma caused by the sudden death of the Celtic Tiger economy and the values it embodied.

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September Pick: The Land of Dreams by Vidar Sundstøl

October 5, 2013

I had a great reading month, but this book was most definitely the best of the lot. I’m cross-posting this review fom Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

Later this month, the Univesity of Minnesota press will release the first volume in the Minnesota Trilogy by Vidar Sundstøl, a Norwegian author who spent two years living on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams will be followed by Only the Dead (2014) and The Raven (2015). After reading the first, I’m impatient to read the rest.

As the novel opens, Lance Hansen, a forest ranger who patrols the national forest that occupies so much of Cook County, a vast wedge of land stretching between the lake and the Canadian border, is on his way to speak with campers who have illegally pitched a tent near the lake not far from Baraga’s Cross. This is the kind of work he does – enforcing rules, preventing people from dumping garbage on public land, organizing search parties when vacationers got lost, occasionally encountering illegal logging or hidden meth labs. Nothing too dramatic. But this morning will be different.

He parked his service vehicle at the end of the road and got out. It was 7:28. In front of him stretched Lake Superior. There was nothing to see but light and water and sky – no opposite shore on which to fix his eyes, just the illusory meeting of sky and the surface of the water far off in the distance.

Baraga's Cross

photo of Baraga’s Cross courtesy of Jeffachen.

As he heads down the path toward the granite marker that marks the spot where a European missonary once erected a wooden cross after surviving a stormy crossing in 1846, he finds a shoe and a handprint marking where someone fell. Then, as he gets closer to the cross, he sees a bare leg sticking out. A naked man is sitting against the cross, covered in blood and muttering something inaudible. The intonation seems familiar and Hansen realizes he’s speaking Norwegian. Only one word is audible: kjærlighet. Love.

Hansen finds another man not far away, bludgeoned to death. Soon the county’s sheriff arrives. Homicide isn’t a crime they’ve handled much. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder in Cook County in the 25 years he’s been its sheriff. Because the crime occured on federal land, an FBI agent is summoned fom the St. Paul field office, and he is soon joined by a Norwegian detective. Hansen’s involvement in the investigation is over – though there is one thing he’s holding back. He’d seen a familiar truck near the cross, one belonging to his brother Andy, who he understand less than his immigrant ancestors, whose history is stored in binders on floor-to-ceiling shelves in Hansen’s home office.

As the unofficial county historian, Hansen feels more comfortable in the past, and as the FBI agent and his Norwegian colleague try to discover whether a tourist killed his companion or whether someone else was responsible, Hansen becomes fascinated by old news accounts of a body found near the same place in 1892, It could have been the body of an Ojibwe medicine man named Swamper Caribou who’d gone missing earlier, a disappearance that may be connected to an old family story about a fifteen-year-old boy crossing the lake on a winter night – and possibly to Hansen’s dream of walking under the frozen surface of Lake Superior.

The Land of Dreaams, beautifully translated by Tiinna Nunnally, is an evocative novel that draws together past and present, the lives of immigrants and the indigenous inhabitants of the North Shore, American dreams and suppressed violence hidden behind calm exteriors and polite silences. In some ways this sounds like Karin Fossum’s explorations of the squirmy things living under the rocks of peaceful small towns in Norway, but in tone and style it’s far closer to Johan Theorin’s Öland quartet, which combines an atmospheric natural setting with pscychologically probing portraits and a very light touch of the supernatural.

I’m not surprised that it was awarded the Riverton Prize. It’s a very good book.  I admit that I particularly enjoyed a setting that is familiar to me – just a few weeks ago we traveled to the places where the story is set. Even if you haven’t been to the North Shore, this book will provide you with an interesting journey. The only problem is that you’ll want to return as soon as possible, as there is obviously more to the story.

Vidar Sundstol

If you are in the Twin Cities, be sure to stop by Once Upon a Crime, where the author will be speaking on October 17th at 7pm. If you can’t make it, Pat and Gary will save you a signed copy. If you can go, be prepared to leave with a lighter wallet and a heavier bookshelf. It’s a great store full of temptation. But you know you need more books.

ouac