My Mysterious Year

January 2, 2013

I didn’t read nearly as many books as Bernadette did in a bad year, but I can’t say I suffered from lack of books to read. I participated in quite a few of the discussion at 4MA, including three series discussions, a record for me. I read some non-mystery fiction (including Neal Stephenson’s Reamde, which slowed me down because of its length, but in an entertaining way). The following are my top ten reads of the year.

Whispering Death by Garry Disher
He does such a good job of weaving together a lot of plot threads, all of them very believable.

The Gods of Gotham by Linsday Faye
Wins the “socks blown off” award from me. Loved her use of language and how she conveyed the zeitgeist of NYC when much of Manhattan was farmland.

Invisible Muder by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis
I enjoy the way these co-authors pull together multiple points of view. Also enjoy the not-totally-likeable protagonist.

Lake Country by Sean Doolittle
This guy writes so well and has such a tender heart for people in trouble. Loved this book.

Wolves and Angels by Seppo Jokinen
A Finnish police procedural that gave me what I want from a procedural: a realistic workplace and a nice mix of characters.

The Dark Winter by David Mark
My dark horse. I especially loved the writing style; plot was pretty dandy, too.

The Fear Artist by Timothy Hallinan
A different take on fathers and daughters; great setting, as always.

A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller
I had to slow down and enjoy the scenery for this one. Very vivid sense of place.

The End of the Wasp Season by Denise Mina
How does she do it? How does she knock one wonderful book out after another? Loved it.

Paradise City by Archer Mayor
Another nicely done procedural series with multiple POVs, this one including a Chinese artisan looking for her own Workers Paradise (in western Massachusetts)

If I had a top eleven, it would include Michael Stanley’s Death of the Mantis, which I enjoyed very much (another 4MA discussion book which I’m very happy I read).

Four of the ten were new-to-me authors. Four were by women authors. I am not doing charts, much as I like a nice colored chart, but thought I would map my reading in the past year. This doesn’t include all the books I read, but most of them. In some cases I had to pick one place to drop a pin though the book moved around (as was the case in Reamde, a real globe-trotter of a book).

Here’s hoping for a great new reading year for everyone!

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Maxine

December 18, 2012

It was such a shock to hear that Maxine Clarke was suddenly gone. I’m sure it was not sudden to those who really knew her, as I understand she had been unwell for some time, but it just seemed impossible. I actually hoped for a minute it was some kind of prank, some internet meme I didn’t know about, since it seemed so totally unreal. Maxine was a part of my daily life. How could she not be there tomorrow, and the next day?

Maxine was one of the great scholars of the genre, of the completely unassuming sort. She was a terrific book reviewer. She had a knack for describing a book with great detail and accuracy, yet somehow managing to avoid giving anything away. She reviewed voluminously, yet none of her reviews seemed hasty or superficial. Her tastes and mine were not identical – she often enjoyed books that were not my cup of tea, and didn’t care for writers whose work I enjoy – but she never misled me about a book. I knew exactly what to expect.

Apart from writing an impressive number of reviews that were informed by a deep knowledge of the genre, she was a great community builder. Whenever I wrote a blog post, she always seemed to make a comment before it was a few hours old. Quite often, she would toss out an idea that totally illuminated the book I thought I’d read. She was perhaps the best practitioner of social media in my experience: technically adept, generous with her time, able to create a bond among people that was never intrusive, strongly ethical, and a great deal of fun. As this news has sunk in, that’s something I will miss terribly: the way she seemed to so effortlessly weave us together into a close community.

I know I’ll keep those friends she introduced me to, and the FriendFeed room she started will go on. But it feels as if the world is a little smaller now, and a little sadder. My thoughts are with her family. Such a loss.

photo courtesy of rogerglenn


What I’ve Been Reading

December 3, 2012

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.


A Killing in the Hills by Julia Keller – a review

September 20, 2012

I had been hearing good things about critic Julia Keller’s first mystery, but didn’t pick it up until I found she would be moderating a panel at Bouchercon that I’m on. I always try to be familiar with panelists’ work, and this gave me the happy excuse to read a book that was already on my list. I’m so glad I read it. It’s top-notch.

The twinned ravages of poverty and drug addiction are destroying the people of Acker’s Gap, West Virginia, a place that had always been hard-scrabble, but where there are now no jobs, not even ones that ended with black lung disease or a mine collapse, and where the once-tight bonds of family are coming unraveled. Bell Elkins got there first. Her family home went up in flames when she was ten years old, her sister sent to prison, the rest of her childhood spent in foster care. After marriage and escape from the mountains, she has returned with a daughter and a law degree to serve as the county attorney, prosecuting drug crimes with angry passion. Those crimes hit close to home when her sullen adolescent daughter witnesses a murder. Yet because she doesn’t want to tell her tightly-wound mother how she knows something about the crime, and because she resents the secrets her mother has kept from her, she decides to keep it to herself, a small bit of knowledge that she might be able to trade in someday for her mother’s respect.

Keller has created a vivid sense of place in Acker’s Gap, a place that shapes the people who live there. She provides so many visual cues and details of personality and characters’ relationships that at first I felt it was muffling the action like Kudzu vine, entangling and softening the edges of the tough subject matter. But I soon changed my mind. The place is part of the characters, and every one of the characters, however brief it seemed their appearance would be, turns out to be a part of the story. Here’s a taste of her style:

It was a shabby afterthought of a town tucked in the notch between two peaks of the Appalachian Mountains, like the last letter stuck in a mail slot after the post office has closed down for keeps. Acker’s Gap was situated within sight of the Bitter River, just over the ridge from the CSX Railroad tracks. It consisted of a half-dozen dusty, slanting downtown streets surrounded by several neighborhoods of older homes, two trailer parks, a tannery, a junkyard specializing in domestic auto parts, and a shut0down shoe factory ringed by a black-topped parking lot against which the weeds and the wadded-up Doritos bags and the crushed Camel packs were staging a hostile takeover . . . Just outside the city limits was a handful of played-out coal mines and, beyond and above them, the corrugated foothills of the Appalachians, their sides dense with sweet birch trees and scarlet oaks, the ground crowded with mountain laurel and black huckleberry.

That’s a lot of description (and I left some out); the post office simile is one of the little darlings that writing instructors often suggest should be murdered. But I began to appreciate this visual documentation as Keller’s way of honoring and preserving a place that is being changed for the worse. Her big, brooding mountain is a continual reference point in the book, but it’s the kind of landmark that is subject to the brutal economics of mountaintop removal, and the community in the mountain’s shadow is experiencing a new kind of poverty, one that has begun to consume the marrow of mountain life, family connections.

In a genre where tastes are often kept in neat boxes, with books designed from cover to contents to appeal to a particular audience, this novel is unusually approachable from many directions. Those who like character-driven stories in small town settings will find much to like, but those who want their crime fiction gritty and realistic, a fictional mirror of the times, will have that, too. Readers might be reminded of the Ballad books by Sharyn McCrumb, but I think a better likeness can be found in the novels of Denise Mina, which exhibit a similar refusal to confine themselves to the well-worn conventions of the genre’s niches or the easy comfort of larger-than-life villains. Keller finds all the material she needs in the reality of her native West Virginia, and where she excels is in bringing it to life on the page, with the beauty of the natural landscape, the sinewy strength of its history, and the squalid, sad, frustrating waste of so many lives.


Lake Country by Sean Doolittle – a review

July 29, 2012

As part of an effort to keep this blog from growing too much moss on it, I will try to post the occasional book review for books that aren’t (gasp) written by Nordic authors so not appropriate for my other blog.

I should also provide a warning: stand back, this is a rave.

Thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewers program, I got a new book by one of my favorite authors. Sean Doolittle has a terrific way with words – including great, authentic-sounding dialogue, an effortlessly established sense of place, and characters who are so three dimensional you half expect them to walk into the kitchen and check out what’s in the fridge long after you put the book down. He also has a quality that many of our best writers have: the ability to create characters that are totally human and flawed but also infused with character – not wacky characteristics, but a stubborn and almost unconscious insistence on trying to do the right thing.

It almost always gets them in trouble.

In this case, Mike Barlowe is stubbornly loyal to a screw-up named Darryl Potter, who just can’t stand it that the guy who dozed off a the wheel of his car and killed a young woman walked away with barely a slap on the wrist. As perverse fate would have it, the accident victim’s brother got killed in Iraq on the same day. Darryl, who has tempted fate in all kinds of ways, decides to get right in its face this time, and Mike (whose life Darryl saved in Faluja) reluctantly follows in his wake, trying to repair the damage and save Darryl from himself.

Complicating his efforts to set things right are a cocky, ruthless skip tracer who’s on Darryl’s tail with a timid numbers runner riding shotgun, assorted law enforcement agencies, and a television reporter who is going through something of a mid-life crisis. Doolittle keeps the strands of a complex plot nicely taut as the story unfolds. Props to him, too, for making his women just as fully-developed and interesting as the males. Reporter Maya Lamb is a great character.

Doolittle is a top-notch writer. His style is unobtrusively elegant, his characters wonderfully drawn, and his pacing flawless. On top of that, his books are flat-out fun to read. I have never understood why his name isn’t regularly at the top of the best-seller lists. He’s terrific, and Lake Country is a good place to find out just how good he is. This is going on my Best of 2012 list.


#SinC25 Round-Up

March 4, 2012

Here are the names of women writers highlighted by bloggers in the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers’ Challenge. (By the way, it’s not too late to join, The deadline is “whenever.”) Linked names go to blog posts; the names in bulleted lists are writers who are in some way similar. Thanks to all those who have participated – we’ve come up with a long and varied list!

Harriet Stratemeyer Adams (Carolyn Keene)

Catherine Aird

Margery Allingham

  • Dorothy Sayers
  • Ngaio Marsh
  • Carol O’Connell

Karin Alvtegen

Kate Atkinson

  • Frances Fyfield
  • Jennifer McMahon
  • Cornelia Read

Noreen Ayers

Belinda Bauer

Emilia Pardo Bazán

M. C. Beaton (pseudonym of Marion Chesney) (more than once) (and yet again)

Dorothy Bowers

Zenith Jones Brown (aka David Frome and Leslie Ford)

Edna Buchanan

Karen Campbell

  • Denise Mina
  • Helene Tursten
  • Aline Templeton

Mercedes Castro

Sarah Caudwell

Agatha Christie

Anne Cleeves (more than once)

Liza Cody

Patricia Cornwell

Barbara D’Amato

Marele Day

Unity Dow

Sarah Dunant

Janet Evanovich

Cristina Fallarás

Karin Fossum (more than once) (and yet again)

  • Ruth Rendell
  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Dorothy B. Hughs

Ariana Franklin

Tana French

  • Denise Mina
  • Margaret Maron
  • Jennifer McMahon

Inger Frimansson

  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Camilla Ceder
  • Diane Janes

Tess Gerritsen

Dorothy Gilman (more than once)

Alicia Giménez Bartlett

Sue Grafton

Elly Griffiths

Denise Hamilton

  • Mari Jungstedt
  • Elaine Viets
  • Liza Marklund

Petra Hammesfahr

Erin Hart

Joan Hess

Georgette Heyer

Joanna Hines

  • Barbara Vine
  • Diane Janes
  • Morag Joss

Loes den Hollander

Anne Holt

  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Minette Walters
  • Liza Cody

Katherine Howell (more than once)

Dorte Hummelshoj Jakobsen

Miranda James

Lene Kaaberol and Agnete Friis

  • Sara Paretsky
  • Liza Marklund
  • Abigail Padgett

Margot Kinberg

  • Carol Schmurak
  • Elly Griffiths
  • Sisal Jo-Gazan

Natsuo Kirino

Harley Jane Kozak

Asa Larsson (more than once) (and yet again)

  • Karin Alvtegen
  • Karin Fossum
  • Laura Lippman
  • Stef Penney
  • Camilla Ceder
  • Kersten Ekman

Constance and Gwenyth Little

C. J. Lyons

Sharyn McCrumb

M. J. McGrath

  • Dana Stabenow
  • Asa Larsson
  • R. J. Harlick

Charlotte MacLeod

Lucy Beatrice Malleson (aka Anthony Gilbert and other pseudonyms)

Miyuke Miyabe

Finola Moorhead

Marcia Muller

Reggie Nadelson

  • Denise Mina
  • Alex Carr / Jennie Siler
  • Asa Larsson

Saskia Noort

Carol O’Connell

Lourdes Ortiz

Maria-Antònia Oliver

Sara Paretsky

Marion Pauw

Louise Penny

Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) (more than once)

Claudia Pineiro

  • Teresa Solano
  • Donna Moore
  • Leigh Redhead

Evelyn Piper (pseudonym of Mary Modell)

Dorothy Porter

Suzanne Proulx

Kathy Reichs

Rosa Ribas

Imogen Robertson

Leah Ruth Robinson

Mercé Rodoreda

Kate Ross

Rebecca Rothenberg

Catherine Sampson

Marta Sanz

Sandra Scoppettone

Diane Setterfield

Dell Shannon (pseudonym of Elizabeth Linington)

Barbara Burnett Smith

Teresa Solana

Kelli Stanley

Vanda Symon

Josephine Tey

Victoria Thompson

Helene Tursten

  • Mary Logue
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir
  • Leena Lehtolainen

Simone van der Vlugt

  • Jessica Mann
  • Esther Verhoef
  • Yaba Badoe

Lola Van Guardia

Fred Vargas

Esther Verhoef

Suzanne Vermeer

Laura Wilson

  • Aly Monroe
  • Jacqueline Winspear
  • Andrea Maria Schenkel

SinC25, # 10 – Helene Tursten

January 15, 2012

My final author for the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge represents for me a kind of women’s writing that I enjoy and sometimes don’t appreciate enough. These are series of books about working women who balance their home life with a difficult and demanding job, who are quietly professional though sometimes have to do a little more than their male colleagues – and bite their tongues at times, who bring compassion with them when they go to a crime scene, and who carry on case after case. They tend to operate in a fictional world peopled with characters and settings drawn on a human scale, rather than running a marathon through high-concept plots with lots of drama and gore. They don’t have a lot of angst because they have work to do and families to go home to. They are a lot like us, only more interesting.

I am so pleased that Soho Press is releasing another book in Helene Tursten’s Irene Huss series set in Göteborg. The series began in 1998 with Detective Inspector Huss (published in English five years later). Translations of two more books in the series – The Torso and The Glass Devil – were published in 2006 and 2007. Then nothing . . . until 2012. Night Rounds, the second book in the series, will come out in English this March.  As anyone who enjoys reading translated series knows, we often have to be detectives and assemble characters’ lives from what we can gather after the fact, putting together the series arc like a puzzle. Can I hope that the next five books in the series might someday be translated?

Night Rounds draws on Tursten’s life experience as a nurse and is set in a private hospital where a power failure leads to the death of an elderly patient in intensive care. The ICU nurse has vanished and is later found murdered, sprawled over the failed backup generator. One of the staff reports that she saw a figure on the grounds just after the lights went out: a woman dressed in an old-fashioned cape and cap. She is certain it is Nurse Tekla, who hanged herself in the hospital attic in 1947. All of the staff know the story, and many believe they have seen glimpses of the ghost before.

As always, Irene investigates systematically, teasing out the relationships of the hospital employees and tracking clues into the past. Her workmates operate as a team, with occasional sparks. A young female detective is being harassed by a colleague who sends anonymous pornography; when he’s caught, he’s merely transferred and Irene finds herself trying to mentor the young woman, who isn’t inclined to bide her time or bite her tongue. There is a sympathetic portrait of mentally ill homeless woman who lives on the grounds of the hospital; social issues – racism, family dysfunction, the sex industry – are present in all of Tursten’s books, though never didactically.

And as usual Irene’s family plays a secondary role in the story, as one of the detective’s twin daughters gets involved in the animal rights movement and finds herself in over her head with activists who are willing to use violence to make their point. One of the real pleasures of this series is the interludes of ordinary family life. Irene is happily married (to an even-tempered man who is an excellent chef! perhaps that’s a bit of wish fulfillment) and has two children who get up to the usual drama that adolescents go through. There’s a nice balance in the books of police work and everyday life, without too much domestic detail; just enough to give readers a realistic and engaging portrait of a capable detective who has a life outside the job.It’s refreshing to encounter a detective who doesn’t flinch from the grim realities of police work but still manages to be present for her children and keep a firm hand on her own emotional tiller. In many ways, this portrait of a woman police officer is a feminist one, demonstrating the way a woman can be herself in a traditionally masculine culture.

The Swedish television series starring Angela Kovacs , made by the ubiquitous Yellow Bird Studios, is quite good, though its dramatization of The Torso seemed to me far more graphically gruesome than the book. My favorite aspect of that novel is the contrast drawn between Danish and Swedish cultures, particularly in terms of attitudes toward the sex industry. I’m not sure what Danes think of it, but it shed a lot of light on Swedish attitudes for this American reader.

Now for the part that has turned out to be much harder than I expected – three women writers who are in some way similar:

  • Mary Logue, whose Claire Watkins seems like a remarkably sane and balanced police officer in rural Wisconsin and who always has time for her daughter
  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who does a nice job of weaving in her heroine’s family life with a light touch
  • Leena Lehtolainen, who I can’t say much about because her series has not been translated into English – but I wish someone would! From what I’ve heard from Paula Arvas, a Finnish scholar who was a speaker at last spring’s Stieg Larsson symposium at UCLA, her work is not considered as “important” as harder-edged books by men mainly because she doesn’t write about society’s underbelly and focuses instead on more ordinary people. She has twice won the award for best crime fiction in Finland and has been nominated for the Glass Key award. There are apparently 11 books in the Maria Kallio series, the most recent published in 2011. But it’s not too late for someone to get cracking and translate this series, since Lehtolainen got an early start – her first novel was published when she was only 12 years old!

SinC25, #9: M. J. McGrath

December 30, 2011

I thought I would include another new-to-me woman writer as I take the Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary book bloggers’ challenge (which you are welcome to try yourself – at the easy, moderate, or expert level). When I read a review of White Heat, it sounded fascinating, combining a strong and resourceful female heroine with a harsh Arctic landscape, and very good it proved to be. It reminded me a bit of Adrian Hyland’s Emily Tempest, a mixed-race Australian living with an aboriginal group, in the way it approaches the complexity of contemporary indigenous people living on a land they understand better than anyone else.

In this complex mystery, Edie Kiglatuk makes her living as a guide for white hunters who want to test themselves against the harsh arctic environment. This is not a job typically held by a woman, but Edie is well attuned to the land and has a living to make. The community she lives in clings to the ice and rock of Ellesmere Island, a place so unforgiving that it was largely uninhabited until in 1953 the Canadian government decided it needed inhabitants to ensure a claim to it. (I gather the US had designs on it for strategic reasons.) They chose Inuit because they had the best chance of coping with the hostile environment. McGrath has written a non-fiction account of these settlers and the unfortunate experiment that left them stranded far from home and up against the elements, the government having forgotten their promise to return them to Hudson Bay if life proved too difficult.

In this harsh climate Edie has overcome years of alcoholism and made a tough life for herself, which includes her hopes for a nephew who is training to be a nurse. When she takes a pair of qalunaat (white men) hunting, one of them is shot. Her nephew comes to help by snowmobile, and when weather conditions allow, her aunt (who proves pigheaded independence runs among women in the family) flies in to take him to the nearest hospital. In spite of their best efforts the man dies, and everyone is eager to declare it an unfortunate hunting accident. But Edie has her doubts, and when more violence strikes even closer to home, she has to get to the bottom of it, which involves a trip to Greenland and some harrowing physical challenges.

The plot is perhaps a bit over-elaborate, with a mulit-national cast of bad guys, but the major characters are wonderfully drawn, with real sympathy and respect for native people living under difficult circumstances without romanticizing the very real challenges they face. The people and the land they live on come alive in this story. It would be a good one to read on a hot day; I read it at the start of winter, and it made me feel very cold, indeed. Once I checked a map, I realized just how far north Ellesmere Island really is.

McGrath wrote an essay about her experiences doing research for her books in the Telegraph. I’m very tempted to read her non-fiction book, The Long Exile: A Tale of Inuit Betrayal and Survival in the High Arctic, but I think I will wait until it’s warmer.

As for women writers whose work is in some way similar . . .

  • Dana Stabenow, who writes about her native Alaska with a vivid sense of place.
  • Asa Larsson, who also loves arctic Sweden and makes it sound quite beautiful.
  • R. J. Harlick, whose mysteries are set in area where the inhabitants of Ellesmere Island once lived.


SinC25, #8: Anne Holt

December 20, 2011

For some odd reason I put off reading Norwegian author Anne Holt. I suspect it was because the books that were translated first into English featured an FBI-trained profiler, and I am rather allergic to FBI-trained profilers. (My favorite depiction of them was the case of two duelling and equally fatuous profilers in Jess Walter’s Over Tumbled Graves, an excellent novel that investigates our obsession with serial killers. Then there’s Malcolm Gladwell’s article about profilers in The New Yorker – as skeptical as I am. So even though every interview with the author that I came across made me think “I like how this writer thinks!” I never picked up one of her books – until I recently read Death in Oslo. And enjoyed it tremendously.

Death in Oslo, the third in a series featuring the profiler Johanne Vik, starts with an intriguing premise. A woman has just been elected president of the United States, and as the book opens we learn that she has triumphed in spite of closely-guarded personal secret. In fact the book opens with her thought: I got away with it. But of course, she hasn’t, really. Her first foreign trip is to a safe country, the home of her ancestors, Norway. But the unthinkable happens. Madame President disappears – on the 17th of May, of all days, Norway’s independence day and an occasion for raucous partying. Johanne is upset when her partner, Adam Stubo, is drafted to work on the crisis. Johanne has her reasons to avoid the FBI agent who is working on the case. She takes their small daughter with her to a secret retreat, the apartment of her mentor, wheelchair-bound Hanne Wilhelmsen (who features in a series that has mostly not been translated yet except for 1222). As Adam deals with the public side of the investigation, Johanne and Hanne come into it via a different route. And all the while, the reader knows who is behind the disappearance. We just don’t know how he pulled it off – or why.

Death in Olso is great fun. It’s a complex story with a lot of characters from all over the world, but Holt draws them so skillfully that it’s no trouble keeping them apart. She also does a nice line in puzzles and keeps us guessing, right up to the end – and even then, things aren’t tied up neatly. There is a whacking great coincidence on which much of the story hinges, but as hinges go, it’s not squeaky and moves very smoothly. I particularly enjoyed the consternation of Norwegian officials when the unthinkable happens, and the contrast between their response and that of American security agencies.  All in all, it’s terrifically entertaining and is peopled with memorable characters I would like to meet again.

Now, as for three more women writers who are in some way similar – oof, this is always hard . . .

  • Yrsa Sigurdardottir – who also creates likeable characters with interesting personal lives and also likes puzzles in her plots.
  • Minette Walters – who combines intricate plots with social and political issues.
  • Liza Cody – who creates memorable characters with a feminist edge and a lot of compassion.

It’s not too late to join the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Book Bloggers Challenge at either the easy, moderate, or expert challenge (or, if you’re a triathlete like Maxine, all three). The deadline is whenever. I will eventually collate all of the posts in one gigantic listing. I know I’ve discovered some new writers thanks to others who have taken the challenge. And though she probably doesn’t know about the challenge, Anne Holt herself has made a list of her ten favorite female detectives for The Guardian.


SinC25, #7: Asa Larsson

November 26, 2011

Not long ago I finished reading Until Thy Wrath Be Past, Asa Larsson’s most recent book in the Rebecka Martinsson – Anna-Maria Mella series set in the far north of Sweden, and sighed with satisfaction. It’s an excellent book in a wonderful series, and so it makes sense for me to include Asa Larsson in my attempt at the expert level of the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary Challenge.

Asa Larsson is an excellent writer, and in this series she adds to her stylish writing a group of intriguing characters and a vivid setting that the author infuses with love. Its one of those settings that seems terrifically appealing because the author has made it so, though in reality I doubt I would really enjoy living in Kurravaara, a village outside Kiruna so far north that in the winter the sun barely shows its face and in April, when this story takes place, the sun rises before 4 a.m. Rebecka Martinsson, who is now working as a prosecutor, seems happy, settled in the home that she left in her late teens after a difficult set of circumstances, described in the first book in the series, Sun Storm (apa The Savage Altar). She spent lonely years in Stockholm as a student, then as a obsessively hardworking tax lawyer, only called home to the north when a friend was in trouble. Things haven’t been easy for her, and events in previous books were traumatic, but as Until Thy Wrath Be Past opens, Rebecka seems grounded and fulfilled.

Snow, thought district prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson, shivering with pleasure as she got out of her car at the house in Kurravaara.

It was seven in the evening. Snow clouds enveloped the village in a pleasant, dusky haze. Martinsson could barely make out the lights from the neighboring houses. And the snow was not just falling. Oh no, it was hurtling down. Cold, dry, fluffy flakes cascaded from the sky, as if someone up there were sweeping them down, doing the housework.

My farmor, my father’s mother, of course, Martinsson thought with a trace of a smile. She must always be on the go, scrubbing the good Lord’s floor, dusting, hard at work. I expect she’s sent Him out to stand on the porch.

Her farmor’s house, faced with gray, cement-fiber Eternit siding seemed to be hiding itself in the gloom. It appeared to have taken the opportunity to have a nap. Only the outside light above the green-painted steps whispered quietly: Welcome home, my girl.

She is soon presented with what seems an unfortunate tragedy: the body of a long-missing girl is found in a river. She and her boyfriend went diving months ago, and now that her body has  been discovered, authorities conclude they died in an accident. But readers know they were murdered, that while diving in an ice-bound lake someone deliberately blocked the hole they had cut in the ice. We learn in the opening pages exactly what happened from point of view of the girl, who remains in the story, observing and commenting on the action. Though I am not fond of supernatural elements in mysteries, Larsson pulls it off in large part because the dead girl is a vividly-realized character in her own right, a maverick child of a neglectful mother who came to live with her great-grandmother, who delights in the company of this irreverent, rebellious child. The passages that give us her point of view after death give the reader a strong sense of a willful, daring young woman who won’t rest until her story is told.

Rebecka, inspired by a dream, suggests that the water in the dead girl’s lungs be tested, and so they discover that the girl drowned in a lake, where in the late years of World War II a Nazi supply plane went down. Someone, it seems, wants to be sure the wreck is never found. She and Inspector Anne-Marie Mella, who has become estranged from her closest colleagues following a decision she made in The Black Path, begin to investigate. In some ways, this isn’t much of a mystery; we have a strong inkling of who in the small village is likely responsible and we see some of the story from the point of view of a participant or witness to the murder. And yet, Larsson has created a compelling story as we peel back the historical layers and the tainted relationships behind the deliberate drowning of two young people.

I loved the first book in the series, and admired The Black Path (though I found the ending in both books to be out of scale with the rest, a bit too over-the-top). In this latest volume in the series, Larsson really hits her stride. She has given us a cast of characters we have come to know and care about, a setting that is vivid, a ghostly young woman who has a grounded, earthy reality, and a compelling story that explores Sweden’s troubling relationship with Nazi Germany. She offers a terrific combination of psychologically probing character development, action, and (for lack of a better word) a kind of poetry in her writing style that makes this series a particularly fine contribution to the genre. Highly recommended.

By the way, Maxine also includes Asa Larsson as she takes the SinC25 expert challenge – and links to her reviews of all the books in the series.

Three more women authors who seem somehow similar to Asa Larsson:

  • Karin Alvtegen – who has a similar interest in the underlying psychology driving characters.
  • Karin Fossum – who also examines the many layers of complexity in seemingly innocent small communities.
  • Laura Lippman – who explores the long-term consequences of troubled relationships and childhood insults.