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.

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crime fiction top ten for 2009

January 1, 2010

Selecting our top ten is an annual custom at 4MA, and winnowing down the list is a good way to revisit the year in books – before I replenish my To Be Read list by browsing others’ tops. I read a lot of good books this year, but these are the ones that had the most awesomeness. Two of the ten are on my list because they were discussed at 4MA and I found myself liking them better after the discussion; serving as a witness for the defense can make you find all kinds of worthy points you might otherwise overlook. I should also note (waves to the FTC) that six of these books were provided to me by publishers because I am a card-carrying book reviewer, but that didn’t influence my opinion of the books. I was sent lots of free books that could easily make a bottom ten, but I don’t keep track of those (nor do I review them; life’s too short to spend time reading books I don’t like).

Without further ado, my choice books of 2009, from seven different countries:

Arnaldur Indridason – ARCTIC CHILL
A young boy is found stabbed, frozen to the ground in his own blood. His Thai mother was brought to Iceland by a man who no longer lives with her; her older son has never completely adjusted to life on a small cold island on the other side of the world from his home. Erlendur and his team methodically work out what happened and in the process encounter various levels of discomfort with immigrants and the usual sad, human reasons for violence. Another fine book in an excellent series.

Kate Atkinson – WHEN WILL THERE BE GOOD NEWS?
A 4MA discussion book, and one that met with varied reactions. I loved it. I remember when reading her first Brodie book being amazed at the coincidences, then coming to terms with what it seems to me she’s doing. She’s not writing crime fiction, and she’s not mocking it or transcending anything. She’s reacting, though (I think) to what crime fiction does, which is take a group of people and a terrible thing (a murder, usually), explore how those people react to the terrible thing, the reason for which or the resolution of which is unknown, then pull it all together into a solution – both of the crime and of the sense that crimes or other terrible things (like sudden death or betrayal or deviant behavior or jealousy or greed) have the potential to challenge the ways we organize our belief (in God, in the police, in the basic goodness of most people in a crisis, in our own untested morality). That’s one of the reasons mysteries are satisfying. They give us dramatic discord and they involve us in resolution, and they do it entertainingly, whether dark or light, take your pick. It seems to me that Atkinson (at least in the Brodie books) is taking all the incident and drama we expect in a mystery, but instead of logic and those social organizations that are there to protect us driving the story line and the weaving together of plot strands, coincidence is what makes things go forward. And it’s not just randomness; Its as if randomness has a strange quality that charges all the particles in the book so they’ll be drawn together. What she’s doing is both giving us the ripping good story we crave, but giving a completely different reason for how the story will move along. Where in other mysteries there would be reasons for every connection that’s made (even if the reasons were a strain, and not reasonable, really, there’d be reasons) here there are no reasons. Just loads of points of connection. As if to say: What if that connectedness and meaning we crave were there, but not as usual? What if they were connected in some other way, an almost opposite way to reason. I find these such joyful books – and I feel the same uplift as when a really good crime fiction writer is in a really generous mood and lets things click satisfyingly into place, though it might be more realistic or more modern to let them stay broken. These books wouldn’t work at all if a) she were not as good a writer as she is – she’s funny and touching and wise and just plain good – and b) she were smirking at her cleverness; look, I’m taking a genre and bending it and aren’t I doing something amazing? She doesn’t smirk at all, at the genre or the reader or the characters. Okay, so she’s messed with the rules of nature, but I like the way she’s done it. Very much.

Karin Fossum – THE WATER’S EDGE
The Water’s Edge is a skillful novel that concerns a particularly vile crime: pedophilia. It also marks the return of Fossum’s austere detective Konrad Sejer and his youthful sidekick, Jacob Skarre, who investigate the psychology of small-town Norwegians as crime interrupts the ordinary rhythms of their quiet communities. The surfaces of Fossum’s mysteries are always deceptively placid; underneath, disturbing things churn in the dark. More at Mystery Scene. This is the best handling of a sensational topic in a way that is totally honest that I can think of. “Integrity” is the word that comes to mind.

Stieg Larsson – The GIRL WHO PLAYED WITH FIRE
When I read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I enjoyed it but did find myself wondering what all the fuss was about. Now I agree with Norm – I found this book to be a much stronger, more focused, more engaging book all around than the first in the series. More at Scandinavian Crime Fiction.

Val Mcdermid – A DARKER DOMAIN
A very good book about the lingering effects of a crime committed during the Miner’s strike in 1i984. The plot is twisty, the characters are well developed, and the subject matter heartfelt. These kinds of standalones are my favorite of Mcdermid’s books by a long shot.

Deon Meyer – BLOOD SAFARI
Deon Meyer is known for his muscular, intelligent, and psychologically probing police procedurals set in a complicated post-apartheid South Africa. In Blood Safari, Meyer introduces a new hero, one reminiscent of Jack Reacher, if Reacher had a conscience and fewer super-powers. Lemmer works as a bodyguard, and he’s good at his job, even though his parole status following a stint in prison means he can’t carry a weapon. He lives by simple laws. Lemmer’s First Law: Don’t get involved. Lemmers Second Law: Trust nobody. When Emma Le Roux becomes his client, he isn’t sure her life really is at risk. But he protects her as she tries to find out how her brother, who disappeared into the wilderness twenty years ago, could now be on the news with a new name, accused of murdering three poachers and a traditional healer near the national park where he had disappeared. It doesn’t take long for Lemmer to conclude that someone really does want Emma dead, including a harrowing attempt on her life involving a cobra. As always, Meyer roots his well-paced story in the South African soil, from veld to the Karoo, from the high society of Cape Town to environmental activists fighting to preserve endangered species in the face of tribal land claims. Wealth and poverty, the old South Africa and the new – Meyer brings it all to life in a gripping thriller, seasoned with equal measures of fondness and frustration with his countrymen. The high-energy ending confronts conflicts between nature and development and shows that the bones of ugly apartheid policies lie in a shallow grave.

Reggie Nadelson – LONDONGRAD
Artie Cohen is trying to detach himself from his job as a NYPD detective to take a low-key vacation when his friend Tolya Sverdloff asks him a favor in a way typical for the larger-than-life Russian businessman with a generous spirit and a shady side: “Artie, good morning, how are you, have something to drink, or maybe a cup of good coffee, and we’ll talk, I need a little favor, maybe you can help me out?” Helping Tolya becomes complicated when Artie is flagged down by a small girl who leads him to a desolate fenced-off playground overgrown with weeds where a strange shape wrapped in duct tape is tied to a swing that creaks in the wind. The shape is a dead woman, a young prostitute from Russia who Artie belatedly realizes has a strong resemblance to Tolya’s daughter, Valentina. . . . More at Reviewing the Evidence.  I loved this book.

Jo Nesbø- NEMESIS
Revenge is symmetrical by its very nature: tit for tat, an eye for an eye. It’s an elemental form of justice, simple, brutal, and unforgiving. There is a lot of symmetry in the construction of NEMESIS, the third of Jo Nesbø’s novels to be translated into English. But there is nothing simple about justice in Nesbø’s world. . . More at Reviewing the Evidence. I also liked The Redeemer – and everything else in this great series.

George Pelecanos – THE WAY HOME
George Pelecanos has been exploring the nature of masculinity since his first novel, A Firing Offense, was published in 1992. One way or another, all of his books are about what it takes to be a man, and how men negotiate the minefield that lies between violence and honor. That path toward manhood often is illuminated by the relationship between fathers and sons, a theme that is front and center in The Way Home. More at Mystery Scene.

Richard Price – LUSH LIFE
A 4MA discussion book. The minute I picked it up, I thought ‘ahhhh…..’ The dialogue feels so real to me, and I love the way Price writes. The initial pages spent with the absurd Quality of Life Task Force (four plain clothes cops, who in their thirties are the ‘oldest white men on the Lower East Side,’ whose job it is to harass people who might be doing something illegal) just took me right into it. Like Lawrence Block there’s a nice sense of the variety of humanity you meet in some neighborhoods of the city, and some of his affection for the city. Like Jim Fusilli, there’s a lot of detail that gives people a real sense of the place and arouses lots of nostalgia for those who know those blocks of the city. But Richard Price is more involved in the different characters’ perspectives than either Block or Fusilli is. The Scudder and Terry Orr books are first person, and that person’s journey is very much where the center of gravity is. In LUSH LIFE the point of view shifts quite a bit, so we see that section of the lower east side from the POV of a kid who lives in the projects, a failed restaurateur/bartender, and cops. It’s much more psychological than Block, much more sociological than Fusilli. All in all, a less feverishly realized novel than FREEDOMLAND which remains my favorite of Price’s books but it’s still as real and as in-depth as it gets.


being genre-ous

September 20, 2008

Declan Burke, whose latest book The Big O is being released right about now in the US (we’re so often the last kids on the block to read the best things coming out of Europe, though at least this time the US publisher didn’t decide to change the title) recently hosted the Carnival of the Criminal Minds at his blog, Crime Always Pays. Rather than provide the usual feast of links – something that’s hard to top after Brian Lindenmuth hosted the Carnival – he raised a serious question.

Do blogs have a particular role to play in fostering thoughtful critical discussion of a genre that has been typically neglected by mainstream media? Can we do better than the handful of short plot recaps that stand for book reviews in a book review market that is contracting daily? Can bloggers bring out the best in the genre? He thinks we can.

I believe heart and soul that crime / mystery fiction needs and deserves the kind of widespread, top-to-bottom critical work that would in turn inspire the writers to strive towards ever-higher standards of work.

The genre has not only been neglected by traditional channels, it’s often reviewed by people who are ignorant of the genre, who are shocked, shocked to find good writing. You know this is the case when a reviewer is gobsmacked by a book that “transcends the genre” because it’s well-constructed, has fully-developed characters, and is well-written – in other words, it’s a good work of crime fiction, like a great many books published in this genre. It’s only if you’re assuming James Patterson represents the genre that it’s being transcended. Dec goes on to say –

here’s the thing – crime / mystery fiction is the most popular genre on the planet, it is inarguably the most relevant and important fiction out there, and that’s why I believe it deserves more . . . It deserves the kind of dynamic, rigorous, extensive and constantly evolving critical work that the interweb is perfectly placed to provide, and it deserves to be critiqued, justified and praised not by the kind of commentator who will suggest that a particular novel has (koff) ‘transcended the genre’, but by those who understand that good crime / mystery fiction is simultaneously scourge and balm, panacea and drug, a fiction for the world we live in that is also its truth.

Wow.

It’s interesting that a number of traditional venues for book criticism are cutting their coverage and trying to make up for it by taking to the web. I’m not sure what that means, other than that they think they can save money on both newsprint and staff. The Monreal Gazette is the latest to shrink their coverage and call it an improvement.

It’s also interesting how defensive people get when a mainstream critic says a book is more than a mystery. Yes, it’s tiresome to hear people who haven’t read much in the genre say something has transcended it – how would you know if you haven’t read much of it? – but Janet Maslin saying Dennis Lehane’s newest book is a big step beyond his crime fiction is not to say his other books are dreck that only idiots would read. She seemed to me to be saying his 700-page epic is ambitious in ways his other books were not. Quite often any perceived critique of the genre is met by bristling anger and assertions that literary fiction is navel-gazing plotless crap that nobody wants to read, anyway. And that’s just as silly as declaring all genre fiction mediocre.

We have the means to celebrate the best in a genre, and we certainly have the motive, as Dec stated it above – it matters to us. Those of us who know the genre best need to give it our best critical shot. I’d say that the critical lens that Dec has turned on Irish crime fiction in his blog posts at The Rap Sheet this week are a fine example.

Or take a look at Material Witness. It’s one of several blogs that, when it comes to traditional book reviewing, easily . . . er, dare I say it? . . . transcend the genre.


Carnival of the Criminal Minds, No. 14

April 15, 2008

Minneta State Fair

The carnival has arrived at my pitch at last! Experience the thrills and chills of the midway rides, the daring tests of skill, the jaw-dropping wonders of the freakshow. Don’t forget to take a ride through the haunted house and get yourself all dizzy in the hall of mirrors. And be sure to get lots of food on a stick. (If you have ever been to the Minnesota State Fair, you’ll understand the reference – all kinds of food, mostly deep fried, generally on sticks.) But watch out for getting too much cotton candy (or floss to those across the pond) on your fingers because you don’t want your books’ pages to get all sticky. Because this carnival’s about books.

Our previous host provided a Texas-sized helping of crime fiction blogs to read, but this time we’re going to focus on blogs that are book barkers. Pay no attention to that Matterhorn-sized TBR mountain behind the curtain! You need more books! You know you do! So let me introduce you to some enablers discerning readers who may just have the answer to that age-old question: what should I read next?

How about broadening your horizons by reading something from another culture? Peter Rozovsky has lots of recommendations of crime fiction from around the world at Detectives Beyond Borders, and has a habit of raising interesting questions for the collective to discuss. Another way to explore the world from your armchair can be found in the reviews posted at Karen Meek’s Euro Crime – there’s a handy link to all the recent reviews on the right-hand side once you’ve read all the news that’s fit to blog. For those whose tastes tend toward the dark end of the spectrum, there’s International Noir Fiction. In Ireland, Crime Always Pays. (That’s why they call it the Celtic Tiger.) For the UK, It’s a Crime to ignore crimeficreader’s expert recommendations. Crime Scene Scotland has a gritty perspective worthy of Glasgow’s mean streets. On the other side of the globe, Damien covers Crime Down Under, Kerrie tells about Mysteries in Paradise (rub it in, eh?) and Karen and her mob seem to be on a mission to make the world aware of the best in the genre from Australia and New Zealand. Luckily for us, their plot is working brilliantly.

There are some wonderful long-standing mystery book review sites online. January Magazine is one that has a wealth of crime fiction reviews, all in handy-dandy blog format (like its essential sister publication, The Rap Sheet). Reviewing the Evidence is a classic, of course, and though Mystery Scene is a traditionally published magazine (with its reviews all searchable online) it also sponsors the Bookflings blog, where Brian Skupin often pairs something old and something new – reviewing two books in combination with fascinating results. Reviewers just can’t help sharing the wealth: you can follow the reviews of Brian Lindemuth, a Mystery BookSpot reviewer, by checking out his Crimespace blog. And David J. Montgomery, who reviews for the incredibly shrinking fourth estate, reviews a “book of the week” at Crime Fiction Dossier, where he also keeps tabs on the state of reviewing.

The Campaign for the American Reader deserves a paragraph all to itself. This is an amazing testament to the wonder of new books. The brains behind the campaign, Marshal Zeringue, wants to “encourage more readers to read more books” and to do that he has several cunning plans. He makes lists, compiles author interviews, asks writers what they are reading, who they would cast in a movie, and has two tests – the Page 69 Test and the Page 99 Test, in which authors discuss what’s happening on one page of their latest book and how it fits into the whole. It’s a novel and illuminating way to get to know about books. The focus is not entirely on crime fiction, but there’s plenty of it included – ample proof you will never run out of books to try next.

A number of addicts readers share their thoughts through blogs that are a combination of review site and personal book diary. Lourdes is Lost in Books – and likes it that way. Lilian Porter has a Bloodstained Bookshelf worth browsing. Sarah Bewley takes a Cartesian stance in “I Read, therefore I Am.” The Material Witness is serious about crime fiction – and writes wonderfully detailed reviews. Keep him in custody of your RSS feed in case you need him to testify. Kimbofo confesses to a “book addiction that is beyond cure” – and lets it all hang out at Reading Matters (which has its own handy index so you can go straight for the hard stuff.)

Many of these blogs aren’t just about mysteries – but tend to include lots of them. Spuddie keeps a running list of what she’s reading every month (a mix of mystery, fantasy, and other) – along with detailed observations. Jim Bashkin reviews lots of crime fiction at Nearly Nothing but Novels – and recently has reported on a conversation with Qiu Xiaolong in a triptych of blog posts – and in his spare time has started a Squidoo page for crime fiction. Blimey, the man never sleeps! Woodstock includes book reviews at her blog, as well as contributing them (lots of them!) to Books ‘n’ Bytes. A literary feline keeps track of what she has been reading at Musings of a Bookish Kitty – and while this cat is above the perennial cats-in-mysteries debate, she gets her claws into a wide variety of fiction. Writers read too. Take Martin Edwards, who writes about what he’s been reading at Do You Write Under Your Own Name? Petrona – “thinking and linking about books, reading, writing, publishing, and more” – has kindly assembled her reviews all in one handy place so we mystery readers can cut to the chase. And wow, these reviews are works of art in themselves.

And we mustn’t forget the BookBitch. As a librarian I’m excited she’s getting her master’s in the field right now, and studying with one of my personal heroes; why, the BookBitch may well have her very own FBI file by now. The DEA may also be watching this self-identified bookaholic. She has been not only blogging about the book world full time, she publishes a bazillion reviews by various bibliophiles at her website and even gives books away. Consider her site a gateway drug. And enjoy. books in the genes

So, there you have it. A good book recommendation is only a blog away. And these blogs prove that there are lots of fellow mystery addicts out there. You are not alone! It’s not our fault, it’s in our genes! If you could peek inside, you’d see our DNA strands are all like this – all made of itsy bitsy books joined together in twisted pairs.

There’s no such thing as too many books, or too many book blogs. If I missed some that should be here, feel free to add them in the comments.

Our next stop should earn you some frequent reader miles, as the carnival will be hosted by Bernd Kochanowski at Internationale Krimis. See you there!

photos (in order from the top) courtesy of smcgee, stevelyon, olily, brewbook, and niecieden via Flicrk’s Creative Commons pool.


wowee! – a lapse into self-absorption

April 14, 2008

Publisher’s weekly has the very first review of In the Wind in this week’s issue. They say the book is “explosive” (I hope the ATF doesn’t hear about it), that I “expertly” bring “the turbulent past into focus” and call my main character “gutsy and appealing.”

I’m so chuffed. And why is it that American English doesn’t have that extremely handy word?


Wasserman on reviewing

August 31, 2007

CJR has a substantial piece on the decline of book reviewing by Steve Wasserman, former book review editor at the LA Times. He quotes the equally-former editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer: “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of American newspapers in the 1990s is their hostility to reading in all forms.” Huh. Maybe that’s why print journalism is in trouble.

The article addresses the nonsensical but persistent idea that book coverage should be subsidized by book advertising. The former executive editor of the New York Times reportedly said: ““You can’t expect a payoff on reviewing books anymore than you can expect a payoff for covering foreign news.” (“Former” seems to be the proper form of address for newspaper editors.)

The peculiar thing is that though review space was shrinking, his newspaper was receiving around a thousand new books to review each week. Wasserman is puzzled that books are being shunted aside by newspapers now – just as they are reaching a new and huge audience.

Never before in the whole of human history has more good literature, attractively presented, sold for still reasonably low prices, been available to so many people. You would need several lifetimes over doing nothing but lying prone in a semi-darkened room with only a lamp for illumination just to make your way through the good books that are on offer.

He cites an intriguing Gallup poll figure. “In 1937, Gallup found that only 29 percent of all adults read books; in 1955, the percentage had sunk to 17 percent. Fifteen years later, in 1970, the club evidently no longer could bear to know, and Gallup stopped asking.” A recent Ipsos poll found three out of four Americans had read a book in the previous year. Naturally the scare headline was My God, a quarter of Americans don’t read books! but three out of four is higher than many previous surveys.

I’ll have to dig up that Gallup poll and see what they actually asked, since there seems to be a disconnect here. Meanwhile, if you run out of reviews to read, you can always resort to books. There seem to be plenty of those to go around.