Review: A CUT-LIKE WOUND by Anita Nair

ACutLikeWoundAnitaNair24668_fThe recommendation for this very good book came to me via the ever-reliable Mrs Peabody Investigates and the best review I could write would be “ditto”.  But we all know I’m going to be more wordy than that.

If you are the sort of reader who likes to travel vicariously through story then A CUT-LIKE WOUND is for you. Set in present-day Bangalore the book almost literally transported me across the globe. You really do get a sense of the place…the heat, the crowds, the fascinating social mix, the sometimes odd mixture of old and new. At times I was amazed at how different the world depicted is from my own then a few pages later I would be chuckling at the similarities (it seems working in government is much the same wherever you go) but I loved it all.

I also liked all the ideas and subjects the novel explores. A major component of the story is the treatment of the hijra community (transgender people and eunuchs) within Indian society and not in a token way to give the gook an exotic flavour. The subject is looked at from several perspectives and never strayed into dogmatic territory but always fascinated. In addition the novel touches on gender politics, the role of petty corruption and, though in a minor way, the impact of immigration into India.

The crime fiction element of the novel is a bit more uneven though it too has strengths. It starts in a fairly traditional manner with several murders occurring in Bangalore being identified as connected and a somewhat haphazard investigation follows. The policemen at the centre of things represent two ends of the professional investigator spectrum I suppose: the almost-fifty Borei Gowda who’s had the stuffing figuratively knocked out of him by the system and the fresh-faced sub-inspector Santosh, newly assigned to Gowda’s team and keen to learn. In the pair’s first meeting Gowda can’t help but be struck by their differences

Gowda saw the glitter of excitement in the young man’s eyes, the fervour to do good in his stance and gait, the smooth, shaven cheeks and the precision of his movements. The innocence of the uncorrupted mind; the naivety of youth. Gowda felt a pang of regret. Once, Gowda had been that young man, seeking to protect the weak and needy, aching to scourge the world of its evils. Where had it all gone?

The juxtaposition of the two perspectives carries right through the novel and is something of a highlight. The investigation struggles for a variety of reasons including jurisdictional competition and a lack of interest in the type of victims being affected. At times comparisons are made to western (i.e. American) style investigations but these are not always in the west’s favour. Where the book does fall down a little is in its resolution, particularly the reasoning provided for the string of truly horrendous crimes. It really didn’t seem plausible to me.

A CUT-LIKE WOUND offers many of my favourite things about modern crime fiction: an evocative setting, a wry sense of humour and an exploration of intriguing aspects of our modern world. The fact that neither the crimes themselves nor the ultimate reason for their occurrence are completely credible seems almost irrelevant.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Bitter Lemon Press [This edition 2014, original edition 2012]
ISBN 9781908524362
Length 361 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Posted in Anita Nair, book review, India | 1 Comment

Review: THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF by Helen Garner

ThisHouseOfGriefGarnerH25742BDR7_fI am generally too much of a coward to delve into true crime which is, of necessity, rarely neat. Although I often claim to like my crime fiction realistic that, if I’m totally honest, is only up to a point. I can live with the ambiguity of not knowing who has committed a crime but struggle when the question of why a thing was done goes unanswered. Crime fiction – the best of it anyway – is superb at teasing out reasons and in so doing provides a layer of order over the chaos. True crime is often messily unable to provide such  solutions, leaving me more troubled than I am comfortable being by choice. But I thought that if anyone could make sense – or glean some insight into the human condition – out of the seemingly stark fact of yet another bloke killing his own children it’d be Helen Garner. She of the keen, wise eye and sparse, sometimes breathtaking prose. And if 1995’s THE FIRST STONE is any indication she might offer a more balanced view than many of us could muster for in that first non-fiction work Garner attracted more than a little controversy for appearing to be ‘too soft’ on a man accused of sexual harassment. I was curious enough to see what she would make of this case – and its implied comment on gender roles in contemporary Australian society – to muster up the courage needed to read about a real crime.

THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF is, in a way, the result of Garner’s silent prayer made in September 2005

I saw it on the TV news. Night. Low foliage. Water, misty and black. Blurred lights, a chopper. Men in hi-vis and helmets. Something very bad here. Something frightful.

Oh Lord, let this be an accident.

The broad facts of that frightful thing are that on the evening of Father’s Day Robert Farquharson drove off a Victorian road into a seven-metre deep dam. He escaped. His three children drowned. Farquharson would eventually be charged and tried (twice) for three murders while he still maintains that the horror was the accidental result of him suffering a temporary blackout following a coughing fit.

Garner interviews none of the central figures in the case and  any comments offered by minor players or other observers are the result of largely incidental encounters between them and the author. So instead of the usual true crime fare the details of this case are revealed to readers almost entirely via Garner’s observations of its extensive court proceedings, with the first trial of seven weeks occupying the largest chunk of the book.

And so what THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF offers above all else is an always fascinating, often depressing view of our legal system. The overwhelming sense I came away with is that the sheer tedium of the process is almost equally as damaging to possible effectiveness as the jaw-dropping corruption or incompetence that one might find in fiction. Garner describes days and days of testimony from dueling experts about esoteric subjects – the angle at which the car came off the road, which marks on the ground prove this side’s argument or that side’s, just how tiny is the possibility of the kind of coughing episode Farquharson claims to have had. As Garner observes

Hour after hour, while the cop and counsel danced like medieval angels upon the head of a pin, I grew stupider and stupider. Surely one did not need a science degree to understand how the car had gone into the dam? I kept glancing at the older men in the jury, the ones who looked like retired tradies or maths teachers in their loose, comfortable T-shorts or plain zipper jackets. Did they too feel this thickening of the brain, this blunting and blurring of mental capacity?…What if I were one of those tired, frightened jurors, sequestered by an oath from the comfort of work and family, browbeaten by oratory, craving the release of laughter or tears? Would I be dreading the moment when this tinnitus-like racket would have to be disentangled, unpicked, coaxed into a pattern of meaning, so that we could see what was really there, weigh it up and arrive at a judgement on a fellow human being?

And a few pages later

The light went out of the jurors faces…A visible wave of resistance rolled through the jury. Their eyes dulled. Their backbones went limp. Yawns tormented them…Justice Cummins took his glasses off and scrubbed at his eyes and forehead; he clenched his jaw, rubbed his cheeks with both hands. I thought, he is sick to death of this, and so is the jury.

It seems preposterous when viewed from this angle that the best we can come up with to determine a person’s guilt or innocence is to have 12 average people wade through such gibberish. Though the way Garner depicts it such expert testimony is virtually irrelevant and we are left with the feeling that justice boils down to how good a judge of character each jury member is.

The other element of the book that stands out is how well Garner describes her own process of determining Farquharson’s guilt or innocence. She is at the outset undecided, or perhaps a better description is that she is unwilling to commit to the belief that most of us (myself included) probably came to in a matter of moments after hearing the news. That he is another one of those men and that Jai, Tyler and Bailey Farquharson are three more souls lost to some saddo’s twisted desire for revenge. So she looks, actively for opportunities to believe otherwise. Until such opportunities are exhausted. And then she addresses the question of whether loving someone can coexist with believing in their guilt. Ay, there’s the rub.

Although it teases out explanations for Farquharson’s actions THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF does not pretend to speak to the broader social issue of this category of crime. This fact has made some readers cross but, even though it was partly what I was looking for going in, I’m not one of them. If I only judge the book that was written rather than the one I wanted to read  then it is outstanding. As a glimpse into the modern justice system the book left me with more questions than answers. Is it enough that courtrooms provide a stage on which character can be demonstrated and subsequently judged? And if not…what else is there? As a portrait of one man who has committed an unspeakable act the book is remarkable. Because in its very measured, quiet way it shows us the saddest fact of all: that Farquharson isn’t a monster whose history of abuse and violent behaviour could have predicted his actions if only the right people had been watching. He’s just a bloke. A saddo who never quite grew up.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

AWW2016This is the third book I’ve read and reviewed for the fifth Australian Women Writers Challenge. For more information about the challange check out my challenge progress, sign up yourself or browse the Challenge’s database of reviews.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Text Publishing [2014]
ISBN 9781922079206
Length 300 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Posted in Australia, book review, Helen Garner (Aus) | Tagged | 13 Comments

Books of the month: January 2016

Pick of the month

TheJumpJohnstoneI was a bit out of touch for the last half of last year so I relied on the end of year roundups from fellow book bloggers to re-populate my reading wishlist. One such recommendation came from Raven’s Top 5 Books of the Year and, in its turn it has become my first contender for favourite read of 2016. Doug Johnstone’s THE JUMP is unforgettable and understated and its story takes unexpected turns. I adored it and its unlikely, grief-stricken heroine Ellie.

I was lucky enough to have some other terrific reading during the month and can recommend any of the below books that are marked with an asterisk.

The rest, in reading order 

Progress Towards 2016’s Bookish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read 25 eligible books, review at least 20 of them  Read and reviewed 2 books
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US  1/6 achieved
Personal – Reduce TBR Have a TBR of 100 or less by the end of 2016 (starting point 145)  TBR = 144 at end of month
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores  So far so good
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly Crimes of the Century challenges hosted at Past Offences  1/6 achieved

I’m pleased with my start to the year from this bookish perspective as most challenges are on track. Though I’d like to have reduced that TBR a bit more. In my defence I read 8 books that I owned prior to the start of this year…but I also added some new books thanks to holiday book vouchers and did read several library books (these of course are never counted in my TBR so reading them does nothing to reduce my mountain).

Looking ahead

February started with a week of exhausting gastro bug and no reading (honestly all I did for 5 days was feel sorry for myself and doze through endless episodes of Lewis and Endeavour via a local streaming service) but I’m feeling better now. A big haul of library books includes Helen Garner’s THIS HOUSE OF GRIEF – my first true crime read in many years – and a new book by Antti Tuomainen, whose last novel, THE HEALER, was a favourite read of 2013

What about you? Has your year’s reading gotten off to a good start? Anything in particular taken your fancy? Is there a new release due out that you’re especially looking forward to?

Posted in books of the month, Dana Stabenow, Ellery Adams, Emma Viskic (Aus), Kati Hiekkapelto, Leslie O'Kane | 4 Comments

Review: THE JUMP by Doug Johnstone

TheJumpJohnstoneTHE JUMP is not the kind of book you should start when you only have a few reading minutes at hand. Once begun you’ll want need to finish it quickly.

It is the story of Ellie Napier and how she copes, or doesn’t, following the suicide of her teenage son Logan. The book is a portrait of a woman in grief, trying a seemingly random selection of behaviours to get from one day to the next. Or one moment to the next when a day seems too impossible a span of time to contemplate. She gets tattoos. She walks or swims to exhaustion. She compulsively checks her dead son’s Facebook page. She watches the grainy security camera footage of his final moments. She haunts the bridge from which he jumped. One day she sees another teenager preparing to jump from the same bridge. She intervenes. Having blamed herself for her son’s death Ellie feels like this is a second chance. At least that’s the only vaguely sensible explanation for the extraordinary things she subsequently does (though it would only be a heard-hearted reader who could blame her for any of it).

Vincent van Gogh’s At Eternity’s Gate has always been my favourite painting of grief (and please let’s not be sidetracked whether it is what the artist intended the subject to depict, it’s what I have always seen). THE JUMP has exactly the same sensibility for me; somehow feeling more like a painting than a book. Perhaps because it provides such evocative imagery, especially of the massive bridge that looms over the surrounding area, almost inviting people to leap from it. Also, like the painting, though it is unquestionably sad THE JUMP manages to avoid being miserable (there is such a gulf between sadness and misery yet so many writers seem to think the two are indistinguishable). And, before you worry, it’s not one of those frighteningly troublesome ‘let’s all find the joy in sadness together’ stories either. It’s just…honest.

I think I liked THE JUMP for what it isn’t almost as much as for what it is. It isn’t wordy. By today’s standards it’s positively and deliciously brief. It isn’t in your face either. In a way every one of its relatively few words is saying to readers how truly awful a thing suicide is but there’s no proselytising nor any demeaning of the dead and the choices they make. We are simply shown the havoc such an act wreaks on those left behind. Ellie’s husband Ben is equally as bereft as his wife, though his wretchedness is released differently. In any other context his his clinging to conspiracy theories about water quality and other environmental factors to explain suicides might be comical. Here it is just sad and, again, very realistic. I can’t be only reader who wanted to wrap them both in a great big hug.

If you’re wondering (given my usual reading fare), there are several crimes in this book. And in their way they are pivotal. But in another sense they don’t matter at all. And either way I’m saying nothing more about them because I want you to discover all the surprises this book has to offer just as I did. As if unforgettable characters and a haunting setting weren’t enough THE JUMP offers a truly unexpected storyline. I wonder if I’ve already read my favourite book of the year?

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I must thank Raven Crime Reads for the recommendation to read this beautiful, beautiful book.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Publisher Faber and Faber [2015]
ISBN 9780571321575
Length 268 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Posted in book review, Doug Johnstone, Scotland | 10 Comments

Review: THE FIFTH GOSPEL by Ian Caldwell

TheFifthGospelCaldwellFrontI feel the need to start this review with a caveat. I’m carrying the seemingly requisite load of baggage that comes with having been raised a Catholic and subsequently parting ways with that faith. I presume this fact makes me more inclined to devour stories about the machinations of the Catholic church and arcane issues of religious dogma than someone without all that baggage so if you are not quite so weighed down you may not be as enamoured of THE FIFTH GOSPEL as I am. That said, I think there are lots of things to enjoy about the book even if reading it does not bring with it a flood of memories and half-buried emotions.

Although many reviews make mention of the fact that THE FIFTH GOSPEL covers something of the same subject matter as Dan Brown’s THE DA VINCI  CODE I don’t agree. To me they have as much in common as a McDonalds happy meal has with dinner served in a restaurant awarded 3 Michelin stars. Caldwell’s novel is a thoughtful and thought provoking tale exploring, among other subjects, brotherhood, faith and redemption (I’ll have a little more to say about the other book later).

Simon and Alex Andreou are both Catholic priests but while Simon is part of the more well-known Roman Catholic tradition Alex, like their father, is an Eastern Catholic. This book is set during the final days of the reign of Pope John Paul II and depicts a leader desperate to reunite the two churches which split during the mid 11th century. Simon and Alex’s father (Eastern Catholic priests are allowed to be married prior to their ordination) had tried to bring about the reunification prior to his death and both his sons are keen to carry on his work. First Simon then Alex become involved with the work of Ugo Nogara, curator of a major Vatican museum exhibition. Nogara discovers a document which appears to be a fifth gospel but even more explosive than the document’s very existence is what it might reveal about one of Catholicism’s holiest of relics and the schism between the two arms of Catholicism. Nogara is murdered a week before the exhibit is due to open, the newly discovered gospel disappears and Simon comes under suspicion of the murder.

The plot which follows is complex and, for me at least, completely captivating as it teases out church history as well as depicting the modern Catholic church and all of its political machinations. Somewhat paradoxically for someone whose faith has lapsed I liked that the book does not show the religion as all bad. Or all good. Rather it is shown as a complicated, almost living beast made of people who do bad – and good – things. Caldwell does a particularly good job of exploring the difficulties involved in effecting change inside such an institution. Even if you are an all-powerful Pope it’s not a foregone conclusion that you’ll get your own way.

There are lots of fascinating characters here but Alex is the heart of the book and very engaging. He is bringing up his young son Peter alone since his wife abandoned them soon after Peter’s birth. As the troubling events of the novel unfurl Alex has to juggle his efforts to uncover the truth about the murder, and thereby clear his brother’s name, with his desire to keep Peter safe from the powerful forces within the Church hierarchy who would rather the truth of Nogara’s findings and murder remain a mystery. He endures a lot of physical and mental strain and Caldwell makes the reader feel like we are right there beside him all the way as his faith in himself, his church and his brother are all tested.

I must thank fellow blogger Belle of Ms Bookish for pointing me towards this book which I thoroughly enjoyed and can see myself returning to in the future. If you are looking for a Dan Brown-style, rapid paced thriller full of exposition and nonsense this is not the book for you. But if you fancy a book that reveals its many secrets at a more considered pace, that offers some genuinely fascinating insights into the history of Catholicism and the way in which the church operates today and that introduces you to some unforgettable people then I recommend THE FIFTH GOSPEL.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Simon & Schuster [2015]
ISBN 9781471111037
Length 431 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone

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Posted in book review, Ian Caldwell, Italy | 12 Comments

Book vs Adaptation: RESTLESS by William Boyd

The book

RestlessBoydAudioThere are quite a lot of, to me, bafflingly breathtaking reviews of 2006′ RESTLESS floating around the web. This won’t be one of those.

It reminded me of a favourite Monty Python sketch. Alas not the dramatic one in which a valiant Knight loses all his limbs but fights on claiming “it’s only a flesh wound“.  Rather the one which starts with Michael Palin doing a voice overJune the 4th, 1973, was much like any other summer’s day in Peterborough, and Ralph Melish, a file clerk at an insurance company, was on his way to work as usual when… (da dum!) Nothing happened!” The sketch only goes for 2 minutes. RESTLESS clocks in at 10 hours, 21 minutes in audio format but is almost as equally devoid of drama as the Python sketch. If it hadn’t been for the quite delightful Rosamund Pike narration keeping me company while I did housework I don’t imagine I’d have bothered to finish.

The elevator pitch for the book is a good one. Not surprisingly. I presume that’s what sold it to Boyd’s publishers. It tells the story of Eva Delectorskaya; a Russian born woman who was recruited to work as a British spy in the lead-up to and during WWII. Her main work was in releasing various forms of propaganda, most notably of the kind designed to entice the US to enter the war. We learn of this story as it is told – in written form – to Eva’s adult daughter Ruth in 1976. Prior to reading the story Ruth knew her mother as Sally Gilmartin, the slightly eccentric widow of an Irish-born lawyer. Ruth’s present day as a single mother, world’s laziest PhD student and English language tutor unfolds in an intertwining fashion with her mother’s story.

I’ll deal with the easiest to explain problem first. Ruth’s story is mostly unnecessary. I have reason to believe Boyd agrees with me given his screenplay for the adaptation (see below) and I just wish his editors had done the same when it comes to the book. Even the actual drama that befalls her – the discovery that her mother is an entirely different person from the one she thought she knew – manages to get lost amidst the endless, pointless details of Ruth’s life of teaching lessons, unwelcome house guests and enough events to prove the author had done some research about life in 1976. Ironically there is a running gag that Ruth spends a lot of time reading about the goings-on of a very dull family in the books she uses with her language students and I couldn’t help but think that Ruth’s own story was providing equally dull fodder. As a character Ruth does not seem realistic. Her reactions to everything – her mother’s revelations, the discovery the her son’s uncle is a porn actor or learning there is no milk for tea – are all about the same. The small role she plays in the final act of her mother’s life of spying (Sally determines that her old lover must be sought out and questioned) is necessary to the novel’s overall narrative purpose but the rest is…filler.

Eva (or Sally’s) story should have been more interesting. Her brother dies horribly (this is the event that prompts her recruitment to the security services), she attends spy school in Scotland, goes to Belgium and then the US as an active spy enduring a couple of genuinely scary incidents and embarks on a love affair with her mysterious boss. For reasons I still can’t really explain however none of this is actually interesting in the telling. It somehow comes off as just a list of events rather than a look into a person’s life…reading more like a dull history text than a dramatic novel. Neither Eva nor Lucas (her spy master and lover) engaged me any more than Ruth and I simply didn’t care what happened to any of them.

In a short author interview at the end of the audio edition of the novel William Boyd claims that he wanted to explore the notion of whether or not a spy could ever fully leave their life behind them. Would they, he was apparently trying to ponder, always be restless after their life of tension? I think that would have been a great theme to explore I just don’t think this book did so. We learn almost nothing of Eva’s life between 1942 and 1976 except that she managed to give no hint to either her husband or only child of her ‘other life’ during those decades so it seems she did manage to forget – or at least – ignore that part of her life very well. She rekindles her spy craft quickly enough when she senses trouble in her present day but I didn’t get any feeling at all that she’d been hankering, restlessly, for a return to this life during all the years of abstinence. There’s a very brief exposure of the kind of restlessness I imagine Boyd was thinking of at the end but it’s not enough to account for the lack of it until that point.

The adaptation

RestlessDVDWilliam Boyd is credited as the sole screenwriter for the 2-part TV miniseries that aired first in the UK in 2012. Perhaps his choice not to include much of Ruth’s story was based only on having less time available to tell his story but I have to wonder whether he also realised what a mistake it had been to include so much of it in the original tale. Of course it’s much more likely that’s just me projecting. Whatever the reason, the adaptation has a better narrative arc because of it. Without the tedium of Ruth’s dull days it is easier to focus on the genuine drama of Eva’s career as a spy and its complicated, tension-packed resolution. The adaptation does follow this part of the story very closely, though there is one significant departure that still makes no sense to me.

The cast is a good one. Hayley Atwell and Charlotte Rampling share the role of Eva and between bring as much life as possible into the somewhat dry character. Rampling is particularly enjoyable but then she always is. Lady Mary Michelle Dockery does a decent job with the much-reduced role of Ruth. At least she depicts realistic reactions to the things she learns about her mother. Rufus Sewell is very good as Lucas Romer, injecting just the right tone to make viewers wonder what secrets he is hiding.

The adaptation looks great too, with wonderful costumes and authentic looking settings. But even with all of this it still feels like a story that is being told third or fourth hand rather than someone’s direct experience of dramatic events. Which is basically the same problem as the book has. Somehow in neither incarnation did Boyd make it seem like his audience was seeing things unfold from the privileged viewpoint we should have had. Rather it’s like we are reading or watching news from a distance, so that any chance of us feeling emotionally connected is well and truly removed.

The winner?

I wouldn’t recommend RESTLESS in either format but if you do feel the need to indulge I’d skip the book and go straight to the adaptation. You get the best bits of the story and a little more drama than the book manages to provide. But in either incarnation I think RESTLESS is a bit of a damp squib: lots of promise in the premise but it ultimately fails to deliver.

Have you read the book and/or seen the adaptation? Agree or disagree with me? Have I missed something vital?

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Posted in book vs adaptation, International, William Boyd | 6 Comments

Review: A COLD DAY FOR MURDER by Dana Stabenow

AColdDayForMurderMy ninth stop on a languid virtual journey around the US via its fiction took me to a place about as physically different from my own home as it’s possible to get. Given that my prior knowledge of Alaska is gleaned almost entirely from a love of Northern Exposure and reading a lone Stan Jones book I doubt I’m qualified to judge its authenticity, but A COLD DAY FOR MURDER felt genuine to me.

The setting was certainly a welcome respite from a harsh Australian summer and its depiction is one of the standout features of the book. Stabenow lets us know immediately where we are with her introductory passages

The rending, tearing noise of the snow machine’s engine echoed across the landscape and affronted the arctic peace of that December day. It startled a moose stripping the bark from a stand of spindly birches. It sent a beaver back into her den in a swift-running stream. it woke a bald eagle roosting in the top of a spruce, causing him to glare down on the two men with malevolent eyes. The sky was of that crystal clarity that comes only to lands of the far north in winter, light translucent, wanting cloud and color.

Such vivid descriptions are supplemented by several maps (which I always appreciate) so that readers are easily able to imagine the protagonist’s isolated and practical home base and both the town and national park in which the book’s action is centered.

The other element of the novel I found captivating was Kate Shugak. For even though strong female characters are easier to locate in my reading now than they might have been when she first came into being two decades ago there is still something very appealing about the character of Kate. She’s an Aleut Indian who grew up in a small community, moved to Anchorage for study and work then returned to her roots to live on her own after a traumatic event. Most of the time keeps her emotions deeply buried and gets on with being a competent, self-sufficient woman. But occasionally she can’t prevent them bubbling to the surface; as if they are being physically wrenched from inside her. It is these moments that lets readers build a picture of what life is like living in Kate’s skin. With Kate’s memories. And Kate’s anger.

A COLD DAY FOR MURDER is the first of what is now 20 novels in which Kate appears and it’s not difficult to see why it attracted attention, including winning an Edgar Award for best paperback original. Its plot is simple enough – Kate is an ex DA’s investigator but is asked here by her old boss Jack to help investigate two disappearances. A park ranger, who just happens to be the son of a prominent politician, went missing 6 weeks previously and the investigator Jack sent looking for him 4 weeks later also seems to have vanished without a trace. Both men were known to have been in Niniltna, a town Kate knows intimately as many members of her family still live there. Kate is reluctant to become involved but does so, rationalising it with this way when waking from a 3am nightmare

The hauntings would continue no matter what she did, she knew that already. But for a time, perhaps, the ghosts would take on a different shape, mouth different words, stare accusingly for different reasons. It was enough.

Although there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with it, the plot is the weakest element of this very good book. It is at times a bit repetitive and there is a layer of complexity missing but this is largely irrelevant because this is a book about character and place. Both leap off the page.  Kate is not the only one with a long memory and demons to wrestle and the different ways this notion plays out make for gripping reading. As does the book’s exploration of Native American politics as they apply to Alaska in general and Kate’s extended family in particular. Her battle with her grandmother over this issue is fascinating.

It is always daunting to realise you’ve really enjoyed a book which now has many, many series companions and I don’t know that I’ll read every one of Kate Shugak’s adventures subsequent to this one but I am sure I will visit with her again. I found the central character and her world intriguing and can’t imagine too many readers wouldn’t be equally engaged.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the ninth book I’ve read that I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge for which I’ll read a total of 51 books, one set in each of the USA (and one for the District of Columbia). My personal twist is that all the books are by new (to me) authors.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Gere Donovan Press [this edition 2011, original edition 1992]
ISBN 9780425133019
Length 212 pages
Format eBook (kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Kate Shugak series

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Posted in book review, Dana Stabenow, USA | 7 Comments

Review: SMALLBONE DECEASED by Michael Gilbert

SmallboneDeceasedGilbertAudioSomehow I had managed to never hear of Michael Gilbert until I downloaded copies of both the Mystery Writers of America and UK Crime Writers Association top 100 crime novels lists last year. SMALLBONE DECEASED is on both lists and I can see why. It is quite delicious, especially in the audio version delightfully narrated by Michael McStay.

On one level the book is ‘just another’ puzzle that could be difficult to distinguish from a thousand other whodunnits. But what set it apart for me was its black humour and astute observations of human behaviour. And although it takes place 65 years ago, and bears some hallmarks of its vintage, it has a timeless quality that many other ‘classics’ fail to achieve. Although some specific details are wedded to its time and place, references to everyone’s wartime service for example, the relationships and office politics depicted were easily recognisable to me. And that puzzle is fiendishly well constructed too.

The novel opens at a staff dinner of the law firm of Horniman, Birley and Craine. Henry Bohun is a newly qualified, just hired lawyer who provides a handy point of exposition for both writer and reader. Through him we meet all the key players for events which follow and most, but not all, of the action unfolds from his perspective. The most dramatic of these events is the discovery of the body of Marcus Smallbone, a trustee for one of the firm’s trust accounts, which has been crammed into a tightly sealed Deed Box for some weeks. Restrained mayhem ensues.

Because he is too new to the firm to be a suspect, and because the police Inspector assigned to the case knows of him (and his odd ‘condition’ about which I shall say no more) Henry is allowed, encouraged even, to participate actively in the investigation and he’s an enjoyable character to travel with. He’s clever, interested and witty and his physical quirk adds a nice point of whimsy (I wonder if it’s a real thing, I deliberately haven’t googled it because, honestly, that does rather take the fun out of wondering).

I didn’t confirm it until after I’d finished the book but I was not surprised to learn Gilbert was a lawyer. The details of life in the office and the various tricks that people in that profession could, at least theoretically, get up too seemed all along to be coming from the mind of someone with direct experience of that life. I couldn’t help but ponder which of his own clients he’d stuffed into a Deed Box by proxy.

As someone who has spent a good portion of her working life organising people and their business I was quite thrilled to come across a book in which this usually ignored activity takes centre stage (the firm’s business is organised according to the Horniman system, named after the founding partner and playing a key role in the crime). But I don’t think you need my particular insight to enjoy this terrific novel. For once I agree with the list-makers, SMALLBONE DECEASED is a fabulous example of the classic detective novel: a plot full of surprises and red herrings, sharp-witted investigators and a satisfying resolution.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Michael Mcstay
Publisher Audible [this edition 2009, original edition 1950]
ASIN B0036G93RG
Length 6 hours 53 minutes
Format audio (mp3)

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Posted in book review, Crimes of the Century, England, Michael Gilbert | Tagged | 14 Comments

Review: MURDER IN THE MYSTERY SUITE by Ellery Adams

MurderInTheMysterySuite24400_fTo spoil, or not to spoil, that is the question.

Actually for me it’s not much of a question because I can’t bring myself to do so but I will say that something dramatic happens about 90 odd pages into this book that, if I’d known about it in advance, might have prevented me from reading it. Which would have been a shame as it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp. If you’re similarly interested in a bit of a surprise then I advise caution when reading other reviews. I tackled this book with no prior knowledge other than having read several of the author’s books in another series but have now had a look at several reviews and most of them give away things you’re far better off not knowing before it’s time. I will admit though that not mentioning this particular event and its subsequent implications does make discussing the book’s plot somewhat challenging. So I’m hardly going to discuss it at all.

Aside from enjoying Ellery Adams’ other work, what prompted me to pick this book up is its setting: a resort for book lovers. As someone who likes to read ‘in the wild’ so to speak (i.e. away from home) the notion of a place set aside for – indeed designed especially for – people who read was too good to pass up. I immediately imagined what it might be like. No piped music. No TV bolted to the wall blaring some sporting event or what passes for news these days. No filling in the blanks as you’re forced to eavesdrop on the shouted, one-sided conversation of the idiot on an iPhone at the next cafe table. No one assuming you’re ‘doing nothing’ because you’re sitting in a comfy chair with a book so they start a conversation about their bunions or some other inane topic of no interest to anyone but themselves. I have grown weary enough of my increasingly elusive search for a quiet place to read other than my own lounge room that I was eager to escape into a fictional version of my quest.

The book did not disappoint. It is set in Storyton Hall, the ancestral home of the Steward Family that has been re-purposed as a retreat for book lovers. Adams makes it delightful. Rooms full of books. Rules that require guests restrict use of their electronic gadgets to their rooms. Plenty of places to sit, relax, absorb, be. Alone or with others. Activities to participate in if desired. No pressure to do so if not. Enough nearby shops to cater to one’s immediate needs but no characterless shopping malls within shouting distance. I’d book a room in a heartbeat if this was not a fictional location.

Jane Steward, widow and mum to twin six year old boys, has taken over as the resort’s manager. As a way to attract more business she decides to host a themed week of events for mystery lovers but, as you might expect, not all the murder and mayhem that follows is scripted.

Unlike in most cosy novels, this book’s amateur sleuth does not tackle investigations on her own. In fact she is replete with helpers in the form of family, faithful servants and staff and the members of her book club (the charmingly named Cover Girls). Even her sons get in on the act. Together and individually this is an engaging cast of characters. I think my favourite is Jane’s Aunt Octavia: devoted wife, obstinately unhealthy, fiendishly clever octogenarian.

MURDER IN THE MYSTERY SUITE reads like an Enid Blyton book for grown-ups. It has all the fun, daring and friendships of a Famous Five novel with adultier additions like cocktails, a dash of romance and serious motives for criminal undertakings. It is, of course, entirely absurd but once you have suspended your disbelief there is an undeniable internal logic to events and it’s easy to get carried away with the adventure of it all.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Berkley Prime Crime [2014]
ISBN 9780425265598
Length 277 pages
Format Paperback
Book Series #1 in the Book Retreat Mystery series

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Posted in book review, Ellery Adams, USA | 6 Comments

Review: DEATH COMES eCALLING by Leslie O’Kane

DeathComeseCallingoKaneDEATH COMES eCALLING is one of those books that makes me wonder about the viability of publishing. That’s not a comment on its content but rather the way I acquired it. Free. Via Amazon. Of course. I used to follow a twitter account that promoted free books for Kindle and would generally download any crime fiction titles that found their way on to the list. Because free. I’ve stopped following the account. I realised I’d downloaded dozens of titles yet rarely been tempted enough to read any of them. And even though I understand the principle – that by giving away one book the author or publisher is hoping to entice readers to buy additional titles – I don’t see a lot of evidence of it that in practice. A lot of people just like free stuff. And I can’t help it…reading these freebies makes me feel vaguely dirty in a way that reading a library book never has. This year I’m making a concerted effort to work my way through these freebies. Read ’em or delete ’em is my new motto.

The book is squarely at the cosy end of the spectrum. Its amateur sleuth is Molly Masters. Molly returns to her home town in New York with her two young children while her husband is posted overseas for work. Soon after arriving an old teacher writes asking her to visit but before Molly can do so the woman is found dead. And Molly starts receiving electronic threats. She is soon embroiled in trying to work out who wants her gone and whether or not the same person murdered her old teacher.

Molly makes her living as a creator of eCards which is the first thing about this book I found a bit difficult to swallow. Like many aspects of the book it is almost believable but not quite there. Surely someone with cartooning skills would be branching out a bit beyond just doing cards? There are other plot contrivances in which the internet seems like a brand new discovery which are plain awkward for a book released in 2013 but make more sense when you know that this book is a re-write of a title originally released in 1996 as DEATH AND FAXES. I remain unconvinced that this kind of updating is what publishing needs but I guess I’m not trying to make a living as a writer so I shouldn’t judge too harshly. Still, it didn’t feel entirely complete (one of Molly’s clients asks for her to design something to help them sell fax machines for pity’s sake and she seems never to have heard of Dropbox for example). The overall plot held together well enough though I thought the culprit fairly easy to spot.

For cosy mysteries to work – for me anyway – the characters have to engage and that didn’t quite happen here. Molly is likable enough as the main protagonist – and I enjoyed the humour injected into her personality via the descriptions of the cartoons she designed – but the rest of the cast are entirely forgettable. To the point that it’s only 3 days after I finished the book now and I’d have to open it to remind myself of any of their names. There’s the best friend next door. The high school arch nemesis. The good but boring guy who’s become the local copper. Collectively I suppose they show some insight into the juxtaposition of our teenage and adult selves but I have to admit I am not a big one for that kind of reminiscing so perhaps I am not the target market for a story with that focus.

In short, the book was good enough to keep me reading to the end but not good enough to prompt me to search out later titles. Which means the free experiment failed, at least in my case.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher O’Kane Inc [not sure of the date of the re-write, c. 2013]
ASIN B00PFDP7XC
Length 232 pages
Format eBook (Kindle)
Book Series #1 in the Molly Masters series

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Posted in book review, Leslie O'Kane, USA | 3 Comments