Book vs Adaptation: Secret Smile by Nicci French

I borrowed this book from my library because I had picked up a copy of the DVD in a bargain bin somewhere (curious to see a pre Doctor Who David Tennant in action) and noticed that it was based on a book.

The book

SecretSmileNicciFrench23205_fAlthough they have recently been concentrating on a series featuring a psychotherapist, the husband and wife writing team known as Nicci French are perhaps best known for their standalone novels of psychological suspense and THE SECRET SMILE was their seventh such release in 2003.

It tells the story of twenty-something Miranda Cotton. While ice-skating one afternoon she meets Brendan Block and the two start seeing each other. But only a couple of weeks into their fledgling relationship Miranda comes home from work one day to find him in her flat. She is unhappy (she hadn’t given him a key) and when she sees him reading her private diary (which he would have had to search for) she breaks off the relationship. Two weeks later her sister invites her out for dinner. Kerry has news. Kerry is in love and wants Miranda to be happy for her. Kerry hopes Miranda will be able to deal with the fact her sister’s new love is Brendan. Brendan quickly makes it clear to Miranda that he is playing some kind of twisted game but to everyone else he is the very definition of charm and no one can understand why Miranda begins behaving oddly and trying to turn people against the delightful Brendan.

For this type of novel to work best the reader has to be invested in the characters to whom awful things are happening. At least enough to want the bad things to stop happening and the nasty person to get their comeuppance. In this case for most of the book I didn’t really care if Brendan managed to turn Miranda into a jibbering basket case. Or worse. That I found Miranda irritating and many of her actions plain stupid wasn’t the biggest issue. The thing that impacted me most was that I never quite believed the entire premise. Don’t get me wrong – I know there are evil bastards like Brendan out there. But Miranda’s family were too quick to side with him. Every member of her family (and her best friend too) took Brendan’s word over Miranda’s from the get go. “Really?” I kept thinking. We’ve had some arguments over they years but I’m confident my brother would still take my word against that of a complete stranger in any scenario I can imagine. As I would his. Even if that stranger was uncommonly charismatic. I suppose the book was trying to create a sense of Miranda against the world but, for me at least, this had the opposite effect of ratcheting up the tension. For this story to work better for me Miranda would have to have been more naturally isolated at the outset, i.e. if she’d never had anyone to turn to for support, or have at least one member of her circle on her side. I think Brendan’s evilness could have continued virtually unchecked in such a scenario but Miranda’s circumstances would have had more ‘truthiness’.

I guess my other issue is that I realised early on that I knew what was going to happen for the whole book. Of course there were individual “bad stuff happens” incidents that I couldn’t have guessed at but the story arc is a very simple one and there were only two possible outcomes. Perhaps if the characters had engaged me more this wouldn’t have been as much of a problem but as it was I really was a bit bored and felt the story dragged. If I were going to recommend a suspense novel with this kind of theme I’d nominate Elizabeth Haynes’ INTO THE DARKEST CORNER instead.

The adaptation

SecretSmile200550685_fA two part TV series which aired first in the UK in 2005 falls into the faithful adaptation camp. A few minor details are altered for reasons known only to producers (though I always assume snobbery is involved when a character is given a more prestigious profession for no reason as Miranda is when she changes from the house painter she is in the book to the architect she is in the film) and the ending is taken to an extra extreme but no one who has read the book would have any trouble recognising the entire story. Which is a blessing or a curse I suppose depending on whether you liked the book or not.

For me the same problems as I had with the book carry over (Miranda is still unlikable and stupid but it is still odd that everyone she knows is prepared to disbelieve her) although because the film is of necessity shorter it does feel more tense than the book. The bad stuff just keeps happening without you having to wait impatiently for Miranda to whine for a couple of pages (there’s a lot to be said for a quick visual shot of a girl lying in bed with her hair unwashed to represent angst).

David Tennant gives a nicely understated performance as Brendan. I imagine it would have been easy to go over the top but he really does pull of the apparently-nice-guy-who-occasionally-lets-his-evil-twin-face-be-seen-by-others. Very Creepy. Kate Ashfield (who I only know from SHAUN OF THE DEAD) does as good a job as possible with the one-dimensional character of Miranda. The remaining characterisations are about what I’d expect.

The adaptation actually makes a better first of the final act of the story. Once Brendan has shown his true nature to Miranda’s family there is at least some evidence of them re-thinking his earlier behaviour and there is some much-needed dramatic tension. I’m not sure about the far-fetched resolution though but can’t say more without spoiling it (as many of the IMDB reviews do so read those at your peril)..

The winner?

I’m a bit meh about the whole thing really but if pressed I’d nominate the adaptation as the winner. The story being much the same it is at least shorter than the book (without losing anything at all) and there’s David Tennant to watch :) So this is one of the few occasions I’d say don’t bother with the book at all and don’t go out of your way to see the adaptation but if you happen to notice it on the tele one night and there’s nothing else…

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

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Review: CONCRETE ANGEL by Patricia Abbott

ConcreteAngelAbbottGiven I am an avid reader of her mostly but not entirely crime-fiction themed blog I feel a bit guilty that I haven’t read Patricia Abbott’s own fiction before. But the short story form for which she is so well known just doesn’t grab me (I buy collections of them, I’m just never tempted to actually read them). Paradoxically I love a short novel so CONCRETE ANGEL, which clocks in at just over 250 pages, sounded perfect. Its unsettling contents more than lived up to expectations.

Although there are a lot of crimes depicted in CONCRETE ANGEL they are not the heart of the matter. No one is really interested in solving any of them, not even the murder with which the book opens. People are interested in covering them up though. In pretending they haven’t happened. Although for the perpetrator of most of the crimes – Eve Moran – this is all just part of the way she builds a story of her life that is the way she wants it rather than the way it is. Eve is a ‘never let the facts get in the way of a good yarn’ kind of gal. Those who are under the influence of whatever charms Eve possesses willingly play their part in such coverups. And even when they’ve grown tired of her manipulations a combination of lingering entanglement and desire for self preservation means Eve is rarely without assistance when it is most needed.

The story starts in Philadelphia in the 1970’s. Eve shoots dead a man she brought home to the apartment she shares with her twelve year old daughter Christine. Within a few hours Christine has confessed to the shooting and accepted the mantle of child who kills and all that goes with it (though the ‘all’ is a lot milder than you might imagine). Before long Eve’s ‘memory’ is of the made up version of events rather than the reality and that pattern is repeated throughout the novel as we learn about Eve’s life both before and after this particular night.

Eve was born just before the start of the second world war, described in Abbott’s imaginative prose as “descending on [her parents’] simple Lutheran lives in 1938 like a tsunami”. The reader gets the sense that Eve’s traits – her wilfulness, her narcissism and the almost primal need to acquire things – are not entirely the result of her strict upbringing. Even when things are going well for her – such as when she marries a soldier from a local well-to-do family – she can’t control her impulses. Or perhaps it is better to say she won’t control them. Why should she? Eve is hardly a likeable character but she certainly is compelling.

I grew up at roughly the same time as Christine so the book’s period setting should feel vaguely familiar to me but it doesn’t. I don’t mean it doesn’t seem realistic, just not something that I recognise. I suspect it’s the gun thing. They are normalised in America in a way that still has the capacity to astound me. The fact that CONCRETE ANGEL opens with a scene in which a woman shoots a man six times with a weapon provided by her ex-husband ‘just in case’ she ever needs protection and that no one ever queries this puts the book into foreign territory for me in a way that something set in the remotest part of Iceland probably wouldn’t do.

CONCRETE ANGEL is a slow-burn of a read that delves deep into the darker side of human psychology. Though not full of twists in the traditional sense for crime fiction there is genuine suspense in seeing the relationship between Eve and her daughter develop.  I can’t be the only reader who spent a good portion of the book very, very worried for the child who desperately needed someone in her corner.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Polis Books [this edition 2015]
ISBN 9781940610443
Length 261 pages
Format eBook (ePub)
Book Series standalone

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Review: THE UNQUIET DEAD by Ausma Zehanat Khan

TheUnquietDeadAusmaZehan23526_fAs someone who makes extensive use of her local library’s holds system I’m often in the situation of embarking on a book about which I know nothing. If it’s not by an author I already know, I’ve generally put the book on hold thanks to a review by someone I trust (in this case the excellent Euro Crime) but because it can take months for the book to become available (in this case four) I’ve usually forgotten what prompted me to place the hold by the time I get that delightful message telling me there’s (another) book for me to collect. And I don’t read blurbs anymore. Which is how it came to be that I sat down last Sunday morning to dip my toes into a few pages of THE UNQUIET DEAD before attacking my household chores and was so immediately enthralled that I forgot to stop reading until the very end.

Esa Khattak is in charge of a new Toronto-based unit called the Community Policing Section or CPS. Its purpose is somewhat vague although it was established after a bungled terrorism case that has cost the federal government millions in compensation because they targeted an innocent man. The choice of Khattak, a second-generation Canadian Muslim with experience in both homicide investigation and counter-intelligence work, is deliberate. As this book opens he is asked by an old friend to look into the recent death of a man called Christopher Drayton. At first glance the apparent accidental death via a clifftop fall wouldn’t seem to require the particular skills of the CPS but a friend of Khattak’s at the Department of Justice is worried that Drayton might not have been who he claimed to be. He might just have been one of the nastiest war criminals of the horrendous three-year long campaign of death and destruction that culminated in Srebrenicia massacre of 1995.

The characters are a strength of this novel. Khattak is assisted in his investigations by Rachel Getty. She is younger and less experienced than Khattak and there is some trouble in her working past but Khattak deliberately sought her out for his unit. The pair are compelling as an investigative team and as individual characters. The investigation requires Khattak to reconnect with a childhood friend – a well-known writer – with whom he has fallen out. And Rachel has her own worries stemming from her family life that includes an abusive father and a missing sibling. But they work through these personal difficulties. Or around them if necessary. To get to the truth. The case introduces Esa and Rachel to a small group of Drayton’s friends and acquaintances, some of whom have secrets as devastating in their way as Drayton’s own. Everyone is someone that needs close observation and it is a pleasure to see the way their hidden layers are revealed.

Although fiction, the book clearly draws heavily on its author’s expertise as a specialist in the legal aspects of military intervention for human protection purposes and war crimes in the Balkans to tell its hauntingly sad story. There are a number of tools used to give the reader the sense that this is not a superficial ‘gosh isn’t war awful‘ sort of treatment but the kind of fictional story that is almost more realistic than fact. I am not normally a huge fan of chapter epigraphs but here they are used to great effect with many being extracts from primary sources related to the conflict such as letters from survivors or witness statements from various International Criminal Tribunal proceedings. They definitely help define the novel’s atmosphere. And although the bulk of the story takes place in present-day Canada there are devastating flashbacks to several people’s experiences during the war. These are harrowing. Truly harrowing. It is difficult at times to keep reading. Knowing that real events very like these made up ones – mass killings on an unfathomable scale, the use of rape as a weapon – took place during my own adult life. And even when we learned it was going on the world let it happen. Again.

The book isn’t perfect. The character of Drayton’s girlfriend felt out of place to me. She’s brassy and grasping and an almost comically appalling parent and her obviousness doesn’t fit with the rest of the deftly drawn characters. I’m not sure either that the thread involving the relationship between her two daughters and Drayton actually adds much to the story. Again it’s out of step and feels a bit like its been added to give the story a more mainstream appeal than perhaps a book dealing with such disturbing history might have. But in the scheme of things these are minor critiques.

I don’t know that I could recommend THE UNQUIET DEAD if you have first-hand knowledge of a scenario like the ones it depicts: only you would know if you could deal with revisiting such a thing. But if, like me, you are fortunate enough to have only learned about such things via news reports then I think it should be required reading. Though I’ve lost my naive belief that if we humans share such stories widely enough we won’t repeat the same atrocities in another time and place, surely the very least we owe the victims of such senselessness is to remember them. And, using the drama and emotion that allows fiction to go where fact often cannot, Khan has provided a fitting tribute to the senselessly lost souls of the tragedy that was the Bosnian war. On top of that, it’s a bloody good yarn.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Minotaur Books [2014]
ISBN 9781250055118
Length 320 pages
Format hardcover
Book Series #1 in the Esa Khattak/Rachel Getty series

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Review: THE GHOST FIELDS by Elly Griffiths

TheGhostFieldsGriffithsAudioI adore Ruth Galloway, the protagonist of this series . She is still the funny, brave, insecure and clever woman I first met five years (or seven books) ago and in this outing she seemed to me to be back in top form as far as witty observations go. But despite my adoration for Ruth (foibles and all) I find it increasingly difficult to recommend the titles in this series. This latest outing has a strong premise for its mysterious element but ultimately fails to deliver on that promise, even by the relatively low standards I have for plots when it comes to this series.

The term ghost fields refers to the many small and abandoned WWII airfields that dot the English landscape and it is in one such field that a buried plane is found when excavations are underway for a new housing development. The device by which Ruth (a forensic archaeologist) gets embroiled in this particular case is the discovery of a body in said plane. It soon transpires that the body is a member of a local upper crust family who was known to have died during the war but that death was purportedly at sea and in a plot device that I assume was meant to inject mystery but actually reduced the suspect pool to the point of absurdity, the body is discovered to have been recently moved. The resolution to the languorously paced ‘investigation’ which follows seems to me like it could have been worked out in about ten minutes and it certainly didn’t surprise me at all.

I don’t mean to sound churlish. Or not completely churlish anyway. But if you ignore the soap opera of the personal lives of the regular cast of this series there’s really not much going on here. Griffiths has squeezed as much as possible out of her WWII research (she recently issued a book not of this series set during the period) by sprinkling some tidbits of period detail throughout the story. To pad things out there’s a mildly interesting family saga which unfolds with the surviving relatives of the body in the plane but there really isn’t much of an investigation at all and the set pieces (such as the attack on one of the police officers) don’t really feel all that dramatic due to them never even feeling like they might end in tragedy. Small trucks could be driven through some of the plot holes.

Of course series fans will be interested in the latest goings on with Ruth, her policeman friend (and father of her daughter) Harry Nelson, friendly neighbourhood Druid Cathbad and the rest of the gang but, for me anyway, the balance between the elements of story development has gotten seriously out of whack. There is a point at which unresolved sexual tension between two characters moves from adding drama to being boring and, for me, the relationship between Ruth and Harry has officially reached that point now. Plus there’s not enough Cathbad or archaeology.

As always Griffiths does a great job bringing the Norfolk landscape and its dramatic weather to life and there are moments of pure joy amidst the tedium of this story (e.g. the appearance of a giant duck) but it has become impossible for me to imagine anyone not already heavily invested in Ruth and the gang picking up one of the latter books in this series. Perhaps that quality isn’t necessary or isn’t something Griffiths thinks she needs to do, but books attempting to stand on their own is something I look for in a long running series.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Clare Borbett
Publisher Quercus [2015]
Length 9 hours 40 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #7 in the Ruth Galloway series

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Books of the month: June 2015

Pick of the month

CobraMeyerAudioWe’re all going to politely ignore the fact I never bothered to wrap up my monthly reading for May aren’t we? Not that my reading quantity was much better in June. I’m blaming Leif G.W. Persson’s never-bloody-ending FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM for most of my recent stagnation. It took ages to wade through and put me off the written word in general for some time afterwards. Should just have stopped reading it all together. My pick for June though would be Deon Meyer’s COBRA which was fabulously narrated for me by Saul Reichlin. It’s entertaining and political and touching all at once.

The rest (titles preceded by the ++ symbol are all recommended)

  • ++ THE BANK INSPECTOR by Roger Monk (a new Aussie author writes a gentle tale that doesn’t involve a murder)
  • ++ THE BISHOP’S WIFE by Mette Ivie Harrison (fascinating insights into the Mormon community)
  • ++ THE INVISIBLE GARDEN by Dolores Redondo (introduces a great new character in Spanish crime fiction)
  • THE MYSTERY OF A BUTCHER’S SHOP by Gladys Mitchell (I wasn’t able to participate in the Past Offences Classics challenge in June because I couldn’t get hold of a book for the nominated year so I read this older title from my own collection – I didn’t review it because I couldn’t think of anything to polite to say about it)
  • THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley (for me there are much better child narrators than Flavia)

Progress Towards 2015’s Book-ish Goals

Challenge Goal Progress
Australian Women Writers Challenge Read and review 25 eligible books 8*/25
Reading US Fiction Challenge Read 6 books by new to me authors set in different states of the US 2/6
Personal – Outside my comfort zone Read at least 6 books that aren’t crime/mystery/thriller novels 2/6
Personal – Read Globally Read at least 10 books set in countries that aren’t Australia, America or England 22/10
Personal – Reduce TBR Read at least 20 books I owned as at 31 December 2014 12/20
Personal – Buy Australian Buy no physical or eBooks from non-Australian stores 0/0
Personal – Read older books too Participate in at least 6 of the monthly ‘pick a year’ reading challenges hosted at Past Offences 5/6

*have read 10 books but only reviewed 8 of them

I’m in danger of catastrophic failure on a couple of fronts but at least I’m doing well on my global reading, reading older books and buying no printed word books (physical or electronic) from non-Australian sources.

Reading outside my comfort zone is – not surprisingly – the hardest of all. I’ve actually brought several books home from the library that would fit this category and taken them back unread. Naughty I know.

I’m really going to try to find some interesting and new to me male American authors for the last half of the year. I don’t think I’m asking for much: just some decent characters, a noticeable dearth of serial killers and a bit of social or political commentary underpinning a great story.

 Looking ahead

I really must do something about the alarming number of Australian books I have been neglecting (in favour of the Petrona Award and International Dagger Award shortlists). To that end I’ve started July with the latest book by one of my favourite Aussie women writers – Felicity Young. THE INSANITY OF MURDER is officially released on 1 August but I’ve been lucky enough to receive an early copy and I couldn’t think of anything better to do during my street’s planned power outage today than dive in. Not sure what to read next but I’m definitely going to read at least one book from 1987 for this month’s Past Offences Challenge.

What about you? Had any particularly good reads during June? How are your reading goals looking now that we’re half-way through the year? Got something good lined up for July?

Review: COBRA by Deon Meyer

CobraMeyerAudioI regularly grumble that even though I like them I’m going to stop reading thrillers all together because it is too hard to find the good ones and I’m utterly fed up with the deluge of crap offerings that stray across my path. But Deon Meyer’s books are the proverbial exception to the rule and COBRA is yet another masterclass in how it ought to be done.

The Hawks, an elite squad within the South African Police Service, are pitted against a hired assassin who has kidnapped English man on South African soil. In a thread which eventually intertwines we also follow the adventures of a young pickpocket who chooses exactly the wrong target one Tuesday morning. Although more traditionally linear than Meyer’s last couple of books the story here unfolds as compellingly as always and there’s no such thing as a dull moment despite a dearth of the explosions, car chases and preposterous heroics that lesser novels are full of.

There is another layer of storytelling that kind of creeps up on the reader. Meyer is never didactic but through his characters, locations, language and the events he chooses to depict he is telling the story of modern South Africa. One of the characters here makes mention of the fact that the Hawks squad is like a walking United Nations: Benny Griessel is in charge of the case – or cases as they become. He is an Afrikaner and the only member of the squad who was a policeman in the bad old days. A fact which haunts him particularly hard in this novel. The team includes a Zulu woman, Mbali, whose parents were active in the struggle to end the old regime and this heritage plays a significant role in the direction of the novel when the Security Service wants to take over the case. Then there’s Cupido, a mixed race man who grew up in one of the most impoverished areas of Cape Town but is now a snazzy-dressing, tech-savvy cop with an eye for the ladies. There is friction between the disparate group but not always from the direction you might expect and the team manages to function despite it. Or perhaps because of it.

The diversity of characters results in the novel’s dialogue being a mixture of at least four of the country’s 11 official languages which makes it a particularly good choice for audio book lovers. I don’t know if Saul Reichlin is a South African or just plays one brilliantly but I could listen to him read Meyer’s multilingual stories forever.

COBRA is at once fast, funny, dramatic and sweet. Although it is very modern in its subject matter and plot devices (crucial elements hinge on mobile phones for example) it reminded me of the great thrillers of the 70’s like Frederick Forsyth’s THE DAY OF THE JACKAL and more because of the way realistic world politics is woven intricately into the plot than because both novels feature assassins. It’s a ripper of a read and highly recommended.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

I’ve reviewed four of Meyer’s earlier books DEVIL’S PEAK, DEAD AT DAYBREAK, THIRTEEN HOURS and TRACKERS. I would easily recommend all of them.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Saul Reichlin
Translator K.L. Seegers
Publisher Hodder & Stoughton [2014]
Length 12 hours 45 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series 4th novel to feature Benny Griessel

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Review: THE BISHOP’S WIFE by Mette Ivie Harrison

TheBishopsWifeMetteIvie23233_fIn the acknowledgements at the back of THE BISHOP’S WIFE the author recounts that she was surprised that Soho, an imprint most closely identified with international crime, chose to publish this novel but that the editor explained “It’s like Mormons are a different country. They speak a different language and you’re the interpreter”. Agreed. Whatever else this book may or may not offer crime fiction aficionados it does provide a fascinating insight into what is, at least for me, an unfamiliar religion. Even before I read the editor’s sentiments I had already remarked to a friend that I was reading a book more foreign to me than all the Swedish crime novels I’ve ever read.

The central character and narrator of the novel is Linda Wallheim: mother of five boys, all but one of whom has left home, and wife of the Bishop serving five hundred Mormons in a Utah town. Although bishop’s wife is not an official position Linda, or Sister Wallheim as the community members refer to her, is called upon to help her husband and their flock in all manner of ways. It is therefore not surprising that she becomes involved when the wife of one of the congregation goes missing. Has she left her home – and her small daughter – willingly? Or are her parents right in suspecting Carrie Helm’s husband of foul play? Is there another possible answer?

If one of the jobs of literature is to take readers into different worlds then this book is a success. There simply are not a lot of accessible cultural artifacts that depict Mormonism and even less that do so in normative way. I suspect that’s why THE BISHOP’S WIFE feels like it is jammed with exposition and some of it unnecessary – there are passages reminiscent of TV’s CSI in which two scientists explain things to each other in exactly they way they wouldn’t need to in real life but have to because dolts who don’t know anything are watching.- but as one of the dolts who knows next to nothing about this religion I found myself lapping up all the details. That said, I am naturally curious about the goings on within religious communities, if you aren’t equally absorbed by the subject the book might not be for you.

As is natural for stories told from the first-person perspective we see events unfolding in Draper the way that Linda Wallheim experiences them. Often she is on the fringes, sometimes because she is picking up the pieces when her husband is undertaking the more official religious duties but also because she is a woman. This sense that Linda might be missing out on things can be a bit annoying as a reader – we know she is cut out of some aspects of community life – but this fact is evened out because her gender also enables her to see and be told things that her husband would not have access to. So we see several threads unfold in addition to the main plot about Carrie’s disappearance and together these form a quite nuanced picture of what life is like for a modern Mormon woman.

I’m being a bit vague I suppose because I don’t want to spoil the story for those who choose to read it but THE BISHOP’S WIFE does tackle an important social theme that will resonate with many readers, not only those who’ve spent time in any kind of strict, rule-based community. As crime fiction the book is not traditional: there is only a hint of any professional investigation and even Linda’s amateur efforts do not conform to the tropes of the genre. But the book is compelling in the way it peels back the layers of a world few people would know intimately and there is genuine suspense built up in at least a couple of the threads. In fact Harrison proves herself quite adept at the twisted ending though the resolution is largely devoid of the natural drama more conventional crime novels rely on. THE BISHOP’S WIFE is more of a slow, thoughtful study than dramatic thriller but I found it curiously captivating.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

USAFictionChallengeButtonIn what is turning into the slowest ever virtual tour of the US (I started in January 2014!) this is only the fifth book I’m counting in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge for which I’ll read books 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 Soho Crime [2014]
ISBN 9781616954765
Length 345 pages
Format Hardcover
Book Series standalone?

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Review: THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN by Dolores Redondo

TheInvisibleGuardianAudioIf you read fiction translated from other languages at least in part because it allows you to virtually visit places and cultures different from your own then THE INVISIBLE GUARDIAN might be just what you’re looking for. Set in northern Spain the book is infused with local customs, culture and geography and it is easy for the reader to imagine themselves in the woods around Elizondo or any of the other exotic locations in which the novel’s action takes place. My personal transportation was ably assisted by the excellent narration of the audio book by Emma Gregory which meant I wasn’t fumbling in my woefully monolingual way with the nomenclature.

The book starts out fairly traditionally for a modern crime novel: bodies of beautiful young girls are found near Elizondo. The bodies have, of course, been tampered with in seemingly ritualistic ways and police are struggling to identify suspects. The deviation from standard fare comes when local mythology is woven into the storyline. Could the deaths be due to the activities of a basajuan (the Basque version of Big Foot)?

The detective assigned to the case is Amaia Salazar. She – and her story – are the standout elements of the novel for me. As with all good fictional detectives Amaia has some personal demons to deal with but Redondo has not chosen the well-worn path of substance abuse and a bad marriage for her leading lady. Indeed she is happily married (to an independently wealthy American artist named James) and only drinks an occasional glass of wine. But Amaia’s childhood was the stuff of nightmares and things come bubbling to the surface when she must return to Elizondo – the town of her birth – to take on this case. In parallel with the unfolding investigation Amaia’s back story and the relationships between her surviving family members are revealed compellingly.

To be honest I found the main plot a bit messy and not all of my incredulity was due to a personal disdain for intelligent adults treating tarot readings seriously. It felt at times as if some decisions for the book’s direction had been made by committee. A committee more interested in potential screen rights and the American market than in pulling together a coherent story. Amaia’s experiences at Quantico, her husband’s fascination for the bull running of Pamplona (just like Hemmingway it is rather obviously pointed out) and some other American friendliness all seemed a bit forced to me. That said, though it wasn’t terribly difficult to predict (given a couple of glaringly obvious early hints) the resolution was a fitting one and ultimately relied at least as much on old-fashioned policing as it did the impossibly speedy forensics Amaia gained access to.

Given serial killers are not really my thing I doubt I’d have read this book if it wasn’t on the shortlist for this year’s International Dagger Award but on balance I’m glad I was prompted to seek it out. The serial killer element is tempered by the inclusion of local mythology and fact that other parts of the storyline (including a sadly believable copycat crime) receive real focus. And I really did enjoy meeting Amaia Salazar and am intrigued enough to find out what happens next for her.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Emma Gregory
Translator Isabelle Kaufeler
Publisher Harper Audio [this edition 2015, original edition 2103]
Length 13 hours 11 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 Amaia Salazar trilogy

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Catching up (the reviews that will never be)

Lately I’ve read a few books that haven’t, for one reason or another, made it to a review post of their very own and I’ve decided to give up pretending they ever will. I have enough impossible backlogs in my working life that I really don’t need to clutter up my leisure life with them too, but I do want to record my impressions so that I have a chance of recollecting these books in the future. And so, in reading order, we have…

DuckSeasonDeathWrightJune Wright’s DUCK SEASON DEATH – A book written in the 1950’s but only published in 2014 this is one of what is now seven published books by a little-known Australian female crime writer. It’s a traditional country house mystery (though in this case the country house is an inn in the Australian countryside) in which a small cast of oddball characters form the suspect pool for the murder (or was it?) of an unpleasant man at the start of the local shooting season. As well as being of the genre the book takes some not-so-gentle digs at classic whodunnits and, for me at least, it wasn’t entirely successful. I thought it was trying a little too hard to be clever. I’ve not yet any of Wright’s novels that were published during her lifetime (though I now have two here on Mount TBR) so I shall possibly have more to say about this author soon.

Reykjavik NightsIndridasonArnaldur Indridason’s REYKJAVIK NIGHTS – During a recent interview at the Sydney Writers’ Festival Michael Connelly intimated that when his famous police detective’s official career is over Connelly might be finally ready to write of Harry Bosh’s time in Vietnam. If so he’ll be joining a growing trend of writers turning to the origin stories of their much-loved characters when age makes their continuation as professional detectives too unbelievable even for fiction. Having allowed his dour, loner Detective Erlendur to end his career in STRANGE SHORES, Indridason takes us to 1974 and introduces us to young Erlendur doing night shift as a relatively new policeman. Car crashes, domestic violence incidents and run-ins with all manner of people who seem only to come out at night form the backdrop to Erlendur’s investigations into the death of a homeless man he had come to know and the disappearance of a young woman. There is much to like about this origin story.

TheHumanFliesHansOlavLa23691_fHans Olav Lahlum’s THE HUMAN FLIES was a delightful surprise. Knowing I was planning to read it myself I avoided all reviews of the book so had no idea I would be delving into a classic whodunit set in late 1960’s Norway. New police detective Kolbjørn Kristiansen is tasked with investigating the seemingly impossible locked room murder of a prominent Norwegian who had been a hero of the resistance during the war. The high profile case threatens to prove unsolvable but Kristiansen is fortunate enough to attract the attentions of an intelligent amateur sleuth who manages to help him unravel this tale of secrets within secrets. A truly entertaining read, with fascinating insight into Norway’s wartime experiences, and evidence (should you need it) that not all Scandi crime fiction is cold and grim.

FallingFreelyAsIfInADrea23678_fLeif G.W. Persson’s FREE FALLING AS IF IN A DREAM – I almost feel like I’m cheating including this because I ended up skipping bits and pieces of this 588 page tome. As the final part of Persson’s Story of a Crime trilogy the book sees several investigators, all of whom we’ve met in Persson’s earlier books, brought together in secret to take another look at Sweden’s greatest unsolved crime: the assassination of Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986. Amidst all the stultifying detail here there is a good story straining to be heard but honestly by the end of this one I was really cross with modern publishing. This book needed an editor. Very, very badly. My life was not enriched in any way by knowing exactly what fruit DCI Lisa Mattei ate during each day and at what times she ate each piece nor any of the thousands of similar details masquerading as context. This book is virtually inaccessible to anyone who isn’t a die-hard devotee of politically infused European crime and even then I am prepared to wager many wouldn’t bother wading through to the bitter end.

TheSweetnessBottomOfPieBradleyAudioAlan Bradley’s THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE is one of those books I thought I ought to read as so many people love it. In case you’ve been living under a rock it introduces 11 year-old Flavia de Luce, aspiring chemist turned amateur-sleuth who solves the murder that takes place on her family’s country estate in 1950. My chief accolade for the book is that it is blessedly short. I didn’t hate it but nor can I really see what all the fuss is about. For my tastes Flavia is a bit too precocious to be truly engaging and the book has some truly dull passages (descriptions of visual magic tricks are on par with people relaying their dreams on the scale of things I’m not at all interested in). Lest you fear I am just anti books narrated by children I offer Belinda Bauer’s THE FACTS OF LIFE AND DEATH, Mari Strachan’s THE EARTH HUMS IN B-FLAT or Catherine O’Flynn’s WHAT WAS LOST as examples of superior crime stories told by young children.



Review: THE HUMMINGBIRD by Kati Hiekkapelto

TheHummingbirdKatiHiekkap23799_fTHE HUMMINGBIRD opens by introducing us to Anna Fekete experiencing the first day on her new job as a senior detective in an unnamed town in northern Finland. Initially expecting to ease into her new role instead she must get up to speed suddenly when a young girl’s call to emergency services appears very troubling and then the body of a jogger is found. These two cases, which rarely for crime fiction do not become linked over time, come to haunt the members of the Crime Unit in various ways.

Although very much a procedural novel THE HUMMINGBIRD is at least as interested in its characters as it is in solving the crimes committed within it. And as the centrepiece of the investigative team Anna makes for interesting reading. She is a lifelong outsider. As a child she was part of a minority population – a Hungarian in the former Yugoslavia – and when she moved with her family to Finland she was an immigrant. Even now, despite her having lived in the country since she was seven and served with the Finish military, her immigrant status is the most significant thing about her for many people, even those who view it as a positive thing. Anna’s sense of isolation is depicted very credibly, manifesting itself in numerous ways. Although this theme is not a new one for fiction to explore I thought Hiekkapelto did an above average job of letting the reader really get a sense of what a grind it must be to always feel as if you don’t quite belong.

One of her new colleagues, a middle-aged policeman named Esko, does not attempt to hide his racism from the moment they first meet. This is not an auspicious beginning to a relationship and I was a little wary that it would tread a very predictable path but ultimately it proves to be a highlight of the book when it veers away from the norm. It is certainly a very believable depiction of this kind of tension that is repeated the world over. The team is rounded out by two more colleagues, both of whom are a lot more sympathetic towards Anna and add interesting elements of the story in their own right. Sari is the policewoman who appears to ‘have it all’ – a loving husband and two children on top of the great job – while their male colleague Rauno is struggling to keep his own marriage intact.

Hiekkapelto does not forget to develop a decent plot and the crimes here are both complex; requiring a good deal of investigative shoe leather. Anna becomes somewhat fixated on the case of Bihar: the young Kurdish girl who rang emergency services claiming her father was going to kill her then recanted when police visited the house. Although told to leave the matter alone due to lack of evidence she is convinced that something is wrong and uses what free time she has to keep an eye on the family. It’s not much of a stretch to see that she identifies with Bihar on some level which makes her fixation entirely understandable. Meanwhile the case of the murdered runner proves a difficult one for the team and a couple more bodies have to pile up before there is a satisfactory resolution. n some ways this main plot thread was the least interesting part of the book for me but only because the rest of it was so good.

There are a few wooly elements to this debut novel – such as the unnecessary inclusion of a minor thread in which both Anna and Sari are threatened by mysterious texts – but overall I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Anna and the rest of the team. I liked the way that this was allowed to be a character driven novel that still had a strong plot and explored some interesting themes such as what seems to be a thorny issue in all countries: immigration. I am already looking forward to the next installment of the series which is due to be translated into English this year.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator David Hackston
Publisher Arcadia Books [this translation 2014]
ISBN 9781909807563
Length 363 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Anna Fekete series

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