Review: SHAME by Karin Alvtegen

SHAME has languished unread on my shelves since I found a second hand copy in Australia’s only bookshop specialising in crime fiction 8 years ago. I can’t explain the languishing as I have loved both of the other books by Karin Alvtegen that I have so far read (MISSING and BETRAYAL)…perhaps it was my subconscious reminding me of my dislike of second hand books. Whatever the reason, I could kick myself as the book is really, really good.

Like Alvtegen’s other work SHAME only fits within the confines of crime fiction if you’re open minded about how to define the genre. I’m very comfortable with this kind of elasticity but if you’re not, consider this fair warning. It is the most aptly named novel I have come across in quite some time as it displays and dissects the shame felt by two women and the long-lasting effects these deep feelings have on their lives.

Monika is a successful doctor with a less than perfect personal life. She has never allowed herself to be properly loved but when we meet her a man called Thomas has entered her life and Monika dares to believe that things might be different this time. Just as she decides she will share her secret shame with Thomas and see if he still wants her a dramatic event occurs. An event that proves to Monika she is not worthy of love. Not deserving. And she must do whatever it takes to make amends.

About the only thing Maj-Britt is successful at is eating. She has become so good at it that she is virtually housebound by her obesity and needs all sorts of home help just to survive. She is also mean-spirited. And just plain mean. Many of the helpers who have been assigned to her case won’t return because she is so horrid to them. Maj-Britt has a dark secret too but even before her darkest day she was almost full to the brim with the shame of knowing she had displeased her parents and their god.

For three quarters of SHAME the stories of these two women do not overlap. Their individual sadnesses, anguish and despair are revealed in parallel but separate threads with Alvetegen’s usual sparse writing and incisive observational eye. She really does have an affinity for bringing the voice of the world’s outsiders to life. There’s no overt sentimentality or mawkishness yet no deliberate unkindnesses either. I often find attempts at this kind of characterisation are either too politically correct for credibility or have ramped up the cruelty in some misguided attempt at ‘grittiness’. Neither Monika or Maj-Britt is particularly likeable in the usual sense of the word, probably not the type of literary character that will end up on lists of fictional beings to invite to a dinner party, but I found them believable, compelling and increasingly sympathetic as their secrets were laid bare for us.

Even Alvtegen’s minor characters are pitch-perfect. The two women who end up tying Monika and Maj-Britt’s stories together in the novel’s final act are Ellinor, the latest and most robust of Maj-Britt’s home aides, and Vanja who reconnects with Maj-Britt nearly 30 years after they were teenagers together in the same small town. Both characters are deftly drawn. As are the women’s parents who – it must be said – have a good deal to answer for, especially in the case of Maj-Britt. I’ve read a lot of  stories in which awful things are done to children but the depiction of the way her parents ‘deal’ with Maj-Britt’s childhood ‘sin’ left me speechless at the insidiousness of their particular brand of abuse. I have to hope it was entirely from Alvtegen’s imagination.

I was a smidgen disappointed by the book’s ending. Not hugely and only when compared with the rest of this book; it’s still a cut above the vast majority of endings I encounter. But it was a little too clunkily neat for me…and for what had gone before. Though perhaps Alvtegen was concerned about leaving her readers in abject despair. It is a minor reservation only and should not prevent you from embarking on this beautifully told, sometimes challenging and never dull tale.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Steven T. Murray
Publisher This edition Text Publishing 2006, original edition 2005
ISBN 9781921145315
Length 343
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy I bought it second hand

Posted in book review, Karin Alvtegen, Sweden | 4 Comments

Review: SNOWBLIND by Ragnar Jonasson

I was not surprised to learn, after I’d finished reading SNOWBLIND, that its author has previously translated some of Agatha Christie’s works into his native Icelandic. Because there’s much more of a ‘Golden Age’ or classic whodunnit sensibility to the book than anything resembling the now ubiquitous (and almost always inaccurate) Nordic Noir label.

Depending on which way you look at things the central character is either rookie policeman Ari Thor or the isolated fishing village of Siglufjordur in northern Iceland in which the story takes place.

When the novel opens Ari Thor is living in Reykjavik with his girlfriend, medical student Kristin. He has ditched his own study of theology for the police academy and is offered his first police job in Siglufjordur. He says yes without consulting Kristin at all which is a decision that will come back to bite him (although he never does seem to grasp why discussing it first might have been a good idea) and is soon heading north. Ari Thor is 24 and not unreasonably has yet to work out all the intricacies of being an adult which is a nice change for crime fiction fans who are more used to crotchety, middle aged cynics. Jonasson has done a nice job in fleshing out this character over the course of the book and making him sympathetic even when he deserves a gentle bollocking for his recklessness.

The village is much less sympathetic, at least to this city girl, though no less beautifully realised. Its population is around 1300 people and is one of those places where everyone knows everyone and their secrets. Though, as it turns out, not all their secrets. It is small enough that no car is needed to get around and isolated enough that it is regularly cut off from the rest of the country during winter. Ari Thor is informed by his new boss that he won’t be handing out speeding tickets or doing much else that city police might be used to but soon there are mysterious matters to worry about. As the local dramatic society gets ready for their annual performance a local celebrity dies and Ari Thor at least is not entirely sure it was as natural a death as everyone assumes. When a young woman is found lying near death in the snow a few days later everyone starts to worry that someone with nefarious intent might be on the loose. Which is, of course, right when the Icelandic winter does shuts the town off from the outside world. The mountains are looming, the roads are impassable roads and the townsfolk might be trapped with a killer.

The story really is of the old-fashioned kind (and just to be clear I don’t mean that as a criticism). Not only is it blessedly short in this age of 500+ page tomes it is light on violence and heavy on intricate, genuinely puzzling plot full of misdirection. This is not axe-wielding psychopath territory, just ordinary people finding themselves backed into various corners. I found the resolution both satisfying and surprising which is no mean feat.

Although I’d gnaw off my own arm rather than live in somewhere quite so small or isolated  as Siglufjordur I love to visit such places vicariously, especially when there is a genuinely engaging story unfolding within the claustrophobic confines. I am keen to catch up with Ari Thor again, though I think he’ll have to move on from Siglufjordur if he is not to suffer from the Cabot Cove Effect.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Quentin Bates
Publisher Orenda Books, this translation 2015, original language edition 2010
ISBN 9781910633038
Length 259 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 Dark Iceland series
Source of review copy Borrowed (library)

Posted in book review, Iceland, Ragnar Jonasson | 8 Comments

Review: PLANTATION SHUDDERS by Ellen Byron

PLANTATION SHUDDERS is a pretty stringent adherent to the current formula for cosy mysteries. However Ellen Byron has put enough of a unique spin on the familiar to make the book interesting but not so much of one that the quirks make me clench my jaw after a few chapters. This is a sub genre that often goes overboard with gimmicks or scenarios that are completely implausible but Byron has avoided those while still having the kind of colour and humour that make for good reading.

Such books these days seem always to have a young-ish heroine recently returned to the small town in which she was born after a stint in a big city during which her career and/or love life (or both) went horribly awry. Here that role is filled by Maggie Crozat who has come home to Pelican, Louisiana where several generations of her family run their decades-old plantation as a bed-and-breakfast establishment. Maggie’s New York art gallery and boyfriend are now both in the possession of another woman and she is starting to rebuild her life. Although a bit battered by her recent  life experiences Maggie is getting on with living without overdosing on angst. In between stumbling across opportunities for amateur sleuthing she helps with the family business, works as a guide at a neighbouring plantation and makes quirky souvenirs to sell.

In this first instalment of the series one of the latest batch of guests at the Crozat B&B is murdered and the family’s business is put under pressure due to the investigation. Not only is it bad form for someone to be poisoned in a hospitality business but the town’s Sheriff is a ‘good ol’ boy‘ and a member of the family which has been feuding with the Crozats for longer than anyone can remember. He relishes any chance he can find to make life difficult for the Crozats.

But they are made of pretty stern stuff and display a healthy mix of Southern charm and modern realism. I particularly enjoyed that Maggie’s grandmother is the business’ internet and social media queen, showing that ‘old dogs’ can and do embrace new tricks. Between the guests and the family members there is a decent suspect pool for the story to work its way through and this is done in an engaging and largely plausible way.

Maggie’s love-interest is Bo Durand, the town’s newest police detective which regular cosy readers will recognise as another common component of the formula. Although he is the a Sheriff’s cousin he is a lot more enlightened and not keen to perpetuate the family feud in the same way as his boss. Although it will undoubtedly have its ups and downs should the series continue, it seems like the pair’s relationship will not be one of those never ending ‘will they/won’t they get together’ ones which is a plus for me as I am really fed up with that particular trope.

I selected this book for the Louisiana leg of my very slow tour of America via its crime fiction and it definitely offered a good sense of its location. This includes providing a welcome idea of the geography of the town and its relation to the rest of the state along with the local food, sayings and historical oddities that mark a place out from the rest of the world.

As a born and bred city girl I have grown a little weary of the underlying message this formula seems to be sending but I’m not always up for the violence and grittiness that pervades the other end of the crime fiction spectrum either. So while on the lookout for a cosy heroine who can survive in the big city I’ll happily read more like this one. I enjoyed the narration by new-to-me voice artist Meredith Mitchell for the audio book though I do have to hope that her southern American accents were closer to the mark than the Australian one she used for the guest family from my home country.

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USAFictionChallengeButtonThis is the 18th book I’m including in my quest to complete the Reading USA Fiction Challenge in which I’m aiming to 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.

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Narrator Meredith Mitchell
Publisher Blackstone Audio, 2015
ASIN B012E58578
Length 7 hours 29 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #1 in the Cajun Country series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Ellen Byron, USA | Tagged | 2 Comments

Review: HUMBER BOY B by Ruth Dugdall

A 10-year-old boy is thrown to his death from Hull’s Humber Bridge by two brothers who cannot be identified due to their respective ages: 14 and 1o. They are therefore known to the world as Humber Boy A and Humber Boy B. This novel centres on the release from incarceration of Humber Boy B eight years after the crime. He is now to be known under the name Ben and at 18 is on his own in the world but for a compassionate case worker.

I find this an awkward novel to review as there are things about it I liked a lot and other elements that almost made me stop reading.

First to the positive. I liked the way Dugdall has woven the story in such a way that readers can be sympathetic to Ben – and his brother – despite their heinous act but are not expected to automatically forgive and forget. This part of the book is all about the myriad shades of grey between the black and white that is often the public face of such cases.

Partly this is done through a very nuanced depiction of Ben as a character who we spend a good deal of time with. It is hard not to empathise with the young man shunted to a new city where he knows no one, has almost none of the social knowledge and skills of his peers and is sweet natured enough to be chuffed when an old lady asks him to help her make change. In flashback chapters that take us through The Day Of… we also come to understand that young Noah’s death was the result of a series of truly unfortunate events rather than a single act by an ‘evil boy’.

The other tool Dugdall uses to draw out the subtleties of the situation is the case management team looking after Ben as he is released. Cate Austin is the probation officer to whom he must report weekly but her manager, police and other experts meet regularly to discuss how best to handle the issues arising from Ben’s release. Each of these people brings their various personal and professional prejudices to the discussions and between them probably display the range of views that might exist in such a scenario. This diversity of opinion is well depicted.

The parts of the book that were less successful for me included attempts at cleverness which fell short and a thread I found utterly pointless about Cate’s long-lost sister.

The book’s structure included present-day and flashback sequences but Ben was called Ben in both which just felt awkward and actually made it more difficult to remember that the flashback sequences were flashbacks. I don’t really know what point the author was trying to achieve with this – one less name for readers to remember?

Other things felt like they’d been included to tick off a box rather than the author’s own conviction that they added to the narrative. We learn for example that several random strangers encountered the three boys on the fateful day of Noah’s death and the least culpable of these seem to be highlighted in a way that is, presumably, meant to suggest “we are all to blame” but in reality felt very forced. Not only did the joggers and the cyclist add nothing to the narrative they actually took away from the other elements of this chain such as the store owner and cinema usher whose actions had they been different would have had more chance of changing the course of events (I’m not suggesting either of those people should have behaved differently, merely that if they had the day might have had a different outcome).

There’s probably not much to say about the pointless thread involving Cate’s long-lost sister other than that it was pointless. For me that means it added nothing to our understanding of Cate as a character nor to the story being told.

But the element of the book that nearly made me stop reading was its depiction of another main character: Jessica. Or Noah’s Mum as she is known on her Facebook page Find Humber Boy B.  Fair enough she wanted answers rather than vengeance but I cannot imagine any parent in her situation failing to feel some self recrimination. I’m not suggesting Jessica was to blame for what happened, but in any situation I have ever known of where a death has been unexpected – accident or suicide or even murder – those closest to the victim have wondered what they could have done differently. Some people are brought completely undone by the ‘if onlys’ whereas Jessica appears completely untouched by them. She also seems remarkably obtuse when it comes to guessing the identity of Silent Friend, the frequent commenter to the Facebook page whose words become increasingly menacing.  I suppose it just boils down to the fact that the character of Jessica did not ring true for me, in stark contrast to the quite beautiful depiction of Ben.

Ultimately I think HUMBER BOY B is a decent enough book but missed a very real opportunity to be a great one. There are unnecessary elements taking space from forever unfinished ones: we never get a decent explanation for Ben’s brother’s relative innocence for example. And some of the characters are more two dimensional than ought to be the case. If I thought you were only ever going to read one book tackling the question of children who commit unspeakable crimes I’d recommend Jane Jago’s THE WRONG HAND over this one.

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Narrator Penny McDonald
Publisher Oakhill Publishing 2016
ASIN B01DUUODFE
Length 9 hours 18 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #3 in the Cate Austin series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, England, Ruth Dugdall | 6 Comments

Review: MURDER AT THE HOUSE OF ROOSTER HAPPINESS by David Casarett

The central question at the heart of MURDER AT THE HOUSE OF ROOSTER HAPPINESS is whether or not there is a dedicated, husband-killer stalking a certain kind of man in Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand. The unlikely team of people who become interested in this case includes the local hospital’s nurse ethicist, Ladarat Patalung, her cousin who runs a local brothel and Wiriyai Mookja, a decorated local police detective who is unwilling to use more traditional techniques at the outset of this unorthodox investigation.

At the same time as she is drawn into her first ever case as a detective, Ladarat must continue to perform her regular duties which include preparing for an impending Royal Inspection of the hospital and seeing to the many issues requiring the application of her skills as an ethicist that arise on a daily basis. Most notably there is the troubling situation of dealing with the family of a young American patient who is thought to be brain dead.

Although David Casarett is not Thai he is a medical doctor who has clearly spent time in the country and not only as a tourist. There is an authentic feel to the book, in particular its insights into modern Thai medicine, but the reverence Casarett clearly feels for the culture is not of a sycophantic level. In fact I was quite surprised to see several Good Reads reviews complaining about the ‘America bashing’ in the book because I thought one of the things it did well in its highlighting of the differences in the two cultures was to show strengths and weaknesses of both.

I am perhaps more interested than the average person in the field of applied ethics but I really loved the way Casarett has woven this into the story in a realistic but comprehensible way. This added a layer of distinctiveness to the novel which it probably needs given the undeniable similarities between this and Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. The Thai setting is another particular feature, and it goes well beyond the mouth-watering food that Ladarat picks up each night from the vendor at the end of her street. The book is definitely one for virtual travellers.

MURDER AT THE HOUSE OF ROOSTER HAPPINESS is definitely at the cosier end of the crime fiction spectrum but should not be easily dismissed because of that. It offers a genuine glimpse into the culture it depicts and while its characters do not wield guns or encounter blood-dripping corpses they do deal with many of life’s struggles. These include the amusing – such as the seemingly world-wide plague that is bureaucracy – to the difficult ethical issues that modern living throws at us all from time to time including a unique take on prostitution. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Ladarat, her cousin and the detective and will definitely be looking to visit with them again soon.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Publisher Hachette, 2016
ISBN 9780316270632
Length 358 pages
Format paperback
Book Series #1 in the Ethical Chiang Mai Detective Agency series
Source of review copy Borrowed, library

Posted in book review, David Casarett, Thailand | 4 Comments

Confession time: I don’t like second hand books

A really thoughtful post about the joys of secondhand books by Prashant over at Chess, Comics, Crosswords, Books, Music, Cinema has prompted me to make this confession. Partly because I feel the need to explain my guilt and partly because I wonder if I am alone or whether this is another one of those “there are two kinds of people” things that life throws at us.

I’ll wait here while you go and read Prashant’s thoughts if you haven’t already done so.

Now…my turn.

I don’t just not like secondhand books. I hate them.

Though in my defence my experience is not really like the one Prashant describes in his post. Perhaps if it had been…

For me books have always been special. Partly because of the escape they offered inside their covers but also because the objects themselves are things I was taught to treat with respect. In the house I grew up in there were only a few books – some my parents had inherited and a few my mother purchased for herself or us kids. They were always shelved nicely, dusted regularly and could only be read if our hands had been washed. Books that came and went – from the library or the annual allocation from school – had to be handled carefully too so that they could be returned in exactly the same condition as they arrived

This set of leather bound classic literature was my grandmother’s, then my mother’s, now mine. This is exactly the kind of thing I have never found in a local secondhand book shop.

I still haven’t quite recovered from the unfortunate incident in which I borrowed a copy of NORTHANGER ABBEY from Liliana’s sister without Liliana’s sister’s permission. In my defence I did have Liliana’s permission but whether she had her sister’s was subsequently questioned. I got  a drop or three of spaghetti sauce on one of the pages. My mum made me borrow money from her to buy a replacement copy then I had to do extra chores to pay mum back. And I wasn’t allowed my weekly library trip for a whole month. Lesson learned.

Although we didn’t have a lot of money my mum tended to go for the library rather than secondhand books. I don’t know if this was due to the dearth of selling establishments in our corner of the world or perhaps she too hated them. I wish I’d thought to ask when I still could. Back in the day you had to pay an annual fee to join our library and everyone who did so treated the books with as much care as my parent taught us to do.

So my first exposure to secondhand books was when I did student volunteering for one of the large charities here. I was tasked with sorting donated items. About half of the items were books which was usually my job. Because who’d give a fashion-challenged 14-year old the task of sorting clothes meant mostly for adults? The bulk of the donated books were badly damaged (rips, tears, missing pages or covers) and many had worrying unidentifiable stains and smells. I don’t know what part of this was worse: that people would allow their books to get into this state in the first place or that they thought so little of others that they would put such rubbish in a charity bin. I do know I cried the first time I was put in front of a pile of these shabbily looked after books.

Later I encountered specialist secondhand book shops that weren’t a neglected corner of a charity shop but still I was not tempted. When I could afford it I would buy a new book, when I couldn’t I’d go to the library. This was especially true after my first trip to America. Back in the late 80’s when bookstores were the size of cathedrals and there were endless aisles of shiny new books that I could afford to buy by the suitcase (book prices in Australia have always been high by comparison). My housemates were unimpressed when I returned from my first overseas foray with a suitcase full of mystery novels rather than the duty free booze and sneakers they had anticipated. My return trips to the US were, ostensibly, to see family but I still recall those days spent in book stores very fondly.

Over the years I have bought the odd secondhand book. Most notably while travelling in the days before kindles were a glint in Jeff Bezos’ eye. The worst thing about backpacking in those days was not having enough room to pack several months worth of reading or enough money to buy new English language books in countries where English is not the dominant language. I think part of the reason I am so fond of Turkey is that it is – or was in the 90’s at any rate – replete with secondhand bookstores that had something other than Barbara Cartland novels for sale in English. But I left all the books in hostels once I’d read them.

I would have liked to be like Prashant. To be seduced by the lure of secondhand books and the stores that sell them. There’s a romance to it that I like the idea of. And it would fit well with my aim to leave less of a waste-filled footprint on our planet. But assuming I will never again be desperate (now that eBooks exist and I can borrow from any library in my state) I cannot imagine ever willingly setting foot inside another secondhand bookshop.

What about you? Do you love secondhand books or hate them? Why?

 

Posted in musings | 13 Comments

Review: THE CLEANER by Elisabeth Herrmann

I’m prepared to wager a small sum that whoever wrote back cover blurb hasn’t actually read THE CLEANER. Or maybe I’d lose my bet on a technicality because they did read the book but thought it was too difficult to summarise so they wrote a blurb for a different book. Happily for me I rely on trusted sources such as Mrs Peabody Investigates for my book recommendations so idiotically inaccurate blurbs trouble me not. The blurb does get one thing right: the book’s central character, Judith Kepler, is an ‘extreme’ kind of cleaner working for a company that does the dirtiest sorts of jobs. But from then on the book and its blurb part ways.

On one such job – where a woman has been bloodily murdered in her German apartment – Judith is calmly going about her gruesome but necessary business when she encounters a reference to her own past. A past that haunts her not only because of what she can remember of it but also because of the portions that are lost to her. Most of which happened before she was five. In much the same way as she tackles her work – with determination and more than the average amount of willingness to persevere at all costs (or what others might call stubbornness) – Judith takes a detour from her carefully constructed day-to-day life in an effort to learn more about the bits of her past that have been kept secret from her. The fact that she spent 10 years in the Yuri Gagarian Children’s Home in the former East Germany is worrying enough but, as she learns, Judith was no ordinary orphan.

The book then is mostly a tale of espionage past and present, though more le Carré than Fleming on the high-tech gadgets scale if that matters to you. I must admit to getting lost a couple of times in the intricacies of German politics pre and post reunification but that is undoubtedly more my fault than the author’s or translator’s. But even if some of the plot nuances were lost to me I could not help but be swept along by the book’s very real tension. Many present-day and former intelligence agents from several countries are heavily invested in ensuring that the secrets surrounding Judith’s early childhood are not revealed and they fight dirty. Even though I wanted Judith to prevail over them I like the way that Herrmann has made these characters at least partially sympathetic – even when their present-day actions are unpleasant – by showing that for the most part they were behaving as necessary for their time. The book plays with the elasticity of the definitions of good and evil a little more than the standard thriller would do.

Judith does stumble across one person who’s on her side, though it takes her a while to recognise it. Quirin Kaiserley is a former agent who has been disgraced due to his claims that there are rotten secrets from East Germany’s past which should be revealed. Without physical proof of his claims he has become something of a pariah among the people who were once his associates, though he can still attract a fraction of loyalty from a few. He was involved in the events surrounding Judith in the 1980’s but even he doesn’t know the full story so he is almost as keen as Judith is to get to the bottom of things. Both characters are very well drawn and their relationship is a pleasure to watch unfold as it has almost as many twists and turns as the plot itself.

THE CLEANER is an intelligent, thought-provoking and occasionally funny book with two great heroic characters. The reader is kept in a constant state of tension not only because of the excellent but often frightening plot but also due to the need to pay careful attention to everything being said and done so that we can work out who to believe at any point.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Translator Bradley Schmidt
Publisher This edition Manilla Publishing 2017 (original German edition 2011)
ISBN 9781786580207
Length 458 pages
Format paperback
Book Series standalone
Source of review copy borrowed (library)

Posted in book review, Elisabeth Herrmann, Germany | 14 Comments

Ngaio Marsh Awards Blog Tour: Simon Wyatt’s THE STUDENT BODY

The Ngaio Marsh Awards honour New Zealand’s best crime writing and winners in three categories for the 2017 awards will be announced in October. As part of leadup festivities to that announcement there is a month-long blog tour focusing on all the books and authors which have been shortlisted in one of the categories. My stopover on the tour introduces Simon Wyatt’s THE STUDENT BODY which is one of the five contenders in the best first crime novel category.

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About the book

The novel opens with Nick Knight, new to the role of Supervisor in the West Auckland Police’s Criminal Investigation Branch, being advised that 15 year old Natasha Johnson has been found dead in the grounds where her school class has been camping. Knight and his team are soon on the way to the scene and down to business with the myriad tasks requiring completion all being attended to with a minimum of fuss and appropriate professionalism.

Being a major case a lot of police are assigned to it and Knight’s team is responsible for one component: suspects. Other parts of the larger squad are responsible for evidence, witnesses and so on. I found it interesting to learn that this is how things are divided up in reality, at least in this part of New Zealand. So we spend most time learning about who might have killed Natasha. One of the teachers who was chaperoning the school camp? A fellow student? A suspicious outsider known to lurk in the area and ‘pleasure himself’ at will? The sometimes frustrating grunt work needed to rule people out of (or into) suspicion is well depicted and Wyatt also does a great job of exposing the reality of how investigations like this have to force their way into the private lives of many people, most of whom will be proven to have nothing to do with the crime but still have their lives turned upside down.

THE STUDENT BODY is squarely in the police procedural quadrant of the crime genre spectrum. Not only is its central character an active policeman but the story is told in the first-person perspective. The upside to this is that there is an authentic, quite immersive feel to the investigative elements of the novel: the reader really does get some sense of what it must be like to be involved with a fast-moving, high profile case. The pressure from everywhere – superior officers, victim’s family, the media – is quite palpable and Knight has to work hard to keep his own and his team’s morale up at times. The other consequence of Wyatt’s narrative choices is that Knight’s view of events is naturally limited – we can never know what’s going on with other team members or those affected by Natasha’s death unless Knight is present or being told first-hand. I did feel a few times like I was missing out on parts of the story – such as how Natasha’s parents and best friend were dealing with the events – but can appreciate that wasn’t the story Wyatt has chosen to tell here (I’m just really nosy, I want to know everything).

Nick Knight is pretty well fleshed out as a character though for me this meant he was not always the nicest person to be around. Although he takes his job seriously and is, mostly, very professional he can also be quite laddish and towards the end of the novel displays a willingness to commit violence that I found a bit disturbing. Still he is funny and caring at times too. I guess like most of us Nick isn’t perfect so it is a very realistic depiction. There really isn’t space given the book’s length and style to get to know any of the other characters very well and I would have appreciated an alternative voice or wider perspective at times but that’s a minor quibble. I’m sure Nick Knight will have many fans.

Overall THE STUDENT BODY is a solid procedural with an authentic feel and will be enjoyed by those who like getting into the nitty gritty of a case unfolding. It offers a good sense of its New Zealand setting, giving me the itch to visit Piha beach for example, and the resolution is a genuine action-packed, nail-biter.

You can buy THE STUDENT BODY from Whitcoulls in New Zealand or via Amazon.

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About the author

The authentic feel to the procedural elements of THE STUDENT BODY undoubtedly stems from the fact that Simon Wyatt is a former police detective with a range of experience, including three years with the team that investigates crimes against children. He started writing after being struck with an autoimmune disease and while working through his recovery process. Although mostly recovered now Wyatt has since left the police force but is still very involved with detecting as an investigator with the Serious Fraud Office (a different arm NZ government). He is working on a second Nick Knight novel. For more information about Simon Wyatt and his writing process check out this half-hour interview on Radio New Zealand from late last year or head to his Facebook page.

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So far the Ngaio Marsh Awards Blog Tour has visited

  • Liz Loves Books for an introduction to the finalists in the Best Crime Novel category
  • Aust Crime Fiction for a review of Fin Bell‘s PANCAKE MONEY, a nominee in the Best Crime Novel category
  • Alysontheblog for a review of Steve Braunias‘ true crime book SCENE OF THE CRIME
  • Bibliophile Book Club for a Q&A with C.J. Carver whose novel SPARE ME THE TRUTH is nominated in the Best Crime Novel category
  • Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan for a review of THE ICE SHROUD by Gordon Ell which is one of the nominees for the Best New Fiction award
  • Mystery Fanfare – where Fin Bell, author of best crime nominee PANCAKE MONEY, has temporarily taken over Janet’s blog to discuss his writing, books and…well…failure

The tour continues until 1 October so there are plenty more blogs to visit to learn about the remaining books and authors honoured in this year’s Ngaio Marsh Awards.

 

Posted in Blog Tour Stopover, New Zealand, Simon Wyatt | Tagged | 5 Comments

Books of the month: August 2017

I skipped my monthly roundup for June and July because I hardly read a word due to real life shenanigans. That those shenanigans were resolved via me resigning from my job with a shred of dignity left has some downsides (no new job lined up being one). But one benefit of being unemployed at 50ish is that I’ve suddenly got a swag of reading time and, because I am not (yet) desperately in need of a new job, I am enjoying my favourite hobby once again. Gotta make lemonade out of those lemons right?

Pick of the month

The only downside to reading lots is of course choosing my favourite read of the month so I have decided not to pick just one.  In reading order the two books I can’t separate are Micheal Robothom’s THE SECRETS SHE KEEPS which is a standalone novel about two women with secrets, one of whom wants the other’s life, or at least parts of it. What I liked is that the central characters were very credible and I grew to feel quite sympathetic for both of them even though at the outset I thought both of them quite unlikable. Towards the end of the month I devoured the latest novel in Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy series: POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY. I think I say it every time but this is probably the best yet: funny, scary, sad…and a ripper of a yarn as well as offering very immersive observations of life during The Troubles.  Interestingly both of these were audio expertly narrated audio books, by Lucy Price-Lewis and Gerard Doyle respectively, which only added to my enjoyment.

The rest, in reading order 

I had some other terrific reads as well, indicated by an asterisk in the below list

  •  *Sulari GentillCROSSING THE LINES (a very clever ‘meta’ book in which two novelists and their fictional creations blur the lines between what is real and what isn’t)
  • *Elly GriffithsTHE CHALK PIT (a fascinating look at underground living and some more of the Ruth & Harry soap opera which series fans will enjoy)
  • *Gianrico CarofiglioINVOLUNTARY WITNESS (a highly readable non-procedural novel featuring an Italian lawyer who does his best for his client without becoming actively involved in the investigation in the way people familiar with American legal thrillers would be)
  • *Denise MinaTHE LONG DROP (a beautifully written novel about true ugliness and evil in the shape of Scotland’s worst serial killer)
  • Shari LapenaA STRANGER IN THE HOUSE (my book-club’s choice this month was a ‘meh’ read for me, full of portents, clichés and unbelievable goings-on)
  • *Vaseem KhanTHE UNEXPECTED INHERITANCE OF INSPECTOR CHOPRA (a great mix of light and serious featuring India’s answer to Hercule Poirot alongside a baby elephant)
  • *Ann TurnerOUT OF THE ICE (the Antarctic setting of this standalone thriller is well depicted but I found the rest of the book, particularly the juvenile behaviour of the main character, a bit of a slog)
  • *Holly ThrosbyGOODWOOD (A light-hearted novel, offering a great sense of place – small town Australia – and a lyrical sensibility suited to its songwriting author)
  • Sue Grafton Y IS FOR YESTERDAY (the penultimate offering in the alphabet series is too long and, for me at least has some questionable morals,…but I’ll be back for Z all the same)

Other bits and pieces

Thanks to the equally instructive and entertaining Clothes in Books I learned a new word: bonkbuster. I love learning new words and integrating them into everyday life.

I really have had a lot of time on my hands lately so tidied up the blog and finished off a previously abandoned set of review indexes by Location. All the books I have reviewed here or at Fair Dinkum Crime appear on one of the country pages and for Australia and the US I’ve broken them up further by state. I’ve really done it more for me than for you but hopefully some of you will find it useful too.

Having read all the nominees in the respective best adult novel category for this year’s Davitt Awards and Ned Kelly Awards I declared my personal winners last weekend. I managed to be in sync with the judges of the Davitts, congratulations to Jane Harper and THE DRY, and but was not quite in step with the judges of the Neddies who chose Adrian McKinty’s POLICE AT THE STATION AND THEY DON’T LOOK FRIENDLY. But as I thought this an excellent book too I’m very happy to congratulate Adrian. Both shortlists offer some great reading though so don’t limit yourself to just the winners.

Progress on bookish goals

aww2017-badgeAustralian Women Writers Challenge: Read & Review 25 books 

11 down, 14 to go. Might be able to make it yet

image borrowed and edited from http://theviewfromthebluehouse.blogspot.com.au/2010/02/classic-crime-curriculum.htmlParticipate 8 times in Crimes of the Century

4 down, 4 to go. Was looking good for this one but the host of this meme is taking a break and I haven’t been motivated to do this on my own.

mount-tbr-2017Read 36 books owned prior to the start of the year and/or reduce the TBR to less than 100 (from 131)

Poor progress on this one. I have read or consigned to the DNF pile 18 books that I owned prior to the start of the year (out of 49 books in total) but still have 134 books to read. Three more than I had at the start of the year. Sigh.

Image sourced from http://mumsgrapevine.com.au/2014/01/7-ways-to-buy-australian-made/

Buy no physical or eBooks from stores outside Australia (Audio books are my exception)

So far so good.

USAFictionChallengeButtonRead at least 10 books eligible for my virtual tour of the US via its fiction (each one set in a different state and by a new-to-me author).

Have read nothing eligible since January this year so not likely to achieve this goal.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

What about you? How is your reading going for the year? Anything from August that you want to shout about? 

Posted in Adrian McKinty, Ann Turner (Aus), books of the month, Denise Mina, Elly Griffiths, Gianrico Carofiglio, Michael Robotham (Aus), Shari Lapena, Sue Grafton, Sulari Gentill (Aus), Vaseem Khan | 15 Comments

Review: Y IS FOR YESTERDAY by Sue Grafton

I have to give Sue Grafton kudos for having a plan and seeing it through over the course of 30 odd years. Top marks for follow-through. But these days I’m half-wishing she’d failed. Because then I wouldn’t find myself wading through books I no longer have much interest in. I’m at the point where reading them feels like more of a duty than a joy but being this close to the end I  am compelled to finish. The 25th installment of private investigator Kinsey Millhone’s adventures is…well…long. And not very mysterious. And morally questionable. And did I mention the length?

The main story centres on a group of self-absorbed teenagers who morph into a group of self-absorbed young adults. In 1979 the teens attended a private school and were part of a cheating scandal, a brutal rape masquerading as some kind of ‘joke’ and a murder. Ten years later – in Kinsey’s ‘present day’ – one of the boys who admitted to the murder has been released from prison (having been tried as a juvenile he had to be released at the age of 25). As soon as Fritz McCabe is free his wealthy parents receive a demand for $25,000 and a copy of a tape which depicts their son and another boy repeatedly raping a girl they know while another of their friends holds the camera and a fourth acts as director. The McCabes hire Kinsey to track down the extortionist before the tape is sent to authorities. This mess gets a fairly unsatisfactory resolution but only after a lot of meandering.

The part I found morally questionably was that I could only imagine the events described on the 4 minutes of tape and my stomach was churning (it’s a lot more graphic than this series generally is). The fact that no character who watched it seemed terribly bothered by what it depicted make my skin crawl. I suppose I can buy that Fritz’ parents would put the needs of their son over the possible brutal assault he engaged in, but what’s Kinsey’s excuse? The whole ‘private investigator’s code of ethics’ thing doesn’t really do it for me I’m afraid. It didn’t help that every time some new person watched the tape or remembered their part in its recording the horrible events were described again in graphic detail and I was reminded that everyone seemed more worried by the extortion than the rape.

In addition to all of this Kinsey is being stalked by a killer who featured in this novel’s predecessor which provides an opportunity for the book to be a lot longer than it needs to be. For example a swag of time is devoted to the killer’s ex-wife – who is living somewhere in the US under an assumed name – bringing some damning evidence to Santa Theresa and all I could think was that all the faffing about with speeding and traffic snarls and airport parking could have been avoided if the police met her at the airport as any sensible person would have suggested. Other elements that add word count rather than plot advancement include the constant repetition of the central story from viewpoints that are only marginally different from each other and some nonsense about homeless people camping in Henry’s backyard.

I have long thought that Grafton backed herself into a corner by choosing to restrain herself in time with the series and each installment only adds to my conviction. By the time we get to the traditional epilogue of Y IS FOR YESTERDAY Kinsey has limped (metaphorically) into 1990 which means that the 25 tales of her cases have spanned eight years. The result is that there’s precious little time for genuine character development, though Kinsey’s loner lifestyle has been given a bit of a nudge recently with the discovery of previously unknown extended family who continue to play a role here. But the time factor has meant, for me at least, an increasing disconnect with the books. I was around 16 when I first read A IS FOR ALIBI and Kinsey was 30. I liked the depiction of a self-motivated young woman tackling life on her own terms. Now, when I am about to turn 50 and Kinsey is 38 it feels like she has nothing much of interest to say to me. To be fair to Grafton I think I’ve changed more than the series as these days I am far more interested in why people do the things they do whereas Kinsey’s stories have always been about what has happened and who did it. The ‘why’ has always been handled in a fairly perfunctory way, as it was again here.

I can’t help but wonder if this series would have found a more natural end if Grafton hadn’t been so bold as to propose 26 installments from the get-go. Which brings me back to my admiration for Grafton’s early vision and ability to bring it to fruition. I know there are series with more than 26 titles but I can’t think of another author who publically announced at the beginning of their career how many books they planned to write. And then did it. You go girl.

So despite my misgivings I’ll be back for the end which the internet tells me is to be called Zero and will be released in 2019. That sounds a bit dull to me so I shall ponder the possibility that the internet might be wrong and Z will stand for Zealot and we will meet present-day Kinsey on the trail of the murderous cult leader who held her captive in northern California since the early 90’s.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Narrator Judy Kaye
Publisher Random House Audio [2017]
ASIN B06XP2VQ9Z
Length 17 hours 11 minutes
Format audio (mp3)
Book Series #25 in the Kinsey Millhone series
Source of review copy I bought it

Posted in book review, Sue Grafton, USA | 13 Comments