Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Smilla's Sense of Snow, by Peter Høeg

Smilla's Sense of Snow is a book I read when it first came out, but having recently TiVo'd the movie (and stopping it before the end), I realized that I wanted to read it again.

The book starts with the death of a little boy, Isaiah, who lives in the same building as Smilla Jaspersen in Copenhagen with his alcoholic mother.  He had plunged from the roof of the building, leaving behind only footprints. Smilla, knowing that Isaiah had a fear of heights, and examining the footprints, realized that there's no way that Isaiah would be on the roof she begins to try to sort out the mystery of what happened. Her investigations take her into the dark and dangerous world of corporate secrets and conspiracies, but even with her freedom and life at stake, she has to get to the bottom of it all. But that's not all there is to this book. It's also an examination and critique of life in Greenland both before and after Denmark granted the Greenlanders home rule in 1979 as well as an attempt to understand environmental changes affecting Greenland.

While the mystery starts out strong (I enjoy a good conspiracy-type thriller to a point), what really carries this book is Smilla's character -- she's like an early Lisbeth Salander (from The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) who doesn't let anyone get in her way. Smilla is a misfit and has an affinity for other misfits, and like the later Lisbeth, has her own sense of morality and justice.  The thriller part of this book will keep you reading, but at some point it becomes kind of science-fiction-ish which for me was a bit of a problem. However, it's very readable and you won't want to give it up until it's over.

I'd recommend it mostly to fans of Scandinavian crime fiction. It's not your average thriller/suspense type of novel, and people who could care less about Greenland politics, culture and science may find it a little tough going. Otherwise, it's a good way to spend a few hours.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Scarlet Women, by J.D. Christilian

Ho-hum. Yawn.

1870s New York City is the setting for this book.  A prominent man comes to a discreet attorney's office to ask for help in finding out what's happened to his wife.  It seems that she's disappeared, but shortly after she left, a prostitute was found with her throat cut in a warehouse wearing his wife's clothing.  Enter the attorney's best investigator, Harp.  He's paid a lot because he's the best -- but once he starts in on the case of the missing wife, he becomes more entrenched in the mystery of who killed the prostitute.  But there are people out there who don't want this mystery solved, none the least of which are the police.

Christilian's novel is good for its depiction of late 19th-century New York, especially regarding the status of women and their mostly limited options. It also offers a look into New York's criminal element of the time, which was often mixed with political corruption, especially that of the Tammany machine. However, the mystery element is just so-so and starts to be very predictable early on.

Another thing: I picked this book because it was likened to Caleb Carr's wonderful book The Alienist, which if you have not read, you need to do so.  The Alienist is set roughly in the same time period, in the same place, but is vastly different and heads above Scarlet Women in terms of writing, plot, characterization and historical reality.

If you are looking for a historical mystery set in New York, you might want to give it a try, but this one wouldn't be my first choice.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell

The opening scenes of this book are positively chilling, when at first a hungry wolf, away from its pack, is searching for food around the tiny village of Hesjövallen and chances upon a human leg. Then later, a researcher looking into the phenomenon of small towns and villages that are simply dying out stumbles upon the scene of a massacre -- with the exception of three people, everyone there has been gruesomely murdered. The only clue: a red ribbon that someone has left behind in the snow.  In charge of the investigation is one Vivian Sundberg.  Sundberg crosses paths with a judge named Birgitta Roslin, currently on sick leave for high blood pressure issues,  who reads about the slaughter in her local newspaper and realizes that the victims included her mother's foster parents. Birgitta wants to help the police, and as she goes to volunteer her information, she has unknowingly already started down a most dangerous path.

Now, if things had launched from that point in the usual Mankell style, I would have been reading with the usual high level of suspense tension that his works generally produce. However, Mankell seems to have some issues he wants to deal with, apart from just the decaying state of Swedish society. He takes the reader into a discussion of current philosophical divisiveness regarding  the future direction of the People's Republic of China, going from there into the plight of parts of post-colonial Africa, and although it all does tie into the story line, you sort of get the feeling that you're getting lectured to here at times.  And although eventually things do come full circle, the getting there just wasn't done in the usual Mankell style. The motivation of the bad guy didn't seem realistic, and neither did some of the actions of Birgitta, since she is supposedly someone who is meant to uphold the law. And there are a few too many coincidences at work in this novel.

Perhaps it's not fair  to judge this book based on others that the author has written, but you can't really help it in the long run. I love Mankell's work (and I've read a LOT of his books), but this one just didn't do it for me. But, since it's getting rave reviews at a lot of places, don't just take my word for it. I'm just one person swimming against the tide of popular opinion.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

No Birds Sing, by Jo Bannister

No Birds Sing is #4 in Jo Bannister's Castlemere series.  The series began with A Bleeding of Innocents, where we met the main characters Frank Shapiro, Liz Graham and Cal Donovan, all of the Castlemere police.

Although Castlemere is a small town, it seems to get its share of crime. This time around it's train robbing, dog fights, ram raiding (in which the criminals plow their car into a store window, grab the loot and scurry off), and sadly, a series of rapes directed at 40-ish, professional women.  The team certainly has its hands full, trying to stave off this wave of crime, but for two of the team things spin out of control, making their jobs even more difficult.

The opening sequence of the train robbery in this book is very well done, but the rest of the book is just so-so, definitely not one of my favorites by this author. Nor is it one of my favorites in the world of British police procedurals. What is has going for it is the author's positive views on the post-rape experience,but the rest is pretty much formulaic and predictable, with not a lot of oomph mystery-wise or plot wise. 

I would recommend the book to people who have started the series and are intent on seeing it through to the end, but probably not to anyone else.  There are much better police procedurals out there that are more worth the reading time. 

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Box 21, by Anders Roslund and Borge Hellstrom

Having read somewhere that fans of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo would also like this book, I picked it up. It's nothing like Stieg Larsson's book at all.  In his novel, there's a mystery to be had as well as a strong heroine who lives by her own inner sense of morality and never wavers. Here, what you've got is a police procedural, a story of revenge and betrayal, and at its heart, an ethical and moral dilemma. That's not to say that this isn't a good book (it is), but it's a different animal altogether than Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The main focus of this novel  centers around the sex-slave trade. Young girls Lydia Grajauskas and Alena Sljusareva lived in Lithuania until promises of good jobs in Sweden brought them there, only to realize the first night on the boat trip to their new home that they had been horribly misled. They find themselves locked in the rooms of a house, prisoners, kept there by a nasty piece of work named Dmitri, brutalized into submission and forced to perform twelve times a day for various regular clientele.  Their situation has lasted three years and comes to a head one day, bringing the police into the situation, beginning a story that will absolutely make you cringe and want to look away as you read it. But you can't.

Aside from Lydia and Alena, the main characters in the novel are policemen, especially  Ewert Grens, a detective who has been obsessively gunning for a criminal named Jochum Lang who years earlier, caused Grens' partner Anni to live in a permanent state of brain damage and to be confined to a wheelchair. Grens is a puzzle to his co-workers -- his crime-solving rate is high, and he's good at his job, but since Anni's accident, he's been a loner, spending his time as a chronic workaholic, finding some solace in the music of a pop singer from the 1960s. As Grens works the case involving Lydia and Alena, he comes into possession of some  information that leads him to a critical juncture both in his life and in his career. His partner, Sundqvist, can't figure out what's going on until an order from above sends him off to find out the truth.

This is a dark book all the way through to the last page, which actually made my blood run cold. There are no feel-good or warm fuzzy moments here, no happy endings, and you will definitely have food for thought after you've finished. It's well written, the plotlines hang together well and all in all it is a great read.
I'd recommend it to people who like Scandinavian crime fiction, or crime fiction in general on a somewhat more gritty level than the usual fare.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Author debut: Mania, by Craig Larsen

To make this whole thing perfectly fair, the author contacted me (via goodreads) and asked me if I'd like to read a copy of his book. I didn't turn him down.  I also told him that I'd review it here -- I don't believe a solicitation was made on his end.  As it turns out, this one I happened to like, and I am not just saying that because he sent me a copy. I'm a picky enough reader that  I'm out of the habit of accepting just any book from anyone.  Trust me. I have a pile of ARCs sitting on the floor of my closet that I started to read and put down because they were sooooo bad that I couldn't make it past the first chapter. But that's not the case here.

When I read a suspense/mystery novel, I know I'm into it and liking it when the author keeps me in a state of suspended tension throughout the book. Mania had me so wrapped up that I started it shortly after dinner and didn't stop reading it until I had finished.

Actually, I thought this book was quite a fun read, and consider that this isn't my usual fare, I think that says a lot.

The main character, Nick Wilder, is a photographer for the Seattle Telegraph, and is generally on hand to collect shots other papers can't get.  He was young when his parents died, and came to depend on his brother Sam, with whom he has always been very close. One night after he and Sam were together in downtown Seattle, Nick and Sam are attacked by a rough-looking homeless man. Nick comes out of it with a few injuries, but Sam is dead, Nick's a bit cloudy on what exactly happened, and as you go through the book, he continues to flash back on that episode, as well as others that haunt him. Nick's girlfriend Sara tries to ease his fears but he's still uneasy. There's much more to the novel, but it's hard to summarize without giving away the show.

The dark atmosphere of this novel is reflective of Nick's internal darkness throughout. The author's writing and the level of suspense he creates  will keep you reading. It was fun as a reader to try and piece together events playing out in Nick's mind while trying to figure out what's really going on. Don't let the flashbacks and returns to the present bother you -- they're necessary to the overall story and the author pulls it off  so you shouldn't be confused, although this issue of the flashbacks was what most reviewers tended to complain about. I see that a lot in books with flashbacks -- it's like for some people if the narrative isn't completely linear, they get easily confused.

Overall, a fun read that I can recommend to suspense & mystery readers.

I can highly recommend this novel. If you like to read suspense or mysteries,  this book is one you should not miss.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The Red Dahlia, by Lynda LaPlante

The Red Dahlia is second in a series to feature DI Anna Travis, behind Above Suspicion, which I own but haven't yet read, although I don't think I missed anything.  This was an outstanding mystery novel...perfect pace, building suspense throughout, characters that seemed real, and a story that kept me reading until I finished the book.

While out delivering the last of his newspapers, a young boy makes a gruesome discovery.  The police arrive and discover the body of a young woman, severed in half, bloodless, and with grotesque cuts on either side of her mouth.  One of the local newspapers gets an anonymous letter that relates the case to the old unsolved case of the Black Dahlia in Los Angeles, and Anna Travis and her team realize that they have their work cut out for them. Anna's gov, Morgan, is hospitalized, and DCI James Langton, with whom Anna had worked before and with whom she had some history, takes the lead in investigating the case. A profiler brought in to help realizes that the killer is going to strike again if the police do not find him, but the police have their hands full just trying to find out about the victim. 

The novel is absolutely a mystery lover's novel. The first half of the book involves the team getting up to speed with the Black Dahlia case and trying to find out as much as they can about the victim, while the second half is all about locating the killer after an anonymous caller reluctantly leaves information about the murder.  The mystery is very tightly plotted and the writing is excellent.  LaPlante's characterizations are very well drawn, never being dragged down to the level of cardboard cutouts, the action never stops and the payoff is worth the 400+ pages of reading. I can most highly recommend this book -- it is probably one of my favorite mystery reads in a while.

A Splash of Red, by Antonia Fraser

This book is number three in the series that features Jemima Shore, writer and star of her own television show, Jemima Shore Investigates  -- a kind of news program. In this installment, Jemima has decided to disappear for a while so that she can get some research done, and is invited to stay in a flat owned by Chloe Fontaine, who is a well-known writer herself. Chloe, it seems, is going off on a short trip to write an article for a trendy magazine, so Jemima can have the place all to herself. No one knows she's there, so it seems perfect.  But not too long after Chloe makes her departure, Jemima receives a mysterious phone call.  And then another. And then she finds out that Chloe has disappeared, and that no one knows where she is.  As Jemima is contemplating all of this strangeness, she happens to return to the flat after some time off to do research at the British Library's reading room, and finds Chloe dead in the bed.  So who killed her? Jemima has plenty of people in mind as suspects and wants to get to the bottom of it all.

This series isn't my favorite, and this book was just okay. Antonia Fraser is a good writer, but she's better at nonfiction, I think. Her novels tend to be a bit wordy.  I never did guess who the culprit was, so that's a plus, but it seemed so long until we actually got around to it that by the end I just really didn't care. That's a minus. The story moved at a rather slow pace, which was very detracting. Plus something bothered me -- there was one character who was quite violent toward Jemima, hitting her, and then she went and made coffee for him. Not real, not even for the time in which it was written, in the 1980s. You'd think someone as intelligent and as independent as Jemima Shore would have raised a stink or acted differently, but no.

I don't know that I'd recommend this book for readers of modern-day mysteries -- the pace is very slow, the solution isn't very satisfying and it's an effort to slog through the over-wordiness of it all. I'll try more of Jemima Shore's adventures (since I have the whole series here), but it may be awhile.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Double fun: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie and The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley

Once again, here's another book I bought when it came out which has sat lingering on my shelves forever.  I have to quit doing that, because this one turned out to be a gem -- an absolute gem of a book. Not only did I fall in love with the main character, Flavia deLuce, but the author is one heck of a writer.

Set in the English countryside near the village of Bishop's Lacey in 1950,  eleven year old Flavia lives with two older sisters and her father, the family factotum Dogger and the part-time housekeeper and cook Mrs. Mullet at a decaying manor home called Buckshaw.  Flavia's dad passes most of his time alone, collecting stamps and listening to music. Ophelia, the eldest sister, prides herself on her appearance, and then there's Daphne, who always has her nose stuck in a book. Flavia's mother died during a mountain-climbing trip in Tibet when Flavia was still very small, but her dad manages to hold the family together even though money is tight and the home needs major repairs. As the story opens, Mrs. Mullet discovers a dead bird with an antique stamp through its beak, and shortly thereafter, Flavia discovers a dying man in the garden. After all is said and done, Mr. deLuce is arrested, and Flavia's detective career begins in order to clear him.

What makes this story work is both the character of Flavia and the author's writing.  It's often hard to remember sometimes that Flavia is only eleven, and the word precocious hardly begins to describe her. Because she's 11, people tend not to pay attention to her, and she's the most scheming little thing you can imagine. Her mind never stops working, she is as relentless as a pit bull when she's on to something, and she's brilliant -- she's a master of chemistry at her tender young age, and she sees all  facets of the world around her in ways adults cannot.  She has this wonderful gift of being able to make pretty much anyone tell her anything.  At the same time, you get little glimpses into Flavia the little girl, such as when her sisters tease her, or when she thinks about her mother.  As far as the author's writing, even though his main character is this precocious 11-year old girl, he still hangs on to the realities of post-war England.  Dogger, for example, suffers what we would call post-traumatic stress disorder, after suffering through the atrocities of a POW camp.  The family home, Buckshaw, once a beautiful and elegant manor, has seen better days.  Bradley's characterizations are excellent, each person with his or her own voice and clearly-defined place in this story. And, most importantly, this story does not devolve into the realm of "cutesy" or sickeningly sweet at all. It's fun and yet at the same time, it's intelligent.

As far as the mystery goes, the whodunit is a bit transparent, but you really won't care because this book is so well written. You end up being engrossed in the world of Bishop's Lacey and in the deLuce family, and especially in Flavia, so while the core murder mystery is good, there's so much more going on that takes you over as a reader.  I can highly recommend this book to anyone -- definitely one of my favorites for this reading year.

**and now***

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley

First, my thanks to the Amazon Vine Review program for both offering and sending me this book.

Second in the series featuring young Flavia de Luce, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag has our young heroine embroiled in yet another sticky situation or two, trying to uncover the identity of a murderer who dared do the deed in the middle of a performance of Jack the Beanstalk at the village church. As it just so happens, Flavia and her family, including Aunt Felicity (a new arrival to this series) are in the audience watching as the death occurs. Flavia knows right away that the death wasn't natural, as does the family gardener and general man-about-the-house Dogger, and she sets about finding the killer.  But that's not all that Flavia knows, and as she uses her observations to help guide her, other mysteries, long kept hidden in the little village of Bishop's Lacey, begin to be revealed, perhaps not to some people's liking.

Once again Alan Bradley has done a fantastic job relating the story of Flavia deLuce, that child genius who was first introduced in his first novel, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. Bradley has not let up on his excellent writing, indeed, in this novel, the characters all become more real, more fleshed out, and he adds some new and quirky characters into the village of Bishop's Lacey.  The mystery element of this novel is much stronger and runs deeper than in the first novel, and the reader finds himself or herself this time with several suspects from which to choose, all with their own private motives for murder.  But once again, the strength isn't so much in the mystery, but rather in the other elements of the novel. For example, there's the  struggle of Haviland deLuce (Flavia's father) to keep the family home, Buckshaw.  There's also the introduction of a new character, Dieter, a former German POW working on a farm in the countryside, and how he came to be shot down over England during the war.  Then there's Flavia's deep-seated needed to find out more about her mother, dead since she was a very small child.  And Bradley hits on the exploitation of things that maybe should have been a bit more private by television producers for Auntie, the inside name for the BBC.

Let me just say that  many people complained about the lack of a true mystery plotline in the first novel of the series, or thought that the whole mystery thing was flat. Balderdash.  If you can just sit back and relax, and read around the mystery and think about what you're reading, you'll discover that there is more to these books than some precocious child playing Holmes here.  Bradley's captured a slice of time past and he does it well and most intelligently.  I can very highly recommend this novel, and now I'm just sad that I have to wait a year or so for the next one.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Red Widow Murders, by Carter Dickson

I happen to really enjoy these old books and have spent a lifetime collecting them. My take on books is this: just because a book hasn't been published in the last two or three years doesn't mean it's not necessarily great.  Just because books show up as bestsellers doesn't mean they're necessarily good.  And just because everyone reads something new and they say it's terrific doesn't mean everyone will like it.  There are so many older books that deserve a read but are overlooked -- often highly intelligent mysteries or novels that are written for people with a brain.  Sadly, there are too many of them that just fall by the wayside. Personally, I think that's a crime.  This series is one that true (and I mean true) mystery aficionados should not miss.

The Red Widow Murders is book three in the series featuring Sir Henry Merrivale (HM to his friends). And this one is a doosie. It seems that a group of people have gathered at the home of Lord Mantling, where nine of them draw cards to see who will spend a few hours alone in the so-called Red Widow's room, the scene of unexplained deaths going back to 1803. The cards are revealed, and it is one Mr. Bender who goes off to spend the night alone. Every fifteen minutes someone asks if he's okay, and he always answers. When time's up the other 8 people open the door, and there lies Bender, dead. But there was no way in or out of that room, and he'd been answering their queries the entire time. So how could this happen? Sir Henry Merrivale to the rescue, to uncover the truth.

Fun fun fun! There's something to be said about the pleasure of reading these old, vintage mystery novels, with their often elaborately-plotted crimes and solutions that even if you tried, you couldn't guess. Especially in this one, where there are a number of suspects, plenty of clues, and an equal number of red herrings left for the reader to sift through. The Red Widow Murders also offers its readers a great backstory which in and of itself is a bit chilling.

Unlike some of his other works, The Red Widow Murders isn't weighted down by a lot of archaisms, and it moves at a very nice pace. The characters are well drawn, the atmosphere is perfect, the story is a good one, and the mystery will leave you hanging until the very end. This one I can definitely recommend, especially to fans of golden-age mystery novels and of John Dickson Carr in particular. It's not a cozy novel by any stretch, and modern readers of mystery may find it a bit slow considering the fast pace of novels nowadays. However, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool fan of vintage crime, like me, it really is worth every minute you put into it.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The White Priory Murders, by Carter Dickson

Carter Dickson is the pseudonym for John Dickson Carr, who was a beyond-prolific author of golden-age mysteries.  As Carter Dickson, he wrote several books featuring the character Sir Henry Merrivale, HM to his friends, who manages to get caught up in the weirdest mysteries and impossible crimes.  This book is the second in the series; the first was The Plague Court Murders, which was actually quite good. I have a review of that book here.

The White Priory Murders begins with the death of an actress. She is found in a building close to an English country house, but here's the thing: the murderer left his or her footprints in the snow going in, but none ever came out. This fact, plus a few other simple clues, lead to a mystery where everyone has a motive, but everyone also has an alibi. Once the local police have a go, it will be up to HM to solve the case.

I love these old books, but they're so incredibly verbose as to at times become distracting. The murder mystery itself, however, is good and solid. There are plenty of suspects, plenty of motives, and thus a lot of red herrings for the reader to sort through. HM's unraveling of the whole thing at the end was very well done.

If you like golden-age mysteries, you should put this one on your reading list, or if you're a fan of John Dickson Carr and haven't yet read this one, you will want to do so. Modern mystery readers might become a bit impatient due to the overdone verbiage, but on the other hand, that's kind of a signature trademark with Carr in most of his books.

Overall, not bad, not one of my favorites of Carr's books, but still a pretty good read.