Some Luck by Jane Smiley

Some LuckSome Luck by Jane Smiley

Knopf, 2014

I borrowed this book from the library.

As the year draws to a close, I wanted to read more American fiction both for the USA Fiction Challenge and just for a break from the Scandinavian stuff I read so much of. I’m very glad I read this book. After a few reservations in the first half of the book, I was very impressed with this book.

This particular book has a broad sweep: every chapter covers a different year in the life of Walter and Rosanna Langdon, farmers in rural Iowa. The nearest village is Denby, population 214. The sweep of the story doesn’t sink in until about halfway through the book as World War II begins: the first half is a story of farm life and their family. (I didn’t think the sections from the perspective of the characters as babies were so successful, and I will admit that the Great Depression chapters were a hard read purely for the subject matter). As time marches on and the children get bigger, their stories take off.

There are a few set pieces in the latter half of the novel that are simply gorgeous as one character or another takes a step back and looks at their lives or the land within their view, and I feel like I’m in the hands of a gorgeous writer at those moment: I can’t include an excerpt because it would give away a bit too much of the plot. As much as I feel some of the characters are unknowable, I’m very much invested in the story and these characters. The mysteriousness arises just because this is a novel with a large cast of characters: Smiley can’t get into everyone’s story in just one volume. Book 2 comes out next year.

I’m reluctant to say more about this book because I don’t want to give away significant plot arcs, but I will say that the story broadens as some of the characters move away from home and the years proceed (the book starts in the 1920’s and ends in 1953).

What Never Happens by Anne Holt

what never happensWhat Never Happens by Anne Holt, translated by Kari Dickson
Grand Central Publishing, 2008
Originally published as Det som aldri skjer, 2004, also published as The Final Murder
I borrowed this book from the library
Vik and Stubo book 2

I’m a huge Anne Holt fan, even though I started with a book far into the Hanne Willhelmsen series, 1222. This series runs concurrently with the Willhelmsen series, just outside Oslo, with detective Adam Stubo and his now-wife Johanne Vik, a profiler who just gave birth to their first child. Adam leads the investigation into a series of murders of public figures: a tv talk show host, a politician, and an upcoming television news figure. Vik, on maternity leave, consults unofficially on the case.

First for the positives: Vik and Stubo’s homelife with a newborn is spot on: the exhaustion, the hormones, the craziness induced by the sleeplessness. Also, Holt humanizes almost all of her characters and has much to say about how police investigations, even if you’re not charged, turn your life upside down for no good reason.

But ultimately, the ending felt a little unsatisfying because the murderer seemed too unrealistic. This may be my serial-killer-storyline fatigue talking, or the murderer seemed especially unrealistic because the other elements of the story felt more so. I loved the first two thirds of the book but not the final third.

Other reviews appear in DJ’s Krimiblog, EuroCrime, Crimepieces, and Mysteries and Paradise.

Wrap-Up Post for 2014 Global Reading Challenge

global reading challenge 2014_2I completed the Global Reading Challenge with a few weeks to spare. I only took on the easy level this year, meaning one book for every continent, and that was the right level for me. I could spend enough time trying out books set in different countries without feeling like I was scrambling to meet the requirements. For my “seventh continent” I chose a historical crime novel.

And here are my reads. I’ll save my favorite reads of the year for a separate post.

1. Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland (Australia)

2. All She Was Worthy by Miyuki Miyabe (Asia)

3. Only the Dead by Vidar Sundstol (South America)

4. Devil’s Peak by Deon Meyer (Africa)

5. Red April by Santiago Roncagliolio (South America)

6. Don’t Look Back by Karin Fossum (Europe)

7. Present Darkness by Malla Nunn (Seventh Continent- historical)

The Snow Woman

snow womanThe Snow Woman by Leena Lehtolainen, translated by Owen Witesman

Amazon Crossing, December 2014

Originally published as Luminainen, 1996

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

I’m new to this series, which was recently translated nearly 20 years after it was published. Maria Kallio is a detective in Espoo, outside Helsinki, and her career background is both as a lawyer and a policewoman.

The case involves the mysterious death of Elina Rosberg, a feminist psychologist who is found frozen near the grounds of her home and workplace, the Rosberga Institute, where she conducts therapy and runs workshops for women only. The novel follows the stories of the women who are staying there over the holidays, including a woman escaping a religious sect and wanting custody of her nine children. Kallio also investigates other crimes along the way (an assault, an arson, etc), and the main police department storyline involves the release of a dangerous prisoner who is searching for Maria and her partner Pihlo.

Overall the book was only a fine read form me, for a number of reasons. I think the feminist ass-kicking heroine was a bit more novel in 1996 than she is today. And the two main storylines didn’t feel connected enough for me. The characters Kallio encountered in her investigation had the makings of good plotlines (the woman escaping the religious sect, an astropsychologist whose job is just as odd as it sounds), but overall the novel didn’t work for me.

Gunshot Road by Adrian Hyland

Gunshot Road by Adrian HylandGunshot Road by Adrian Hyland

Soho Crime, May 2010

I borrowed this book from the library.

Gunshot Road is one of my favorite reads of the year. It took me a bit by surprise because I don’t remember loving the first installment in the series, Moonlight Downs, nearly as much as I loved this one. The writing, the plot, and the intelligence of Hyland shine through in this book. I felt like he was very respectful of Aboriginal people, which was evident from his background working in the Northern Territory.

Emily Tempest begins the book with her new job as an Aboriginal Police Liaison, and she works for a boss who is new to the area after the man who hired her is injured on the job. She’s a bit uncomfortable in the position, as to be expected, and her first day on the job involves the apparently-open-and-shut case of the stabbing of Doc, an eccentric geologist in Bluebush. She’s convinced she was not stabbed by his drinking companion, and her investigation proceeds from there.

The action is quite good. A significant part of the novel felt like a thriller, but there are some times to catch your breath and get a better sense of these character’s lives. A trip Emily takes with the troubled teenager Danny stands out.

The characters aren’t caricatures, and they could have easily been: the mob at Bluebush, Jet the artist from Tibet, Cockburn the new boss who’s a stickler for regulations. It’s a long-enough story that Hyland had time to round the characters.

I could go on: the crime felt significant and I felt the effect it had on everyone involved in the investigation. I learned quite a bit about geology. And, finally, it’s a beautifully written book. I’ll close with one of my favorite passages of the book:

We made our farewells. Or I made my farewells–Jet just stood on the side of the road in her skinny singlet and big boots, shaking her head and muttering, ‘Aiee…This Emily Tempest.’

You can talk, I thought. Jet was taking to the relentless chaos of the borderlands– and there were all manner of borders out here: between black and white, the organic and the mechanical, the random and the damned–like a cockroach to a grease trap.

We left her in a cloud of dust. (p. 313)

Other reviews appear in Reviewing the Evidence, Reactions to Reading, The Game’s Afoot, Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, and crimepieces.

The Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

sweetness of lifeThe Sweetness of Life by Paulus Hochgatterer

Translated by Jamie Bulloch

MacLehose Press, December 2014

Originally published as Die Süsse des Lebens, 2004

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Hochgatterer is a child psychiatrist and novelist, and this particular book features both a child psychiatrist lead character named Horn and a police officer named Kovacs. They investigate the gruesome murder of an old man whose horribly disfigured body is discovered by his five-year-old granddaughter. This is not a story that just follows the investigation and the psychiatric sessions with the mute granddaughter: we get a lot of background about the main characters, and during the course of the investigation, it strikes me just how odd most of the people in the small town where the murder took place are. It’s a small town in the Alps, and it feels quite isolated. Horn and his wife moved there from the city so she could pursue her musical career at a neighboring orchestra, and Kovacs learns more and more about people’s sad lives in the town.

Unlike books by Jonathan Kellerman, who also worked with children but as a psychologist, not psychiatrist, The Sweetness of Life doesn’t seem overly sensationalistic: the murder is gruesome, there are other violent and disturbed people in the town, but it doesn’t single out one violent perpetrator. It’s more ominous a story than that. Also, Hochgatterer spends quite a long time describing the therapy sessions with the young granddaughter, and for that I’m grateful. It was interesting to see how play therapy with mute, traumatized children may work.

This isn’t an action-packed novel, and it’s not just a moody piece either: it’s thoughtful, and, to be honest, a pretty bleak portrait of a town. I’m interested in reading more.

Other reviews appear in EuroCrime, Reactions to Reading, and The Crime Segments.

Act of Passion by Georges Simenon

act of passionAct of Passion by Georges Simenon, translated by Louise Varèse

Originally published 1947 as Lettre á Mon Juge

This edition: New York Review Press Classics, 2011

 

Act of Passion is the most disturbing book I’ve read this year. It’s one of Simenon’s non-Maigret novels, ones he called romans durs. It’s also rare in Simenon’s novels because it’s a first person story.  Dr. Charles Alavoine after being found guilty of manslaughter (the act of passion in the title), writes a letter to the examining magistrate explaining how actually he planned the murder. The letter is his plea to be understood, and it’s pretty obvious that someone who wants to declare how he planned murder is not the most easy character to read.

It’s a book about a criminal’s mind, and the story gets worse as it goes along as we approach the recap of the murder. Alavoine’s view of women is quite horrid, and his crime is quite horrible as well. I couldn’t stop reading in part because this book is such a contrast to the Maigret series and because I mistakenly thought the narrator would have a flash of insight.

A few things in the novel place it in 1947 for me:  (1) the focus on psychoanalysis; (2) Alavoine’s journey from the provinces to a larger city strikes me as particularly of the period; and (3) the mention of tubercular husbands..

It’s not a pleasant book. Alavoine is  not a sympathetic main character. And it’s a book where the main character’s rationalizations do not make sense to me either. I don’t feel like a psychoanalyst, but I do feel like a gawker by reading this very unsettling book.

Finally, a couple suggestions for further reading: first an interesting conversation in the comments about recommended Simenon novels see Asylum, and this lengthy piece in Open Letters Monthly discusses the romans durs along with a spoiler-laden discussion of this particular novel.

I borrowed the book from the library.

A Few Thoughts on the Serial Podcast

Serial is a podcast spin-off of This American Life, and this particular version of the series investigates the 15 year old murder conviction of Adnan Syed. He was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee in Baltimore, and the podcasts detail Sarah Koenig’s year-long investigation into the case.

I don’t typically read, watch, or listen to true crime stories because they either feel too formulaic (48 Hours Investigates) or too messy (this podcast). I like crime fiction both because it organizes messy stories of crimes and because sometimes it’s clear what really happened. In the eight episodes I’ve listened to so far, the holes in the investigation, the holes in the evidence, and the inconsistencies in witness statements make it seem like the task of finding out what really happened is impossible. Nevertheless, I’m in the Adnan-is-innocent camp despite Koenig’s attempted approach of being impartial. The trial excerpts and other interviews I’ve heard on the podcast make me see all kinds of reasonable doubt in the prosecution’s case, but, of course, I’m saying that without having been a witness to the six week trial. There is a lot that this podcast leaves out, but I’ve jotted down a few thought in general about the series:

  1. Re-investigating a crime that happened fifteen years ago is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to track down witnesses, it’s hard for those witnesses to remember back that far, it’s hard to find out what evidence has not been destroyed.
  2. Serial’s investigation must have been quite costly. The collect calls from Adnan in prison alone have to be pricey.
  3. As a long-time fan of Laura Lippman and David Simon, lots of the Baltimore County locations are familiar, including Leakin Park.
  4. I don’t have time to go down the Reddit rabbithole of people trying to solve the case. I do, however, recommend the blog of Rabia Chaudry, a friend of Adnan’s family who brought the case to Sarah Koenig’s attention.
  5. My favorite episode so far included a long conversation with Deirdre Enright of the University of Virginia Innocence Project Clinic. Her years of experience reviewing criminal case files was much more interesting to me than Koenig’s story of her thoughts about the case during the course of her investigation. I wonder what the clinic’s review of the file will yield.
  6. I’m not sure what the ending of the series will be: will it be more about Koenig or more about Syed.

All in all, I recommend this podcast.

 

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe

all she was worth

All She Was Worth by Miyuki Miyabe
Translated by Alfred Birnbaum
Kodansha International, 1996
Originally published as Kasha, 1992
I borrowed the book from the library.

It took quite awhile for me to find a translated crime novel from Asia I’d like to finish for the Global Reading Challenge– a problem I ran into last year as well. First of all, there aren’t so many crime novels written by Asians that are translated into English. Secondly, I tried a few novels I just wasn’t in the mood to read because their tone was too noir (Yoshida) or or something I can’t quite label (Higashino).

Despite the very disturbing cover, I liked this book. The story centers on a missing persons case: injured and recuperating police detective Honma investigates his cousin’s son’s fiancee’s disappearance, and the story revolves around overextended consumer borrowers who are harrassed by legal and yakuza bill collectors. From the description, the cover image seems a little on-the-nose.

The story is a bit slow and the plot relies a bit heavily on coincidences, complaints I feel like I make with other missing-persons novels, but Honma is an engaging character. Since he’s on leave from the police department, the book doesn’t get into office dynamics and instead focuses on his homelife with his young son and nanny (he was widowed a few years before the novel takes place).

Two aspects of the story make it feel particularly Japanese, one major and one minor: first is the background of the Consumer Finance Scare of the 1980’s, and second is Honma’s reliance on bullet trains. The easy credit part of the story is crucial to the missing persons case, and it sounds an awful lot like the housing bubble of the 2000’s. And the existence of bullet trains and the communities that grow around them stands out for me since I live in a part of the world without widespread train service.

Finally, I want to include the funniest bit from Miyabe’s author bio, “In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games and singing karaoke.” It reads a little like,”Authors: they’re just like us!”

Other reviews appear in Complete Review, Petrona, and Black Plume.

 

 

The Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

fourth secretThe Fourth Secret by Andrea Camilleri

Translated by Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa

Open Door Media, November 2014

Originally published as La paura di Montalbano, 2002

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a sucker for novellas or short stories featuring characters I really like, and this is an important installment in the Inspector Montalbano series for spoiler-filled reasons that I won’t mention. Montalbano unofficially investigates a series of industrial accidents that may not have been accidents after he receives a belated tip-off. He is driven by guilt because he was unable to prevent the death of one construction worker, and he’s also driven to investigate the accidents because he would like to outdo the carabinieri, the military police, who are also pursuing the accidents.

Wikipedia led me to find out that this story was one featured in a collection titled La paura di Montalbano, and I’m not sure why this translated edition is just one story instead of six. Reading just a one-off makes it a bit difficult to say much more about the story or the context, but I enjoyed the story.