Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

hausfrauhausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Random House, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a very picky reader, and I tend not to jump on the hype wagon, but I was very curious about this book, a debut novel written by a poet about a disaffected and depressed ex-pat housewife who’s lived in Switzerland for nine years. It was a very compelling read though it wasn’t surprising plot-wise.The opening section of the book makes it very clear that Anna Benz is a twenty-first-century stand-in for Anna Karenina or Madame Bovary.  She’s an American living in a suburb of Zürich with her three young children, and her life revolves around her family, her German language classes, her therapy sessions, and her multiple extramarital affairs.

Part of what propelled me was trying to figure out if there was any resolution/ explanation for what made Anna so completely passive, and I’m still a bit mystified by that question. Part of me kept on reading because the discussion of language and therapy sessions were interesting. The continual discussions of fire, on the other hand, seemed a little too on-the-nose for me.

One complaint is one plot development that felt forced into the story to force a confrontation. That confrontation could have happened in any number of ways, and the one Essbaum chose seemed extreme.

I find a hell of a lot more stories about male ennui and midlife crises than female ones, and for that I think this novel has its place. But I worry that the trend of “complicated female characters” is veering into the complicated-for-the-sake-of-being-complicated territory. Anna is extreme, but Essbaum keeps pointing out that Anna’s wounds are largely self-inflicted. I would have liked some more hints about what made Anna so depressed and self-destructive. I mean, I have my theories, but the novel is pretty quiet on the subject. This was a very good read.

 

Beast in View by Margaret Millar

beastinviewBeast in View by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1955

This edition: Carrol & Graf, 2004

I borrowed this book from the library.

Beast in View was fantastic. It’s the first Millar I’ve read though I’ve heard of her many times. Though the psychological theories underlying some of the characters have changed in the last 60 years, the book feels fresh to me. It’s a short, thrilling read, and I was very impressed.

Beast in View takes place in a very strange section of Los Angeles, the section occupied by the agoraphobic, rich heiress Helen Clarvoe. She lives in a shabby hotel alone and avoids most human contact (I think she’s agoraphobic), and she receives a mysterious phone call from a woman named Evelyn who exploits her fears of being entirely alone forever. Helen enlists the help of her father’s former investment adviser, Mr. Sheepshear, who tries to track down the mysterious Evelyn for Helen, but the book doesn’t stay with the search exclusively. Instead Millar jumps from perspective to perspective, covering Helen’s family and her brother’s work associates.

Millar is great at dialogue: the pace is brisk. Tone-wise, I felt slightly off-kilter throughout the story. This is not a typical hardboiled detective in LA kind of story: it’s more disturbing to me, and it’s written from the perspective of a female character, which is a huge difference.

I’ll wrap up with just one description of many that I loved, and it gives you a sense of the similes of which she’s fond as well as the menacing/disturbing Los Angeles that she captures:

The desk clerk, whose name-plate identified him as G. O. Horner, was a thin, elderly man with protuberant eyes that gave him an expression of intense interest and curiosity. The expression was false. After thirty years in the business, people meant no more to him than individual bees do a beekeeper. Their differences were lost in a welter of statistics, eradicated by sheer weight of numbers. They came and went; ate, drank, were happy, sad, thin, fat; stole towels and left behind toothbrushes, books, girdles, jewellry; burned holes in the furniture, slipped in bathtubs, jumped out of windows. They were all alike, swarming around the hive, and Mr. Horner wore a  protective net of indifference over his head and  shoulders. (p 18-19)

Other reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog and The Game’s Afoot.

Thankfully Millar’s books are being reissued later this year.

 

 

Life or Death by Michael Robotham

life and deathLife or Death by Michael Robotham

Mulholland Books, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

Life or Death is a high concept book: Audie Palmer escapes from prison the night before he is scheduled to be released after serving a ten-year term for participating in an armored car heist where several people died. The seven million dollar haul has not been found in the over ten years since the robbery.  The book takes place in two timelines: first there is Audie in the present day being chased by various people who believe he has the money, among other reasons. Second there is Audie’s past, including his relationship with his criminal older brother Carl and his first love, a woman who works for his crime lord boss.

It took me a while to warm up to this book because the plot felt a little too familiar to me: it’s pretty reminiscent of Jo Nesbø’s The Son and one of the past seasons of Justified. Audie is a noble character with a very tragic story: he was in a coma for months recovering from a gunshot wound to the head after the robbery. Robotham also has the habit of of laying on the meaningful passages a bit thick in the Audie storyline in the past. Those sections just felt a little clunky to me, and I found myself reading quickly to get back to the current chase section.

Robotham’s approach to characters,  because there is quite a large number of them, is to focus on a few key characteristics plus a few key events that have made them who they are. FBI special agent Desiree Furness, for example, is constantly described as tiny, and she is obsessed with her stature. That may be realistic, but it felt a little repetitive to me. Anyway, despite  yelling “Oh, please,” to myself a few times as I was reading, the story was very compelling for me. Robotham is very good at ratcheting up the tension, and eventually I became very emotionally invested in Audie’s plight.

I’m a picky reader when it comes to thrillers– almost as picky as I am about books told in first-person.  Because thrillers have so much action, I usually find the characters get short shrift, but in this case, I was ambivalent about the book because Audie’s story seemed pretty familiar in the beginning. He definitely grew on me, and the book ended very strongly.

Other reviews appear in Mysteries in Paradise and Angela Savage.

Garnethill by Denise Mina

garnethillGarnethill by Denise Mina

Carroll & Graf, 2001

I bought my copy of the book.

 

Garnethill is the first in a trilogy of books featuring Maureen O’Donnell, a reluctant PI in Glasgow. She recently returned to work at her dead-end job in a ticket booth after a stint in a psychiatric hospital. After a night spent drinking with her friend Leslie, who runs a battered women’s shelter, she finds her lover Douglas, a psychiatrist, murdered in her living room. She is sort of a suspect in parts of the book, but basically she decides– foolishly at times– to investigate Douglas’s murder on her own without  help from her younger brother Liam and Leslie, both of whom are very protective of her.

It’s a book with heavy subject matter besides murder: Maureen was hospitalized after recovering memories of being abused by her father, the crimes involved women institutionalized in psychiatric hospitals, and Maureen’s family displays quite an array of dysfunction in reaction to Maureen’s abuse.  Thank goodness for the close relationships Maureen has in the book or the book would be exceedingly grim: her friends are funny and supportive, and Maureen herself has learned some productive coping mechanisms that help her as she is investigates the crime further.

My only quibble with the book is the rogue-PI turn the book takes: I’ve read that story before many times, and it seems a bit out of character for Maureen. The world the characters live in and their relationships is the strongest part of the book. I’m looking forward to reading lots more by Denise Mina. This book is the perfect antidote to the tortured-male-antihero books/shows I’m growing a bit bored of.

Other reviews appear in Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Bitter Tea and Mystery, and Reactions to Reading.

Hush Hush by Laura Lippman

hush hushHush Hush by Laura Lippman

William Morrow, February 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Hush Hush is the latest installment in the Tess Monaghan PI series by Laura Lippman. Some of the characters overlap from the standalone books as well, so it feels like I’ve  been in the fictional world for quite a long time since I’ve read a huge chunk of her books. That being said, I have to say my main enjoyment of the book comes from returning to characters of whom I’m very fond.

The plot centers around a mother who was found guilty by reason of temporary insanity in the suffocation death of her daughter in a hot car ten years before the book takes place. Melisandre Dawes returns from life abroad after being in a mental institution, and she is financing a documentary about her life and her family. Her older daughters, now teenagers, are understandably conflicted about seeing their mother again. Their father has sole custody of them, and he is recently remarried with a young baby.

The storyline about the bad mother resonates with Tess because she is a mother to a three year old daughter now, and the echoes in her life as well as in the lives of other characters deepens my appreciation for the book. I was more surprised by the emotional depth of this story than I was about learning Melisandre’s story. She was a mysterious character, but she didn’t hold my interest throughout the entire story. I think this book works best for people who’ve already read books in the series.

 

My #1955book: The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

talented ripleyThe Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith

My edition: Vintage, 1999

Originally published 1955

The Talented Mr. Ripley has been languishing on my shelves for a number of years, and the #1955book challenge led me to pull it off the bookcase. Thankfully, I forgot a great deal of the Matt Damon/Jude Law version of the movie as I settled into the story, but even knowing the story did not keep me from being surprised by the novel.

Tom Ripley is a young American of modest means with some sort of background as a con artist whom we meet in New York City in a bar where he is approached by the industrialist father of Dickie Greenleaf. Mr. Gleenleaf the father hires Tom to travel to Italy to convince his wayward son to return to the United States to take his place in the family boat-building business and be closer to his ailing mother. The rest of the book details Ripley’s adventures and crimes in Italy.

What most impressed me was the tone: I was in the head of one of the strangest characters I’ve read about, and it was profoundly disturbing and at times seemed utterly normal. I was also impressed that I didn’t grow bored of the rich-expatriates in southern-Europe storyline which I’ve found tiresome in other stories. Ripley is fascinating, and the pacing and the plotting he takes on were quite intricate. I’m also a fan of briefer books, and the length of this one felt much shorter than contemporary books I typically read.

All in all, this was a good foray into a more classic story: the psychological work, the creepiness of the plotting: this book stood out a lot more than the only other Highsmith I have read. 

Other reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, Past Offences, and Existential Ennui (lots of old covers in this post).

I bought my copy of the book.

Echoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin

echoes deadEchoes from the Dead by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Öland Quartet book 1

Delta, 2008

Originally published as Skumtimmen, 2007

It’s quite early in the year, but it’s obvious to me that Echoes from the Dead is going to be one of my favorites reads of the year. It’s an enchanting story, it has very vivid characters, and it weaves the past storyline with the present extremely well.

The book begins with the unsolved disappearance of five-year-old Jens Davidsson years before: he escaped from his grandparents’ back garden and encountered an old man calling himself Nils Kant. Nils Kant’s story, beginning with his childhood and his crimes, takes up the other half of the book. Jens’s depressed mother Julia returns to  Öland, the vacationer’s island in the Baltic Sea, when her father Gerlof says there have been developments in the case. The story alternates between the present day missing persons investigation- unofficially carried out by Gerlof and his daughter Julia–and the story of Nils Kant, whose story remains mysterious as well. It takes quite a bit of skill to have two story lines keeping me guessing.

Theorin is so good at capturing the slightly fantastical story, reflecting Gerlof’s love of scary stories told at twilight since he was a boy. The tone works so well and Theorin earned so much goodwill in my eyes that one little bit of action at the end of the book didn’t bother me if it had been in another story. Julia, Gerlof, and even Nils Kant are nuanced characters who I cared about immensely, and that doesn’t happen regularly.

Highly recommended.

Other glowing reviews appear in Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, EuroCrime  Reviewing the Evidence, and Reactions to Reading.

I bought my copy of the book.

A Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

rule against murderA Rule Against Murder by Louise Penny

Also published as The Murder Stone

Minotaur Books, 2008

I really enjoyed the first three installments in the Gamache/Three Pines series, and since it’s been a significant amount of time since I read the series, I decided to see if my opinion has changed. I haven’t read anything quite this cozy in awhile, and I was a bit resistant to the book because of that.

A Rule Against Murder takes place in a remote vacation lodge on a lake. It used to a be a hunting and fishing lodge, but when the current owners took over, they established “a rule against murder,” to atone for the vast quantity of taxidermied animals in the attic. Inspector Gamache and his wife are visiting the lodge to celebrate their wedding anniversary, and the only other guests are an extended family there for a reunion. One member of the family is murdered by the stone in the alternate title, and Gamache’s vacation is cut short to solve the mystery.

My favorite part of the book was learning more about Gamache’s backstory (his childhood and his parents), but the actual investigation was not the strongest part of the story for me. There’s a lot of psychological conjecturing and summarizing of character’s personalities that feels a tad heavy-handed to me, and that comes down to my bias in favor of more twists in a plot. I hope the next installment gets back to the village of Three Pines!

I borrowed this book from the library.

The Chessmen by Peter May

chessmenThe Chessmen by Peter May
Quercus, February 2015
Book 3 of the Lewis Trilogy

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

This particular installment of the Lewis Trilogy focuses on former detective inspector Fin McLeod’s young adulthood, first at school in Lewis and then his first years at university in Glasgow. He was a roadie for a Celtic rock band until one of its members was lost in his small plane. The discovery of the small plane in an ingenious way starts the murder investigation in the present storyline, but the bulk of the book takes place in Fin’s past.

Looking back at the series as a whole, I prefer the first two installments to this one. The setting of the Isle of Lewis is still vivid in The Chessmen, but it didn’t feel as vivid action-wise compared to The Blackhouse and The Lewis Man. While I learned much about the Lewis Chessmen, this particular book did not include a setpiece as stunning as the guga hunt in The Blackhouse. I think, character-wise, it’s also difficult to get into this book because the focus is on Fin’s young adulthood where he was, understandably, quite self-centered. And part of me is disappointed in the book because I was expecting more storyline about Fin’s relationship with Marsaili or his newly-discovered son: those threads are still open as the story concludes.  It’s still a very good series, but I was not as floored by The Chessmen as I was by the earlier books.

 

 

The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel

forgotten girlsThe Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel, translated by Signe Rod Golly

Grand Central Publishing, February 2015

Originally published as De glemte piger, 2011

Book 7 in Louise Rick/Camilla Lind series

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Louise Rick and Camilla Lind series pairs a police detective with her friend a freelance journalist, and this particular investigation centers around the death of a woman who supposedly died years before while in the care of a home for mentally challenged children. Both Rick, who recently joined a new division of the police to solve old cases, and Lind, her friend the freelance journalist, interview people surrounding the crime, which broadens to an investigation of a number of unsolved disappearances, assaults, and more.

This is an action-packed book, and the writing was fairly decent. My only hesitation in recommending it is that it’s difficult to jump into the series at this late point. I felt a bit removed from the main character of Louise Rick because she has quite a rough backstory that obviously has affected her deeply. I’m not sure that any part of her past was normal, and that makes her seem a bit unbelievable to me. Believability at the end was also a concern for me.

It’s a book with a horrifying story based in reality (the mistreatment of mentally challenged individuals in institutional settings), and in that ways it reminds me of several other Danish books I’ve read in the last year. This is a good read, but it’s not the best entry to the series.