New Books by Jo Nesbø and Donna Leon

I’m catching up with a few thoughts about new books I’ve read recently: first a short thriller by Jo Nesbø, Blood on Snow and next the latest installment in Donna Leon’s long-running Inspector Brunetti series set in Venice, Falling in Love.  They were both fairly short, quick reads, which means I don’t have lots to say about them, hence the round-up post.

blood on snowBlood on Snow by Jo Nesbo, translated by Neil Smith

Knopf, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Blood on Snow is a short book, the start of a new series that is being adapted into a movie by Channing Tatum’s production company. Olav is a freelance fixer/ hitman, and this particular story finds him on the run from a previous employer or two and developing feelings for one of his targets. Because it’s such a short book, the action feels a bit more improbable than it would feel in a longer Harry Hole novel, but it was still an entertaining thriller. Overall, I like the Hole series better because the characters are more developed, and I’ve invested more time in them, I think.

Another review appears in EuroCrime.

And from a short thriller, I moved on to a book that focused more on the setting and characters than the mystery. The investigation in Falling in Love centers into a stalker of an opera star that Brunetti helped years earlier, Flavia Petrelli.  While I’m not a huge opera aficianado, Leon covers enough about the central opera of Tosca that I didn’t feel lost.

falling in love

Falling in Love by Donna Leon

Atlantic Monthly Press, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

It’s nice to return to series when I’m a bit distracted by everything else. I liked that the book didn’t focus entirely on the tracking of Flavia’s stalker and instead spends time on Brunetti’s relatively undysfunctional family life and the more dysfunctional workings of his police department.

Leon is quite critical of the tourist trade in Venice and what it means for the city, and the actual story doesn’t glorify the city at all. It’s an antidote to the tourist-version of Venice, for sure. I enjoyed this entry, but I probably would have enjoyed it more if I’d read more of the Flavia-centered books earlier in the series.

Another review appears in Crimespree Magazine.

The Dying Beach by Angela Savage

dying beachThe Dying Beach by Angela Savage

Text Publishing, April 2015

Jayne Keeney book 3

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a big fan of the first book in the Jayne Keeney series, and I really liked this third entry in the series as well. Jayne, an Australian ex-pat who started a PI business after teaching English in Bangkok, is now running an agency with her partner Rajiv, and this particular installment finds them in the Krabi  on vacation. when Jayne discovers that her diving tour guide was found drowned at Princess Beach, she convinces Rajiv that they should take up the investigation pro bono, and Rajiv, the business-minded member of the agency, gives her a week.

The structure of the narrative is not traditional in the sense that Savage jumps from character to character and allows us to see quite a lot about the crimes that happen during Jayne’s seven day investigation. The big mystery returns to Pla’s death, the first in the series of crimes that occur. And, of course, the title is a mystery for quite some time as well.

There are lots of parts of the book that appeal to me. First, Jayne is not only just a touch of a bad-ass, she’s also human but not overrun with personality flaws. The environmental advocacy work that runs through this book feels organic, and the investigation of the environmental hazards of economic development are as unsettling as the other violent crimes in the book. The settings are very vivid, and the set pieces at a Buddhist temple fair, the Krabi Snake Farm, and a Buddhist funeral are very vivid. All-around this was a very satisfying read.

Other reviews appear in Whispering Gums and Fair Dinkum Crime.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner

this house of griefThis House of Grief: The Story of a Murder Trial by Helen Garner

Text Publishing, April 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

This House of Grief follows the trial of Rob Farquharson, accused of murdering his three sons by driving them over a cliff into a dam in 2005. After a very brief introduction, we follow Garner observing Farquharson’s trials, which cover over five years. It’s the story of her opinion of him and the trial, but he is still a mystery by the end of the book. She talks a lot about the reactions of the jurors and the journalists with whom she sits, and it’s an interesting position. She doesn’t cover the court system regularly, but she has written a couple previous true crime books.

This is an appealing book because it distills the appeal of court-watching or crime-fiction-reading: Farquharson is still unknowable even through the years of trials and appeals. And figuring out how people cope with something so horrible happening to them is another draw.

Garner never interviews Farquharson’s ex-wife Cindy Gambino, but she does grow close to her parents. Garner is also quite honest about the toll of observing the trials for such a horrible crime: facing that horror is draining, and her comments about her own thoughts as well as the reactions of her fellow journalists and her young companion Louise for the first trial stand in for the variety of reactions people have to such a trials.

This is a brief book that was quite a quick read for me, and it one that has stayed with me, which is not so common. It’s not a book about the downfalls of the legal process or trials, though that happens in part (the trial proceedings are very detailed and technical in parts) It’s not a book that gets inside the mind of a killer, though there is some of that. It’s not a book that is sensationalistic about a horrific murder: it’s compelling because it’s a horrible crime and it’s hard to contemplate how Farquharson could have done it.  I’ll definitely be reading more Helen Garner.

Thanks to Kim at Reading Matters for recommending this author.

 

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.