How Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

howlikeanangelHow Like an Angel by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1962, this edition International Polygonics, Ltd, 1982

Source: I bought my copy of the book.

How Like an Angel is a spectacular book: the plotting is great, the characters are incredibly memorable, and I was totally surprised by the resolution. It’s one of the most memorable books I’ve read, and I think it’s even better than the only other Millar I’ve read, Beast in View.

The protagonist is Joe Quinn, a PI with a gambling problem who ran out of money in Reno, gets a ride to southern California, and visits a religious cult called the Tower after being dropped off in the mountains. Millar is great at capturing the desolate scenery, though I have to admit that I am not one for descriptions of local trees. Quinn spends the night at the compound, leaves for another small town after being hired by Sister Blessing, a member of the Tower, to find out the whereabouts of a Patrick O’Gorman of Chicote, a relatively nearby oil town. It’s a missing persons case that’s about five years old, and Quinn travels between Chicote and the Tower in a pretty confounding investigation.

Millar creates vivid characters, and their dialogues are witty and actually interesting. That’s quite a feat, given that I tend to lose my train of thought during some interview scenes in mysteries.  Millar doesn’t mock the members of the Tower, which was refreshing as well. The mystery stayed pretty mysterious for me, and I felt that something was off about quite a few characters without being able to come up with a theory of the case.

While in some ways the books seems like a book of its time (there’s a reference to crazy tailfins on cars, it doesn’t seem to be a world that’s seen the dawn of the women’s movement), in another way it’s contemporary in its criticisms of the prison industrial complex. Most importantly, it doesn’t feel like a contemporary book because it’s not gruesome in its depiction of crimes nor is it structured the same way. Much like when I read A Fatal Inversion earlier this summer, I finished How Like an Angel and thought to myself how incredibly structured it was. And the title is quite a bitter take on people. I’ll stop now: this is a great book, and there’s much more I could say. Just read Millar.

 

 

To the Top of the Mountain by Arne Dahl

top mountainTo the Top of the Mountain by Arne Dahl, translated by Alice Menzies

Originally published as Upp till toppen av berget (2000)

Vintage Crime/Black Lizard, August 2015

Intercrime book 3

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher

I’m a fan of this book about a big, major, complicated set of crimes that sees the A-Unit of the first two books in the Intercrime series back together again. Compared to what I’ve been reading lately, it’s bigger, more brutal, and full of characters, as the A-Unit is made up of a large number of investigators. To the Top of the Mountain is in part a police procedural focusing on the elite A-Unit that deals with big crimes of an international nature and in part a sort of conspiracy thriller. It begins with Paul Hjelm and Kerstin Holm investigating a killing in a crowded bar and soon becomes a much larger investigation into drugs and child pornography. It’s difficult subject matter, but thankfully there are lots of plot threads to give the reader a break from the more harrowing parts of the story.

So far my favorite of the series is still the opening book, MisteriosoThe investigation and the novel felt brisker than this one, and the crimes weren’t as hard to read about.  I also think it’s best to start the series from the beginning instead of reading this installment first. There is too much backstory about the detectives and about the A-Unit itself to make this a good starting point.

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

book speculationThe Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

St. Martin’s Press, June 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I don’t browse much in bookstores as much as I used to: the closing of Borders, having small kids, and moving to a smaller town have all thwarted my browsing time. Instead I read a lot of blogs and check in with Twitter.  I’d seen a few tantalizing bits of reviews about The Book of Speculation, which itself is about an old, slightly waterlogged book that tells the story of a long-ago traveling circus, but I tried to avoid reading the reviews in their entirety because I wanted to read this blind, if you will. I’m so glad I did. It would be a much cooler story if I had come upon a physical copy of this book about coming upon an intriguing book by chance!

The Book of Speculation starts very strongly: Simon Watson, a librarian in a small coastal town  is struggling in his job (budget cuts) and struggling to save his deceased parents’ home that is starting to fall off a cliff into Long Island Sound. A mysterious package from Iowa arrives on his doorstep, and the attached note says some of his ancestors’ names appear in this book. The mysterious book storyline in the past and the heap of problems in Simon’s life in the present are both compelling stories.

I have to admit that I have missed the flood of circus/carnival/magician movies in the past ten years and more. I never got around to Night Circus and Water for Elephants probably because I heard too much about the stories from friends, which is part of the reason I wanted to read Speculation without knowing too much. I’m not sure if this book treads over common ground with these books, but by itself I found it an interesting read. Swyler got the balance between past and present right for me: it didn’t turn too magical or odd in the past, which was one of my fears. The connections (common images, etc) between past and present never feel too forced or too pat either. The book leaves some things open, which I liked. The story was very involving for me, and I didn’t feel the pacing lagged, which I sometimes find in non-thriller/non-crime books.

Since I can’t place this book in the context of other circus stories, I’m trying to come up with other contexts for it. It reminds me a bit of Bee Season by Myla Goldberg in terms of a focus on an odd family with lots of drama and sort of deep themes. Finally, I have to say it felt a bit odd to read a book about the wonders of this antique book on an e-reader. It made me feel a bit guilty for not reading it in print.

 

The Snowman by Jo Nesbø

snowmanThe Snowman by Jo Nesbø, translated by Don Bartlett
Knopf, 2011
Originally published as Snømannen (2007)
Harry Hole book 7
I bought my copy of the book.

After a few detours to the shorter, stand-alone stuff Nesbø has published in the last year or so, I’m finally back to the Harry Hole series for the very strong entry The Snowman. I understand why Nesbo wants to branch out: it’s a bit ridiculous how much danger Hole and his loved ones and colleagues can be exposed to during the course of the series, and it’s got to be draining to plot out something as intricate as The Snowman. Focusing on novellas including new characters has to be refreshing.

But back to the book at hand: it’s a very thrilling thriller, though I’m not enamored of serial killers generally. I was surprised almost the whole way through– I could predict maybe two twists, but that’s pretty good. I think I liked this installment in the series because Hole wasn’t on so completely a downward spiral and because there was some unexpectedly humane treatment by the police department, which is not something I expect in this series where police corruption has been a common theme. The theme of fatherhood and father figures was also a nice break from the more action-packed parts of the novel as well.

I like this series the great deal, and I think it’s impossible for me to pick a favorite. Part of it is because I tend to read them in quick gulps so even if parts of a book are not my favorite storyline, I read through it so quickly that the parts I like stick in my mind more.

 

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

little lifeA Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Doubleday, March 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I read and was impressed by A Little Life, a very brutal and long story that’s been getting lots of coverage in blogs and mainstream media outlets. I tend to miss the big books, both because of size and because I’m a little leery about overly-hyped books, but I’m glad I read this one. You have to be prepared for lots of violence and repetition over the significant length of the book, though.

A Little Life begins as a story about four friends, all male, who meet in college, and who all have great ambitions in their artistic or legal careers. After an extensive opening section with the four characters finishing college and beginning their lives in New York City, the character of Jude, with a mysterious past that damaged him physically and psychically (he has a pronounced limp and is intensely reticent of his past before he began college at age 16), becomes the focus.

I’m not the first to mention that the book is a bit of a fairy tale: lots of horrible things happen to the main characters, and lots of fantastically good things happen to the characters. There isn’t much middle ground. It’s a bit odd to read a book that feels unrealistic in this way.

My biggest criticism of the book is that  it’s maddening to read such a long book that could be reduced to the subtitle: Complex PTSD, the Novel. Jude is so damaged and so unwilling to grapple with his abusive past, that his adulthood is almost more painful than what actually happened to him. I read somewhere else that Yanagihara wanted to make a point about the limits of male friendship: Jude and his friends don’t get him to grapple with his past, and it seriously stymies their lives and their friendships. That’s well and good, but using the vehicle of this lengthy novel to make that point feels a bit like overkill. I may be missing something about the art of melodrama or critics calling it the great American gay novel because of its reliance on melodrama, but I think a book half of the size could have been just as effective and make the same points about Jude and his friends.

Finally, I want to dig into my disappointment with this book a bit further. Of course part of the draw of this book is trying to understand a character like Jude who in some ways overcomes a truly horrendous childhood filled with abuse and exploitation, and I feel like a get part of the story. In the last few months I watched a documentary called Family Affair by Chico Colvard that also addressed coping with childhood abuse and trauma, and that felt more rounded an approach to the issue. I also remember being disappointed by Middlesex when Eugenides left out lots of the story about the hermaphrodite Callie as she grew up. I think both Eugenides and Yanagihara are skipping out on research or something. 

Additional pieces about this book that I found interesting include this piece in Vulture about Yanagihara’s inspirations for the novel, Garth Greenwell’s piece in The Atlantic about this novel as the great American gay novel, and finally, an ambivalent piece about the book by Lydia Kiesling in The Millions.

 

 

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine, My #1987book

fatal inversion

A Fatal Inversion by Barbara Vine

Bantam, September 1987

I borrowed my copy from the library.

A Fatal Inversion is my first Barbara Vine (and I’ve only read one Ruth Rendell that I remember- sort of: From Doon with Death). I figured it would be a good pick for me because I read that this book was heavy on psychological suspense, and it popped up on a list of Top 100 Crime Novels of the Century. Thankfully I agree with the awards and list accolades: A Fatal Inversion is a fine read that grows in my estimation the further I am from it.

The story takes place during an incredibly hot summer in 1976 in England at a country mansion that nineteen-year-old Adam inherited from his great-uncle after his first year at university. He spends the summer with a small group of friends and acquaintances, and the book focuses on three main perspectives: Adam, his friend Rufus, and their new acquaintance Shiva.

The descriptions are very detailed, and the mood of the story from 1976 is quite hazy, lazy and sunny.

Adam closed his eyes and turned his head away from Anne. A down-stuffed duvet in a printed cotton cover lay over them. It had been a quilt at Ecalpemos, faded yellow satin, brought in by Vivien from the terrace when the rain began. Quilts were what you lay on to sunbathe that summer, no for warmth on beds, but slung for lounging comfort as it might be on some Damasene rooftop. Night after night they had lain out there in the soft, scented warmth, looking at the stars, or lighting candles stuk in Rufus’s wine bottles, eating and drinking, talking, hoping, and happy. That summer–there had never been another like it, before or since (p. 57).

The story begins with the discovery of human skeletons in a pet cemetery at said country mansion in 1987, and the story about Adam in 1976 will eventually tell what happened and whose skeletons were discovered over 10 years later.  It’s obvious early on who is guilty, but Vine doles out details of the complete story in the past quite slowly– and effectively– to make this a very involving read. She has a lot to say about guilt and degrees of guilt, and it would make for a great book club discussion.

You have to be able to stand self-involved young adults to be able to get into this story, and thankfully this feels like a condensed, creepy version of The Secret History by Donna Tartt. I much preferred this book to the Tartt. The story is heartbreaking, the plotting is insanely good, and the ending is so apt. I love the ending. It’s really a masterful story.

Thanks to Rich at Past Offences for hosting this monthly Crimes of the Century reading challenge. I’ve picked a lot of female writers I hadn’t read much of before, and I’ve been pretty excited by all of them (du Maurier, Allingham, and Highsmith).

 

 

 

 

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

unlikely eventIn the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

Knopf, June 2015

I borrowed the book from the library.

Some authors have earned such a tremendous amount of goodwill from me, I’m willing to try their new books even after a long gap. (But I’m not sure that I’m ready to read Go Set A Watchman.) I’m fairly certain I’ve read almost every Judy Blume novel since I was 9 or 10, and while I don’t remember her adult novels so clearly, her books for kids are super-memorable.

In the Unlikely Event is a story sort of based on Judy Blume’s life: she grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in the flight-path of Newark International Airport, in the 1950’s during the time of a major plane crash. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say as much because the cover is pretty on-the-nose.

Blume’s stand-in is Miri, a teenager living with her single mother and her grandmother in the apartment downstairs. There’s a large cast of characters surrounding Miri: her friends, her family, and several other people in Elizabeth, so there are stories about the plane crash from many perspectives. It’s a coming-of-age story with the background of dealing with a horrible plane crash in her neighborhood, and Blume’s strength is in creating realistic characters. Some aren’t totally fleshed out because her focus is on a teenage girl who doesn’t know everything about older people’s lives, but that’s not a problem with the story.

I really liked this book: I could tell that it was a story that wasn’t just dashed off, and it didn’t tell stories about a tragedy just for the sake of drama.

I’m counting this as my entry for New Jersey for the USA Fiction Challenge. It’s a reading challenge I’ve been neglecting this year, but I hope to make more progress before the end of the year.