Icarus by Deon Meyer

icarusIcarus by Deon Meyer, translated by K.L. Seegers

Atlantic Monthly Press, October 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’ve hopped around the Benny Griessel series by Deon Meyer– a couple early ones in the series, a couple of the most recent stories, and I liked this one a great deal though it’s not as thriller-y in terms of plot twists as what I usually like.  Meyer focuses on an array of police officers, and they are fairly rounded. I think someone who’s read all of the books (I think we have some overlapping characters between series/ standalones) would understand the characters a bit more than I did with the quick summations peppered throughout the story.

Icarus is about the murder of a tech entrepreneur: he founded a company that provides alibis for adulterers, and the premise has a bit of the ripped-from-the-headlines feel. The other main storyline involves a client’s interview with his lawyer just before Christmas, and for a large portion of the book it’s unclear what that interview has to do with the murder investigation. It’s the story of a family of wine-growers, and besides learning a lot about grapes and the wine industry in South Africa, I learned a great deal about a strange, strange family. The twists in that storyline were more interesting to me than the police investigation storyline.

In the police-procedural part of the book, Meyer spends a great deal of time in Griessel’s head as he starts drinking again and tries to stop drinking again. I thought that the scene with Benny’s psychologist didn’t feel shoe-horned into the story though it played the part of providing a snapshot of just how hard it will be for Griessel to stay sober if he continues in his current job.

Finally, one drawback of reading the electronic version of this book is that I couldn’t easily flip between the story and the glossary. The glossaries in this series are full of context that I would miss.

Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich

voices chernobylVoices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Alexievich, translated by Keith Gessen

Dalkey Archive Press, 2005

Originally published as Tchernobylskaia Moltiva, 1997

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’m one of those readers that tries to sample award-winning books/ authors from time to time, and it usually takes me several tries before I find something that I’m in the mood to read. Case in point: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, recent Booker-prize winner, was a little too disorienting for me to finish, but that’s not to say I won’t try it when my attention span is a bit longer. I was a little leery of the heaviness of Voices from Chernobyl by Nobel laureate Svetlana Alexievich, but the fact that it’s an oral history made it easy to put it away for a time to get ready to go on.

This is an oral history, and Alexievich calls it her attempt to get at the feelings behind the events. It’s harrowing, it’s enlightening about the horrible things that happen alongside acute radiation poisoning, and it’s enlightening about the government response to the fire at the reactor at Chernobyl. Also, I will say that the first story was absolutely the saddest for me. If you can make it past that, it’s not quite as emotionally raw. It’s still harrowing reading though.

Oral histories are a mixed bag for me. I’ve read some that are simply too long and detailed (Live from New York: An Uncensored History of Saturday Night Live), I’ve read bits of some that are too dismaying (I read bits of Elena Poniatowska’s La noche de Tlatelolco  in college), but Voices from Chernobyl felt like the right length and the right sort of mix of stories. She collected stories for three years roughly ten years after the fire, and she gets stories about before, during, and looking to the future as people grieve as well as get sick with the effects of radiation exposure. It’s a little about politics, it’s a little about how to live with suffering, it’s a little about science. It’s a very affecting book, and I am eager to find what gets translated into English next.



Fear Not by Anne Holt

fear notFear Not by Anne Holt, translated by Marlaine Delargy

Originally published as Pengemannen, 2009

Vik/Stubo book 4

I borrowed this book from the library.

Anne Holt writes a couple intersecting series set in Oslo as well as standalones, and they are one of my current favorite series even though I can’t point to an individual book that’s blown me away. I’m a fan because I’m fond of the characters and, of course, I want to know how Hanne Wilhelmsen was shot and paralyzed. Because the US books were published way out of order (1222, book 8 in the Wilhelmsen series came first in the US), I’m hooked.

But back to the Vik/Stubo series. Johanne Vik is an academic who trained as a lawyer and consults with the police, and she is married to Adam Stubo, a policeman who’s first wife and child were murdered. The home-life sections of the book are quite drama-laden, or at least there is a lot that’s happened in the past, as well as Vik’s understandable anxiety about her children, particularly her neuro-atypical daughter Kristiane who is threatened in this book. In some ways it reminds me of Camilla Läckberg with the home and work sections, but the Läckberg book I have read seemed too heavy on family life. The home life is very well-balanced by the rest of the story, which involves a series of murders that are meant to look as suicides or accidental deaths excepting the Christmas Eve murder of a very popular minister. The one thing that does feel out of balance in the book is the sheer number of characters and threads in the first half of the book. I mean, I expected them to be tied together, but it was a disorienting read for a long middle stretch of the novel.

There are a few things I really like about this series: I like seeing characters who are good at what they do. I like seeing investigators who aren’t just haunted by alcohol. I like complicated plots, but ultimately I was not blown away by this particular solution.

Finally, Hanne Wilhelmsen does make an appearance, and I’ve looked up other books that haven’t been translated yet and have discovered that the fact that Holt co-authored a few installments might be holding things up. In any case, I’m tracking down as many English translations as I can find.

Finally, a note about the title. The Norwegian title is Moneyman, which gives a better sense of the conspiracy involved in the book than the English title of Fear Not, which seems to focus just on the minister’s murder, which, while important, is not the entire story. Like I said, there is a lot of plot to be unravelled.


Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

mildred pierceMildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Originally published 1941

This edition: Vintage Books, 2011

I bought the book.

I picked this book to broaden my reading horizons and because I like the incentive of getting to watch a movie version or two. I’m pretty sure I haven’t read anything hardboiled from Cain, Hammett or Raymond Chandler, and I figured a book centering on a woman would be a little less annoying than others. I’m so far from annoyed: I really liked this odd novel which Wikipedia calls hardboiled and which I would call spare and quite bitter. It’s not a story that centers on a crime, though there is some crime.

This is a book about southern California during the Great Depression. The land dealings, the subdividing, the failing fortunes of Mildred’s husband and her lover Monte Bergaron, mudslides and more make it feel like a book about its time and place.

At the beginning of the book, Mildred splits from her husband the troubled real estate developer and has to figure out a way to support herself and her two daughters. I don’t come across books that go into such detail about money and running a business as this: there is lot of information about running a chicken-and-waffle place and a catering business. The story also follows Mildred and her romantic partners, and more importantly, her relationship with her daughter Veda. It’s probably the most dysfunctional mother and child pairing I’ve read about, and it’s quite gripping. You can tell this was written when psychoanalysis was in vogue. If you’re interested in the psychology of the book, I liked this post. 

The turnings of the plot weren’t the draw, though every third of the book seems to switch, which kept things interesting. It felt very open though Mildred held so much back: Cain was in her head.

I haven’t read anything quite like Mildred Pierce. It’s dark. It’s psychological. It’s about money and sex and thwarted ambition. It’s really quite remarkable.


Linda, as in the Linda Murder by Leif GW Persson

linda murder

Linda, as in the Linda Murder by Leif GW Persson
Translated by Neil Smith
Doubleday, 2013
Originally published as Linda — som i Lindamordet, 2005
Evert Bäckström book 1

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’ve been mulling over this book for over a week now: in part that’s a sign that there’s much to delve into in this book, and in part it’s because my reaction is so mixed. Persson dedicated this book to Sjöwall and Wahlöö, and I feel like this book was part homage to the Martin Beck series and part a whole different animal: this is the most procedural-heavy writer I’ve come across. Though the book has a lot of pages, the story passed briskly in parts and felt slow in parts. There are some flourishes I liked a great deal, but overall I’m left feeling a little overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the book.

Linda, as in the Linda Murder focuses on the murder of a trainee police officer in Smaland. Evert Bäckström , a comedically horrible character from Stockholm somehow ends up leading the investigation in the summer months. I found Bäckström a bit easier to take in this book than in He Who Kills the Dragon, the next entry in the series. His attachment to his goldfish, was ridiculous to balance out his extreme sexism, etc. And his particular ending was satisfying.

The book goes into detail into the investigation with the national police team and the local team, much like the other Persson novels I’ve read. While this makes the book realistic to a certain degree, it makes it a slog for me. I could have done without the shenanigans in the police hierarchy, and the “voluntary” DNA collection from possible suspects went on a long time. I understand the point Persson was making about the sketchiness of the police’s actions, but he could have made differently. I think I prefer procedurals to be a bit less realistic than what Persson writes.

Finally, I will say that I was a fan of the ending, particularly the coda to the story. I needed more of the character of Lisa Mattei and other voices of reason in the story. The ridiculousness of Bäckström and several other characters could have been tempered a bit more.


Reading Persson has made it difficult for me to  watch hourlong crime dramas. I can spot the clues a mile away after being awash in information while reading this book.

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

vanish instantVanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

Originally published 1952

This edition: International Polygonics Ltd, 1989

I borrowed this book from the library.

I’ve found the first Margaret Millar novel that didn’t quite work for me. I was still wrapped up in the plot and the characters and the writing, but it didn’t seem as brilliant as Beast in View, How Like an Angel, or The Fiend. I may be overly critical because the bar was so high after those three books, but I will say that this was loads better than lots of other stuff I’ve tried this year.

Vanish in an Instant begins as a story about a weird mother-daughter dynamic. Virginia is in jail for murdering her lover Claude, an older man with money, and the protagonist of the story is her defense lawyer Charles Meecham, hired by her wealthy and eccentric mother from California. The action takes place in a thinly-disguised Ann Arbor, Michigan, named here Arbana. Millar gets the wintry-ness of the setting down, and I’m assuming that’s because she grew up not far away in Kitchener, Ontario.

The story turns into a what-really-happened story when Meecham doubts the confession of a dying man, Earl Loftus, the day after he’s retained to represent Virginia. It turns into a kind of PI novel because Charles isn’t really on the case once Virginia is no longer a murder suspect. 10110Meecham is a bit of an outsider, not in the town, but outside the strange relationships in Virginia’s circle.

Millar is so good at painting desperate characters: that is what has stayed with me the most instead of the mechanics of the plot. Everyone feels a little bit off, which kept me reading. Everyone’s motive is called into question, which is suspenseful, but it got a little tiring. When everyone is lying, it feels like a bit much to me.

I have one more Millar waiting on my shelves, Banshee, but I think I’ll try some other classic crime author before I get back to her.


In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

bitter chillIn Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward

Minotaur Books, September 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

There is so much I liked about Sarah Ward’s debut novel In Bitter Chill. I’m fond of police procedurals, which this is in part. I liked following the team of police investigators (solo detective stories are not my favorite right now). I’m also a fan of the central character of Ruth Jones, a professional genealogist. She’s curious but not a careless investigator. Her life has problems, but it isn’t overly messy. But overall, what I liked was the tone: it could have easily become a melodramatic or sensationalistic story about child abduction, and instead the story is very matter-of-fact about a series of strange events.

The book opens with the suicide of the mother of a young girl who disappeared nearly thirty years before. Ruth Jones enters the story because she disappeared at the same time but returned. She remembers very little about her disappearance, and I’m thankful that the book doesn’t rely on too many flashbacks to the abduction. It’s much more unsettling to have gaps in the story, I think. This is a story full of gaps and strangeness because of the length of time between the abduction and the suicide and because of the secrets the police and Rachel uncover during the story.

In Bitter Chill is one of my favorite reads of the year: it’s suspenseful, I like the array of characters, and I am very much looking forward to book 2.