2013 Global Reading Challenge Wrap-Up

2013GRC_expertI’m happy to have completed the expert level of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge: it was a challenging challenge, and I discovered some great books along the way. I read three books from each continent, and my wild card continent (to substitute for Antarctica) was for books that take place in more than one country. Without further ado, here is the list of books I reviewed for the challenge:

North America

  1. The Power of Three by Laura Lippman (Maryland)
  2. A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry (New York)
  3. Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman (California)

Central & South America

  1. Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo (Argentina)
  2. The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero (Chile)
  3. The Silence of the Rain by Luis Alfredo Garcia-Roza (Brazil)


  1. The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths (England)
  2. Misterioso by Arne Dahl (Sweden)
  3. Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo (France)


  1. Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie (South Africa)
  2. Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley (Botswana)
  3. Black Star Nairobi by Mukoma Wa Ngugi (Kenya)


  1. Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto (Japan)
  2. The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang (China)
  3. Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage (Thailand)


  1. Food of Ghosts by Marianne Wheelaghan (Kiribati)
  2. Frantic by Katherine Howell (Australia)
  3. The Mistake by Wendy James

Wild Card (Multiple countries in one book)

  1. The Name of a Bullfighter by Luis Sepúlveda (Chile, Germany)
  2. The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö (Sweden, Czechoslovakia)
  3. The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri (US, India)

Now for a few observations about my reading:

  • This challenge is great for getting me to try new authors from countries I don’t typically read about, but I think I need to take a step back for the coming year and read one book from each continent instead of trying to find translated books from three countries in each continent. I hope to spend more time reading more of the authors I’ve discovered this year instead of pushing for a large number of new-to-me authors in 2014.
  • It’s difficult finding crime novels set in Asia that are translated into English from a multitude of countries. There are a few from Japan, but little elsewhere, or maybe I need to focus on lots of small presses or ebook only releases to find them. Africa was also difficult. I’m not sure how much of this is because of the lack of crime novels written in those countries and how much is related to what publishers decided to translate for the English-speaking market. I am thankful to my fellow challenge participants for suggesting so many interesting authors.
  • My favorite books of the challenge were by Laura Lippman, Ernesto Mallo, Elly Griffiths, Angela Savage, and Jhumpa Lahiri.

Thanks to Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise for hosting the challenge this year.

The Mistake by Wendy James

mistake jamesThe Mistake by Wendy James
Michael Joseph/ Penguin, 2012

The Mistake is not a typical crime novel: it’s the story of a forty-something mother who is being investigated in the disappearance of her infant daughter who was born when she was teenager. Jodie claims she gave up the baby for an illegal adoption, but she is under suspicion of the infant’s murder by the media and possibly by the police. This is a character piece, and James is good at getting into the heads of Jodie and her family. It’s very well-done, and it doesn’t rely on crazy plot twists like some other psychological crime dramas I’ve read. (I’m thinking of Gone Girl, of course). It’s the novel of being put through the wringer by the media, and James says some interesting things about not only the media but about class and being a middle aged parent. What I most appreciated was the tone of the book: James is very respectful of her characters and doesn’t seem to be manipulating them. She gives everyone a detailed story. This is one of my favorite reads of the year.

Other reviews appear in The Newtown Review of Books, Book’d Out, and Mrs. Peabody Investigates.

I bought my copy of the book.

Coincidentally, this is my last book for the 2013 Global Reading Challenge. I hope finish my wrap-up post soon, but the end of the year is busy, snowy, and laden with cold germs so far.

Behind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage

BtNBazaarBehind the Night Bazaar by Angela Savage
Text Publishing, 2012
Jayne Keeney book 1

When I last wrote, I was left a little cold by the gender problem in Havana Blue, so I decided to read something written by a woman that, I would hope, be a lot less sexist than my previous read. I was not disappointed in the least.

Behind the Night Bazaar tackles tough subject matter, including most prominently the sexual exploitation of children, but it’s a nuanced and smart portrayal of what does and doesn’t work on a national and international level to eradicate it. The main character is Jayne Keeney, an Australian who has lived in Thailand for a number of years and works as a private investigator after a stint teaching English in Bangkok. This particular investigation takes place in northern Thailand, and it starts with the murder of her Canadian friend’s lover.

Keeney is a well-rounded, smart but not perfect, ass-kicking heroine, and she owes a lot to Sara Paretsky’s V.I. Warshawski, whom Savage name-checks in the book. It’s refreshing to read a newer PI novel because I got back into crime fiction in the late 1990’s by devouring lots of Paretsky and Grafton novels. This is one of my favorite disoveries of my attempt to finish up the 2013 Global Reading Challenge.

I bought my copy of the book.

I discovered the Jayne Keeney series via Confessions of a Mystery NovelistEuroCrime, and a strong recommendation from reader Kathy D. Thanks!

The Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

silence of the rainThe Silence of the Rain by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
Translated by Benjamin Moser
Henry Holt, 2002
Originally published as O silêncio da chuva, 1996

I picked up this first novel in the Inspector Espinosa series as I’m in the final stretch of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge, and this is my first Brazilian crime novel. Espinosa works in Rio in a corrupt police department, which makes for an interesting set-up as he investigates the apparent murder of a wealthy executive in a parking garage. Several other crimes follow, and, interestingly enough, we as readers know that the executive actually killed himself. This doesn’t feel like a police procedural because Espinosa spends most of his time investigating in a roundabout fashion by himself, and sometimes he’s accompanied by Detective Welber.

Espinosa is an interesting character: age forty-two, divorced, a wanna-be bookstore owner, a man who relies on contemplative times in a crowded park by the port to determine which way to proceed in his investigation. It’s not an entirely rational or scientific approach, which makes the story entertaining. The hypotheses–or fantasies as Espinosa calls them– can go on a bit long in parts, but I think that is in part because we know that he’s investigating a suicide and coverup instead of a murder. I believe part of his approach is his coping mechanism for working within a police department he doesn’t trust, though he hasn’t left the force in 22 years.

The book touches on class issues (Carvalho, the deceased, is quite wealthy and his secretary who disappears is not) as well as how the police are viewed by the people of Rio (it’s a rare crime novel that admits that police are known to rough up the public) and how pointless some investigations are. Carvalho is not missed, the investigation does not proceed well, and there is a certain amount of a lack of resolution of the plot in the end. It’s not a frustrating ending, but it is not a neat and tidy one.

I borrowed this book from the library.

Other reviews appear in Confessions of a Mystery Novelist, Bitter Tea and Mystery, and Finding Time to Write.

The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang

diane-wei-liang-the-eye-of-jade1The Eye of Jade by Diane Wei Liang
Simon & Schuster, 2008
Mei Wang book 1
Source: Library

Mei Wang, a female private detective in contemporary Beijing where private detectives are illegal, is the main character of The Eye of Jade. It’s nominally a mystery centered on the search for a jade seal that allegedly was not destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, but the central case does not seem to occupy most of the story. Liang is more interested in describing life as an entrepreneur or as a government employee in China. Wang, a former employee of the Ministry of Public Security turned private investigator, is a part of both realms. There are several set pieces that are especially vivid, including Mei’s visits with several high-end antique dealers and Mei’s sister’s flashy wedding.

The other main part of the story deals with the Cultural Revolution and its aftereffects. Wang lived in a labor camp with her father before her mother was able to free her, and the jade of the title allegedly escaped destruction during that time. How the generation that lived through the Cultural Revolution, including Wang’s mother and friends, has adapted to life in China today is a crucial element of the story.

Liang is a former Chinese citizen who has written two books about Mei Wang as well as a memoir about her experience growing up in part in a labor camp during the Cultural Revolution. Other reviews of The Eye of Jade appear in The Game’s Afoot and Ficsation.

Frantic by Katherine Howell


Frantic by Katherine Howell
Pan Books, 2008 (originally published 2007)
Ella Marconi book 1
Source: I bought my copy.

I chose to read the first Ella Marconi book both to fulfill my remaining obligations in the 2013 Global Reading Challenge (just a handful of books to go to reach the expert level) and because I’ve read a number of glowing reviews on other crime fiction blog posts and comment threads. I really need to keep track where I read these recommendations in order to give proper credit: a goal for 2014.

While this book is called the first in the Ella Marconi series (Ella is a detective with the Sidney police), it feels like the majority of the book belongs to Sophie, a paramedic and mother of an infant, who goes about her work day and deals with her husband Chris, a police officer suffering from post traumatic stress after being assaulted on the job. Before the central crime in the book occurs I am worn out as we follow Sophie on her shift. The investigation in the book centers around the shooting of Chris and the abduction of their son, which also ramps up the tension in the novel.

Ella herself is a detective bemoaning her lack of interesting cases as the novel begins (she’s been a bit stymied because of her abruptness to a superior on a prior case), but those complaints are short-lived. Ella begins to uncover police corruption, and that arc I assume will be played out in the subsequent novels. I don’t know too much about Ella yet, but she’s an interesting, capable character, which is refreshing.

Frantic is a plot heavy book, which makes it difficult to review much beyond this point. It’s a brisk read with a galloping ending, and I’m excited to read the next book in the series.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

lowlandThe Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
Knopf, September 2014
Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I’m a big fan of Jhumpa Lahiri’s stories, and her first novel, The Namesake, is one I’ve given to lots of friends and relatives , so I was very excited to read her latest novel, her first book published in five years. It’s a bit tricky to review without ruining a major part of the plot, but I’ll try to stick to the categories listed on the copyright page: (1) brothers; (2) triangle (interpersonal relations); and (3) Naxalite movement.

The Lowland is the story of two brothers, Subhash and Udayan, who were born at the end of World War II less than two years apart in Calcutta. Subhash is the older brother who leaves India to study chemical oceanography in the United States while Udayan is the younger brother who becomes radicalized and joins the Naxalite movement while his brother is abroad. The book combines the political story with the personal, and the personal seems to take over for the majority of the book before we understand all of Udayan’s story as we reach the end. The jumps in time are not confusing as we backtrack to Udayan and his wife’s story in India, and I credit Lahiri’s excellent writing. She is so good at providing the political background, she is so good at describing the scenes in Rhode Island where Subhash lives and works, and she is so good at getting readers to care about her characters inner lives, particularly their loneliness.

There were times when I was reading this book that I felt either that the writing was slow or that I had read this story before: lonely Indian immigrants to Rhode Island in the late sixties populate her stories and her previous novel, but this story felt distinct as it progressed, and I think it was because of the political element of the Naxalite movement, which I didn’t know much about before I read this novel. The book is not heavy on history like Midnight’s Children, which made me dig into lots of research about India’s history after 1947, but I felt like I got a good introduction to the Naxalite group, which was heavily influenced by Mao.

The only category I’ve avoided discussing is the triangle, and it revolves around Udayan’s wife Gauri, another politically motivated woman who becomes an academic in the course of the novel. There is much more to the story, but I don’t want to ruin the pleasures of the story and the writing. It’s not a fast-paced thriller or plot-heavy like the crime fiction I usually read, but it’s enveloping nonetheless. Even if you’ve read lots of Lahiri, there’s much to enjoy here, and, the ending was quite affecting.

The Lowland is one of my favorite books of the year.

Other reviews appear in S. Krishna’s Books and Book Page (Harvey Freedenberg). I picked these two reviews because most of them are quite spoiler-laden.

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö

man who went up in smoke

The Man Who Went Up in Smoke by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö, translated by Joan Tate
Vintage, 1969, originally published as Mannen som gick upp i rök, 1966
Martin Beck book 2
Source: personal copy

I started the Martin Beck series about a year ago because it’s inspired so many other Swedish authors, and it’s turned into one of my favorite series, which is surprising because I tend to read more contemporary books with strong female protagonists. This series, so far, does not meet those criteria, but I don’t mind. 

Like the first book in the series Roseanna, the title character is a mystery to Martin Beck and his investigatory team, but unlike Roseanna, the case starts as a missing persons case instead of a murder case. Beck is asked to pursue an unofficial investigation into the disappearance of a journalist named Alf Mattson who was last seen in Budapest. Beck cuts short his family vacation at a remote, phone-less island in Sweden with his family to travel to Budapest, and the Budapest section of the book is very interesting. It’s a vivid setting and a memorable atmosphere as Beck is followed by mysterious people during his time there. I don’t want to discuss the plot more because it’s such a brief novel. The only parts of the story that dated the novel, besides the trip to communist-era Hungary, were mentions of Dacron clothing, going to see James Bond films, and the prevalent smoking.

Finally, I have a couple reactions to the writing. It feels strange to call a book that’s almost fifty years old fresh, but it feels brisk and crisp to me even though the investigation takes time. I think the brief chapters as well as the shift of the action from Stockholm to Budapest keep the story moving along. Finally, it’s remarkable to me that Sjöwall and Wahlöö alternated writing chapters because it’s not obvious to me that the novel was written by two people. The tone and style seem uniform to me.

Other reviews appear in CrimepiecesSmithereens, and Mysteries in Paradise.

Inspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto

inspector imanishiInspector Imanishi Investigates by Seichō Matsumoto, translated by Beth Cary
Originally published as Suna no Utsuwa (Vessel of Sand), 1961
Soho Press, 1989
Source: library copy

Inspector Imanishi works for the Tokyo Metropolitan Police, and the first chapters center around the fruitless police investigation into the murder of an unidentified man found in a railway yard. The majority of the book focuses on Imanishi’s solo and off-hours investigation after the official investigation is closed, so the book is just part police procedural and part solo investigation.

This book is very train-centric: the first body is found in a rail yard, Imanishi travels by train to many far-flung locations in search of the killer (the northeast, the shrine of Ise). The book covers a lot of rural towns while Imanishi is based in Tokyo. Besides the urban-rural split, the book focuses on the generational split between Imanishi, who’s 45 and considers himself to be old (!), and his younger police colleague Yoshimura and the Nouveau group, a group of artists and critics in their late twenties who appear throughout the book.

The tone of the book is somewhat detached: I didn’t feel as horrified as I thought I would feel with the mounting numbers of suspicious deaths in the book. Maybe that’s because I had faith in Imanishi’s investigatory abilities. Maybe it’s because I was so focused on picking up on the details about Japan that I don’t come across on a daily basis (various accents, geography during his many train trips, Shintoism). I don’t think this is a book that gets bogged down in the details about Japan and Japanese culture, though. Despite the jacket copy, this is not a brisk thriller with a lot of cliffhangers. Instead, it’s about an investigation that goes in circles but never really felt slow to me. Finally, I think that the cleverness revealed at the end of the book made me appreciate what came before it even more.

I’m glad to have discovered this novel as part of the 2013 Global Reading Challenge because I like to balance out new books with older books. I liked getting a slice of post-war Japan, getting a sense of what was a bestseller in the 1960s in Japan, and digging into how investigations differed technology-wise fifty years ago. Matsumoto was quite prolific, but only a few of the Inspector Imanishi novels have been translated into English.

Other reviews appear in Mrs. Peabody Investigates and Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan.

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

total chaos

Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo, translated by Howard Curtis
Originally published as Total Khéops, 1995
Europa Editions, May 2013 (Europa World Noir Series)
Book 1 in the Marseille Trilogy

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Edelweiss.

The first book in the Marseille Trilogy, Total Chaos introduces police officer Fabio Montale, a second generation immigrant living in the port city of Marseille who works in the Neighborhood Surveillance Squad where he functions more as a social worker to the young criminals in the projects than as a police officer. Fabio himself had a wayward youth: he and his friends Ugo and Manu committed a number of crimes before Fabio left his friends to join the Foreign Legion and eventually became a police officer. The story begins with one of his old friends commiting murder, and Fabio ends up investigating what happened to his friend as more related murders occur.

Fabio is an outsider cop without much power, which works to his advantage during the investigation that quickly becomes bigger and bigger as the violence increases and as the organized crime squad led by his nemesis, Auch, appears. The plot ends up being pretty convoluted as the book unfolds, but the main gist is that Montale is working in a very dysfunctional, dangerous system and city.

The main plot takes a back seat to a description of Marseille: its neighborhoods, its immigrants, its political problems, its development and redevelopment. This book is very rooted in its place, and it doesn’t shy away from the societal problems that the formerly strong industrial port city is facing. I live in a land-locked state that is far from the Mediterranean port of Marseille, but I do live in the Rust Belt with lots of immigrants from around the world and around the country, and I live with the collapse of the industrial economy, so there are echoes here for me. Finally, this book makes me realize how little I know about the Algerian War.

A few warnings about the book: the violence in this book is quite brutal, the female characters are not very developed, and Izzo’s outlook is pretty damn bleak. Reading the book as a woman in 2013, I’m annoyed by Montale’s relationships with women, especially the hooker with the heart of gold. That being said, I was interested in the book and want to know what happens in the rest of the trilogy. And I wonder if the trilogy as a whole ends as bleakly as this first outing does.

Marina Sofia reviewed the entire Marseille Trilogy in Finding Time to Write.