2013 Global Reading Challenge · Botswana · review

Deadly Harvest by Michael Stanley

deadly harvestDeadly Harvest by Michael Stanley
Bourbon Street Books, April 30, 2013
Detective Kubu book 4

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

So my quest to complete the 2013 Global Reading Challenge now brings me to Africa, specifically Botswana and the fourth Detective Kubu novel by Michael Stanley, the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Assistant Superintendent David Bengu, known as Kubu, works for the Botswana CID, and in this particular novel he investigates the disappearances of two young girls and the murder of a rising politician. It turns into a story about investigating muti killings, that is, murders done so witch doctors can harvest body parts for their potions. It’s an intractable situation for Kubu and his team: enough people, including the police, believe in the efficacy of witch doctors so they are scared to pursue their murder investigations. It’s a gruesome set-up for a novel, but the novel is not gratuitously violent nor preachy.

Kubu works closely with his boss Mabaku and with new female detective Samantha Khama. The entire police department features prominently in the story: there’s talk of Kubu and Mabaku being promoted, and Kubu runs into issues working on the case because of being stalled by the department.

The tone of this novel is not as outraged as I expected it to be (Khama is the most outraged character), but it definitely has the effect of outraging me even after I’ve read this novel. I think it comes down to the fact that Kubu, Khama, and Mabaku are such principled people who are willing to pursue the investigation despite the pressure not to do so that gives the story a bit of hopefulness.

This novel is dedicated to two human rights activists, Alice Mogwe and Unity Dow, and the authors mention Dow’s book The Screaming of the Innocent in the afterword. I plan on reading it soon.

Just as a sidenote, I haven’t read much African fiction. Besides reading a handful of books from or about Africa in college, I’ve tried The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Alexander McCall Smith and Morituri by Yasmina Khadra but didn’t finish them. I welcome any suggestions for other African crime novels. Deon Meyer is already on my list.

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2013 Global Reading Challenge · Kiribati · review

Food of Ghosts by Marianne Wheelaghan

food of ghosts cover72dpiFood of Ghosts by Marianne Wheelaghan
Pilrig Press, 2012
DS Louisa Townsend book 1

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

The 2013 Global Reading Challenge is definitely broadening my reading horizons: today’s review is a crime novel set in South Tarawa, the capital of Kiribati, an island nation in the Pacific. The main character is DS Louisa Townsend, the daughter of a Kiribati mother and a Scottish father who lived in Kiribati until she was eight. She has returned to Kiribati as part of a grant to set up a community policing program there, but she doesn’t want to broadcast her connection to the island to her colleagues.

The central crime of the novel involves the death of Joe, a shark fin and sea cucumber exporter who is found dead at a club popular with expatriates on the island. Louisa heads and conducts the investigation basically by herself because most of her colleagues are away attending to other matters. I usually prefer police team investigations in my procedurals, but I was a fan of Louisa.

The novel focuses on the obstacles to Louisa’s investigation in all their forms. Louisa combats her obsessive-compulsive tendencies in order to do her daily work as a police officer. She has to deal with the secrets and lies of everyone, basically, that she interviews in the course of the investigation. Finally, and most importantly, she has to deal with the disadvantage of being an outsider on the island and a woman trying to pursue the murder investigation.

The novel spends plenty of time with a variety of characters: the native islanders and the expatriates, Louisa and her family and, to some extent, her colleagues on the police department. I felt like the picture of the island and its society and its problems was at the forefront of the story until the second half of the novel when the murder investigation progressed. I tend to like more cliffhangers and a pacier read, but I really liked this novel. I think it’s because I needed the background about Kiribati because I didn’t know much about it before I read this book. This book sent me to Wikipedia to find out more.

Food of Ghosts has also been reviewed at Euro Crime.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · review · Sweden · Translated

Misterioso by Arne Dahl

misteriosoMisterioso by Arne Dahl, translated by Tiina Nunnally

Pantheon Books, 2011, originally published in Sweden in 1999, published in the UK as The Blinded Man

Source: library

I picked up Misterioso because I tend to read lots of Swedish crime novels. I’ve also seen plenty of talk online about the BBC series which won’t be aired here for some time. Since I tend to believe books are better than their adaptations, I dove in.

Misterioso introduces Paul Hjelm, a police officer in crisis after defusing a hostage crisis at an immigration office. He believes his career is in jeopardy because of the ensuing Internal Affairs investigation, but abruptly he is recruited to join the A-Unit, a newly formed division of the National Criminal Police charged with investigating a serial killer who is targeting capitalist bigwigs.

This was a serial killer book that I really, really liked, and I think it was because it involved a whole investigative unit instead of a profiler or one sole detective versus a serial killer. The A-Unit is made up of six highly capable investigators and their boss, former soccer star Jan-Olov Hultin. The book goes into everyone’s backstories to a degree, but there’s plenty to cover in subsequent books.

The plotting is brisk, with a few slow spots but that’s because the investigation covers the span of two months and there are some dead ends the investigators pursue. There’s also lots of discussion of politics, the economy at the end of the 1990s, and sociology, and it doesn’t slow the story down because it’s so integral to the world in which the A-unit works. Maybe the speeches didn’t bother me because Dahl also uses plenty of humor during the course of the investigation, which I much appreciated.

Highly recommended.

The next book in the Intercrime series is Bad Blood, and it’s going to be published in the U.S. in August 2013. Harvill Secker purchased two additional books in the series recently.

For other reviews, see International Noir FictionYet Another Crime Fiction Blog, and The Game’s Afoot.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · review · South Africa

Pale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

pale horsesPale Horses by Jassy Mackenzie

Soho Press, April 2013

PI Jade de Jong book 4

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

I chose Pale Horses because I’m trying to read books from as many countries as possible for the 2013 Global Reading Challenge. This is the first South African crime novel I’ve read. Also, I’ve liked female PI novels starting with Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton so I’m interested in this sub-genre. Pale Horses is the fourth book in the Jade de Jong series, and the opening chapters provide plenty of backstory about Jade, her personal life, her parents, and her recent past as a private investigator. It’s a lot to cover though this is just book four in the series, and, honestly, it felt a bit clunky to me. Nevertheless, it was necessary information.

Pale Horses centers on Jade’s investigation into the death of Sonet Meintjies, who died during a base jump from a ritzy skyscraper in Johannesburg. She’s hired by Victor Theron, a commodities trader who was Sonja’s jumping partner. Jade works with a police officer and former love interest David Patel during the course of the investigation, and they travel throughout the city and to the remote farmland where Sonet worked as a relief worker. Mackenzie provides plenty of background about tribal land claims and farming practices.

Character-wise, Mackenzie focuses on Jade and David. Jade is a prickly character: she’s made some questionable decisions in her work and personal lives, or maybe her choices are more mystifying to me because I haven’t read any other books in the series. Mackenzie also spends certain chapters with other characters whose connections to the deceased Sonet aren’t clear until the end of the novel. It kept me at a bit of distance from the characters because I kept wondering what part of the puzzle they were.

Overall, I found the book to be a brisk read, but I felt like it somehow didn’t gel or grab me. The individual parts were interesting: a protagonist with complicated personal and professional lives, a conspiracy involving tribal land claims and modern farming science, a mysterious death during base jump from a skyscraper. I think part of my issue is that some of the exposition slowed down the story for me, and, of course, I don’t have the background with the series to get a complete picture of Jade. I’m interested to see what others have thought about earlier books in the series.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · Chile · review · Translated

The Name of a Bullfighter by Luis Sepúlveda

name of a bullfighterThe Name of a Bullfighter by Luis Sepúlveda, translated by Suzanne Ruta
Harcourt Brace, 1996, originally published as Nombre de torero, 1994
Source: library copy

So reading and blogging-wise, I’m still on a Latin American crime novel kick. It’s due in part to a batch of Latin American novels arriving by interlibrary loan recently, but  I also chose to read The Name of a Bullfighter specifically because (honestly) it’s short. Despite my less than stellar motives for seeking out this book, I’m happy I read it.

The Name of the Bullfighter is the story of two men racing to recover gold coins stolen from the German government and hidden in Chile for fifty years. It’s a very spare, bleak story that follows first Juan Belmonte, the man who shares the name of a bullfighter, who was a Marxist guerilla throughout Latin America before settling in exile in Hamburg, Germany, and second Frank Galinsky, a former Stasi intelligence officer. The plot is not the most important part of the story: the chase for the gold is mainly a device for Sepúlveda to talk about guerilla movements throughout Latin America (See the note at the bottom of this post to read more about Sepúlveda’s own life) and his disillusionment with the left. I don’t think you need an extensive knowledge of Latin American political history before reading this story because Sepúlveda provides plenty of background.

Belmonte is the most-developed character in this story:  his story of exile and returning to Chile was the heart of the book. The book as a whole was quite short, and the plot was fairly brisk: I didn’t feel like I needed to get close to the other characters. The book is bleaker than what I usually read, but it was an interesting take on Latin American history.

I encourage you to read a brief biography of Luis Sepúlveda.

Another review appears in Two Weeks Notice.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · Chile · review · Translated

The Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero

neruda caseThe Neruda Case by Roberto Ampuero, translated by Carolina De Robertis
Riverhead Books, June 2012
First published as El caso Neruda, 2008
Source: library

Roberto Ampuero is a writer, professor, and diplomat based in the United States and Mexico who was born in Chile.The Neruda Case is the sixth book in the Cayetano Brulé series, but it’s the first to be translated into English.

In this book, Cayetano Brulé, a fiftyish private investigator reflects back to his first case: the ailing Pablo Neruda hired Brulé to find the missing Dr. Bracamonte, an old friend of his who specialized in treating cancer with plants. The story takes place in Valparaíso, Chile, a coastal city north of Santiago, and the strongest parts of the story take place there.

While the book begins in contemporary Chile, the case Brulé remembers takes place in 1973, at the end of the Allende’s years in power. The actual investigation takes Brulé to various locations in Latin America and Europe (another one of those well-funded investigations), but I think the most vivid parts of the story, description-wise and action-wise, take place in Chile. The food, the fog, the political upheaval in Chile– all of these aspects of the story were more vivid for me than the search for the missing Dr. Bracamonte.

The search for Bracamonte feels very different than the Chile-based parts of the story. In part it’s because Ampuero introduces lots of characters and provides lots of political background about each country Brulé visits, but, more, importantly, the search for Bracamonte felt secondary to me because I was not very invested in the character of Pablo Neruda, who comes across as quite the self-absorbed womanizer. I didn’t care whether he found Bracamonte. Also, the female characters were not very developed they tended to be either sex objects or humorless revolutionaries, which is unfortunate. This book is not a pure detective story, and, as such, the plot tends to lag.

I’m not sure how representative The Neruda Case is of the rest of the Cayetano Brulé series of books in terms of style and plot. It is well-written and well-translated, but I didn’t care for Neruda, and I don’t think I was meant to.

An interesting review appears in Washington Independent Review of Books.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · England · review

The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths

crossing placesThe Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009
Ruth Galloway book 1
source: library

I can’t remember where I first saw good reviews for the Ruth Galloway series by Elly Griffiths, but I’m now a fan.  What draws me in the most in a story are well-rounded characters.  I’m not really a sucker for atmosphere and setting, which this book has plenty of, unless I actually care about the characters involved.  Ruth Galloway is an academic archaelogist. whose single, overweight, a loner, smart and funny, which are the immediate draws.  DC Nelson calls in Ruth as an expert to investigate bones that may be linked to the ten year old disappearance of a young girl in the area. Ruth feels a connection between the ancient bones she finds and the disappearances of two girls in the area, and her empathy is the driving force of the story.

The desolate Saltmarsh where Ruth lives figures prominently in the story.  Griffiths goes into the history, the archaelogy, and the tide that figure prominently in the area (Ruth and her colleagues discovered a henge ten years before the action of this story takes place).  Also, this book makes me realize that I know just a tiny bit about Norse mythology.

Ruth and Nelson are the most interesting characters in this story, but I did enjoy reading about the archaelogical obsessions of a good segment of the other characters.  I imagine Nelson’s story will be fleshed out more further in the series.  I couldn’t help wondering why I run across so many druids in British books and tv series than in American ones, and I think they just call themselves pagans here.

I thought the first half of the book was stronger than the second, and I think I say that because I figured out who the criminal was pretty early on.  That being said, I expect the plotting in subsequent books to catch up with the characterizations.

Other positive reviews may be found at crimepieces, Reactions to Reading, and Petrona.  I also enjoyed this interview with Griffiths: At the Scene of the Crime.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · Argentina · review · Translated

Needle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo

needle in a haystackNeedle in a Haystack by Ernesto Mallo, translated by Jethro Soutar

Bitter Lemon Press, 2010, originally published as La aguja en el pajar, 2006

Source: library

Needle in a Haystack takes place in Argentina in 1979, during the Dirty War where the military junta leading the country disappeared thousands of alleged subversives. The case at the center of this novel begins when Superintendent Lascano is called to investigate two dead bodies, but he finds three dead bodies instead:  two were obviously executed by the military, but the third is a different sort of murder.  The murder investigation does not take up the bulk of the novel.  Instead we jump back in time to meet all the characters who are involved in the crime and the investigation.

The set-up is interesting:  how do you work as a homicide detective under a regime that cuts off investigations of murders it itself commits?  How do you fulfill your mission then?  The setting is absolutely nightmarish:  military patrols, people yanked from their homes, and murders.  Mallo details the corruption throughout the society, from the criminal justice system, the military, and the church.

Besides the handicap of working for the police in a totally corrupt and violent regime, Lascano is also battling depression after the death of his wife less than a year before.  He’s a damaged individual.  He’s not the only character with a rough past:  his friend Fuseli the pathologist is also a widower who also lost a child.  It’s a book full of people with difficult pasts living under the military regime. Because it’s such a brief book (coming in under 200 pages), I don’t want to give away much more about the characters and the plot.  Though it’s a short book, Mallo develops everyone’s backstory pretty thoroughly.

Needle in a Haystack is my favorite book of the year by far, and I’m happy to know that there are two more books in the trilogy awaiting me:  Sweet Money and Men Have Done You Wrong.  Sweet Money has already been translated into English, and Men Have Done You Wrong (Los hombres te han hecho mal) was published in Spanish in 2012.

Other reviews appear in Mrs. Peabody Investigates, Yet Another Crime Fiction Blog, and Petrona.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · review · U.S.

Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

guilt

Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, 5 February 2013
Alex Delaware book 28
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Sometimes I feel like jumping into a familiar series instead of trying new-to-me authors, and while I haven’t read all of the Alex Delaware series, I have read the first twenty-four in the span of about seven years.  Part of the reason is that I’m a completist, and part of the reason was I was in a mood to read a book where I knew what to expect.

Alex Delaware is a psychologist specializing in children who has consulted for the Los Angeles Police Department for a number of years.  His investigative partner is Milo Sturgis, who has a huge amount of autonomy in his investigations that he gained with a deal with a superior during an earlier book.  That’s about all the background that’s necessary to jump into the series:  the characters haven’t changed a great deal since the beginning of the series, and the investigations take precedent over the main characters’ personal lives.

The story begins with a pregnant mother unearthing an old skeleton of an infant in her backyard in a nice neighborhood of Los Angeles.  The investigation ramps into high gear when another baby’s skeleton is discovered in a nearby park along with a dead woman.  The bulk of the book is devoted to Milo and Alex’s interviews as they investigate the deaths, and the investigation reaches into Alex’s past as a psychologist practicing in a pediatric hospital as well as into the lives of A-list actors and the people who work for them.  It’s the characters circling around the crime that are the focus of this book.

It was refreshing that this far into the series that Delaware is able to admit to himself that he’s “compulsive and addicted to the bad stuff,” which explains why he devotes so much of his professional life to consulting with the LAPD instead of taking on private clients.  Maybe I’m just as compulsive because I can’t give up this series!  In any case, it’s an entertaining read, especially for fans of the rest of the series.

2013 Global Reading Challenge · review · U.S.

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry

cold and lonely place

A Cold and Lonely Place by Sara J. Henry
Crown, Feb. 5, 2013
Troy Chance book 2
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

A Cold and Lonely Place is the second book set in upstate New York that I’ve read in the last month, and I really liked it. Troy Chance is a freelance writer, formerly a sports reporter, living in Lake Placid, New York, a winter sports and tourist mecca. This particular investigation is into the freezing death of Tobin Winslow, an out-of-towner who dated one of Troy’s housemates. He is found frozen beneath a lake as a group is assembling the ice palace for the town’s annual Winter Carnival. It’s a harrowing scene, and it begins a harrowing investigation into a not-too-savory character. Troy writes a series of articles about Tobin, which is very different than reading about police officers investigating his death.

The strength of the story is how Troy humanizes the deceased Tobin. In lots of crime novels, it seems the criminals are the center of the story instead of the victims. As much of a loner as Troy is (she’s not from Lake Placid, she lives far from her family and people she cares about), she does grow closer to people during the course of the investigation as well as to Tobin, a person she didn’t know well while she was alive.

One minor quibble I have with the book is the large number of friends and relatives Troy has whom she uses as sounding boards during the course of the investigation. Those characters– her brother the police officer, a friend in the area, a police officer in Ottawa– are not very developed, but they may have been more developed in the first book of the series. In this book, she mostly contacts them by email or with brief visits, which is not enough time for me to really get to know them.

A Cold and Lonely Place is not a fast-paced or overly creepy thriller, and that’s exactly the kind of book I’m in the mood for. The characters at the center of the story, including the deceased Tobin, are interesting people in an interesting setting. I’ll definitely be checking out the first book in the series, Learning to Swim.