The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

draining lakeI think I’ve missed a review or two of the Erlendur series, but I love it a great deal, The Draining Lake being no exception. The book starts with an odd premise, the draining lake of the title. A human skeleton that is murdered and tied to a Russian radio device appears as the lake drains. While a theory about why the lake is draining appears pretty early in the book, the mystery of the skeleton is a much more involving plot, and it involves East Germany, spies, and university students during the height of the Cold War.

I’m not always a fan of books that shift between the past and present, but I was so wrapped up in the backstory (political and personal), and so impressed that the switches between the past and the present felt organic instead of a forced structure that I didn’t mind. Not only is the paranoia in East Germany rendered very vividly, there are just terribly heartbreaking elements threaded throughout the story. I was very impressed with this book.

On the police-procedural-in-Iceland front, I was glad that every main detective had a big non-work plot going. Erlendur’s romantic and family relationships keep moving along (or at least moving in circles), Elinborg launches a successful cook book, and we actually see Oli’s personal life in glimpses.

I read this book while watching early episodes of The Americans, and while I love spy stuff, I realize that I can’t double up on it or my dreams take a very strange turn.Or maybe I just don’t expect my stress dreams to involve spying.

The Draining Lake by Arnaldur Indriðason

Translated by Bernard Scudder

Vintage Books, 2010

Originally published as Kleifarvatn, 2004

I bought my copy of the book.

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny

brutal tellingI didn’t love this 5th installment in the Three Pines/ Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. It’s a story about a murder where the suspect is one of the village residents and he or she remains so. There is a bit of an open ending (appealing a conviction or sentence), but that’s not a real surprise to me.

This book felt longer than the other installments. Certain things started annoying me. 1. Penny uses a lot of sentence fragments. A lot; 2. The artists that populate the slightly mythical village of Three Pines and its environs are almost all genius level artists. And Gamache is a genius level detective, which would be okay if the narrator or various characters didn’t continually remind us of the fact. It’s okay to make Three Pines a less-than-realistic place (it has an awfully high body count, for one thing) populated with regular folks or regular artists; 3. The puzzle element of the mystery felt off to me. I’m not usually into puzzles: it’s just not something I’ve ever read a lot of. Was it an homage to some other book or to some other device that I just missed?

Ultimately what it came down to is that this book wasn’t as pacy or twisty as I tend to like the most, and the fact that I’m well into the series made it feel a little stale to me. That’s not to say I totally didn’t enjoy it, but I felt myself prickling about certain things that I usually don’t mind.

Source: I bought my copy of the book.

The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman

end of miraclesNext up in my heavy-themed reading is The End of Miracles by Monica Starkman. It feels a bit like a case history as novel. Starkman is a psychiatrist who studied phantom pregnancies, and this book deals with that subject in part. The story centers on Margo, in the midst of fertility treatments, who requires psychiatric care. The narrative arc is the arc of her mental health, and it’s fascinating and enlightening and incredibly sad in parts. This book is full of expertise.

It’s refreshing to read a book that’s not about someone in publishing or the restaurant/catering world. Margo works in hospital administration, which is a step removed from being a patient, which she becomes throughout the book, and it’s handled interestingly– how to be on the two sides of the hospital.

A psychiatrist writing about a character is not something I’ve read often, if ever. She feels real, which is not what I feel when I read some women-in-crisis books. Also, I’m glad Starkman doesn’t do the overused-slight-epiphany twist that I’m tired of in lots of more literary novels. I was delighted by this book, despite the sadness of the story: it didn’t feel like a book I’ve read before.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

 

Alice & Oliver by Charles Bock

alice oliverToday’s posts are about the latest batch of heavy-themed books I’ve read. First up is Alice & Oliver, a brutal and engrossing read about a young mother and fashion designer diagnosed with leukemia when her daughter was about 6 months old.  I have to psych myself up to read a book like this, or, say, watch a movie like Dead Man Walking, and ultimately I’m glad I read this but I’m not sure I’d read it again. I’m not sure I could take it, you know.

Anyway, Alice & Oliver is a cancer story that goes in depth into the treatment process/ protocol about 20 years ago. The sections of the book are divided into treatment steps as well as into Alice’s meditative steps as she copes with treatment and the prospect of dying. It’s also a story about Alice and Oliver’s relationship, their history in New York City, and the status of their relationship during many months of cancer treatment. Looking back at their pasts and Oliver’s tech start-up company are the only respites from the hard stuff in their story (there’s not a lot of black comedy), but somehow it was a fast read. I was drawn to the story because I don’t know the ins and outs of aggressive cancer treatments and because the main characters were so sympathetic. And sometimes I want to read something that will make me weep, and I was definitely a mess by the end of the book.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

nestI was curious about this book because I like funny books and I like family sagas. I was expecting something funny about a family dealing with an inheritance, the Nest of the title, and the book delivered on the funny parts, but overall it abandoned the comedy and silliness, which I wasn’t expecting.

The Nest focuses on the adult siblings of the Plumb family. Leo Plumb is a writer and founder of a media conglomerate. He and his siblings live in or near New York, and their lives center on the money they stand to inherit on their sister’s 40th birthday.

First, you have to be able to be charmed by Leo, the internet millionaire who spectacularly self-destructs at the beginning of the book at a family wedding. Sweeney didn’t get me to be charmed for him, so that was strike one for me.

Second, I felt like there were a few good set-pieces in the book (every family gathering had a bit of ridiculousness), but I never felt the action ramping up. It could have been a true farce of a book with siblings acting truly manic, but it never quite got there. Taking it to an even more absurd height would have worked for me. Instead, there’s emotional heft at the very end after not much of that. It’s hard to read a section asking me to sympathize with a few characters when I’ve just finished a book where the characters were all so wrapped up in themselves. They hardly empathized with each other, which got me into the mode of not empathizing with them either.

I was expecting something funnier, based on the cover copy and what I’d read about the book elsewhere.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Ecco, March 2016

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Reading Slowly

I seem to be in the middle of a few books at a time lately, which is not my usual reading mode. It also means that I don’t finish books very quickly because I’m hopping from book to book. Here are a few quick thoughts.

one step behindI had no idea Wallander ever tracked down a serial killer. One Step Behind wasn’t my favorite in the series just because of the serial killer plot. And the thriller-y chase happened quite late in the book, which made the first two-thirds drag.

journalist murdererI also tried Janet Malcolm’s The Journalist and the Murderer, which is a story about the ethics of journalists and their subjects. It’s about the relationship between Joe McGinniss, a journalist interviewing and embedded with McDonald, a man accused of murder, and his legal defense team, and the book he eventually writes about the case. I admit that I don’t gravitate towards true crime or journalism stories, but the first half of this short book were interesting. Ultimately, I gave up after that because I wasn’t invested in Joe McGinniss’s legal troubles.

smileFinally, Raina Telgemeier’s Smile was so incredibly charming. It’s a graphic novel memoir about orthodontia and growing up. For the last several months it’s the non-crime books that I like the most.

Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan

multiple listingsOne of the things I’ve been reading lately is something I thing publishers should market as dramedys. It has less baggage than the term “chick lit,” and since the term has been around in the tv realm for awhile, why not use it in publishing too? Multiple Listings by Tracy McMillan is a dramedy written by someone who was a television writer on Mad Men and The United States of Tara, which made me think this would be my kind of book.

McMillan’s background in screenwriting meant I was expecting good characters and drama, and overall I wasn’t disappointed. Multiple Listings is the story of Nicki, a single mother who runs a successful home appraisal business who is at a relationship crossroads and then hits a family crossroads as her long-estranged father returns to her life.  McMillan gets the characters and the emotional beats of a distant family down. Frankly, the only character I felt was lacking fits the category I find in lots of books:  the nearly-perfect love interest who does no wrong sometimes feels like an afterthought of a character.

Overall, though, the characters felt like they were in a kind of indie movie that I like. Some troubles/ troubled people all together. The one thing I didn’t like was when the  self-help focus got a little too tell-y for me, but there was enough to balance out those sections that impressed me.

This book reminded me thematically of Kitchens of the Great Midwest, which tried to do more with structure (interlocking stories with characters in the same orbit) than this particular book did. I’m 24not sure why one book is marketed as more literary while this one is deemed more relationship-y, but why not just lump into the non-gendered term of dramedy? That’s my proposal.

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

Complicated Women

I’ve been thinking a lot about what The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl have done to the publishing landscape because I just finished two books with complicated/damaged/bad girl/bad ass heroines: The Passenger by Lisa Lutz and The Murderer’s Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman. On the one hand I’m grateful for interesting protagonists who are women, but on the other hand, I’ve read an awful lot books with women characters like these.

passengerThe Passenger is a very old-fashioned noir-movie-feeling kind of story told by Tanya, a woman on the run for 10 years that changes her identity quite a few times during the short book. Lutz jumps around in time and slowly reveals what happened about 10 years before the present when the main character first went on the lam. I kind of liked the spare narration, I kind of liked the odd steps along the way (she became a teacher in a remote Texas town), and I liked the ins and outs of transforming her appearance, but the plot reveals felt predictable to me just because I’ve read and seen a lot of noir like this.

murderers daughterThe Murderer’s Daughter, like The Passenger, involves some disguises (just like Elisabeth Salander) and a slow reveal of the main character’s backstory that led her from a very troubled childhood to being a super-successful therapist to post traumatic stress sufferers. It feels like a very Kellerman story because the psychologist’s training and the psychologist’s work feel real and very detailed, but the story went off the rails a bit for me at the end. The villain is super-heinous, the main character is super-heroic, but it’s kind of an empty ending.

Both stories felt like they were jamming a super-hero arc into it, Lutz’s by overcoming a lot of people who sent her on the lam and Kellerman’s by having a ridiculously over-the-top villain for the psychologist-turned-freelance-investigator to confront. I wish the last section of each book hadn’t been so over-the-top.

Disclosure: I received review copies from the publisher.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

tsar love technoThis book made me fall in love with literary fiction again. The Tsar of Love and Techno is a series of connected short stories that take place mainly in Chechnya, cover about a century of time, and keep circling around a beautiful landscape painting that ties the characters together.

First, I loved it because I don’t know much about Chechnya and have forgotten what I ever learned about the Russian Revolution many years ago. Second, Marra is so damn invested in his characters. War, drug addiction, pollution:  these are people living through rough things, and I feel lots of sympathy towards most of the characters. Finally, I was impressed by the structure. Characters go in and out of the stories, and I know I missed some connections between people and across generations that I’d love to untangle more.

My favorite stories in the book were in the first half but the last half was in no means sub-par: the first stories just set an incredibly high bar.

The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra

Hogarth, 2015

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher via Blogging for Books

The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen

lionsmouthI’ve read a lot of Anne Holt, in part because her approach on writing a series is to have a few recurring characters whose place in the story varies. Some of the early books in the series feel like thrillers or police procedurals while 1222 is a locked-room sort of mystery, and Death of the Demon felt almost like a novella with a very obvious social conscience. It’s great to read different kinds of stories with different characters taking prominence, but, unfortunately, this politics-heavy installment in the Hanne Willhelmsen series didn’t quite grab me.

This is a political story: prime minister Birgitte Volter is found shot dead in her office, and the Norwegian government is in crisis. There are a lot of characters to introduce both in the investigatory teams and the political teams.  Hanne Willhelmsen appears as an afterthought: she is living in California and on leave from the police but consults with her good friend, Billy T, another unorthodox detective.

Because of the large cast of characters, the book feels a bit long to me. We get inside everyone’s heads. Also, the book veered into political wrangling and party politics where the points got a bit speech-y or maybe preachy. This may have grated on me more because we’re in the middle of presidential debate season here and I’ve had my fill of political speeches. All in all, this is not my favorite in the series, but I’m curious to read the next installment, Dead Joker.

The Lion’s Mouth by Anne Holt and Berit Reiss-Andersen

Translated by Anne Bruce

Scribner, 2016

Originally published as Løvens gap, 1997

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.