review · U.S.

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.

 

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review · U.S.

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.

 

review · U.S. · USA Fiction Challenge

Anatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

anatomy of a murderAnatomy of a Murder by Robert Traver

St. Martins, 1958

I borrowed my copy from the library.

I am endlessly fascinated by the raw drama of a murder trial, of the defendant fighting so inarticulately for his freedom–his is the drama of understatement–, of the opposing counsel–those masters of overstatement, flamboyantly fighting for victory, for reputation, for more clients, for political advancement, for God knows what–, of the weathervane jury swaying this way and that, of the judge himself trying his damndest to guess right and at the same time preserve a measure of decorum…Yes, a murder trial is a fascinating pageant. p. 245

Anatomy of a Murder is simply the best and most involved legal procedural I have read. After a bit of an unappealing start, the book became very interesting to me and I read the hefty tome in about two days, something which doesn’t happen often for me. First a word about the unappealing start: Traver is a man obsessed with fly fishing, and the first section of the book before lawyer Polly Biegler takes the case of Lieutenant Manion, accused of murdering his wife’s rapist at a bar in the remote Upper Peninsula town of Thunder Bay, is heavy on backstory and pontificating about the law and fly fishing for trout. It has to be trout, not bass, God forbid! The characterizations and backstories at the beginning are a bit cliched and heavy-handed, but character is not the key to this novel. This is a legal procedural par excellence, and the characterizations are what a lawyer in the middle of a huge case would uncover or hypothesize about.

I’m not a criminal lawyer, but this was fascinating nonetheless: there is a lot of discussion of strategy during trial, during the investigation, and during trial preparation. And I have to commend a book for including the bases for objections during the courtroom scenes. Yes, Traver dramatized the murder trial for maximum effect: he left out many witnesses whose testimony was cumulative and the chapter breaks make for maximum impact.

Back to the issue of characters: this novel deals with a lot of undiscussed issues that drive the main characters. Polly is a lawyer in quite desperate straits in his career and personal life. Traver doesn’t dwell on just how desperate Polly is, but it affects his representation of Lieutenant Manion. Traver also doesn’t go into the dynamics of Lieutenant and Mrs. Manion’s marriage, which seems like a crucial part of the story as well. I suspect that their relationship is violent, but Traver focuses only on the violent murder of Laura Manion’s alleged rapist. This may be a sign that the book was written in 1958.

As for other signs that make the book a sign of its era, Traver repeatedly mentions the American obsession with the Soviets and the paranoia of the Cold War, and he has a pointed speech against the then-recently-completed Mackinaw Bridge that linked the Upper Peninsula of Michigan to the Lower Peninsula. And lastly, the casual sexism can be a bit much in spots. Thankfully the courtroom scenes and drama make up for that.

I’m very glad I finally read this book, and I’m eager to watch the film version soon.

review · U.S.

Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

broken monstersBroken Monsters by Lauren Beukes

Mulholland Books, September 2014

Disclosure: I received a review copy from the publisher.

So I was interested in reading Broken Monsters because it’s set in Detroit (I lived in the metro area for over 10 years), but I was unsure about a crime novel written about a crime-ridden city and written by someone from South Africa. What I mean is that crime fiction is a bit escapist, and Detroit itself is so riddled with crime that I wasn’t sure what kind of approach Beukes would take. Well, the answer is a bit of a sci-fi/horror approach to the central crime (a boy’s torso is found attached to a deer’s legs), and a large set of characters in the city whose voices feel fresh and real.

Broken Monsters spends a great deal of time with Detective Gabriella Versado and her teenage daughter Layla, but this is not a book that focuses on the police procedural aspect of this hot-button case. Beukes also tells the story of Detroit and investigating the horrific murder through a few homeless characters, some artists, and a journalist new to the city and new to embracing social media to tell the story about the murderer. In the meantime, there are several setpieces involving an Arts and Crafts period pottery studio (inspired by Pewabic Pottery) and huge art parties/ installations in neighborhoods reminiscent a bit of the Heidelberg Project.

Part of the pleasure of the book was the voices of all of these disparate characters, and part of it was because of the bits of Detroit Beukes got right–the urban ruin explorations, the artists, the pottery studio And it was a serial killer story that was so out there that it felt fresh. Finally, I appreciated how good Beukes was at capturing her teenage characters’ voices. Layla and her friend Cas feel quite real, and that stood out to me especially after having mixed feelings about the last book I reviewed.

Finally, I want to highlight a couple Detroit items: first is a Reading Detroit list especially for its nonfiction section. The Arc of Justice is a fabulous book that captures Detroit in its boom times and a great legal story about Ossian Sweet, a black doctor accused of murder. And finally, I leave you with a photo of a Pewabic Pottery vase that I’ve given a few times as a wedding present, proof that there is more to Detroit than crumbling buildings.

pewabic

Criminal Plots II 2012 · review · U.S.

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton

This book is my entry in the Criminal Plots II Challenge, a book written by someone from my state of Michigan.  Hamilton was born and raised in Michigan, this novel takes placei n Michigan, but he currently resides in New York.
          A Cold Day in Paradise is Steve Hamilton’s first novel, and his first novel in the Alex McKnight series.  Alex is an ex-Detroit cop who was shot three times while his partner died during the same attack.  He retired and moved to his father’s hunting cabin resort near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula.  Six months before the start of the novel, he became a private investigator, and the novel follows his first murder case.  The actual plot of the story involves Alex being stalked by Rose, the man who shot him and killed his partner fourteen years before.  It’s a psychological thriller.  I don’t want to give away more of the story, specifically the body count.
          I cut debut crime novels, especially first-novels-in-a-series, a bit of slack because there’s a need for exposition about the character and his setting, in this case.  The main body of the story is a bit slow as Hamilton gets into Alex’s backstory and environs.  In part it felt slow to me because the ex-cop-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder trope feels a bit old to me (this book was published in 1998).  Also, Hamilton relied too much on geographical descriptions of McKnight’s wanderings.  There are a lot of accounts of what streets and highways Alex drove as he pursued his investigation. The actual setting of the northwoods in the Upper Peninsula and the town of Sault Ste. Marie and the locks didn’t seem that vivid to me, but that may bebecause the book took place in the beginning of November during hunting season.  It’s not a beautiful place tha ttime of year.
          The saving grace of the book is its last fifty or so pages.  My guess is that it won its awards based on that ending, which set up a very interesting future forMcKnight as a P.I.:  he has reason to become a quite jaded and cynical P.I. based on the resolution of the case.  I’m willing to read further into the series to see if it improves, which I think it does based on the sheer number of awards Hamilton has won.
          And one more note about this book:  Sylvia, Alex’s love interest, is a severely underwritten character.  She does not have much to do, everything seems to happen to her, and she doesn’t have much of a back-story in this novel.  I may need to write a post about underwritten female characters because I feel the need to vent.
A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton
Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date: September 1998
Source:  library
review · U.S.

THE END OF EVERYTHING by Megan Abbott (Review)

Note: there are spoilers below.

This is the creepiest book I’ve read all year, and that’s saying a lot because I read Emma Donoghue’s Room early in the year. The End of Everything is narrated byLizzie Hood, a thirteen-year-old girl whose best friend, Evie Verver ,disappears near the end of the school year. It’s a story about more than how she disappeared: it’s a story about why she disappeared. Room was easier to read because the five-year-old narrator is so innocent. Lizzie, at age thirteen, is wiser but more confused: more confused about relationships, motivations and sex.

The creepiness started for me in the first thirty pages. I was leery of Mr. Verver fromthe opening chapters, and at that point I suspected him of abusing his older daughter, Dusty. The revelation that he did abuse Dusty on the last page was not a surprise. My trepidation made the sections where Lizzie described her adoration of Mr. Verver so hard to read.

So why did I push on past the first 30 pages when I was dreading what I would read? The writing is fabulous. Abbott nails Lizzie’s confused, thirteen-year-old voice, or, more aptly put, she nails the voice o fadult Lizzie looking back on the summer she was thirteen. Also, the characters are complex and messy. Finally, there are more plot twists than what I’ve given away in this review.

All in all, this a great, disturbing read that leave sthe reader with a few answers, unlike the ending of The Virgin Suicides, which is a book I thought about often while reading this book.