A Great Book Recommendation

This recommendation comes from Moira, who blogs at Clothes in Books.

I always say the same thing when the question of Maxine comes up, but that doesn’t make it any less true: I didn’t know Maxine Clarke, Petrona, for long, but she made a big impression on me. She was kind and generous and very welcoming to a new blogger – she was part of a group of crime fiction fans who very kindly invited me in to their circle. The others are friends to this day, and so we all miss Maxine, who should still be here.

So I am always very glad to contribute to this site in her memory, and feel particularly honoured that this time I am doing a book chosen for Maxine – but also the book that won this year’s Petrona prize in her memory.

Where Roses Never Die by Gunnar Staalesen

Published 2016

Translated from Norwegian by Don Bartlett

I picked the right time to read this one. Compared with my crime fiction friends, I’m a novice when it comes to Scandi books, but a review over at Reactions to Reading  convinced me to try this one – Bernadette, the proprietor, is always reliable. She doesn’t just write great reviews, she also matches my tastes. (Secretly I enjoy her slamming reviews of books she doesn’t like almost more than the good ones.)

Anyway, she did a good job selling this, and unsurprisingly I loved it – and then I surfaced from reading it to find it had won the Petrona Award. That’s the literary prize founded in honour of our much-missed friend Maxine Clarke, who blogged as Petrona and died a few years ago. The award is for a book she would have liked, and I think she’d have loved this one.

Varg Veum is a private investigator in the tradition and spirit of the great US crime books: maybe washed up, has a messy personal life, is an alcoholic, has made enemies. It is 2002, and he is asked to look again at the case of a 3-year-old girl who went missing from outside her house 25 years earlier. One of the remaining witnesses died in a strange and random robbery attempt, and the child’s mother was reminded that she is running out of time, a statute of limitations is about to impose itself.

There was a group of families living in a housing co-op: all friends, most with children. Many of the relationships didn’t survive the era of the disappearance, though Veum turns up other reasons for that. Slowly he works his way through the list of those involved, calling in favours and following  instincts and intuition – his own and others.  Norwegian life and ways are laid out for us in a most appealing way. The people are varied, some good some bad, all distinctive in their characters. Facts are teased out till eventually Veum reaches the truth. Sometimes, as in the extract above, we see the events of 25 years before through the other characters’ eyes.

There is some great dialogue – like this exchange with a retired colleague

‘But if there’s anything else you need, you know where to find me.’
‘Yes, if you haven’t gone to the fjord, that is.’
‘I never go so far that I can’t find my way back.’
‘Wish I could say the same.’

And during an uncomfortable conversation:

Like two experienced synchronised swimmers we raised our cups of coffee at the same time, staring furiously at each other. Neither of us liked what he saw and we didn’t try to conceal it.

And sadly Veum breaks his resolution not to drink:

‘You can allow yourself one glass.’
‘Well…’ All of a sudden my throat was drier than a temperance preacher’s on the booze cruiser from Denmark. ‘One then.’

The little housing co-op is an important part of the book: much is made of the coloured houses, the closeness of the group, the function room where the New Year’s Eve party above is being held, the atmosphere and undercurrents of the group.

The five houses had been built in a kind of horseshoe shape. The tall two-storey facades, painted in strong contrasting colours, and the gently pitched roofs to the back betrayed their 1970s origins. The house forming the base of the horseshoe was the biggest. It had been painted red, as was one of the others; two were yellow and one was white.

And pictures of Bergen houses suggest that these colours were not unusual.
I thought it was a marvellous book, I very much enjoyed it. I’m faintly concerned by the fact that this was  the 19th book about Veum: I don’t have time to commit to a new series! But it would be quite wrong to take against Staalesen (or his translator Don Bartlett, who seems very good) on those grounds. The tropes of this book are familiar, we’ve all read many books with similar setups, similar PIs, similar families, similar investigations. But Staalesen takes the ingredients and makes something magical from them, something very different. He surely deserves this prize.

Advertisements

A Great Book Recommendation

This recommendation comes from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mysteries and More from Saskatchewan

A Book For Maxine in 2017

Another July is almost gone and I have been thinking about Maxine  Clarke and a book I would have recommended to her were she still with us. I miss her and think often of the loss she was to the world of blogging. I appreciate the loss to family, non-virtual friends and colleagues is much greater. Considering the loss to her virtual friends prompted my recommendation for 2017.

Last fall I read Conclave by Robert Harris. I found it an interesting, even thought provoking book, until I reached the end. I found the ending implausible and my appreciation of the book significantly diminished. A good blogging friend, Bernadette, at her fine blog, Reactions to Reading, was Australian blunt. She found the ending absurd. On reflection I agree with Rebecca.

I would have wanted to recommend the book to Maxine without telling her my thoughts on the ending and see what her response would have been to the conclusion. I think her observations would have been well worth any irritation with me for not warning her about the ending. One of the reasons I loved her blog was that she was unsparing in her reviews if a book did not find favour with her.

Here is the review I posted of Conclave.

****

Conclave by Robert Harris – Cardinal Lomelli, Dean of the College of Cardinals, is called to the Casa Santa Marta in the Vatican City at 2:00 in the morning. His fear that the Holy Father, the pope, has died are confirmed on his arrival. He is shaken by the suddenness of the death and the consequences for himself and the Church.

The late pope, a character clearly inspired by the current Pope Francis, had agitated the upper leadership of the Church. His willingness to consider and occasionally embrace change has upset the traditionalists. His commitment to reforming the finances of the Church has scared the many who have profited from their positions. The Church is among the world’s most bureaucratic of institutions at the Vatican.

An unsettled Church must now select a new pope through a conclave of the cardinals who are under 80 years of age.

Cardinal Lomelli, as Dean, organizes and presides over the conclave. Following precise rules set down over centuries he prepares the Sistine Chapel for the voting and the Casa Santa Marta as the residence for the cardinals.

Over the next 3 weeks 117 cardinals arrive in Rome from all the corners of the world. Among Lomelli’s first surprises is the arrival of Vincent Benitez from Iraq. He provides documentation that the deceased pope had recently created him a cardinal in pectore (in his heart). It is an appointment where the pope, usually for the safety of the new cardinal, does not announce the appointment even to the highest ranking members of the Curia. There will be 118 voters.

For the election each cardinal is to look into his conscience and vote for the cardinal he considers best. Campaigning is discreet but fierce. Will the papacy be returned to an Italian after a trio of non-Italian popes? Could it be a cardinal chosen  from one of the First World countries who have never had a pope? Can the cardinals support a candidate from one of the poorest nations of the world?

What struck me was the measured pace of a vote for each and every ballot. Each of the names of the cardinals is called out and he affirms his presence. Each writes his chosen name on a ballot and, in order of seniority, individually goes to the urn and deposits the ballot. Those counting the vote announce the name on a ballot as it is unfolded. It is a ritual so different from modern voting practices where large groups vote with the push of a button and the results are tallied instantly. Each vote of the conclave takes hours. The process offers time for contemplation and prayer.

With the cardinals sequestered from the world there is never a break from the intensity of the decision. They eat, talk and vote together.

Unexpected issues arise that affect the leading candidates. The cardinals are not without sin. It is a thriller but with a stately tempo. Bodies do not fill the Sistene Chapel.

I appreciated how Harris creates a tension that builds and builds. I wish more thriller writers could accept tension does not have to result from constant violent action.

I found myself anxious to know the result of the next ballot. Harris convincingly places the shifting vote totals between the traditionalists, the progressives and the non-aligned.

As a Catholic I appreciated his balanced approach. Many writings about the Church today can focus on no more than scandals. Little regard is given to the dedicated religious who work to meet the spiritual and temporal needs of the faithful.

Harris writes so well of historic events. He effortlessly inserts information that enhances the plot. However, I was disappointed in the ending. There was one twist too many with that final twist a contrived political statement about the Church. It spoiled my enjoyment of a well written book. But for the conclusion Harris had a great book.

A Great Book Recommendation

before-fall-noah-hawley-hardcover-cover-artThis recommendation comes from Patti Abbott, who blogs at Pattinase.

Before the Fall, Noah Hawley
 
Noah Hawley is the showrunner for FARGO, a TV series I think highly of. So when he published a book (his fourth actually) I was interested. And when it was available as an ebook for a $1.99, I pounced. I wonder who takes the hit when Amazon and other platforms do this: the author, the publisher, the platform?
 
Before the Fall is a thriller and a well-done one. The unexplained crash of a small private plane carrying a family of four, some friends, a small crew, and a body guard happens in the first chapters. The family ‘s a wealthy one and attempts have been made to kidnap their child before. Each of the plane’s passengers gets their own back story as we follow the progress of the investigation. Each story offers a possible reason for the crash.
 
There are two survivors, Scott, an artist and acquaintance of the family and the family’s four-year old son. Scott made an heroic swim to save them both. (An interesting side note is Scott became an excellent swimmer as a child after watching Jack Lalanne haul a ship through his swimming prowess). And yet Scott’s heroism also comes under scrutiny. His paintings are all of disaster scenes. Did he create his own? There are lots of red herrings but well integrated ones.
 
If I have a criticism of the book, which was mostly terrific, it would be that the back stories were too long, especially those for lesser characters. And the ending was perhaps too pedestrian given the possibilities offered us. But isn’t that how life often is? A very good late summer read, but maybe not on a plane flight.

A Great Book Recommendation

The Lost GIrlsThis recommendation comes from Margot Kinberg, who blogs at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist...  

As a way of remembering the late and much-missed Maxine Clarke, and of building a resource of fine crime fiction novels, Bill Selnes at Mysteries and More From Saskatchewan had a terrific idea. Each month, different crime fiction bloggers could contribute a post about a book they would recommend to Maxine.  This is my contribution.

Wendy James’ The Lost Girls 

As The Lost Girls begins, forty-four-year-old New South Wales antique shop owner Jane Tait gets some disturbing news from her daughter, Jess. Documentary filmmaker Erin Fury is working on a new project about families who’ve survived the murder of one of their members. According to Jess, Fury wants to interview the Tait family about the 1978 murder of Jane’s cousin, Angela Buchanan.

For Jane, her brother Michael ‘Mick,’ and her parents. Doug and Barbara Griffin, Angela’s death was a tragedy they’ve all tried to put behind them, although it’s had a profound impact on all of their lives. Still, Jane agrees to be interviewed, and we learn about the murder.

In 1978, fourteen-year-old Angela spent the summer with the Griffin family. During her visit, she made friends with Mick and several of his friends, and the group spent quite a lot of time together, mostly playing pinball and hanging out, as teenagers do. One day, Angela disappeared. Her body was later discovered, strangled, with a scarf wrapped over her head. At first, the police concentrated their attention on the members of the Griffin family; in fact, they actively suspected Mick for a time.

Everything changed, though, when another girl was found dead a few months later. This time, the victim was sixteen-year-old Kelly McIvor. She, too, was found with a scarf around her. Soon, the police liked the two killings, and the press dubbed the murderer, ‘The Sydney Strangler.’ Nothing much came of the investigation, though, and it’s gone cold.

With Erin Fury bringing it all up again, Jane and her family members revisit the murder. Bit by bit, we learn what really happened to Angela, what led to it, and what happened to Kelly McIvor. In the end, we discover that these murders aren’t what they seem on the surface.

There are several reasons I think Maxine would have enjoyed this book. One of them is the layers of character in the novel. Maxine liked books with character depth and complex relationships, and that’s certainly the sort of book this is. As the story goes on, we see how multidimensional these characters really are. Some are not what they seem; all are more than you might think at first. And throughout the novel, we get an increasingly clear picture of the character of Angela Buchanan. As Fury interviews the members of the family, each provides a different perspective on the victims, and that helps us get to know them better.

Maxine would, I think, also have liked sort of mystery this is. The truth about the deaths is revealed layer by layer, and Maxine would have appreciated the motive. She was never one for motives that lacked credibility, or for killers who just killed for pleasure. And she had her fill or psychotic serial killers. This isn’t that sort of novel at all. The motive here is, if you will, a much more human one. And Maxine liked novels where issues were brought to the human level.

Another element of this novel that Maxine would likely have appreciated is that James shows us, through the experience of one family, the impact of grief and loss on more or less ordinary people. Maxine disliked melodrama, preferring instead the stories of real people facing the circumstances of the plot. That’s the sort of novel this is. As the story is told, we see that Angela’s loss has devastated the family members, each in a different way. And none of them really talk about it or face it. The interviews and forthcoming documentary make avoiding the topic impossible, and James shows what that’s like for them.

The story has an authentic New South Wales setting, and Maxine would have liked that, too, I think. She appreciated books with a solid sense of place. The same thing might be said of the time in which the book is set. Part of the novel takes place in the here and now, as the (now older) characters are interviewed, and as we see what happens to them as a result of facing Angela’s murder. The other part of the novel is set in 1977 and 1978 (with one short bit set in 1982), and James places the reader there distinctly. Clothes, speech patterns, and so on all reflect those two different times, and the place.

The focus of this novel is much more on psychological suspense than it is on the actual murders, and Maxine would have liked that, I think. Violence is almost inevitable in a crime novel, and Maxine didn’t flinch at it. But at the same time, she appreciated books where the violence doesn’t take over the plot. This book is like that. There is violence, but it’s really its impact on the characters, more than the violence itself, that is central to the story.

The story is told in mostly the present tense, with different points of view presented in different interviews and chapters. Present tense wasn’t Maxine’s first choice, but I think she’d give this one a pass for that.

The Lost Girls tells the story of the loss of a young girl, and impact both her life and her death have had on everyone around her. It takes place in a distinctly Australian setting, and shows what life was like both when the murder happened, and in the present day. I think Maxine would have liked it very much. I only wish she were here to read it.

 

A Great Book Recommendation

Rogue LawyerThis Recommendation Comes from Bill Selnes, who blogs at Mystery and More From Saskatchewan

Another July has come and I have spent time this month thinking about what book I have read in the past year that I would recommend to Maxine if she was still with us. After looking through a year’s reading I have decided upon Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham.

I have chosen Rogue Lawyer because Sebastian Rudd is such a great character. In a departure from my usual method of recommendation for Maxine I am putting up my post about Sebastian rather than the post in which I reviewed the book.

Maxine loved many types of books. Browsing in Petrona reminded me of how many great posts she had in the blog. Among those posts is her review of Grisham’s book, The Litigators. She enjoyed the book and liked many, not all, of Grisham’s books.

I believe she would have found Sebastian as brilliant a character as I found him when I raced through the book. In particular, I think Maxine would have appreciated his passion for fighting for the individual in the courts of the United States.

I think of you often Maxine.

****

Sebastian Rudd in Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham – I am confident I have just read the next Grisham book to be made into a Hollywood feature film. Sebastian Rudd is a larger than life criminal lawyer swashbuckling his way through the criminal and occasionally civil courts of an unnamed 1,000,000 inhabitant mid-America city.

Rudd is fearless. He challenges the police, opposing counsel, witnesses, judges and clients. Anyone looking for a fight he will make it a brawl.

He despises the tactics and actions of overly aggressive and unethical district attorneys and police.

Rudd has a brutally wicked wit that he rarely restrains in and out of court.

Rudd is as far from the grey clad lawyers occupying the towers of corporate law in Manhattan as possible in America.

He is the second American fictional lawyer to function from a rolling office. Where Michael Connelly’s lawyer, Mickey Haller, practises criminal law in Los Angeles from the back seat of a Lincoln it is a custom equipped van for Rudd. While Haller chose mobility Rudd was forced out of his office by a firebomb.

Rudd has a compelling driver in Partner, a physically imposing black man who, after being successfully defended by Rudd, has taken on the challenge of protecting and assisting the hyper-aggressive defence counsel.

Rudd has a monastic home life in a high rise tower. It is harder for a disgruntled _______ (pick any of the above he has confronted) to attack him in such a residence.

To while away the sleepless hours he regularly endures Rudd has a full size pool table occupying his den / living room and plays games against himself.

While he has little time in his hectic life for the ladies he is the father of a 7 year old boy, Sketcher, who is surprisingly normal despite his father’s chaotic life and his mother’s tumultuous lesbian relationship.

Rudd is really the type of daring courtroom lawyer all litigators wish we could be if we did not care about consequences. He is dancing on the edge every day.

And, by the way, he is a part owner of an upcoming professional cage fighter looking to reach the upper echelons of mixed martial arts. Rudd wears a brilliant yellow jacket and cap as one of the fighter’s handlers.

What leading male actor in Hollywood would not leap at the opportunity to play Rudd in the movies? Grisham thinks Rogue Lawyer and Rudd would be better suited to being a T.V. series. It has been a decade since one of his books has become a movie. Grisham, in a CBS interview, provided encouraging news that he hopes Rudd will return in future books as he has lots of adventures to tell readers.

A Great Book Recommendation

 

The Hidden LegacyThis recommendation comes from Cleo, who blogs at Cleopatra Loves Books

The Hidden Legacy by GJ Minett

 

Although I never ‘knew’ Maxine, all the tributes point towards her being a lover of ‘intelligent’ crime fiction and in my opinion this book, a debut novel, fits that phrase exactly. The Hidden Legacy doesn’t just have excellent plotting, it is one of those books that ask the big ‘moral’ questions wrapped up in a story that touches on some big issues.

With the action opening with a heinous crime committed  in a school playground in the city of Gloucester in 1966 in one of the most ‘grab-you-by-the-throat’ scenes I’ve ever read you could be forgiven for thinking that this book is all about the action, you’d be wrong. Not that there isn’t plenty of action, but this book is one of those that will make you think, let you decide whereabouts on the line of justice do you stand? Are some of the characters actions justifiable, at least to some degree, once the entire picture has been drawn?

The Hidden Legacy’s past may begin in the sixties but all that happened then is bought to life by a solicitor’s letter hailing from Cheltenham straight into the hands of Ellen Sutherland in West Sussex. She is the beneficiary of an unknown Eudora Nash and with no way of finding out who Eudora is Ellen squeezes in a trip to Cheltenham to find out. The mystery only deepens when she is door-stepped by the wonderfully portrayed journalist, Andrew O’Halloran. Ellen pleased to find the trip hasn’t been a total waste of time, she after all in possession of a fine legacy and so returns to her home, and her best friend Kate and the two women start investigating the past. Someone must know why Eudora left her a cottage?

With the story set in the sixties and the life of the child perpetrator struggle into adult-hood with the newspaper headlines ever-ready to be reproduced every time another child commits a crime the reader is invited to question should anyone be expected to pay for the rest of his life for an act committed as a child, however appalling that act may have been? This book simultaneously looks at the role of the media in such instances, does the need to sell papers really justify the hounding of that person, forever, no matter what consequences that has on him and everyone who knows him? Worthy yet difficult questions, I think you’ll agree.

This story touches on all the good things that make for an interesting read; secrets, past tragedies, along with their consequences, and the human need to protect others. It also tackles the far bigger issue of redemption and not in a way that is a common in a debut author, G.J. Minett puts these decisions firmly in his reader’s hands, in that this book, which is expertly-plotted, peopled by fascinating and complex characters, can be read as a story with a mystery to be solved, or you can ponder on where the moral rights and wrongs really lie. How far back in time do you have to go to get to the events that led to the tale that unfolds?

Despite the big questions the author never forgets that many of us read for pure entertainment so as well as having characters who are far from being two-dimensional the story is engaging, the switching of timelines and narratives expertly handled thereby giving the reader many different viewpoints as well as a sense of place and time, all topped off with a cracking good mystery.

Ever since I read this book, I have continued to ponder some of these questions and wonder how realistic some of the answers to them really are especially when emotions are added into the mix, so I hope that Maxine would agree with me that this belongs in the genre of intelligent crime and that she too would have appreciated the fine storytelling that backs up this story, which is one to make you think.

 

 

A Great Book Recommendation

night blindThis recommendation comes from FictionFan, who blogs at FictionFan’s Book Reviews.

Although I didn’t have the privilege of knowing Maxine, I hadn’t been blogging long before I learned from other bloggers how active she had been in promoting what tends now to be known as Scandi-crime. So I’m sure she’d have been enjoying Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series as much as I am.

Nightblind by Ragnar Jónasson

It’s autumn in tiny Siglufjördur but it feels like winter is on the way. Ari Thór Arason, one of the town’s two police officers, is off sick with flu, so his colleague Herjólfur is on his own as he stands in the wind and rain outside an old, abandoned house a little way out of town, watching a light inside that seems to come from a torch. Summoning up his courage, he goes to investigate. It’s only when his wife reports him missing the next day that he is found, shot through the chest…

This is a cracking start to what turns into an excellent book. The combination of Jónasson’s great descriptive writing and Quentin Bates’ flawless translation immediately create an atmospheric sense of the isolation of this small weather-beaten place on Iceland’s northern shore. The characters of both Ari Thór and Herjólfur are quickly introduced with enough information for us to feel we know and care about them and, though this is part of a series, it works perfectly well as a standalone.

Although this is apparently the 6th in the Dark Iceland series, it’s only the second to be translated into English, so there has been a gap of a few years since we last met Ari Thór in Snowblind. He’s now living with Kristín and they have a baby son, though Kristín and he seem to be growing apart – a source of ongoing anxiety to Ari Thór, who loves his little family but isn’t always good at communicating how he feels. Ari Thór’s old boss, Tómas, has moved on to a promotion in Reykjavik, and Herjólfur has been brought in as the new inspector. Although the two men work together professionally, Ari Thór can’t help but be a bit resentful of the man who got the promotion he had also applied for, and this has caused a distance between them, preventing them from becoming friends. When Herjólfur is so seriously injured that he is unlikely to live, Ari Thór feels a sense of guilt that he never made more of an effort to get to know him better. But he’s happy to have his old mentor, Tómas, back – seconded to Siglufjördur to run the investigation into Herjólfur’s shooting.

ragnar-jonasson

There are so many things I like about Jónasson’s books – the characters, the sense of place, the way he stays well within the bounds of credibility at all times and, perhaps most of all, the excellent plotting. The books are solid police procedurals that don’t, as so much current crime fiction does, suddenly turn into ridiculous shoot-’em-up thrillers in the last few chapters. Instead, Ari Thór gets at the truth the old-fashioned way, by questioning people, sifting through evidence and motives, and using his brain. Jónasson plots beautifully, providing plenty of side tracks and red herrings for the reader to chase after, and using each of them as a way to show another facet of the small community of Siglufjördur. Ari Thór may have lived there for a few years now, but he’s still an outsider, still doesn’t know all the complicated relationships and old secrets that the locals share.

There’s some suggestion that the abandoned house may have been being used as a drop-off point for drugs. With a new access road, Siglufjördur is becoming more open to the outside world, bringing in tourists for the ski-ing, and new types of crime along with them. But Ari Thór can’t discount the possibility that the crime might have been personal – someone may have been deliberately targeting Herjólfur because of some secret in his past or present. It appears that Herjólfur’s last phone call was made late in the evening to the town’s new mayor, and the explanation the mayor gives for this sounds unconvincing – does he have some involvement? The old house has seen another tragedy in its time – a death, assumed to have been accident or suicide, of a young man who fell from a window balcony. Ari Thór thinks it’s unlikely there’s a connection, but feels he must investigate anyway. And meantime, the reader is being given short excerpts of a journal, written by an unnamed man in a locked psychiatric ward in the 1980s, gradually revealing what brought him there. It will be near the end of the book before we see how this strand fits in.

There’s also a side plot relating to the mayor’s deputy, Elin – a woman who has changed her name to escape from an abusive relationship. But with all the publicity surrounding Herjólfur’s shooting, her new identity is soon under threat. In this thread, Jónasson gives an utterly credible and terrifying picture, full of almost unbearable tension, of what it’s like to be the victim of extreme domestic violence; and introduces some real moral ambiguity that had me feeling thankful I didn’t have to make a decision regarding the rights and wrongs of it.

So plot, pacing, characterisation, sense of place, atmosphere and tension, translation – all excellent, and while Ari Thór’s personal life is developed enough to make him an interesting character, it never overshadows the more important detection element. I didn’t get close to the solution, but found it logical and satisfying once it was revealed, which makes it my favourite kind of plot. And looking back, I could see that all the clues were there. For me, this is about as good as the police procedural can get, and I sincerely hope they’re working hard on translating the rest of the series. If you haven’t guessed already, highly recommended!