Tuesday, March 24, 2015

BURIAL RITES by Hannah Kent






Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites is based on an actual event. It is the fictionalized story of the last person executed in Iceland.

March 13th or 14th, 1828, Icelandic authorities executed Agnes Magnúsdóttir [Magnus’ daughter] for her part in the deaths of Natan Ketilsson and Pétur Jónsson.

Prior to that, the state held Agnes in a rural farm home as she awaited execution.

Burial Rites is the story of Agnes, Assistant Reverend Thorvadur Jónsson, and the farm family holding Agnes.
Agnes tells her story to Reverend Jónsson and to the mother in the family.

Agnes is a special person, a poor servant who can read, write, and knows the Icelandic sagas. She is both used and abused.

Natan Ketilsson took her in, isolated her, took her to bed with him, falsely promised her she would be the mistress of his house, and then insanely abused her. All along, Natan was bedding other women, including the other young woman who lived in Nathan’s house.

Finally, Agnes, the young woman, and a greedy neighbor murdered Natan and a visitor to Natan’s farm.

Burial Rites takes place while Agnes is awaiting execution. Agnes becomes an unpaid servant to the family of the small-time local official who is forced to house her. 

Agnes becomes close to several of the women, even finally winning over the most jealous daughter.

It is hard for me to describe what a special book this is. Burial Rites is simply-written. It is a chronological unfolding of the events with the backstory told in Agnes’ own words.

Agnes’ words are shaded by the perceptions of the people hearing them, and Agnes’ execution, moves them all.

Hannah Kent includes an “Author’s Note” describing her research. She points out that the quotes at the beginnings of chapters are from the actual historical record. Then she talks about how she reinterpreted the story in a different way than some earlier writers had.

At one point in the “Author’s Note,” Hannah writes, “I hope you see this novel as the dark love letter to Iceland I intend it to be.”

I did see the book that way, and I loved it.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

THE BARRAKEE MYSTERY by Arthur W. Upfield






The Barrakee Mystery (1928) is the first of Arthur W. Upfield’s Australian Detective Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte (Bony) books.

The book tells Bony’s history--the circumstances of his birth, his attitude toward mixed-race assignations, the way he became a detective in the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Queensland, and the reason he is so driven to succeed.

In The Barrakee Mystery, Bony goes to New South Wales to investigate the murder of King Henry, a Western Australian aborigine.

From the start, we know the name of the man who migrated to New South Wales to murder King Henry. Bony’s investigation leads him to understand the unexpected circumstances surrounding the murder.

If this sounds routine, that’s because what makes this book unique is its detailed setting (including a terrible flood), the personality of its white-aboriginal mixed-race hero, the human feeling in the story, and the way the story mirrors its time.

At several points, Bony reflects what modern people may see as the racism in the book.

“Bony was intensely moral. The loose-living customs of the civilized aborigines, and the majority of white people as well, found no favour in the man who tried to pattern his life on that of his hero [Napoleon Bonaparte].”

In other words, Bony doesn’t like mixed-race (or mixed-class) assignations, even the mixed-race affair which brought him into the world. He considers mixing races immoral. He even describes the physical changes he believes mixed-race people undergo as they grow older.

But remember, the year is 1928. Upfield’s whole story is built on the mixed-race premise.

Did that bother me? No. I saw the book as authentic, skirting what we would today call political correctness to tell the truth of its time.

I love the Bony books. I came to know Bony when I found several old Bony paperbacks on a library discard table.

You can only imagine how excited I was to discover all the Upfield books published as e-books on the Kobo Reader.

Thanks to Kobo, if you read this blog, you will be hearing more from me about Bony.
-----
P.S. I've seen at least two publication dates for this book, 1928 and 1929. I took Fantastic Fiction's date.


Sunday, March 15, 2015

DOUBLE FAULT by Judith Cutler






I’m on a roll! I have read several good books in a row.

Judith Cutler’s Double Fault is a pure British police procedural.

Double Fault is different from many modern police procedurals. There is no moving away from the police, looking into the mind of the killer, or seeing things from other points of view.

Retired Acting Chief Constable Mark Turner sounds the alarm when someone kidnaps a young girl from Mark’s tennis club. Mark’s fiancée Fran Harman, Chief Superintendent of the Ashford police, takes on the case.

Fran is recovering from a broken leg suffered in the line of duty.

Because of budget cuts, a colleague’s appendicitis, and a supervisor’s incompetence, more and more responsibility falls on Fran.

A cold case breaks wide open. Someone finds murdered children (killed twenty years ago) encased in the wall of an abandoned juvenile center.

With Mark’s help, Fran and her team do what the police are supposed to do. They wade through administrative infighting to put the victims and their families first.

Double Fault ends with a heart-stopping scene and then goes on to describe Fran and Mark’s wedding.

Along the way, I found the meticulously-described administrative infighting tedious but sadly believable.

Double Fault is the fifth in what is now a six-book series. It is the first of these books I have read.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

SUSPENDERED SENTENCE by Laura Bradford






Laura Bradford’s Suspendered Sentence is a gently-told, intriguing story.

When the Stoltzfus barn burns, the Amish community gathers to rebuild it. During the rebuilding, two children helping to shovel find the bones of a missing Amish teenager.

She disappeared years ago.

Now-shunned detective Jakob Fisher investigates. The Amish community shunned Fisher because he was baptized and then left the community to become a policeman in the “English” world.

Suspendered Sentence centers on Claire Weatherly, an English shopkeeper who ends up as Fisher’s girlfriend.

Claire sells Amish-made crafts in her small shop. She has come to Heavenly, Pennsylvania, to escape a bad marriage and ugly divorce. She builds a strong friendship with the struggling Amish teenager who works in her store.

Claire and Jakob uncover the backstory for the buried teenager. Then they solve the murder in the story, a different murder than they thought at first.

But all this makes the story seem too dry. Suspendered Sentence is intriguingly plotted. Bradford fills the book with life, gentle love, and real evil.

If you can get past the silly title (which to me seemed irrelevant), I think you will like Suspendered Sentence.

(P.S., During my afternoon treadmill walk, it occurred to me. The title Suspendered Sentence refers to Jakob's being shunned and maybe to the actions of another person in the story.  Still, I think the title trivializes what is a much better book than the title makes it seem to be. Suspendered Sentence is better than your routine cozy.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

THE CROWDED GRAVE by Martin Walker






Martin Walker’s The Crowded Grave ended in a way that broke my heart.

In the book’s prologue, St. Denis Chief of Police Bruno Courrѐges dresses for a formal ceremony to honor a fallen hero.

Bruno and his fellow officers defy orders to cover up a Basque separatist group’s murder of Brigadier of gendarmes Jean-Serge Nѐrin. The government wants his heroism swept under the rug.

But Bruno breaks the rules.

In a sense, that’s the whole story--Bruno breaks the rules.

As Bruno works to identify a more recent body found in an archaeological dig, as he tries to circumvent (and then save) the new magistrate, as he tries to defend local farmers against what he sees as misguided PETA attacks, Bruno breaks the rules.

There are few books like the Bruno books. They are complex. (To know what was going on, I had to look up and read about the Basques.) But they are totally human.

Bruno loves his women with a sort of confused gusto. He cooks meals so wonderfully described that they are recipes in themselves. And he is loyal to St. Denis and its people.

Bruno is incensed when he comprehends that the French government has used St. Denis as a site to entrap Basque terrorists. The decision puts St. Denis and its people at risk.

Bruno loves St. Denis.

And that brings me to the closing. But I won’t say much about the closing except to say it broke my heart.

Martin Walker’s Bruno books are special, and The Crowded Grave was no exception.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

ASSASSINS OF ATHENS by Jeffrey Siger






If you are looking for well written police procedurals, I’d suggest Jeffrey Siger’s Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis series.

In Siger’s Assassins of Athens, someone murders the son of a wealthy Greek outsider. The killers do the brutal murder in such a way as to smear the family.

Kaldis and his team investigate the murder. They enlist colleagues from elsewhere, and in so doing, find a complex scheme that goes to the heart of Greek’s elitist society.

Along the way, Kaldis finds a special (very different) woman to love.

Assassins of Athens is not a “who done it.” It is a “how did they do it?”

In one way, I knew who did it, but I had to follow the procedure as it unfolded, the relationships of groups who hated one other and the link between them.

Assassins of Athens is a well-plotted book with a bonus--an action-filled closing.

I always feel a special rush when I run across excellent police procedurals like Assassins of Athens.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

BLACK DIAMOND by Martin Walker






Black Diamonds are rare, expensive truffles.

Martin Walker’s Black Diamond involves a plot to defraud one of France’s truffle markets. St. Denis Chief of Police Bruno Courreges investigates the market and the people in it.

Prior to that Bruno oversees the closing of St. Denis’ major industry, the sawmill. He stops a near riot.

He watches the mill owner and the owner’s son continue their lifelong feud. He learns that both of them plan to run for mayor of St. Denis against Bruno’s patron, the present mayor.

Afterward Bruno and a hunting friend find the brutalized body of Hercule Vendrot. Vendrot is the one who taught Bruno where to find and how to raise truffles.

Vendrot has connections with the Vietnam war, the Algerian war, and the French secret service.

All this leads Bruno into the middle of a murderous fight between Vietnamese and Chinese gangs seeking to take control of lucrative French outdoor markets and the restaurants they serve. And that leads to something more terrible yet.

Still, this book is not plot heavy.

Black Diamond has well-written descriptions of the countryside, a long play-by-play of a hard-fought Rugby game, and an almost recipe-like description of the meal at the wake for Bruno’s good friend.

Bruno continues to try to find love. He continues to be loyal to St. Denis, to refuse to seek greener pastures.

He continues to be Father Christmas at the annual St. Denis community Christmas celebration. And he continues to help the people of the village of St. Denis in large and small ways.

Martin Walker’s Bruno Chief of Police mysteries are among the most well-written and authentic books I read.

If you are looking for well-plotted, setting-and-character-heavy mystery stories, I suggest you try Bruno, Chief of Police.

Friday, February 13, 2015

ACT OF DARKNESS by Jane Haddam






Jane Haddam’s Act of Darkness is a complex story.

A potential presidential candidate, Senator Stephen Fox and his handler Dan Chester ask ex-FBI agent Gregor Demarkian to attend a July 4th fundraiser.

The event will raise money to promote Senator Fox’s Down syndrome bill. Chester thinks the bill will propel Fox to the prominence he needs to run for president.

Fox has a personal investment in the bill. His daughter with Down syndrome died as an infant.

And there is an added problem. Fox has been blacking out at public events. Chester suspects foul play, so he calls in Gregor Demarkian.

During the weekend fundraiser, someone murders a prominent doctor who helped draft the bill, and the story goes from there.

Act of Darkness reeks with Haddam’s disdain for politics. At one point, a lobbyist who paid thousands to attend the event says, “What do I do, after all? I talk a lot of horse manure to a lot of corrupt politicians, and we all pretend what I’m saying isn’t horse manure and what the politicians are isn’t corrupt.”

The bill favors the medical establishment without doing much to help Down syndrome patients and their families.

As I said, Act of Darkness is a complicated story. It takes place on Long Island Sound in a strange house filled with strange people.

Even Gregor’s friend Bennis Day Hannaford has a surprising secret.

Except for Bennis, none of the other ongoing characters plays a major part in the story.


Act of Darkness is the third book in Haddam’s Gregor Demarkian series.

Monday, February 9, 2015

A Note from Joe--OLD FAVORITES




I’ve fallen behind.

I’ve not been reading as much, and I wondered why.

Then it occurred to me that I’ve not paid much attention to authors I like. So I made a list of those authors with the books I’ve not yet read.

When I finish the Jane Haddam I’m currently reading (I enjoy her books!), I’ll spend time catching up.

Here’s the list of authors I found as I paged through my blog--

Michael Stanley (Detective Kubu); Elly Griffiths (Ruth Galloway); Martin Walker (the Bruno stories); Jeffrey Siger (Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis); Kwei Quartey (Darko Dawson); Leighton Gage (Mario Silva); Alan Bradley (Flavia, only one of these to read); Shamini Flint (Inspector Singh); and P.L. Gaus (Ohio Amish). 


I enjoy new books too, but I think it is time for me to get back to some old favorites.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

THE FOURTH SECRET by Andrea Camilleri






Andrea Camilleri’s The Fourth Secret is an Inspector Montalbano novella.

Montalbano receives a letter. Someone has killed several construction workers making the murders look like accidents.

Montalbano investigates, allies himself with a kindred spirit, Maresciallo Verrusso, a member of the carabinieri.

Ordinarily, in the competitive world of Sicilian police agencies, the two men would be at odds, maybe even enemies. But because of Verrusso’s particular situation, this time is different.

Verrusso could be one of Montalbano’s long-term allies if Verusso’s personal situation didn’t make that impossible.

The two men solve the crimes which have their roots in high places.

The Fourth Secret has all the usual things which make me love the Montalbano stories. Montalbano is as impulsive as ever. He has wild dreams. He has to work closely with Catarella, one of the most interesting characters in these books.

Montalbano eats rich (and richly-described) meals. And Montalbano uses his intuition, along with police footwork, to solve the crime.

At one point, Montalbano admitted, “The only thing to do was give in to his instincts, letting them guide him, following their lead.”

And elsewhere he notes, “Sometimes in life you can’t be the one to finish things, but rather you have to disguise yourself, hide behind someone else. The important thing is that you reach your goal.”

I’ve said this before--Montalbano’s Sicilian personalty reminds me of my dad, the son of Siclian immigrants. Impulsiveness, emotionality, even enjoying good food, come with many Sicilians.

Gianluca Rizzo and Dominic Siracusa.translated this book into English.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

DARK LAVA by Toby Neal






Toby Neal’s Dark Lava is an action-filled book.

Someone is desecrating Hawaiian sacred sites. Thieves are jack-hammering the hieroglyphs out of the rocks and carrying them away.

At the same time, terrible things happen to Lei Texeira and Michael Stevens. Stevens ends up being accused of a heinous crime, and his wife Lei works to clear him.

Michael and Lei are hoping to create a family. That, too, ends in an unexpected way. 

Lei’s father calls with the news that Lei’s favorite aunt has only a few days to live.

And all the while, someone is stalking them, killing people around them, and leaving ominous white shrouds at the scene. (One shroud is finally left unused, probably waiting to show up in a later book.)

All this culminates in a set of furious actions during which the bad guys put our heroes at grave risk.

As I said, Dark Lava is an action-filled book. It reminded me of a “Law and Order” or “CSI” TV show. A part of the motivation for the action reached back into earlier episodes of the series.

Dark Lava is the first Lei Crime book I have read. It is the seventh in the popular series.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

THE BISHOP'S WIFE by Mette Ivie Harrison








Mette Ivie Harrison’s The Bishop’s Wife surprised me.

Many mysteries use religion as a setting, something to add interest. In The Bishop’s Wife, Linda Wallheim’s Mormon faith informs the story.

The murders occur as a reaction to or a distortion of the Mormon faith.

Carrie Helm runs away from her husband and small daughter. Later, someone murders her.

At the same time, Linda Wallheim, the bishop’s wife, becomes friendly with another middle-aged woman whose elderly husband is dying. 

As the man dies, everyone starts to ask what happened to his first wife. And the story goes from there.

The two stories don’t mesh. They are more parallel, similar kinds of things which happened at different times.

Harrison describes parts of Mormonism, especially marriage practices and the role of women in the church.

I was raised Catholic. I always used to watch the women take more power in the church than the structure wanted to give them, maybe not complete power, but more power. Something similar was happening here.

The bishop more-than-tolerates his wife investigating terrible things. He allows her to put herself at risk. 

Others in the church might not understand Linda Wallheim, but her straight-laced husband does.

Bishop Wallheim and his wife still have to talk about a long-ago tragedy in their own lives.

I wondered what faithful Mormons thought about The Bishop’s Wife.

I found this to be a well-written and interesting story. The two threads paralleled in an improbable way, but that didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the book.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Not a mystery--THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JESUS CHRIST by Jose Saramago








Jose Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ is just what it says, a gospel, a reworking of traditions to reflect the author’s faith.

This particular “gospel” tells the story of an all-too-human Son of God.

Fundamentalist Christians will almost certainly find the book blasphemous. When Jesus asks God why he has to die, God replies that Jesus’ death is a PR scheme.

God doesn’t use those words, but what God says is that Jesus’ death will extend belief in God beyond the Jews. This will involve pain and death, not just Jesus’ death but the deaths of many people over all of history. The martyrs will die. Those killed in the Crusades will die. Those killed in later Christian-related violence will die. Violence is one of the methods by which the gospel spreads.

Some would object to the book because of Jesus’ continuing sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. To me that was old hat. Some non-canonical gospels hinted that Mary was Jesus’ wife, and several wildly popular recent novels (i.e. The Da Vinci Code) exploited the idea to sell books.

Saramago does what gospel writers from the four canonical gospels to the non-canonical gospels did. He reworks the traditions to express his faith and (in this case, especially) his skepticism.

My summary of the major point only hints at the wide range of things many will dislike.

One thing struck me. This is a miracle-based story. Saramago devoted only a few pages of the more than 370-page book to what Jesus taught.

What the human Jesus taught is what interests me most. One thing I admire about Pope Francis is his emphasis on the love, peace, and justice Jesus taught.

This book deals with the nature of evil, what it means (or doesn’t mean) to be the Son of God, and how Satan is necessary if there is to be a God.

A friend loaned me this book. I’m glad he did.

Monday, January 5, 2015

TOO BIG TO MISS by Sue Ann Jaffarian








Sue Ann Jaffarian’s Too Big to Miss was fun and easy-reading.

Odelia Grey, a single plus-sized woman (the book blurb’s description), investigates the apparent suicide of a friend.

The case seems open-and-shut. Online still photos from Sophie London’s website show what happened. Even the nature of the sexually-explicit site shows how troubled Sophie must have been.

But Odelia doesn’t believe it. She thinks there has to be another explanation.

When someone runs down a possible witness, Odelia becomes even more convinced.

Along the way, Odelia finds a lover. 

Using her skills as a paralegal, Odelia delves into Sophie’s past to reveal a shocking story. And she unmasks the real killers.

Even though I guessed at least one of the less obvious killers early on, the details behind the murder (along with the interesting characters) kept me reading.

I bought this book because I enjoyed the two Odelia Grey short stories I read at Christmas.