25 October 2016

Struck by stages

I made it to the newly enlarged library in town. It had been all but closed for a year or so. Books for younger readers were available at city hall, but most of the collection was in storage.

The place is very attractive. The entry is welcoming and light filled. There are still a lot of stairs, but if you're unable to climb, there's good elevator service to the top floor.

And there's one whole room for mysteries that used to be strung along several rows of tall shelves. I went in searching for a book to take to the cabin for reading during break times as we closed for the season.

Somewhere in the past, I read or heard about Peter Lovesey's mystery novels. His name and a list of his books made it on to my "to read" list. So I went looking for his books in the new "mysteries" room. Since I had no clues about good/better/best, I grabbed Stagestruck from the shelf.

I took it to the lake cabin and began reading it. I liked Lovesey's language and pacing. The setting is contemporary Bath (UK). Lovesey's featured character is Peter Diamond, chief inspector on the local police force. The plot revolves around a former pop star who was recruited to star in a production of I am a Camera. The nervous songster screams in agony as she makes her Act 1 entrance. Something in her stage make up has burned her skin.

Send in Diamond and crew. Just about the time they are figuring out what happened, the woman in charge of the "star's" make up falls from the backstage rigging. Then the makeup woman's colleague dies under even more mysterious circumstances. Lots for the police to sort out.

About that point in the book, the story telling bogged down. Diamond is distracted by a new assistant assigned to my my his boss. He's also distracted by undefined fears of being in the theater. The personnel of the theater are fearful and trying to help solve the murders while being mostly in the way. The narrative became deadly slow. I almost laid the book down and headed back to the library.

But I soldiered on. It turned out I wouldn't have missed much if I hadn't. It seems that British mysteries (and others?) whether in print or on BBC "Masterpiece Mysteries" end with long winded explanations of how the investigator figured things out and what logic led to the guilty party.

The final chapter of Stagestruck consisted of a strained "conversation" between inspector Diamond (center stage of the theater) and the evil bad guy (sort of hiding in one of the box seats). Diamond says things like "I know what you did and how you did it." The evil bad guy (EBG) says things like, "You're not so smart. You don't have any evidence." Diamond says, "Yes, I do." EBG says, "No you don't." This goes on until Diamond's assistant cop sneaks up behind the EBG and wrestles him into a waiting squad car after the inspector has clearly outlined his case. Next thing I read about is a party for one of the theater's old timers.

The beginning of the book was promising. The ending was deflating. What is the rule? Get to 90% of the story told by describing events and the last 10% told in a turgid way so no one misses how clever the author was in constructing the plot?

I might try reading another Lovesey mystery, but I won't guarantee that I'll finish another.

Have you read Stagestruck? What did you think of it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

18 October 2016

Mystery told through events

The last book by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir that I read was ponderous, mostly because the narrator told the story ponderously.

This new one, The Silence of the Sea, hooked me at the beginning and kept me going through the whole plot. It begins when a luxury yacht sails into the harbor in Reykjavik, Iceland. It had come from Spain. It crashes into a jetty in the harbor. No one is aboard the ship.

Well, what happened to the crew? And to the passengers? An Icelandic bank had repossessed the yacht. A banker who had gone to Spain to do the repossession paperwork was bringing his family (wife and two daughters) home on the yacht.

Yrsa tells the story through a series of flashbacks during the cruise. The flashbacks are mostly told from the banker's point of view, but there are other people's flashbacks too.

Meanwhile in Reykjavik, rumors circulate about a curse on the yacht and its owners. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by the banker's father to sort out the legalities and liabilities. The closest thing to a living helper is a sailor who was supposed to be on the crew, but who broke a leg just before the ship sailed. He's actually less help than Thóra hoped for.

Oh, and then there's the problem of the boat's owner who has either gone missing or flown to Brazil to avoid bankruptcy. Well, that's what people thought until her body washes up on an Icelandic shore. And the owner's personal maid, has also disappeared. Then the partial body of one of the yacht's crew comes ashore in Iceland.

The story is nicely complicated and resolution seems as ghostly as the spirit that has been seen on the yacht.

Not to worry, Yrsa wraps the story up in an inventive and surprising way. It was a good book and a great antidote to the previous book (Someone to Watch Over Me).

Have you read The Silence of the Sea? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.

28 September 2016


Just before running away to the north shore of Lake Superior, I read a glowing review of Louise Penny's new book A Great Reckoning. Then Dale Stahl told me he'd just read it and that it was good.

I was wandering the tourist village of Grand Marais and happened upon a book store. A real book store. It actually had a copy of A Great Reckoning. How could I resist? I had time to sit on the rocky beach, look at the big lake, and read.

In fact, I didn't read the book until I'd returned from the north woods and headed up to the tiny lake called Little Blake. So I watched the geese and a couple swans while reading at place called Sidetrack.

This is a book that has its roots firmly in the earlier books Penny has written. Ostensibly the book is about the continuing crusade of police Commander Armand Gamache to clean up the corruption in the Sûreté of Québec. This time he takes on the task of rooting out evil in the Sûreté Academy. His methodology is obtuse, but marginally understandable.

But then there's a suicide? or was it a murder? And four cadets in the Sûreté Academy. One
of whom stands out as an example of the old order and one as an example of the rejection or the old order. Oh, and there's a century-old map found among the old newspapers and magazines used in the original insulation of an old building that was renovated.

One of the players in all this is Gamache's old friend and colleague who was caught up in the clean-up regime of the Sûreté. The love/hate and trust/mistrust nature of the relationship fits into all this well.

If you've read The Nature of the Beast, you'll be on track to easily follow the details of this book. If not, you might have to pay attention to things inferred. Or you can read The Nature of the Beast. It's good.

Have you read A Great Reckoning? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.


I want to reduce the pile of books on my desk. I want to write something about each of them. I just added another book to the pile. I keep thinking I have plenty of time. I keep procrastinating.

The book on the top of the pile if Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It's a long book. Sigurdardottir told me lots of things. Some were interesting. Some were didactic. Buried in the telling is a mystery, but it was difficult to follow in the midst of all the telling. She told me about the suffering of handicapped people living in institutions. The primary mystery revolves around a young man with Down Syndrome who has been convicted of murder. Besides the question of whether or not he murdered people, there are legal and moral questions about his culpability. There are questions about the motivations of the man who hired Sigurdardottir's main character, lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottor to investigate the "crime."

Oh, and there are some supernatural elements in the story too. Are the spirits that appear to one of the characters "real" spirits or figments of her imagination?

And Gudmundsdottor's domestic scene becomes part of the book, though it has little to do with the main plot. It's wonderful that the lawyer has a boyfriend, that she can take in her son and his family, and that she can take in her parents. I'm not sure why those scenes and events are in the book.

It's a long book. Movement through the plot is slow. I had trouble keeping track of everyone and the chain of events. To me, this was not one of Sigurdardottir's best.

Have you read Someone to Watch Over Me? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

22 September 2016

The reason for the re-read

When I saw Arnaldur Indridason's Into Oblivion at the library, I wanted to read it. A note on the inside flap said it was "a follow-up to the gritty prequel, Reykjavik Nights." It had been several years since I read that prequel and thought I'd reread it as an introduction to the new book.

The cover of Into Oblivion also calls the book "An Icelandic thriller."

Well, the two book are not thrillers by my account. They're Icelandic quizzicals. The last few chapters of Into Oblivion include some suspense and a bit of violence, but none of it is thrilling. But the rest of the book, like Reykjavik Nights plods along. They made me wonder if the long Icelandic nights left too much time for detailing minor plot points.

Inspector Erlander, the survivor of a childhood trauma that claimed his brother's life, is still in the irresistible clutches of mysterious disappearances. When a murder grasps his attention, an old case from his first years on the force also pulls him into a search for answers. Luckily, he has time to pursue the ancient case because he has help on the murder from a colleague and an American MP from the nearby US Army base.

NAS Keflavik
Arnaldur tries mixing in some Icelandic nationalism and economic dependence with the aggressive sovereignty of the American authorities in this story, but it's mostly flat background. I never got a real feeling for how big an issue this is in Icelandic politics. And, of course, when it comes to dealing with a tiny country like Iceland, the US can afford to say, "Take our money and leave us alone" (especially after the end of the Cold War).

I don't remember that books by Arnaldur that I read even longer ago (Jar City and The Draining Lake) were so plodding and unexciting. But my memory is faulty and I probably have different standards now. I seem to recall those novels had better and more complex plotting.

So, have you read Into Oblivion? What did you think of it? Was it different from earlier novels?  Write. and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

10 September 2016

The other re-read

The other book I reread recently was Arnaldur Indridason's Reykjavik Nights. I knowingly set out to reread this one. It is a precursor to a new book by Arnaldur, Into Oblivion.

I figured it had been so long, I should read Reykjavik Nights to prepare me for the new book. I hope it was a good choice. I have just begun the new book and I'll let you know what I think of it soon.

Reykjavik Nights is about Erlander, a new policeman in Reykjavik. He gets to know (professionally) Hannibal, an alcoholic street person. When Hannibal is found dead, Erlander is curious about how the old man drowned. A respectable, middle class woman disappeared about the same time and her earring was found in Hannibal's crib.

Erlander, the book notes was rescued as a child from a blizzard. His brother was lost. This is Arnaldur's explanation for Erlander's fascination with missing people.

Erlander pursues, on his own time and initiative explanations for Hannibal's death and the disappearance of the  woman. As his boss says at one point, "You've broken almost all the rules for this investigation. Would you like to be a detective?"

He finds out what happened to the two unfortunates. Justice and harmony are restored to Reykjavik. And, if it wasn't for human failings, all would be right with Iceland. But more bad things happen.

During this read, the story telling was pretty ponderous. Interesting characters and intriguing story. The new book has begun much like this one did. I'm looking forward to it. Iceland is an intriguing place, though most of the place and street names are not translated. I found myself trying to sound out unfamiliar letter combinations (and unfamiliar letters like the "eth" in Arnaldur's last name that gets published in English as a "d.")

It seems I never wrote about my first experience with this book. But I can't really think of more to write.

Have you read Reykjavik Nights? Write. Tell this tiny bit of the world what you thought of it.


So I have this pile of book on the corner of my desk. I've read them all, but not written about them. That's not the embarrassing part. The embarrassing part is that the one of the top of the pile might need rereading before I write about it.

I look at the title, Invisible Murder and the authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis and I nearly draw blanks. I'm pretty sure that Kaaberbøl and Friis are names on my "to read" list. But the title??

The blurb on the back of the book rings some bells. Hungarian Roma squatting  in an abandoned Copenhagen garage. They're getting sick and dying. (That sounds like invisible death, but murder?)

The main "investigator" in this mystery is nurse Nina Borg, working for the Red Cross in a refugee program. There are Roma connections across Europe. There's a young Roma man who wants nothing more than his law degree, which a university professor won't approve because the man is a Roma. But there are people who want a buried canister and its
Kaaberbøl and Friis
radioactive contents that have been buried in the abandoned garage. Oh, and there is an active and violent anti-Muslim terrorist group.

This one will keep you fascinated and wondering; wondering especially about the motivations of nurse Borg and student Sandor. And if you wait a few months before thinking about it, you might be wondering why you don't remember details about the plot and action.

Have you read Invisible Murder. Write. Tell this little bit of the world how much you remember and what you thought of it.

Re-reading time

I don't reread books often. There are too many unread books. Well, I just reread a couple.

I was in a hurry at the library and pulled Qiu Xiaolong's Enigma of China off the shelf. The author, a poet and mystery writer, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. His name was familiar, but the title didn't ring a bell. His mysteries feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. Not only is Chen a rising star in the police force, he's also (at the time of this story) in line to become Communist Party chief in the police department.

After about 50 pages I realized I'd read the book. I looked it up. It was 3 years ago. I should have grabbed another of his dozen mysteries. Well, maybe.

It turns out this novel was a refresher on the power of guanxi. Simply translated as "connections," guanxi is a crucial element that makes government and politics work in China. Chen is in a job that brings him into contact with lots of people. He's a humanitarian who often gives people breaks or does favors for them. That creates guanxi connections (people own him). He also relies on guanxi connections he's made or people who remember his father (a scholar who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution) for information (he owes them). There's hardly a chapter in this book that doesn't illustrate one of Chen's relationships. Guanxi helps him learn how to slip by the censors on the Chinese Internet, get his mother into a hospital usually reserved for high party officials, learn what plans someone has for his career, and how to reserve a private room in a very high class restaurant. It also helps him resolve a particularly messy case.

The novel is also a refresher course in poetry -- especially Chinese poetry. Qiu drops in references to or quotations of classic poetry or his own to help set the moods in scenes. It's good to remind me about the roles of poetry in communication.

The story seemed unreel very slowly. I don't recall feeling that when I first read it. My experiences with rereading things suggest that that kind of reaction is more a function of me as a reader than some quality of the book.

A good mystery. A good cultural introduction. It's worth reading at least once.

Have you read Enigma of China? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.

25 August 2016

Does drama end when the ending is well-known?

We went to a movie theater last year. We saw The Martian. It was likely the only movie we saw in a theater in 2015. We liked the movie. Even though it was as detailed as it was unlikely. Good fiction.

A while later, I picked up the book because it had been written about after the success of the movie. The book got mostly good "reviews" from readers. And the realists (scientists) gave it good marks too. Andy Weir, the author, had done lots of homework. He did the math about orbits, oxygen capacity of a Mars lander, the reproduction rate of potatoes, and mpg of a Mars rover. Much of that detail didn't get into the movie (thankfully), but a lot of it is in the book. I'd have been okay with a forward from the author telling me he'd done the math and hadn't stretched the truth too much. The details in the book did get in the way of telling the story.

But it's a good book. I really enjoyed reading it even though I knew the ending. The suspense and drama of the adventure survived the publicity and the fact that I'd seen the movie. That's a marvel to me. Remember Apollo 13, the movie about the near disaster aboard the third spacecraft sent to land people on the moon? Those of us who paid attention to the near disaster knew what happened and how it all ended. But my recollection of the movie was of great suspense. Of course, that required an extreme version of the "suspension of disbelief." But the movie worked.

Reading The Martian required a similar suspension of disbelief after seeing the movie and "knowing" the extreme improbability of the plot. Nonetheless, the movie worked. I was hanging on to the book and rapidly turning pages in the sections where there was action.

It worked right up to the end. The ending might have been well researched, but it seemed a bit too improbable. It was right up there with the ending of Gravity that rescued Sandra Bullock's character. Of course she had extraordinary help from a ghost.

The Martian was a good book. I found myself getting bogged down in the technical explanations, but it's possible to skim through those sections. I'm glad I read it.

Have you read The Martian? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.

23 August 2016

Swedish red herrings

I have six books piled on the corner of my desk that I intend to write about. But this one had to go back to the library a couple days ago.

I made a quick stop at Northfield's library to grab a couple books for a weekend at Sidetrack. Without my "to read" list, I rather blindly walked through the mystery section. I grabbed Kjell Eriksson's The Hand That Trembles. (It was a quick stop, that's why I only got as far as Eriksson on the shelves.)

I'm pretty sure Eriksson isn't on my "to read" list, but he's Swedish, so he lives across only one national border from Norway. I took that as a recommendation. Both Swedes and Norwegians will take exception to my generalization. Eriksson even makes distinctions between people from Uppsala and people from the Swedish hinterlands north of there. (For Minnesotans, this is the place to insert an Iowa joke. For Iowans, it's the place to insert a Missouri joke, et cetera.)

As seems usual in Scandinavian novels, Eriksson tells several stories about murders and suicides. The roots of the stories go back to the Spanish Civil War, Cold War politics, and sex trafficking in Thailand.

I felt like I was reading forever to finish this book. In reality it only took eight days, and I had other things to do during that time. Some of the stories and characters were more engaging than others. I think Eriksson wanted to tell some stories and felt he had to tell others.

For instance, Eriksson doesn't use the title phrase "the hand that trembles" until he is two-thirds done telling his stories. The person whose hand trembles is a very interesting one, but only a minor character. I was unable to determine why that phrase made the title. But, if Eriksson wrote a book about her, I'd read it.

The detective who interviews the "trembler"  (more often than seems necessary) is also an interesting character. Those chapters read more fluidly than many of the others.

There are also more red herrings in the plots than I think are necessary. If Eriksson ditched the stories about the long-term feuds about the Spanish Civil War -- which have little or nothing to do with resolving a murder mystery -- the book wouldn't suffer (says me). But then the book might not be long enough for a Swedish winter.

You must also be tolerant of an off-kilter translation and "incomplete" editing. If you're more patient than I am, you might well enjoy all of this slow-motion tramp through rural Sweden, 1930's Spain, tourist trap Thailand, and even Bangalore, India.

Have you read The Hand That Trembles?

Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought about it.