Fresh look: old books

This is Mystery Week on Goodreads (or maybe it was last week, but the feature story is still up, so…), but the recommended mysteries featured there are some of them rather shallow and cookie-cutter-like. You know what I mean, that list of bestsellers that everybody is reading because everybody is reading them, books with the word “Girl” in their title. In the interest of giving you some more intriguing choices, here are mysteries (many of them series) to plunge you thoroughly into P-I or D-I (private investigator or Detective Inspector) mode. I have, according to my Goodreads notes, read 322 mysteries in the past decade, so let me share some of my favorites…

BoltonSHARON J. BOLTON writes smart, sophisticated, complex, and more than slightly creepy stand-alones with unique protagonists in interesting and unusual settings, including Sacrifice, Blood Harvest, Awakening, Little Black Lies, and (my favorite, I think) Dead Woman Walking. She also penned a four-book series (so far) about Detective Constable Lacey Flint,
a young, reckless, and relentless policewoman risking her life in London law enforcement. Great plots, intriguing characters, “killer” mysteries to solve. If you like the series, don’t miss the short stories/novellas you can only get on Kindle.

CraisROBERT CRAIS is best known for his long-running series about private investigator Elvis Cole, of the Hawaiian shirts and insouciant good cheer, and his dark, silent, and violent sometime partner Joe Pike. This is a great series, equal parts serious and fun just like its two protagonists, and it’s been going long enough that if you start at book #1 (The Monkey’s Raincoat), it will take up a lot of your time. But my preference is Crais’s several stand-alone books: Demolition Angel, about the toughest woman ever to work the Los Angeles bomb squad; The Two-Minute Rule, in which a former bank robber tries to solve the murder of his cop son; and Hostage, in which a group of teenagers on the run from robbing a convenience store hide out in the suburbs by holding a family for ransom (made into a pretty enthralling movie starring Bruce Willis, fyi).

CrombieIf your preference is for the quintessential British mystery, I have quite a few favorites in that area: DEBORAH CROMBIE writes a series starring two detectives who start out separate and end up together—Scotland Yard Superintendent Duncan Kincaid, and Sergeant Gemma James. One of the things I like about this series is that Crombie alternates the lead, so that Kincaid is the protagonist of one, and James is the protagonist of the next. The other thing I like is the complications of their personal lives as they intersect and mingle. Crombie is a slow writer, sometimes not coming out with a book for as much as three years, but the series is now 18 books long, so you can take your time to catch up.

GeorgeELIZABETH GEORGE, while being herself an American, writes convincingly in the Brit genre with her greatly mismatched partners, the impeccable Scotland Yard Inspector Thomas Lynley (a lordship in his private life) and his “woman of the people” partner, Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers, solving crimes in sweat pants and clogs. Her first book is A Great Deliverance, and the series goes on well into double digits.

BillSliderCYNTHIA HARROD-EAGLES writes the Bill Slider series, and while Slider is also a Detective Inspector, it’s much more of a series about plodding police work enlivened by flashes of brilliance and accompanied by a cast of characters both engaging and amusing. It’s not quite like any other British detective series I’ve read, and I’ve loved most of it.

LongmireIf you are NOT a fan of stories from across the Pond, try something completely different by reading CRAIG JOHNSON‘s Walt Longmire series. Walt is a county sheriff in the vast windswept state of Wyoming, and has to deal with everything from cattle rustling to drug dealing to murder, as well as maintaining an uneasy interface with the law on the adjacent Cheyenne reservation. He has an ally in his childhood friend, Henry Standing Bear, and an ever-changing roster of deputies to get him into troubled waters. The series is currently up to 15 volumes; the past few have been a little uneven, but the first dozen are solid. I also enjoyed the TV series, Longmire, based on the character in the book but quickly diverging from the written series’ story lines.

Midnightif you’re looking for something more than a little quirky (read that “paranormal”), with a mystery a part of but not necessarily the main theme of the story, read CHARLAINE HARRIS‘s “Midnight, Texas” books. They are a spin-off in some ways from a four-book series I have previously mentioned—the Harper Connelly books—in which their protagonist, Manfred Bernardo, was a major character. Bernardo, a psychic, is just looking for a home where he can find both mental and actual peace and quiet, and ends up gravitating to a “bump in the road” two-block almost ghost town in Texas, only to discover that its other inhabitants are, shall we say, as unusual as he is (or more so). There are currently three books.

CanaryFinally, if your taste trends more towards dark and violent, check out DUANE SWIERCZYNSKI‘s noir fiction. I have read two of the three Charlie Hardie books, but a friend who is a big fan assures me that they are all equally immersive. My personal favorite of his is actually billed as a “new adult” (a step older than “young adult”) book, called Canary, with multiple points of view done well, lots of twisty turns in the plot, and a stellar ending. Some of his stuff is just too dark for me, but Canary was a winner.

I hope this gives you some ideas for reading to pursue during the next few weeks of solitude! Between this and my other three fresh looks at old books, you should be set. But if you have questions, please ask!

 

Witchy mysteries

Tying in with the witchy theme from my last post are a new set of mysteries that I decided to try. The first three books came up as a set for free for my Kindle (usually not a good sign), but I enjoyed the first enough to read the next two in the series.

FamSecretsFamily Secrets, by Shawn McGuire (not to be confused with Seanan), is the first in the Whispering Pines Mysteries. Jayne O’Shea has come to Whispering Pines in the wake of her grandmother’s death to box up or sell the contents of her house and then sell the house itself. Her father is the heir, but he wants nothing to do with the property, the town, or the inherent memories.

Jayne herself hasn’t been there since a family feud 16 years ago when she was 10 meant the end of summers spent at the lakeside cabin in Wisconsin with her grandmother. But taking care of this task is just what Jayne needs—she has recently left her job as a homicide detective after a traumatic event on the job made it clear she needed a change, not to mention that she just broke up with her long-time boyfriend and has no home. What she isn’t expecting is the fascination that the town of Whispering Pines almost immediately exerts over her.

It’s partly the fact that it’s a town for “outsiders,” those who don’t fit comfortably anywhere else—Wiccans, circus folk, psychics, the differently abled, all found a home here on Jayne’s family’s land, granted a place by the “Originals” (first settlers), and created a place like no other. But the primary initial hold it has on her is the murder she discovers on her first morning in her grandmother’s house (the body is on her property), and the fact that the local sheriff and his dysfunctional deputy appear to be not at all concerned with investigating it. Jayne just can’t help herself—and willy nilly, she immediately becomes embroiled in both the lure and the secrets of Whispering Pines.

I liked the main character and her new sidekick / potential love interest in this first book. I also liked the setting of the remote, exceedingly picturesque village that welcomes only those who don’t fit in elsewhere. And if McGuire temptingly describes any more of the food they are selling and eating in the village shops, I may have to break quarantine to go to the nearest bakery or ice cream place!

circus

I did have some issues with the way the first mystery was structured—solved, yet not solved, with kind of an abrupt ending that was obviously designed to get you to go on to the next book. But since I am a sucker for not knowing what happened, I kept going. I’m halfway through the third book now, but I’m not sure how much longer I will keep reading, because I am also a stickler for grammar, and McGuire (and her obviously sloppy editor) keeps getting the “and I” vs. “and me” wrong. It grates on every nerve. Still, the author has nicely dragged out the potential romantic interest over the course of three books, keeping both the protagonist and the reader interested without getting frustrated, and the setting and decidedly quirky characters are a lot of fun, especially compared to some of the dourly “normal” folk in your average mystery. So I may overlook a few grammatical errors for the sake of story. (But I may also write a letter to the publisher.)

 

Uneven

I tried to think of one word to describe the Ruth Galloway series of archaeological mysteries by Elly Griffiths, and there you see it in the title: Uneven.

The series first started with The Crossing Places, and that book was gripping if only because of its novelty: The plot conceit is that the skeleton of a little girl is discovered and the police, represented by Detective Inspector Harry Nelson, call in Ruth Galloway, a 30-something forensic archaeologist who lives near the fens in Norfolk, to inspect the bones and verify whether it is a modern or an ancient murder. Then a contemporary girl goes missing, and Inspector Nelson begins receiving letters—taunting clues that remind him of the unsolved case of a lost girl from a decade before.

stonecircleBook #11, The Stone Circle, is virtually identical in plot, to the point where I had a real experience of déja vu the entire time I was reading it. Bones are found, then more bones are found, letters are received, then a child is abducted…. Out of the 11 books in the Ruth Galloway series, they pretty much fall into one of two categories—either gripping or dull on an almost every-other-one basis. This one, I’m sad to say, was dull as well as repetitive. In addition to mimicking the formula of a cold case that heats up when a new body is found, it even produces the son of a controversial character from the first book to serve as a mostly irritating red herring. This book almost seemed like a place-holder until Griffiths had a better idea.

I was already waffling over continuing this series: After reading the last book, which was at least original in plot and took us away from the fens to Italy, I was so annoyed by the soap opera of the personal relationships that remained bollixed up that I was ready to give up. People kept doing the same things and expecting different results. This book made that frustration even worse.

It was almost a relief, at the end of this derivative story, to conclude that it was time to quit reading…but then I saw a synopsis of the newest (which will release in July) and finally, something has changed significantly: Ruth has a new job, a new home away from Norfolk, and a new PARTNER. Intriguing. Okay, maybe I will read just one more…

Meanwhile, to those who read #10, The Dark Angel, I would say, get someone who already read #11 to give you the few details on the personal relationships that you need to bring you up to date (you can email me if you want!), but by all means skip reading The Stone Circle and go directly to #12 when it becomes available!

 

Serendipity

It’s so fun when you have a friend who also likes to read and who gets excited about what she’s reading and wants to tell you all about it.

It’s even more fun when your friend thinks she has discovered a new author, only you know something about this author that she doesn’t and can share that.

ninthhouseI went to a concert the other night with my friend Lisa, and while we were waiting for the performance to begin, she said to me, “Oh! I’m reading the BEST BOOK right now, I just discovered this author and I love everything about it, the story, the writing style, it’s so good! You have to read it!” Then she pulled out her phone, punched a few buttons, and held up a picture of the book cover, which was
Ninth House, by Leigh Bardugo.

“Oh!” I said, “Leigh Bardugo!”

Lisa looked surprised. “Do you already know about this book?” she asked.

“No. That is, I’ve heard of it, but no, I know her because she’s a young adult author.”

Lisa had no idea that before she penned her first adult novel, Bardugo had written the Shadow and Bone trilogy, the Six of Crows duology, and King of Scars, returning to the Grisha universe (as well as Wonder Woman: Warbringer). So I got to tell her all about those books, and recommend the ones I particularly like (Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom), as well as tell her the story of when Leigh Bardugo was a brand-new, just-published author who visited Book Café at Burbank Public Library and did a stunning visual presentation for our teenagers of all the ways in which she had found her ideas for writing the Grisha books.

sixMy comments about Six of Crows, from Goodreads:

I liked the first series by Bardugo well enough, but was fatigued by all the magic and angsty pseudo-romance by the end of it. But this one stars a good old-fashioned gang of thieves with skills and exploits attributable for the most part to themselves, not to their paranormal powers. There are Grisha in the mix, but they are much more human, and humanized by association with the rest of the characters. There is attraction among the characters, but it’s much more subtle and doesn’t take over the story, just adds to it. I particularly liked the main protagonist, Kaz, and the Wraith, Inej. And Bardugo’s writing has jumped up to beautifully lyrical, not an awkward word anywhere. Likewise, the world-building and plotting are amazing. Can’t wait to read the next one.

crookedAnd about Crooked Kingdom:

I thought Six of Crows was good, but this one really raised the bar. I got about a third of the way through it and thought, how can it get better than this? and after everything that has happened, how can there still be two-thirds of the book to go? But there was, and things just kept getting more interesting, more desperate, more seemingly unsolvable and insurmountable, with a great big build-up that made me crazy to finish but made me want to savor it all at the same time. I ended up reading the last five chapters a couple of times; I’d read a chapter at breakfast and then at lunch, instead of moving on, I’d go back and read what I read at breakfast to make sure I had caught everything, seen all the possibilities, gathered all the nuance. You know a book is good when your first response at turning the last page is a more than half-hearted desire to start the book over again right that minute. Way to step up your game, Leigh Bardugo.

So now, I will have the pleasure of reading her first book for adults, and Lisa can go back and dip into her back list. Isn’t it wonderful to have friends who read?

19WWMcrow

 

Kate #5

Sometimes reading Kate Atkinson’s books make you feel like you’re meeting your cousin for coffee.

She sits down and, before you can pick a topic of conversation, she launches into a long narrative about her friend Janey. Now, you have met Janey a few times, but you don’t know any of the other players, who include Janey’s ex-husband and his exploits with the new wife, her two sons,  one of whom has made her proud and the other who has gone AWOL, and her formerly drug-addicted daughter for whom childbirth was transformative and who is now out looking for real estate with her shiny new hubby. As you listen, you think, I know that these intimate details of Janey’s life are interesting to someone, but why would you think they would be interesting to me? Could we address subjects that are applicable to us both, please?

If you have a relationship with your cousin such that you could actually say something like that (instead of just listening interminably and politely), your cousin might then say, Oh, I’m telling you all this with a purpose, I come into the story later, just wait for it. So you wait…and you wait…and you wait. And while you are waiting, you are thinking to yourself, Gee, I hope the eventual point of this story is worth it.

Most of the time, when reading Kate Atkinson, it IS worth it. But sometimes you do feel like Doubting Thomas and just want to poke someone!

Big Sky, which is Jackson Brodie book #5, is the epitome of Brodie’s favorite saying, which is,

“A coincidence is just an explanation waiting to happen.”

Although Jackson himself is involved with a fairly mundane set of clients—a woman whose spouse is cheating on her, an entrapment plan regarding a guy on the internet trying to lure young girls—the stuff going on around him, to which he is largely oblivious until it is thrust under his nose and he has to pay attention, is pretty major. There is a scandal from the past that has resurfaced with the imminent release from prison of one of the perpetrators; there is a current drama that only emerges as its links with the past bring the protagonists to the fore; and there’s a whole lot of interpersonal stuff going on. All of this is positively rife with coincidence.

bigskyIt’s been 10 years since Atkinson wrote her last Brodie book, and she chose to age everyone to the appropriate point, from Jackson’s son, Nathan, now a sulky teen, and his daughter, Marlee, about to embark on marriage, to various others from his past, including the wonderful Reggie Chase, last encountered at age 16 but now a Detective Constable in Yorkshire.

Reggie and her partner, Ronnie (equally diminutive but fierce), have been tasked with following up on some details from a supposedly closed case, a vast pedophile ring that encompassed businessmen, politicians, and power brokers in its “magic circle” of depravity. But as they poke at the case, with many of the original players long dead, it becomes clear that something else has emerged from that old association, equally as sinister in its own way, run by the hangers-on from back in the day, who are equally adamant about keeping their secrets. Brodie, typically clueless, somehow bumbles into and out of association with most of the people involved, with sometimes tragic and sometimes comedic effect. The best characters to emerge from this scrum, in terms of reader interest, are definitely Crystal Holroyd and her stepson, Harry.

As I read, I thought that the fact that Atkinson had waited 10 years to bring Brodie back, coupled with the reintroduction of so many characters from the previous novels, would surely signify a satisfying ending to this long adventure, but no. Things between Jackson and Louise are still dangling; we don’t know what happened to Tracy and Courtney; and while the details of this particular outing are mostly resolved, there are a few loose ends that could be tidied, should Atkinson choose to do so. I’m thinking there may be another book in Brodie’s future.

If I’m honest, I’m glad there isn’t another one right now, though; I think my next read is going to be something “fluffy,” with a limited number of characters and relationships and a story told all in one perfectly straight line….

 

News re: my dog

GoodNewsAt the center of When Will There Be Good News, Kate Atkinson’s third Jackson Brodie novel, is a new character, Reggie. I enjoyed this book mainly because I so adored her. She is 16 (sweartogod), looks 12, acts 36, and is an old soul and a compassionate but completely pragmatic one. Best teenager in fiction for a while now.

While I found the multiple story lines of Dr. Joanna Hunter, whose family members were all inexplicably knifed to death in the middle of a field one day when she was a child, Joanna’s husband’s questionable business practices, Chief Inspector Louise Monroe’s domestic violence case, and the almost incidental appearance of Jackson Brodie (who is in-country  for personal reasons and yet by a twist of fate ends up plumped down in the middle of all of these mysteries) all to be interesting, it isn’t until they get connected by Reggie that things really get going, even though she, like Brodie, is involved almost despite herself. The brief period when Louise, Jackson, and Reggie are all in the same room at the same time is my favorite scene in the book.

These books of Atkinson’s are so…perverse! Not in a sexual way, let me hasten to add, but in the sense that they are “contrary to the accepted or expected standard or practice.” You can’t actually call them mystery novels. I mean, there ARE mysteries, and many of them do get solved, but they are practically beside the point. The books are character studies, and there are few who are able to delineate a character as well as Kate Atkinson.

While I find these books frustrating in the way they meander off the beaten path and into prolonged ponderings about this or that (not to mention all the stream-of-consciousness literary references that keep popping up in Brodie’s dragonfly mind), the stories are always resurrected by the strength of the characters themselves.

TookDogBecause of that trait, I think I may have liked Started Early, Took My Dog the best so far of the Jackson Brodie books, although Jackson’s role in it is mostly ridiculous! The central mystery is set in Northern Yorkshire, where Jackson is trying to track down the birth parents of a client who was adopted in England at age two and then taken to New Zealand to grow up. But when Jackson discovers someone he thinks might have been the birth mother, a murder case from 1975 causes all kinds of people to come out of the woodwork to prevent the truth about police corruption and misbehavior from coming out.

The title of the book turns out to be a double entendre, since taking a dog away from his abusive master (literally beating the guy up after he takes out his ill temper on his dog by berating it and kicking it in the ribs) is one of Jackson’s more rational moments in the book.

In addition to the dog-napping (I always thought that should be nabbing, not napping), there is child-napping, and they are both accomplished by former police officers! Tracy Waterhouse, just retired from the force, working part-time as a mall security guard, and supposedly resigned to or even content with her single, childless existence, sees a prostitute dragging her small child through the shopping center while screaming at her, and snaps. She has money in her pocket intended for the Polish bloke remodeling her kitchen, but instead hands it off to Kelly Cross in exchange for her youngest child. Suddenly, Tracy has stepped from one side of the law to the other.

But IS Courtney the daughter of Kelly Cross? Tracy wonders. At first she thinks she’s simply being paranoid, but then she realizes that there are all sorts of people trying to “get in touch” who may have been sent to take Courtney back. Meanwhile, Jackson is, weirdly, encountering the same folks who are after Tracy, none of whom have either his quest or his best interests at heart.

Throw in other seemingly random characters whose histories and futures are tangled up somehow with these two, and things get truly confusing. It’s no wonder that the one piece of dialogue our Mr. Brodie repeats throughout the book is “I don’t understand.” It paints a pretty ineffectual picture of him as a private investigator, but certain leads to some interesting situations.

I liked this best mostly because of the characters of Tracy and Courtney. Tracy is large, awkward, stalwart, and ultimately heroic, while Courtney delights as only a truly quirky small child can. Between the two of them, they carry the story.

smalldog

“Dragon,” courtesy of KJ Allison

As with the other Jackson Brodie books, the point is less about the mysteries and more about human themes of loneliness, grief, and dysfunction. Practically every character (except the determinedly upbeat Judith) is damaged and in need of love and/or salvation. Even the minor characters—Tracy’s colleague Barry, the aging actress Tilly—bring pathos to the story. And yet there is also humor, especially in the way Jackson’s role seems that of a character in a French farce, doomed to make his entrance from stage left just as his quarry (or his explanation) is departing from stage right.

I really hope that Atkinson plans to reveal the answers to some major cliffhangers left dangling off the edge at the end of this one: Who is Courtney, really? What was Jackson up to before he took on this case? Who is the murderer of a rather significant character? And I’m still waiting for the other shoe to drop with Louise, three books later. C’mon, Kate, resolution!

 

The Dry

After reading The Lost Man and being bowled over by it, I couldn’t resist moving on to Jane Harper’s other books, starting with her first, The Dry.

thedryWhile this debut novel is more of a police procedural and less of an epic saga than The Lost Man, Harper doesn’t miss out on using the landscape as a big influencer on the townsfolk of Kiewarra. The sun blazes down, the blowflies hover, the river has dried up, and along with it have gone the fortunes of the farmers in this rural Australian community. The burning heat of the drought ratchets up the tension amongst everyone who lives there, and turns an already small-minded bunch into something mean.

A tragedy seemingly caused by this unbearable strain is the vehicle that brings Aaron Falk back to his adolescent home, 20 years after he and his father were driven away. Falk’s best childhood friend, golden boy Luke Hadler, is dead; he has apparently taken a shotgun and murdered his wife and young son, then turned the gun on himself. If Falk, now a forensic accountant, had his druthers, he would have sent flowers and stayed the width of the continent away from Kiewarra; but Luke’s parents beg him to come, and Luke’s father adds a cryptic note that causes Falk to panic just a little. This is not the first person Aaron has lost from this town, and despite a finding of suicide, the persistent suspicions cast on him after his friend Ellie Deacon’s death when they were 16 are what caused him to leave in the first place.

Despite significant opposition from the townspeople who hate him, Falk joins forces with the new cop in town, Sergeant Raco, who has had his own suspicions about how the Hadlers actually died but hasn’t gotten anywhere with them. Together he and Aaron begin to uncover the lies that were told, the secrets that have been kept, and the fears and assumptions that are slowly turning Kiewarra into a powder keg.

This was an excellently written mystery, with completely believable red herrings and a truly unexpected resolution. The element that carries it over the top is the attention to detail in both the characterization and the atmosphere. You know these people, and you feel their emotions; you learn this place and you feel its desolation. The narrative carries you along, moving seamlessly from Falk’s past with Luke, Ellie, Gretchen, and the townspeople who constantly have their eye on these teenagers into the present where everyone (except Ellie) has grown up and into themselves, for better or worse (mostly worse) and are all re-engaging over this new tragedy. A stunningly well-done piece of investigative fiction that might appeal to the readers of Craig Johnson’s Walt Longmire books.

 

Novel Christmas

For those who appreciate a lengthier read, I have attempted to round up some novels with Christmas themes or settings and, in doing so, not make you doubt my good taste!

XmasHolyFor ’tis true, ’tis true that a plethora of Christmas tales exist, but whether you want to read any of them is the question. I have, therefore, found a few I would consider a bit more literary, and a bunch that are connected to some genre series, since much may be forgiven your favorite authors when they sell out, er, decide to delight you with a Christmas-related chapter.

First off, consider two short, sparkling comedies set at Christmas-time by Nancy Mitford, the writer later known for Love in a Cold Climate. Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie are Oscar Wilde-ish “great house” stories with a cast of ridiculous upper-crust characters rivaled only by those depicted by E. F. Benson and P. G. Wodehouse.

Next, there’s Wishin’ and Hopin’, a Christmas story by Wally Lamb, which focuses on a feisty parochial school boy named Felix Funicello—a distant cousin of the iconic Annette.

In a similar humorous vein, check out comedian Dave Barry’s The Shepherd, the Angel, and Walter the Christmas Miracle Dog. Or, on a more sympathetic note, Frank McCourt’s Angela and the Baby Jesus, relating the story of when his mother Angela was six years old and felt sorry for the Baby Jesus, out in the cold in the Christmas crib at St. Joseph’s Church….

The Christmas Train, by David Baldacci, is not a book I have read, but it sounds like a perfect storm of circumstances guaranteed to be entertaining, landing a former journalist on a train over the Christmas holidays with his current girlfriend, his former love, and a sneak thief, all headed towards an avalanche in the midst of an historic blizzard.

Skipping Christmas, by John Grisham, follows the fate of Luther and Nora Krank, who decide that, just this once, they will forego the tree-trimming, the annual Christmas Eve bash, and the fruitcakes in favor of a Caribbean cruise.

XmasTreeOne of my personal favorites to re-read this time of year is Winter Solstice, by Rosamunde Pilcher. It is sentimental without being mawkish, and brings together an unusual cast of characters in an interesting situation bound to produce results.

Now we enter the realm of franchise genre fare with a nod to Christmas:

The Christmas Scorpion is a Jack Reacher story (e-book only) by Lee Child, in which Jack’s intention to spend the holidays in warm temperatures surrounded by the palm trees of California somehow lands him instead in the midst of a blizzard facing a threat from the world’s deadliest assassin.

There are many in the mystery category, from Agatha Christie to Murder Club to baked goods-filled cozies:

In Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, by Agatha Christie, a curmudgeonly father turns up dead after telling all four of his sons, home for Christmas, that he is cutting off their allowances and changing his will. Poirot suspends his own festivities to solve the murder.

James Patterson has a couple of entries: The 19th Christmas, a Women’s Murder Club book, and Merry Christmas, Alex Cross, starring his popular detective trying to make it back alive for the most sacred of family days.

Charlaine Harris’s unconventional pseudo-cozy series about housekeeper and body builder Lily Bard features Shakespeare’s Christmas, in which Lily solves a four-year-old kidnapping case while at home for her sister’s Christmas wedding.

In a similar manner (though with quite different affect!), Rhys Bowen’s Irish lass Molly Murphy attends an elegant house party at a mansion on the Hudson in The Ghost of Christmas Past, and tries to fathom the reappearance of a girl who disappeared 10 years ago.

XmasMistletoeAnne Perry, known for her historical fiction featuring the Pitts (Charlotte and Thomas) and the rather darker William Monk, has written 16 Victorian Christmas mysteries to date, the latest being A Christmas Revelation (2018).

Cozy mystery writer and baker Joanne Fluke has written at least four full-length books plus some short stories enticingly evoking Christmas cake, sugar cookies, plum pudding, candy canes, and gingerbread cookies, all with the word “Murder” appended.

And Ellen Byron continues her hijinks in Bayou country with Maggie Crozat in A Cajun Christmas Killing, complete with recipes.

In the Western genre, you can find A Colorado Christmas, by William W. and J. A. Johnstone, in which one family’s Christmas gathering turns into a gunslinging fight for survival, and A Lawman’s Christmas, by Linda Lael Miller, a combination of love story and western set in 1900s Blue River, Texas.

One writer of whom I am fond, in the “relationship fiction” category, is Jenny Colgan, and she has made the most of her Christmas opportunities. The only problem with them is, each and every one is a sequel to one of her other books, so without reading the first, you will be somewhat lost inside the Christmas special. She has written four “Christmas at” or “Christmas on” books to date, set in the previously detailed locales of Rosie Hopkins’ Sweetshop, the Cupcake Café, the Island, and the Little Beach Street Bakery. But if you want some enjoyable, lighthearted fare a step beyond a simple romance, you may want to read the first books and come back for the Christmas ones.

In straightforward and utterly enjoyable chick lit, we have Christmas Shopaholic, by Sophie Kinsella, an ode to shopping with a Christmas theme for her popular heroine, Becky Bloomwood Brandon.

XmasWreathAnd then we hit the high tower of paperbacks that is the romance genre. I’m not even going to try to name all the books written within the environs of romance series, I’ll just give you a list of authors, and if you see a familiar one, go look her up on Goodreads with the word “Christmas” appended to her name:

Mary Kay Andrews, Jennifer Chiaverini, Janet Dailey, Johanna Lindsey, Debbie Macomber, Fern Michaels, Linda Lael Miller, Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, Nancy Thayer, Sherryl Woods…and so on. There are PAGES of titles.

Finally, if you are a nonfiction kinda person, I’m tagging on a couple for you, too:

In I’m Dreaming of a Black Christmas, comedian Lewis Black says humbug to everything that makes Christmas memorable, in his own engaging, curmudgeonly style.

In their quest to provide mathematical proof for the existence of Santa, the authors of The Indisputable Existence of Santa Claus: The Mathematics of Christmas, by Dr. Hannah Fry and Dr. Thomas Oléron Evans painstakingly analyze every activity, from wrapping presents to cooking a turkey to setting up a mathematically perfect Secret Santa. Lighthearted and diverting, with Christmassy diagrams, sketches and graphs, Markov chains, and matrices.

If you can’t find something to read and enjoy from THIS list, I wish you a slightly exasperated Joyous Yule, and hope to find you something non-holiday-related to read in the New Year!   —The Book Adept

YuleJoy

Lost

Someone recommended Jane Harper to me as an author I might enjoy, so on my last virtual library visit, I downloaded The Lost Man to my Kindle. I forgot it was there and read other things, then realized I only had seven days left before it disappeared back into the library catalogue, so I put aside the Christmas-themed stuff for a minute and started it at 3 a.m. on Monday.

To quote another reviewer on Goodreads, this is less a novel and more an experience in which you lose yourself. And when you read it unencumbered by expectations, the power of its prose jumps out at you and grabs every bit of your attention.

outback

The landscape, the Queensland (Australia) outback, is the most powerful character in the story. The landscape pares people down into either the essence or the caricature of themselves. Setting a mystery there is like creating a locked room puzzle (once you get in, there appears to be no way out), except that the room is an endless, airless, boiling plain of sand. The setting has dictated the style and pacing—spare, dry, concentrated.

lostmanThe characters, three brothers, run livestock on land that, while adjacent to each other’s holdings, is hours apart in travel time, from each other and from “town.” Nathan Bright, the eldest and the protagonist, works alone and lives alone on his land (a backhanded gift from his former father-in-law), a scandal in his past making him a pariah with everyone but his family, and uncomfortable even with them. Divorced and bitterly intent on prying some form of joint custody of his son, Xander, from his ex-wife, Nathan is inturned and enigmatic. Cameron, the middle son, a “hail fellow well met” type, and “Bub,” the youngest brother, a bit lost in the shuffle and wishing for other options, live and work together on their father’s former holdings, with Cameron’s wife and two children, the boys’ widowed mother, and various stockmen and itinerant workers.

At the beginning of the story, there is a small gathering at the stockman’s grave, a landmark headstone out in the middle of nowhere, so old that no one remembers who is buried there. Various legends remain about this eerie place, and it’s about to acquire one more: Cameron’s body has just been discovered in the slight shade cast by the stone.

Questions abound: How did he get there? Something had been troubling him—did he choose to meet his death by this unpleasant method? This is the premise of local law enforcement, and also of most of those who knew him…because if he didn’t, then the incredible isolation in which these people live leaves room for only a few suspects. The questions begin to prey on Nathan’s mind….

The mood and the tone of this book fascinated me. The characters remain enigmas for much of the story, their demeanors an exercise in taciturnity. Even the children are opaque. Likewise, the stark factors of living in the outback—reminding yourself to drink 10 times a day, attending the School of the Air via radio because the closest “local” school is 20 hours away in Brisbane, never leaving the property without noting down your destination and the expected time of return so a search party can be sent out if you miss your mark…all speak to a daily tension already so high that adding any sort of drama to it could spark a wildfire.

If you enjoy inhabiting an environment nothing like your own and learning what kinds of people are challenged by it to make a life there, this book will pull you in. If you are fascinated by the interplay of emotions between characters who have known each other forever and yet now doubt they know anything at all, this book will keep you guessing. Slow pacing and immaculate plotting give you questions and doubts just as the characters arrive at those same thoughts. It’s an emotionally charged but quietly told story that is probably my favorite read of 2019.

READERS’ ADVISORY NOTES: I’m trying to dredge up from my subconscious some other books that might share the appeals of this one. Perhaps The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, although it is such a stylized kind of work compared to this…. The River, by Peter Heller, has certain similarities. Maybe The Round House, by Louise Erdrich? or Bluebird Bluebird, by Attica Locke? The Lost Man gives me sort of the same feeling as reading “King Lear,” with the twisted family dynamics, the ugly lies and truths, the suspicions and doubts and manipulations.

 

One good turn

Can you be simultaneously enthralled with and utterly bewildered by the same book, the same author? If you read Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books, the answer is yes.

goodturnI reviewed Case Histories, her first book starring Brodie, a month or so back, and noted at the time that while I felt like Brodie was a great anchor for the three disparate cold cases being explored in that book, the mysteries were composed of equal parts frustration and intrigue. Little did I know the foreshadowing in which I was participating when I assayed to read the second Brodie book, One Good Turn.

In this book, Jackson is even less involved, in some ways, than in the last; he isn’t hired by anyone to do anything until more than two-thirds of the way through. For most of it, he is a hapless bystander forced into participation by circumstance, as are the other four (six? it’s hard to say) significant characters. You almost couldn’t call this “his” story, except peripherally.

The setting is the Edinburgh Festival (Fringe?), and Jackson is there to support his girlfriend, Julia, an actress appearing in an existential play in a grotty venue on an unappealing street at the heart of the city. He is not entirely comfortable in this mostly passive tag-along role, and in fact has been uncomfortable in general for some time—ever since he inherited big money from one of his clients and retired from his private detective gig to buy a villa in France. He feels at loose ends wherever he is, although being with Julia at least puts him in a committed relationship. He still reacts like a policeman, and is hard pressed not to act like one when the opportunity arises, as it eventually does in this book.

First, though, we meet the other significant protagonists in this crazy casserole of a story, who are on parallel tracks that converge at unexpected intersections as the book unfolds. There is Martin, a meek and reclusive writer of cosy mystery novels, who uncharacteristically intervenes in a road rage incident and is caught up in undesirable relationships with victims, perpetrators, and bystanders as a result; there is Gloria, whose dicey husband is in a coma after a night with a Russian prostitute; and there is Louise, a Scottish police detective, who is present on the scene of most of the significant events of the story. As they and Jackson each attempt to do the right thing, the “one good turn” for another person, the casualties mount up and the circumstances become ever more ridiculous. Instead of “one good turn deserves another,” it’s “one good turn deserves a murder.”

matryoshka

I guess you could say there is a larger mystery that encompasses all the smaller, bewildering coincidences that occur in the course of this tale; but the mystery isn’t really the point. The development of characters is the point, and the action is reliant on the personality quirks of each individual who enters the story to leave footprints, large or small. I would venture to say that Atkinson is evolving a formula, but it’s definitely not one that would be recognizable to mystery readers who are looking for logical plots, clear indicators of right and wrong, and a satisfying conclusion (although there is a final twist in this one that is definitely gratifying).

Atkinson does have a bad habit of introducing her characters and then going off on rambling revelations about their back story while the reader is hung up in the dramatic moment left in freeze-frame until she is done. But the jerky, start-and-stop momentum of this book seemed congruent with the atmosphere of a city overwhelmed by distracted holiday-makers, and we do eventually get to the point (or points).

There was less of Jackson in this one than I would have liked, and also less of Louise the police detective, who is obviously meant to be a love interest at some point (and if she’s not, I’m going to be unhappy with Kate). But the writing is a joy, and I will continue on with the Brodie saga, out of sheer curiosity about what choices he will make next.