Monday, February 27, 2012

Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham

Bleed for Me features Joe O’Loughlin, a clinical psychologist suffering from the early stages of Parkinson’s disease, and he sounds an awful lot like other psychologist or detective protagonists:  he has marital troubles because he’s too involved in his work.  What makes this particular book stand out is that he’s not just interested in profiling criminals:  we see him analyzing a number of characters throughout the course of this book, notably a set of parents mourning the disappearance of their grown daughter.  Also, O’Loughlin’s story stands out in terms of the insight into parenting teenage and younger daughters.

The mystery revolves around the murder of Joe Hegarty, a retired detective.  His teenage daughter Sienna is accused of murdering him, and Joe O’Loughlin is assigned to do her psychological evaluation.  This plot point is a bit far-fetched because Sienna is his older daughter’s best friend:  it seems like a conflict of interest for him to assess a friend of the family.  The other threads of the story involve a school teacher who’s too close to his female students and a racially motivated firebombing trial.

The pacing of the book, after a slow start, is good:  I was very involved with the twists of the story and read the last half of the book in a very short time.  Once I step back and look at the story, though, I have a couple issues:  the sheer amount of tragedy that has befallen Joe’s family and the Hegarty family is a bit excessive.  O’Loughlin has a terminal illness and his older daughter was kidnapped two years before this book takes place.  Sienna’s father was murdered, her older sister was brutally attacked and is now paralyzed, and Sienna is accused of murder.  Finally, it’s unsettling that so much of the story centers on the violent response of men to the real or alleged rape or molestation of their female relatives.  It’s a gripping read, but the subject matter is extreme. 

I did enjoy reading the book because it’s refreshing to read a psychological thriller that’s not centered on profiling a serial killer.  Also, I liked the fact that Robotham spends time on O’Loughlin’s private life and how he’s coping with his Parkinson’s:  I can think of many crime novels that don’t spend much time with the protagonist’s loved ones.  I look forward to catching up on the earlier books in the series.   

Bleed for Me by Michael Robotham
Mulholland Books
U.S. Publication date:  February 27, 2012 (Originally published 2010)
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 24, 2012

Heft by Liz Moore

Heft has been getting some buzz lately from Jennifer Weiner, and I decided to read and review it based on some glowing reviews I came across on Twitter and in Oprah.  It is a lovely book told from the perspective of two very lonely men:  severely obese Arthur Opp, a former English professor who’s been holed up in his family’s Brooklyn brownstone for twenty years, and eighteen-year-old Kel Keller, a high school senior who dreams of being a professional baseball player.  Their connection is Kel’s mother Charlene:  she was Arthur’s former girlfriend and student nearly twenty years before the story takes place.

What’s especially lovely about this book is all the details about the characters’ lives:  Arthur’s solitary existence and especially Kel’s life as a high school jock who lives in the run-down town of Yonkers and attends high school in a wealthier town of Pell’s Landing, where his mother worked as a secretary in the high school.  Kel is the most self-aware high school athlete I’ve come across in fiction, and I think it’s because he’s so hyperaware of people since he grew up with a mother who could not cope with her life:  she was depressed, solitary, and an alcoholic, all of which forced Kel to care for her from a very young age.  He notices so much about others because he’s trying to figure out how normal people function.

Moore is fabulous at making us feel empathy for her characters, even though I felt a little less for Charlene because her story is not completely obvious.  There are no chapters from Charlene’s perspective, which is a bit of a limitation, but I think it’s supposed to be there since both her son and her ex-boyfriend did not know her that well.  I have a soft spot for tales of loners, and I have an especially soft spot for teen angst tales.  Heft is an especially vivid teen angst tale for over half of the story.

I loved Heft because I was so wrapped up in the characters’ lives.  I wonder what’s next for both Arthur and Kel, which I consider a sign of a good book.

For an interview with the author and a more Arthur-centric review of the book, please see Jennifer Weiner's blog.

Heft by Liz Moore
W.W. Norton
Publication date:  January 23, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton

This is the first Hamish Macbeth mystery I’ve read, though it’s number 28 in the series.  One reason I selected is to fulfill the   Criminal Plots II Challenge  requirement for a book written under a pseudonym.  Though I’m new to the series, I caught up on Macbeth’s work and love lives pretty quickly.  It seems to be a series with lots of recurring characters.

The story takes place in northern Scotland where Macbeth is content to be a village policeman though that does mean he cannot take the lead on the murder investigations in this book.  It’s a conflict, but it seems a very mild one compared to the murders that need to be solved.  The story revolves around a new, extremely popular tourist attraction, the Fairy Glen.  Very soon after the opening of the Fairy Glen, a bridge breaks due to sabotage, a kingfisher and its family is poisoned, and a string of murders occurs.  It’s a bit jarring to move from a story about a quiet set of villages with eccentric characters to the series of murders and its solution, and I’m not sure if that’s a hallmark of the series.

This book will appeal to readers of Scottish village mysteries.  There’s a dash of humor as well as a bit about Hamish’s personal life for those invested in the character this far in the series.  While I prefer more of a focus on the investigation in a crime novel, this will appeal to readers who prefer setting and atmosphere over the plot.

Death of a Kingfisher by M.C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing
Publication date:  February 22, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Unconquered: In Search of the Amazon’s Last Uncontacted Tribes by Scott Wallace

Scott Wallace went on an approximately three month expedition led by Sidney Posseulo, then head of the Department of Isolated Indians, part of FUNAI, Brazil’s National Indian Foundation.  His purpose was to write a profile for National Geographic about Posseulo and his work, and, thankfully, he had enough material to write this book about his expedition and the history and context of such expeditions on behalf of the Department of Isolated Indians.  The goal of the trip was to find the outer boundaries of the Arrow People log the coordinates by GPS, and then have that area deemed protected by the government.

Although I haven’t read many travel/expedition books, my husband has read the good parts of books like The Lost City of Z to me.  Also, I watch a ton of National Geographic specials.  What’s different about this book than a TV special or a National Geographic spread is the depth of coverage about previous expeditions, including Fawcett’s ill-fated trip, which was covered in The Lost City of Z, the anthropology, the biology, and the governmental efforts to protect the lands of wild Indians in the Amazon.  It’s a book that took me awhile to digest because there was so much for me to learn.  Rubber harvesting, drug trafficking, gold dredging, Brazilian federal agencies:  it’s all stuff about the Amazon I didn’t know that much about.

This is a harrowing read:  nearly three months in the jungle, either by motor boat, on foot, or by canoe is a tough go even in good conditions, and there were dangers outside (crocodiles) and inside (fatigue and insubordination).  Posseulo is an interesting figure, but I haven’t figured him out even from these detailed stories.  I know I’m not cut out for an expedition of this length of time and difficulty in the Amazon, that’s for sure.

The Unconquered by Scott Wallace
Publication date:  October 18, 2011
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 17, 2012

OPEN CITY by Teju Cole

Open City is the story of Julius, a psychiatry fellow in New York City who was raised by a German mother and a Nigerian father.  It’s not quite right to call the book his story:  it feels more like his diary, describing his evening walks throughout New York, his travels, his conversations with his friends and acquaintances, and, as well, memories of his past.

I’m typically drawn to books with rollicking plots, so this was a bit of a switch for me:  a switch back to the sorts of things I read in college.  So what can I say about Open City? I enjoyed the first half because I felt like I was listening in on Julius’s interesting conversations with Professor Saito, his college English professor, and his friends.  I was interested in the book through Julius’s month-long trip to Brussels, where he befriends a Moroccan graduate student named Farouq, and they have a number of discussions about identity and politics.

After the Brussels, episode, I grew a bit bored.  I wanted more than interesting conversations about music, politics, war, dying, history, and philosophy.  Julius made an interesting admission near the end of the book that everyone sees himself or herself as a hero of their life, never as a villain, which was an interesting direction for the book to take (a conversation with an old friend from home revealed a horrible accusation about his past), but nothing really happened after that thought.

My takeaway:  it’s fiction that reads like nonfiction, specifically takes on history, race, philosophy, and Mahler’s music.  I think it’s something best read in small doses and without expecting a narrative arc.  I, however, prefer my meditations on being a multi-racial New Yorker with a bit more plot.

Open City by Teju Cole is finalist for the 2012 National Book Critics Circle award for fiction, and it was recently released as a trade paperback. 

OPEN CITY by Teju Cole
Random House Trade Paperbacks
Trade paperback release date:  January 17, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Monday, February 13, 2012

STAY AWAKE by Dan Chaon

Stay Awake by Dan Chaon is a collection of short stories that reminds me very much of his previous novel, Await Your Reply.  Both books talk a lot about identity and memory, both books have pivotal scenes that happen in abandoned Nebraska prairie towns, and both books feature twenty-something men who haven’t really grown up.  The only Chaon besides this book I’ve read is Await Your Reply is this one, so I can’t compare this to his other short stories.

I was bowled away by these stories, and especially by “Stay Awake,” told by the father of a young baby born with a parasitic head.  It reminded me very much of Lorrie Moore’s story, “People Like That Are the Only People Here,” which was told by a mother of a baby dying of cancer. I felt for lots o Chaon’s characters, but the father in this story sticks out.

Other stories are very good at capturing marriages, relationships dissolving, and reassessing one’s life at mid-life.  Chaon is very good at capturing the inner lives of his characters, from the young widower and father in “To the Psychic Underworld:” to the teenager whose infant son died in, “Thinking of You in Your Time of Sorrow.”

I wasn’t in love with the closing story, told by ghostly daughters of a father who tried to kill them, but that’s the only and biggest misstep I found in this collection.  Why did these stories resonate?  I live in the Midwest, and most of the stories in the collection take place around here.  Chaon gets sorrow.  His characters felt like real, suffering people.  Finally, Chaon also gets parenting right.

I have a few other Chaon books sitting on my shelf, and I can’t wait to delve into them as well.

STAY AWAKE by Dan Chaon
Publication date: February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Friday, February 10, 2012

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton

This book is my entry in the Criminal Plots II Challenge, a book written by someone from my state of Michigan.  Hamilton was born and raised in Michigan, this novel takes place in Michigan, but he currently resides in New York.

A Cold Day in Paradise is Steve Hamilton’s first novel, and his first novel in the Alex McKnight series.  Alex is an ex-Detroit cop who was shot three times while his partner died during the same attack.  He retired and moved to his father’s hunting cabin resort near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula.  Six months before the start of the novel, he became a private investigator, and the novel follows his first murder case.  The actual plot of the story involves Alex being stalked by Rose, the man who shot him and killed his partner fourteen years before.  It’s a psychological thriller.  I don’t want to give away more of the story, specifically the body count.

I cut debut crime novels, especially first-novels-in-a-series, a bit of slack because there’s a need for exposition about the character and his setting, in this case.  The main body of the story is a bit slow as Hamilton gets into Alex’s backstory and environs.  In part it felt slow to me because the ex-cop-with-post-traumatic-stress-disorder trope feels a bit old to me (this book was published in 1998).  Also, Hamilton relied too much on geographical descriptions of McKnight’s wanderings.  There are a lot of accounts of what streets and highways Alex drove as he pursued his investigation.  The actual setting of the northwoods in the Upper Peninsula and the town of Sault Ste. Marie and the locks didn’t seem that vivid to me, but that may be because the book took place in the beginning of November during hunting season.  It’s not a beautiful place that time of year. 

The saving grace of the book is its last fifty or so pages.  My guess is that it won its awards based on that ending, which set up a very interesting future for McKnight as a P.I.:  he has reason to become a quite jaded and cynical P.I. based on the resolution of the case.  I’m willing to read further into the series to see if it improves, which I think it does based on the sheer number of awards Hamilton has won.

And one more note about this book:  Sylvia, Alex’s love interest, is a severely underwritten character.  She does not have much to do, everything seems to happen to her, and she doesn’t have much of a back-story in this novel.  I may need to write a post about underwritten female characters because I feel the need to vent.

A COLD DAY IN PARADISE by Steve Hamilton
Thomas Dunne Books
Publication date:  September 1998
Source:  library

Thursday, February 9, 2012

ME AND YOU by Niccolo Ammaniti

Me and You by Niccolo Ammaniti is a short novel about fourteen-year-old Leonardo and his much older half-sister Olivia.  The story takes place in the basement storage area of his parent’s home, his hideout while his parents think he’s skiing with school friends for the week.  Olivia appears half way through the story, and this story captures their strange relationship.  It’s a short novel written in a spare style from the perspective of a loner fourteen-year-old boy, so it’s a good story for people like me who like teen angst.  I can’t say much more about the book because it’s such a short piece with such a small set of characters in such a narrow, circumscribed space. 

I chose this book in my quest to try out new authors from other countries.  I’ve read that Ammaniti’s previous works described as creepy (I’m Not Scared), and he’s written the crime novel As God Commands, which seemed like indications that this book would fit right with my fictional interests.  While this book is definitely creepy (Leonardo is a bit of an anti-social oddball at fourteen, but so are lots of fourteen-year-olds), it’s not overly so.  It was an enjoyable, well-written story, though.  I’m interested in reading his longer works.

ME & YOU  by Niccolo Ammaniti
Black Cat
Publication date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Outside the Lines is the story of Eden West, a professional chef, who searches for her mentally ill homeless father David whom she hasn’t seen since she was ten years old.  Her parents divorced shortly after his suicide attempt and institutionalization.  Eden has hit a plateau in her personal and professional lives:  she’s about thirty years old, she’s not in a serious relationship, and she’d like to leave her corporate catering job to open her own restaurant.  She decides she’d like to find her father in order to get some closure on their relationship so she can move forward in her life.  Helping her along the way are Jack, the director of a local homeless shelter where Eden volunteers; her mother, a reluctant supporter who’s been going through cancer treatment; and her best friend Georgia, who happens to be, helpfully enough, a life coach.  The story isn’t easy or pretty, much like Hatvany’s previous book, Best Kept Secret, but it is compelling.

The first thing that works about this novel is the plot.  The book begins with Eden visiting the morgue to see if a particular corpse is her father’s.  The stakes are high from the beginning of the story:  Eden wants to see her father as an adult and find out why he left, why he never got in touch with her, and to find out how he’s coping with his mental illness and homelessness.  Hatvany does a good job switching perspectives from Eden to David:  she captures their voices at different ages and at different stages in David’s illness well.  The narrative jumps between the present and the past, with the flashback sections leading up to David’s suicide attempt. 

Secondly, Hatvany is very good at depicting family relationships, particularly Eden and her dad when she was a child.  Also good is Eden’s relationship with her ailing mother.  It’s hard to talk about and pursue the father whom her mother never talks about.

Finally, I have some minor quibbles with the novel.  The character of Georgia is a bit flat: she feels like a sidekick in a movie more than a real character.  I have the same quibble with Jack, Eden’s love interest.  He’s a perfect, supportive partner with his own issues with his parents.  Hatvany tries to flesh them out, but they don’t have much to do besides support Eden in this story.  I think this is because the novel is about Eden’s all-consuming search for her father:  it’s Eden’s story, not Georgia’s or Jack’s. 

All in all, Outside the Lines is a good read that I found more satisfying than some memoirs I’ve read about growing up in dysfunctional families because I think novelists fill in more of a story than memoirists sometimes do.

Outside the Lines by Amy Hatvany
Atria Books
Publication Date:  February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

TWICE by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione

Twice is the third Lydia Strong novel.  Lydia is a New York City private investigator and true crime writer who works with her partner, Jeffrey Mark, a former FBI agent turned private investigator.  Lydia and Jeff investigate the murder of famous painter Julian Ross’s second husband.  Ten years earlier, she was exonerated in the death of her first husband.  Their investigation takes them from New York City to the small upstate town of Haunted, which is the perfect name for the Gothic goings-on in the investigation.  Solving Julian’s husband’s murder involves digging into Julian’s family’s past, which is laden with secrets.  Helping them along the way are Dax Chicago, their mysterious and funny bodyguard, and Detective Ford McKirdy, a lonely 50-ish detective whose job is slowly killing him.  A large chunk of the book is also devoted to Jeffrey and Lydia’s hunt for Jed McIntyre, an escaped serial killer.  Lydia’s first true crime book was about Jed McIntyre, the man who murdered her mother when she was a teenager.

As you can tell from the first paragraph, this novel is heavy on plot:  there are many twists in the murder investigation, and there are many twists in Jed McIntyre’s hunt for Lydia.  Unger does a good job balancing both stories.  I preferred the murder investigation to the serial-killer-on-the-loose story, but that’s because I liked the Gothic, family-secret-laden story more than the obsessed-serial-killer story.  This might be because this is the first Lydia Strong book I’ve read, so I don’t quite have all the background about Jed McIntyre than I’d have if I’d read the previous books before.

I’d recommend this book to thriller fans that like a dash of Gothic horror, and to fans of tough heroines as well.

Twice by Lisa Unger writing as Lisa Miscione
Publisher:  Broadway Books
Publication date (reissue):  February 7, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson

Sun Storm by Asa Larsson is the first Rebecka Martinsson novel.  Rebecka is a tax lawyer in Stockholm who returns to Kiruna, her hometown in northern Sweden for the first time in ten years when her childhood friend Sanna asks her for help after her brother Viktor is murdered.  Viktor is a charismatic religious figure who claimed to come back to life after a traffic accident, and his church monopolizes on his fame to build a massive building for a flock of 2,000, which is an impressive size for a town the size of Kiruna.

First off, the main asset of the book is the interesting heroine, Rebecka Martinsson.  Yes, professionally she lives in her head and in her small office, drafting memoranda, but it doesn’t prevent her from jumping into a criminal investigation.  The novel jumps between the investigation into Viktor’s murder and Rebecka’s years growing up in the Church of the Source of All Our Strength.  I won’t reveal more of her backstory here, but suffice it to say that it’s an interesting one.  As the novel progresses, we see more of her gritty side as well, which is refreshing.  Finally, it’s great to have a heroine who’s smart and not just lucky. 

The advantage of having a main character who specializes in tax law is that she can readily follow the money to find out what’s going on with the church.  It’s not an overly complicated conspiracy or cover-up in which the church is engaged, and I don’t think I’m giving anything away by mentioning that the Church is involved in tax improprieties.  Such a large church, led by three pastors, in such a flashy building is obviously an enterprise flush with cash.

Finally, the setting of the story in the northern reaches of Sweden make for a nice switch from lots of urban mysteries and thrillers that I read.  There are cozy moments in Rebecka’s grandparents’ home and hunting cabin, as she spends time with Sanna’s children and her northern neighbor/ friend of her deceased grandparents Sivving.  It’s an interesting place for a respite for a reader from the northern Midwest of the United States.

I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I've heard good things about them from Keishon at Avid Mystery Reader, Sarah at Crimepieces, Maxine at Petrona, and Margot at Confessions of a Mystery Novelist.

Highly recommended.

SUN STORM by Asa Larsson
Translated by Marlaine Delargy
Also Published ss: The Savage Altar
Delacorte Press
Publication date:  April 25, 2006
Source:  library
Finalist 2007 International Dagger Award
Winner of Sweden’s Best First Crime Novel Award

Thursday, February 2, 2012


The Lost Saints of Tennessee by Amy Franklin-Willis surprised me in lots of good ways.  The book starts in a very tough place emotionally:  forty-two-year-old Ezekiel Cooper is divorced, depressed, has a bad relationship with his aging mother, and is not coping well with the upcoming tenth anniversary of his twin brother Carter’s drowning death.  So much about the premise could have made me run for the book:  (1) I’m not a big fan of men-having-a-midlife crisis books; (2) I’m not a fan of deeply depressed characters.  Despite my misgivings, I became very emotionally invested in these characters after a short time.
The novel takes place in the small town of Clayton, Tennessee, a town which Zeke’s mom is desperate to leave, and which she is desperate for her children to leave as well.  Zeke is the first of his five siblings to leave town: he moves to Virginia to live with cousins and attend the University of Virginia, but he returns to Clayton over the holidays and stays for the next twenty-five years.  The story moves physically between Virginia and Tennessee and temporally between 1960 and 1985, eventually revealing more and more of Zeke, his first wife Jackie, and their family members’ lives.

What makes the story work is Zeke and his mother’s messy interior lives.  The rest of the characters are not as well developed, but there are hints to the depths in the lives of Jackie, her children, and Zeke’s cousins Georgia and Osbourne, the elderly couple in Virginia who took him in during college.  This is the story of one man getting his life together as he deals with his twin brother’s death as well as his relationships with his mother and ex-wife.

I’d recommend this book to fans of stories of small towns in the south, to fans of stories about adults growing up and moving on past their past hurts, and to fans of stories about families.

Atlantic Monthly Press
Publication date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

RAGNAROK by A.S. Byatt

I chose to review Ragnarok by A. S. Byatt because I loved her novel Possession, and I really liked some of her other novels and novellas that I have read.  For other fans of Byatt’s work, be warned that Ragnarok is not a novel, it’s a retelling of the Norse myth of the end of the world. 

My previous experience with Norse myths is minimal.  I’ve watched some of the operas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, but it was many years ago.  I’ve come across some Norse stuff tangentially in my reading as an English and Spanish major in college.  My lack of background in Norse mythology is not a real hindrance in this case because Byatt’s writing is so clear.  Furthermore, the more I read of Ragnarok, the more I realized that I have heard these tales retold in other guises, or, at least, I’ve read books that are heavily influenced by Norse mythology, including the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings books.

The framing device for Ragnarok is the story of the thin child, a stand-in for Byatt herself, who is evacuated from London to the country during World War II.  The thin child’s mother gives her a copy of Asgard and the Gods, which is a German retelling of Norse myths.  In the author’s note, Byatt acknowledges that she wrote her version of Ragnarok as a child discovering the myths, which explains the straightforward style she uses.  The framing device also works in a way that allows Byatt to talk about how she, as a child, developed her worldview.  She’s not into the Christian, redemptive ending:  she always expects a dark end, much as the dark end of the gods destroying each other in Ragnarok.

This is a slim volume that I could have read in an afternoon, but I spread it out over a couple days.  Because it is so slim, it’s hard to write a longer review.  This piece is a collection of stories of the end of the Norse gods written in an accessible style.  It also contains interesting discussions about the nature of myths versus the nature of fairy tales.  It’s about the stories as well as about the nature of storytelling.

Ragnarok:  The End of the Gods by A.S. Byatt
Grove Press
Publication Date:  February 1, 2012
Source:  Publisher via NetGalley