A Place of Execution, by Val McDermid

>> Sunday, August 20, 2017

TITLE: A Place of Execution
AUTHOR: Val McDermid

PAGES: 480
PUBLISHER: St. Martin's

SETTING: 1960s and 1990s Derbyshire
TYPE: Mystery

Winter 1963: two children have disappeared off the streets of Manchester; the murderous careers of Myra Hindley and Ian Brady have begun. On a freezlng day in December, another child goes missing: thirteen-year-old Alison Carter vanishes from her town, an insular community that distrusts the outside world. For the young George Bennett, a newly promoted inspector, it is the beginning of his most difficult and harrowing case: a murder with no body, an investigation with more dead ends and closed faces than he'd have found in the anonymity of the inner city, and an outcome which reverberates through the years.

Decades later he finally tells his story to journalist Catherine Heathcote, but just when the book is poised for publication, Bennett unaccountably tries to pull the plug. He has new information which he refuses to divulge, new information that threatens the very foundations of his existence. Catherine is forced to re-investigate the past, with results that turn the world upside down.

A Greek tragedy in modern England, Val McDermid's A Place of Execution is a taut psychological thriller that explores, exposes and explodes the border between reality and illusion in a multi-layered narrative that turns expectations on their head and reminds us that what we know is what we do not know.
McDermid is one of the best-known mystery writers in the UK, but even though she's someone I really enjoy as a commentator and broadcaster (I'm always interested when she's on Radio 4, particularly when she's one of the participants in the wonderful Round Britain Quiz, where's she's awesome!), I'd never read one of her books. Until now. My book club decided to read A Place of Execution, which is one of her few stand-alone books.

On a cold, dark evening in December 1963, police in Buxton, Derbyshire receive a desperate call from a woman in the small village of Scardale. Her 13-year-old daughter left the house a few hours earlier to walk her dog, and hasn't returned. The mother has knocked on all the doors in the village but no one has seen her, and she's very concerned.

Detective Inspector George Bennett, newly promoted and one of very few university graduates in the Buxton police force, is sent over with his sergeant. All the organised search turns up is the dog young Alison Carter took with her on her walk -its muzzle taped shut with Elastoplast. It seems clear nothing good could have happened to Alison.

35 years later, journalist Catherine Heathcote has managed to get George Bennett to speak to her, the first time he'll tell the story of what ended up being a bit of a cause célebre. Everything's going great, until out of the blue, George writes her a letter demanding the book is cancelled. There's new information that means it should not be published, only he doesn't say what.

Despite what felt like a slightly saggy middle, I really enjoyed this book. It's an interesting mystery, with plenty of turns I didn't expect, and even when I guessed certain things (not bragging here -there are a couple of elements that are not difficult to guess), that didn't hamper my enjoyment.

The book shines in two areas: the atmosphere and the characterisation. 1960s Scardale is fantastic, a tiny village living in almost feudal times. It would have been easy for the portrayal of the taciturn, distrusful villagers, a combination of three families intermarrying for decades, to veer into the comic or the gothic, but McDermid steers clear of all that. These are strong-minded, independent people, used to making do with just themselves and coming together as a community. Don't make me wrong, there are some comic aspects here (I spend a fair bit of time in Buxton with my work, and it really tickled me to see how the Scardale villagers would speak about it. One would think the quiet, quaint little town was some sort of corrupt fleshpot, from the way they'd go on!), but McDermid does not make fun of them.

What felt really interesting and different, as well, was how McDermid portrays the police. It's an almost idealistic portrayal, and the wholesome characterisation of George Bennett and his Detective Sergeant, Tommy Clough (decent, honest men who truly care about finding Alison and works themselves to the bone to get justice for her) provides a much needed contrast to some of the more horrific revelations in the plot. At the same time, it's made clear that there are some institutional ways in which the police are very far from perfect (and some of the final revelations make it clear that part of the reason why certain things happened the way they did in the 60s was precisely because of the police's institutional attitudes -is that cryptic enough?).

I found very few negatives here. The main one, which I alluded to above, is that the middle section does go on a bit. Because of what's going on about then, there is a lot of repetition and going over the evidence again and again, and again. Part of the problem might have been that I was listening to the audiobook, so whereas if I'd been reading I could have sort of skimmed over the familiar ground if necessary, I was having to listen to every single detail. Still, that's not a big problem. Things liven up a fair bit soon enough, and I didn't mind the lull much at all.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Daughter of the Empire, by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

>> Friday, August 18, 2017

TITLE: Daughter of the Empire
AUTHOR: Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts

PAGES: 421

SETTING: Fantasy world
TYPE: Fantasy
SERIES: Starts the Empire trilogy

Magic and murder engulf the realm of Kelewan. Fierce warlords ignite a bitter blood feud to enslave the empire of Tsuranuanni. While in the opulent Imperial courts, assassins and spy-master plot cunning and devious intrigues against the rightful heir. Now Mara, a young, untested Ruling lady, is called upon to lead her people in a heroic struggle for survival. But first she must rally an army of rebel warriors, form a pact with the alien cho-ja, and marry the son of a hated enemy. Only then can Mara face her most dangerous foe of all--in his own impregnable stronghold. An epic tale of adventure and intrigue. Daughter of the Empire is fantasy of the highest order by two of the most talented writers in the field today.
Things have been kind of stressful lately, so I've been doing a fair bit of rereading. Lots of Nora Roberts and Jayne Ann Krentz, which have always been my go-to comfort reads, but there's a new kid on the block! You wouldn't think a book with loads of political intrigue in a high fantasy setting could be a comfort read, but Katherine Addison's wonderful The Goblin Emperor manages it. I loved it just as much as the first time (yep, the A+ was well-earned), and the last page left me wanting to read more of something like it.

So I yet again went looking for read-alikes. I wasn't particularly successful the first time round, but but lo and behold, this time I found a thread on reddit with quite a few seemingly well-considered responses! The Empire trilogy was one of the recs, and it sounded like it might be exactly what I was looking for.

Mara is within seconds of taking vows and entering a religious order forever, when news arrives of the death of her father and brother. Mara is the only one in the family left, and without pausing for breath she has to take over as Ruling Lady of the House of Acoma.

It's a dangerous time. Her father and brother died as a result of treachery from an enemy House, and it was quite the massacre. The Acoma House has been left in a terribly weakened state, and keeping it alive will take a cool head, ruthless nerve, and creative thinking about how tradition can be bent without fully breaking it. Fortunately, Mara has all that, and has been lucky in her advisors.

I found this to be quite a mixed bag, unfortunately, starting well but then incorporating more and more elements that didn't work for me at all. I did like the political intrigue and seeing how Mara thought outside the box and turned impossible situations into triumphs. The authors are successful in not revealing all of her plans, even though we're in her POV, without making it feel fake. They would introduce some hints about Mara's ultimate aims, but keep the details hidden, and that succeeded at raising the intrigue quite well.

I also liked the setting, which felt sort of Japanese to me (although now that I finished it I've seen it mentioned that the authors took some inspiration from Korean traditions), with a complex structure of traditions.

Unfortunately, that was about it for what I liked. There were too many elements that I thought weren't good at all. For starters, I wasn't a great fan of the writing. I always find it hard to describe what it is about a particular style of writing that doesn't work for me, but I'll give it a shot. The best way I can describe it is that it felt dated. It's strange, because I happily read 19th century novels without feeling the writing is dated, but that's the word that comes to mind for this book. It's kind of bombastic and self-important, and it gets only more so as the book goes on.

My next problem is one that is purely a matter of personal taste, but what can I say, it was a problem for me. At one point in the book Mara enters a marriage which turns abusive extremely quickly. It's obvious throughout that Mara is playing some sort of long game, and it's not really a spoiler that she's successful in it, but I hated it anyway. Up until then we'd had a heroine who'd taken to power like a duck to water and had been awesome at the machinations required. And then suddenly she's in a situation where she's subservient to a brute and all the agency she has for a very long section is through suggestion and manipulation. It annoyed me. I wasn't sold on the idea that taking this huge risk (and there was a huge element of chance involved in the right outcome coming about in the end) was necessary. I kept wanting to go back to the Ruling Lady all through that section.

And that issue I mentioned about not being convinced that taking that risk was necessary was something that kept coming up. There are an awful lot of instances when Mara makes plans that seem unnecessarily risky and that depend on a large number of things happening just so... people reacting in exactly the way predicted, timing working out perfectly, that sort of thing. They all do work out, but the uncertainty inherent in that planning made Mara look reckless, rather than bold and machiavellian.

Finally, and actually, probably most importantly, I was very disturbed by some of the attitudes displayed by both Mara and the narrative. There's Teani, Mara's husband's concubine, who's this horrid Evil Other Woman, irrational and hysterical, and whose portrayal is one of the most slut-shamey I've read in a while. There's the attitude to slaves and other 'unimportant' and 'dispensable' people. So the raiders killed the herder when they stole the cattle, but it was only a slave boy, so it's unimportant, not an issue. The slaves carrying Mara's litter happen to be in the room when something is casually mentioned that Mara wants kept a secret. They'll all have to be put to death. Mara is completely unaffected by her husband raping and beating the household's maids, which is referred to with no judgment as him having his "sport". These are all really minor, throwaway points. Mara doesn't think the lives of these people are important, and the narrative completely supports that. It's not just the writing that is dated.

And that is the main reason why this is not a good readalike for The Goblin Emperor. Mara lacks human decency in comparison to the hero of that book, the quite similarly-named Maia. I was happy to see her triumph at the start of the book, but by the end of it, I only wanted her to win because everyone else was worse. I don't think I'll be continuing with this series.



Playing With Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

>> Tuesday, August 15, 2017

TITLE: Playing With Fire
AUTHOR: Tess Gerritsen

PAGES: 250
PUBLISHER: Ballantine

SETTING: Contemporary US and Italy, and 1940s Italy
TYPE: Mystery

In a shadowy antiques shop in Rome, violinist Julia Ansdell happens upon a curious piece of music—the Incendio waltz—and is immediately entranced by its unusual composition. Full of passion, torment, and chilling beauty, and seemingly unknown to the world, the waltz, its mournful minor key, its feverish arpeggios, appear to dance with a strange life of their own. Julia is determined to master the complex work and make its melody heard.

Back home in Boston, from the moment Julia’s bow moves across the strings, drawing the waltz’s fiery notes into the air, something strange is stirred—and Julia’s world comes under threat. The music has a terrifying and inexplicable effect on her young daughter, who seems violently transformed. Convinced that the hypnotic strains of Incendio are weaving a malevolent spell, Julia sets out to discover the man and the meaning behind the score.

Her quest beckons Julia to the ancient city of Venice, where she uncovers a dark, decades-old secret involving a dangerously powerful family that will stop at nothing to keep Julia from bringing the truth to light.
I'm addicted to Gerritsen's Rizzoli and Isles series. I haven't read her earlier single titles yet (I'm saving them for a rainy day, and yes, I know that doesn't make sense), but if they're as good as this one, I'm in for a treat.

Violinist Julia Ansell has just finished a tour in Italy and is happily puttering around antique shops in Rome when she happens upon a piece of music she has never come across. It's a hand-written score, a waltz called the Incendio, and it sounds complex and wonderful when she reads it. It's expensive, since it's, the shop-owner tells her, one of a kind, but she knows she has to have it.

Once back home, Julia sets out to play her new piece of music and is shocked by the results. Not only does the piece consume her and set her into a sort of hypnotic state, it seems to possess her young daughter, as well. Faced with a daughter who seems to become a violent killer when she hears those particular notes, Julia is determined to find out what's wrong. But when her initial approaches to neurologists and psychologists result in disbelief and questioning of her own sanity, Julia realises she must find out more about the piece of music and its creator.

Interspersed with the modern-day story of Julia and her daughter, we get the story of the musician who created the piece. It's the early 40s and Lorenzo lives in Venice, part of a Jewish community where most people consider themselves to be fully integrated and Italian, so surely they have nothing to fear?

This was just great. It's creepy and mysterious and the thriller element really worked. I did have a few issues at the start of the book, where I had some doubts about whether the use of the Holocaust storyline felt appropriate, but this was a book that really won me over. The 1940s thread ended up being extremely moving. The depiction of the situation, where Italian Jews felt so well-integrated that they refused to believe that all those things that were rumoured could possibly be true, felt real. Surely it couldn't happen here, surely not these days? I kept wanting to shout at them to "Go, go! Leave!", while understanding completely why they wouldn't.

And the present-day storyline was really well-done as well. I don't want to say a lot, as not knowing quite what to expect is one of the best aspects of it, but I will say that the resolution was what really made it. It's a resolution that could conceivably feel like a cop-out, like the author had painted herself into a corner and was taking the easy way out, but it doesn't feel like that at all. It feels right. And by being what it is, not what we might have thought it would be (sorry to be so cryptic!) it feels somehow more respectful of the WWII sections.

MY GRADE: A strong B+.


Swing Time, by Zadie Smith

>> Sunday, August 13, 2017

TITLE: Swing Time
AUTHOR: Zadie Smith

PAGES: 453
PUBLISHER: Hamish Hamilton

SETTING: Contemporary UK and West Africa
TYPE: Fiction

An ambitious, exuberant new novel moving from North West London to West Africa, from the multi-award-winning author of White Teeth and On Beauty

Two brown girls dream of being dancers—but only one, Tracey, has talent. The other has ideas: about rhythm and time, about black bodies and black music, what constitutes a tribe, or makes a person truly free. It's a close but complicated childhood friendship that ends abruptly in their early twenties, never to be revisited, but never quite forgotten, either.

Tracey makes it to the chorus line but struggles with adult life, while her friend leaves the old neighborhood behind, traveling the world as an assistant to a famous singer, Aimee, observing close up how the one percent live.

But when Aimee develops grand philanthropic ambitions, the story moves from London to West Africa, where diaspora tourists travel back in time to find their roots, young men risk their lives to escape into a different future, the women dance just like Tracey—the same twists, the same shakes—and the origins of a profound inequality are not a matter of distant history, but a present dance to the music of time.
I get ridiculously excited about the announcement of the Man Booker longlist. I love the speculation beforehand (and I've picked up quite a few books from those discussions), and I love that so many bloggers I follow read the books. As I have for the last few years, I'll be attempting to read as many as I can from the longlist and all of the books on the shortlist. Liz McC and Sunita are going to be reading quite a few as well, which will make it even better. They've both got off the starting blocks a lot more quickly than I have, so do check out the reviews already on their blogs.

Me, I thought I'd start with one that looked to be a quick, accessible read. Swing Time was actually already in my TBR, and sounded like it'd be fun. Turns out I found it more challenging than I expected. The challenge was not on the technical side, but in caring enough to continue reading.

There are two main threads that we follow throughout the book. The first one is the relationship between our unnamed narrator and her childhood friend Tracey. The two girls met when very small, as the only two mixed-raced girls in a neighbourhood dance class, and then in school. Tracey was always a natural dancer, while our narrator was fascinated by the dancing and its history and ideas, but less of a dancer herself.

The second thread is the narrator's job as personal assistant to Aimee, a huge international pop star (think, I don't know, Madonna, maybe?). Aimee has decided she wants to start a school in a West African country and, as part of her staff, our narrator is one of the several people taking care of all the details.

There are a lot of interesting ideas and little bits and pieces here, but I felt the book never really gelled. It felt disjointed, and there wasn't a through-line that pulled the whole thing together. Part of the problem, I felt, was that I never quite got what linked the two main threads together, beyond our narrator.

And she was probably the biggest problem with the book. Our unnamed narrator never really comes alive. She seems to float around absorbing stuff from those around her and simply reacting. She doesn't know what she wants, where she wants to go, who she wants to be. Even her most decisive moments are simply rebelling, just not wanting to do what her mother wants. This is particularly frustrating, because Smith has a way of capturing her secondary characters (or not even secondary, even those who are only present in the margins and show up for a single scene... tertiary characters, maybe?) with a deft couple of lines and making the reader recognise them. But our narrator... no idea who she is, unfortunately.  And yes, the fact that she's an unnamed narrator suggests there's a fair bit of intentionality in her being a non-entity, but I felt the book could have been a lot more interesting with someone with more personality narrating it.

The other issue I had was that the Aimee storyline gradually took over the Tracey one, and I was much more interested in the latter. That felt a lot fresher and potentially more interesting, but Tracy disappears from the story in the same way as she disappears from our narrator's life (so yes, it does make sense). And the Aimee storyline made me terribly cross. In part, that is probably just me. I despise celebrity culture and take pains to avoid anything celebrity-related in my life, so some of that crossness was because it felt I was being forced to spend time with the sort of celebrity-obsessed people I run a mile from in real life. Yes, the point of a lot of that was to ridicule aspects of that celebrity culture, but the thing is, Smith doesn't really do anything new or interesting with her satire. It's pretty obvious targets and these targets are mocked in obvious ways.

Lots and lots of moaning above, and it sounds like I hated the book. I didn't. There were nuggets there that I did like. I liked the sort of abstract bits and pieces about dancing. I also liked the character of our narrator's mother and their complex relationship, which were both very well done. And the writing was often beautiful. There was enough there that I would read more by Zadie Smith, despite this one not being a particularly successful first try.



Card parties and Marx

>> Friday, August 11, 2017

TITLE: Cards on the Table
AUTHOR: Agatha Christie

A very imprudent man called Mr. Sheitana decides to tempt fate and organise a unique dinner party. He invites 4 "detectives", all of them well known to Agatha Christie readers: there's Superintendent Battle of Scotland Yard; there's a Secret Service man, Colonel Race, there's Ariadne Oliver, the detective novelist, and there's none other than the inimitable Hercule Poirot. They join 4 other guests, all of whom Mr. Sheitana believes have got away with murder.

Whatever he intended to accomplish, what Mr Sheitana gets is more than he expected. While they're all playing bridge after dinner, one of his guests kills him. Which of the 4 did it, and which of the 4 detectives will be able to discover whodunnit?

It's a neat little mystery, super ingenious, albeit probably best enjoyed by someone with an understanding of bridge, since the game actually plays a bigger part than you might expect. That being said, I know nothing about the game and still had fun. The characters are interesting, both the suspects and the detectives. A big part of the fun is in seeing each detective do their own thing and their different approaches.

A good one.


TITLE: The Marx Sisters
AUTHOR: Barry Maitland

The Marx Sisters is the first in a long-running series called Brock and Kolla. Brock is Scotland Yard Chief Inspector David Brock, an experienced officer. Kolla is the much younger Kathy Kolla, a much more inexperienced officer. This first case is set in a little forgotten enclave in the middle of central London, an area where longtime Eastern European immigrants live in the old houses they moved into decades earlier, in between the shiny office blocks.

The Marx Sisters of the title are some of those residents. Their last names are not Marx, but they're all great-grandchildren of the man himself. And then one dies. Was it a personal thing (she wasn't the nicest person in the world), or is there more going on? A developer trying to get their hands on the property? Someone after the Marx manuscripts rumoured to be hidden in the house?

This one wasn't great. I liked the sense of place, but that was about it. The plot could have been interesting, but the twists became a bit too much, tried to be too clever and this made the characters just not ring true. Also, I was bothered by the casual sexism and even misogyny in the characterisation. Wives are nagging shrews, our female detective is a bit of an impulsive airhead, our older male detective is irresistible to even women much younger than him. Bah. I'm not planning to read further in this series.



The Night Of The Mi'raj, by Zoë Ferraris

>> Wednesday, August 09, 2017

TITLE: The Night Of The Mi'raj (aka Finding Nouf in the US)
AUTHOR: Zoë Ferraris

PAGES: 357
PUBLISHER: Little, Brown

SETTING: Contemporary Saudi Arabia
TYPE: Mystery
SERIES: First in a series

In a blazing hot desert in Saudi Arabia, a search party is dispatched to find a missing young woman. Thus begins a novel that offers rare insight into the inner workings of a country in which women must wear the abaya in public or risk denunciation by the religious police; where ancient beliefs, taboos, and customs frequently clash with a fast-moving, technology-driven modern world.

The missing woman is Nouf Shrawi, one of several sheltered teenaged daughters of a powerful local family. Hired to track her and her potential abductor is Nayir, a solitary, pious desert guide of dubious origin, and a friend of the family. As Nayir uncovers clues that only serve to deepen the mystery behind Nouf's disappearance, he teams up with Katya, a liberated Saudi woman who is engaged to one of Nouf's brothers.

As they move closer to the truth, the pair's detective work unveils layers of secrets. In a land of prayers, purity, and patriarchy, the dreams of mere mortals often go unrealized, and the consequences of misbehavior for both men and women are disastrous
This is a mystery set in Jeddah, in Saudi Arabia. It's written by a Western author who lived in the country for a while with her Saudi husband, but the characters themselves are Saudi.

The plot concerns the disappearance of a 16-year-old girl, Nouf, the child of a wealthy family. A lorry and a camel have disappeared at the same time, so whether she left of her own accord or was taken, she seems to have disappeared into the desert. The family want to find her without any scandal, as she was about to get married and they'd rather like that to go ahead, so rather than going to the police, they ask Nayif for help.

Nayif is a friend of the family, and a man who knows a lot about the desert, as he often works as a guide. The hope is that this will allow him to track Nouf, but it's not that easy to find her. Nayif is forced to accept the help of Katya, Nouf's brother's fiancée, who works at the forensic department, and together they work to find out the truth. Nouf's body is soon discovered, but the investigation doesn't end there. Nayir feels the obligation to uncover what happens, even if some in Nouf's family are not on board with his continuing enquiries.

I really liked this. The mystery itself is fine and the plotting ok, but where the book was really good was with the characters and setting. Nayif is a quite conservative and devout man, which really wasn't what I was expecting, for some reason. He's a bit of an outsider, being of Palestinian origin, and this is something he's made to feel often. Katya was more expected, a modern, educated woman who is determined to have a career, but is struggling somewhat with the strictures placed on her by her society. Where the book shines is in the interactions between these two. Neither is particularly comfortable with the other at first, but it turns out there is great chemistry between them. I don't mean necessarily in a sexual sense (although that's not completely absent), but in the sense of two people who click with each other. It's understated here, but it's clear that this is a relationship that will continue in further books, and I really want to read more.

The setting is also great. Societal mores and expectations (and laws) determine how the investigation progresses and how the characters are able to relate to each other. I have no idea how accurate it all is obviously, but I enjoyed reading it. And maybe because the author is not Saudi herself, she makes a point of subtly highlighting the little details that a Saudi author might take for granted and not think worth a mention, like the fact that people keep oven gloves in their car's glove compartments, as car door handles can get so hot that you'll get proper burns if you touch them with your hands.

MY GRADE: A solid B.


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