Backpacking Book Review #1 …

A recent backpacking trip left me exhausted and able only to read genre books — so here are reviews of three Mystery / Women’s Fiction / Romance novels that were quite enjoyable for a relaxing read on a rock facing gorgeous scenery. Review number 1…

Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 3rd, 2019.

The 5th book in Griffith’s Magic Men series, this episode takes place in Brighton in 1964. The Mods and the Rockers are coming into the public eye, getting into brawls and leading to moral panic amongst the British. DI Edgar Stephens (newly promoted to Superintendent) is investigating a string of missing girls though all the best ideas seem to come from his wife (previously his star sergeant and now frustrated mother of three), her equally frustrated journalist friend Sam, and the very tall, 19-year old, WPC Meg Connolly, a promising new policewoman. For those not in the know (like me), WPC stands for ‘Woman Police Constable” (the term was discontinued in 1999).

I’m a big Elly Griffiths fan, but haven’t read any books in this series. In comparison with the Ruth Galloway series and her standalone novel, I found this book to be a little more disjointed — particularly in the beginning where much of the text seemed extraneous to either the plot or the characters. However, the plot was gripping and I found the focus on intelligent women in constrained circumstances managing to accomplish a great deal fascinating. The sixties seem not that long ago (to some of us), but cultural expectations for women were vastly different than they are now. Reading the descriptions of the earlier four books, they seem to focus much more on DI Stephens and Max Mephisto (the variety magician), while this one seems to relegate them to a secondary role in solving the mystery. Interesting!

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I really like Elly Griffiths and I guess I now have to go back to start the series from the beginning. Good writing, appealing characters, twisted plots that I don’t figure out until the end and lots of archeology and pagan traditions thrown in. I did notice that her “families” are largely non-traditional — I actually had a little trouble keeping up with who was partnered with whom and who fathered whose children — but found the variety interesting and possibly more in keeping with the times? Gorgeous (but not too lengthy) landscape descriptions of Norfolk and coastal environs. This is #11 and I’ve only previously read #9. The characters definitely develop across the series so while I was never “lost” I definitely need to start at the beginning if I want to get to know the people as well as enjoying the story. Unlike some other series I’ve read, she is still pumping out full stories and not bulking out with lots of filler because the basic idea has run out of steam…

All That’s Bright and Gone by Eliza Nellums (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5

A strange and captivating book that gets better and better with each page. Six-year old Aoife (pronounced EE-fah) misses her mama who is “confused” and has been taken someplace to help her feel better. With the help of her imaginary friend — a large bear named Teddy — and her slightly older and more confident neighbor Hannah, Aoife sets off to solve the mystery of her brother’s murder with the childish logic that this will allow her mother to come home again.

Aoife is the most compelling of narrators — her mind is young and she has been kept uninformed about the big issues facing the family (as is typical of six-year olds). She tells her story piece by piece, describing events and her interpretation of them in an utterly convincing manner — her mother’s “confusion,” visits from cee pee ess (child protective services), and the explanations her Uncle Donnie, Father Paul, and her mother’s “special friend” Mac give in answer to her questions.

A beautifully imagined book about a child growing up and making sense of her (in no way average) world. A surprising and well-structured plot, good writing, and well-drawn characters as depicted from Aoife’s perspective. Understated themes of mental illness and what it means to be crazy.

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Crooked Lane Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 10th, 2019.

The American Agent by Jacqueline Winspear (Mystery)

Writing: 3 Plot: 4 Characters: 3.5

The latest in Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (#15) finds Maisie investigating the murder of Catherine Saxon — the irrepressible American journalist from a wealthy, politically connected, and a defiantly isolationist family.

This series never feels stale — each volume moves forward in time (the first took place in 1929 and we’re up to 1940 now) and is based on a factual piece of British History. In this case, the Blitz and the effort to get the U.S. to enter the war. Woven into the plot is Joseph Kennedy, the anti-Semitic and somewhat pro-Hitler, then American ambassador to England and the U.S. Organization America First. I’m sure it’s not an accident that she chose this particular topic for this year’s entry.

Always fun to read these — very little “filler,” a twisted plot, and Maisie’s character progresses as well.

The Department of Sensitive Crimes by Alexander McCall Smith (Fiction / Mystery)

I’m a big McCall Smith fan — I like the ethical foundations of and philosophical ruminations in all of his books. This book marks the beginning of a new series which differs from his other three in two primary ways: the action takes place in Sweden (as opposed to Botswana and Scotland) and features a male protagonist.

In general, I don’t like the result when a writer chooses to write a main character of a gender opposite the writer’s own — it’s a personal thing — but for some reason I love McCall Smith’s female leads. Isabelle Dalhousie and Mma Ramotswe are the kind of women I like — perhaps because they blend an emotional sensitivity with a strong rational thought process that resonates strongly with me. Ulf Varg — the senior policeman of the titular Sensitive Crimes Department of the Malmö Criminal Investigation Authority — has a very similar personality, albeit clothed in a man’s body.

Ostensibly about “sensitive” crimes (a knife attack on the back of a victim’s knee, the disappearance of an imaginary boyfriend, a spa owner subject to apparent werewolf fits…) the stories primarily revolve around the ethical dilemmas we all face in everyday life. The characters have arcane interests (such as Nordic Art) which in typical McCall Smith style are presented in ways that spark an interest where none was present before, and the action is propelled forward by the intriguing and detailed flow between their rich interior worlds and the physical world around them.

A good read — I don’t know that the Swedish environment has been presented with the same depth as the Botswana and Scotland environments had previously, but then this is only book one. On the other hand, nice to read a Swedish mystery that isn’t steeped in horrifying scenes (e.g. the Dragon Tattoo books — yuck!)

Big Sky by Kate Atkinson (Crime / Mystery)

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4/5

An unusual crime drama — Atkinson’s fifth about Jackson Brodie, former policeman and soldier turned Private Investigator in Yorkshire. Brodie has your typical gruff exterior, and his personal life is in a perpetual, confusing, shambles, but he is a self-appointed White Knight. He has an eye for the predators in the world (and his world is full of them), and he feels a responsibility to potential victims everywhere. He will not rest — paid or not — until he is sure that everyone is safe.

The story is dark — as are all of Atkinson’s stories. This one revolves around human trafficking in myriad forms. The style is interesting — while Jackson is a familiar (to us) character, he is not the center of a single investigation. Instead, he is a player in a tangled web that includes various past and present strands of a set of ongoing and horrific crimes that eventually come together and are resolved (in a very satisfying way). While not in any sense a cozy, neither is it a nail-biter (important to me as I don’t like to purposely stress myself). The writing style is interesting. It appears muddy — with constant tangents and sardonic asides — but really is just a true-to-life depiction of the way people think. Each chapter is told from a different character’s perspective (all third person omniscient) so we are treated to an inside, tangled, look at what they are thinking, obsessing over, worrying about, hoping for, leering at, and feeling guilty about, simultaneous with what is actually happening in the scene. We get real insight to so many of the characters in this fashion. Oddly enough, my favorite character is Crystal, the clean eating, “trophy wife” of a husband she really doesn’t know that well, with a hefty (secret) past of her own.

Lots of plot lines that tie together (perhaps a little too neatly) at the end. What appears chaotic and confusing at the beginning comes together in just the way it would if you were dropped in to the story with an apparently small job on the periphery (as Jackson himself was). It did feel like the rapid closure of the many wiggling parts was a tad too hasty. This was an early access copy so perhaps that will be evened out before publication.

Thank you to Little, brown and Company and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on June 25th, 2019.

The Lost Man by Jane Harper (Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

A completely absorbing book. The kind of great writing that lets you forget that you’re reading at all as you become completely immersed in the world described. Part mystery — part family drama, all playing out in a landscape that is real, but unlike any that most of us know — the remote Australian Outback.

Cameron Bright has been found dead of exposure and dehydration a mere nine km from his car packed (as usual) with enough survival gear to carry him through any outback mishap. Cameron runs Burley Downs — the largest station in the region at 3500 sq km. His older brother Nathan runs the adjacent homestead — a three hour drive away. As Nathan and the rest of the family struggle to find out what happened to Cameron, they also must contend with the difficult environment and with all the broken spaces between them — none of which is ever discussed in this culture where extreme quiet is the norm.

With vivid characters, deft pacing, tight prose, and breathtaking descriptions of the landscape and way of life it represents, you won’t be able to put this one down. I carried the hardcover in my carry-on simply because I couldn’t bear not to finish the last 40 pages… My first Jane Harper, but definitely not the last.

A few of the great lines…

“He hugged her back. The movement had the rusty edge of underuse.”

“The kid lived in a city. He couldn’t cope with quiet like the rest of them.”

“It was funny how high and bright the red flags flew in hindsight.”