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.”

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

The second installment of Horowitz’ self-referential detective series starring himself as the semi-bumbling, self-deprecating sidekick to the enigmatic Detective Daniel Hawthorne. Horowitz writes fantastic mysteries — they are convoluted in the most delightful ways, are full of interesting characters, and progress at the perfect pace (also — I never do figure it out early!) One of the benefits of this particular series is also gaining some insight into other aspects of Horowitz’ writing life — the production issues for Foyles War, the interactions with agents and booksellers, and parts of the Writer’s Process (as experienced by Mr. Horowitz).

I don’t want to give away *anything* in the plot, but it covers a wide range of places, people, time, and professions — divorce lawyers, (very) expensive wine, literary snobs, interior decorators, spelunkers, forensic accountants, muscular dystrophy, and the NHS. Horowitz does an impressive job of applying diversity to characters with no regard to stereotypical expectations. I did find myself struggling to constantly sift out the fact from the fiction, which told me more about myself and my own neuroses than about the book — it doesn’t matter a bit! A fun read.

Great for fans of Robert Galbraith.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on May 28th, 2019.

Greenglass House by Kate Milford (Age 10+)

A perfect kids book! Had it been around when I was young I would have read it a hundred times by now (like my other favorites: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, A Wrinkle in Time, and Charlotte’s Web). It’s an adventure story complete with rambling houses, hidden treasures, eccentric characters, ghosts, and Mystery with a capital M.

12-year old Milo Pine lives with his adoptive parents in Greenglass House — a rambling old Inn whose “regulars” are the smugglers who need a little “shore time.” Greenglass House is perched above a deep gorge — accessible only via a creaky cable car named the Whilforber Whirlwind or a 310 step stairway.

As Christmas vacation commences, and Milo prepares to snuggle in for some serious R&R in the empty Inn, the cable car bell keeps ringing and the number of guests (and emergency helpers) grow until Milo finds himself amidst a sea of eccentric characters who all seem to be on delightfully connected personal quests that center on the house itself.

Weaving together folk tales and local legend with a little paranormal thrown in, Milo uncovers the mysteries of Greenglass House and the odd set of characters who are so fixated on it. Milo — prone to anxiety and panic attacks — also develops delightfully through the twin instruments of literature and role playing games.

Good writing — the story is complex enough to engage adults and yet completely accessible to the target kid audience.

Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny (Inspector Gamache series — the 14th)

Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Overall reading pleasure: 5/5

I’m (very, very) happy to say that this latest Inspector Gamache mystery is back to the high standards of the first 12. I thought the last book — Glass Houses — was incredibly disappointing.

This installment merges two stories: Gamache, Myrna, and a Dr. Seussian builder named Benedict are named as liquidators (think executors) of Bertha Baumgartner’s estate — a woman none of them knows. The will is odd, to say the least, and the almost immediate murder of one of the beneficiaries adds some definite tension! At the same time, a temporarily suspended Gamache is desperately trying to track down the last bit of carfentanil that he had to let slip in order to bust the drug ring in the last book. Carfentanil is 100 times more potent than Fentanyl, itself 100 times more potent than Heroin.

This is not your typical mystery series — it’s character driven but they aren’t just any characters. They are the idealized versions of the people you wish would populate your life. None of them are average or really have any annoying faults at all (though some do pretend). They are smart, capable, witty, loving, interesting, and always do and say the exact right things at the right time. In these books, kindness, friendship, love, and hope manage to take on the grit and grime of crime on a massive scale and actually win. Sure, it’s just a fairy tale … but such a nice one!

While I have a few issues with the plot, this is simply a book that is impossible to put down. The writing is succinct with great dialog and beautifully distilled principles, descriptions, and action. Character driven with lots of intriguing psychological and philosophical driving forces.

As an aside, Ruth, the longstanding and crotchety old poet, has been getting the credit for the acronym FINE (“F***ed Up, Insecure, Neurotic, and Emotional”) — I just realized that the true credit goes to an Aerosmith song from 1989!

A few quotes I liked:
About a man with dementia: “For the last year or so of his life, he no longer recognized family and friends. He was kindly to all, but he beamed at some. They were the ones he loved. He knew them instinctively and kept them safe, not in his wounded head but in his heart”

“Things sometimes fell apart unexpectedly. It was not necessarily a reflection of how much they were valued.”

“Four statements lead to wisdom: I don’t know. I need help. I was wrong. I’m sorry.” (Gamache’s favorite — repeated in most of the books)

Poetry line: “Who hurt you once so far beyond repair / that you would greet each overture with curling lip.”

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters

Disappointing! I loved Magpie Murders  and I love Horowitz’ TV work (Midsomer Murder, Foyle’s War) so I was looking forward to this book, which I picked up in London last year and finally got around to reading. But … it did not live up to my expectations.

Horowitz likes to experiment with writing style. In this book, he includes himself as a character who has been asked by real-life detective Daniel Hawthorne to follow him around and write a book about his cases — to be the Watson to his Holmes as it were.

The Horowitz character is annoyed that Hawthorne doesn’t give him any personal background or share his ongoing thoughts or inner procedures on the case (I bet Holmes frustrated Watson in the same way).

While I don’t mind this blurring of fact and fiction, I found the Horowitz character’s issues with his agent, his wife, and trying to out-think the detective (and getting it wrong) just a distraction from the actual murder mystery (that part was well done!). Instead of objectively following a detective and watching him work, we had a whiny author complaining about getting pulled out of an important meeting with Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson in order to go see the body, or complaining that the detective wouldn’t open up so he had no background to write.

I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me — it was obviously supposed to be playful and funny — but I just found it tedious!