I Am Pilgrim

“I’m afraid that what follows isn’t pleasant. If you want to sleep easy in your bed, if you want to look at your kids and think there is a chance they will live in a world better than the one we leave behind, it might be better not to meet him.” (I Am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes)

I Am Pilgrim by Terry HayesMy biggest reading pet peeve is when authors don’t respect the intelligence of their readers. Sometimes, authors over-simplify a character or plot. Other times, they over-explain in the end of book wrap-up. Occasionally, as in the case of Terry Hayes, they over-foreshadow so that the reader cannot help but understand the complex web of cause-and-effect that the author creates. Hayes not only predicts/constrains the reader’s reaction to the book with the above quote, but he also foreshadows in real-time, promising the reader that they’ll understand the effect of each action in due course. Personally, I prefer my narratives unadulterated in this fashion – I rather like to pick apart all of the causes and effects myself.

On the other hand, Hayes does take an incredibly complex, multi-layered plot and makes it comprehensible to anyone that might chance to pick up the book. Having forced myself through a number of incomprehensible thrillers/police procedurals, I admire Hayes’ ability to clarify a muddy situation. Though he may make the mistake of over-emphasizing correlation and causation, he keeps the pace even with wry, un-phaseable characters and light, understated dialog. So, don’t read this book for its foreshadowed reactions of sleepless nights; read it for the promises it doesn’t make: the promise of a satisfying ending, and plenty of self-effacing, charming characters.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR Avoid
Length: 611
Ending: Satisfying and wrapped-up
Incidental Learning: Secret Intelligence World, Geography/Customs of Turkey
Further Reading: If you, unlike me, enjoy a lot of foreshadowing, you might want to check out She’s Come Undone by Wally Lamb and (though nonfiction) Come as you Are

The Whites

“‘Hey’, how’s it going,’ Billy said as he took a seat.
‘The meat’s so tough that it got up off the plate and beat the shit out of the coffee, which was too weak to defend itself.’
‘No Kidding’.'” (The Whites by Harry Brandt)

 The Whites Cover

This book is 100% atmosphere. Its tired, aging, loaded characters bounce off one another, trading witticisms and partially senseless metaphors. Its settings, hastily drawn and unexceptionally gritty, take on the shape of the characters they surround. Throughout, Brandt hides his age-old plot behind an overwhelming sense of complexity and expertly worded phrases.

As a self-professed fantasy fan and infrequent mystery reader, I find a certain refreshment in the non-heroism of Brandt’s characters. They don’t have any special abilities to deal with the murderers, sickness, or stalkers they’re faced with. They aren’t superhumanly bright, particularly good at fighting, nor do they have loyal sidekicks. Mainly, they just want to make it through their shifts, check to see that their families haven’t been murdered in their beds, then have a drink. Occasionally they find grace in forgiveness. Other times, they find peace in realizing that there are no ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys’, just people doing what they need to survive.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrowTBR Avoid
Length: 333
Ending: Hopeful but realistic
Incidental Learning: NYPD culture, 3rd shift workers
Further Reading: Admittedly, I haven’t read too many gritty mysteries, but this reminds me of the equally atmospheric No Bad Deed by M. Ryan Seaver.

No Bad Deed

“The first thing you need to know about Hell is this – it’s not as bad as they say. I mean sure, it’s hot, but it’s not raging-inferno, searing-the-flesh-from-your-bones hot. It’s more like Miami, if Miami were detroit.” (No Bad Deed by M. Ryan Sever

No Bad Deed CoverSometimes you look at your bookshelves, or your piles of library materials, and you realize: something is not right. You’re not in the mood for mid-century classics, nineteenth century classics, or, in fact, classics of any kind. You want something light, something funny, something atmospheric, or perhaps moody. What you want is to step out of your normal preferred genres and delve into something new and unexpected. This is a perfect time for M. Ryan Seaver.

Seaver delivers a mystery full of well-written prose, unexpected plot twists, and atmosphere thick enough to completely envelope you. The reading experience is quite cinematic: short enough to get through in the span of a few hours, with the pace to keep you glued to its pages. I delighted in how the setting, the City of Brimstone (i.e. Hell), mirrored John Arsenal’s personality – it’s tough and conflicted, but fascinating and perhaps redeemable.

Ultimately, it was a refreshing and new reading experience, but I look forward to seeing how Seaver irons out the rules of Brimstone in the future. So far, the one rule – that no one remembers their past life – has been broken too many times to be left unexamined.

Silent voices

“The car Vera was driving was large, new, and rather expensive. One of the perks of her rank. Mrs. Eliot would consider it hte sort of car to be driven by a successful man. Yet Vera was large and shambolic, with bare legs and blotchy skin.” (Silent Voices by Ann Cleeves)

Silent VoicesApparently its the time of year for me to hop on my genre fiction soapbox. In my never-ending and perhaps misguided attempt to make all patrons and acquaintances into omnivorous readers, I must say: don’t overlook the mystery. Start with ones written in foreign countries – they are all I read. A foreign mystery is the best kind of armchair travel: unfamiliar words (in this case: Pet, Love, and Bairn) and customs all couched in a fast moving plot.

I picked up this volume after having watched the TV show Vera and falling for the Scottish accents and blustery weather. I don’t believe my tastes in mysteries are discerning enough to objectively say whether this was a good or bad one, but I can positively identify it as an entertaining read. I actually would suggest this as a mystery-finding technique: find the book that belongs to your favorite TV series and start exploring the genre from there. This should be rather easy since most mystery TV shows either start with a book series or spawn one later.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 320 pgs

Ending: Satisfying, but impossible to figure out from the hints provided

Further Reading: For other England-based mysteries, I would suggest Georgette Heyer or Agatha Christie. Also be aware that there are book counterpoints to the shows Bones, Castle, or Monk. 

Maisie Dobbs

“Truth walks toward us on the paths of our questions…as soon as you think you have the answer, you have closed the path and may miss vital new information. Wait awhile in the stillness, and do not rush to conclusions, no matter how uncomfortable the unknowing.” (Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear)

Maisie Dobbs CoverMaisie Dobbs is not your average mystery. Winspear spends much more time exploring the nature of Masie’s character, upbringing, and fascinating education than she does on anything as banal as murder. The book feels like more of a psychological exploration or war memoir or even a tragic love story than its ostensible genre. Instead of being fast-paced and triumphant, as most mysteries are, Maisie’s story is slow and sad, and riddled with flashbacks and pensive silences.

Reflecting on the diverse appeal of Maisie makes me wonder if letting her languish on the mystery genre shelves isn’t an insult. The only people who would look for her there would be traditional mystery lovers, who may think the book too slow, while fans of literature and historical fiction might never get to that far-off shelf. Labeling a book as a traditional genre such as ‘mystery’ ‘romance’ or ‘sci-fi’ doesn’t fit the way people write or read today. Most new books, unless they are traditionally formulaic, mash elements of several genres (much to the benefit of the reader). So why do libraries and bookstores still divide by genre? There are probably a few practical answers to that question, but I am personally waiting for the day when we can mash all the books together and people can find their favored genres (if they still have them) by augmented reality or some other cool computer tech, while the rest of us can browse, happily unhampered by someone else’s label of our next book.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow TBRAvoid

Length: 249 pgs.

Audiobook Quality: excellent

Ending: Sad but cathartic

Further Reading: I read about this on a list of recommended read-alikes to Downton Abbey, which also included Below Stairs by Powell and other post-WWI titles.  

Death at the Chateau Bremont

“The rue d’Italie was Marine’s Neighborhood shopping district and a street that still had everything one needed for decent living—two boulangeries, three butcher shops, a pharmacy, two flower shops, a wine store, a cheese shop, a hardware shop… and a handful of cafes. (Death at the Chateau Bremont by M. L. Longworth)

Death at the Chateau BremontMystery isn’t usually my reading genre of choice (though I am partial to T.V. mysteries), but I couldn’t help but notice Penguin’s beautiful, understated cover design for this novel. I’ve talked before about the benefits of judging a book by its cover, and I could tell immediately that this one would be good. People don’t go through the trouble of illustrating a cover by hand unless the book is something special. Additionally, I’m always a sucker for certain publishers, such as Penguin, Europa, or Ten Speed Press; so this one pretty much had me hooked at first sight.
To me, this novel is barely about the mystery: it is about Provence. One almost gets the feeling that the mystery was simply an excuse for Longworth to write about her love affair with France; and what a literary and beautiful affair it is. The book is steeped in atmospheric French cafes, vintage wines, and fine cuisine; perfect for anyone who loves Provence or desperately desires to visit. This is a lovely chair-travel book, as it pulls along the reader with its fast-paced mystery, but also stops along the way to describe the culture, sayings, scenery, and everyday lifestyle of the Axois. I suggest pairing it with whatever French music you have, some espresso or Provence wine, and reading it all in one sitting, preferably on your herb-infested balcony.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow TBRAvoid

Length: 311 pgs.

Ending: Mystery solved + Romance begun = satisfying.

Further reading: Follow up immediately with the recently published second book in the series: Murder on the Rue Dumas. 

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

“I’ve had many enemies over the years. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s never engage in a fight you’re sure to lose. On the other hand, never let anyone who has insulted you get away with it. Bide your time and strike back when you’re in a position of strength—even if you no longer need to strike back.” (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson)

Girl with the Dragon Tattoo CoverAfter years of seeing the ubiquitous bright covers on the Boston public transportation system, I finally succumbed and picked up Steig Larsson’s series. It couldn’t have happened a moment sooner, because it was only last week that my curiosity about it was piqued. I had to solve my own personal mystery about why The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which I knew to be thriller or action novel, was shelved in the mystery section of my library. Within a few pages the answer became clear: the book is a mystery. Although everyone who’s had the pleasure of engrossing themselves with this book doubtless knew that, those of us who have sat on the sidelines listening to the rumors about it have formed the opinion that it is a book is compiled solely of graphic rape scenes and high-finance suspense. However, I have since formed the opinion that the first book, at least, is actually a rather slow (up till page 400), almost sleepy little family mystery novel.

Since reading it, I have developed a problem with reviews that only focus on the violence in Larsson’s novels. It might be appropriate to warn sensitive readers, but I believe we have heard enough on that subject at this point. To me, the violence was appropriate because the book was about crimes against women. It wasn’t as if it were layered on like icing for the fun of it. In actually, the point of the book was to bring alive how frequently hate crimes against women happen, and how infrequently they are reported. This takes the importance of the book beyond a mere mystery and into the level of social commentary. All of the warnings about the novel’s graphic nature may be counter-productive as they limi the people who otherwise would pick up the book and incidentally learn about the rate of abuse in Sweden and other countries. I think this is a book well worth reading, if one can disregard the ‘hype’ and approach it as one would approach any other mystery novel.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow – TBR Avoid

Length: 600 pages

Ending: Satisfying

Further Reading: Instead of a book, this reminded me a bit of the made-for-netflix TV show shot in Norway: Lilyhammer. You won’t find a detail-oriented mystery in this show, but it does have that lovely Northern European feel and culture.