Book Review: Britt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Britt-Marie Was Here
Fredrik Backman
Washington Square Press, February 2017
ISBN: 978-1-5011-4254-3
Trade Paperback

Best-selling author Backman (A Man called Ove) is back with a difficult, intense novel about the life of the woman in the title. Britt-Marie is a familiar figure to many, hence the initial popularity of this deliberately paced novel of life in a small Scandinavian town, populated by a surprising number of odd mis-fits and other people who exhibit familiar and unusual traits.

Her unfaithful husband has left her, or she’s left him; I was never quite sure and she needs a job to sustain herself. We discover very early that Britt-Marie is an unusual person with a highly developed sense of necessary cleanliness, and precision-focused life. Appointments are kept, one is never late and one tries desperately at times to maintain a precise even rigid life style.

Written in the first person present tense, the novel is at times slow-moving, hard to penetrate and ultimately satisfying in resolution. However, it is not the sort of book that will appeal to a wide reading audience, unlike the author’s A Man Called Ove, which is charming and enormously popular, or boring and a struggle to complete, depending on whose reviews you read. I watched the movie which was charming.

This novel maintains an even pace and readers, if they complete the story, will be well-informed of the life and times in this small community and they will understand that Britt-Marie was indeed, here.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, October 2018.
http://www.carlbrookins.com http://agora2.blogspot.com
The Case of the Purloined Painting, The Case of the Great Train Robbery, Reunion, Red Sky.

Book Reviews: The Winter People by Jennifer McMahon, Some Like It Hot by K.J. Larsen, and Lifetime by Liza Marklund

The Winter PeopleThe Winter People
Jennifer McMahon
Doubleday, February 2014
ISBN: 978-0-385-53849-7
Hardcover

There are many forces alive in the world, mysterious and powerful, evil and benign. In the Maya culture, prominent in Meso-America in the centuries before the Common Era (more than 2,000 years ago) it was normal to bury one’s dead at home. That way, the family could keep track and hopefully influence the passage of the dead loved one from the underworld around the circle to heaven. The Maya were heavily influenced by mysterious forces and had already developed such a Christian-like religious culture they readily absorbed Spanish Catholic religious teachings in the Sixteenth Century. It’s unfortunate there were no Maya priests in West Hall, Vermont, during the early Twentieth Century to make sense of the forces that swirled around the Devil’s Hand, the winter people, and the too-frequent disappearances and murders that occurred.

Explanations in this moody, dark “literary thriller” are hard to come by. It is not a novel of the occult. What raises its quality to a high level is the careful character illuminations, the consistency of strong writing and the internal logic of the piece.

Sara Harrison Shea dies in 1908, not long after her daughter, Gertie also dies. Now move ahead a whole century. A young woman, Ruthie, living in the same isolated farm house, wakes one morning to find her mother missing. In her search she finds parts of a diary written by Sara Shea. The diary becomes a substantial part of the narrative which shifts the reader between the early part of the last century and our modern day. The author is adept at using appropriate language and construction of the narrative to evoke the periods which adds immeasurably to the atmosphere. No matter where in the book one is, the open pages seem to send a subtle atmosphere into the reader, so we are transported at times, into the world of the woman we come to know intimately, the victim, Sara Harrison Shea.

The novel is excellent in all aspects. The moody, limited view of the untrustworthy narrators, in the last and in the present centuries, work well and while the thoughtful reader will be left with many questions, in the end, we close the book with a satisfied feeling and we will wonder.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, March 2014.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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Some Like It HotSome Like It Hot
A Cat DeLuca Mystery
K.J. Larsen
Poisoned Pen Press, March 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4642-0096-0
Hardcover

Continues the frequently outrageous efforts of a Chicago feminist private investigator. Her name is Cat DeLuca and she owns an agency called Pants on Fire Detective Agency. Her principal focus—when she has a client—is to make cheating and divorce as painful and expensive for the male member of the marriage as possible. She is aided and frequently abetted by members of her family who are cops and sometime denizens of the lower orders of Chicago thuggery.

It is an amusing set-up. The characters are neatly funny and multi-dimensional. The writing, like the plots, is slick, fast and clean. There are no deep insights here, unless unintentional, these stories are not meant to make us sit back with thoughtful mien and think, “Ah, there’s an original idea.” No, these novels are meant to amuse, entertain and divert readers and that requires careful thought, writing expertise and good plotting. You get that in shovelfuls here. The language is frank and sassy. The author pulls few punches.

The beginning of the book finds Cat observing a cheating fellow and his latest inamorata in a Chicago hangout. The beginning of the plot starts two pages later when Cat’s ex-classmate, Billy Bonham, attempting to establish his own detective business appears on scene disguised as Santa Claus. Suddenly unmasked and un-pantsed, Cat is forced to save the semi-nude Santa from pursuers with guns and the keepers of morality in the city who take a dim view of nearly naked men running down the streets of the town. From this auspicious beginning, the story ascends (or descends, depending on your point of view) into a morass of cross and double-cross and some delightful mayhem, thievery and all-around bad moves.

I received the book as a gift from the publisher with the usual lack of expectations regarding this review. I recommend Some Like It Hot, as a pleasant divertissement and note that yes, la Monroe is present here. Sort of.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, August 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

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LifetimeLifetime
Liza Marklund
Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press, September 2013
ISBN: 978-1-4516-0700-0
Trade Paperback

A problematic difficult suspense thriller with deeply flawed characters swimming in a dangerously corrupt and somewhat dysfunctional society. The novel’s title refers to the sentencing structure of the Swedish criminal legal system. It is a gritty, sometimes shocking, story of betrayal, corruption, bad marriages, newspaper reporters in emotional hell, and what appears to be a vast shadowy network of thugs for hire.

Patrol officer Nina Hoffman responds to a call of shots fired. The street and block are instantly recognizeable as close to two people she knows well. One is Julia Lindholm, her ex patrol partner and long-time friend. The other person is Julia’s husband, one of the most revered police in in all of Sweden, David Lindholm. To her deep consternation, the altercation appears to have taken place in the Lindholm home. Ethically, Nina Hoffmann should stay away from the scene, but her superiors insist she lead a team of officers in to secure the site. What she finds is devastating. David Lindholm has been murdered. He was dispatched by one shot through the head. A second bullet has destroyed his genitals. His wife lies in the bathroom in shock and their four-year-old son Alexander is missing.

Meanwhile, across town, newspaper reporter Annika Bengtzon is in a taxi with her two young children, fleeing a fire that has destroyed her home and all her belongings. It was a fire deliberately set. The fire further complicates her life because her husband has just nastily walked out after admitting an affair.

The story follows the patrol officer and the reporter on conflicting and reluctant paths that ultimately intersect as Annika tries to prove that Julia is innocent of murder and Nina continually tries to distance herself from the entire affair. Both women are frequently driven to the edge of despair by the case and complicating personal issues. Nowhere in the novel can any stalwart male supporters be found, which is interesting and refreshing. But at times the emotional turmoil seems overwhelming.

This was not a fast, slick read. The author has taken on a large number of perceived shortcomings in Swedish society which left this reader shaking his head in wonderment. She also examines in sometimes painful and rich detail the struggles of two talented women. The most fascinating thread of the novel is the painstaking efforts of the reporter Bengtzon to find evidence supporting her belief that the accused is not guilty of murdering David Lindholm. Following the tangled well-twisted threads of the novel are not helped by a really rough translation. At times the dialogue is so stodgy and stiff as to bring a smile and at others a groan of frustration.

In spite of its shortcomings in the English language version, this novel is strongly recommended.

Reviewed by Carl Brookins, November 2013.
Author of Red Sky, Devils Island, Hard Cheese, Reunion.

 

Book Reviews: The Longings of Wayward Girls by Karen Brown and The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

The Longings of Wayward GirlsThe Longings of Wayward Girls
Karen Brown
Washington Square Press, July 2013
ISBN 978-1-4767-2491-1
Trade Paperback

From the publisher—

It’s an idyllic New England summer, and Sadie is a precocious only child on the edge of adolescence. It seems like July and August will pass lazily by, just as they have every year before. But one day, Sadie and her best friend play a seemingly harmless prank on a neighborhood girl. Soon after, that same little girl disappears from a backyard barbecue—and she is never seen again. Twenty years pass, and Sadie is still living in the same quiet suburb. She’s married to a good man, has two beautiful children, and seems to have put her past behind her. But when a boy from her old neighborhood returns to town, the nightmares of that summer will begin to resurface, and its unsolved mysteries will finally become clear.

Most of the big review publications love this book, using such terms as nervewracking, haunting, absorbing, tension, suspense. I’m sorry to say none of these words come to mind when I think about The Longings of Wayward Girls. It’s not that it’s a bad book—it really isn’t—but to say it’s full of suspense and tension is miles apart from what most mystery readers are looking for.

We know from the jacket copy that two children have gone missing but getting to any real information about those disappearances is a chore. The second instance, which is the real focus, doesn’t actually happen until more than two thirds through the story and that is simply far too long for the mystery reader to wait. In essence, the only real tension is caused by wondering when on earth we’ll be told anything about this second disappearance beyond the fact that it happened. To make matters worse, there’s no real resolution to that second crime because we’re left wondering whether it really was a crime or rather jealousy gone out of control leading to unintended consequences.

On the other hand, as a look at a woman’s life and how her adulthood is so heavily influenced by her childhood, this hits the mark. Speaking personally, I couldn’t like Sadie very much—she’s remarkably self-centered as a child and as an adult—but she has some reason to be that way. If I had thought this would be a personality study that happens to include a couple of mysteries, I might have enjoyed it very much because Ms. Brown is a fine writer, particularly when it comes to evoking a sense of setting. Unfortunately, the description makes it sound much more like suspense is the overriding theme and that just isn’t the case.  The publisher should come up with a more accurate description for future editions to prevent disappointing readers looking for a solid crime drama.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

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The Last WordThe Last Word
A Spellman Novel, Document #6
Lisa Lutz
Simon & Schuster, July 2013
ISBN 978-1-4516-8666-1
Hardcover

From the publisher—

The sixth installment of the critically acclaimed, New York Times bestselling, Edgar- and Macavity-nominated and Alex Award-winning series by Lisa Lutz, finds our intrepid heroine of the series, Isabel Spellman, PI, at a crossroads. Izzy is used to being followed, extorted, and questioned—all occupational hazards of working at her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Her little sister, Rae, once tailed Izzy for weeks on end to discover the identity of Izzy’s boyfriend. Her mother, Olivia, once blackmailed Izzy with photo­graphic evidence of Prom Night 1994. It seemed that Spellman vigilance would dis­sipate after Izzy was fired for breaching client confidentiality, but then Izzy avenged her dismissal by staging a hostile takeover of the company. She should have known better than to think she could put such she­nanigans behind her.

In The Last Word, Izzy’s troubles are just beginning. After her takeover of Spellman Investigations, her employees are the fur­thest thing from collegial…and Izzy finds herself struggling to pay the bills. But when she is accused of embezzling from a former client, the ridiculously wealthy Mr. Slayter, the stakes become immense. If Izzy gets indicted, she could lose her PI license and the Spellman family’s livelihood, not to mention her own freedom. Is this the end of Izzy Spellman, PI?

A few years ago, word spread that Lisa Lutz was retiring her Spellman clan after the fourth book and I was one of many who were horrified to hear that news. Then, lo and behold, a fifth book showed up and, now, number 6 in the series. I don’t know what changed the author’s mind but I couldn’t be happier.

Izzy Spellman is a character I’ve come to love and I wish I could spend real-life time with her. Alas, that is not to be, so I have to get my fill of her company through her books and this latest is no disappointment.  Her squirrelly family is just as much fun as they’ve always been—who else would carry on inter-family warfare with boxer shorts and fluffy slippers?—and, although the cases being investigated are not exactly earthshaking, going along for the ride is an adventure in itself.

I especially appreciated baby sister Rae’s development of a new way to bring in much-needed income and and Izzy certainly needs to find out who’s taking advantage of a tycoon’s weakness but there really are two primary mysteries…will the family survive Izzy’s hostile takeover of the investigation business and what will it take to get a three-year-old despot named Princess Banana to approve of Izzy?

Anyone who enjoys a good deal of humor in their mystery reading will love The Last Word and all the other Spellman books and I’m already eagerly awaiting #7.

Reviewed by Lelia Taylor, September 2013.

Book Reviews: Blessed Are the Dead by Malla Nunn, Let the Devil Sleep by John Verdon, All I Did Was Shoot My Man by Walter Mosley, and Guilt by Jonathan Kellerman

Blessed Are the DeadBlessed Are the Dead
Malla Nunn
Emily Bestler Books/Washington Square Press, June 2012
ISBN: 978-1-4516-1692-7
Trade Paperback

The iconoclastic South African detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper returns in this excellent third installment in the series, replete with poignant observations on the effects of the rigid apartheid system in the country in 1953.  Cooper, who remains in the dog house for past transgressions, is plucked by his superior to solve a murder in an attempt to resurrect his status.

Accompanied by black Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala, he finds the body of a 17-year-old Zulu girl, daughter of a chief.  There are no clues at the scene, and the two have to scrounge for leads and face obstacles from the natives and landowners, each with their own agenda. The victim herself was involved in both the white and native African worlds, so that the detectives have to cope with the guarded secrets of both communities.

The characters drawn with deep accuracy to depict the characteristics of the South African society at the time are real and flawed.  The novel brings the reader into the corrupt atmosphere of the country with careful descriptions and sharp prose.  Another welcome addition to the adventures of a colorful detective, and it is most highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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Let the Devil SleepLet the Devil Sleep
John Verdon
Crown, July 2012
ISBN: 978-0-307-71792-4
Hardcover

In his third appearance, retired NYPD detective David Gurney probably wishes he never answered the telephone.  By doing so, he ends up in a most precarious situation when a journalist who had written a laudatory profile of him when he was a top homicide detective asks him to look over her daughter’s shoulder.  The daughter has a chance to have her thesis idea converted into a TV series: “Orphans of the Murder,” a series of interviews with the families of the victims of a killer known as The Good Shepherd.  The homicides had taken place a decade earlier.

Gurney reluctantly agrees, but then becomes more and more involved in the case, which he believes was mishandled in the original investigation.  Of course, as he continues to look into it and raise questions, he makes no friends in the establishment, especially the FBI which had assumed control of the case.  And complicating his efforts is the Good Shepherd’s attempts to forestall and kill the TV series.

The novel begins as Gurney is slowly recovering from three gunshot wounds, one to his head, as a result of his last exploit.  And, of course, no Gurney story would leave him uninjured as a result of his determination to solve a case.  While the plot is logical and straightforward, a lot of the writing is repetitive, especially Gurney’s relations with his second wife, Madeleine, and his son, Kyle. That said, the story moves forward at a swift pace and has an unforeseen conclusion, and it is highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, November 2012.

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All I Did Was Shoot My ManAll I Did Was Shoot My Man
Walter Mosley
NAL, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-4512-3916-7
Trade Paperback

Leonid Trotter (“LT”) McGill is a 55-year-old African-American man, a former boxer, con man, fixer and over-all reprobate turned [relatively honest] PI is one of the more unusual characters in mystery fiction. Married, he has little if anything to do with his wife.  As far as his three children are concerned, he acknowledges that two are not his, but he loves and nurtures all.  His collection of friends and associates are as unconventional as he is.  And so are the books in the series, all somewhat bizarre but very enjoyable.

The plots of the series books, while intricate and complicated, tend to be odd.  And the present installment is no different.  In the past, LT framed a young woman who shot her boyfriend three times, when she came home to find him in bed with her best friend.  Since she was destined to go to jail anyway, he planted evidence in her locker of complicity in a $548 million heist from an insurance company.  Some years later, LT finds the “false” information that led to her conviction following which his lawyer gets her released from prison. As a result, a number of events take place, including an attempt on LT’s life, along with the murders of several others.  Of course, it’s up to him to solve the case.

Written in a style that sometimes defies belief, the complexity and insight of the novel and, especially, the LT character, are overwhelming.  With each book, development of LT as a person deepens, and the reader gains substantial knowledge of the man.

Highly recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, January 2013.

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GuiltGuilt
Jonathan Kellerman
Ballantine, February 2013
ISBN: 978-0-345-50573-6
Hardcover

The team of psychologist Alex Delaware and LAPD homicide detective Lt. Milo Sturgis has been solving cases for a long time.  But not like the crimes described in this latest installment.  It starts out with the discovery of a child’s bones, which appear to be old, perhaps dating to the 1950’s.  Soon, however, a fresh set of bones is found in a nearby park.  And on the other side of the park, a murdered young woman.  Are all these connected?

Following the familiar plot line, the detective follows procedure, and the psychologist thinks off the wall.  And together they find the path to solving the mysteries, a tough road.  Looking into the history of ownership of the first site provides little guidance.  And there isn’t much more to go on in the case of the new set of bones or of the murder victim.

The hallmark of the series is the interchange and quips between Alex and Milo, and Guilt is no exception.  The author has perfected the novels, plotting and characters to such a high degree as to make each new entry a joy to read.  And the newest book conforms to that ideal, and certainly is recommended.

Reviewed by Ted Feit, March 2013.