SinC25: Inger Frimansson, #6 post of expert challenge

Having completed the Sisters in Crime book bloggers’ moderate challenge, I am now embarking on the expert level. I managed to get half-way through this level in 2011, but unlike many other successfully completed challenges by other bloggers, still have five more posts to go on this one. So, without more ado, I have to:

write ten blog posts about works of crime fiction by women authors. For each, mention three similar women authors whose works you would recommend.

Inger Frimansson is a Swedish author of suspenseful, psychologically dark crime fiction. Or, as the author herself puts it: “You look so nice and decent, how is it that you write such horrific novels? I’m often asked that kind of question. And the answer is, I didn’t exactly choose to, I more or less was compelled to. The characters I meet up with in my fictions, they just seem to take over.” And this sensation of compulsion is certainly experienced by the reader of the three novels so far (to my knowledge) translated (expertly) by Laura A. Wideburg into English. Here are links to my reviews of these books, together with a quotation from each review:

Good Night, My Darling. “This excellently translated, haunting novel weaves together all these elements, as the complete picture of Justine’s life and character comes into focus from all the previous hints and fragments, as she decides to take decisive action. The author deliberately does not allow the reader to sympathise with or condemn most of the characters, which gives this atmospheric and gripping book a satisfyingly unsettling air. The treatment of the police investigation into various incidents is also told with a dry humour and a rather different perspective from the way in which the police are usually portrayed in crime novels.”

The Shadow in the Water, “a very disturbing novel, clouded and obscured by perceptions and suspicions so that nothing is what it seems. I admire the translator, Laura Wideburg, for so ably conveying the many subtleties of atmosphere and character. Both this novel and its predecessor [Good Night My Darling] won the Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year for the years in which they were first published (1998 and 2005), and I can see why. The Shadow in the Water is even less of a comfortable read than its predecessor, in showing the nasty things that go on under the surface of apparently ordinary, small-town lives.”

Island of the Naked Women. (Not connected to the previous two novels.) “I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is a strong candidate for my “best of” list for this year. As well as the satisfying “on the surface” mystery, there is an allegorical aspect to the story, which gives it a haunting quality. The island of the naked women (Shame Island) is where legend has it that, in the olden days, wives from the village who had been unfaithful to their husbands were sent, naked, to fend for themselves. It is presumed they starved. The wives in the story told in the book live in more enlightened times, but is their fate any better than that of their historical counterparts?”

More about the author and her excellent books can be found at her website. Unfortunately this site is not very up-to-date, but I hope we will be able to read more of her work soon.

Three other authors who write similar books and whom I’d recommend? Well, Frimansson’s style is similar in some ways to the queen (in my opinion) of Swedish suspense (!):

Karin Alvtegen, a wonderful author of psychological thrillers. My reviews of three of these, Missing, Betrayal and Shadow, are at Euro Crime. If you haven’t read her, all I can do is to urge you to do so! (But be warned, her books are very bleak.) About her latest book, A Probable Story (not yet translated): “Once again, Karin Alvtegen has proven her skills in telling a story with many depths. It is in many ways a display of human behavior, her characters struggling with their personal demons. It becomes obvious that the behavior we try to hide inside of us becomes instead the inner driving force of our lives. The compelling psychological drama keeps the reader captured to the end.” This passage summarises rather well the genre of “psychological suspense” which, when done well, I enjoy very much.

Camilla Ceder, who I’ve mentioned before in this series, is another Swedish author of psychological crime, though as yet has had only one book translated into English (Frozen Moment). From the author’s website: “With a background in social work and psychotherapy, Ceder brings new perspectives to the Swedish crime genre. She empathizes her characters more than the crimes that they commit (or investigate), and the social and mental mechanisms of the southwestern countryside have become her turf.”

Diane Janes is another author I’ve mentioned in this series. Her second novel, Why Don’t You Come For Me?, is a great little example of a psychological suspense novel in which the author, like Frimansson and Alvtegen, is not afraid to follow her premise to its logical conclusion, however bleak.

My previous posts in the SinC25 challenge.

The Sisters in Crime 25th anniversary challenge.

Book review: Lucifer’s Tears by James Thompson

Lucifer’s Tears
by James Thompson
Harper Collins (Avon), 2011

“Finland. The ninth and innermost circle of hell. A frozen lake of blood and guilt formed from Lucifer’s tears, turned to ice by the flapping of his leathery wings.” Inspector Kari Vaara muses on his homeland as he is about to embark on the night shift in Helsinki’s homicide division. He thinks back to events last year (described in Snow Angels, the first book in this series), in which he solved a series of crimes while based in Lapland in the far north, but at some personal cost, resulting in his transfer to Helsinki at his wife Kate’s request. Kate is manager of a large hotel and about to have the couple’s first child. She’s American; her brother and sister are due to come and stay to help her after the baby is born.

Vaara is not very happy about living in Helsinki or the imminent arrival of his in-laws, but is soon plunged into a series of crime investigations, as well as being assigned a new partner, Milo, who is a bit of a psychopath as well as being formidably intelligent so can crack any code and analyse blood-spatter patterns without the need for a computer program. The main crime that the two encounter, and that forms the backbone of the book, is one in which a young woman has been horribly tortured and killed while visiting her riding-instructor lover. Vaara’s boss is convinced the lover is responsible for the death, but Vaara is less sure, as there is no apparent motive. Instead, he begins to investigate the woman’s husband, a rich businessman, and his secretary, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the victim.

The pace never lets up. Other cases that Vaara is working on include an investigation into a possible cover-up of Finnish atrocities towards the Jews in World War II; the death of a drinker in a bar when a couple of over-eager bouncers throw him out; and another drunk man who is threatening the young pupils at a school. In each case, Vaara provides us with a potted history of the background: for example, when he is called out to the school shooting, the reader is told how many previous such events there have been in Finland, when they happened, who was the perpetrator and what was the outcome. This style of writing is forgiveable so long as it is kept brief, but it becomes very laboured during the WW2 plot, possibly because of the complexity of Finland-Russia-Germany geopolitical relationships and the number of times everyone changed sides within and outside the country. Basically, there is enough material here for a book in its own right about these possible Finnish WW2 crimes; trying to cram it all in here with several other plots made it all too superficial and unengaging.

As well as Vaara’s action-packed job (I’ve only touched on the many storylines in this review, some of which are extremely crudely described), he has to deal with the relatives from hell and with a permanent headache. He’s seeing a therapist who explores some possible reasons for Vaara’s suffering, based on events in his past which seem to have been set aside for a future book. Later on, Vaara turns out to have several brothers, one of whom is a neurologist (!). This brother arranges for some tests to see if the headaches have a physical cause. A final theme running through the book is the relationship between Vaara and his wife Kate – the two are very much in love but find it hard to confide in each other. The imminent arrival of the baby exacerbates their anxiety and desire to “not let down” the other.

Lucifer’s Tears is a very busy book, and despite its crude, up-front language and failure to shy from any gory details, is enjoyably readable. I have to say that the plot creaks quite a bit, though – the outcome of the main murder case is not only resolved in a rather stupid fashion, but it leaves Vaara set up in a heavily signalled new role for the future, with a couple of cardboard cut-out helpers with particular skills. Vaara and Kate are left on the brink in their personal lives in the final chapter, also – all is up for grabs for the next book. I still haven’t decided whether I’ll read it or not. On the plus side are the Finland setting and the brisk, no-nonsense pace. On the minus side are the clunky prose, the plot (each situation as it arises has a predictable outcome, as well as everything just falling into Vaara’s lap), and the author’s didactic style of interjecting a Finnish history or geography lesson at every available opportunity, in a somewhat aggressive manner that brooks no argument from the reader!

I bought this book as a Christmas present to myself. On the back cover is written “perfect for fans of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo” – which, together with the front-cover sticker “the next big thing in Nordic crime” and endorsement from Michael Connelly, is covering all the bases ;-). [Update: of course, the author has nothing to do with the cover or wording the publisher chooses.]

Other reviews of Lucifer’s Tears: The Mystery Reader, Material Witness, Nordic Bookblog, Killer Reads and Murder by Type.

My review of Snow Angels, the first in this series (Lucifer’s Tears is the second).

Interview with the author at Scandinavian Crime Fiction blog. In a reversal of the book’s plot, James Thompson is an American who married a Finn and now lives in Finland (hence the novel is not originally written in Finnish, yet provides an authentic setting).

Not just another ‘best of 2011′ reading list

The End of the Year book meme (see Jen’s Book Thoughts, Reactions to Reading, Crime Scraps and The Game’s Afoot) is a little more challenging to the blogger than the more lazy (but appealing!) simple list of favourite titles, so I thought I’d join in.

1. Best Book of 2011. A read a dozen books last year that I thoroughly enjoyed, and depending on my mood du jour I could pick any of them. So, with a slightly random perturbation amongst the twelve I am going to choose The Quarry by Johan Theorin, translated by Marlaine Delargy. I loved the book for its sense of place, its atmosphere, and way in which it was haunted by a yearning for the past ways of life. I also like the fact that it is part of a series but the author does not make the same characters central in each book; another reason I enjoyed The Quarry is because I did not like the two main characters at the outset but had come to be very fond of them by the end. Plot resolutions are rarely great in crime novels – this let down the otherwise excellent Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen for example (I suggest “best plot resolution” for next year’s list!), but this one is good compared to many others. Like all my favourite books, this book is much more than a crime novel; there is a lot of undercurrent and observations of human nature in it, with an insightful, spot-on, last sentence. Finally, the translation is superb: it is always a pity not to be able to read a book in the original language, but the partnership between Marlaine Delargy and the author epitomises the empathy and care that makes all the difference for the non-native-speaking reader.

2. Worst Book of 2011. Unfortunately there are quite a few candidates for this slot, too, but I don’t mind as who wants to read “safe” novels all the time? Experimentation is important. I think, however, I’ll award this prize to Where or When by Anita Shreve, not only because it is a really terrible book about the most self-indulgent, boring people imaginable, but also because the author is very good (I love many of her books) and can write properly. So why on earth she wrote this drivel I have no idea. Read the first two or three comments at GoodReads to get the picture.

3. Most Disappointing Book. I’m going to say Awakening by S. J. Bolton, because I’d read and very much enjoyed Blood Harvest (written after Awakening) earlier in the year. I therefore bought Awakening but found it to be the most silly book imaginable, with just so many snakes in it I lost count and a really offensive way (to me) of describing the heroine’s feelings about her facial disfigurement. This is the kind of heroine who goes weak at the knees every time a man walks into the room and despite being a professional woman is tongue-tied as if she had never met a member of the opposite sex before. I could go on…..If the author was writing it as a serious novel then it failed, if she was writing it as a send-up I could forgive her but somehow I don’t think she was. For a diametrically opposed view to mine of this book, see Euro Crime!

4. Most surprising (in a good way) book. Dregs by Jorn Lier Horst, translated by Anne Bruce. I bought this book at a time when several good, solid translated novels were being published, so I had a batch of several to read (Ashes, Burned, Anger Mode, Misterioso, etc). When I picked it up, Dregs was “just one” of these, but for me it was a stand-out. It is sixth in a series, unlike the rest of the batch which are first novels or first in a series, which may account for its maturity. It’s my favourite kind of crime book – a police procedural with a typically dour protagonist no longer in the first flush of youth, a good plot, unflinching without being gratuitous, well-told, family relationships, a moral compass, and a satisfying plot. Although I don’t like comparing authors to other authors, I do believe that this series is the next Mankell/Wallander – though Norwegian rather than Swedish.

I shall also mention here Purge by Sofi Oksanen translated by Lola Rogers as I was expecting to hate this book but actually loved it. It’s about a family of (mainly) women as they live through various wars and regimes in Estonia and (to a lesser extent) Russia.

5. Book you recommended to people most. Quite a few! But I actually bought Dregs and Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin to give to people, so I should choose those.

6. Best series you discovered. In January I read Open Season, the first in the Joe Pickett series by C J Box. I found it so engaging that I have now caught up with the entire series of eleven books. My reviews are collected here, in reverse chronological order. Joe Pickett is a Wyoming game warden; the novels reminded me of the Wild West books I loved in my youth (think Shane by Jack Schaefer) but they have a strong domestic element too, via Joe’s wife and daughters. The books often have scientific themes connected with the environment, which are accurately presented, a refreshing change from the way science and technology are depicted in most novels. The books are all race-throughs even though they address pretty dark themes. Before I started on this series, I’d read and enjoyed a couple of the author’s standalone titles. Then the UK publisher, Corvus, made Open Season part of a Kindle promotion, and the rest (for me) was history.

7. Favourite new authors you discovered. I’ve winnowed this question down to eight answers (no special order): Roger Smith, Charles Lambert, Tom Franklin, Jorn Lier Horst, Shuichi Yoshida, Alice LaPlante, Allegra Goodman and Jussi Adler-Olsen. I discovered many other very good authors in 2011 also, and hope to continue this trend in 2012. (See here for my post on new authors read in 2011.)

8. Most hilarious read. All Yours by Claudia Pineiro translated by Miranda France, a very black comedy about a wife who suspects her husband of having an affair….. A very close runner-up for me was Headhunters by Jo Nesbo translated by Don Bartlett – a blast, but strong stuff.

9. Most thrilling, unputdownable book. Trackers by Deon Meyer translated by Laura Seegers. Deon Meyer is up there with the best as a thriller writer who can convey emotion, a rare talent. By creating Trackers as a set of interlinked short stories, he ratchets up the tension and the “how on earth is this all going to fit together” factor, while the race against time is on. A true page-turner.

10. Book you most anticipated. Till Thy Wrath be Past by Asa Larsson translated by Laurie Thompson. I’d waited three years since reading the previous book by this wonderful author, The Black Path. I was not disappointed!

11. Favorite cover of a book you read. An increasingly difficult question to answer as the proportion of e-books one reads increases. A minipicture on Amazon or a black and white rendering in the Kindle is not the same as the full Monty. There have been many cliched covers of course, but I think Until Thy Wrath Be Past is one of my favourites because of the lovely dark-haired girl (not a Scandinavian blonde!) on the cover, and because the cover has no blood, weapons or religious icons on it! (Or chairs or stairs, or a snow-scene.)

12. Most memorable character. Gerlof in The Quarry (and previous Oland books by Johan Theorin). He’s in his eighties and is just so lovely, he outdoes even the most grumpy detective! Of the female characters I read about, I find Rebecka Martinsson (Asa Larsson) very memorable and easy to identify with – particularly in a year that did not include a book featuring Erlunder, Arnaldur Indridason’s usual protagonist.

13. Most beautifully written book. This is a hard one to answer given the number of translated books I read, which I’ll exclude here as one does not know the relative contributions of author, translator and editor/publisher. Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin is beautifully written in its descriptions of the natural wildlife of the region in a manner that reminds me of John Steinbeck. I also think Turn of Mind by Alice LaPlante, The Invisible Ones by Stef Penney, and Intuition by Allegra Goodman are exceptionally well-written.

14. Book that had the greatest impact on you. Many of these books had an impact on me but as I haven’t awarded it a category yet, I’ll say Villain by Shuichi Yoshida translated by Philip Gabriel, in its convincing portrayal of the hopeless gap between young and older, and the alienation from society of young Japanese people.

15. Book you can’t believe you waited until 2011 to finally read? Intuition by Allegra Goodman, first published in 2006, as I had been told many times that it is the best modern example of science-in-fiction but had never got around to reading it. In fact it did not turn out to be about science very much, but more about professional rivalries and personal relationships. I highly recommend it. Also last year I read Anthony Trollope’s Palliser novels, all of which are massive tomes and highly enjoyable. However, I know I’ve read some or all of them before, but can’t remember which, so can’t honestly count these for this question!

I wanted to add another category to be able to mention the two books by Michael Connelly I’ve read and enjoyed in 2011: The Fifth Witness and The Drop. I think the most appropriate category is “best selling author who could do what other best-sellers have done and sacrifice loyal readers on the altar of yet more commercialism, but who has nobly resisted”. Connelly seems to love writing, he has such energy and verve, and he surely never lets his readers down. One of the greats.

I read lots of very enjoyable books in 2011, and reviewed 128 of them, so please do check out some of the others that I have not been able to include in this post.

Book review: Attack in the Library by George Arion

Attack in the Library
by George Arion
Translated by Ramona Mitrica, Mike Phillips, and Mihai Risnoveanu.
First published in Romania 1983, this translation published by Profusion, Nov 2011

Andrei Mladin, the journalist protagonist of this enchanting novel, discovers the body of “uncle” Valentin in the library in his apartment. Terrified that he will be accused of killing the old man, he manages to carry the body seven floors down into the basement despite his eagle-eyed neighbour, Miss Margareta. He remembers the days before his terrible discovery: he has interviewed a famous violinist, Mihaela Comnoiu, and, much to his surprise, she has become romantically interested in him as a result. Mladin attended a party with Mihaela, but passed out, presumed drunk. He soon discovers that Valentin and Marian Sulcer, a handsome actor and love-rival, took him home in a taxi. But he can’t remember anything else.

Most of the book is taken up with Mladin’s attempts to find out what is going on, trying to remain one step ahead of the police in the process. Although this plot is briskly told, the main delight of this book is its social context: it was written at a time when the ghastly Ceaușescus were in power and the state controlled everything. Arion’s book is a brilliantly ironic satire on this system. Somehow he managed to get the script past the authorities to publication; the result is a constantly funny narrative that never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously or producing political polemic. The plot unfolds, accompanied by Mladin’s thoughts and sayings by his grandfather (all ending with “end quote” as a reference to the style of the Ceausescus’ pronouncements), all these small pieces forming a mosaic of this bizarrely horrible society – in which most people in this novel exist by being eccentric or behaving against type.

The novel succeeds because it is determinedly light-hearted and irreverent. The crime plot is presented in the same style, so one does not feel that the characters themselves really gel as people, rather that they are present as means to an end. I found it very easy to guess the perpetrator without any clues, because of the allegorical nature of the book. Even so, this does not detract from the pleasure of reading it (and part of the solution was a surprise).

Attack in the Library can be read as a “straight” novel, but it comes with an excellent introduction by one of the translators, Mike Phillips, which describes both the political background to the book as well as the decisions he and his fellow-translators made while preparing the (footnoted) English-language version. Even the picture on the cover is explained. This introduction is available online. It would be marvellous if the publishers of other translated novels would take the lead provided here, and include an essay by the translator(s) as a routine part of foreign-language editions.

I purchased the Kindle edition of this book.

Attack in the Library at the publisher’s website, with various recommendations.

Euro Crime blog post about this and other Romanian crime fiction published by Profusion.

New (to me) authors read in 2011

Seeing Bernadette’s list of new (to her) authors whose books she has read in 2011 reminded me that I must do the same, as I always like to try new authors and to see how many I’ve managed to discover each year. I have to admit, though, that this process does inevitably involve a few duds and even DNFs (did not finish). Nevertheless, I am usually lucky thanks to the various website and blog reviews I follow. It seems as if 2011 was no exception, from the 56 new (to me) authors I tried. I found eight books truly excellent, nine very good and ten good – a pleasing total of 27 authors whose other books I am keen to try (or will be when they are written and, where appropriate, translated). A further nine books were a bit “meh” and ten more less compelling than that. Finally, I did not enjoy (or did not finish) eleven more – a total of 29 authors that I possibly or probably will not read again.
The books listed below are not ordered within each category. Where I’ve reviewed the book (in most categories except the last) I have provided a link to the review.

Excellent:

Smith, Roger Mixed Blood (South Africa)

Lambert, Charles Any Human Face (Italy setting)

Franklin, Tom Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter (USA)

Horst, Jorn Lier Dregs (Norway)

Yoshida, Shuichi Villain (Japan)

Adler-Olsen, Jussi Mercy (Denmark)

Goodman, Allegra Intuition (USA)

LaPlante, Alice Turn of Mind (USA)

Very good:

Oksanen, Sofi Purge (Estonia setting)

Tegenfalk, Stefan Anger Mode (Sweden)

Gakas, Sergios Ashes (Greece)

Enger, Thomas Burned (Norway)

Dahl, Arne Misterioso (Sweden)

Haynes, Elizabeth Into the Darkest Corner (England)

Carter, Alan Prime Cut (Australia)

Staincliffe, Cath Witness (England)

Ceder, Camilla Frozen Moment (Sweden)

Good:

Perissinotto, Alessandro Blood Sisters (Italy)

Kallentoft, Mons Midwinter Sacrifice (Sweden)

Kaaberbøl, Lene & Friis, A The Boy in the Suitcase (Denmark)

Arion, George Attack in the Library (Romania)

Watson, Nicole The Boundary (Australia)

Moorhead, Finola Still Murder (Australia)

Ngugi, Mukoma wa Nairobi Heat (USA/Kenya setting)

Jones, Stan White Sky, Black Ice (USA)

Templeton, Aline Cold in the Earth (Scotland)

Symon, Vanda Overkill (New Zealand)

Neither good nor bad:

Ohlsson, Kristina Unwanted (Sweden)

Arvas, Paula and Nestingen, A (ed) Scandinavian Crime Fiction (various; non-fiction)

Sipila, Jarkko Helsinki Homicide: Against the Wall (Finland)

MacLeod, Torquil Meet Me in Malmo (Sweden setting)

Gazan, Sissel-Jo The Dinosaur Feather (Denmark)

Schwegel, Theresa Officer Down (USA)

Stabenow, Dana A Cold Day for Murder (USA)

Himes, Chester A Rage In Harlem (USA)

Sub-average:

Porter, Henry The Dying Light (England)

White, Neil Fallen Idols (England)

Walker, Blair S. Up Jumped the Devil (USA)

Vichi, Marco Death in August (Italy)

Roncagliolo, Santiago Red April (Peru)

Parot, Jean-François The Châtelet Apprentice (France)

Clark, Marcia Guilt by Association (USA)

Logue, Mark and Conradi, Peter The King’s Speech (Australia/England, nonfiction)

Nicholls, David One Day (England)

Kepler, Lars The Hypnotist (Sweden)

Poor, not to my taste, and/or DNF:

Black, Benjamin Christine Falls (Ireland)

Hanif, Mohammed Our Lady of Alice Bhatti (Pakistan)

Culver, Chris The Abbey (USA)

Hancock, Penny Tideline (England)

Lapidus, Jens Easy Money (Sweden)

Webster, Jason Or the Bull Kills You (Spain setting)

Hilliard, Sam The Last Track (USA)

Byatt, A.S. Ragnarok: the End of the Gods (England)

Gallagher, Stephen Rain (England)

Miller, A.D. Snowdrops (Russia setting)

Fitzek, Sebastian Splinter (Germany)

Fuller Jr, John Grant The Airmen Who Would Not Die (England setting)

Happy new year


The picture above is of a proper, six-sided snowflake, whose symmetry was noticed 400 years ago by Kepler. Phil Ball explains the history.

Today is the start of a new year. I hope that all readers of Petrona found much to enjoy in 2011, and will have a happy, prosperous and healthy 2012.

In planning your 2012 reading, you might like to glance at:

25 favourites of books I’ve reviewed in 2011 (no special order).
All my book reviews from 2011, helpfully ranked with a 1-5 star system.
My posts about Norwegian crime fiction and Swedish crime fiction. These were my two most-viewed posts from 2011, the Norwegian one being the most popular.