Best new-to-me authors in 2012 #2

Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise has started a meme in which bloggers are asked to write about their favourite “new to them” authors whose books they have read in each quarter of 2012. If you would like to join the meme, here is the April-June post for your link.

If I’ve counted right, I’ve reviewed 47 books during these three months, of which 18 were by new-to-me authors. The listing is below, including whether or not the book is a debut (to the best of my knowledge). M J McGrath has written non-fiction but White Heat is her first work of fiction. Just over half the books are debuts.

I enjoyed almost all these books; there are only one or two by authors I don’t feel inclined to try again. In fact, in two cases I have already read other books by the author (Gail Bowen and Julia Spencer-Fleming).

Picking out a winner from this list is very hard indeed as I’ve enjoyed almost all of them, and they are a varied bunch of books. I am going to have to go for a tie between Julia Spencer-Fleming, Gail Bowen and Ridley Pearson. Wendy James and Allison Leotta come a very close second. But others are really good, too!

As usual, click on the title of the book to read by review to get a more “nuanced view”, as they say, of each.

Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr (debut, USA)
Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka (debut, Canada)
Deadly Appearances by Gail Bowen (debut, Canada)
The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen (debut, Sweden)
In Her Blood by Annie Hauxwell (debut, Australia, London setting)
The Loyal Servant by Eva Hudson (debut, UK)
The Mistake by Wendy James (Australia)
Defending Jacob by William Landay (USA)
Law of Attraction by Allison Leotta (debut, USA)
The Other Child by Charlotte Link (Germany, England setting)
White Heat by M J McGrath (debut, UK, Canada setting)
The Pied Piper by Ridley Pearson (USA)
Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsay (debut, UK)
Crossbones Yard by Kate Rhodes (debut, UK)
Killer Instinct by Zoe Sharp (debut, UK)
A Dark Redemption by Stav Sherez (UK)
In The Bleak Midwinter by Julia Spencer-Fleming (debut, USA)
The Suspect by L R Wright (Canada)

I would like to thank Bernadette, Bill, Karen, Keishon and Sarah, who between them were responsible for my discovery of about half of these authors and their books!

My choice of best new-to-me authors in 2012 #1

Book review: Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain

Mildred Pierce
by James M Cain
Phoenix (Orion), 2011
First published in the USA 1941
First published in the UK 2002

It’s amazing to me that this novel had to wait more than 60 years for a UK publication*. It’s a splendid book, tightly constructed, well-written and, above all, a remarkable psychological portrait of a woman, the titular Mildred. The fact that the novel is written by a man is the clearest proof one needs that one does not need to be the same gender as one’s subject in order to “get” that person and present a full character study.

The 200-page novel is set in Glendale, a suburb of Los Angeles between Hollywood and Pasadena. Bert Pierce had earlier sold off his family land and has, in the shadow of the Depression, come to grief in his attempt to build “Pierce Homes”, a commuter suburb. He, his wife Mildred and their two daughters Veda and Ray live in one of the ex-Pierce homes, but with no visible means of income, relations are strained. The book opens with the end of their marriage as Mildred makes pies in the kitchen to sell for parties and the like, but Bert slopes off to be with his mistress, eternally absent but amusingly portrayed.

Left alone with two young daughters, Mildred would do anything to give them the life to which she herself once aspired. She struggles to find work, accepts humiliations, and eventually is reduced to serving in a diner – ten years of marriage had not prepared her for anything better, according to the woman at the employment agency. Soon, Mildred perceives a business opportunity, and the novel tells the tale of her rise to prominence and riches through hard work and determination – and not a little to do with her good nature in regard to Bert, his ex-partner Wally, and other, later, characters.

In these bare bones, the author provides not just a perfect, convincing portrait of day to day life in that place and time, but also presents a remarkable picture of Mildred’s inner life, as she lives through setback, awful tragedy, prejudice and rivalry. The lynchpin of all of this is her relationship with her daughter Veda – another sharply observed character study – which starts out as being one of a typically ambitious mother for her daughter but, as the novel nears its end, is revealed as having much darker dynamics than that.

Mildred Pierce is a remarkable novel. It beautifully depicts its time and its setting; it provides some terrifically well-observed minor characters in the men and women Mildred meets along the way of her journey; and above all it is a clean dissection of a tempestuously jealous relationship. None of it has dated a bit, to the contrary, its convincing depiction of the passion and scheming hatred that exist between a mother and daughter has probably never been bettered since. I can’t recommend it too highly as a book with a melodramatic theme but handled in the opposite of a melodramatic fashion.

I bought my copy of this book.

There is an old film of Mildred Pierce (starring Joan Crawford) but there is also a truly excellent remake, starring Kate Winslet, made by Sky Atlantic. It is available on DVD and is a mesmeric adaptation, missing out compared with the novel only in its hesitation in depicting the darkness in Mildred towards the end, when her emotions are more fully revealed to the reader.

James M Cain is perhaps best known as a crime novelist, though he wrote many other books and journalism. His most famous books, in addition to Mildred Pierce, are The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. From the preface to Double Indemnity:

I make no conscious effort to be tough, or hard-boiled, or grim, or any of the things I am usually called. I merely try to write as the character would write, and I never forget that the average man, from the fields, the streets, the bars, the offices, and even the gutters of his country, has acquired a vividness of speech that goes beyond anything I could invent, and that if I stick to this heritage, this logos of the American countryside, I shall attain a maximum of effectiveness with very little effort.

* 9 July. Correction. See comment below from Terry Halligan about 1st UK publication in 1943, and my response.

International Dagger winner 2012

I am delighted to learn from Euro Crime that The Potter’s Field by Andrea Camilleri, translated by Stephen Sartarelli, has won the International Dagger for 2012. From the CWA website:

The judges said ‘Camilleri’s Montalbano novels show just how much can be achieved with familiar materials when a writer conveys the sense of life in a recognizable place. He combines characters, plots, and reflections on Italy’s particular social and political problems, with wry—but never bitter—satire. In this novel the late-afternoon shadows lengthen; Montalbano is feeling his age.’

I reviewed this novel (as well as most of the others in the series) for Euro Crime. From my review:

THE POTTER’S FIELD is an excellent book. All the familiar characters are here, but events have taken a darker turn. Salvo is feeling his age, and with reason is increasingly depressed about the state of his beautiful country and the way in which it is ruined by politicians and gangsters alike. The novel is more than a crime novel – though the plot is very clever and convoluted, because of the way Salvo decides to proceed with it – it is a meditation on getting older, on failing powers, and on the uncertain future we all face.

Read the complete review here.

Euro Crime: Andrea Camilleri’s books in reading order, with links to reviews of all the titles.

The 2012 shortlist for the CWA International Dagger:

Andrea Camilleri – The Potter’s Field tr. Stephen Sartarelli (Italy)
Maurizio De Giovanni – I Will Have Vengeance tr. Anne Milano Appel (Italy)
Asa Larsson – Until Thy Wrath be Past tr. Laurie Thompson (Sweden)
Deon Meyer – Trackers tr. K L Seegers (South Africa)
Jo Nesbo – Phantom tr. Don Bartlett (Norway)
Valerio Varesi – The Dark Valley tr. Joseph Farrell (Italy)

My own personal shortlist for 2012.

Already we are forced to think about 2103, as several books have already been published that must be strong contenders for next year’s award. Watch this space!

All my posts on the International Dagger awards.

Petrona’s International Dagger page – includes a list of each year’s winner with links to my reviews of each; a link to the shortlist for each year; and a link to Euro Crime’s comprehensive list of all the eligible titles for each year. A reader’s treasure trove.

Book review: Murder at the Mendel by Gail Bowen

Murder at the Mendel
by Gail Bowen
McClelland & Stewart 2004, first published 1991
Joanne Kilbourn #2

Joanne Kilbourn has moved to Saskatoon after the events of Deadly Experiences. Two of her three children are at university there, and she herself has a teaching job in the politics department for a semester while she decides what to do with her life and completes her biography of the former state premier. Jo’s best friend from her childhood, Sally Love, also lives in Saskatoon.

The two girls became estranged after the age of 13 when, in an apparent murder-suicide, Sally’s father died and she and her mother were left gravely ill. Jo has never understood why Sally did not reply to her letters after the tragedy, when Sally left for art school in New York and Jo was left in care of Sally’s mother Nina.

Sally is now Canada’s most renowned contemporary artist. She’s a vividly drawn and attractive if headstrong character, formidably intelligent and sure of herself. She lives for her art, and the action of the book begins when an exhibition of her work is shown at the Mendel gallery. The showpiece is a work that is shocking to many, resulting in demonstrations outside the installation and in various personal attacks on Sally. After she reconciles with her friend, Jo realises how nasty these attacks are, and how unhinged a woman whom Sally has dumped as her business partner. Murder is in the air.

In 200 pages, the author provides the reader with a totally absorbing portrait both of the feminist art scene (and movement) and of daily life in Saskatoon as Jo works, spends time with her family, and helps Sally and her family to deal with the various sinister elements that surround them. The tension is built up admirably underneath this apparently normal surface. The book is not without dry humour, for example when a band of feminists attack a party given in honour of Sally:

They were in the reception area, a dozen of them, wearing… that came to their knees, skintight black pants, bomber jackets, big, toothy, gorilla masks. Two of them were wearing gorilla hands, and the rest wore gloves. Gorillas or not, they were Canadians in an art gallery, so they were behaving themselves, waiting to deal with somebody in authority.

Although I worked out the bones of the plot very early on, the tale is extremely well told. The various characters surrounding Sally are bought to life in accurate vignettes. Sally herself is the kind of woman who evokes extreme reactions, but she’s a person I liked a lot from her first entrance in this novel. Although the author writes with a light touch, there is always a sense of sadness and loss underlying the brisk story – both Jo’s grief for her husband (who died two years ago) and the tragedy underlying the central crime plot, which is eventually revealed.

I bought my copy of this book.

Bill Selnes’s posts about Gail Bowen, including reviews of some of her books, Q/A and profile.

Books in Canada: profile of the author and her books, including this one.

Author’s website, including the Joanne Kilbourn mysteries in reading order.

My review of Deadly Appearances, the first book in this series.

June reading report and book of the month

June was not as productive for me as May, but I did manage to read and review 14 books, two for Euro Crime and twelve for Petrona. Eleven are by women and three by men, but unfortunately only three are translated. Geographically, the books range from England (7) to the USA (3), Sweden (1), Iceland (1), France (1) and Canada (1) – with one of the England-set books by an Australian author (Annie Hauxwell), and another by an Irish author (Jane Casey). Six of the books are debut novels, hence are by authors new to me – one other novel is not a debut but by an author new to me (Ridley Pearson).

When I read Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason I was convinced that it had to be my book of the month this month. It is just such a good crime novel, and I highly recommend it. Even so, a book I read later in June is, without a doubt, my top tip – Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti. It’s an original novel, and depicts so well how a small crime can extend into a complicated mesh involving corporations, countries, and the cosy way everyone helps each other out in return for present or future favours. Cynical does not begin to describe it, but how refreshing to read an intelligent, hard-hitting crime novel that gets to the roots of the political and economic mess of present-day Europe. (This is also one of the themes of Black Skies.)

You cannot do much better, in terms of crime fiction, than reading either of these books. Most of the others that I read this month also come highly recommended. There are appealing female protagonists in some of these novels (Catherine Berlin, Annie Hauxwell’s protagonist, the most original in a debut novel), and the police procedural thriller is alive and strong in the hands of Ridley Pearson. Julia Spencer-Fleming, N J Cooper and Jane Casey provide solid, readable entries in their series, and Carin Gerhardson produces an accessible slice of Swedish crime.

The full details are below, with links to my reviews. The score is out of 5, but should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Euro Crime:

Black Skies by Arnaldur Indridason, tr Victoria Cribb 4

A Willing Victim by Laura Wilson 3


Track of the Cat by Nevada Barr 2.5

Amuse Bouche by Anthony Bidulka 2.5

The Last Girl by Jane Casey 3

Vengeance in Mind by N J Cooper 3.5

The Gingerbread House by Carin Gerhardsen, tr Paul Norlén 3

Missing Persons by Nicci Gerrard 2.5

In Her Blood by Annie Hauxwell 3

Lorraine Connection by Dominique Manotti, tr Ros Schwartz & Amanda Hopkinson 5

The Pied Piper by Ridley Pearson 3.5

Broken Silence by Danielle Ramsay 2

Crossbones Yard by Kate Rhodes 3

A Fountain Filled With Blood by Julia Spencer-Fleming 3.5

The scoring system is explained in my 2012 reviews page.

Previous months’ reading reports and books of the month.

As ever, Kerrie has a round-up post of bloggers’ book choices for the month, so for more recommendations, please head on over to Mysteries in Paradise.