Welcome to Murder by the Book's blog about what we've read recently. You can find our website at www.mbtb.com.

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, $16

Most of the action in “Girl in Snow,” the first novel by author Danya Kukafka, takes place in 2005, in a little town in Colorado. It is February, so the snow in “Girl in Snow” is a foregone conclusion. The girl is fifteen-year-old Lucinda Hayes. She was pretty. Of course she was.

Kukafka presents several viewpoints and tenses, a tough literary juggle. We hear from another teenage girl, Jade, a former friend. We hear from Cameron, a teenage boy who is Lucinda’s … shadow. He might be creepy enough to be a stalker. We hear from Russ, Cameron’s father’s former police patrolman buddy: so, a grown-up. Sometimes we hear from Jade in the first person and sometimes in the urgent second person singular.

The focus is, of course, on Lucinda, but not as much as you would think. Jade, Cameron, Russ are all outsiders. None of them could be called good-looking. Kukafka details the physical blemishes of her main and subsidiary characters. The teenage years are spotty at best for most. These outsiders look in at themselves and the investigation. They are witnesses and vessels of misery. And they are suspects.

Cameron is haunted by the disgrace and subsequent disappearance of his father. He is silent and “tangled,” as he would say. He has difficulty in social situations. He is obsessed with Lucinda. On “Statue Nights,” he stands in Lucinda’s backyard and watches her through her window. Late at night, on his rambles, he waves to Ivan, the janitor at his high school.

Ivan is the brother-in-law of Russ. Russ has almost accidentally married Ines, Ivan’s sister. After Ivan was released from prison, Russ helped him get the school job. He, too, is a suspect.

Who is not a suspect? The high school art teacher and object of much teenage affection is one. The parents, who are rarely seen, are suspects. How about Cameron’s mother? How about Jade’s abusive mother? How about Lucinda’s boyfriend? Maybe Lucinda’s boyfriend is Zap, whose real name is Edourd Arnaud. Jade used to be friends with Zap, too.

Part of the task Kukafka sets herself is showing the relationships between the many characters. When the big murder reveal arrives, it lands more with a by-the-way than an aha. In the process of hearing the main characters’ stories, Lucinda isn’t really illuminated so much as designated the object of catharsis. Being an outsider means there’s a lot more of interest to lay bare than for a “normal” person. Lucinda was a teenage darling, popular with boys, girls, parents. In other words, not an outsider. 

This book is a psychological page-turner, with main characters whose curious stories are compelling.

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

Catapult, 304 pages, $16.95 (c2017)

I am in awe! “Reservoir 13” is one heck of a book. It’s complex and lyrical, with knock-out storytelling, and full of real world ambiguity and messiness. Take a small town in England, preferably near Manchester. Give it an assortment of characters, the ones who are needed to make a town hum but also those on the cusp of failure and success. Make sure the old, young, and in-between are represented. Speak authentically with these characters’ voices. Toss in a major tragedy. Bingo! You can now call your book “Reservoir 13.”

Rebecca, Becky, Bex — whatever people have called her over her thirteen short years — disappeared one day while on a walk up a hill with her parents. A massive search is conducted by professionals and concerned townspeople, including some of the children. She is gone.

Before you get your hopes up based on this dramatic beginning, you should know that Rebecca’s disappearance is the least of “Reservoir 13.” It loosely binds the chapters and lives of the characters that drift in and out of focus. Some of the characters we meet never met her. They have no well of feeling for her. They did not share in the emptiness and fear the town felt when she first disappeared. The reason some of them have not met her is that they were just born, not born yet, not moved to the town. “Reservoir 13” takes place over thirteen years. Thirteen years worth of stories about the characters: Sally, Cathy, Richard, Jones, the Jacksons, Irene, the vicar, Gordon, Cooper, Su, and most of all James, Sophie, Lyndsey, and Rohan, four young people who age from their early teens to adulthood. And there are even more people.

Every once in a while something related to Rebecca’s disappearance pops up, but most of the time the town struggles on, at first grimly and quietly, then with more naturalness as the shadow cast by the girl’s disappearance fades. Life goes on, as they say. And what lives they are: mostly quotidian, sometimes sentimental, rarely clamorously passionate, always human. They are beset by frailties, surprised by hidden strengths, marked by burdens, pricked by loneliness. They will engage you.

The mystery of Rebecca’s disappearance? Would you be disappointed if I told you that it remains a mystery for the most part. Your need to know will be replaced by the richness of watching the town breathe in and out, year after year. And not just the characters, but also the bats, the butterflies, the fish, the many birds who migrate and nest, badgers, cow parsley. The reservoirs respirate with the rains and drought.

Gorgeous. But not a traditional thriller or mystery.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Obscura by Joe Hart

Thomas & Mercer, 340 pages, $24.95

“Obscura” is one of those can’t-put-it-down books. It’s a sci-fi thriller. It’s a book by a male author with a credibly-voiced female protagonist. It’s a dour look at our future.

Dr. Gillian Ryan, a research neurologist, is burdened by a double tragedy. Her husband died of a new dementia-like disease, probably brought on by the increasing pollution and environmental degradation, and now her young daughter also has it. Gillian has devoted herself to finding a cure. At the same time, Gillian treasures each minute spent with her daughter. It’s a tug on her priorities.

That dilemma is further challenged when an old boyfriend, now a NASA pilot, wants her to join his team to solve an unspecified medical crisis in space. Gillian’s lab is going under, sunk by the lack of funding. Carson LeCroix has a terrible offer: permanent funding for her project in exchange for her trip to a space station orbiting Earth. Six months at the most. Save lives, win funding, maybe advance a cure for her daughter. This doesn’t sound like Gillian’s cup of tea, but in the end she agrees.

Joining Gillian is her research assistant and friend, Birk Lindqvist, a gentle Swedish giant who has trouble with American idioms. In other words, author Joe Hart works tropes into his space ensemble: heroine, hero, loyal assistant, efficient co-pilot, nasty and mysterious administrator, laconic cowboy-type, competent doctor (“I’m a doctor, Jim, not Matt Damon.”). Although Hart’s book follows a well-worn path of ensemble-in-space, his take on the genre is surprising and entertaining.

The suspenseful part begins when Gillian is the only one awake after the others have chosen stasis for their two-month journey to (sorry, spoiler alert) the actual site of the medical crisis. She begins to sense there is someone else awake on the ship. She hears doors opening and footsteps. Maybe it’s overwork. Maybe it’s the opioids to which she is addicted. Maybe it is the weaning off of the opioids. Maybe she is just nuts.

Then someone is murdered. Then someone tries to murder Gillian, again and again. Is that enough to keep you reading yet? It was enough for me.

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Tea Master and the Detective by Aliette de Bodard

Subterranean, 96 pages, $40 (special edition)
Available for $4.99 in digital formats

“The Tea Master and the Detective” is a novella about a spaceship with a human mind at its core. Shades of Anne McCaffrey’s “The Ship Who Sang.”

“The Shadow’s Child” is the ship. She has survived a traumatic loss of her crew and big doses of “unreality” in “deep spaces.” Long Chau is maybe a human. The depiction of Long Chau on the front cover of the book certainly looks human. Let’s say she’s human. She has a mysterious background and it eventually is revealed she, too, suffers from trauma. So much space trauma.

Mindships like “The Shadow’s Child” can brew “teas” to help clients overcome psychological difficulties, including handling the transition into deep spaces, or “the unknowable space shipminds used to travel faster than light.” The ship (via an avatar) offers Long Chau a congenial brew and they settle in to discuss Long Chau’s needs.

Long Chau needs to find a corpse lost in deep spaces. Any corpse. The one the ship and human find turns out to have been murdered. Traversing the hierarchies necessary to find information on the dead woman leads to an involuntary examination of both the ship’s and human’s pasts. In the end they are both put to an extreme test of their ability to hang on to their rational selves long enough to solve a case and prevent another murder.

Short and enjoyable. A complex and intriguing other world.

Saturday, May 12, 2018

The Chalk Man by C. J. Tudor

Crown, 288 pages, $27

Whoa! “The Chalk Man” is an impressive debut by British author C. J. Tudor. She takes well-used suspense tropes and twists them around. The result is a surprising story.

Tudor’s “heroes” are a group of twelve-year-old kids in the town of Anderbury, England. (With its quaint parts, dicey parts, pub parts, and foresty parts, Anderbury sounds so British. Queue up Midsomer Murders.) Eddie Adams is the narrator. His buddies are Fat Gav, Metal Mickey, Hoppo, and Nicky (a girl). In a story reminiscent of Stephen King’s “Stand By Me,” the kids range through deep and dark woods, bicycle to each other’s homes, and work out a secret code to communicate. Several tragedies, including finding a dead body in the woods (you knew that would happen), hit them and their town.

There are two stories: one when the kids are twelve and the other thirty years later in 2016. The tragedies of 1986 are revisited in 2016 when a grown-up Eddie reconnects with Metal Mickey after not having seen him in years. That reunion sets more deaths into motion.

In 1986, Eddie and his friends are at a traveling fair. One of the amusement rides breaks and comes crashing into the crowd. A beautiful girl whom Eddie had been admiring is one of the victims. The newly arrived and exotic looking Mr. Halloran (an albino!) enlists Eddie’s aid to help save the girl from bleeding to death. Although they were strangers before the incident, Eddie and Mr. Halloran form a strange bond. They are destined to affect each other’s lives over the next few months.

The kids communicate by drawing chalk stick figures. They use different colors to indicate the sender. Suddenly, chalk is being used for something more malevolent than childish secrets. Eddie begins having nightmares in which he sees ghosts of the recently deceased. The dreams have a somber, menacing tone. Sometimes Eddie finds dirt and leaves in his house, open doors, rank smells. Remnants of the walking dead?

Tudor does a fabulous job of showing both the comfort of friendship and the creepiness of the setting. There are kid secrets and adult secrets, any of which could blow up, some of which do. Tudor creates so many possibilities without making her story impossibly complex. Tudor also is great at creating forward momentum. You want to turn that page. And the next page. And the next. Also, all her characters have psychological fiddly bits that will engage you.

MBTB star!

Tuesday, May 8, 2018

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Deep Waters by Barbara Nadel

Headline, 314 pages, out of print (c2002)

“Deep Waters” is the fourth book in Barbara Nadel’s series about Çetin İkmen, a homicide inspector in Istanbul, Turkey. Beginning in 1999 with “Belshazzar’s Daughter and continuing through eighteen more novels, British author Nadel has given us a look at the cultures swirling in the city that straddles Europe and Asia. Istanbul has been the center of mighty ancient empires and modern-day subterfuge. It has the color and smells of the Middle East, the Mediterranean, and Europe. Perhaps it’s difficult for someone not born in a place to authentically write about that place and I can't speak for Nadel's authenticity, but she crafts some excellent and entertaining mysteries while providing a lot of atmosphere.

“Deep Waters” is one-half solving the murder that falls under İkmen’s purview as a detective. The other half concerns personal matters of the series’ characters.

The Albanians and their complex cultural version of revenge is at the core of the police matter. Rifat Berisha’s body has been found. His throat has been cut, a sign of feudal enmity. His family has a blood war with the Vloras, so that family comes under scrutiny. A man of one family must kill a man of the other family, ad infinitum, until there are no more men in one of the families. That’s the way of fis.

İkmen is half Albanian, courtesy of his mother, the witch. The Albanian community accepts as common knowledge that Ayşe Bajraktar had powers and it was best not to cross her. Because of something one of the people in the homicide investigation said, İkmen now believes there was something fishy about his mother’s death. According to his family, she committed suicide. He and his brother discovered her after they returned home from school. His older brother shielded him from the sight of their mother, so İkmen has no personal knowledge of the death scene. Could his mother’s death and his current investigation be related?

Mehmet Süleyman, longtime sidekick of İkmen, now is a detective in his own right but still occasionally joins İkmen on his cases. He has asked Zelfa Halman, a much older woman, a psychiatrist, to marry him. He is an impoverished member of an aristocratic and ancient Turkish family. She is part Irish and still settling into her life in Istanbul. Her warring cultural halves prevent an easy answer to Süleyman’s question.

Nadel's personal background in mental health advocacy adds depth to this book. One of the characters is Dr. Halman's patient and he appears to be part of the large cast of people of interest in the murder. 

Heritage is at the crux of all the matters. Istanbul provides the cosmopolitan background. These are cultural deep waters.

Although Nadel's earlier books in the İkmen series are hard to get, there's no reason why one shouldn't just jump right into reading whatever is available. 

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner

Scribner, 352 pages, $27

Eventually Romy Leslie Hall occupies the “lower bunk in room fourteen of unit 510 of C yard.” Her life is circumscribed by the prison’s boundaries in Stanville, California. She is in prison for murder, with a lifetime to repent and no hope for redemption. Author Rachel Kushner describes the small lives of Hall and her fellow prisoners and their desire to make it somehow more meaningful or joyful. (Although revenge sustains some of them just fine.)

Rachel Kushner takes almost 357 pages before she tells you about the murder that got Hall put away. Because the thought isn’t about the murder; it is about Hall’s existence on her bunk, in her cell, in the prison yard, in the G.E.D. classroom.

Kushner has you think about the crummy lives people live, sometimes by choice but often just because that’s all there is. Alcohol, drugs, sex, violence. Sometimes people just have to deal with it, with no bubble to shield them, no money to help them escape, maybe not even family or friends. And sometimes it’s because people and friends have been pushed away. It’s about choices you make and some that are made for you. Once you are in prison, all the choices are made for you.

Hall meets Sammy, Conan, Teardrop, Candy, Betty, and Serenity. Kushner deals their stories out to compare and contrast with Hall’s. They are harsh stories with streaks of poignancy and sometimes humor. They are all told with Kushner’s incredible ability to describe her characters with compassion, even if they are clobbering a fellow inmate with the flat side of a garden shovel.

Throughout Hall wonders what has happened to her son. He was five when she was incarcerated. She lost touch with him when he was seven. She tries through legal channels at first, but the law is not her friend. So she will be manipulative if it will get her answers. She will use her street smarts and her stripper-sharpened wiles to help her.

Kushner doesn’t make the whole story about Hall, but she certainly has the largest role, a first-person narrative that travels until the end. But we also see the world through the eyes of an unambitious teacher who can score nothing better than teaching the difficult women of the prison. We listen to another first-person narrator who lives in the woods and sometimes rages and vents about neighbors and sometimes rhapsodizes about nature. (I don’t think it’s a spoiler to tell you that those sections turn out to be excerpts from the dairy of the Unabomber, Ted Kaczynski.)There’s an ex-cop who is crooked and amoral. We hear his story because his lover is in the same prison as Hall. We follow the path of a transgender prisoner. 

Kushner is the real deal.

MBTB star.

P.S. If you haven’t already cottoned to it: Although it is called “The Mars Room,” this is not a sci-fi book. The Mars Room is the strip club where Hall works.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Sirens by Joseph Knox

Crown, 352 pages, $27

Mancunian (hah! I got to use that in a sentence for the second time in my life) author Joseph Knox lists the ABCs of his story, but you soon find out there are a few invisible letters that came before. Surprise!

Set in Manchester, England, “Sirens” is as tough and thoroughly boiled as they come. It’s just a shade off the blackest shade of noir. Its griminess will leave stains on your eyeball. Detective Constable Aiden Waits begins his story telling you he is persona non grata on the force, then he proceeds to tell you why in a flashback.

Waits is sent undercover by a superintendent on the force to uncover a dirty cop. No one can know. If you have read crime books before, you can pretty much guess how this probably won’t work to Waits’ advantage. I would have gotten an exoneration in writing first. Nevertheless.

Waits is supposedly a crooked cop who is hooked on drugs. Actually, the shoe fits. But Waits must appear even worse than he is. The other shoe slips on a little too easily. He infiltrates one of the drug gangs in Manchester. He meets Zain Carver, drug boss and the hub around which many mysteries revolve. He gets in tighter than loose but looser than tight with him and his crew.

Secondarily, he is hired by an MP (member of parliament, not military police) to find his teenage daughter who may — or may not — have run away from home. At any rate, she is not living at any of her official homes. Young Isabelle may have started out in this story as a naive punk, but she turns up with Zain Carver and slips into his life of drugs and booze. Waits doesn’t immediately pack her up and drag her home, however, even though he is quick to find her. He tries to suss out what is going on with her. The warning bells started to ring when her father engaged his services after she had been missing over a month. What kind of a dad is he?

Waits sinks lower and lower into Carver’s world and a potential conflict with another drug gang. When several kids die from using tainted drugs, that becomes another of the mysteries Waits wants to solve. Then there’s the disappearance ten years ago of Carver’s old girlfriend. And who slugged Waits as he left a nightclub? And what for?

Knox piles on the questions and man(chester)fully answers them all. I enjoyed the surprises, the unveilings. Most of all I enjoyed Bug, the transvestite who says turquoise is his natural hair color. He doesn’t show up until way into the story, but his personality and hair shine like a rainbow.

An apology: I read this book on the heels of Walter Mosley’s “Down the River Unto the Sea,” and Mosley’s clear and stylish prose outshone Knox’s from the get-go. I’m sorry, Mr. Knox, to knock luster off your novel because of Mosley’s proximity. Knox's writing is choppy and snipped. It fits the tumbling noirish vibe but takes a little focus to read.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Baby Monkey, Private Eye by Brian Selznick and David Serlin

Scholastic Press, 192 pages, $16.99

It’s never too soon to steer readers on a mystery reading course. Although “Baby Monkey, Private Eye” is suggested for 4-8 year olds, I know for a fact that it has a much wider appeal.

There are words. There are fabulous pictures. And in each case, I did not guess the identity of the criminal.

I declare “Baby Monkey” a success.