Origin by Dan Brown

Poor Dan Brown! No one has ever commended his writing style, and now with his fifth Robert Langdon thriller, Origin, out last year, the critics are almost universally agreed that we have had enough of his same-old-same-old story line.origin

But while I agree mostly with the criticism of Origin that it is just a continuation of The Di Vinci Code (except it is set in Spain!!), what did everyone expect? Of course, Brown’s plots are in the style of DAN BROWN. That is, they are just like the similarity you see in Lee Child novels and Robert Parker novels – if you have read one, you have read them all. But that is why we read serial-character novels as they come out… we liked Brown’s basic plot around cryptography, symbols, codes and conspiracy theories.

In Origin Brown again tackles the religion vs. science arguments. This time quite substantially. Our art history lessons this time concern modern art – that is at least one significant change in a Brown novel! And as I said, we learn a great deal about Barcelona and Bilbao, Spain.

Brown got his interest in European art when he spent a college-abroad year in Seville, Spain, where he enrolled in an art history course. His first book Digital Fortress was also set in Seville. And I think you can feel Brown’s affection for Spain in the pages of Origin.

I cannot say that the writing in Origin is great or even that good. I agree the “Dan Brown Plot” has been done over and over. But I did indeed enjoy Origin. I got pulled in to the silly plot and the chase through famous Spanish historical sites. But the book was what I expected, and therefore, I was not disappointed.

3 of 5 stars

 

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Sue Grafton R.I.P.

Three women led the way in the Second Golden Age of the Mystery in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. The huge boom in detective fiction was due to the courage of three women authors who moved the mystery novel from violence AGAINST women to alibiviolenceSOLVED by women. These leaders were Marcia Mueller, Sara Paretsky and Sue Grafton.

Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone broke onto the mystery scene in 1982 with A is for Alibi and went on to achieve cult status in the 1980’s as she became the most read detective of either gender in that decade. The new young, hard-boiled but female detective Grafton and the others created was strong, intelligent and yet emotional about the effects of violence and crime. A new era in mysteries was beginning.

Sue Grafton died Dec. 28th at the age of 77 having written the entire alphabet series from yesterdayA to Y…. Z is for Zero, which was to be her last novel in the series, will not be written after all. Grafton’s family says that she was adamant about not allowing her novels to be turned into television or film so Y is for Yesterday, which came out last August, will be the last Grafton we will be able to enjoy.

Kinsey Millhone and Sue Grafton had a sort of alter-ego connection, according to Grafton. But she noted in an interview that there was one big difference – She realized early in writing the series that if she was going to write the entire alphabet, Kinsey could not age in real time and still be a young, strong detective.

“When I started, she was 32 and I was 42,” Grafton said to the Seattle Times last August. “And now she is 39 and I am 77, which I just do not think is fair.”

 

Domestic Noir Mysteries

Since my last review of The Ex, where I was less than a happy reader, I decided to make mention of other Domestic Noir mysteries that I do indeed like. After Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn, the Domestic Noir business shot through the publishing roof. Though not the first of the new genre of mysteries, Gone Girl became the lightning rod for those that followed — many with “Girl” or its off-shoot in the title.

There was The Girl on the Train, The Couple Next Door, the Girl in the Dark, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Girl Before, The Girl in the Red Coat, The Silent Wife, The Good Girl and many more. Publishers actually told writers to include “girl” or the equivalent in their titles to market their books.

Domestic Noir is a sub-woman cabin 10genre within mysteries, which takes place primarily in homes and workplaces and concerns itself largely (but not exclusively) with the “female experience.” That means things that women are supposed to care more about – family, love interests, home-life, marriage. Usually the boyfriend/husband is considered part of the problem, and the question for the reader is usually — is my home and relationship safe?

In reality for many women the answer is no, and women do concern themselves with family a great deal so I can buy the supposedly broadly feminist view that domestic life is a challenging and sometimes dangerous prospect for its inhabitants. Unfortunately, many of the Domestic Noir mysteries are lacking in the essential mystery elements like clues, red herrings, and more than one potential villain.

I think the first real modern Domestic Noir mystery was Learning to Swim by Sue Henry in 2011 which was a fine book about a woman who saves a boy who is thrown off the back of a boat and then sets out to find out who is trying to kill him. But Gone Girl, 2014, gets all the credit. And I have no objection as Gone Girl was actually a good read – go back and read Gillian Flynn’s other books which are equally as good.

girl in darkI set out to find some other well-done Domestic Noir books to recommend. My favorite three are Girl in the Dark by Marion Pauw, Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson and The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware, all for different reasons.

Girl in the Dark is written by a Dutch woman and is my favorite. A single mother/lawyer discovers a long-time family secret that her autistic brother is in prison for murder. Curious, she looks into the case and an amazing story unfolds. Highly recommended.

Before I Go To Sleep was an early entry into the Domestic Noir field, published in 2011. In this engrossing suspense novel, an amnesiac, following a mysterious accident, cannot remember her past or form any new memories, and desperately tries to uncover the truth about who she is—and more importantly, who she can trust.

Another favorite of mine, which might not be as well-written as the others, but is a fun romp, is The Woman in Cabin 10. More of a thriller than a mystery, I enjoyed the fast-pace tease. Reminiscent of an Agatha Christie enclosed-mystery, our heroine, working for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. What could go wrong?

 

 

The Ex by Alafair Burke

Since I had heard such great things about this book, I started it with apprehension. Often the reviews gush over mystery novels that I find less than “a mystery.” Sorry to say that this too is an example of over-hype.

The plot starts off fine. The main character is quite appealing (a tough hard-boiled NY City criminal defense attorney with a touch of humor about herself). And the pose was easy to sweep through, if not exactly gripping.

But then…. nothing happened that you could not predict, the other characters remained cardboard at best and the ending suffered from obviousness.

The Ex givThe Exes us Olivia Randall, the quite enjoyable, tough-woman attorney, who sees that her ex-boyfriend of 20 years ago has been arrested for the murder of 3 people and of course, feels compelled to take his case. The soap opera story line about their past together was over the top with tragedy (battered mothers, abusive fathers, cancer, cheating lovers, car accidents, psychiatric hospitals, blackmailers, mass shootings). I wish I were kidding.

Allegedly the man the ex-boyfriend targeted was the father of the killer who shot his wife during a mass shooting. As Olivia investigates the crimes she begins to switch from advocating for the ex to not believing anything he says. Much of the book is about whether or not the ex is to be trusted.

I would qualify this novel as a combination chick-lit/mystery. So perhaps the over emphasis on the relationship between the ex and Olivia is more acceptable to readers who like this type of mystery. The straight mystery elements, however, suffered here. Too much coincidence. The character’s actions were often unbelievable and kept taking me out of the story. The ending has been written hundreds of times in a mystery – it no longer surprises anyone who reads mysteries, especially if it is advertised for 200 pages.

But let me add, I rather liked the book! Seriously, it was a quick and good read if you want something light and don’t have the energy to focus. The author, Alafair Burke, is a former prosecutor turned criminal law professor who has written 10 previous mysteries. Plus, (BIG CLUE) she has co-authored two other “mysteries” with Mary Higgins Clark, the grande-dame of chick-lit suspense novels.

3 out of 5 stars

The Dry by Jane Harper

I love to take a journey when I read a mystery novel, and Jane Harper’s The Dry is just that –literary travel. Journalist Harper moved to Australia when she was a child so perhaps this trace of outsider allowed her to write the prose which gently but thoroughly pulls the reader into theAustralian outback.

The book’s hero is Federal Agent Falk who returns from Melbourne, where he now lives and works, to his small hometown for the funeral of his best friend from childhood. Falk’s friend has apparently committed suicide after shooting his wife and child, but of course, the small town judgments and secrets play a role in this intricate plot.the dry

The drought has taken its toll on this small town and the fears of the people who Falk once knew. Why didn’t Falk’s friend kill the baby who was also in the house? Why shoot his wife when she opened the front door of the house?

This is a fun mystery with all the ingredients for a good read for mystery lovers. Nice plot, outstanding setting and a balanced and well-timed ending. This novel has gotten a lot of media coverage and won the Dagger Award for first book in 2017. Harper apparently wrote The Dry during a 12-week online writing course!

I certainly enjoyed my trip to Australia as I turned the pages – but I am giving this book a 4 out of 5 because I read it about a month ago, and when I sat down to write this blog, I could not remember the plot or ending! I did, however, remember the feel of the hot and dry Australian outback that Harper so elegantly painted for the reader. Given my travel lust, that alone was enough for me to recommend this book.

4 of 5 stars

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

before the fall

Hawley’s novel begins with the crash of a private jet off the shores of Martha’s Vineyard. On board are very influential people – two survive. As the novel slowly unfolds, the reader finds out the how and why of this final voyage.

Before the Fall won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel and the International Thriller Writer’s Award for Best Novel, and I must say the chapter with the plane crash is one of the most exciting chapters I have read in many years.

I found the writing style odd, however, as Hawley changed tenses back and forth throughout the book, and the plot line was indeed quite slow. But this is a character study. And a surprisingly great ride.

Hawley is a television writer and producer, best known for creating and writing FARGO, the television series. You will see a little of that style of thriller and odd-ball dialogue in this book as well.

I know the ending surprises some people who are not happy at first – but give this book a read and think about the ending for a while. I believe the ending pulls the entire story together and is perfect. Bravo to Hawley for getting us to think.

5 out of 5 stars

A Divided Spy by Charles Cumming

I have a soft spot for the risk-seeking but loyal spy, especially when on the run from other spies. One of my favorite modern espionage writers is Charles Cumming who has just published his third in the Thomas Kell/ Amelia Levene series. And while I may be biased in favor of almost any espionage novel over most fiction, Cummings has once again given us a smart novel to stay up late reading.divided spy

This time there is a high-profile terrorist plot unfolding, while Kell jousts with a Russian intelligence agent. But Amelia Levene once again appears in her character of the first female Chief of MI6, and in fact, this book continues the story line of the first two books. So I am going to suggest if you haven’t read Cumming’s Kell series before (he has written quite a few other espionage stand-alone books), you should start with number one, A Foreign Country.

In A Foreign Country Levene has disappeared without a trace, just six weeks before she is due to take over as the most influential spy in Europe. Kell is off across Europe to find her. In the second book, A Colder War, Kell comes in from the cold (why is he in the cold? Read book one!) to investigate a mole in MI6 who is sabotaging joint intelligence operations in the Middle East.

I love these books for their introspection on the subjects of deceit and living a life defined by lies. These are not the novels for those who want action on every page with car chases and bombs going off every chapter. Cumming has been compared often to John le Carre and I understand that — Cumming’s prose about the creation of false identities and elaborate mirages does remind me of le Carre, the greatest spy novelist of all time.

A Divided Spy is not my favorite of the trilogy, as it is somewhat predicable and perhaps tells us too much and shows us too little, but I recommend it still — afforeignter you have read the others. One fear I have is that this is the end of the Kell story line since Kell has finally been smothered by the deceit in his life.

In a release for this novel, it was mentioned that Colin First has purchased the rights to The Foreign Country. I certainly hope so as I would love to revisit the story on the big screen. But you should hurry and read the Kell books before the movie hype takes over!

My rating: 4 of 5

Garnethill by Denise Mina

I have discovered that some readers do not know about Denise Mina, the Scottish mystery writer who is both outlandishly funny and brutal at the same time. She writes other things such as stand-alone novels and the graphic novel adaptation of the Steig Larsson books. But forget about those and focus here on her amazing three series which are exceptional.garnethll

When someone asks me who my favorite authors are I often say Louise Penny, Philip Kerr, Harlan Coben, Lee Child. But I always say…. Denise Mina! If you have not been lucky enough to find her, I can point you to 11 books in three different series to gorge on in the coming months!exile

Her first series called Garnethill – first book by that name – is my favorite of the three. Young Maureen O’Donnell is about to end her affair with her psychotherapist when she awakes from a drunken stupor to find him tied to a chair in her living room with his throat slit. Poor Maureen is, of course, a suspect, as is her drug-selling brother.

Oh, the language Maureen spouts! Funny and yet poignant, she is hell on wheels to defend her friends and her brother. Yet, she is not so careful at taking care of herself. You will laugh and cry and instantly move right on to the next in the trilogy – Exile – when you finish Garnethill. The third in the series is titled Resolution. I quite understand Mina’s desire to put Lisbeth Salander (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) into graphic novels – Maureen is Lisbeth with no education, money or expertise!

The writing is the best you will find, often called Tartan Noir; and you can smell and taste Mina’s Glasgow along with Maureen as she moves about the city. There is nothing predictable about these books. I have no idea why Mina does not have the accolade of other lesser authors. Except that they are very Scottish and quite different from the norm. All positives in my book. (Garnethill did win the CWA John Creasy Dagger for Best First Crime Novel)field-of-blood

And when you finish with the Garnethill Trilogy, you can begin on the other two series– one featuring a young Glasgow journalist, Paddy Meehan, in the trilogy beginning with Field of Blood, which won the Barry Award for Best Mystery in 2006. And then the other series featuring Glasgow detective Alex Morrow. You will be happy in Scotland for months!!

 My rating: 5 of 5
still-midnight

 

 

The Sunday Times 50 best Crime and Thriller Books

I recently read an article in the Sunday Times of London from last year, which pulled together their favorite crime and thriller books for the past 5 years. There are many lists of “the best” mysteries, but they always include titles from the 1920 like The 39 Steps and all those assassin books from the 1960’s like The Day of the Jackal. Of course, I love those two novels and all the other mysteries of old, but rarely do you get a list of modern exceptional reads.

No, this list is wonderful because the list is modern and insightful as well.

Lee Child, CJ Sansom, Belinda Bauer, Steve Hamilton and Charles Cumming.

Some of my absolute favorite authors! Well, they did leave out Denise Mina, my number one favorite author. And, unfortunately, Louise Penny is not mentioned as well (don’t panic!) because I think the point of the list is more crime and thriller than mystery. And very much less cozy police procedurals. Denise Mina should have been on the list, but even the Sunday Times of London isn’t perfect.

http://www.deadgoodbooks.co.uk/sunday-times-best-crime-books/

 

 

Fadeout by Joseph Hansen

In 1972 Hansen wrote the first of what would be 12 classic mystery novels featuring Dave Brandstetter, an open, content and very gay tough-guy. And if you happened to have missed the chance 40 years ago to read these wonderful books, you’re lucky enough to have another chance as they have been re-released.

fadeoutDave is an insurance company investigator looking into false claims. His life partner of 20 years has just died, and Dave is learning to live again. Of course, these are noir reads – but the prose is so clear and delightful that you will forget the darkness and see the charm of our hero.

In Fadeout, a popular singer’s car goes off a narrow bridge in a storm and Dave investigates a death claim – but where is the body? As Dave questions friends and fans, he grows certain that the singer is alive, though a killer is also looking for him.

The key to Hansen’s popularity lies with his prose. These are short books, really novellas. But from the first page you are absorbed in the shrewd and deeply felt writing.

“When I sat down to write Fadeout in 1967, I wanted to write a good, compelling whodunit,” said Hansen. “But I also wanted to right some wrongs. Almost all the things folks say about homosexuals is false. So I had some fun turning clichés and stereotypes on their heads in that book.” Over 40 years later everything Hansen writes is still compelling and revealing.

My rating: 5 of 5