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The Stranger You Seek

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Confession time (again!) I wasn't going to read this book. Nothing personal. I just looked at the blurb, saw serial killer and thought... over them. But, long story short, there was this homework assignment, I thought ... proof copy, grabbed the first one I saw, and no homework was done. Could not put THE STRANGER YOU SEEK down. The thing that really grabbed me was the central character - Keye Street. She's got one of those voices that can really appeal to this reader. A recovering alcoholic with a failed marriage, and a partially acknowledged attraction to her best friend, mentor and cop Aaron Rauser she's a fabulously complicated character. One of her own greatest critics, Street's got a very chequered background - going from rising star FBI profiler with two university degrees and an enviable criminal profiling track record, to working for herself, making ends meet serving subpoenas, chasing down bail skippers and looking for missing cows. Obviously there are going to be comparisons drawn with Grace Smith / Stephanie Plum and the like. Whilst there are elements that are just about identical - the job description alone is enough to get you thinking in that direction. Add a slightly madcap family; romantic tension; a hefty dose of personal lunacy and a rushing around investigation style and there is a point in the book where you do wonder about the similarities. For this reader, however, there are some marked differences. Some nuance about the humour, some of the self-awareness in the character, but probably the biggest difference is a real sense of desire to move on. The madcap family (sans Grandmother, but with a mother and father who fill in the personality requirements quite nicely), is built around the adoption, by her extremely Southern American sensibility parents, of Street (Asian American) and her brother (African American). Both the parents have starring roles in the humour department, which was subtle, and clever and frequently laugh out loud funny. Humour, in particular, is something that does not always travel well culturally, and for this Australian reader, much of the conflict between Street and her mother, and between her mother and father, worked really well - with a stand-out being the father's recitation of grace, which had me roaring with laughter.The point of these books isn't just the humour. There's a serious investigation going on, although built around a serial killer, that has some hints and tips along the way that could make a reader wonder if there is something slightly different going on here. Street also isn't just what you see is what you get. There's depth, roundedness, flaws and good points to her character that are very engaging. There's an acerbic, pointed and enlightening internal voice that works, not just to give you a chance to get to know the character, but also makes her quite real. Her supporting cast is relatively well fleshed out also, although, obviously as this is the first book, the concentration is pretty heftily on the main character. The serial killer thread is nicely done this time, with a final twist in the tail that I simply did not see coming.That's not to say that everything is perfect and there are some rather hamfisted attempts at humour which don't quite hit the mark... not the least is a tendency to see sexual desire in every lesbian character that Street encounters, but all in all, thanks to THE STRANGER YOU SEEK, once again, "over serial killers" needs an equivocation clause.....
The Man From Beijing

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THE MAN FROM BEIJING is a standalone book from the author of the popular Kurt Wallender series, and if the discussions I've seen about it are any indication, it's guaranteed to polarise opinion.Set in Hesjövallen, where something very very bad has happened, police are called to the village by researcher, Karsten Höglin, who arrived in the town to find that this quiet, mostly deserted little village in Sweden is the scene of a massacre.Judge Brigitta Roslin has an unexpected connection to this place, when she discovers that two of the victims are her mother's adopted parents, but it is enough of a connection to give her an investigation to fill the emptiness she feels in her own life. Following the trail to China, in the face of police disinterest and her own families objections, she soons discovers an international connection and a nightmarish situation.Possibly part of the reason for some readers dissatisfaction with this book could be the rather tentative connection that Brigitta has to the crime, and her motivation for suddenly dropping everything and heading off in pursuit of a solution. The other objection could very well be the politics that are built into the story. Neither of these aspects presented much of an issue for me, and as a reader, I found Brigitta's actions and reactions were something I was happy to accept. The political viewpoint that Mankell presents was also not unexpected, and I felt not heavy-handed. I've got a number of standalone novels by Mankell salted away in MtTBR (aka the retirement fund), and if THE MAN FROM BEIJING is any hint, then I've got lots of books to look forward to.
Huckstepp: A Dangerous Life

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Looking back at the life, and death in 1986 of Sallie-Anne Huckstepp there's a sense of inevitability about her destiny, a long time before she went on television to accuse NSW detectives of shooting her boyfriend in cold blood. HUCKSTEPP is an excellent book of its type - part biography, part investigation into Huckstepp, and her death, the book looks honestly at Sallie-Anne herself, as well as the crooks, cops and colleagues that she had close contact with over her life. Given that there's never been an answer to who killed Huckstepp, this book seems to come as close as we're ever going to come to understanding what happened and why. It certainly does a number of notorious NSW cop and criminal "identities" no favours in its portrayal of them. It also is no whitewash of Sallie-Anne herself. Perhaps the only minor objection would be that its not until the very end that there's much light cast on what got Sallie-Anne into the life that ultimately killed her. I would have liked to have known a little bit more about Sallie-Anne the person, rather than Sallie-Anne the "identity", although I could also see that it might not have been so easy to get to the truth of that.
Collecting Cooper: A Thriller

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Are you allowed to do one word reviews?In which case it's ... wow.If we're not allowed could I just add terrific, twisty, tricky, tantalising, taut and maybe tremendous. It's really embarrassing that sometimes it can take an age to get to read a book that you knew you wanted to read the day before it came out. COLLECTING COOPER was always going to be an interesting book because Theodore Tate is a tremendous character, and Cleave doesn't always do follow-up books. But if he'd like to do a third, or really any book whatsoever, I've given myself a stern talking to and will make sure I get to it ... the day after it comes out!
Blessed Are the Dead: An Emmanuel Cooper Mystery

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The Emmanuel Cooper books by Malla Nunn, set in 1950's South Africa, are another excellent series in what is luckily now becoming a bigger range of crime fiction set in various parts of Africa. SILENT VALLEY (aka BLESSED ARE THE DEAD) is the third book now, centred around Detective Sergeant Emmanuel Cooper, a policeman with plenty of demons from his past. Knowing that his past is closely intertwined with a society based on Apartheid will help the reader understand some of the difficulties that Cooper faces, just as understanding the intrinsic brutality of that system will give his struggle context.Not that these books over-bake the personal situations, but the death of seventeen-year-old Amahle, daughter of a Zulu chief, in a society fraught with complications, inevitably takes everyone into the personal. Especially as there is no obvious motive for the death of a girl who, on the face of it, was destined for traditional marriage and life. There's a clever balancing act going on in this book - whilst the death of Amahle remains the central focus of Cooper and his investigation, the reader is also provided with a very personal and telling look into the nature of Apartheid. There is an extra element to that - not just the tension between black and white; but also the tension between the White Boer settlers and the later English arrivals.In the middle of what is basically a whole heap of mistrust and dislike, there's some very well written individual characterisations and some touching partnerships. Cooper and his colleague, Zulu Constable Shabalala share a respect and understanding which is obviously outside the boundaries of racial acceptability, to say nothing of police procedure and hierarchy. In much the same way Cooper is able to reach out to the young British son of a local farmer, regarded as wild and not a little odd, Cooper and Gabriel connect - perhaps their mutual difference being part of what makes them work together. Really, that concept of difference being a connecting point weaves it's way through the entire narrative with so many of the characters prepared, often seemingly required, to be different, to survive in a society which most definitely does not approve.What's particularly interesting is the way that this series is progressing. The first two books - A BEAUTIFUL PLACE TO DIE, and LET THE DEAD LIE - introduced Cooper, established the brutality of the world in which he lives, and set about creating a character who is real, conflicted and complex; somebody who is profoundly affected by the events that happen around him.SILENT VALLEY takes another step forward again, building in a stronger sense of place and the different groups within the society. The inclusion of a strong Zulu cultural, societal and family environment into this book adds an extra layer to the ongoing storyline, and to reader's understanding of the complications of 1950's South Africa that was moving and instructive.Part of what is really working in this series is the progression, and the way that the characters and the sense of place is building. SILENT VALLEY could work on some level as a standalone, but there will be a greater understanding of the characters and the place if you can read the series in order. If you've not caught up with any of Malla Nunn's Emmanuel Cooper books - now is as good a time as any.
The Preacher

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Second book in the Erica Falck and Patrik Hedström series, THE PREACHER continues the personal story of these two characters, whilst taking the reader into another past / present scenario. I think I'm going to have to start a count of this sort of storyline as it seems to be cropping up all over the place. In this case the present connects with the past when the body of a young tourist is located in the place where the bones of two missing tourists, missing for 20 years, are then discovered. A second young female goes missing and the race is on.Apart from the locations, and the setting for this book there's not a lot unusual in the plot-line here, nor are there any particular stand out elements in the way that the investigation is undertaken. Focus falls on the local misfits, clues keep leading back to them, but which family member and what is the explanation for the 20 year gap. The personal life aspects of this book do seem to take a lot of the focus. Erica's very advanced pregnancy means that she's unable to contribute to the investigation, instead a series of unwelcome guests in the house cause problems in the extreme heat, simply by refusing to leave.I must admit the personal aspects, whilst amusing for a while, got pretty predictable quickly, and Erica's inability to show all these annoying people the door vaguely bewildering. As are her sisters actions, in an ongoing storyline from the first book. A lot of this wandering around in the personal didn't really seem to be advancing the story anywhere in particular, and I've no idea why on earth most of it was there.Buried somewhere under all this personal chitchat, there is a plot lurking which was actually quite interesting. The first book THE ICE PRINCESS interested me slightly more than THE PREACHER, and I'd think that readers would be best off starting with the earlier book, as there's a lot that won't make a lot of sense in THE PREACHER without it. Whilst I was a bit disappointed in this book, this is a series I'm planning on continuing with as long as I can still see glimmers of something interesting.
Deadly Code

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DEADLY CODE is the 3rd book in the Dr Rhona Macleod series, a series, which up until now I've really enjoyed, but for some reason this one didn't work. Mind you, terrific sense of place, very atmospheric what with Macleod off in the remote Scottish Isles battling the evil menace of a cult of Scottish extremists. Or I think that's what they were. The big problem was that the plot was a bit too silly at points. Not that the idea of extremists of any kind is a bad concept, but not where there needs to be so much coincidence and frankly, a whole heap of heavy lifting to get Macleod into the action, get her to the various locations, and keep her involved. And the resolution is one of those extreme leaps of science that, sure, could happen. But hasn't as yet. And I kind of like my crime fiction to stay away from the realms of speculative / science fiction. Having said that, my main problem with this book was the enormous leaps of coincidence and a certain feeling of convenience about the whole thing that meant it didn't work. Onwards to the next in the series for this reader. (I understand there's 6 of them now).
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