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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

What I'm Reading: Series Roundup

[Ed note: I know I missed posting yesterday, but today you get 2 reviews, so we are even.]

It's time for another installment of Becky's series roundup.  I usually don't have enough to say for an entire post on the series titles I read, but I like to record anything unique about the specific book, and I always try to find new readalikes. Today I have two popular crime fiction titles that I have finished recently.

Speaking From Among the Bones is the next installment in the Flavia de Luce series. It is no secret that I just adore Flavia. You can click here for details on the other books in this series featuring the 11 year-old (living in 1951), British chemist with a speciality in poisons.

The story picks up a few months after the last book, I Am Half-Sick of Shadows, which was a Christmas story. It is now nearing Easter time and things are not improving for the de Luce's as their finances are in even worse shape.

The murder here involves the planned disinterment of the town's Saint (Tancred).  But when the tomb is opened, the missing town organist's dead body is found in the crypt.  Of course nosey Flavia is there, having ridden her trusty bike Gladys to the church yard, and she begins her own investigation.  Like the previous installments, her investigation leads Flavia to find clues others have missed, to learn more about her missing mother and family history, and to get herself in serious danger. In the end, she solves the case as usual too.

You read Flavia for  more than the mystery. Yes, the mysteries themselves are (in my opinion) better than the average cozy mystery, but it is Flavia you need to adore if you will enjoy this series.  Other appeal strengths here are the returning eccentric and interesting secondary characters.  It is also fast paced with a hopeful tone.  They are just fun to read.

The series has a conversational flow.  Flavia is telling us about solving the mystery, but she is also baring her soul to the reader. As a result, you always remember that she is 11; Flavia does not act older than her years.  This is a plus.  The reader is meant to be an adult looking back on what it was like to be 11.  We know more than her and Bradley underscores this in small ways, such as the fact that she does not understand love, marriage, or finances yet. She knows the family is in dire straights because her Father and older sisters tell her, but her day to day life is no different, so it does not bother her much. Until, that is, she thinks she might lose her beloved chemistry lab if the manor is sold.

As I suspected in the Christmas story (and wrote about here), not only is Flavia growing-up, but Bradley is advancing the main conflict in all of the books--what happened to Harriet (Flavia's Mom)?  This book ends with a shocking cliff hanger on that front, so if you are new to the series I would make sure to not start here.  In fact, this is a series I would suggest you begin at book one as this subplot has been consciously built over the course of the series, rather brilliantly, by Bradley (in my opinion).

In fact, this is why the Flavia series is so different from other cozy mystery series.  In many traditional cozies, you can pick up any of the books, in any order, and be fine.  Here, the storyline that is driving the entire series is the fate of Harriet.  It goes beyond each murder mystery, and to fully enjoy the series, you need to start at the beginning.

Three Words That Describe This Book: eccentric characters, conversational tone, fun

Readalikes: Please click here to see the many times I have listed readalikes for Flavia or mentioned Bradley's series as a readalike for other books.

But, I like to give at least one new readalike option each time I read a new series installment.  Today I want to offer the Charlaine Harris' Aurora Teagarden mysteries.  As NoveList says in the series readalike statement:
Although the Flavia De Luce Mysteries have some macabre humor not found in the Aurora Teagarden Mysteries, both feature strong female protagonists, complex family relationships, vividly atmospheric portraits of small-town communities, and wryly humorous depictions of colorful and eccentric characters.
This is also a good choice since Harris' Sookie Stackhouse series is coming to an end this year, now is a great time to remind people of another one of her series.

And now for something completely different, a violent, dark and twisted Nordic Noir-- the next book (for me) in the Harry Hole series, The Leopard.

Most Americans began following Hole's troubles with the 7th book in the series, The Snowman (click here for my review).  This was the first Hole book that was heavily marketed in America.  I had a lot to say about Hole in my review. Please click through if you are new to Nesbo's series as I do not want to repeat myself.

Like all Nordic titles, I listened to The Leopard mostly so I don't have to struggle with pronouncing the foreign words. I am happy to report the audio is excellent again.  The narrator is Hole to me, and I am not bothered by the fact that a Norwegian detective talks with a British accent.  Also, it is important to note the audio when you are reading a book in translation.  Hearing a book that is translated badly is very jarring.  That is not the case here.  The translation was smooth and effortless.  You would think the book first came out in English if it were not for the note at the end as to who translated it.

Back to The Leopard specifically.  Here are the only plot details you need to know.  The story begins with Harry living in Hong Kong trying to run away from his demons from The Snowman case.  He is failing miserably at this.  Kaja, a young, female crime squad detective convinces him to come back to Norway to help with a case, but the only reason he comes back is because his father is dying.

What follows is Harry being drawn into helping with a particularly brutal and vicious case involving the murders of people who are only connected by the fact that they spent one night in a wilderness cabin together as they were skiing the back country. But like previous Hole books, this is just the tip of a very twisted and evil iceberg.

The story is like The Snowman in tone.  It is dark, the bad guy is vicious and evil, there is corruption within the police, and even the good guys here all have a bad side to them.  There are also many twists; so many that they add to the suspense and the compelling pace.  You keep reading to watch it all unravel. There are descriptions of death and near deaths that are quite graphic and visceral.  Again, I did the audio which makes this even more noticeable, but I have a high tolerance for gore.  However, there was one scene where Harry has to injure himself pretty gruesomely in order to save his life.  Even I cringed a bit during that part.

Also, true to the series is the layering of multiple subplots that Nesbo handles flawlessly.  There are at least 4 major subplots going on under the layer of the murder instigation, and each eventually gets related back to the story as a whole.  In fact, often, one of the subplots contains a major clue to the murder investigation, but Nesbo is such a great storyteller that I often got wrapped up in the side stories for their own sake and forgot to pay attention to the clues hidden within them.

Another interesting style point with these books is that Nesbo gives you peeks into the bad guy's point of view off and on but you don't know who he is.  You also gets looks into the victim's perspective before they die as well as a few other main characters, but often, when it is not Hole, the reader is not sure exactly who is talking to us.  This also adds to the suspense and the compelling pacing.

If it is possible, Harry is even more broken in this installment than the one previous.  And even though he wins in the end, it is at a steep price.  The ending is still very dark even though Harry somehow manages to cheat death and save the lovely Kaja despite very unbelievable odds.  I did mention this "Hollywood Ending" problem with the first book, but obviously I did not mind it enough to not read the next book.  And, I was not surprised that such a dark book still had a happy-ish ending.

Like Bradley's series above, you read this series for Harry.  If you do not like Harry-- troubled, alcoholic, pining for his girlfriend, dad in a coma dying, Harry-- you will not like this series.  He is a completely different person from Flavia.  She is an optimist, Hole a pessimist.  But the appeal for readers is the same.  If you are okay with a troubled, conflicted, not all white knight protagonist, you will like Hole.  It can't be that crazy to connect these two widely different detectives (Harry and Flavia) because I enjoy them both, although for completely different reasons.

Three Words That Describe This Book: suspenseful, dark, lots of plot twists

Readalikes: Again, I have many varied readalike options with explanations here, but I want to add at least one new one.

John Burdett's Sonchai Jitpleecheep mysteries set in Bangkok and put out by the same publishers are also a good choice.  Both Jitpleecheep and Hole are troubled police officers who are involved in twisted, dark, and violent mysteries where the line between good and bad is very thinly drawn.  Also, both have a foreign setting (to American readers), a fact which is one appeal factor for me as a reader. 

On an interesting side note, I was compelled to return to the Harry Hole series to read The Leopard because I had noticed the newest book in the series, Phantom, on many of the year end best lists for 2012.  So I had Nesbo on my mind already, and then my son began reading Nesbo's humorous Doctor Proctor's Fart Powder children's series (which my son gives a hearty thumbs up to).  I couldn't resist the dichotomy of us reading the books side by side.

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