Tuesday, April 30, 2013

TLC Book Tours: Deadly Harvest, by Michael Stanley

Bourbon Street Books/Harper, 2013
496 pp

(ARC: thanks to the publisher and to TLC book tours!)

Deadly Harvest is book number four in a series of crime fiction/mystery novels to feature Detective David "Kubu" Bengu, who works for the Botswana police force. Normally I begin with the first installment of a series,  but I didn't realize that this book was so far ahead. As it turns out, its placement in the series wasn't an issue at all -- in fact, it can easily be read as a standalone, without any prior knowledge of the characters or the setting necessary.  So if you're considering it, and you haven't read the others, no problem.  The author, Michael Stanley, is actually a composite of two people: Stanley Trollip and Michael Sears, both born in Johannesburg, South Africa. 

Two little girls go missing in two different locations,  and when their loved ones turn to their local police forces, little to nothing happens.  Soon the cases go cold, at least officially, but one father named Witness can't stop thinking about his daughter. His grief leads him to the local bar where he spends a great deal of time drinking; and then to a local witch doctor who tells him that his daughter may have been taken for muti.  Normally extracted from plants or sometimes animals, the belief is that if a person ingests this traditional substance, he or she will take on some of the powers of the plant/animal being used (like a lion heart for bravery, etc.). However, there is also a market (illegal and definitely unsanctioned) for  muti derived from humans. Witness comes to believe that his daughter is a victim of this illegal muti trade, and he is told he should look for a man seeking power.  This advice makes Witness remember seeing candidate Marumo about the time of his daughter's disappearance,  a member of the opposition Freedom Party in an upcoming election.  Witness goes to Marumo's home in the dark of night, kills him and flees.  Don't worry -- not a spoiler -- this bit of information is right on the cover blurb. Kubu is assigned to the case, an investigation where he will have to tread extremely lightly due to political considerations. As it happens, a new detective, Samantha Khama is working on her first case which deals with  of one of the missing girls.  Their individual investigations merge together when a gourd filled with muti is found in Marumo's desk and ultimately reveal a unknown, deadly and "invisible" adversary who needs to be stopped.  Help, however, is not fast in coming -- their unidentified suspect is very powerful and no one will speak against him.

The mysteries within this police procedural  are engaging, but even more so are the social and political issues that are brought out here.  As I've noted previously in other posts,  crime fiction is becoming a medium for the airing of important issues, especially in countries with which most people are unfamiliar.   The discussion of prejudice against albinos, for example, and their value in Tanzania as a source of muti that breeds fear among that group of people goes way beyond the police procedural aspect, as does the line between traditional beliefs and modern viewpoints, a boundary which is often straddled by those on both sides.  It's also interesting that some things seem to be universal -- the politics involved in police work, the lack of enough police to adequately investigate crimes in smaller areas, the concern about AIDS and the plight of children born of mothers who've died from the disease, corruption etc. Of course, this isn't why most people tend to read crime fiction, but these authors have done a great job in introducing the issues important in this area.  

The main character, Detective David "Kubu" Bengu (known as Detective Kubu throughout) is described as having a great bulk. Even so, he speaks softly, has a rational mind, and never fails to direct respect where it is due even under trying situations. He is a family-oriented man as well as a good investigator. His new colleague, Samantha Khama, hasn't yet learned the fine art of tempering her very hot temper, becoming passionate about issues that are important to her not only as a cop, but as a woman and as a human being.  Both characters are drawn very well.

On the other hand,  there is a really large amount of space spent on Kubu's personal life -- with his father's declining mind, the decision whether or not to adopt a little girl whose mother died of AIDS, Sunday family traditions, games played with his little girls, etc., and while I'm sure this all adds to character development, it's often distracting in terms of the mystery and the action at the heart of the novel. I also have to say that despite all of the careful plotting and the focus on the investigation, I guessed who the "invisible" adversary was not too far into the story.   This is a personal thing, but when I read crime, I want that "aha" moment at the end when all is revealed.  Finally, I'm not feeling an overall entrenched sense of place in this novel which to me is important and especially so in a place I've never been.  On the flip side, however, this is a series I would like to read from its beginning, so I will definitely be revisiting Detective Kubu in the future. 

Overall, it's a fun read that is remarkable in terms of the authors' attention to pressing social and political issues and how the characters react in such situations.  As I noted, not everyone looks to a crime novel for what it can say about another country or another culture, so if you're in it just for the mystery aspect of it all, you probably won't be disappointed.  Deadly Harvest is a book I can recommend to other readers of crime fiction/mystery, despite my personal little niggles.

(also posted at my crime segments page of this reading journal)


My thanks to TLC book tours, and you can track other bloggers as the book makes its rounds here

next up:

Wednesday, May 1st: Between the Covers

You can also find more information about the authors and their books at their website

Monday, April 29, 2013

sneak peek: coming to a bookstore near you -- Questions of Travel, by Michelle DeKretser (May 14, US publication date)

Little, Brown and Company, 2013  (US release scheduled for May 14)
480 pp

"To work and suffer is to be at home. All else is scenery."

My many thanks to NetGalley and to the publishers for my kindle copy of this book.

This book will be publishing soon in the US and it's one you may not want to miss.  While I really don't like posting my thoughts on a novel this far away from its publication date, it's already been published elsewhere with many reader reviews, so why not.  Questions of Travel is  a story that moves over decades to examine the two very distinct and conflicted people at the heart of this novel as they make a series of sometimes heartbreaking transitions over their lifetimes. 

With the death of her beloved aunt, and the emotional distance between herself and the other members of her immediate family, Laura begins to feel acutely that something is lacking in her life. While she's lost her closest family tie, her aunt does leave her some money, allowing her to make a move to London.  She also begins to travel, thinking that in some way moving about the globe might take her out of her lonely existence and into something more exciting, or perhaps lead her to find the love or acceptance she's missed out on in her life.  Her desire to travel is  sparked largely by a suitcase left behind by her aunt, filled with souvenirs from her own wanderings.   Laura has no real desire to settle down or put down roots, and while in the UK, takes only the kinds of jobs that allow her great flexibility in her life.  She has a few friends, keeps her possessions down to a manageable level, and enjoys her life there until a friend dies, leading her back to Australia.  There, her background leads her into a job with a company that publishes travel guides where she discovers that the business is less about sharing the spontaneous joys of travel than keeping up with the shallow day-to-day office politics which tie up most of the work day.  The second character,  Ravi, on the other hand, has always been surrounded by a loving family. As a young boy in Sri Lanka, his favorite subject in school was geography; as a man, he married a lovely  woman with whom he had a little boy.  His wife saw firsthand the outrages committed against women during Sri Lanka's terrible civil war, and did not hesitate to speak out so that others would become aware; her work, however, leads to her tragic death. Ravi then discovers that on top of his loss, his own life is in danger and that his physical safety depends on getting out of the country.  He ultimately makes his way to Australia on a tourist visa, but he is really a refugee who must try to piece together some kind of life in this new place, continually torn  between his own survival and the love for the country and people he's left behind.  Both have a number of adjustments to make as they travel through life, but they each come to realize that their respective pasts are always along as their constant companions. 

By exploring the lives of these two people, the author also examines what it is that prompts people to venture out into the world away from home; she also looks at travel as a medium for connecting to people of other cultures and the "invisible things" a tourist might see but which go unnoticed by the locals.  Flight, transition, and overcoming the individual "refugee" experience are  very pronounced themes in this story, as is the question of the relativity of history to the places travelers  pass through as tourists. Ravi, for example, has lived through some of the worst moments in his country's modern existence, while tourists coming to Sri Lanka for the authentic native experience either find their tours  too bleak or else contrived.  The author also makes her readers understand that travel and the technology that takes us where we want to go can have the opposite, isolating  effect -- as both Laura and Ravi discover in their own very different ways.  There are also a number of very mockingly funny and ironic moments in this novel to enjoy.  Obviously, there's so much more to this book; my little scratch on its surface here is only a start.

It is incredibly easy for the reader to become deeply caught up in Ravi's story, but imho, in Laura's life, not so much.  What Ravi has to undergo not only in his own country but upon his arrival in Australia makes him a much deeper, more compelling character than Laura, who seems to me to be much more shallow of a person.  While reading the chapters about Laura, I was always anticipating the move to Ravi's story, not just because of his story, but because it seemed to me that the writing flowed better in these parts. And frankly, to be really honest, I just couldn't care about "poor" Laura.   That's not to say I only liked half the novel, because that's just not the case.  It's just  when reading about a character you just can't bring yourself to find any sympathy for, treading through the thick detail surrounding that person's life is just difficult.   From the perspective of a casual reader, there's much to appreciate in this book; you don't have to have a background in the situation in Sri Lanka (although it's very helpful) to understand where Ravi is coming from, and the overall story is easy to understand without having to pull your hair out at the roots trying to discern what the author's trying to say.  I tend to not want to go through novels with a fine-tooth comb  which for me takes out all of the enjoyment of reading, so if you're looking for a bottom-line good story, you'll like this one.  I have to agree with some other readers who complained about the huge amount of detail that could have been edited out, but beyond that, the story leaves you with much to consider, which is never a bad thing in any book.

Monday, April 22, 2013

*Make Room! Make Room!, by Harry Harrison

Orb/Tom Doherty Associates, 2008
originally published in 1966
284 pp


"He said be fruitful and multiply, and we have..." (176)

If you look up the word Dystopia, you'll find that one of its definitions is  the opposite of Utopia.  The setting for  Make Room! Make Room! is  New York City, 1999, well beyond teeming with a population of 35 million people, definitely not a utopia, by any stretch of the imagination. The increase in welfare payments has brought the city income tax to a whopping 80%.  Housing is scarce for the regular person, while the more affluent live in guarded apartments, one in particular resembling a castle complete with moat and drawbridge.  Food is a precious commodity and water is rationed, again, except for the rich who have speakeasy-like secret meat markets for their shopping pleasures and can enjoy long showers.

One of the defenders of the people in this overpopulated New York City filled with desperate people  is Andy Rusch.  He's a policeman who sees himself as "a crummy cop trying to hold things together while the rest of the bastards are taking them apart." He lives in a room next to Sol, an elderly man who fills Andy's head with his old stories.  Andy is currently tasked with finding Billy Chung, the murderer of a wealthy criminal named Michael O'Brien, who most of  the policemen are glad to see gone. In a city where the populace often resorts to rioting, where crowd control and protecting the streets are the mainstay of police activity and murder investigations are not top priority, Andy wonders why this guy's death is such a big deal. All he knows is that  the word has come down from the politicians that he's to give the case top priority.  Overworked, tired, with a little extra food ration for being a cop,  he starts his investigation and meets Shirl Greene, girlfriend/mistress to the dead guy, who is about to be tossed out into the streets; Billy Chung manages to find a way to disappear, holing up with a former priest who is waiting for the turn of the millenium, for the new heaven and new earth. Each character fulfills a definite role in terms of who they represent in this city; this plot is the frame for the real point of this book, which examines the hell of "an overpopulated future," as well as how the world got to this state.  It is the wise, elderly Sol who provides the answers, starting with the advances in modern medicine to the point where
"Everything had a cure. Malaria was wiped out along with all the other diseases that had been killing people young and keeping the population down. Death control arrived. Old people lived longer. More babies lived who would have died, and now they grow up into old people who live longer still. People are still being fed into the world just as fast – they’re just not being taken out of it at the same rate. Three are born for every two that die. So the population doubles and doubles – and keeps on doubling at a quicker rate all the time. We got a plague of people, a disease of people infecting the world. We got more people who are living longer. Less people have to be born, that’s the answer. We got death control – we got to match it with birth control.”
He also poses a question about a bigger crime, that of  "letting kids die of disease and starvation or seeing that the unwanted ones don't get born in the first place?"  Politicians won't take on the issue, as it is far too controversial -- they only go as far as making access to birth control information mandatory.  Other points made in this novel deal with the welfare system, price gouging, and the too little, too late political measures that have no real effect in times of crisis.  I found some of Harrison's issues that are still relevant, although many of the reviews I've read of this book note that the themes explored in this book are outdated and therefore nothing to get overly excited about.

Actually, I look at like this: this novel is an intriguing look at issues of its time, and really should be respected as such.  Overpopulation and the failure of the earth to sustain an out-of-control population was a real concern back then, publicized by Paul Erlich in the late 60s. Today we also tend to forget that contraceptives were not as easily available as they are now -- in 1964, the pill was still illegal in eight states, and it was only a US Supreme Court ruling in 1965 that made it legal in Connecticut. And back then, the influence of the Catholic church reached far and wide in matters of contraception.

 Another prevalent criticism of this book was that it was nothing like the movie Soylent Green -- and failed to mention the secret behind the food.  Really? Seriously? This book didn't even go down that path,  so why on earth criticize it for something that Hollywood made up after the fact? Even Harrison, as his LA Times obituary notes, thought the film only occasionally "bore a faint resemblance to the book." 

While Harrison's doom-and-gloom scenario of 35 million people in New York City never came to pass, the book shouldn't just be one you turn your nose up at. According to the author's obituary, Tom Doherty, founder of Tor Books, noted that Harrison saw science fiction as a medium that "caused people to think about our world and what it could become.”  That's one major reason I read sci-fi, although I have to admit I'm partial to older novels like this one.  I liked it, and while maybe it's not the best sf novel I've ever read, it's definitely one I won't forget.

*A Friend of the Earth, by T.C. Boyle

Penguin, 2000
349 pp

Today is Earth Day, and this year's theme is "The Face of Climate Change."  T.C. Boyle's A Friend of the Earth is set during a time when the severe effects of  climate change have become a reality, so it's actually appropriate to begin here.

A Friend of the Earth is quite different from many environmentally- or eco-based novels I've read.  While some of the normal dystopian scenarios are in place (the harsh, devastating effects of climate change, deforestation, worldwide animal extinction are but three),  and the author in his own way lets his readers know that there is little to no hope for the future, this book is also very different. While it makes you ponder the inevitability of bleak times to come, it also makes you laugh as Mr. Boyle puts irony ahead of heavy-handedness or preaching -- since, as the main character notes, it's much too late for that.  And that's a good thing:  thinking about the earth's environmental future and our place in it is often downright depressing. 

Tyrone (Ty) Tierwater works as the caretaker of a private collection of animals. Ty, in his 70s, has a good gig  working for a millionaire pop star who's been trying to save some of the last critically-endangered animals before they're gone for good. In 2025, floods, rain, heat and nightmarish winds are the norm. Ty lives a simple life, taking care of the animals and then going out for the occasional sake (rice wine that is the only alcohol available at the local bar since rice is the only crop which can survive in these conditions), but that all changes when one day, without warning, his ex-wife Andrea shows up with news that a writer is interested in penning the story of their daughter Sierra. But it's not the only reason she's there -- she has plans to restart  Earth Forever!, the environmental-activism group they were part of in the past, "for the survivors."  Andrea's return is what prompts the story of Ty's former days as a monkeywrenching member of  Earth Forever!, complete with berets, raised fists and acts of ecotage, at a time when "to be a friend of the earth, you have to be an enemy of the people."  As the narrative goes back in time, it reveals not only the motivations behind Ty's actions (which may not be quite what you'd expect),  but also  how eventually he came to sacrifice much more than he bargained for in the process of doing his part in saving the planet.  The book also has a major focus beyond the environment, that of a father's love for his daughter.  This is only a quick rundown, but it's a wonderful book, much less heavy-handed than I expected from its beginning.

One of the messages to be found here is that we're all involved in a paradoxical relationship with our planet's future: progress  gives us the little gadgets and gizmoes we love and demand, but at the same time we have to realize that many of our consumer habits are partially to blame for the planet's woes;  we also care about what happens to the environment, but at the same time few people these days are going to go live completely off the grid in total tune with nature -- or, as in the novel, they try it and come right back to the real world.   It's all about compromise.   These points are illustrated amply and ironically throughout this novel, which I only put down reluctantly when forced by outside circumstances to do so.  It's pleasantly much different than what I thought it would be, and I recommend it highly. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Pulitzer Prize for Fiction has just been announced, and the winner is

The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson.  Very much worthy of this prestigious award, this novel was one of my very favorite books last year.  Not that he or anyone from Random House will ever see this post, but my congratulations on the win.  I LOVED this book and have not read anything like it since.  If you haven't read it, run, do not walk and get a copy!!!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

*The Sheep Look Up, by John Brunner

Benbella Books, 2003
originally published 1972
388 pp


"We're divorced from reality, in the same way as the Romans went on thinking of themselves as invulnerable and unchallengeable long after it ceased to be true. The most awful warnings are staring us in the face..."  (207)

The Sheep Look Up wins my award for most unique reaction after having finished a book. I felt all covered in grime and hungry for fresh air and water.  This is one of those books that literally get under your skin and I was so happy to be out of Brunner's world it was unreal.   While the novel is set in a dystopian future, James Bell, who wrote the book's "Afterword," states that John Brunner noted that what was most frightening to him about The Sheep Look Up
"with its vision of a world where pollution is out of control...is that I invented literally nothing for it, bar a chemical weapon that made people psychotic. Everything else I took straight out of the papers, and magazines..."

and if you think about that for just a moment, alarm bells should be going off in your head -- this book was first published over 40 years ago.  Despite the grimy, thirsty feeling I was left with,  this book also struck me as being one of the best works of environmentally-based fiction I've ever read. There's just something masterful in the novel's message of a clear and present danger for our future.

With only a few pockets of exception, the United States is a veritable cesspool.  The seas are polluted beyond repair, acid rain in New York eats holes in people's clothing, the air is so bad that filtermasks (sold in vending machines) are required just to be outside, and  "Don't Drink" the water alerts are common. Trash lays out, uncollected, spawning rats and other pests; exterminators are way too busy to come to one's home at short notice.  Health problems are widespread, stds and other diseases normally treated by drugs have developed antibiotic-resistant strains, and parents whose children are born with only minor ailments or physical problems are considered extremely fortunate. The American government is run by a leader known as "Prexy," whose policy is one of blatant denial and blaming all of America's ills on terrorists.  One man, Austin Train, knows the truth -- and he is public enemy number one where the government is concerned so is forced to go underground.  Train is a committed environmentalist whose works have been studied and followed by others who have settled in commune-like places called wats where they put into practice what we'd call today "going green."  Train is a peaceful person but many who have taken up his cause for a cleaner America are not.  The "Trainites,"  as they call themselves, believe in more violent means of trying to "fix" things, something Austin Train would never condone.

from Zimbio, a beach in California
 The story in this novel is related via a number of varying plotlines and narratives that seem choppy at first but actually have a rhythm and a purpose,  all  melding together beautifully as the novel progresses.  It begins with the bizarre death of  Decimus Jones, a friend of Austin Train, on an LA freeway. His strange death becomes an event that will eventually draw together the stories of every character in this novel in a roundabout way, all of whom are caught up in the country's growing state of emergency in their own fashion.  Punctuating their ongoing stories are bits of speeches, news reports, poems, songs, television-show transcripts and scenes from outside the country, where the army is at war with its current enemy in Latin America. While this strange format may seem a bit disconcerting and jarring, once into the story, you are stuck as you eagerly flip pages to see how things are going to end.  As a bit of a warning, don't get too attached to any one character or groups of characters, because things tend to get very bleak here with an unequivocal aura of despair surrounding pretty much everyone. 

Old this book may be, as noted above, published some 40 years ago, but it is still very much worth the read. The author has this way of thoroughly unsettling and disorienting his readers while keeping things moving at a fast pace, all the while making his point about what our future might look like  in the not too-distant future.  Pooh-pooh the didacticism if you so choose, which many people do, but imho, this is a novel that everyone who cares about and doesn't just give lip service to a better future might want to read.  Don't forget the afterword -- the nonfiction, which should scare you even more than the novel did.

Friday, April 12, 2013

*Oil on Water, by Helon Habila

WW Norton, 2011
239 pp

"And then he quoted the proverb about how elephants achieve their great size: they simply eat up everything that stands in their path, trees and ants and plants and dirt, everything."  (63)

Oil on Water, the only novel I've read by Nigerian author Helon Habila won a spot on the shortlist for the 2011 Commonwealth Prize, and was a 2012 finalist for both the Orion Book Award and the PEN Open Book AwardHowever, this book is not his first novel, nor is he a stranger to prize-winning fiction:  his Waiting for an Angel won the 2003 Commonwealth Prize, in the Africa section, and his second novel brought him the fiction award from the Virginia Library Foundation in 2008. After reading Oil and Water, I can see why his writing is award worthy.  Set in the Niger Delta, this book examines the changes brought about by the oil industry, which drilled its first well in 1956 and has remained a permanent fixture ever since. This very short but powerful novel, a story seen through the eyes of a  journalist named Rufus,  briefly relates and brings together the stories of  five different groups in the area: 1) the people who live in the Delta whose traditional lands, waterways and ways of life have been changed, exploited and in many cases, damaged beyond repair; 2) the numerous groups of  freedom fighters/militants whose operations pit  them against 3) the oil companies and 4) the government soldiers who routinely patrol the area; and 5) the journalists, who are invited to come and witness, record and relay the truth of what's really going on in the Delta.  While the subject matter is disturbing on many levels, Habila's writing is stunning, conjuring up hellish images along the upriver journeys and conveying a very real sense of the human effects of the changes wrought by the oil industry. 

The frame for this novel is that the wife of an oil-company executive has been kidnapped and a group of journalists have been invited to make the journey up the river for an interview with her and her captors. Rufus is a new reporter at the 3rd largest paper in Port Harcourt, and when the request to get the story comes in, he volunteers for a job that all of the journalists know is potentially fatal after the earlier killings of two reporters on a similar mission.  Along with him is his idol Zaq, a "once-great reporter" now past his glory days, once famous for his stories that emphasized the humanity beneath events.  As they make their journey upriver for the story, they become part of it -- they are held as prisoners and encounter others who have also been taken captive; they are firsthand witnesses to murder and other violent acts, and throughout their trek they experience the horrific devastation of waterways and land that used to sustain entire populations. The story goes back and forth through time as Rufus relates both his past and Zaq's;  Rufus also talks to various people they encounter along the way and hears their respective stories of  how they came to be where they are at present.  For example, a chief of what used to be a close-knit village that "lacked for nothing" relates how the community that was "insulated from the world" became sharply divided after a visit from the oil company that made an offer to buy the village with enough money for relocation.  The chief at the time refused; after all, it was his ancestral land and the people were its custodians; he had seen firsthand the devastation of fishing areas and land that grew nothing after other villages had sold. 

from foei.org
 At the same time, however, some of the younger people in the village saw the perpetually-burning gas flare as a symbol of prosperity and what they didn't have, dividing the community and putting pressure on the chief. Eventually the government soldiers moved in, taking the chief away and ultimately giving the villagers no choice but to sell. 

The author spares no detail in describing the environmental devastation, including the "foul and sulphurous" river with its floating dead and dying wildlife, the fish that have disappeared, the perpetually-burning flares of gas that burn throughout the night and produce toxic fumes,  and land that is so oil soaked that nothing can grow. But he also focuses heavily on the human side of things, noting that the people in the delta area have no choice but to live through  the "worst conditions of any oil-producing community on Earth." Government corruption is a reality that sustains poverty, and poverty engenders groups like the militants/freedom fighters, who disrupt oil production until they're paid off, kidnap for huge ransoms and are in a state of perpetual warfare with government soldiers that involves the lives of otherwise innocent people.  Tapping oil lines just to survive, sometimes with disastrous results, according to the author, is another human consequence, as is the move to bigger cities where work is hard or nearly impossible to come by.  At the same time, there are some wonderful people who inhabit these pages -- people who are giving, generous, and who are at heart looking for a way through the chaos to arrive at some measure of peace.

Oil and Water is a depressing novel, but at the same time, the story is very well written, giving the reader pause to think.  If you're saying in your head "oh crap, not another story about the evil corporations," well, yes, there is definitely a LOT of that here. 

from Reuters
At its core, however, this is an all-too-human story, based on realities that most people reading this book, including myself, can't even begin to fathom.  It brings to light an ongoing state of environmental devastation and human rights issues that most people either aren't aware of and well, frankly, probably don't care about because it's somewhere over in Africa and isn't relevant to daily living. And that's really a shame. I loved this novel and all I can say by way of recommendation is READ THIS BOOK!!

Friday, April 5, 2013

April: In time for earth day -- environmental fiction (and other stuff)

Time to pull out and dust off those environmental fiction novels on the shelves ... the picture is a random sampling of what's in my library.  I'll be selecting from this group and others, reading some new fiction and finishing with some of the publisher's copies I've received (in various genres) over the month.  Any suggestions would be welcome!

Monday, April 1, 2013

TLC Book Tours: The Missing File, by D.A. Mishani

Harper, 2013
304 pp


Note: I will be linking my discussion of this novel to my crime-fiction page, The Crime Segments.


I was fortunate enough to get an ARC of this novel, so to Trish at TLC Book Tours and to the publisher, a big thanks.

As an avid reader of international crime fiction, I have books from several countries around the world, but The Missing File is my first crime-fiction novel from Israel.  It is also the first in a projected series (which I deduced from the final words "to be continued" at the end of the book) to feature detective Avraham (Avi) Avraham, who works out of a small, depressing office in Holon, close to Tel Aviv.  As a police procedural it is not quite the same as most books in that category, although Avi shares the what's-becoming-ever-more-traditional detective/personal life angst of many other well known fictional crime solvers.  Right away the reader is clued in that this story may actually be something different: a mom comes in to report her son missing and Avraham tells her to go home. The story continues with different twists and turns that also signal that this is not going to be your average police detective novel. No formulaic resolution for this author -- he is bringing something a little different to the crime-reading table in this book,  and that's a good thing.  

The case of missing 16 year-old Ofer causes Avraham a great deal of anxiety and causes him a major amount of second guessing himself throughout the story.  Without going into any great detail about plot, the case takes some very strange turns, none the least of which involves a strange neighbor of the missing boy whose desire to be a writer leads him to do something incredibly odd.  The Missing File, however, is less about the plot and more driven by character -- Avraham is supposed to be an ace detective but there are times that as a reader, you'll find yourself a) questioning decisions he makes to the point where it's difficult to understand why he's held in such high regard and b) wondering whether or not this case is ever going to be solved.  

While in this first series novel, what's really at the root of  this detective's inner turmoil continues to remain a mystery (more on that later), on the surface it isn't difficult to figure out why Avraham is so frustrated.  One of his stock routines with some people who he encounters in his office is to say that there are no detective novels in Hebrew --no Israeli writers writing works à la Agatha Christie or Stieg Larsson -- and then to explain why:

"...we don't have crimes like that. We don't have serial killers; we don't have kidnappings; and there aren't many rapists out there attacking women on the streets. Here, when a crime is committed, it's usually the neighbor, the uncle, the grandfather, and there's no need for a complex investigation to find the criminal and clear up the mystery. There's simply no mystery here."
 But when he receives a strange call about the case from an officer at the security service Shin Bet, Avraham gets a wholly different answer to his question of the lack of detective novels:
"...the police in Israel are responsible for trivial investigations that no one would bother reading about or writing a book about, and also because most of the police investigators aren't particularly bright. The Shin Bet handles the important investigations and no one knows anything about us. And those who do know aren't allowed to breathe a word."
Aside from this strange call from this mysterious security service which routinely expropriates police cases, something Avraham knows about firsthand,  Avraham works in shabby surroundings, has to deal with a younger, more tech-savvy fellow detective in his squad who gets his boss's attention with his modern theories, and Avraham also comes home to an empty house every night, to watch Law and Order while picking off every mistake in the TV detectives' cases that would make them unprosecutable.  He is constantly second guessing himself on the job and when he makes mistakes, he's virtually inconsolable; when he realizes he's brushed off a mother's concerns and the son still hasn't returned the next day, it causes him to dive into the case with a vengeance. 

If you're looking for the average point A to point B solution, this is not the place where you'll find it. Mishani plays with his readers, developing lines of inquiry that come to nothing, giving us the story from two points of view, and he refuses to rush to a formulaic conclusion like so many authors of crime fiction.  Even when all is said and done, the reader gets another jolt, putting things in an entirely different light.  I appreciate anything beyond the ordinary, and Mishani has certainly given me that in this novel.  Many readers have noted that the action in this book is slow, and that is definitely true.  They've also noted that the action in The Missing File is not exactly what they're used to in a police procedural, and that is also the case, but from where I see it, that's a plus.   My issue isn't with either one of these points; for me careful character development is key to any first novel in an ongoing series.  Plot, pacing and solutions are important to me as well, but when I pick up what may be a series opener, I want to know if I like the main character enough to continue with a second installment.  On finishing the book, Avraham still remains a mystery --  while we have a few clues as to what makes Avraham tick, I'm still not sure what lies beneath this very different detective.  Then again, trying to discover that unknown factor just might be a very good reason to pick up the next book in the series. Definitely recommended, it should appeal to crime-fiction lovers.

crime fiction from Israel


Once again, my thanks to TLC Book Tours, where The Missing File is currently being  discussed by  several  readers.  You can find the novel's tour schedule by clicking here