Scandinavian Crime or Not?


Did you like the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo books or the Kurt Wallander series? Well, here’s a great tip from my good friend Chris: Read all of the Department Q novels you can get your hands on. Chris told me that they are riveting mysteries and the characters are “just so well-developed.” I took her advice and checked out the first in the series and my husband and I have been hooked ever since.

Department Q is a series of crime thriller novels by Danish novelist Jussi Adler-Olsen. The series follows Carl Morck, one of the best homicide detectives in Copenhagen who has been ‘promoted’ to head the cold case department. This series originally began in Danish with Kvinden i buret in 2007. In 2011, it was translated into English and published in the UK as Mercy and in the USA as The Keeper of Lost Causes.

Olsen is Denmark’s #1 crime writer and this book, the first in the series, makes it quite evident why. His writing style flows smoothly, keeping the pace of the story moving along while providing back story and strong characterization. His main character, Carl, is an acerbic and difficult man but a brilliant detective. He has just returned to work after an attack at a crime scene that left one of his colleagues dead and another paralyzed – Carl was hit in the head by a bullet and has been out for several months. Upon his return, he has set himself to do as little as possible; all interest in his career is gone. So Carl’s boss puts him in charge of  Department Q, which is designed to look into long-cold cases. The first case Carl starts with is the disappearance of Merete Lynggaard, a politician who disappeared five years ago from a ferry on the way to Germany. It was believed that she fell overboard – either deliberately on her part, or by accident – and the case was left unsolved. Carl starts digging into it and finds many things left unchecked; maybe she’s still alive.

The story is lightened by Carl’s assistant Hafez el-Assad, called Assad.  Assad is both comic relief and a very intriguing character. He demonstrates great insight into detective work and has amazing contacts and capabilities which generates interest about his mysterious past. Carl and Assad make a great team, their opposing characters bounce off each other as each gains greater respect for the other.

This fabulous book has everything one could want in a thriller: twists and turns and fantastic descriptions of the victim’s suffering. The point of view alternates between the present, with Carl investigating the disappearance and with the past, as we watch (and cheer for and worry about) the victim as she waits for her death or for Carl to finally rescue her.

Good news! There are five more great Department Q novels waiting for you once you finish the first:

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indexSo, if you don’t like crime mysteries, there’s still a Scandinavian option for you. A Man Called Ove is the first novel of Swedish author Fredrik Backman. Simply put, Ove is a human version of the Grumpy Cat, claws and all. One of my favorite quotes pertains to his relationship with the neighborhood stray, and at the same time paints a very accurate picture of Ove as a character:

It was five to six in the morning when Ove and the cat met for the first time. The cat instantly disliked Ove exceedingly. The feeling was very much reciprocated.

Forced into early retirement at the age of 59, recently widowed and quietly missing his wife Sonja, Ove finds that his highly structured world is becoming devoid of meaning. A man for whom the concept of things being either black or white (Ove drives a Saab and anyone driving a BMW is not to be trusted) comes naturally, he quickly arrives at a decision that would solve the problem his new living situation presents. The only thing he does not take into account is the ongoing disruption of his plans in the form of his new next door neighbor, a whirlwind called Parvaneh and her family. In between numerous disturbances to Ove’s little universe, we keep getting glimpses not only into what hides behind his grumpiness, but also into his past and the events that shaped both his life and him as a person.  This is a book similar to The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Try it.

Come on down to the library and check out these books for your own mini-vacation to Scandinavia. Farvel!

Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl at the Library!


I hope you know that you’re invited to a free public literary event with Timothy Egan and Nancy Pearl on Saturday, April 6th at 7 PM at the Everett Performing Arts Center. This should be a great evening for lovers of both history and literature. Timothy Egan will read from his latest book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis, and then will be interviewed by legendary librarian Nancy Pearl, who is herself the author of Book Lust and its sequels and is a regular NPR commentator on books. There will be books and also wine available for purchase.  Sounds perfect!

Timothy Egan writes for the New York Times and we are lucky to have him in our backyard and yes, I do consider Seattle to be Everett’s backyard. In addition to his journalism, he has written a slew of non-fiction books which are mostly set in the Pacific Northwest. Here’s a quick rundown.

indexLet’s go chronologically through Egan’s books and start with The Good Rain: Across Time and Terrain in the Pacific Northwest.  Atop Mount Rainier, Egan checked the map to see which glacier would best feed his grandfather’s ashes down into streams where the man loved to fish. A minor glacier called Winthrop looked best, and that’s where the ashes went. Egan’s research led to the writings of Theodore Winthrop who spent three months exploring Oregon and Washington in 1853. Egan retraced Winthrop’s route and we get fascinating comparisons between what the two men saw roughly 150 years apart. It is a great travel history of the Pacific Northwest and I highly recommend it as fascinating reading.


Breaking Blue is the true-crime story of a Sheriff who worked through 54 years of police cover-ups and solved the oldest open murder case in the country. It is the chilling story of the abuses of the Spokane police department during the Great Depression. Egan unravels the story in engrossing detail, illuminating a host of horrible acts committed by the cops in that city, including robbery, murder and extorting sex from Dust Bowl refugees.


Wild Seattle: A Celebration of the Natural Areas In and Around the City is a celebration of the wild lands, parks, preserves, and wildlife of the greater Seattle area and features more than 130 superb color images by renowned nature photographers. Egan wrote the engaging text for this beautiful coffee table book.

indexLasso the Wind is a look at the eleven states “on the sunset side of the 100th meridian” that Egan regards as the true West. Fishing rod and notebook in hand, he travels by car and foot, horseback and raft, through a region struggling to find its future direction under both the weight of the “Old West” and the commercial threats of the present. He covers the story of what he calls the New West in essays that choose a localized story. The stories are often about a controversy or a change that is happening in the area. Skip around and read an essay or two as time allows and you’ll be rewarded with funny and incisive writing.

indexMy first introduction to Egan’s writing came when I read the popular The Worst Hard Time which chronicles the hardships of those who endured the horrible dust storms of the Great Plains during the depression. Egan follows a half-dozen families and their communities through the rise and fall of the region as they went from sod huts to new framed houses to huddling in basements with the windows sealed by damp sheets in a futile effort to keep the dust out. Read this book to understand the devestation that these massive dust storms had on the high plains.


We actually listened to The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt & the Fire That Saved America while we were driving to Idaho, the site of the largest forest fire in America. It is an outstanding, highly readable history of the Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3.2 million acres in and around the Bitterroot National Forest in Idaho and Montana. Egan moves deftly between the immediacy of the fire and the experiences of people caught up in it, and the powerful business and political interests whose actions both contributed to, and were affected by, the disaster. In the end this book serves as a history not only of the biggest U.S. fire of the 20th century, but also as an examination of the national politics of the first dozen years of the century, and of the origins of the U.S. Forest Service.

And now we come to Egan’s most recent book, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis. This biography of the famous photographer starts in Seattle and follows him through his obsessive quest to document all of the tribes of North America that were still intact. Curtis’ 20 volume The North American Indian was published between 1907 and 1930. We are all familiar with Curtis’ famous photographs. This book chronicles all of the sacrifices that Curtis made for his obsession. He was thirty-two years old in 1900 when he gave up his marriage, family and successful career in Seattle to pursue his great project. At once an incredible adventure and a fascinating biographical portrait, Egan’s book tells the remarkable untold story behind Curtis’ photographs, following him throughout Indian country from desert to rainforest as he struggled to document the stories and rituals of more than eighty tribes.


Even with the backing of Theodore Roosevelt and J.P. Morgan, it took tremendous effort (six years alone to convince the Hopi to allow him into their Snake Dance ceremony). The undertaking changed him profoundly, from detached observer to outraged advocate. He would die penniless and unknown in Hollywood just a few years after publishing the last of his twenty volumes. But the charming rogue with the grade-school education had fulfilled his promise—his great adventure succeeded in creating one of America’s most stunning cultural achievements. I downloaded this book from the library and listened to it while painting our basement over the course of a rainy week-end. I always think of Curtis when passing through the basement. Wouldn’t it be appropriate to hang a few (reproduced) Curtis photos there?

I hope to see you April 6th when the Everett Public Library brings this accomplished author to town!


Let us read cake, cookies and other sweet things (with apologies to Marie Antoinette)

book coverI’m not sure what it means, but every time I‘ve opened a book during the past two months, it seems to have something to do with food. First, I read the memoir Cakewalk by Kate Moses. The photo on the cover should have been a giveaway but I couldn’t put this book down. Moses relates her childhood and young adult years. One wonders how she survived her mismatched parents. Her memories revolve around food, mostly sugar laden, although her life was certainly not sweet. Most chapters end with a recipe connected to her painful life.

book coverThen, I read Aimee Bender’s tale, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, wherein Rose, on her ninth birthday, discovers that she can taste her mother’s emotions in the lemon-chocolate birthday cake. Food then becomes an obstacle for Rose as she navigates through life. Thrown into this mix is her brother, Frank, who must also confront his unusual gift. This is a fascinating look into a disintegrating family. Yet it is uplifting when Rose finally finds a way to confront and put her gift to use.  (There are no recipes in this book.)

After these books, I needed some light reading for a plane ride so I picked up The Secret of Everything by Barbara O’Neal. Tessa, an outdoor adventure leader, is recovering from an accident that took the life of a young woman for whom Tessa was responsible. Tessa’s been recuperating at her hippie father’s home, but she decides to investigate the (fictional) town of Las Ladronas, New Mexico, as a possible new site for an adventure tour. While exploring the area, she experiences déjà vu and memories are starting to surface. She also, of course, finds love – a widower with three young girls. The plot was a bit contrived, but O’Neal’s characters are appealing people with interesting lives and back stories. Yes, there are recipes in this book (most of them breakfast specialties). And there are also some delightful dogs in this story, too.

I also read Jen Lancaster’s latest laugh fest, My Fair Lazy. Although she covered her struggle with food and dieting in Such a Pretty Fat, in My Fair Lazy Lancaster attempts to bring culture into her life, which she labels “Jenaissance.” She and her very patient husband, Fletch, take several food and wine appreciation classes and visit a restaurant specializing in molecular gastronomy, where food is created using blowtorches and liquid nitrogen, rather than ovens and flame. Some of the dishes she describes made my mouth water. 

After finishing these books and raiding the fridge, I set out to redeem myself by reading The Amazing Adventures of DietGirl by Shauna Reid.  This inspiring and humorous story of the author’s experience of going from a very overweight young woman to a healthy slim one seemed to happily break the food spell. 

book coverNow I’m looking for something else to read. Perhaps a mystery, but preferably one without mention of butter burgers, frozen custard or “TastyKakes.” I believe I’ve found it in the gripping Still Missing. Please excuse me but I’ve got to get back to reading this “can’t put down” book.


It’s a mystery! Wait, it’s a whole herd of mysteries!

It’s a mystery why I’ve been in the mood to read mysteries lately. Here are some of the titles that stand above the rest of the herd.

The Poisoned Chocolates Case by Anthony Berkeley  

This mystery, penned in 1929, employs a classic premise: members of an amateur sleuthing club attempt to solve a murder mystery. Ah, but there is a twist that sets this story apart. The club meets every day for a week with a single member presenting his or her solution to the murder case each day. After exhibiting wholly convincing evidence and unassailable deductions, each solution is then demolished by other club members who have information unknown to the presenter. In reality, Mr. Berkeley is giving the reader a tutorial in the art of misdirection, demonstrating how mystery writers lead their audiences to believe certain assertions and ignore salient points by employing a fine coating of verbal sleight-of-hand. He presents us with a wholly enjoyable story which is ultimately a primer in mystery writing.

The Black Dove by Steve Hockensmith

Set mostly in the Chinatown of 1893 San Francisco, this mystery finds brothers Gustav and Otto Amlingmeyer, former cowboys but current private eye wannabes, in the midst of murder and mayhem. Between the police, thugs, Chinese tongs and a hard spot, the detective duo struggles to find a friend’s murderer, save a young woman from a seedy and immoral life, and stay alive. Hockensmith’s prose – this series of books is narrated by brother Otto in his inimitable speech patterns – and evocation of late 19th century San Francisco make for a fun and thoughtful read.

The Red House Mystery by A.A. Milne

Who knew that the progenitor of Winnie the Pooh had a great mystery, in addition to a plucky Piglet, in his fertile mind? In the charming foreword to this book, Milne expounds on the elements that make up a good mystery. Then he writes that mystery. The reader is transported to a typically English setting where Mark Ablett, master of the Red House, an elegant country manor, has disappeared and is presumed to be either murdered or a murderer. A passing stranger arrives just as gun shots ring out from inside the manor. The stranger, who has come to visit a friend staying at the Red House, decides to put his exceptional observational powers to the ultimate test of finding a murderer, with a little help from his Watsonian friend.

 The Big Over Easy by Jasper Fforde

In a world where nursery rhymes are real events, Inspector Jack Spratt of the Reading Police Nursery Crime Division is called upon to solve the apparent murder of Humpty Stuyvesant Van Dumpty III. Spratt faces the difficulties of being overshadowed by golden-boy detective Friedland Chymes (who writes exquisite tales that exhibit his unparalleled crime-solving abilities), of working in an under-funded soon-to-be-shutdown department, and of having a new partner (Mary Mary) who is none too happy to be working with him.  Amongst the difficulties, sinister goings-on, and spine-curling plot twists, Pratt must overcome adversity and catch his … man?

 American Lightning: Terror, Mystery, and the Birth of Hollywood by Howard Blum

This true story relates a tragic tale of terrorism on American soil: the 1910 bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, which resulted in 21 deaths. Detective William J. Burns, America’s non-fictitious answer to Sherlock Holmes, is called in to unearth the truth. By employing a series of fascinating sleuthing techniques Burns slowly unravels threads of truth that bring him ever-closer to the mystery’s solution. Clarence Darrow and D.W. Griffith, two larger-than-life historical giants, contribute significantly to the story’s outcome.

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit, a police division that investigates bizarre crimes no one else wants to touch, is run by two elderly and brilliant detectives, Arthur Bryant and John May. In Full Dark House, the author creates an intriguing juxtaposition between the end of this odd couple’s partnership and the beginning of their career together. As May looks into Bryant’s death it becomes clear that their first case, solved some fifty years earlier, is somehow related to the current investigation. A Gothic phantom-of-the-opera-esque mood prevails as May attempts to make sense out of a senseless situation.


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Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover

book coverPick it up.  Put it down.  Pick it up.  Nah.  Put it down.

This was me when I first saw the cover of Brunonia Barry’s The Map of True Places.  I thought, “This looks like a romance.” I must’ve picked it up and put it down half a dozen times before even reading a description of the book. Finally, I opened it up, read the flyleaf and didn’t put it down until I was finished.

There are those books you begin to read and consider calling in sick to work just to finish, (note to self: don’t let the boss read this), books that you start to read in the middle of the afternoon and the next time you check it’s 3 o’clock in the morning. 

This is one of those books.

I’m a sucker for family stories, especially if they’re sordid and strange. I love novels where skeletons are crammed in every closet in the house or the families are just downright weird.  The Map of True Places has all of these things. It’s a story about believing we know everything there is to know about our parents and finding out parents have inner lives of their own. It’s also a story about running away from the past only to find the past catches up with us.

 There’s a mystery running throughout the book. Nothing too heavy, nothing that preys on your mind late into the night, but a compelling mystery nonetheless.  I found myself thinking about this book for days afterward. 

If you pick this book up, don’t be surprised if you find yourself awake in the middle of the night, turning the pages as fast as possible, eager to get to the end.


The Girl Who…

I’ve noticed a handful of new books with titles that begin The Girl Who. With no further ado, here’s a “who’s who” of these girls who stop swimming, chase the  moon, fall from the sky, play with fire, and what have you.

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The Girl Who Stopped Swimming (2008) by Joshilyn Jackson
Laurel’s happy suburban life is torn apart when a ghost appears and leads her to the dead body of a girl floating in the backyard swimming pool. This book will appeal to the reader who enjoys southern gothic storytelling, rich ghost stories, and family drama.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon (2010) by Sarah Addison Allen
Teenager Emily wants to learn more about her elusive mother, Dulcie, and is disappointed that her grandfather won’t help her. But Dulcie’s high school rival, Julia—on her own unlikely quest to find a daughter given up for adoption—takes an interest in Emily. This book is recommended for readers who love family secrets, romantic intrigue, and magical realism.

The Girl Who Fell from the Sky (2010) by Heidi Durrow
Rachel is the daughter of a Danish mother and a black G.I. As the sole survivor of a family tragedy, she moves with her grandmother to a black community where her light skin and blue eyes attract unwanted attention. This autobiographical novel of racial identity, grief, and coming of age is recommended for those who enjoyed  The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2009) and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (2010) by Stieg Larsson
These are the second and third books in the late Stieg Larsson’s wildly popular Swedish thriller series. (The first book is The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.) Fans of this series can’t get enough of Lisbeth Salander, the 24-year-old tattooed genius hacker at the heart of these mysteries. (Be sure to listen to The Lone Reader’s review of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo if you haven’t already!)

It’s not just the girls who are featured in new book titles. There are also a handful of interesting new books featuring “boys who” too: The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (2009) by William Kamkwamba,  The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To (2010) by D.C. Pierson, and  The Boy Who Loved Tornadoes (2010) by Randi Davenport.

There are so many girls who and boys who, I bet you’ll want to read about one or two.


Award-Winning Mysteries

Are you craving a great new mystery? Look no further than the Edgar Awards, the annual book prizes bestowed on top-notch mystery and crime writing by the Mystery Writers of America. The 2010 winners were announced last week in a variety of categories.
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Best Novel:
The Last Child by John Hart

Best First Novel by an American Author:

In the Shadow of Gotham by Stefanie Pintoff

Best Critical/Biographical:
The Lineup: The World’s Greatest Crime Writers Tell the Inside Story of Their Greatest Detectives edited by Otto Penzler

Best Fact Crime:
Columbine by DavidCullen

Best Young Adult:
Reality Check by Peter Abrahams

Best Juvenile:
Closed for the Season by Mary Downing Hahn

To find more great mystery suggestions, check out the Everett Public Library’s online Reader’s Corner, sign up for a monthly mystery newsletter from NextReads, or ask us!

Promises, Promises…

With 2010 fast approaching, it is time for the dreaded New Year’s resolution to rear its ugly head. Many people pledge to change their lives by exercising more or improving their finances. Unfortunately, by the time February rolls around the old habits have a nasty way of returning. Why not avoid this depressing cycle of broken promises and increase your chances of success? Resolve to read more short fiction in 2010!

Many people tend to shy away from short stories for one reason or another but really there is a lot to love. A well-crafted short story can capture a specific moment with an intensity not always found in longer novels. When connected by a common theme or place, short stories are great at revealing the complexity of the world and how we interact with it. And hey, they are short, so what do you have to lose by trying some?

The Best American Short Stories of 2009, edited by Alice Sebold, is a great place to start exploring short fiction. Since 1915, this annual series has been dedicated to picking the best stories of the year. If you are interested in other award winners, definitely check out the O. Henry Prize Stories, named in honor of the author, and The PushCart Prize which strives to highlight stories, poetry and essays from smaller presses.

Another great way to introduce yourself to short fiction is by checking out the many genre related anthologies we have. Do you usually read mystery or detective novels?  If so take a look at The World’s Finest Mystery and Crime Stories, Seattle Noir or Killer Year. Is horror or science fiction more your cup of tea? Take time to peruse American Fantastic Tales, On a Raven’s Wing or The Starry Rift and you won’t be disappointed.

So, take the pledge and promise to read a short story or two in 2010. Create an addiction that is actually good for you!


And We’re Off

EileenToday marks the inaugural post on “A Reading Life,” Everett Public Library’s venture into blogging about books as well as other library materials and topics. We’ve been working on this blog project for several months, and we’re all hoping that you’ll find our posts lively and well-written, and the books we write about worth adding to your need-to-read list.

Eventually we hope our blog will become a dialog between and among readers. You’ll be able to comment on our posts, and maybe even recommend books you’ve enjoyed. Right now we’re waiting for approval of our new social software policy before we turn on comments, so you’ll have some time to think about what you’re reading here before you can comment.

hardballIt wouldn’t seem right not to mention a few books to help launch this enterprise, so I’ll tell you what I’m reading. I just finished Sara Paretsky’s latest V. I. Warshawski mystery, Hardball. I’m a longtime fan of V. I., and she’s in good form here. Paretsky has written a fast-moving story that was difficult to put down.

It took me a little longer to finish Olen Steinhauer’s The Tourist, a touristconvoluted tale of espionage in the early 21st century, because it’s as much driven by character as plot—although there’s plenty of action, too. Steinhauer’s been compared to LeCarre and Deighton, and George Clooney has bought the movie rights.

spivetNow I’m reading something completely different, The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet by Reif Larsen. I’m only a few pages into the story of T. S., a 12-year-old cartographic genius, so it’s too soon to know if I’ll like it, but I do love the drawings and maps that are an integral part of the text.

Stay tuned for more of “A Reading Life.”