What's a Common Reader -- and what is Uncommon Reading?

Virginia Woolf defined a common reader as someone who is not a scholar; not a critic. A common reader "reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge or correct the opinions of others. Above all, he is guided by an instinct to create for himself, out of whatever odds and ends he can come by, some kind of whole." By that definition, I'm definitely a common reader -- reading an uncommonly large and diverse collection of books.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Mystery Monday: Cherchez le terroriste...

A woman walks into a bookstore...

Well, actually, I walked into Politics & Prose, the wonderful Washington DC book temple, last summer when I was promoting my own book (Chasing Goldman Sachs, which comes out in paperback tomorrow!) I was there to sign their stock, but happened to ask a staff member what he recommended in the way of new reading. This is something I rarely do, but I was curious to see what he'd suggest. And something remarkable happened: every single book that he selected or identified for me has been a big winner, in very disparate genres. He urged me to try The Slap by Christos Tsiolkas, a book that I hadn't really heard about; he said that everyone he knew was enjoying The Passage by Justin Cronin. The former was one of my fave books of 2010; the latter was a thumping good read. And he recommended a new mystery series, a paperback entitled Bruno, Chief of Police, by Martin Walker. Walker, he said, is a Brit, living in France, and writing about a local cop. I kind of wrinkled my nose; it felt too much like Peter Mayles redux. Not so, the bookstore guru argued: it's a great mystery.

And it was. So good, in fact, that I promptly downloaded book #2 to my Kindle and ordered #3 from the UK. I've just received and read #4, The Crowded Grave, and it's easily the best of the bunch. Walker is akin to Mayles, in that he reveres the sense of community and the food. But he never tells stories about the quaint natives; he is writing about Bruno, who isn't a local in St. Denis but who, since leaving the army and becoming head of the national police in the town, has made himself part of the fabric. He goes hunting in the fall; helps with the grape harvest -- and finds creative solutions to local "crimes". Best of all, Walker doesn't over-romanticize the French countryside. The world of the fictional St. Denis, in the Perigord region, is very much of today. EU environmental regulations drive farmers crazy; there is illegal immigration, growing ethnic diversity and the gradual death of a way of life, and Walker builds those themes into his novels.

In The Crowded Grave, a local archaeological dig makes two stunning discoveries of corpses -- one, dating back millennia, may reshape the way the world thinks of early man, while the other is wearing a Swatch watch. But Bruno doesn't have time to spend too much time digging into the identity of the murdered man, dead for about twenty years. Some environmental activists are wreaking havoc on local farms by letting loose ducks and geese to protest the foie gras trade, and he is on call to help prepare the town to host a summit between French and Spanish ministers to debate how to curb an upsurge in Basque terrorism. Not to mention the fact that his English girlfriend is keeping him at a distance, his ex is back in town, and there's a new, green and Green magistrate who is making his life hell. Walker deftly manages all the disparate threads, and ably jumps between the scenes of life in St. Denis, including Bruno's birthday party and the description of Bruno cooking a navarin of lamb that made my mouth water and sent me scurrying to the web in search of a recipe of my own.

This is one of those novels that isn't quite a cozy -- the denouement, bringing Bruno face to face with a bunch of murderous figures, is violent and sad -- but one that doesn't revolve around violence or crime. It's a story of a man and his community; one that happens to involve solving mysteries large and small and sometimes creating them as well. (Who is responsible for the protest that ends with farmers dumping manure on the front steps of the gendarmerie??) Definitely recommended; 4.2 stars. Some fans of Louise Penny's want to move to the fictional Three Pines in Quebec; as for me, I'm definitely hoping to relocate to St. Denis.

Also noted: Just finished the most recent in another series, one with more ups and downs in it. But in The Blood Royal, the latest in her "Joe Sandilands" mystery series set in the 1920s, Barbara Cleverly takes some risks and switches her focus somewhat. The most recent books in this series were set in 1926 and told largely through the eyes of Sandilands himself; now the military policeman turned Scotland Yard top cop is back in 1922, and working with a feisty and intriguing woman police constable, Lily Wentworth, to solve a complex series of crimes that may be the acts of Irish terrorists, or something altogether more personal. We get more of the action from the point of view of Lily, which is fresh and interesting, although it is a bit odd after so many books focusing on Sandilands. Personally, I liked this new twist, and was glad to see an ending hinting that readers will see the duo in action again. True, the preface perhaps tips the author's hand too much -- what does it matter that a young Russian aristocrat has arrived safely in London after escaping the Bolsheviks? -- but I found I didn't mind. This feels like a particularly good Agatha Christie novel, but with more attention to character than poor Aggie ever managed (she seemed to be contented with quirks, like Hercule Poirot and his little grey cells and moustaches.) Recommended; 3.9 stars.

As Promised, Some Great Historical Novels

Well, after venting my spleen at the poor excuse for a historical novel penned by Philippa Gregory in the form of The Lady of the Rivers, I promised you some better options. Some you might be familiar with; others may well be unknown to you and need to be hunted down. But in each and every case, these are books that I continue to re-read with great pleasure, sometimes over the course of decades.
  • Katherine by Anya Seton: I was about to write that this is the grandaddy of historical novels, when I caught myself. In fact, Katherine Swynford, first mistress and later wife to John of Gaunt, is the ancestress of today's English monarchs, and Anya Seton does a fab job of fictionalizing her story, from a forced marriage to a boorish knight to her liaison with the man who became de facto ruler of England after the death of his father and older brother. Dense, detailed; a compelling read.
  • A Rose for Virtue by Norah Lofts: Another forced marriage at the heart of this novel, that of Napoleon's stepdaughter, Hortense, to his brother, Louis. It's the story of Hortense's life from the Terror of the French Revolution, up to the end of the Napoleonic era. Publishers are reprinting some of Lofts's novels, so keep an eye open for this one.
  • Brothers of Gwynned by Edith Pargeter: aka Ellis Peters -- you may have read her Brother Cadfael novels, or Sharon Penman's Welsh trilogy -- this covers the same territory, but from a single point of view. I know it's heresy, but I think I prefer this version to Penman's, if only because of the writing. Also recommended: A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury, which tells the tale of Hotspur and the young Henry V.
  • The World, the Flesh and the Devil by Reay Tannahill: A favorite since the day it was published, 20 plus years ago. Set against the tumult of early 15th century Scotland, the story of a young woman who must carve out a place for herself amidst treachery and heartbreak. Highly recommended. Also suggested: Fatal Majesty, a novel based on the life of Mary, Queen of Scots, and the best fictionalized version of her story I've yet read.
  • The Autobiography of Henry VIII by Margaret George: Like some of these novels, this one is a real chunkster -- could be used as a doorstop if needed. Will Somers, the king's fool, finds and annotates the king's diary before sending it to his illegitimate daughter. Very readable; by far the best of this author's books.
  • Last Love by Thomas Costain: I literally read the covers off this one. Costain wrote many of his bestsellers back in the 50s, or even earlier. (The Black Rose was made into a Hollywood studio movie.) This tells the very fictional story of a young Englishwoman on St. Helena who gets to know Napoleon during his final exile. Also recommended: Below the Salt, a tale of time travel and medieval skulduggery involving the niece of the evil King John.
  • The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan: A newer but little-known book, that focuses on artistic genius Hans Memling, his works and his times. Morgan places his main character in London at the time of the Princes in the Tower -- and a sequel is promised for early 2012, which I'll be eager to buy. A favorite book of mine in 2010.
  • A Catch of Consequence by Diana Norman: For those fed up with the endless processions of Tudor queens, this first novel in a trilogy focuses on the adventures of Makepeace Hedley, whose life is turned upside down when she fishes an English nobleman out of Boston Harbor, in the years leading up to the French Revolution. My favorite is this, and the third in the series, which focuses on her daughter's adventures in revolutionary Paris (The Sparks Fly Upwards). Ignore the cutesy covers; these are tough, feisty heroines.
  • The King's Daughter by Christie Dickason: It's hard to find great historical fiction set in Stuart England, but here's one that revolves around Elizabeth, daughter of James I, who fights her father's paranoia and suspicion of even his elder children. A sequel of sorts is due soon.
  • Nefertiti by Michelle Moran: If you're tired of all this Western European stuff, try this novel and its sequel, The Heretic Queen. Both are thumping good reads, set in ancient Egypt. I'm less enamored of Cleopatra's Daughter, although her novel about Madame Tussaud is also good.
  • In a Dark Wood Wandering by Hella Haasse: a fabulous novel; one of only a handful by this Dutch writer to be translated into English. The story of Charles d'Orleans, captured in battle and imprisoned in England for many years.
  • The Flight of the Heron by D.K. Broster: The first in a trilogy revolving around the Jacobite cause. 
  • Ross Poldark by Winston Graham: The first of a long series of books that follow the Poldark family through wars and other kinds of strife, from the 1780s up until 1815. Ross returns from America to find the woman he loved married to his cousin; he struggles to get tin mines open and navigate the social and political upheavals of the era.
  • The Twentieth Wife by Indu Sundaresan: First of two good books about the powerful woman who becomes wife to Moghul emperor Jahangir. Fascinating look at Moghul India. Shadow Princess, the third volume, is less compelling.
The best novels set in Renaissance Italy and in France that I've read are all written in French or translated into French from Italian... I'm racking my brain to think of novels set in Russia, China, Japan and even the United States to go on this list, but so far am coming up dry. I've read Kathleen Kent's novels, but they leave me cold; I've already raved about March by Geraldine Brooks. So I'll just have to keep my eyes open and update this list when I can!

I also noticed the shortage of novels by male writers or focusing on male characters. I'm not a big fan of the Bernard Cornwell style of novel, but I've found some very good historical mysteries that would fall into this category, so perhaps I'll draw up another list with some of those authors, like Rory Clements, James Forrester and Adrian Goldsworthy. So stay tuned...

Friday, October 7, 2011

Books with Buzz: "Lady of the Rivers" by Philippa Gregory

At some point in the next week or two, you'll walk into your bookstore and find massive displays clustered around the entrance and in the fiction section, jammed with glossy copies of The Lady of the Rivers, the third and final part of a trilogy of novels written by Philippa Gregory and based on the lives of key female players in the 15th century English civil war today known as the War of the Roses and then often referred to as The Cousins' War. I urge you: just walk on by, resist temptation, and save your money.

Unlike some other historical fiction afficionados, I am not a member of the Philippa Gregory anti-fan club. I enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl (though the film version took horrible liberties with both history and the text) because it gave the reader a different view of the court of Henry VIII and womens' lives at the time, through the eyes of someone who became a bit player, Anne Boleyn's sister. It didn't matter to me that Gregory may or may not have muddled up the birth order of the Boleyn siblings or their ages: it was hardly relevant to the story she was telling, and we simply don't have access to the facts. Most of the elements of the book that purists quibble over, to my mind fall into the grey areas of history -- the things that we can never know, and that novelists are free to interpret as they will, within the bounds of plausibility. A case in point: we don't know the fate of the Princes in the Tower. That gives novelists carte blanche to propose their own theories, within the bounds of probability and what readers find convincing.

Until this trilogy, my view of Gregory was that some of her books were more convincing or better written than others, and that on balance her influence was good, as she was reviving interest in a genre I've enjoyed since I was a child. Then came The White Queen. The first issue I had was all the hype; let's face it, Gregory is not Hilary Mantel. Which is fine, but as a reader, I don't want publicists trying to persuade me she is a literary novelist or a historian. That brings me to my second gripe, Gregory's growing interest in being accepted as a historian who happens to write novels, rather than a novelist.  (In her publicity materials, she is now referred to as Dr. Gregory and a historian, although her doctorate is in English literature, a fact not mentioned.)  That would matter less to me, too, if Gregory weren't in love with her own deathless prose. But it took me three tries to get through The White Queen  and The Lady of The Rivers is downright painful to read and even tedious. Plodding my way through the electronic galleys, I kept hoping for improvement, but found none. What sprang into my mind instead was a quip I read some years ago -- a performance review for a military officer: "His men (her readers) would follow him (her) anywhere, if only out of morbid curiosity."

So, what's the problem with The Lady of the Rivers, which is based on the life of Jacquetta of Luxembourg, who became aunt-by-marriage to a young Henry VI only to change allegiances when her daughter captured the eye and the heart of the young Edward IV decades later? It's not Gregory's view of history. I admit that having Jacquetta meet Joan of Arc, have extensive conversations with her, etc. in the early pages of the book, sent my eyebrows up into my hairline, but it was historically possible, if not plausible, and Gregory had to find a way to spice up a book that, let's face it, is about a woman who was better known for who she married, who she served (Margaret of Anjou) and what her many, many children by her second husband got up to. The only really interesting things about Jacquetta were the fact that she broke with tradition and married her late husband's squire for love -- unthinkable, when she was royal by marriage -- and later that she was accused of witchcraft, which Gregory works to death in this novel. (Indeed, Gregory is so enamored of the idea of "wise women" that she ignores evidence that doesn't support her theories.)

My apologies for the length of this screed, although in my own defense, it's proportional to the amount of marketing hype that will surround the novel when it's published... Still, I don't want to write an essay-length critique of Gregory's approach to historical fiction, so I'll quickly summarize all the reasons not to waste $15 plus on this book.
  1. The plausibility issue. When Jacquetta is married off at 17 to the English duke of Bedford, the ruler of much of France (the territory his late brother, Henry V, conquered after Agincourt), she is oddly uninformed about the facts of life.  Even more oddly, John of Bedford (who was childless and presumably wanted a son) decides to leave her a virgin so that she can help him in his quest to discover the philosopher's stone... *roll eyes*
  2. Heavy handed imagery. Jacquetta's ancestress is descended from Melusine, a kind of water witch, and Gregory reminds you directly or indirectly of this every third page or so. (Gregory even attributes Woodville's title, Earl Rivers, to this link...) I felt as if I was drowning in watery images, some of which were there simply because the author seemed intent on pummeling the reader with it. For instance, “I fall asleep in his arms like a mermaid diving into dark water”.
  3. The use of the present tense, which is just a subset of point #5, below. Why?? Jacquetta is obviously looking back over her life -- there are several points that indicate this. 
  4. She chickens out on making the link between this novel and The White Queen, which focuses on her daughter, Elizabeth, and portrays Jacquetta as a Yorkist supporter when in this novel, she's a die-hard Lancastrian, watching battles, taking refuge from marauding Yorkists with her queen, etc. Gregory never shows Jacquetta as questioning those loyalties, or thinking about who might make the better monarch for the country, or anything that might make her later switch of loyalties more convincing. Nor does she mourn for the Lancastrian cause when her husband rides home and announces he has switched sides. In a 400-plus page book told in the first person singular, that's a remarkable ommission.
  5. The writing. Even if everything else had been wonderful, this would have been enough to destroy much of my pleasure in the book. It's repetitive and ponderous, in the extreme. For example: “Thank God I am home,” he says with tears in his eyes. “Thank God for bringing me home, safe home, to this my home and my wife and my children.” And a few sentences later, we have home, home, home, yet again. Argh.
This is rather disappointing, because in many ways, I am Gregory's target reader. I'm open to reading a novel that takes a few liberties around known historical facts, and I'm not crazy about books that simply dress up events with dialog to turn them into novels. I want to read historical fiction that does more than simply regurgitate the facts and love books that use fiction to shed new light on particular historical characters or events. One of my favorite historical novels of recent years is The Master of Bruges by Terence Morgan, which offers even more provocative theories about some of the same characters Gregory has written about; another is A Secret Alchemy by Emma Darwin, which is exceptionally well-written but crosses more boundaries. In neither case did that matter; both novels were so convincing and compelling that I simply couldn't put them down. And I've enjoyed several of Gregory's previous novels, including The Other Queen, which many Gregory fans didn't like, because I think she did an excellent job of showing how the old England of the aristocracy and the new England of self-made men and women clashed under the rule of Elizabeth I.

But this book... Well, let's just say I'm glad I read it as an electronic galley and that it will vanish on publication day, because I can't imagine ever wanting to re-read it, even as the literary equivalent of cotton candy. I'm sure it will sell, but I'd suggest getting it from a library before you waste your money on what was to me a 1.5 star book. (I did manage to finish it, after all...) I promise to be back with some good historical fiction suggestions over the weekend that might be a better way to spend the $$ you might otherwise invest in this novel...

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Mission: Stop the "Hags!"

If you're at all interested in time travel and dystopian novels, this is a book that you will not want to miss. "Zed", aka Z, lives an unspecified number of centuries in the future, when a Conflagration of some kind (the reader never really can nail down the details) has dramatically reshaped the world, forcing survivors to work cooperatively in order to survive, and for the government authorities to severely restrict their access to historic knowledge, in case it causes them to focus on all those pesky things that we let divide us, from religious conflicts and family vendettas to race and national pride. That kind of stuff is banned in Zed's "Perfect Present", and his job is to travel back in time to our imperfect era to make sure it stays perfect. You see, historical agitators (aka "hags") have figured out time travel as well, and are using it to try and change humanity's fate, whether by killing off Hitler in his cradle or -- most significant -- preventing the Conflagration itself. In Zed's era, they can be detected by their relatively pale skins -- they haven't allowed family members to mingle much with others, so have become a tiny minority in a dark-skinned homogeneous world. But they believe they are on a mission for humanity's good, and are so determined that the only way Zed can stop them is to terminate them.

To ensure that the Conflagration happens on schedule, Zed has to protect a series of events that involves some nasty regimes and their shenanigans, and some events surrounding that in Washington DC. He's a bit out of his comfort zone -- his usual stomping grounds are the 1930s and 1940s -- but nonetheless finds some things about "contemp" society to enjoy, like the fresh air and sunshine -- but his real problems are only beginning. The latest assignment has left him with his GeneScan out of whack, and he struggles to do his job and increasingly finds himself confused by what he's been told to do -- it doesn't seem to make sense. Zed -- known in this strange world of today's Washington as Troy Jones -- ends up interacting in one way or another with contemps who inadvertently leave him still more muddled. Tasha has lost her brother in an overseas war, and is angry enough to ponder leaking "smoking gun" documents to WikiLeaks-style rebels; Leo, an ex-CIA agent, is told to stop her but complicates his mission by stumbling across Sari, a young Indonesian girl who is virtually enslaved by her Korean diplomat employer and his wife, but who may be the key to the secret that Zed has to protect.

Got that?? If you don't, don't worry... Unlike Connie Willis's  time travel narratives, All Clear and Blackout, I found most of the important plot elements are simple to follow. (I enjoyed the two Willis books a great deal, but had to shut off that voice in my head that said, but the time travel element is really confusing me, and if I think about it too much, my brain will explode.) This isn't really a sci-fi novel about time travel, but rather a book about politics vs human beings, in both the present and the future, aka the Perfect Present. What kind of freedoms will people relinquish to live comfortably and quietly? What causes someone to muse, as one character in this riveting drama does, that "maybe it was good to live under a dictator"? What are the triggers that cause them to look at the world around them with fresh eyes and realize that they have become dupes, agreeing blindly to things to which, if they stopped and thought about them, they would have profound moral objections.

The narrative jumps among the four main characters, so we see the same events through each of their eyes. The "contemps" are reacting in ways that all of us might: we can't know the future, so we can do only what seems best to us in the present moment. Zed, in contrast, knows what is to come, is increasingly uncertain of what would change that future and whether it's a good or bad thing and of his mission, and has an utterly different kind of moral dilemma to resolve, one that depends on the kind of omniscience he has and that's he increasingly ambivalent about. There are some holes in this story, and a few heavy-handed and improbable moments (such as the one when Zed realizes that his cover story has an uncomfortable parallel with his own "real" life in the far distant future). And yes, The Revisionists owes a lot to other classic dystopian books, such as Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (only this time around, it's history rather than books per se that are banned in order to keep people happy in some future world.) Don't expect this novel to break fresh literary ground -- but then, that's not its mission. It's a "thumping good read" that ties with Lev Grossman's The Magician King for my favorite rollercoaster ride of the year. Perhaps it's not as accomplished or purely imaginative as Grossman's novel, but in my opinion that was offset by the fun I had imagining what it might be like to return to our 'civilization' from the far distant future, or musing what kinds of events might cause me to re-examine my priorities as Tasha does hers.

So if you're looking for a "thumping good read" to keep you thoroughly engrossed and to block out your own ugly realities one rainy weekend, look no further! 4.3 stars, recommended.

I obtained an electronic galley of this book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Very Timely "True Crime"...

Back in 2009, in a case that made headlines throughout Italy, Britain and the United States, 22-year-old transfer student Amanda Knox of Seattle was convicted of the murder of her British roommate in the ancient Italian city of Perugia. On Monday of this week, an appeals court hearing released both her and her boyfriend, Italian student Raffaele Sollecito, after four years behind bars, including a year when both were held in jail without charges. That's the case that Nina Burleigh, author of an intriguing mix of books that include one on the trade in holy relics and another on the adventures of Napoleon's scientists in Egypt, chose to explore for her most recent book, The Fatal Gift of Beauty.

The case has become known as the Amanda Knox case, but as Burleigh convincingly demonstrates in this above-average true crime narrative, it's really about a clash of cultures, legal systems and social mores. The ancient hilltop town of Perugia was already struggling to cope with the impact of the influx of thousands of "foreigners" as students, bar owners and so on, when Amanda Knox and Meredith Kercher arrived, independently, to pursue a semester or two of studies there. It's clear that Meredith was the more scholarly and sophisticated of the two; Amanda, younger, flakier, hippie-like, quite content to smoke pot or hash and oblivious to any and all social norms around her, seems to have been one of those girls with a strong personality who never quite fits in with those around her once she is out of her comfort zone, and seems to have no sense of why she might want to do so. That, as Burleigh clearly shows, is one reason why she was in so much trouble so early on with Italian authorities when the brutally-murdered body of Meredith Kercher was found in the house that the two girls shared with two young Italian law students.

Burleigh clearly believed -- even before this week's legal ruling -- that Knox and her boyfriend were innocent, and the evidence she presents as well as her chronicle of the investigation and trial make me very glad that I finished the last 100 pages or so after Monday's ruling. Ultimately, it's a chronicle of the way that many of the major figures in law enforcement -- from the translators to the prosecutors -- were unable or unwilling to look past their own prejudices and preconceptions in the pursuit of justice for Meredith Kercher. Indeed, even with another individual's DNA on the scene -- and with a conviction registered against that person -- the lead prosecutor charged ahead with an incredibly complex, even tortuous, case, apparently bent on proving that the Occam's Razor theory (i.e., when you hear hoofbeats, you think first of horses and only later of zebras) is false. According to the prosecution team -- whose ire was raised first by Amanda Knox's own demeanor and later by the behavior of her family in her defense -- Meredith's murder was the result of jealousy, sex games gone wrong, and myriad other factors. Burleigh deftly moves the story along, even as she happily fails to fall into the breathless tone of most true crime raconteurs. In contrast, she sets the story against the backdrop of Perugia's past and its present, as a still-relatively isolated Italian city struggling to come to grips with the influx of "stranieri", whether resident citizens of African origin speaking perfect Perugian-inflected Italian, or students who are there for a few months to party as much as possible.

In what struck me as a fair analysis, Burleigh portrays Knox as an emotionally stunted 20 year old with very poor judgment who seemed unable to avoid alienating those whom she needed to help her. Ironically, a miscarriage of justice that grew out of a culture clash and biases seems likely only to reinforce those: Burleigh shows how bitter the Knox family and other Americans have become about Italy as a whole (her father, Burleigh notes, has grown to hate anything "old"); the prosecutor, meanwhile, becomes increasingly convinced that some kind of Satanic cult, associated with the Masons, is behind any attempt to examine the evidence critically. Interestingly, that magistrate also features prominently in The Monster of Florence by Douglas Preston; when he and his co-author begin to question the magistrate's views of a still-unknown serial killer, his co-author ends up in jail and Preston felt forced to flee Italy. I didn't find that a particularly good book, while this was a much stronger one; perhaps it's the difference between a thriller writer and a historian coming to write about true crime?

If you're curious about the Knox case in light of the publicity surrounding her release, I'd definitely recommend this account. It's not flawless, but it's unbiased and the context is excellent. I didn't end up finding Knox particularly likable and I ended up rather irritable that so much attention has been focused on her at the expense of her equally-innocent Italian boyfriend, Raffaele Sollecito, and the young woman who was unquestionably the ultimate victim, Meredith Kercher. But that's because Burleigh does such a good job of covering the bases; all the major players, including the rather bizarre magistrate, end up as three-dimensional individuals, caught in a web partly of their own making and unable to find a way out. I've given this 3.9 stars.

I received a review copy of the book directly from the publishers.

Just Added to My Shelves:

A select listing of the books that I've added to my shelves while I've been on "hiatus". I'll be reading some of these and reviewing some of them in the coming weeks -- assuming the book gods are smiling on me!

  • Catherine the Great by Robert Massie (Amazon Vine)
  • Hand Me Down World by Lloyd Jones (Library)
  • The Crowded Grave by Martin Walker (Amazon UK purchase)
  • The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka (Amazon Vine)
  • The Emperor of Lies by Steve Sem-Sandberg (Amazon Vine)
  • Absolute Monarchs: A History of the Papacy by John Julius Norwich (Library)
  • The Cloud Messenger by Aamer Hussein (LibraryThing Early Reviewer)
  • Reprobates: the Cavaliers of the English Civil War by John Stubbs (purchased for Kindle)
  • The Hypnotist by Lars Kepler (Library)
  • Misterioso by Arne Dahl (Amazon Vine)
  • The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (Amazon UK purchase)
  • Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet (purchased for Kindle)
  • Eminence: Cardinal Richelieu and the rise of France by Jean-Vincent Blanchard (Library)
  • Winter by Adam Gopnik (Massey Lectures) (Purchase)
  • Rez Life by Peter Treuer (NetGalley)
  • The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt (purchased for Kindle)
  • Between Two Seas by Carmine Abate (Library)
  • The Retribution by Val McDermid (NetGalley)
  • The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak (Amazon Vine)
  • The Last Hundred Days by Patrick McGuinness (Amazon UK purchase)
  • Anatomy of a Disappearance by Hisham Matar (NetGalley)
I think what I need is, as Virginia Woolf once said, a room of my own and a stipend -- perhaps a bit more than 500 pounds per annum, however... -- if I'm to stand a chance of making a dent in my TBR mountain!

Monday, October 3, 2011

Mystery Monday: An old favorite, a series that has improved, and a new discovery

I'm constantly hunting for new mystery series to read, partly because (as I've discussed before in these cyber-pages) a number of old favorites start to disappoint after a certain number of books but mostly because it's always fun to discover a fresh voices. But my recent reading has reminded me that no matter how venerable a mystery series may be, it can still be great to read, while it can be a mistake to write off a series prematurely. But that hasn't stopped me from finding new books that I can heartily recommend, either...

These days, Ruth Rendell is probably better known for her novels of psychological suspense, written under both her own name and her nom de plume, Barbara Vine. But my favorites among her books remain the police procedurals featuring Reg Wexford, who made his debut waaay back in the early/mid 1960s. The Wexford books helped Rendell hone her craft and make her name, and along the way have benefited from her interest in psychological suspense, as her focus on characters and their motives makes these feel more like novels that happen to revolve around a crime rather than conventional police procedurals. Which is just fine by me, as I happen to relish character-driven mysteries.

 The Vault is Rendell's 23rd (gulp) mystery to feature Reg Wexford, who, if he aged as rapidly on the page as in "real" time, would be either a centenarian or dead by now. Happily for me, he has only just retired -- perhaps one Wexford year equates to five years of our time? -- but is having a hard time putting his investigative instincts to rest even as he is relishing being able to spend time with Dora, his wife, exploring London from a new home base in the carriage house on the grounds of his younger daughter's Hampstead home. So when four bodies are found buried in a former coal hole underneath a patio (which reminds Wexford of the vault of the title), he's on hand to serve as an unofficial investigator for the detectives in charge of the investigation in the way he once was. And that ambivalent role (Wexford mourns the day when the Poirots and Peter Wimseys of the world commanded respect from the authorities) makes this mystery feel fresh for readers who might have become weary following Wexford around his Kingsmarkham home.

The plot itself is nicely tangled, even if it takes a while for the suspense to mount. True, Rendell doesn't seem to be spending as much time as she once did on her Wexford novels -- the writing is less elegant and more slapdash than in prior books -- they still offer fans intriguing character studies and, in this case, a great view of today's London, from its history to its current problems, including illegal immigrants and sexual predators. Indeed, I ended up enjoying this as much for the insights into the way London and its inhabitants are changing and the people that Wexford encounters, such as the busybody arrogant former South African woman who looks down her nose at the hired help and the beleagured born-again detective whom he is assisting. This was a 4.1 star book for me, and definitely recommended for those who have been following the series; don't start reading about Wexford here, however, as you'll need some background to follow all the plot lines. (You'll also be missing out on 22 other very good mysteries!)

I was on the verge of giving up on another mystery series set in London, the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series that I first discovered on a supermarket shelf in Brooklyn (Key Food on Atlantic Avenue, to be precise...) back in the mid-1990s and have followed ever since. Unfortunately, some of Deborah Crombie's novels had become underwhelming, for want of a better phrase. Her two main characters had long since settled down in predictable domesticity, and some of the crimes they investigated failed to grab my attention for long. So it was only because of a whim, and an Amazon.co.uk gift certificate, that I decided to pick up a discount priced copy of No Mark Upon Her (already out on the other side of the Pond; due out in the US in February.)

The latest outing for Kincaid and James revolves around the mysterious death of a high-ranking police inspector and aspiring Olympic elite rower in Henley-on-Thames. It's nicely complex, and gives the reader insight an interesting range of characters, such as the damaged war veteran who is building a new life for himself by becoming involved in canine search and rescue and building rowing shells. Is the victim's death due to her professional work, including her research into sexual violence and possible police complicity? Is it a personal quarrel that got out of hand? Or are rowing world politics involved? Crombie navigates the myriad investigative threads with aplomb, and the result is what I think is the best book in this series to date. At heart, it's a fairly plain vanilla police procedural, but with extra attention to character, setting and all those things that help a book rise to the top of its genre, and with a decent dash of suspense thrown in; happily, however, Crombie never was tempted to take the plot past what seemed plausible. Definitely recommended; while you could read this as a standalone book, you're more likely to enjoy it if you've read some of Crombie's previous books.

And now for my new discovery... 

I had never heard of A.D. Scott until I was offered the chance to peruse an e-galley of her second book, A Double Death on the Black Isle. Once I started reading, I raced through it to reach the final page, unable to put it down until I figured out "whodunnit". The central character, Joanne Ross, is separated from her husband and working on a tiny weekly newspaper in a Highlands community in the mid/late 1950s, an era in which a woman could get a reputation for being "fast" simply by being in a hotel bar with work colleagues. When the novel opens, she and young reporter Rob are racing down to the harbor, where a trawler is on fire; after an altercation with the trawler's owner, Joanne ends up booting him into the water. Needless to say, when she travels to the Black Isle a few days later and discovers that a childhood friend has invited her to visit to witness her secret wedding to none other than the obnoxious fisherman (a mesalliance, as her friend is the daughter of the local laird...), Joanne is aghast. But then her knowledge of the Black Isle and its personalities becomes particularly relevant when two of its dislikeable residents are found dead on the same day, and Joanne must juggle her professional responsibilities, her natural curiosity, and her friendship and family relationships.

This isn't a flawless book. Scott is overly fond of throwing in Scots dialog (if ayes and forbyes and suchlike annoy you, best to steer clear...) into the story, and for those not familiar with the jargon, some kind of glossary would probably be helpful. The plot can become tangled at times, and it's a book to read more for its rich portrayal of the Highlands during the 1950s and the characters who inhabited it then than it is for the suspense. Still, I enjoyed it enough to dash out and order the first in the series, A Small Death in the Great Glen in hopes that I've struck another "must-read" series. (The new book, just out last week, is one that can easily be read on its own, once you are past the first few pages.) Time will tell, but the omens are good: 3.9 stars.


Mea culpa...

I can't believe I've been AWOL for so long from my blog. It's not that I haven't been reading -- I'd probably have to be dead for that to happen -- but a lot of "real life" issues have intervened of late, the most prosaic of which has been a complete collapse of my phone/Internet access (I'm in the process of switching to cable, since Verizon seems unable to get their act together to fix it...) and the most exciting being wrapping up the proposal for my next book project. Hope to have some exciting news on that front in the coming days...

In the meantime, I'll try to bring the blog up to date on all my reading -- there's lots of stuff, both good and bad, to report on!

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Living in "The Memory Palace" -- Review and a Giveaway!

The author of The Memory Palace really isn't named Mira Bartok -- that's the name she chose to live under in order to escape what amounted to harassment from her schizophrenic mother, a highly gifted by highly troubled woman who ended up living on the streets, in contact with her children only via a post office box. It isn't until Norma is dying that she, Mira and Mira's sister are reconciled -- and Mira begins to revisit her childhood, trying to understand how and why she could reach the point where effectively abandoning her mother became the only rational choice.

As anyone who has followed my reading on this blog or elsewhere knows, I'm no fan of memoirs. Far too many of these things are designed to make their authors look like heroic survivors of some kind of bizarre trauma, and come across to the reader (or at least, this reader!) as both self-aggrandizing and self-pitying. Wandering through BookExpo in May 2010, I ended up chatting with a publicist for Bartok's publisher, who urged me to run out and buy a copy of the book as soon as it was published early this year. Being an obedient kinda person (well, sometimes...) I did as I was told, however warily -- and then discovered a remarkable memoir that acquired a position on my "top books of the year" list.  Bartok could have written a "poor, poor pitiful me" book -- and certainly had plenty of material to draw on. Instead, what she produced is an elegant and beautiful narrative, filled with a kind of poignant sadness.

What made this book distinctive? Well, let's start with Bartok's tone. She recounts her childhood history, including an occasion during which her mother attacked her with a broken bottle and cut her throat, with what I can only describe as a kind of dispassionate eloquence. You, the reader, feel Bartok's pain -- not just the physical pain of the assault but the emotional pain of not being able to rely on and trust her mother. Even when the violence wasn't present, Norma's illness left her paranoid and delusional, and her two young daughters end up sharing those fears. Eventually, Mira and her sister break away, travel, build careers and lives for themselves -- but they can never shake free of the early experiences that Bartok captures so vividly.

The way Bartok chose to recount her story also helped it transcend the memoir genre. It's literally a "memoir", a book about memory, from her mother's struggles with memory and reality to Bartok's own battle to regain and cling on to memories of her life, including her mother. She adopts an old technique, from which the title of the book is taken, imagining a memory palace, a place filled with objects that are tied to specific memories. Wandering through that palace, she can tap into the memories at will. Some of those memories are painful, but despite that Bartok is careful to portray her mother's reality as well as her own, quoting liberally from journals and letters, and marveling over the disparate objects from her dysfunctional childhood that she finds squirreled away in a storage locker.

How could a child deny her mother for nearly two decades? Read this book, and your question might change in nature. How, rather, does a child who endured such a difficult youth and adolescence find the strength and wisdom and compassion to return and re-evaluate those years? That's what Bartok has done, in admirable fashion. The result isn't always easy to read or comfortable, but it's emotionally honest, beautifully recommended and, by me, at least, highly recommended.


The best news of all is that, thanks to the publishers, I have one copy of the new paperback edition of this book (just out today) to give away to a lucky follower, chosen at random. To win, either comment below or send me an e-mail at UncommonReading@gmail.com, telling all of us (or just me) what books have made you reconsider genres that you'd previously felt uninterested in or alienated by -- and confirming that you're a follower of this blog. I'll pick one winner from all the e-mails and posts on Friday at midnight!


Courtesy of the publishers, here are some excerpts from a Q&A with the author of The Memory Palace. If this doesn't convince you that this is a book you should read, well, there's no hope...

Q: Describe how you came to title this book The Memory Palace. Do you feel like writing this memoir was a memory palace in itself? How did you put together the bits and pieces until they made a more sensible whole for you?
A: I originally thought of structuring this book as a kind of cabinet of curiosities, given my background in museum collections and taxonomy, but then I remembered this ancient Renaissance system of memory recall and bingo—it was perfect. Also, I had been making these pictures for each memory so they all ended up on a giant canvas on my studio wall. And by using the Memory Palace motif as a way to architecturally contain the book, it provided the perfect background to weave in musings about memory itself and the brain. In order to make sense of the whole thing (and not lose my mind in the process!), I created an actual cabinet in my studio, with openings for each chapter. That way, if I wrote something one day or jotted down a note or sketched a picture, I could place it in its drawer (since I probably would forget about it the following day). So in this way, my own creative process was a building of a palace—on my wall, in this cabinet, in the book.

Q: This book is a very personal and moving testimony to the turbulent and loving relationship between a mother and daughter. Were there certain aspects of your story you were reluctant to share?  
A: Yes, definitely. I withheld certain things that might have appeared sensational, particularly violent episodes with our grandfather. I’m not a huge fan of misery memoirs, ones that relentlessly describe one terrible thing after another without any self-examination on the author’s part. I wanted to express beauty as well and I also did not want to contribute to the unfortunate stereotype of a violent schizophrenic; statistically, most schizophrenics are more likely to harm themselves than others. I also decided against sharing a couple very personal drawings, like the one I did of my mother when she was dying. 

Q: Though this is a story about the lasting bond of parental love, it’s also very much about the unreliability of memory. What message did you most want to convey to readers about these subjects?
A: I never intended to get across any kind of message when I wrote the book. I simply set out to explore the connections that I shared with my mother, nothing more, and I set out to do that through pictures, because I am a visual thinker. But yes, the story of mother-daughter love shines through and for me, I think I came to understand that it is a very primal thing, one that is still difficult for me to explain and understand. With memory, the more I researched the subject and explored my own relationship to memory, especially in the light of living with traumatic brain injury (TBI), the more I found all these arguments about so-called “truth” in memory (and thus, memoir) to be silly. I’m not talking about making up some sensational story so that one can sell a fictional book as a memoir (and you know who I mean!) but rather, the idea that just because one remembers something “clearly,” it has to be true is simply false. Ask any neuroscientist, any forensic psychologist, criminal investigator, etc. Oh, if writers only read a little more science, I’d be so happy! Anyway, I personally think the strongest message in the book is about compassion, and the more times I rewrote the book, the more compassion I discovered within myself.

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: Your memoir is very intense and moving. What do you hope readers will take away from The Memory Palace?
A: I never have an agenda for anything I create. I didn’t write this book to teach anyone a lesson about brain injury or mental illness or the plight of the homeless population. I wrote it because I needed to, and also, I knew it was one hell of a good story. That said, if readers walk away from this book with more empathy for those less fortunate or if they gain a more compassionate understanding of mental illness and the other issues I bring up, then that is the icing on the cake. Like I say in the book, there is a thin line between the world of homelessness and “our” world. And each and every woman out there, trying to survive on the street is someone’s mother, daughter, sister, or friend.  I also hope my friends and family will understand my struggles with living with a brain injury a little bit better. Even after over ten years, most people still don’t get it when I tell them I need to not talk on the phone or see people for a while in order to rest my brain. I think it’s very hard to see someone who looks and sounds normal and accept that there is something seriously wrong. And I certainly hope that friends and family of others living with TBI, as well as those living with other invisible disabilities, such as Lupus, Fibromyalgia, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, Lyme Disease, etc., will be more understanding toward their loved ones. And last but not least, I hope that, even though I revealed some very dark things about her, my mother’s memory is honored in some way, and that readers will go away with the feeling that she was a beautiful, gifted, and extraordinary human being. And the best thing is, the shelter that she lived in the last three years of her life has recently been renamed in her honor. It is now a bright, shiny new facility called The Norma Herr Women’s Center! I am now working with the shelter to hopefully raise money to create a community garden near the shelter for the women there to grow their own food.  How is that for a happy ending?

Q: You mention that your mother admired the ability of a person to mix words and art. Do you think she would have been proud of this book, which combines your artwork with your writing?
A: I think she would have been very proud of me for writing this book, although I’m sure there are many parts in it that would upset her, too. However, I know she would have liked the artwork and she would have appreciated the great effort it took to create a book like this, given my disability.

Q: How has it been sharing your story with others?
A: It’s been quite surprising. I had no idea this story would impact others the way it has. I am extremely moved when people come up to me after a reading with tears in their eyes, telling me that they have a mentally ill family member or they themselves have a brain injury. I am particularly happy when people tell me that the story inspired them and also challenged their assumptions about those less fortunate than themselves. And I am also quite pleased when someone gets the dark humor that comes up from time to time in the book. Believe or not, some passages are actually funny. As my grandma used to say, “Ya gotta laugh to stop from crying!”

Thursday, August 18, 2011

“In Russia … there are only crime stories.”

Nick Platt moved to Moscow in order to break out of the rut of his existence in England, feeling himself falling into the "thirtysomething zone of disappointment, the time when momentum and ambition start to fade"; it doesn't hurt that his law firm promises him that if he does well structuring client deals in the wild East, flush with oligarchical cash, he'll become a partner more rapidly: when Snowdrops by A.D. Miller opens, it's clear that something has gone very wrong indeed with that plan, but not why.

Somewhere along the line, in his quest to leave behind his boring existence and live for the day as do the Russians who surround him, Nick crosses the line to become the kind of individual he had never dreamed of. The nature of that betrayal becomes clear to the reader of this excellent debut novel only slowly; the story unfolds as a written confession by Nick to an unnamed woman back in England whom he intends to marry. At the beginning, we know that there is a death coming, but we don't know whose, or what Nick's role in it may have been. All we know is that as the final winter of his Moscow sojurn begins, Nick is edging closer by the day to some kind of unforgivable crime or betrayal, something that will make him just as shady as the corrupt Russians for whom he structures deals during the day and whom he affects to despise. Not surprisingly, it all starts with a woman, or rather, two women, whom he meets by chance in the subway system. Masha and her young sister -- or cousin? -- Katya become his close companions; he allows himself to dream of a future with Masha who, Nick convinces himself, has no ulterior motive in becoming his girlfriend. After all, she isn't pushing him to buy her clothes, jewelry or a trophy pedigree puppy.

Nick's friend Steve, a jaded hard-drinking journalist, tries to sound the alarm bell. In Russia, he warns Nick, there are no business stories or even political stories. There aren't even any love stories. In Russia, he cautions Nick, everything becomes a crime story. But Nick is in no mood to listen. He's too busy crafting a project finance deal for a rather odd character known as the Cossack, who may be an oligarch or may be a member of the FSB, Russia's secret police. But everyone has a vested interested in seeing the deal go through, so why ask too many tough questions? And then Masha and Katya ask them to help their aunt, Tatiana Vladimirovna, an elderly survivor of the siege of Leningrad, swap her apartment in a prime location in downtown Moscow for something more modern in the still-rural outskirts. Bit by bit, Nick finds himself blinding himself to all that he doesn't know -- and doesn't want to know -- about the various deals in which he's playing an increasingly important role. As the winter becomes fiercer and the snow masks the physical ugliness of Moscow, Nick is able to blind himself to the realities of his situation but when the snow melts to reveal ugly truths -- including a corpse -- he can no longer avoid acknowledging what the winter's events have shown about his own character, about his lack of both courage and morality.

This is an extraordinarily good first novel, and it's no surprise to me that it has found its way onto the longlist for the Man Booker Prize this year. Indeed, it's the first of the longlist nominees that I believe is worthy of ending up on the shortlist. Miller -- a correspondent for The Economist who worked in Moscow -- does a superlative job transforming the ugly truth about Russian politics, business and everyday skulduggery as one desperate Russian looks for someone else to take advantage of, into a novel that isn't just fascinating but eloquently written. This isn't just a novel that dresses up current affairs as fiction, or a thriller drawn from the headlines, but rather an excellent story about a man forced to confront the consequences of his reluctance to ask questions about things that seem too good to be true. Yes, the reader is always a step ahead of Nick in the way that the novel is structured, but that doesn't spoil the tension: while I knew the scams would claim victims and that Nick would be an indirect casualty, the nature of the crimes and the way Miller brings together the various strands of the story were compelling enough to keep me reading.

It helps that Miller can turn his hand to fiction as readily as to news reporting. He handles deftly what someone else might have botched up, drawing parallels between the winter weather and the scams; he draws on his observations of daily life in today's Russia -- the drunken passengers who dance a jig in the aisle of a plane as it lands safely -- while never hammering home in such a way as to holler to the reader "look how well I know this place!" Even the minor-characters are vividly portrayed, including journalist Steve, "one of those lost foreign correspondents that you read about in Graham Greene, a citizen of the republic of cynicism."

I had been wary of this book at first, afraid it would be one of those "wink, wink; nudge, nudge" books written by a former expat who just wants an excuse to write about sexual exploits with young, gorgeous and desperate Russian women, or a so-so thriller. Instead I found a fascinating novel that is now on my best books of the year list. 4.5 stars; recommended.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

A Novel That Will Haunt You Long After You Put it Down

It's been a day or two since I finished reading The Testament of Jessie Lamb by Jane Rogers, one of the novels short-listed for this year's Man Booker Prize. Often, when I finish a book and move on to the next one, the one I have completed subsides gently into the background of my mind. But this time, I actually found myself dreaming about Jessie and her world last night -- not a terribly comfortable state of affairs, given the bleak world in which Rogers set her novel and the kind of choices Jessie finds herself making about her life. To me, that says that even if Rogers hasn't quite managed to craft a novel that I think will win the Booker, she's written something chilling and memorable and thus well worth reading. (It's not out in the US as yet, and I don't see a publication date yet, but it's a paperback that you can order from Amazon.co.uk.)

When the novel opens, we meet Jessie, chained by the legs with bicycle chains to stop her running off and doing something -- and we soon discover that it is her father who is restraining her. What could have driven him to such extremes, when it's clear from the narrative that they have an exceptionally strong and close relationship? But the world Jessie and her family live in is a crumbling one; an act of bioterrorism has led to a new disease, MDS, that afflicts any woman who becomes pregnant -- kind of a horrible combination of AIDS and mad cow disease. The only treatment is for the victim to be "put to sleep"; millions of women are dying. Jessie and all her teenage friends are fitted with Norplant-like devices, but that simply stops them from falling victim to the disease -- it doesn't give them a reason to live. And, being teenagers, that's already a problem. Some become animal rights activists, convinced that the toxic virus is simply another manifestation of man trying to monkey with the natural world; others turn into radical feminists, arguing that the virus is simply another instance of men treating women as objects. Jessie, like many other 16-year-olds, is already looking at the mess her parents' and grandparents' generations have made of the world and reacting with disgust, arguing against a family vacation that will consume carbon or when her father proposes a trip to the seaside in the car.

But her father's lab, along with others scattered around the world, has reached a kind of breakthrough. Scientists have found that after years with no children born -- forcing humans to come face to face with their own sudden extinction, a scenario also explored in The Children of Men by PD James -- that it's possible for young women with MDS to give birth to children after all. The catch is twofold: their children will also be afflicted with the virus, activated on pregnancy, and the women won't survive. These "Sleeping Beauties" are put into induced comas until their children are delivered and then "put to sleep" permanently. The first round of these pregnancies were accidental ones -- young women who became pregnant unaware, in the earliest stages of the epidemic. But now science is making it possible for pre-MDS embryos conceived through IVF and frozen to be immunized and implanted into young women. But the outcome for the "mothers" doesn't change -- they will still die -- and this time the women will need to be volunteers -- and teenagers, since that will boost the odds of success...

You can kind of see where this is heading, I'm sure, and that's not a surprise as it's clear relatively early on that Jessie is fascinated by the idea of making a difference in a world that is going to hell in a handbasket. Could she actually help to save the human race? The author does a good job of exploring what is going on inside her mind -- the mind of a teenager -- and showing the conflict between her and her parents, who are normal people accustomed to ordinary failures and who, like most of us, have long since forfeited their idealism. Rogers sometimes displays a heavy hand in describing the post-MDS world in which Jessie and her friends are coming of age, and too many of the characters are simply walk-on parts, part of the backdrop to the core drama that is the conflict between Jessie and her family. Still, it's a chilling page-turner; if you've read and enjoyed novels like Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and are intrigued by "what if" scenarios of the dystopian kind, this is the kind of book that you'll find unforgettable. It's not as well conceived or impeccably structured as Ishiguro's or as The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, and if you pause to think about it while you're reading, you'll spot the flaws. But the power of Rogers's tale and Jessie's testimony is that you won't stop -- you'll be swept along by the story. And beware, because it's likely to haunt you for days.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Mystery Monday: A Return to Three Pines

I should confess, immediately, that I'm not a member of the Three Pines cult. I wasn't one of the hundreds of fans who swarmed the publisher's booth at BEA (BookExpo) back in May in order to get their hands on an advance review copy of A Trick of the Light, the newest Louise Penny mystery featuring Quebec detective Armand Gamache and his team along with the quirky or downright eccentric residents of the fictional Three Pines, the township left off all the provincial maps. Nonetheless, I did request a copy of the ARC from Amazon's Vine program last month, mostly because I found Bury Your Dead, the last episode in Gamache's adventures, to be particularly appealing, perhaps because it was largely set in Quebec City and because it featured a mystery surrounding the province's founder, Samuel de Champlain, and the endless conflict between Anglophone and Francophone residents of Quebec.

The good news about the latest Three Pines mystery -- beyond the fact that fanatics now only have two weeks to wait until publication day -- is that rabid fans will find it contains all their favorite features. It is largely set in Three Pines itself; Ruth Zardo, the obnoxious and cynical poet, is as curmudgeonly as ever; Gabri, the plus-sized bistro owner, is as lovable as ever and back to his ebullient self after the resolution of a plot that stretched over the last two books. (I'm trying hard to avoid spoilers!) The big news is that Clara Morrow is finally about to have her day in the sun: when the novel opens, it's at her first solo art show, and everyone is raving about her portraits. But when the scene shifts from the Montreal museum's formal vernissage to the informal party back home in Three Pines, the joy quickly evaporates. Because early the next morning, as her husband returns from picking up papers that contain reviews of Clara's show, he stumbles over a body in their picture-perfect garden -- a body that turns out to belong to one of the few people in the world that Clara could describe as an enemy, or at least as being hostile to her.

It's actually amazing that anyone dares venture into Three Pines at all, really -- the mortality rate, on a per capita basis, must be off the charts by now. Happily, Louise Penny seems to have a sense of humor about setting so many crimes in a tiny village. Gamache and his chief assistant, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, have become so accustomed to the slow pace of life in Three Pines that they have stopped locking their car doors when they arrive to investigate a crime. After all, "people in Three Pines might occasionally take a life, but not a car." As with many of the victims in Louise Penny's mysteries, readers learn about Lillian, the alcoholic art critic who rejoiced not only in puncturing pomposity but in destroying the dreams of aspiring artists only after her death -- she's never really a character except in the eyes of others. The plot itself is a relatively straightforward one: was Lillian's mortal offense one that dates back to the days when she routinely skewered her targets in the press, or did her recent efforts to make amends for her misdeeds trigger an unexpected homicidal urge?

It took me about 100 pages to get into this novel to the extent that I really cared about the outcome, and even then, what ended up grabbing my attention and holding it wasn't the plot, per se, but rather the unfolding of the relationship of Clara and Peter Morrow, and of what is happening to Beauvoir, still trying to recover after the traumatic events chronicled in the previous book. That isn't too surprising, as what Penny is writing are less classical mystery novels, full of clues and red herrings, than novels about an assortment of individuals who are brought together by that murder and the events that lead up to it. In this case, the theme of the book seems to be envy, whether it's Peter's envy of Clara's newfound success, Lillian's envy of the artists she pillories in print, or Beauvoir's envy of the man who has what he has discovered he wants for himself. 

Three Pines afficionados will love this book; if you haven't read the series yet, this is not the place to start as appreciating it depends on your understanding of the Three Pines scenario and its inhabitants. I admit that I find Penny's depiction of the Three Pines gang to be, at best, two-dimensional and sometimes even one dimensional. Peter is envious; Clara is insecure, Ruth is bitter and angry but a softy at heart; Gabri is joyous and full of life, etc. etc. etc. Rarely do they act out of character or surprise me. And I admit to finding Penny's staccato prose style deeply annoying. A particularly egregious example comes when Beauvoir muses to himself about the nature of his job, in comparison to art criticism: "There was nothing subjective about it. No question of good and bad. It wasn’t an issue of perspective or nuance. No shading. Nothing to understand. It just was. Collect the facts. Put them in the right order. Find the killer." While that's an extreme example, at a few points in this book I found the writing -- and in particular incomplete sentences like these - so jarring that I had to put it down and start reading something else.

I admit that I can't understand why anyone would want to go and live in Three Pines (quite aside from its astonishing mortality rate) alongside people who almost always try to do the right thing, who almost without exception are charming or at least fascinating, who all seem wise, witty, interesting and perhaps just a bit too good to be true even as fictional characters. (Even the obnoxious ones are really kind at heart, or at least incredibly talented; the food is always wonderful; the landscape always beautiful, and the criminal elements and their families disappear from one book to the next with hardly a trace.) There's just too much wish fulfillment going on here! Still, while the charm of these books escapes me, the personality of Armand Gamache is more richly developed; that and his quiet insistence on being an ethical cop in an era where corruption and political agendas rule is something that I find very engaging indeed. It was Gamache and his struggle to see justice done that made the last novel in this series the best for me to date. But in this, the seventh book in the series, the focus has shifted back to the ensemble cast at Three Pines and business as usual.  While I found the author's focus on the conflicts in the art world that Clara is discovering for the first time at the age of 50 to be intriguing, they weren't compelling enough to make this more than a novel that is just OK; something that now that I have read, I will probably forget relatively rapidly. I imagine this will be a 5-start book for all Three Pines afficionados; for me, it was about 3.7 stars. True, I'm idly curious to see what happens next to Beavoir and Clara Morrow, but not enough to race out and next year's new book the day it appears. 

Still, wouldn't it be dull if we all loved the same stuff?  

Sunday, August 14, 2011

A Pair of Brilliant Books About the Perils of Idealism

It's hard enough to find one fabulous and compelling book about a given subject, but to discover two that focus on roughly the same material in a short period of time; and then to have one of those be a novel that's been out for several years and the second a work of narrative non-fiction that won't be published for another month or two -- well, that's astonishing. The fact that the authors are a couple -- Geraldine Brooks (author of March) and Tony Horwitz (author of Midnight Rising) just makes it even more exciting, and left me longing to hang out at their dinner table and just listen to the conversation for, oh, a couple of weeks every year.

I had enjoyed Brooks's non-fiction writing so much that I had somehow convinced myself that her novels couldn't measure up -- yes, despite the Pulitzer that she won for March. Thank God I finally succumbed and picked up this novel, as it has gone straight on to my list of best books of the year. It's that rare bird -- a literary hommage that is neither slavishly devoted to the original (and thus nothing more than a tedious echo) nor untrue to it (making it nothing more than a modern day yarn in crinolines). In it, Brooks fills in the gaps in Louisa May Alcott's iconic novel, Little Women, by telling the story of what happened to their husband and father, Captain March, during his absence from the family. Alcott's March is an idealized paterfamilias; Brooks portrays him as a fallible dreamer forced to confront his own limitations and imperfect nature as he struggles to minister and teach in the midst of war. She does this so well, making him both sympathetic in his idealism and yet frustratingly irritating in his failure to understand the consequences of his inability to be practical or to compromise. At times while reading this novel I admit I sympathized with those March notices giving him "a look of the kind that I had become all too familiar with in the course of my life, a look that combined pity and exasperation."

Brooks's March is a utopian idealist, a vegetarian, someone who struggles to live out his dreams and fails to realize the impact of his dreams on those around him, whether it is his wife and children or the "contraband of war" (aka, the liberated slaves) whom he is sent to teach by the army when he proves demoralizing to the men to whom he had been trying to provide spiritual comfort. In the novel, she effortlessly blends the narrative as we know it from Little Women, giving the reader a plausible back story for Captain March that explains his personality and his actions, and leads right up to the point in Alcott's narrative where Marmee must travel urgently to Washington, where her husband is near death.
I think March blends perfectly with Little Women, although the former is the kind of nuanced book that could only have been written today. Nonetheless, I think it captures the ambivalence of those like March who believe absolutely in emancipation and yet have little idea of how to remake the world in a way that will be as welcoming to black as to white.

Intriguingly, Brooks's husband, Tony Horwitz, has written a non-fiction account of the efforts of another utopian idealist, John Brown, to eliminate the same evils of slavery that Captain March finds so abhorrent. (Indeed, in Brooks's novel, March impoverishes himself supporting some of Brown's projects and campaigns, at least in part to win the admiration of Marmee, portrayed in the novel as an even more ardent abolitionist.) But if March has little concept of what an egalitarian society might look like, Horwitz shows us that John Brown was one of the few abolitionists of his time who didn't just believe in wiping slavery from the face of the earth but acted in a truly egalitarian manner; he was, it seems, color-blind in a way that is still too rare today.

Horwitz's chronicle of events leading up to the doomed insurrection at Harper's Ferry is compelling, reminding us of the context in which he acted. Too often, looking aback at the Civil War, we forget that up until the time he and his tiny band of followers resorted to violence, the status quo was accepted, however reluctantly, across much of the North. Any conflict about slavery was largely confined to the issue of whether it would be allowed to spread to new territories and states in the West -- a conflict in which Brown participated and where his family experienced losses of their own. Arguably, John Brown's failure at Harper's Ferry paved the way for Abraham Lincoln, and the secession of the southern states, civil war and -- ultimately -- abolition.

Was Brown a madman? A monomaniac? Or a Messiah? Horwitz deals only tangentially with those questions, chronicling his life and experiences right up until his final days but letting readers draw their own conclusions. What I found more compelling about this book was Horwitz's ability to knit together not only Brown's tale but that of his companions at Harper's Ferry -- some of his sons, other idealists, drifters, free African-Americans and escaped slaves -- an oddball assortment who tried to force America to live up to the ideals enshrined in its own constitution and other founding documents. When the climax arrives and Brown's small troupe marches on Harper's Ferry, this becomes a book that is absolutely impossible to put down until the final outcome becomes clear. Even then, the final pages hold a poignant message, as Horwitz documents the link between one of John Brown's raiders and African-American poet Langston Hughes.

This is a more straightforward historical narrative than Horwitz has crafted to date -- most of his prior books have featured himself as a character, whether it's following in the footsteps of Captain Cook or becoming a Civil War re-enactor for Confederates in the Attic. He emerges as a thoughtful and articulate historian, who has crafted an impressive and immensely readable chronicle of John Brown, the history of slavery in the fledgling United States and -- above all -- the deserved return to the spotlight of all those who made possible the Harper's Ferry crusade, from financial supporters in Boston to the motley crew in the Virginia farmhouse waiting for the sign to risk their lives in support of an ideal. In the years to come, millions more men would do just that, most with far less pure motives, and I finished this impressive book wondering what John Brown would have made of the world that followed the Civil War, Reconstruction and, tragically, the rise of "Jim Crow" in the South.

I'd recommend both books very highly indeed; while you're waiting for Midnight Rising to appear in bookstores and libraries (it's due out October 25), go check out March and read or re-read it. They fit together in a way that is almost eerie, as Horwitz's imagined version of Captain March struggles to implement the ideals of the real John Brown. Certainly I found reading the novel made the history richer -- a tribute to Brooks's story-telling ability. I'm giving both books 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I received an advance review copy of Midnight Rising from Amazon.com as part of its Amazon Vine program.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Story of a Boy and a Bear -- and an Unbearable Loss

When Summer of the Bear by Bella Pollen opens, it's the summer of 1980, and Letty is driving north to the Outer Hebrides of Scotland with her three children, Georgiana, Alba and Jamie, but without her husband, Nicky. It takes only a few short chapters for the reader to learn that Nicky is dead -- just how he died, however, is the puzzle around which this novel ostensibly revolves.

But while Nicky's death, and the context for it, may make this sound like a mystery novel, it really isn't. Instead, it's the story of how terrible grief devastates families, driving members apart. Letty fears her husband has killed himself, or that his death wasn't an accident, and retreats into herself, leaving her children to cope on their own. Georgie is tormented by memories of a trip to Berlin with her father shortly before his death, a trip that MI-6 agents later interrogated her about at their home in Bonn. Alba is just angry at everyone, but especially Jamie, the youngest of the clan, for what she views as his simple-mindedness and lack of subtlety. But Jamie, who struggles with learning disabilities of some kind as well as incredibly literal mind (when his sister tells him sarcastically to look up Heaven in the Yellow Pages, he does just that -- and shows up on the door of a thinly-disguised brothel searching for his father) simply won't believe his father his dead. Perhaps he's off somewhere, on a secret mission -- after all, hadn't everyone told him that his father was "lost", and wasn't he really a spy?

Over the course of their summer at the family home in the Hebrides, all four survivors must find a way to cope and move on. Their conflicts are set against the backdrop of life in the still-remote community, under increasing siege from the modern world, and their memories of the diplomatic world that they have left behind them. And in the background, there is the bear: escaped from its owner, the grizzly has taken refuge in a cave. Jamie becomes increasingly fixated on finding the bear, associating it closely with his father. Is it possible that the spirit of the lost bear and his lost father could somehow combine...?

This is a beautifully-written novel, one that captures the emotional impact of a devastating loss and the uncertainties of childhood and adolescence without a false note anywhere. Jamie, in particular, is a heartbreaking character: the adults in his world don't understand him; Alba and his peers bully him ruthlessly and yet his insights and thoughts are clear and simple. The climax, in which Pollen brings together the multiple threads of the plot, offering a solution to the mystery of the bear and the mystery of Nicky's death, may feel contrived, but only when looking back on it after finishing the book. At the time, it just feels like the only proper way to wrap up the novel.

I devoured this book, one page after another, and was bitterly disappointed when I finished -- but only because I didn't have more to read. An impressive novel, crafted from the author's own knowledge of the Hebrides and the real-life escape of a bear the same summer in which the novel is set. I'll be looking out for more novels by Bella Pollen, and recommend this one whole-heartedly. I wouldn't go so far as to call this Literature with a capital "L", but it's an above-average novel with a plot and characters that will captivate and haunt you, and I'm giving it 4.6 stars.

Full disclosure: I obtained e-galleys of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.com.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Mystery Monday: Overlooked/Underrated Mystery Series To Check Out

I was griping to a friend recently that there are too many mystery writers who keep going and going -- just like little Energizer bunnies with word processing programs -- long past the time when they should have gracefully retired their characters and moved onto something new, different -- something fresh. Take Patricia Cornwell, whose tomes featuring Kay Scarpetta I stopped reading several volumes back; Anne Perry's William Monk and Thomas Pitt mystery series, that I invest in only irregularly; even Daniel Silva's novels (the catalyst for the gripe in question), which have begun to feel very "same-y" of late.

I began to ponder what makes a mystery series really long-lived, for readers beyond just the devoted coteries who would devour every novel written by an author in question even if it ended up winning the Bulwer-Lytton award for most overwrought opening sentence (and continued in the same vein for 850 pages.) My conclusion? It's all about the characters. I want more than just the same old characters, spouting familiar phrases and philosophies, dealing with different crimes and situations. That's what makes Elizabeth George's novels so readable to me still, even though she must have written nearly 20 of them by now. Her half-dozen or so main characters have changed dramatically over the decades; her secondary characters, those caught up in the mysteries she crafts, are equally convincing. True, not all of the books are as successful as her earlier ones and the task gets harder as she keeps going, but she's done a better job of keeping me an engaged and committed reader than, say, Deborah Crombie. True, Crombie's main characters are a major focus of the books, they have married and built a life together over the course of the series, but really, each book is about mixing together a bit of that story with a bit of a crime story, to a predictable formula. It's like realizing you're eating another chocolate cupcake when you're in the mood for something a tad more exciting.

Here's the most recent book in one of the series that I do think augurs to be sustainable over the longer haul -- and a list of some others to keep a keen eye on.

Two for Sorrow is the third in a series of mysteries by Nicola Upson featuring the imagined adventures of real-life crime novelist Josephine Tey (who wrote too few books, rather than too many...) It's been out in the UK for a few months, and hits bookstores here in the US tomorrow -- aka Tuesday, August 9th. And I'd suggest you make a foray to your nearest bookstore and pick up a copy, along with An Expert in Murder (Upson's debut) and Angel with Two Faces.

All three novels are set in the London of the mid-1930s and onward, and Upson explores the link between Josephine Tey's real life and imagines the kind of people she knew, convincingly weaving crime stories that deftly showcase links to her own crime novels. (In this one, for instance, there's a character called Miriam Sharpe, a clear reference to Marion Sharpe, the "heroine" of The Franchise Affair, as well as a plot twist related to identity, an amusing one to ponder in light of Tey's later novel, Brat Farrar, some of the plot elements bring to mind Miss Pym Disposes.)  Above all, however, these books -- in particular, her latest -- is a thumping good read, one that comments intelligently on the fate of the lost generation of women left husbandless by the killing fields of the World War I trenches, and how they crafted careers and alternative kinds of relationships for themselves.

Two for Sorrow begins with Upson imagining Tey's effort to imagine the hanging of two condemned baby farmers, found guilty of murdering infants. The 1903 case was a real one, and the fictional Tey has decided to build a story around the aftermath of the crime on those affected by it. But as she pursues her research, with the help of a former teacher, Celia Bannerman, who worked as a wardress at the prison and who guarded one of the women in the days leading up to the execution, she doesn't realize that another crime is brewing -- the brutal murder of a young woman who discovered more than she should have about an outwardly-respectable figure in society. And what is the connection between this most recent crime and the tragedy of the baby farmers, more than three decades earlier, besides the fact that the young woman had been in the same prison that had housed the condemned women many years later and for much more minor offenses?

Upson takes on the complicated plot and never drops a single strand of the narrative; nor does she do violence to either the historical narrative or the needs and wants of today's mystery reader. She reads between the lines of Josephine Tey's life and presents a plausible version of what she was like, of what she wanted, of how she might have approached the kind of mysteries that she wrote about in real life had she encountered them in reality. There's a tremendous amount of convincing detail here; the author not only writes well but has constructed an entire universe in which readers can immerse themselves. Here's one mystery series that I feel has been overlooked and deserves a lot more readers than it may be getting: the books are so good that I can't ever see them as being referred to as merely "the new Nicola Upson".

Some other suggestions of mystery series to peruse if you're bored with the "same old" writers and characters:

  • Paul Johnston: Avoid his dreadful, gory thrillers (the most recent novels) and head off to find the four books featuring Quintilian Dalrymple in an eerie post-Apocalyptic and dystopic Edinburgh. Fascinating and imaginative; the books include Water of Death.
  • Rennie Airth: The author of three widely-spaced books featuring John Madden, survivor of World War I and the trenches, set in 1919, the early 1930s, and the beginning of the end of World War II. Fabulous and complex stories; utterly chilling. Start with The Blood-Dimmed Tide.
  • Check out two novels by a new Canadian author, Inger Ash Wolfe,  The Calling and The Taken. In both, Hazel Micallef finds that rural Ontario isn't such a peaceful place to work as a provincial police inspector...
  • Jill Paton Walsh is best-known in mystery circles for her Lord Peter Wimsey sequels -- I enjoy these, but like her mysteries featuring Imogen Quy, a nurse at a Cambridge college, still more. These are midway between being cozy and being suspense, and combine the best of both worlds, along with offering some great writing. Try The Wyndham Case, A Piece of Justice, The Bad Quarto, etc.
  • Hannah March is one nom de plume for an author who has also penned novels under the name of Jude Morgan. But the Hannah March novels are excellent, set in Georgian England, where the author's amateur sleuth deals with highwaymen and opera singers and meets a young Mozart. I'd rate most of these five stars, and really wish someone would bring them back into print!
  • Ann Cleeves has penned a lot of mysteries, but she isn't that well known on this side of the Atlantic. I hope the Shetland Island quartet -- staring with Raven Black -- will change this. Read the four books in order; it's important! Really compelling.
  • Kate Charles is now working on her second series of clerical mysteries (an English contrast to Julia Spencer-Fleming's novels featuring Rev. Claire Fergusson, for those who have discovered those v. good novels.) I'd recommend the first series, with books like A Drink of Deadly Wine, which will be back in print in mid-August. That said, the first two books in the Callie Anson series are well worth a look, as well. I'm putting my money where my mouth is; discovering the series is now on Kindle, I've just ordered 'em all.
  • Elly Griffiths is a newer author whose first novel, The Crossing Places, was so good that I didn't want to wait for the newest one to be released here and paid an exorbitant amount to have it shipped from the UK. Ruth Galloway is independent, slightly curmudgeonly -- not a classical heroine at all. She loves archaelogy, and that's about it. But Griffiths has some fun with Ruth and her character when a more modern burial is discovered...
  • David Downing has so far written four novels, all named after a different train station in Berlin, that take the reader through the rise and fall of the Third Reich through the eyes of an American journalist living there. In each of the novels, there's an element of a crime and a mystery, but they are as much historical and political novels as anything else. The series starts with Zoo Station; the newest, Lehrter Station, will be out in a few months' time. 
  • A few other names to ponder: Jassy Mackenzie (previously mentioned here); Giles Blunt (a Canadian novelist with five books in his John Cardinal series); Joyce Holms (who wrote the Fizz & Buchanan novels, set in Edinburgh) and Colin Cotterill (whose Dr. Siri continues to bring a smile to my face.)
Something all of these authors have in common, looking back on this list, is that they keep their series manageable in length. Downing has an end planned to his, as does Cotterrill. Jill Paton Walsh has only authored a few Imogen Quy mysteries; there are four featuring Quintilian Dalrymple. In other cases, the series is too new for the author to have fallen in love with his/her own creation or to resort to desperate measures in terms of the plot.

So, tell us all: do you have a favorite "overlooked" mystery series or author you think we should all be reading? Please share!