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!