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The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Nine Tailors is one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey stories. The setting is brooding and mysterious – the fens of East Anglia – but populated by a whole village full of fascinating characters, including the eccentric but gracious Rector Venables and his wife, old Hezekiah Lavender the bellringer, the young heiress Hilary Thorpe, crazy Potty Peake, and many more. A character in itself is the village’s magnificent church, St. Paul’s and its famous bells, the nine tailors of the title.

The art of bell-ringing is called campanology, and Sayers made a study of it for this book, which is part of what makes it an absorbing read. We learn that the church bells have names (Dimity, Batty Thomas, Tailor Paul, Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee in this case) and are rung in courses, or perhaps peals (I don’t claim to have made a study of campanology!) The author uses colorful bell-ringing terminology as a motif throughout the book – I didn’t have to understand it to enjoy it. Some chapter titles, for example: "Lord Peter is Called Into the Hunt"; "Lord Peter Follows His Course Bell to Lead"; "Monsieur Rozier Hunts the Treble Down" and so on.

Lord Peter and his faithful manservant Bunter happen upon the village of Fenchurch St. Paul when Lord Peter drives his Daimler into a ditch in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. Providentially, as it happens, since one of Lord Peter’s many talents turns out to be bell-ringing ("’ I used at one time to pull quite a pretty rope,"’ Lord Peter says modestly) and when the rector entreats him to replace a sick bell-ringer for a positive marathon of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing, Lord Peter’s sense of noblesse oblige kicks in and he insists to his host, "’Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don’t need rest. I would far rather ring bells.’"

After nine hours of bell-ringing, Lord Peter and Bunter leave their hosts and drive home. But Fenchurch St. Paul harbors its secrets: a stolen emerald necklace, a mysterious disappearance, a mistaken identity, and at least one murder. Lord Peter’s investigation stretches over the next year, inextricably entangled with the bells, which are even an occasion for the breaking of a cipher (the British term for a secret code). Fortunately, Sayers never overdoes it, at least not for my sensibilities. Her description of the New Year’s Eve ringing rises to poetry:

"The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. . . every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping countries went the music of the bells . . ."

The following Christmas comes with the solving of the mystery, and a fittingly clever and surprising solution it is. Throughout the novel, Sayers combines humor and pathos and deductive reasoning with fine writing to produce a detective story worthy of the best English mystery writers – in fact, I feel that The Nine Tailors rises above genre all together. It is simply a fine book. Don’t miss it!

British Fiction (20)

A Presumption Of Death by Jill Paton Walsh
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
Bertie Plays The Blues by Alexander McCall Smith
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers
Constance Harding’s (Rather) Startling Year by Ceri Radford
Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford
I Am Half Sick Of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Long Live The King by Fay Weldon
Midnight At Marble Arch by Anne Perry
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandeth
Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Complete Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Whose Body? By Dorothy L. Sayers

 

A Presumption of Death (Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane #2)A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those distressing books written by not the author, but by a presumptuous (forgive the pun) upstart trying to ride the original author’s coattails, the original author being long since dead. Or so I thought, indignantly, until I read it. The book is actually based on The Wimsey Papers, a loose epistolary collection by Lord Peter and various family members written during World War II. (These are all fictional characters, of course.)

So Paton did have a framework to work with in her novel, and in fairness, she is not an upstart, but an accomplished writer. And though I was prepared to be hypercritical (in case you couldn’t tell), I have to say that she created an excellent imitation of a Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery. The voice is spot on, as they say in the mother country. One could almost forget that the book is not an actual Dorothy L. Sayers novel.

So, we open with Harriet at Talboys with the children, and not only her own, but her sister-in-law’s, digging in for the duration of the war. Walsh (and Sayers, I suppose; I have read The Wimsey Papers, but it’s been a while) includes any number of compelling details about life in rural England at the beginning of World War II. We learn about rationing, the RAF, blackouts, and land girls. Lord Peter and trusty manservant Bunter are meanwhile involved in shadowy espionage on the continent – dangerous espionage that in one nail-biting scene puts Lord Peter’s life in Harriet’s hands when he sends a code breakable only by her.

And, of course, there is a murder. We need say no more about that, except that it is an unusual one, solved in an unusual fashion. And I must give Paton her due – although it makes me a bit uncomfortable to resurrect characters with a different author, she does an excellent job and I enjoyed the book.

A Week in Winter A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Settling down with a Maeve Binchy novel is like putting on a well-loved cardigan on a chilly day; you know it will keep you warm and cozy, and you know it will fit. No surprises, but in a good way.

A Week in Winter is set on the west coast of Ireland, and Binchy works her usual magic, introducing her cast of characters, many of whom have fought against the odds and won; placing them in an enchanting setting, in this case, an Irish manor house turned hotel; and linking them together in surprising ways.

A master of the art of character, Binchy creates people who interest and engage us, and she believably shows us how they change in the course of her novels, which is one of the reasons readers love her. I was surprised and saddened to learn that A Week in Winter is Binchy’s last novel; she died in 2012 at age 72, shortly after finishing this book.

Binchy wrote many, many novels. Some of them, like Firefly Summer and Light a Penny Candle are dramatic and epic in scale. Others, like A Week in Winter, simply interweave the lives of a number of ordinary people and create magic from the everyday, which is not, after all, such a simple trick. This was not my favorite of her works, but I would recommend any of them.

Bertie Plays the Blues: A 44 Scotland Street Novel (44 Scotland Street, #7) Bertie Plays the Blues: A 44 Scotland Street Novel by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alexander McCall Smith, is, of course, the author of the The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which would be enough for most people. Yet he somehow also writes the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the Corduroy Mansions series, and the 44 Scotland Street series, of which Bertie Plays the Blues is the latest offering. Does the man never sleep?

Perhaps he doesn’t, but his books seem uniformly good. The 44 Scotland Street series is set in Edinburgh, where Smith resides (he is pictured on the back cover in a kilt), and the setting functions much as another character – not because it is described at great length, but because the reader feels that the story could not happen elsewhere in just the same way. Where else, for example, would people applaud parents for bestowing the names Rognvald, Tobermory and Fergus on their newborn triplets?

Domenica was interested in the names chosen for the triplets. ‘We can be grateful that they’ve chosen real names,’ she said. ‘You can’t go wrong if you name a child after a prominent geographical feature. Tobermory is very nice.’

So there’s one story going on, that of the young couple with the triplets who desperately need a good night’s sleep. Then there are Angus the painter and Domenica, experiencing a little friction in combining their households into soon-to-be-married bliss. There is seven-year-old Bertie of the title, an engaging prodigy whose overbearing mother has unintentionally made her son’s life so miserable with psychiatric sessions and endless enrichment classes that he decides it would be best for all to steal off to Glasgow and put himself up for adoption at the same agency that found adoptive parents for his friend Ranald.

Although Smith’s books in some sense amble along, the reader is happy to amble along with them, not needing the high drama of a suspense novel. Indeed, the books are so old-fashioned that it would be easy to imagine old-fashioned titles for each chapter: "In Which Bertie and Ranald Abscond to Glasgow and Are Apprehended by a Person of Authority" or "In Which Matthew Defies His Wife and Secretly Becomes a Mason" and so on.

But that’s all okay. The books are wise, the characters are thoughtful, the author has a wonderful sense of humor (one of the classmates at Bertie’s progressive school is named Tofu), and we readers can confidently expect a wonderful time in Edinburgh with the residents of 44 Scotland Street.

Busman's Honeymoon (Lord Peter Wimsey, #13) Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At long last, after an unconscionable number of books in which we wait for her to make up her mind, mystery writer Harriet Vane has married wealthy and brilliant amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. They plan to honeymoon in Talboys, the country house that Harriet has asked Peter to buy for her, but they arrive to an empty, unprepared house. Eventually the seller turns up dead in the cellar, his head bashed in, but not from a fall.

An inauspicious beginning for a honeymoon, perhaps, but the couple soldiers on, investigating the murder and finding out new and surprising things about each other. Harriet, having finally given in to love, is refreshingly gaga about Lord Peter. Here is her reaction when he falls in at once with the vicar’s suggestion that they attend a village concert:

Whatever fantastic pictures she had conjured up from time to time of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included attendance at village concerts. But of course they would go. She understood now why it was that with all his masking attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his odd spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent attitude of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of her friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She felt curiously excited. She thought, "I have married England!" Her fingers tightened on his arm.

One of the things I have always liked about these books is that the author assumes a high degree of erudition on the part of the reader, and drops quotations and allusions liberally. For example, Superintendent Kirk, the investigating policeman, recognizes one of Lord Peter’s quotations, and for the rest of the book, engages in a good-natured competition, even instructing his policemen to include the quotations in his notes so that he can look them up later.

"So," said Peter, "Galahad will sit down in Merlin’s seat."

Mr. Kirk, on the point of lowering his solid fifteen stone into the chair, jerked up abruptly.

"Alfred," he said, "Lord Tennyson."

"Got it in one," Peter said, mildly surprised. A glow of enthusiasm shone softly in the policeman’s ox-like eyes. "You’re a bit of a student, aren’t you, Superintendent?"

"I like to do a bit o’ reading in my off -duty," admitted Mr. Kirk bashfully. "It mellows the mind." He sat down. "I often think as the rowtine of police dooty may tend to narrow a man and make him a bit hard, if you take my meaning. When I find that happening, I say to myself, what you need, Sam Kirk, is contact with a Great Mind or so, after supper. Reading maketh a full man -"

"Conference a ready man," said Harriet.

"And writing an exact man," said the Superintendent.

So there is the murder – and a particularly ingenious method, I thought – but I most enjoy the accoutrements of the story: the eccentric characters, the first view of Harriet and Lord Peter as a married couple, the earnest parsing of clues, the glimpse of bygone English country life.

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

My rating:4 of 5 stars

Christmas Pudding, set in England in the l930s, is Mitford’s second novel, and the premise is amusing: protagonist Paul Fotheringay is in despair because his newly-published novel, into which he has "poured all the bitterness of a bitter soul" and whose ending is "unbearably tragic" has been hailed by one and all as a stunning success – as a comic novel.

Paul is struggling to regain a more scholarly reputation, and he lights on the idea of writing the biography of one Lady Maria Bobbin, a Victorian poet. Alas, he is denied access to her papers by the present Lady Bobbin, who is interested only in the hunt. Undaunted, Paul schemes to pose as a tutor to her son Bobby, a student at Eton, during the holidays, so that he can secretly study the poet’s papers while staying in the house. Bobby happily agrees to the ruse.

Bobby has an attractive sister, Philadelphia Bobbin, who is bored to death in the country and of a marriageable age. While she and Paul make eyes at each other, a horde of Bobbin relatives descend upon the house for Christmas.

Christmas Day itself was organized by Lady Bobbin with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a general leading his army into battle. Not one moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests; these received on Christmas Eve their marching orders, orders which must be obeyed to the letter on pain of death.

Like all of Mitford’s novels, Christmas Pudding includes witty dialogue, silly situations, and scathing commentary on the vicissitudes of the upper class.

Pigeon Pie is more a novella, set during the early days of World War II. Sophia is the heroine, married to a former diplomat, now a businessman.

Sophia had a happy character and was amused by life; if she was slightly disillusioned she was by no means unhappy in her marriage. Luke was as cold as a fish and a great bore; soon however she began to regard him as a great joke, and as she liked jokes she became quite fond of him when, which happened soon, she fell out of love with him. . . Luke seemed to be getting very rich. About twice a week he obliged her to entertain or be entertained by insufferably boring business people, generally Americans. . .

‘I simply don’t see the point of getting up at six all the time you are young and working eighteen hours a day in order to be a millionaire, and then when you are a millionaire still getting up at six and working eighteen hours a day, like Mr. Holst. And poor Mrs. Holst, who has got up at six all these years, so that now she can’t sleep in the morning, only has the mingiest little diamond clip you ever saw. What does it all mean?’

The story continues with German spies and counter-spies as Sophia tries her best to contribute to the war effort with results that are occasionally heroic and always entertaining.

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #2)Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clouds of Witness is number two in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series written by Sayers in the 1920s and 30s (see my review of Whose Body? for further biographical detail about the author). The novel introduces us to other members of the Wimsey family when his brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering a guest at the family lodge. Awkwardly, the Duke declines to produce a believable alibi – "’They can’t hang me; I didn’t kill the man, although I think it’s a jolly good thing he’s dead. It’s no business of theirs what I was doin’ in the garden.’" – and is arrested. Lord Peter’s sister, Lady Mary, reacts with similar recalcitrance, leaving it to our hero to solve the mystery with the aid of his friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard (promoted since book one) and faithful manservant Bunter.

This book ranges further afield than the first book in the series, Whose Body?, as Lord Peter scavenges for clues from the fens of Yorkshire to the jewelers of Paris to the dens of small-time Bolsheviks. Sayers has fun with the Bolsheviks; witness her description of "a thin, eager young woman in a Russian blouse, Venetian beads, a Hungarian shawl, and a Spanish comb, looking like a personification of the United Front of the Internationale. ‘I say,’ said Wimsey apologetically, ‘D’you know you’re dipping those jolly little beads of yours in the soup?’"

There’s also a good, impenetrable English fog to lend atmosphere.

He grasped Bunter’s hand, and they strode gingerly forward into the thick coldness of the fog.

How long that nightmare lasted neither could have said. The world might have died about them. Their own shouts terrified them; when they stopped shouting the dead silence was more terrifying still. They stumbled over tufts of thick heather. It was amazing how, deprived of sight, they exaggerated the inequalities of the ground. It was with very little confidence that they would distinguish uphill from downhill. They were shrammed through with cold, yet the sweat was running from their faces with strain and terror.

Suddenly – from directly before them as it seemed, and only a few yards away – there rose a long, horrible shriek – and another – and another.

Sayers is a good, literary writer who never sacrifices style or character to story – and her stories are arresting. She caps the novel with the murder trial, which, because the Duke is a peer of the realm, is held in the House of Lords so that he can indeed be judged by a jury of his peers (the origin of that expression, no doubt.)

The proceedings were opened by a Proclamation of Silence from the Sergeant-at-Arms, after which the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, kneeling at the foot of the throne, presented the Commission under the Great Seal to the Lord High Steward, who, finding no use for it, returned it with great solemnity to the Clerk of the Crown. The latter accordingly proceeded to read it at dismal and wearisome length, affording the assembly an opportunity of judging just how bad the acoustics of the chambers were. The Sergeant-at-Arms retorted with great emphasis, ‘God Save the King!’, whereupon Garter King-of-Arms and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, kneeling again, handed the Lord High Steward his staff of office. (‘So picturesque, isn’t it?’ said the Dowager – ‘quite High Church, you know.’)

Funny, but also fascinating. Under Sayers’s able pen, the Wimsey family is noble entertainment for the discerning reader.

Constance Harding's (Rather) Startling Year: A Novel Constance Harding’s (Rather) Startling Year: A Novel by Ceri Radford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Constance Harding begins the year of 2008 with a blog, the suggestion of her son Rupert, who, the last time she phoned to tell him about her " housekeeper’s blunders and the bellringer’s bunions" thought that his mother "might like to tell the World Wide Web all about it, rather than him. He is such a thoughtful boy."

This observation is our introduction to the well-meaning but generally clueless Constance, the middle-aged mother of two grown children, Sophie and Rupert, and solicitor husband Jeffrey. I prefer my heroines to have a clue, but Constance manages to endear herself to the reader with her always generous interpretations of events that are obvious to everyone else. For example, noting her husband’s distracted air at breakfast:

Perhaps he is sad that it is time to return to work after the Christmas break, and that Sophie will be leaving for France soon. Or perhaps he is simply irritated by Natalia’s [the Lithuanian housekeeper] increasing slovenliness. Despite my reprimands, she keeps leaving her underwear to dry in his study, eschewing the foldaway rack I put in her room expressly for this purpose. Cluttered house, cluttered mind, I have always said. No wonder he looked so distracted. To make matters worse, the undergarments in question are made of some sort of unpleasant, black polyester material. I worry that they might melt and mark the radiators, which I had the handyman regloss only last autumn. I will have to have words with her again.

Blithely unaware of her husband’s cheating, Constance spends the year also oblivious that her son is gay, her daughter is running wild, and her colleague in bell-ringing is lusting after her while she fondly imagines she has successfully interested him in a formidable local spinster.

Eventually Constance’s ignorance comes to an end, and the author’s deft handling of her dawning awareness is another joy of the novel, which is very funny. I loved Constance, both in her ignorance and her enlightenment, and heartily recommend her – especially as a palate cleanser after you’ve finished reading something dark and angsty. With her proper English ways, Constance puts all the world into perspective.

Five Red Herrings (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #7)Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can the reader not enjoy a mystery whose protagonist is thusly introduced:

It was a marvelous day in late August, and Wimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along. The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton-Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures.

As the victim in this mystery is universally loathed, we can proceed to solving the mystery of his death with a clear conscience. (The drawback of any murder mystery, of course, is that our enjoyment must derive from a murder, albeit a fictitious one.)

The book is set in a Scottish village whose spectacular landscape and fabulous fishing attracts its share of tourists who paint or fish or both. Sayers hits upon the happy inspiration of presenting us with six artists with shaky alibis, five of whom are the red herrings of the title, and one of whom is the murderer, and they are an agreeably eccentric and entertaining lot.

Lord Peter is assisted in his detecting by an array of inspectors and constables, most of whom are Scottish, and whose speech Sayers records in dialect, scorning the warnings of all writer’s guides never to do so. Sayers does as she likes, and the results are stunning, but some readers may not wish to struggle through paragraphs full of sentences like this one: "’The folk at the Borgan seed him pentin’ there shortly after 10 this morning on the wee bit high ground by the brig, and Major Dougal gaed by at 2 o’clock wi’ his rod an’ spied the body liggin’ in the burn.’" These passages lend charm and humor to the story, but they do read more slowly.

The murderer’s trail involves a number of mysterious bicycles and too many train schedules (skim that part, unless you really like working out whether the murderer could have boarded the train at point A or B while still having time to cycle five miles and eat breakfast at another man’s house.) There is also the complete reconstruction of the murderer and getaway by Wimsey and the other detectives. Here the Chief Constable acts as victim:

"Now, corpse," said Wimsey, "it’s time I packed you into the car . . . Come and take up your pose again, and remember you’re supposed to be perfectly rigid by now."

Wimsey seized the Chief Constable’s cramped and reluctant body and swung it into the back seat of the Morris . . . ruthlessly ramming his victim down between the seat and the floor. "I hope you aren’t permanently damaged, sir. Can you stick it?" he added, as he pulled on his gloves.

"Carry on," said the corpse, in a muffled voice.

The murderer is eventually uncovered in the most sporting way possible, reminding us again why British mysteries from the thirties, with Lord Peter leading the way, are so much fun to read.

Highland Fling Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best-known for her comic novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, set in the upper-crust of England in the 1940s, Nancy Mitford also wrote six other novels, less commonly available, that have now been re-issued by Vintage Books. Highland Fling is her first novel, written when she was just in her twenties. I was thrilled to see it appear in the New Books section of the local library.

Mitford was herself a part of the upper-crust about which she writes so witheringly and so entertainingly, and she moved in exalted literary circles as well as exalted social circles. Based on an unrequited love in Scotland of Mitford’s own, Highland Fling introduces us to the young couple Walter and Sally Monteath, whose lack of money seems no impediment to their lifestyle:

. . . Walter seemed to have a talent for making money disappear. Whenever he was on the point of committing an extravagance of any kind he would excuse himself by explaining: ‘Well, you see, darling, it’s so much cheaper in the end.’ It was his slogan. Sally soon learnt, to her surprise and dismay, that ‘it’s cheaper in the end’ to go to the most expensive tailor, travel first class, stay at the best hotels, and to take taxis everywhere. When asked why it was cheaper, Walter would say airily: ‘Oh, good for our credit, you know!’ of ‘So much better for one’s clothes,’ or, sulkily: ‘Well, it is, that’s all, everybody knows it is.’

Having as a result spent double their income in one year, Walter and Sally are obliged, in order to save money, to accept a relative’s request to host the summer house party for two months at the ancestral manor Dalloch Castle in Scotland while the relatives are posted to Rhodesia. The Monteaths’ friends Jane and Albert (a painter, and the only character with any sort of job) come to keep them company and fall in love despite the other guests, such as Lady Brenda. . .

Jane thought that she had never seen anyone look so much like an overbred horse. She even ate like one, appearing to sniff every mouthful cautiously before she allowed herself to nibble at it, as though she might at any moment shy away from the cable. Her husband behaved to her just like a groom with a nervous mare. Jane felt that he must have had difficulty in accustoming her to being handled.

. . . General Murgatroyd, who nourishes a hatred for all things not English, and expounds relentlessly on the virtues of "Blockade"; Admiral Wenscelaus, who is quite deaf and has a glass eye; and Lady Prague, who advises Albert on his painting: "’There are too many oil paintings in the world already. Watercolors take up much less room. Don’t you agree?" And others!

As I reread the novel for funny passages that I might quote here, I found so many that it was difficult to choose. Choosing nearly at random, here Mitford describes the hunt as Jane experiences it:

In the hall scenes of horrible confusion were going forward; a perfect regiment of men tramped to and fro carrying things and bumping into each other. They all seemed furiously angry. Above the din could be heard the general’s voice:

‘What the – do you think you’re doing? Get out of that! Come here, blast you!’

The moor was about five miles away, and during the whole drive nobody spoke a word except General Murgatroyd, who continually admonished his dog, a broken-looking retriever of the name of Mons.

‘Lie down, will you? No, get off that coat!’ (Kick, kick, kick; howl, howl, howl.) ‘Stop that noise, blast you!’ (Kick, howl.)

And later, in the butt (hunting hut) with the General:

She began to suffer acutely from cold and cramp, and was filled with impotent rage. Eons of time passed over her. She pulled a stone out of the wall and scratched her name on another stone, then Albert’s name, then a heart with an arrow through it (but she soon rubbed that off again). She knew the shape of the general’s plus-fours and the pattern of his stockings by heart, and could have drawn an accurate picture of the inside of the butt blindfold, when suddenly there was an explosion in her ears so tremendous that for an instant she thought she must have been killed.

And so it goes on. When you need a read to help you recover from the latest gloomy headlines, pick up this novel and be restored by laughter.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia De Luce, #4) I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luca, prodigy and girl detective, half-orphan scorned by her sisters and nearly forgotten by her father, spends the days before Christmas plotting a means of unmasking Santa Claus, namely by smearing the chimneys he’s reputed to come down with birdlime:

Birdlime, as any practical chemist will tell you, can be easily manufactured by boiling the middle bark of holly for eight or nine hours, burying it under a stone for a fortnight, and then, when it is disinterred, washing and pulverizing it in running river water and leaving it to ferment . . . now, after six months of preparation, my concoction was powerful to stop a Gabon gorilla in its tracks, and Father Christmas – if he existed – wouldn’t stand a chance.

It was a brilliant plan. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

Not only do we have Christmas and the entrapment of St. Nicholas, we also get to an enjoy a troupe of actors who roll in to film a movie and are persuaded to give a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Flavia’s home. And if the experience of young Flavia at large among the actors isn’t enough to please us, a blizzard arrives to snow in both audience and actors, and when murder occurs – as we know it must – young Flavia is there to give chase.

And did I mention the fireworks? Personally created, of course, by Flavia.

Flavia’s charm and scientific erudition never seem to wind down, nor do the author’s powers of invention falter, so we can happily anticipate the next installment of our girl detective’s redoubtable adventures.

Long Live the KingLong Live the King by Fay Weldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each winter, Downton Abby gives us a few episodes depicting life among the aristocracy in early 20th century England, and really, we fans need more. Fortunately for us, Fay Weldon provides it with her trilogy (it is referred to as such, but I could not discover a name for it), the second of which is Long Live the King.

Weldon is a serious and much-awarded writer, but her hand is just as sure with this much lighter work. The coronation of King Edward VII (Queen Victoria’s successor in 1901) is the axis around which many subplots swirl. We meet Adela, the repressed sixteen-year-old daughter of Rector Edwin Hedleigh (estranged brother of Lord Robert) and an Austrian princess.

Once it had been a love match – a chance meeting on a cross-Channel steamer in a storm between an Austrian princess and and fourth son of an Earl – but both dedicated to the service of God. The flesh had won over the spirit, the Anglican over the Catholic; they had married impetuously and neither had ever quite forgiven themselves or each other. The proof of their spiritual weakness was the sixteen-year-old Adela. And now she was growing fast, for all her mother could stop it, and worse, turning into a veritable vehicle of concupiscence. It was all her husband, all that any man, could do, and he was the most saintly of men, to keep his eyes away from her changing body. The sooner the girl could be packed off to the Sisters of Bethany the better.

But Adela is orphaned by a fire and thus saved from the convent. Lord Robert takes the news of his estranged brother’s death in stride: "’So poor old Edwin. Gone. The Hedleigh vault at Dilberne will open up again. He’ll be at one with his ancestors and let’s hope he finds someone he can get on with.’" Still angry at his brother, he declines to open his heart or home to Adela, who winds up first in the household of the local Bishop, and then, through a comic turn of affairs, in the comfortable but larcenous clutches of her former maid Ivy and George, her husband, as a spiritualist offering séances to – who else? – the nobility.

In the meantime, Lady Isobel frets about Adela’s welfare and the three invitations to the coronation that she has unaccountably lost. Here she is, spending Christmas with the King and Queen:

Isobel felt reprimanded. She reflected that breakfasting with royalty was even more tiring than dining with them. At breakfast, natural impulses and the remnants of dreams were too close. The very ceremony of dinner imposed a more reasonable formality and a degree of forethought. One so wanted to be liked and approved of by one’s superiors in rank it became impossible just to speak or act naturally.

The Hedleigh household hurtles toward the coronation, beset by quandaries such as Minnie’s pregnancy (she is a Chicago pork heiress and the wife of his Lordship’s eldest son), which prevents her from attending the ceremony, and Isobel’s worry about His Lordship’s possible infatuation with the irresistible Conseulo. And where can Adela have disappeared to?

As I hope you can tell from the excerpts, this is a funny book, and rife with the kind of detail about British nobility so dear to the heart of the American reader.

Midnight at Marble Arch Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read many of Anne Perry’s novels, which are mostly detective novels set in Victorian England (there is another series whose setting is World War I), and I particularly like the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt stories, of which this is one.

Midnight at Marble Arch focuses on the crime of rape – not only a particular rape, which Special Branch head Thomas Pitt and his colleagues must solve (always with the help of wife Charlotte), but on the attitude of society toward rape in that time period. This sort of double focus is a feature of Perry’s novels, and the many philosophical discussions about various sorts of crimes are probably one of the reasons for their popularity.

I had not read far into the book when I happened to see an article elsewhere that revealed Anne Perry to be a convicted murderer. While living in New Zealand with her family, Perry and her friend murdered the friend’s mother when they were 15 years old, was jailed for five years, then released. Perry and her mother moved to England, where she changed her name and later became a successful crime novelist.

This is no secret – Perry even spoke about the murder a few years ago on a British TV program – but one can hardly expect her publishers to focus on this aspect of her history, so I would guess that most readers are unaware of her past.

In terms of her writing, her crime is moot – she is simply a good writer – but in terms of content, it’s clear that Perry has spent the rest of her life wrestling with questions of morality. I happily read her books for years without knowing about her background, but they seem more comprehensible now that I do know, so I pass that knowledge on to other readers.

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading GaolOscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde, compelled by author Gyles Brandreth, has joined the ranks of dead authors turned into detectives (he has fortunately thus far escaped being turned into a zombie or vampire hunter.) While this isn’t my favorite sub-genre, wonderful things can happen in the hands of the right author. I have always loved Wilde the writer and pitied Wilde the man, the genius who was the darling of Victorian society until he was disgraced and died poor and estranged from his family at just forty-one years of age.

Given that not everyone is familiar with Oscar Wilde, this series serves as a gentle introduction. He is best known for his plays, which are for the most part witty comedies that skewer the hypocrisies of British society – The Importance of Being Earnest is my favorite; for his fairy tales like The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant; for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; for his poetry and essays; and for his epigrams: "I can resist anything but temptation" is a famous one. Another: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

This is the sixth of the Oscar Wilde series, and it covers the unhappy years when Wilde, who was married and had a family, became so besotted with the young noble Robert Ross that he abandoned all discretion and let their affair become known to Ross’s father. Victorian society, who had hitherto lauded Wilde, rewarded him with a two year jail sentence for sodomy after Ross’s father brought charges against him.

Victorian prisons were grim places indeed, and this book reflects Wilde’s surroundings; it is altogether darker than the works that precede it. But Wilde is an interesting companion, even when he is despairing, and he is clever enough to solve two murders that take place in Reading Gaol, even though he is confined like all prisoners in a solitary cell and is forbidden to speak to anyone.

One of the strengths of this series is the way Brandreth so convincingly uses the facts of Wilde’s life to create his fiction. For example, Wilde was good friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, so Wilde is able to learn methods of detection from Doyle in a natural way. The narrator of the series is Robert Sherard, a close friend of Wilde and his biographer, so he can admiringly record Wilde’s adventures. And after finishing this book, I read Wilde’s "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" which he did indeed write after leaving prison.

So although this book is more somber than the others, it is still compelling, and as well worth reading.

Postern of Fate Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work, but an article about a BBC series planned for 2014 to celebrate Christie’s 125th birthday alerted me to Tommy and Tuppence, the married sleuths of four novels and a book of short stories. The books were not that easy to locate, and I ended up first reading The Secret Adversary, the first book, published in 1922, followed by Postern of Fate (dreadful title!), the last book in the series, published in 1973. Tommy and Tuppence are in their twenties in the first book and in their seventies in the last book, so it was an odd way to go about the series. Nevertheless . . .

In Postern of Fate, Tommy and Tuppence have retired to a country house to live a peaceful, country life. But as Tuppence is pottering around (there is a lot of pottering in this book), paging through old children’s books left behind in the house, she discovers a message written by a twelve-year-old boy in code (which she quickly decrypts): Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.

But the message is years old, dating back to World War I days, so even if it is true, it can’t possibly hold any significance for the England of today – or can it? Neither Tommy nor Tuppence can stifle their curiosity, so Tuppence questions the old villagers whose parents might have known Mary Jordan and Tommy goes round to his old friends in London, most of whom have retired, but still seem to know what is going on, to establish the identity of Mary Jordan – and, of course, it turns out that the old murder does have modern day significance.

Enough about the plot, since this is a mystery. I liked Tommy and Tuppence as spirited pensioners, rather more than I liked them as bright young things in the first book, which was mostly dialogue. And of course, Christie’s writing vastly improved in the fifty years between the writing of the first and last novels. However, the writing of her last books, and this was one of them, suffered due to the author’s onset of dementia, which explains the fuzzy plot line.

These are not Christie’s finest works (although N or M? the third book, is more in Christie’s usual vein), but Tommy and Tuppence are appealing characters, and the series is worth reading if you are a Christie fan. And try to read them in order, as Postern of Fate made constant reference to the couple’s exploits in N or M?, giving away the plot of that novel a bit.

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #6) Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my unending quest to introduce today’s readers to the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I give you Strong Poison, the book that introduces Wimsey’s eventual mate and fellow amateur detective, Harriet Vane.

Harriet is a an unusual character for the 1930s: she is a woman of independent means, earning her living as a writer of detective novels, and she lives with her lover Philip Boyes, whom she leaves when he later proposes marriage. "She was angry with Boyes because, after persuading her against her will to adopt his principles of conduct, he then renounced those principles, and so, as she says, ‘made a fool of her.’"

We meet Harriet when she is in the dock for having poisoned her former lover. Lord Peter is convinced that she is innocent, confessing to Harriet, when he interviews her in prison, that he has quite fallen in love with her. He sets out to puncture the distressingly watertight alibi of the man whom he suspects.

Sayers has a faultless ear for dialogue, and not only the upper crust banter of the aristocrat. Here, for example, is a conversation between Lord Peter and the reformed burglar Bill.

". . . from time to time, when I need a little help in a righteous cause, Bill gives me the benefit of his great experience."

"And oh! What ‘appiness it is, miss, to turn them talents which I so wickedly abused to the service of the Lord. His ‘oly Name be blessed that bringeth good out of evil."

"That’s right," said Wimsey, with a nod. "Now, Bill, I’ve got my eye on a solicitor’s deed-box, which may or may not contain something which will help me to get an innocent person out of trouble. This young lady can get access to the box, Bill, if you can show her the way inside it."

"If?" grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt. "’Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks. There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing gloves with a stick of boiled macaroni."

Her descriptions are also arresting – here is Miss Murchison, one of Lord Peter’s spinster detectives, as she poses as a secretary to gain information:

Miss Murchison picked up the papers and came out, looking flustered. She dragged the cover off the typewriter with much sound and fury, jerked out the desk-drawers till they slammed against the drawer-stops, shook the stop-sheet, carbons and flimsies together as a terrier shakes a rat, and attacked the machine tempestuously.

And here Lord Peter goes to a Bohemian part of London to question an acquaintance of the murdered man:

Wimsey, entering on her heels, was struck in the face, as by an open hand, by a thick muffling wave of heat, sound, smoke and the smell of frying. It was a very small room, dimly lit by a single electric bulb, smothered in a lantern of painted glass, and it was packed to suffocation with people, whose silk legs, bare arms and pallid faces loomed at him like glow-worms out of the obscurity.

I could go on, as I am an admirer of Sayers’s prose, but suffice it to say that Strong Poison has it all: charming and intelligent hero and heroine; colorful minor characters; snappy dialogue; clever mystery; compelling prose style; fabulous setting. You need only add an armchair.

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In addition to the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels, Sayers wrote two collections of short stories about him, Lord Peter Views the Body and Hangman’s Holiday, which are part of this anthology. They have intriguing titles such as "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers" and "The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention" and the stories are as much fun as their titles. Of particular interest are the last two stories, "The Haunted Policeman", which takes place on the occasion of the birth of Lord Peter’s and wife Harriet’s first son, and "Talboys", in which Lord Peter and his eldest son solve a mystery and get into mischief.

Sayers’s other fictional detective, the travelling salesman Montague Egg, appears here in his own set of eleven stories. I admit that Egg’s travels as a wine salesman provide many opportunities for investigating murders, and he is a clever man, but I can’t warm to his character as I have to Lord Peter.

The remaining twelve stories are also well-written and inventive, and well worth reading if you like mystery stories and/or Sayers, but I freely admit that the Lord Peter stories are my favorites.

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Nine Tailors is one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey stories. The setting is brooding and mysterious – the fens of East Anglia – but populated by a whole village full of fascinating characters, including the eccentric but gracious Rector Venables and his wife, old Hezekiah Lavender the bellringer, the young heiress Hilary Thorpe, crazy Potty Peake, and many more. A character in itself is the village’s magnificent church, St. Paul’s and its famous bells, the nine tailors of the title.

The art of bell-ringing is called campanology, and Sayers made a study of it for this book, which is part of what makes it an absorbing read. We learn that the church bells have names (Dimity, Batty Thomas, Tailor Paul, Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee in this case) and are rung in courses, or perhaps peals (I don’t claim to have made a study of campanology!) The author uses colorful bell-ringing terminology as a motif throughout the book – I didn’t have to understand it to enjoy it. Some chapter titles, for example: "Lord Peter is Called Into the Hunt"; "Lord Peter Follows His Course Bell to Lead"; "Monsieur Rozier Hunts the Treble Down" and so on.

Lord Peter and his faithful manservant Bunter happen upon the village of Fenchurch St. Paul when Lord Peter drives his Daimler into a ditch in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. Providentially, as it happens, since one of Lord Peter’s many talents turns out to be bell-ringing ("’ I used at one time to pull quite a pretty rope,"’ Lord Peter says modestly) and when the rector entreats him to replace a sick bell-ringer for a positive marathon of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing, Lord Peter’s sense of noblesse oblige kicks in and he insists to his host, "’Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don’t need rest. I would far rather ring bells.’"

After nine hours of bell-ringing, Lord Peter and Bunter leave their hosts and drive home. But Fenchurch St. Paul harbors its secrets: a stolen emerald necklace, a mysterious disappearance, a mistaken identity, and at least one murder. Lord Peter’s investigation stretches over the next year, inextricably entangled with the bells, which are even an occasion for the breaking of a cipher (the British term for a secret code). Fortunately, Sayers never overdoes it, at least not for my sensibilities. Her description of the New Year’s Eve ringing rises to poetry:

"The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. . . every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping countries went the music of the bells . . ."

The following Christmas comes with the solving of the mystery, and a fittingly clever and surprising solution it is. Throughout the novel, Sayers combines humor and pathos and deductive reasoning with fine writing to produce a detective story worthy of the best English mystery writers – in fact, I feel that The Nine Tailors rises above genre all together. It is simply a fine book. Don’t miss it!

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (Flavia de Luce, #2) The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luce is a brilliant, quirky, chemistry-loving, crime-solving – wait for it – eleven-year-old. The novel happens in rural England in the 1950s. Flavia’s situation is both sad – her mother perished when Flavia was only a year old, her professorial father lives in a permanent fog because of it, and her two older sisters seem determined to torment her – and ideal, since Flavia is left alone to pursue her peculiar interest in poisons with the aid of her great-uncle’s old chemistry lab, conveniently located in a little-used wing of the family manor.

Flavia’s friends are eccentric and her family extremely well-educated, making her an entertaining narrator. Here she describes Gibbet Wood:

Bright cobwebs hung suspended like little portcullises of light between the rotted tree stumps. Beneath the ancient oaks and lichen-coated hornbeams, bluebells peeped out from the deep shadows among the ferns, and there on the far side of the glade I spotted the serrated leaves of the poisonous dog’s mercury that, when steeped in water, produced a gorgeous indigo poison that I had once transformed into the bright red color of arterial blood simply by adding a two-percent solution of hydrochloric acid.

I thought with pleasure of how the ammonia and amides given off by the deep compost on the forest floor provided a perfect feast for omnivorous molds that converted it to nitrogen, which they then stored in their protoplasm, where it would be fed upon by bacteria. It seemed to me a perfect world: a world in which cooperation was a fact of life.

I drew in a deep breath, sucking the sour tang into the lungs and savoring the chemical smell of decay.

But this was no time for pleasant reflections.

Fortunately for the reader, this is a series. In this particular book, a famous puppeteer arrives by chance – or is it? – in the village and agrees to stage a show in the parish hall. Murder ensues and it’s up to Flavia to sort through the suspects: the pupeteer’s pregnant mistress, the mad mother of a murdered child, a pot-growing farmer (in 1950s British parlance, hemp), the vicar’s unpleasant wife. As Flavia muses at the end of the book when she enlightens Inspector Hewitt with the solution to the mystery:

I knew by the sudden closed look on Inspector Hewitt’s face that I had hit the nail on the head. Bravo, Flavia! I thought. Go to the head of the class!

There were times when I surprised even myself.

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #3)Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are a fan of the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, or in the process of becoming one, then one of the pleasures of Sayers’s third novel in the series, Unnatural Death, is the biographical note at the beginning of the story. Written by Lord Peter’s uncle, it gives us a chronological summary of Lord Peter’s life since infancy, including such nuggets as "he was a colorless shrimp of a child", but, fortunately also "a brilliant natural cricketer."

The murder of the story is intriguing because it appears in no way to have been a murder – an elderly lady, dying of cancer, dies. And why would anyone trouble to kill her since she was dying anyway? But Lord Peter’s interest is piqued by the puzzle, and his friend Parker of Scotland Yard follows reluctantly in his wake, unconvinced until late in the novel that a crime has been committed at all.

Unnatural Death introduces us to the character of Miss Climpson, a spinster whose "magnificent gossip powers" and "units of inquisitiveness" are put to work for Lord Peter in this and subsequent novels:

"’She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush. . . Just think. People want questions asked. Who do they send? A man with large, flat feet and a notebook – the sort of man whose private life is conducted in a series of inarticulate grunts. I send a lady with a long woolly jumper on knitting-needles and jingly things round her neck. Of course she asks questions – everyone expects it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed . . . One day they will put up a statue to me with this inscription: To the Man who made Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Extertion to Himself.’"

A jolly detective story in the Wimsey manner, what?

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #1)Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point in my life I was an expert on Dorothy L. Sayers. Out of interest, I read all her works, and then read all the works about her works. I discovered that it is possible to become an expert in a relatively short time, provided that you choose a relatively narrow subject.

That was twenty years ago, and I no longer claim expert status, but I can tell you that Sayers, born in England in 1893, was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University. She worked as an advertising copywriter for nearly a decade and is credited with the slogan: "It pays to advertise." In the twenties and thirties, she became famous as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, and although she was later known as a playwright, essayist, Christian apologist, and translator of Dante’s Inferno, her most lasting fame rests on her foppish, monocled character, Lord Peter.

Whose Body? is Sayers’s first Lord Peter novel, published in 1922. As a titled aristocrat who glories in a well-drawn bath, collects rare manuscripts, and employs the superlative manservant, Bunter, Lord Peter has no financial reasons to dabble in crime – rather, his keen mind enjoys a good puzzle. The body of the title is that of a middle-aged, naked gentleman who turns up unbidden (and deceased) in the bathtub of the timid Mr. Thipps. Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, tells Lord Peter of the crime. He informs Bunter:

"’Her Grace informs me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.’

‘Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.’

‘Very, Bunter. Your choice of words is unerring. I wish Eton and Balliol had done as much for me.’"

Although Lord Peter is an aristocrat, he is not a snob, and he and his good friend Lieutenant Parker of Scotland Yard are soon interviewing suspects and running down clues. The mystery is ingenious, as Sayers’s murders usually are, but only part of the fun of the book lies in unraveling the mystery. The rest of the enjoyment – the greater part of it, for this reader – lies in Lord Peter and his milieu. What better afternoon’s escape than the drawing rooms and countryside of upper-crust Britain in the 1920s and 30s?

But, as in the best genre fiction, the Lord Peter books offer other treats. Sayers’s novels are awash with literary allusions, humor, and great moral questions, all woven into the fabric of the story, rather being tacked on to advertise the author’s erudition or philosophical bias.

In Lord Peter, Sayers has created an agreeable character who grows in complexity and likeability as the series continues. If Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown are your cup of tea, then waste no time in making the acquaintance of Lord Peter Wimsey.

Contemporary Fiction (16)

Constance Harding’s (Rather) Startling Year by Ceri Radford
Domestic Affairs by Bridget Siegel
Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny by Garrison Keillor
Love Anthony by Lisa Genova
Lunatics by Dave Berry
Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris
Tell The Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Maddoch
The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey
The Lawgiver by Herman Wouk
The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell
The Storyteller by Jodi Picault
The Truth by Michael Palin
A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

 

Constance Harding's (Rather) Startling Year: A Novel Constance Harding’s (Rather) Startling Year: A Novel by Ceri Radford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Constance Harding begins the year of 2008 with a blog, the suggestion of her son Rupert, who, the last time she phoned to tell him about her " housekeeper’s blunders and the bellringer’s bunions" thought that his mother "might like to tell the World Wide Web all about it, rather than him. He is such a thoughtful boy."

This observation is our introduction to the well-meaning but generally clueless Constance, the middle-aged mother of two grown children, Sophie and Rupert, and solicitor husband Jeffrey. I prefer my heroines to have a clue, but Constance manages to endear herself to the reader with her always generous interpretations of events that are obvious to everyone else. For example, noting her husband’s distracted air at breakfast:

Perhaps he is sad that it is time to return to work after the Christmas break, and that Sophie will be leaving for France soon. Or perhaps he is simply irritated by Natalia’s [the Lithuanian housekeeper] increasing slovenliness. Despite my reprimands, she keeps leaving her underwear to dry in his study, eschewing the foldaway rack I put in her room expressly for this purpose. Cluttered house, cluttered mind, I have always said. No wonder he looked so distracted. To make matters worse, the undergarments in question are made of some sort of unpleasant, black polyester material. I worry that they might melt and mark the radiators, which I had the handyman regloss only last autumn. I will have to have words with her again.

Blithely unaware of her husband’s cheating, Constance spends the year also oblivious that her son is gay, her daughter is running wild, and her colleague in bell-ringing is lusting after her while she fondly imagines she has successfully interested him in a formidable local spinster.

Eventually Constance’s ignorance comes to an end, and the author’s deft handling of her dawning awareness is another joy of the novel, which is very funny. I loved Constance, both in her ignorance and her enlightenment, and heartily recommend her – especially as a palate cleanser after you’ve finished reading something dark and angsty. With her proper English ways, Constance puts all the world into perspective.

Domestic Affairs: A NovelDomestic Affairs: A Novel by Bridget Siegel

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Who could stand to read a novel about the insiders in a presidential campaign after suffering through the longest campaign in history this year? I suppose I picked up this book because the author is an actual insider (Siegel has worked for the state and national campaigns of prominent Democrats like Hilary Clinton and President Obama) and I thought I might be enlightened and entertained.

The novel’s heroine Olivia is a seasoned twenty-something political fundraiser who is surprised to be tapped by an old friend to be the fundraiser in the national campaign of a Southern governor who exudes boyish charm, sexy vibes, and high political ideals (Bill Clinton, anyone?) So already we see where this is going, and since the first chapter makes it clear, I’m giving nothing away. The author manages to make the heroine likable despite her blindness to the possible faults of her married seducer, and I kept mentally warning her (hey, I’m a mother!) to stay away from the bastard.

But the seduction is not the main interest of the book. What I found most arresting was the unfolding description of the absolute immersion in and fascination of a political campaign for its workers. Olivia cannot fathom why her friends are not equally fascinated, and she and the other workers happily neglect every other aspect of their lives to sink themselves into the primary campaign. As a side note, this very aspect assures that campaign workers are mostly young, as they burn out quickly.

Also noteworthy is a look at political fundraising, which is so central to the campaign (Olivia and the governor and the campaign manager are constantly obsessing over fundraising lists and whether they can meet financial deadlines) that it made me feel sad for our political system. Although Olivia and her friend and campaign manager Jake are initially drawn in by the governor’s ideals, they become disillusioned by his personality changes, as he is gradually but surely corrupted by his celebrity status and lust for power.

Read Domestic Affairs for an educational inside look at a presidential campaign, but don’t expect to be inspired by what you find.

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Guy Noir and the Straight SkinnyGuy Noir and the Straight Skinny by Garrison Keillor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The way I see it, either you like Garrison Keillor or you don’t. If you are a fan, you will like this book, as it is vintage Keillor, or at least vintage Keillor in the guise of alter-ego Guy Noir, a wise-cracking gumshoe from the days of Dragnet and The Shadow, transplanted to contemporary Minneapolis/St. Paul. I liked the book better than I like the Guy Noir radio bits on A Prairie Home Companion; I thought it was funnier. Keillor begins, in Guy’s voice:

"Call me a cynic, but I maintain that nothing can clarify a man’s thinking quite like looking down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of a man who is irked with you and considering homicide as a solution to his problem. This has happened to me from time to time in my so-called career as a private eye in St. Paul, Minnesota, and each occurrence promoted clear thinking, inconvenient though it was at the time. Christians try to find clarity through prayer, but you don’t really know what prayer is until you meet someone who’s prepared to shoot you."

Good opening, I think, especially as the man holding the gun is eighty-two and suffering from mild senile dementia and hemorrhoids. The rest of the story rollicks on from there, with Guy not exactly sprinting (he’s sixty-five) from one adventure to another, but at least moving speedily, always encumbered in his escapes by his attraction to "bombshells" like Naomi Fallopian, ex-stripper and professor of women’s studies (Keillor has great fun with that one) who lead him on (and on) only to drop him with a thud.

Although Keillor gleefully skewers various American institutions – social media, extended adolescence, dieting, celebrity book tours, corporate greed, the courts – in the course of the book, I wouldn’t suggest that the novel is a mere skeleton for fleshing out Keillor’s grievances. It has a plot, silly as it is, and it offers a great opportunity to relish the author’s writing. For instance, his metaphors:

  • "The phone jingled like a Salvation Army Santa Claus."
  • "a voice like corn oil"
  • "As she walked, her golden wool gown undulated on her womanly hips like curtains in a light breeze. I wanted to open the curtains and let the sun shine."
  • "like a prime rib at a piranha picnic"
  • "the elevator’s. . .ancient chains clanking in the shaft above like Marley’s ghost."
  • "He was draped in a blue seersucker suit, like a toad in gift wrap"

In fact, the metaphors are as thick as a carpet of army ants on a wildebeast (coming up with that metaphor reminded me of what a nimble writer Keillor is), and a lot more fun. Fun, fun, fun is what this book is all about, an entertaining read by a wonderful writer – and what’s wrong with that?

Love AnthonyLove Anthony by Lisa Genova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Love Anthony By Lisa Genova

Two women living on Nantucket Island: one, Olivia, a mother whose marriage has crumbled under the weight of the needs and tragic death of her autistic son, and the other, Beth, whose marriage balances on a knife’s edge as she decides what to do about her husband’s admitted cheating. These women do not initially know each other, but by the book’s end they are so intimately connected that each is able to give the other a profound and unexpected gift.

The chief virtue of this book is the ability of the author to give a voice to Anthony, the autistic boy in Beth’s ongoing novel who seems to be speaking for the actual boy Anthony who is Olivia’s son. Here he explains why he can’t eat his breakfast, and will instead end up screaming uncontrollably.

I can’t eat two French Toast sticks because breakfast is three French Toast sticks. I can’t eat two because three is finished, and two is stopping in the middle, and stopping in the middle hurts too much. I can’t eat two French Toast sticks because then I won’t ever be done with breakfast. And if I don’t finish breakfast, then I can’t brush my teeth in the bathroom and play with water in the sink. And then I can’t get dressed in dry clothes on the bottom step. And then I can’t go outside and swing. And I can’t have lunch if I haven’t finished breakfast. And Danyel won’t come because she comes after lunch.

If I don’t have two plus one equals three French Toast sticks for breakfast, I’m going to be stuck at this table forever.

I NEED ANOTHER FRENCH TOAST STICK!

Unfortunately, these highly articulate thoughts stay in Anthony’s head, because he is unable to communicate verbally. But as a reader, I found such passages gripping, because they convey so vividly what might be the frustration of a child who thinks differently and cannot communicate that difference.

But all is not angst for Anthony. Although Olivia struggles to cope with the meltdowns brought on by such incidents as only two French Toast sticks, Anthony is happy most of the time. Here he is lying on the deck, looking at the sky:

Looking up at the sky is one of my favorite things to do, especially on a no-cloud day. On a no-cloud day, I stare at the blue sky, and I love it. I stare at the blue sky for so long, and I love it so much, that I leave my skin and scatter out into it, the way rain puddles return to the sky on a hot day.

I leave the boy lying on the deck, and I become the blue sky. I am the blue sky, and I am high above the earth and the boy lying on the deck, and I am floating and free. . .

I look up into the no-cloud sky and I am everywhere connected to all living things. I look down at the boy lying on the deck. He is happy.

Olivia is not so happy. As she grieves the death of her nine-year-old son, she grapples with the cosmic questions: Why was he born with autism? Why was her life with him so difficult? Why was her marriage torn apart? Why does a good God allow suffering? As she looks for answers, she rereads the journal that she kept when Anthony was growing up, and the reader sees how fraught her life with Anthony was.

Meanwhile, Beth has let the occasion of husband Jimmy’s cheating give her a needed push outside her family; she rediscovers her gift for writing and exercises it in writing a novel about an autistic child, inspired by a boy she once saw on a beach (it was Anthony, as we find out later.) So, is Beth writing Anthony’s story? Is she a channel? Will her manuscript show Olivia the answers to all her questions?

The ending will be problematic for some readers, but the book is beautifully written and compassionate, with engaging characters that we care about, and it is certainly outstanding for its treatment of autism. But it’s not just a good book about autism, it’s a good book that happens to have autism in it.

LunaticsLunatics by Dave Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You could think of this novel as a palate cleanser – something light and silly to consume between serious reads. Or you could think about how difficult it actually is to write humor. Or you could just enjoy it.

The theme of the book seems to be: "Top this!" That is also the plot. It is written in alternating voices: Philip Horkman, the virtuous and unintentionally funny pet store owner, and Jeffrey Peckerman, the obscenity-spewing, irritable asshole (a word I don’t use, but it appears frequently in this book) convinced that Horkman, the referee at his daughter’s soccer game, is trying to ruin his life.

Every incident in the novel provokes another incident, each one slightly more frenetic and ridiculous than the last. The original inciting incident occurs when Horkman calls Peckerman’s daughter offside in a soccer game. Within fifty pages, Horkman and Peckerman have become the objects of a low-speed chase, caused the crash of a police helicopter on the George Washington Bridge, and been forced to go on the lam as international terrorists with the national security forces in hot pursuit. (And this is not to mention the canaries, the lemur named Buddy, the two bears, the gang of teenage hooligans, and the middle-aged book club member whose insulin pump has been stolen by Buddy.)

An excerpt (the prologue) will give you the flavor of the book, but the book must be read in full to be believed:

Before we explain how it all happened, we’d like to take this opportunity, from the get-go, to apologize.

What do you mean "we"?

I thought we agreed that we would take responsibility for. . .

Whoa whoa whoa. I agreed that YOU should take responsibility. No way in hell am I apologizing for something I didn’t do. Because none of this, no, let me correct that, NONE of this, would ever have happened if you knew the goddam rules of the game of socc . . .

Okay, let’s not get into that again . . .

I’ll get into whatever I want to get into, you douchebag.

The point is, dear reader, that mistakes were made, and things got out of hand, and we, I should say, I’m, very sorry for any mental anguish, financial loss, destruction of property, or serious physical injury that may have been caused to anyone, including my loving wife and children, my friends, my community, innocent bystanders, the brave and dedicated men and women of the New York Police Department, the staff and patients of the Lenox Hill Hospital, the fine officers, crew and passengers aboard the SS Windsong, the Port-au-Prince Duffel Bag Company, Char, and the U.S. armed forces – in particular the Coast Guard. I also apologize to all three branches of the United States government, Arnie and Sue Kogen, and to both the General Assembly and Security Council of the United Nations for any role we may have played- and I assure you it was completely inadvertent – in exacerbating world tensions. And on a more personal note, let me say that, as a passionate lifelong lover and protector of animals, I deeply regret any of our actions that endangered any of the helpless, vulnerable creatures of the Central Park Zoo.

HELPLESS? Those things had teeth like fucking steak knives.

Finally, on the advice of legal counsel, I want to stress that nothing in the account that you are about to read is meant to suggest or imply that there is now, or has ever been, a connection between any international terrorist organization and the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain.

Chuck E. Cheese can bite me.

The reader will never guess where this book is going, and she’ll have a lot of fun getting there.

Peaches for Father Francis (Chocolat, #3)Peaches for Father Francis by Joanne Harris

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who didn’t love the movie Chocolat, so French and atmospheric and whimsical, and just a little dark around its edges? Then what a treat to discover that the movie was true to the book it was based on, except that the book was even better. And then a few years later, to find a sequel, just by accident, on a browsing expedition to the library, The Girl with No Shadow (or The Lollipop Shoes, it’s been published under both titles), also wonderful, although darker. (Chocolat Noir, perhaps.)

By now I know to look for further books about Vianne Rocher and her family, and here it the latest: Peaches for Father Francis. This addition to the Chocolat literature is surprising, and much more inventive than its pedestrian title. Vianne, who has been living with Roux and her children on a boat on the Seine in Paris, still making her chocolates, finds herself tugged back to the scene of the first novel, the village of Lasquenets, when she receives a posthumous letter from a dear friend. On arrival with Anouk and Roxanne (Roux has declined to come) she discovers that a neighborhood of Moroccan Arabs has sprung up in the abandoned tanneries on the river’s edge, and an ethnic war appears to be simmering, even though the village was at first accepting of the newcomers.

The lightning rod for this tension is Inés Bencharki, her face hidden by niqab and her attitude equally scornful of her Christian and Muslim neighbors. She even rebuffs Vianne’s attempts at rapprochement (and we know how persuasive her chocolates can be!) Vianne finds an unlikely ally in Father Francis, the curé, who has begun the painful process of learning how to bend his stiff-necked ways, although the effort appears likely to cost him his parish.

There is also the charismatic Karim Bencharki, the brother of Inés (or is he? Village gossips say otherwise), whose modern, Muslim tolerance seems to be somehow encouraging the intolerant. Anouk Rocher is fifteen now, and we suspect, not far from her first love. Roxanne is four, still an inhabitant of her own little world, and communicating with her mother more through love than language. Vianne’s friend Josephine appears to be harboring a secret that may be harmful to her and Roux.

So there is a lot going on in this book, plotwise. The conflict between Muslims and non-Muslims in France is a political reality, and Harris treats it thoughtfully, always showing us the humanity of her characters, and always hopeful of the possibility of détente, although the revelation of Inés Bencharki at the end of the novel is shocking. Vianne hopes that she may be simply friendly toward the Muslim half of the community, and she begins with a gift of peaches.

Years of travelling with my mother have taught me that food is a universal passport. Whatever the constraints of language, culture of geography, food crosses over all boundaries. To offer food is to extend the hand of friendship; to accept is to be accepted into the most closed of communities.

One of Joanne Harris’s strengths is her sensuous prose, and the Moroccan characters give her new and exotic flavors to explore:

I followed Fatima into the house, making sure to leave my shoes at the door. It was pleasantly cool inside and smelt of frangipani; the shutters closed since midday to guard against the heat of the sun. A door led into the kitchen, from which I caught the mingled scents of anise and almond and rosewater and chickpeas cooked in turmeric, and chopped mint, and toasted cardamom, and those wonderful little halwa chebakia, sweet little seasame pastries deep-fried in oil, just small enough to pop into the mouth, flower-shaped and brittle and perfect with a glass of mint tea . . .

To disclose more of the plot would be to spoil it. Suffice it to say that although certain plot threads are resolved, there are enough left blowing in the wind to keep us hopeful of still another book.

Tell the Wolves I'm Home

Tell the Wolves I’m Home By Carol Rifka Brunt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sometimes it’s hard for me to read books like this – adult book, teenage protagonist coming of age in a hair-raising manner – because as a mother I’m always wondering whether a teenager of mine would behave like that. But, still, Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a worthwhile read.

Fourteen-year-old June Elbus is feeling more than the typical burden of teenage self-loathing. An awkward teen, she prefers wandering in the woods, dreaming that she lives in the Middle Ages rather than in the present where she knows herself to be odd. Her older sister Greta ignores her at school and actively persecutes her at home. And her favorite Uncle Finn, the one person who seems to understand and love her as she is, is dying of AIDS. This is 1987, when distrust and misinformation about the disease are rampant.

Even as June is racked with grief over Finn’s death, which happens in the early pages of the book, she meets Toby, Finn’s partner. He is a complete stranger to her, as her mother had never permitted Finn to disclose that they lived together. Although initially hostile to Toby, June realizes that she can learn more about her uncle from the person who loved him most. While June sneaks about, arranging meetings with Toby and cutting classes, her sister sneaks about partying and drinking, and it takes June a while to recognize her cry for help. The parents, both accountants snowed under in the busiest part of tax season, are mostly clueless.

Despite the angsty plot, or perhaps because of it, the reader sees the capable and compassionate person that June is becoming. Although she initially reaches out to Toby only to learn more about Finn, June gradually learns to love and appreciate her uncle’s partner, who is, after all, dying of AIDS himself.

We know Finn through June and Toby’s memories. He is a celebrated painter, and it is his last painting, of June and her sister, that finally draws the family together and shows them that they are not as divided as they thought.

June is such an authentic character, wishing fervently that she were popular and well-liked even as she pursues the interests that insure that she will be neither. She is easy for the reader to like, which is a good thing, since the entire book is written in her voice. In the end, we recognize with June and her family that secrets stop hurting – or at least can begin healing – when we share them.

The Best Exotic Marigold HotelThe Best Exotic Marigold Hotel by Deborah Moggach

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was familiar with the title only because of the movie (and in fact, the original title from 2004 was These Foolish Things), so I was a bit surprised to find that the hotel of the title is, in fact, more in the way of a retirement home, located in Bangalore, India. The characters who end up there, all British citizens in their 70s and older, are alone in the world, or may as well be, as they are in varying degrees of estrangement from their children, some of whom are appalled at the thought of their parents spending their twilight years abroad, and some of whom cannot wait to push their aging parents from the nest.

Although this could be a depressing read, the novel is redeemed by its humor. Here is a description of the reprobate Norman, as seen by his son-in-law (who is Indian):

"Barely a week had passed and already Ravi wanted to murder his father-in-law. Norman was a retired structural engineer, a monumental bore, and a man of repulsive habits. . . His amorous anecdotes, like a loop of Muzak, reappeared with monotonous regularity. Already Ravi had heard, twice this week, the one about catching the clap in Bulawayo."

It is Ravi whose concept it is to send aging parents to India, and his cousin Sonny, who lives in Bangalore, partners with him to turn the dilapidated Marigold Hotel into a home for the elderly. A shabby, charming habitat, the hotel is at once a last bastion for a vanished era of colonial British life, and a means of introducing its inhabitants to real Indians.

The various retirees – a BBC journalist, a vague pensioner, an aging femme fatale, and a number of others – form relationships with other and with their Indian hosts.The author skillfully balances her narrative between the hope offered by these new relationships and the melancholy of death and aging.

If you were less than charmed by the film, whose plot and theme veer wildly from the original, please give the book a chance. As so often happens, it is ten times better than the movie it inspired.

The Flight of Gemma Hardy The Flight of Gemma Hardy by Margot Livesey

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As a longtime fan of Jane Eyre, which I read multiple times as a child, I loved the first third of Livesey’s retelling, which is set in the Scotland of the l950s and 60s. Gemma is the little spitfire she should be, resilient and upright, unbowed at her unfair treatment after her father’s death. Gemma’s step-relatives are sufficiently malicious and distant to let the reader enjoy hating them, and Gemma is sent to a pleasingly terrible boarding school, waking echoes of the Jane of my childhood.

After she graduates from her terrible school, Gemma accepts a position as a governess for a young girl in the Orkney Islands, which make a good substitute for the wild moors of the original book. The little girl is a bit wild, but Gemma wins her over, and I eagerly awaited the arrival of the girl’s uncle, and with it the expected romance.

Alas, Hugh Sinclair is no Mr. Rochester. The story struggles a little at this point for being set in modern times – mere money and a private jet are poor substitutes for a noble title – but I was still disappointed. Nor are there mysterious cries in the night from the demented Mrs. Rochester – oops, I mean Mrs. Sinclair – who is well and truly dead in this retelling.

True to the original Jane Eyre, Gemma eventually flees, but not to a misanthrope like Jane Eyre’s St. John, who begs Jane to marry him so he will have a partner in the mission field. No, instead she ends up with an artsy lesbian couple and a possible romance with the brother, who is a postman. I’m sorry, not a romantic occupation.

Livesey does add a modern element to the story, which redeems it somewhat, as Gemma struggles to find her identity and ends up searching for her relatives in Iceland.

It’s not that the story of the adult Gemma is dull or bad, but knowing that it is supposed to parallel the story of Jane Eyre sets the reader up for expectations that are not fulfilled, mainly in the windswept romance department. Think of Jane Eyre as you read about the child Gemma, and then put it out of your mind as you read about adult Gemma and you may find yourself perfectly happy with Livesey’s efforts.

The LawgiverThe Lawgiver by Herman Wouk

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read and loved Majorie Morningstar years ago – so many years ago that I was startled to hear its author, Herman Wouk, recently interviewed on NPR, as I had assumed that he must have long since died. He is indeed 97, but as evidenced in the interview about his most recent novel, he is still very much on top of his game.

That novel is The Lawgiver, which proceeds from the abiding enigma of Wouk’s life – the desire and the inability to write a novel about the life of Moses. To wit, the author becomes a character in his own novel, playing himself – a noted author working with limited success on a book about Moses. The fictional Wouk is being hounded by an engaging array of producers, directors, financiers, and the odd Australian billionaire Leo Gluck, who will has said that he will finance a film about Moses provided that Wouk, whose work he admires, acts as a consultant. Wouk resists, then capitulates on his own terms, while the other characters gossip, scheme, reconcile and fall in love around him.

Wouk is no slouch. The Lawgiver is an epistolary novel that includes, as the flyleaf notes, "letters, memos, e-mails, journals, news articles, recorded talk, Skype transcripts, and text messages." He treats heavy themes – tradition, religion, love, rebellion, greed – with the lightest of touches. Indeed, the most melancholy note of the novel is the death of Wouk’s wife Betty Sarah, also his wife and lifelong muse in the novel, who passed away suddenly from a stroke during the writing. Wouk salutes her tenderly in the epilogue.

But despite his age and recent bereavement, Wouk appears from the sprightly author’s photo that graces the novel to have had a wonderful time imagining his characters, concocting his plot, and writing his book. I certainly had a wonderful time reading it.
Marjorie Morningstar

The Leftovers The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You couldn’t start with a better premise: the Rapture, or something very like it, has come and gone, stealing away a good portion of the population. Husbands have watched their wives disappear; mothers have lost their children; friends have vanished. So, what now?

Perrotta begins the novel after the disappearance has taken place, so the drama does not lie in the event, but in its effects on the survivors, the "leftovers."

‘Something tragic occurred,’ the experts repeated over and over. ‘It was a Rapture-like phenomenon, but it doesn’t appear to have been the Rapture.’

Interestingly, some of the loudest voices making this argument belonged to Christians themselves, who couldn’t help noticing that many of the people who’d disappeared on October 14th – Hindus and Buddhists and Muslims and Jews and atheists and animists and homosexuals and Eskimos and Mormons and Zoroastrians, whatever the heck they were – hadn’t accepted Jesus Christ as their personal savior. As far as anyone could tell, it was a random harvest, and the one thing the Rapture couldn’t be was random. The whole point was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to reward the true believers and put the rest of the world on notice. An indiscriminate Rapture was no Rapture at all.

The novel takes place three years after the event and focuses on a single representative town, Mapleton. Its mayor, Kevin, is trying to lead the town back to normalcy, although his own wife has left to join the Guilty Remnant, a cult whose members practice asceticism and silence – and perhaps something darker. Kevin’s teenage daughter is running wild, and his college-aged son is crisscrossing the country as a devotée of a shady prophet dubbed Holy Wayne.

I found the author’s treatment both realistic and imaginative – maybe not what I would have come up with, but credible. The characters are understandably confused, but engaging. The reader can enjoy second-guessing everybody: Are the characters making crazy choices? Or is it crazier to think that life can go on as before? You be the judge.

The Shadow Girls The Shadow Girls by Henning Mankell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book was nothing like I expected. It begins seriously, with a chapter about a young Nigerian (the reader is guessing) undocumented immigrant woman who ends up in Sweden. Then in the second chapter we meet the Swede Jesper Humlin, "one of the most successful writers of his generation, who was worried about losing his tan. This fear easily surpassed his other anxieties, such as the fate of the impenetrable collections of poetry he published every year on the sixth of October, which happened to coincide with his mother’s birthday."

Jesper’s life, we learn, is out of his control. His publisher insists that Jesper is to write a crime novel and proceeds to invent a title and send press releases about it, ignoring Jesper’s protestations. His broker has invested and lost most of his money. ("I’ll be in touch when things look better again." "And when will that be?" "Shortly." "How soon is that?" "In a few weeks. Ten years at the most." ) His obstreperous eighty-eight-year-old mother has a job doing phone sex calls.

Into this absurdist world fall three immigrant women, the shadow girls. Jesper is roped into conducting a writing seminar for them (also attended by various relatives, since the girls who are Muslim must be accompanied by male relatives), and he begins to learn their stories. Or does he? All three women continually change their names, their nationalities and their stories.

Tanya, the Russian, was lured to Estonia and forced into prostitution. She has escaped to Sweden, where she steals, sniffs glue to escape her memories and hides from the authorities. The Nigerian girl, whose name, Tea Bag, is clearly an alias, ran from a country where her family was murdered. Leyla, the Muslim, is trapped by her family’s traditional ways – her sister, whose brother-in-law threw acid on her face after she tried to escape a forced marriage, hides in her apartment behind a veil.

Jesper tries to learn these stories, which shift and seem interchangeable – all the girls are living shadow lives, trying to be invisible. They have escaped immediate harm, but they are not really out of harm’s way, since the Swedish government would deport them. By the end of the book, Jesper has learned enough to shake him out of his complacency and help him realize that there are many undocumented immigrants in Sweden who are far from sharing his comfortable life.

Henning Mankel is a well-known Swedish author (although I was not familiar with him), and he uses this work of fiction not only to weave an interesting story, but to insert the shadow lives of undocumented immigrants indelibly into the reader’s mind.

The StorytellerThe Storyteller by Jodi Picoult

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The reader can always count on Jodi Picoult for a good story, and in this novel, the stories are really flying. First, we have the story of the protagonist, Sage Singer, a twenty-something baker who blames herself for her mother’s death. She befriends an elderly man who confesses a terrible secret and asks for a terrible favor. This confession results in several more stories: that of the elderly man and his brother; of Sage’s grandmother; of a love interest; of a werewolf (this story created by Sage’s grandmother) All the stories are told concurrently.

If you’re a sucker for the story-within-a-story, clearly this is the book for you. Picoult manages to keep everything straight for us, more or less, following the different threads in italic, boldface, and a different font all together – and, thankfully, also by labeling each passage with the name of its teller. (Except for the werewolf story, which is in italics but not otherwise identified.)

Without giving anything away, the story happens both the present and during World War II, specifically in the Warsaw ghetto and concentration camps. I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust, and I have to admit that I skipped a good bit of that part (it comes in the middle.) I could see that some of it would be hard to read, but after I finished the book, I went back and read it.

Picoult uses her stories to examine some difficult moral issues, forgiveness primary among them. Although her protagonist was sometimes too self-hating to be good company, the other stories made up for hers, and she improved by the end of the book. Sage’s grandmother, Minka, tells the most compelling story, which is set in Auschwitz.

How do we become good? How do we become bad? These are big questions. I didn’t necessarily love this book, but I kept thinking about it after I finished reading.

The Truth The Truth by Michael Palin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Keith Mabbut is a journalist whose environmental convictions have curtailed his career. Now in his mid-fifties, he is a successful but unhappy corporate hack whose latest tome extolls the history of a North Sea oil company.

Separated from his wife and taking stock of his life, he decides that he’ll stop writing about things he doesn’t believe in and begin the novel that he’s always wanted to write. But then his agent contacts him with an intriguing assignment that he ultimately finds himself unable to refuse: write a biography of the great and mysterious environmentalist Hamish Melville.

Melville is celebrated for living what he preaches, for advocating for the poorest of the poor, and for being elusive. Mabbut nearly loses his life following Melville in the jungles of India, but he manages wins his trust, allowing Mabbut to write the kind of book that he believes a saint like Melville deserves.

But why should Mabbut’s otherwise grasping publisher be so interested in a book about an altruistic environmentalist? Is Mabbut’s real task to be the discrediting of his idol?

The truth that Mabbut pursues turns out to be more elusive and many-faceted than he could have imagined, making this a truly enjoyable book. And here’s another interesting truth: author Michael Palin, should you not recognize the name, is a former Python, and this is his second novel.

A Week in Winter A Week in Winter by Maeve Binchy

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Settling down with a Maeve Binchy novel is like putting on a well-loved cardigan on a chilly day; you know it will keep you warm and cozy, and you know it will fit. No surprises, but in a good way.

A Week in Winter is set on the west coast of Ireland, and Binchy works her usual magic, introducing her cast of characters, many of whom have fought against the odds and won; placing them in an enchanting setting, in this case, an Irish manor house turned hotel; and linking them together in surprising ways.

A master of the art of character, Binchy creates people who interest and engage us, and she believably shows us how they change in the course of her novels, which is one of the reasons readers love her. I was surprised and saddened to learn that A Week in Winter is Binchy’s last novel; she died in 2012 at age 72, shortly after finishing this book.

Binchy wrote many, many novels. Some of them, like Firefly Summer and Light a Penny Candle are dramatic and epic in scale. Others, like A Week in Winter, simply interweave the lives of a number of ordinary people and create magic from the everyday, which is not, after all, such a simple trick. This was not my favorite of her works, but I would recommend any of them.

Eleven Days Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

My rating:4 of 5 stars

Eleven Days is, as I suspected from the blurb, a harrowing book, but I was curious to read it, because, like every mother, I have wondered what it would be like to have a son in the military in harm’s way. The protagonists of the novel are Sara and her only son Jason, who is a member of the Navy Special Teams, and the eleven days of the title refer to the period of time when her son goes missing during a military operation.

Of course, Sara doesn’t want her only son to join the military at all, but she adjusts to it, as she must.

Her increasing interest in all things military ran parallel to her son’s becoming an officer. With Jason at the Naval Academy, she got back to D. C. – and Virginia – regularly. She would meet friends for lunch. They were all amused to see how she had changed. . . She was proud of her son. . . But that wasn’t really what was changing in her. What was mission-driven and relevant was what had always been: her love for her boy. Had he decided to join the circus, she might have developed an obsession for elephants.

Much of the novel develops the characters in flashbacks, since Jason is in absentia for most of the real time. We learn that Jason’s decision to join the military rather than go to Harvard sprang from his reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, although his relationship with his mostly absent father was another determining factor.

Jason describes his training to his mother in a letter:

I never thought about certain things before . . I never thought about how best to brace myself against a blow. I never thought about how best to make contact with another person, especially is that person is threatening me. And I never thought about what they call our Inner Warrior. . . It is the voice you hear that tells you not just what to do but what not to do, too. . .

Warfare is not like "shoot-’em-ups" as Dad would say. There is a precision to all of our actions. Having the guns and knowing what to do with them is a little like having access to a new language. And there are lots of challenging environments where saying less is more. Restraint might not be the first thing next to Godliness, but it’s close. Restraint is part of the ethos.

Jason and Sara are thoughtful, admirable characters, and it is enlightening to view the war and special operations through the eyes of each. The author includes a hefty bibliography, and she not only has done her research, but she has managed to put the reader into the minds and hearts of a warrior (a term that Jason uses of himself) and his mother.

Fantasy

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor
The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway
The White Forest by Adam McOmber

 

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #1)Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My daughter has been recommending this book, so I obligingly checked it out of the library and was surprised to find it’s a YA novel. My daughter is thirty and I’m, well, older than thirty, so we are not the book’s intended audience, but I liked The Hunger Games trilogy, also YA, and I trust my daughter, so I plunged in.

It was quite a plunge. I was not expecting an epic struggle between angels (the seraphim) and devils (the chimaera) in the person of Akiva and Karou. Nor was I expecting that God (metaphorically speaking) would be on the side of the devils, as the heroine Karou was raised by the chimaera, and, in her world, the angels are the threat and the terror. Karou is a strong character, loyal to her unusual "family" and physically fearless, with an appealing vulnerability. Akiva is physically beautiful and ruthless, but Karou is drawn to him.

Of course, the two natural enemies fall in love a la Romeo and Juliet, and fireworks ensue, literally, metaphorically, emotionally – probably cosmically, too, although I suspect that more will be revealed in the second novel in the series.

The author has a lot to handle in this book, and she does it very well. Prague in the winter is an inspired choice for the opening. Its medieval, snow-covered streets are the perfect foil for a magic that starts small – Karou has some odd tattoos and wishes her hair blue – and grows monumentally as we get to know her and learn (with her) about her origins, and, perhaps, her destiny. I hesitate to say too much about the plot; it would be a shame to spoil the many surprises.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone will remind some of the Twilight series, but Taylor is a better writer, and she offers us much less teenage angst (thank you!) and a much stronger heroine – more in the line of The Hunger Games. I could not push myself past volume one of Twilight, and I’ve already reserved volume two of this series, so there you are.

Days of Blood & Starlight (Daughter of Smoke and Bone, #2)Days of Blood & Starlight by Laini Taylor

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fans always await the second book in a series with mixed anticipation and trepidation (what if it isn’t as good as the first one?), and now we can relax – Days of Blood and Starlight is a worthy successor to Daughter of Smoke and Bone. Actually, "relax" is not the verb for this book, since Taylor ratchets up the tempo and the suspense to agonizing levels as she continues the story of Karou and Akiva, the chimaera and the seraphim who have betrayed their enemy races by falling in love.

This is a much darker book than the first, replete with gore and recrimination, but it offers its glimmers of hope. Taylor again shows us her soaring imagination, her gift for lush prose and the deftly turned phrase, and her genius for plot twists.

The novel opens with Akiva and Karou torn apart by Akiva’s act of revenge (although loyal readers suspect that their rift is temporary.) Karou finds herself driven to work with the hated White Wolf, Thiago, who still believes that he can lure her into his thrall. Although she detests Thiago, who after all murdered her in Book One, she finds herself laboring night and day to embody his vision to resurrect the fallen chimaera in ever huger and more frightening forms, the better to avenge themselves on the seraphim.

For safety, Karou is doing her work in a kasbah (castle) in the Moroccan desert rather than in Eretz, which allows her to be eventually found by friends Mik and Zuzana (this feat strained credulity, but it’s a high-concept novel so I let it pass). In the meantime, Akiva discovers that Karou is still alive, and begins hatching plots that I won’t spoil for you.

The thundering success of Days of Blood and Starlight will only make its readers hungrier for Book Three, and certain that the end of the series will equal and even surpass its predecessors.

The River of No Return The River of No Return by Bee Ridgway

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Let’s get this out of the way first: this novel is in no way like The Time Traveler’s Wife, which is a comparison I’ve seen in a number of other reviews, presumably because The River of No Return is also about time travel. The first is one of my favorite novels, and I like this one a lot, too, but they are not much alike.

Nick is a time traveler, Count Nicholas Falcott, who has inadvertently jumped from the Napoleonic wars to our present, where he meets other time travelers, all of whom seem to belong to the Guild, a secret organization that lays out the rules of time travel (never backward in time, only forward.) The Guild teaches Nick how to become a modern man, then finances his indulgent lifestyle for ten years. He has jumped into the future, and his only option seems to be to adjust to living where he landed.

But the Guild is not quite what it seems. They recruit Nick to return to his past, and he learns that much of what he has been told about time travel was a lie. Time is like a river – you can freeze it, travel forward or backward on it – or drown in it.

Once in the past again, Nick kindles a romance with his neighbor, Julia, who turns out to be a time traveler of a different ilk. And this is when the reader realizes that the novel is raising more time travel questions than it can possibly answer in the pages that remain, which means it must be the first in a new series.

This is more romance than historical fiction or science fiction, but the setting is well-researched, the lovemaking is not too silly, the characters are well drawn and time travel is always an intriguing concept, so I look forward to the rest of the series.

One warning – my copy of the book went from page 218 to page 283. Page 313 was followed by page 250, and then on to the end (page 425) with no further omissions or repetitions. But thirty-two pages were missing, and I couldn’t find any place on the web that corrected the problem by printing the missing pages. Possibly the publisher is not yet aware of the error. Check your own copy before you start, as it’s highly disconcerting to lose the middle thirty pages of an absorbing read.

The White ForestThe White Forest by Adam McOmber

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book, a Victorian gothic, was described as "original" in several reviews. I might describe it in stronger terms. Odd. Singular. Bizarre. The ending, while logical in the context of the novel, was one of the weirdest I have ever read. My jaw hung open for an hour after I closed the book.

The novel is set in the heaths and forests of Hampstead Heath, where protagonist Jane Silverlake’s odd mother met a sinister end when Jane was a child. Like mother, like daughter – Jane possesses a peculiar gift, that of being able to hear the language of objects. Her gift isolates her until she is a teenager (which is to say, an adult, in Victorian terms), when she meets neighbors Madeline and Nathan. The three are inseparable until Nathan goes to war and returns changed.

Nathan involves himself in a London cult of the supernatural, while urging Jane to use her gift to help him discover the paradise promised by his cult leader. In pursuit of his cult (and with Jane’s possible help – did she or didn’t she?), Nathan vanishes, and Jane and Madeline become detectives determined to find him. And here, dear reader, I must draw the curtain lest I give away the ending. Actually, I could probably summarize all but the final two chapters without giving anything away, because I don’t see how anyone could see that ending coming.

The author writes well, and certainly sets a brooding tone, but his characters are not as simpatico as one might hope, and the more Jane discovered her true self, the less sympathetic I found her. If you are a fan of the weird and off-the-wall, by all means read this book – you won’t be disappointed.

Food (2)

Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

 

Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite the folksy title, this book is a manifesto written by a farmer who takes the scholarship of agriculture to places that I hadn’t expected it to go. Clearly there is much more to farming than the little we city folk know of it, and Salatin, both erudite and down-to-earth, is just the man to set us straight, which he does not hesitate to do.

The book’s title is its theme: the way we live on earth is not historically, traditionally, or culturally normal. Salatin has impeccable credentials as the foreword points out:

Personally, I have long thought that Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm was an excellent example of how high-value, direct-marketed farms like his could be an engine for rural economic development. Joel currently has fourteen employees; he buys all of the supplemental feed his pastured chickens and pigs eat locally, and his animals are all processed locally. Using sweat equity, he has built a two-million-dollar-a-year food business without any government loans, assistance, or subsidies. To me that’s a story that should be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Salatin has not, to my knowledge, been so far featured, because our culture has accepted Big Agriculture, factory farms, farm subsidies, and many other anomalies as the new normal.

I learned a lot from this book. Salatin is a pioneer of synergistic farming, although he would probably insist that he is only doing what farmers have done for centuries. His chickens, for instance, are pastured in mobile hen houses that protect them while allowing them to range and eat insects, and are moved to a different area of pasture each day, which also fertilizes the pasture.

He talks about the American tendency to anthropomorphize animals, often to their detriment. A visitor to the farm, for example, criticized Salatin for leaving his cows crowded together, when in reality they were only exhibiting their herding instinct. He explains the importance of diversity on a farm, and how the raising of animals and the raising of crops are not only complimentary, but necessary.

Salatin raises many troubling issues. He believes that the function of the USDA and the FDA are to limit market distribution (drive out the small farmer) rather than to protect consumers and farmers, and he has plenty of anecdotal evidence and statistical research to support his belief. His scientific, agricultural, and financial expertise belie the image of the farmer as a hayseed, and helps the reader appreciate the intellectual challenge of farming.

And did I mention, he’s funny? This is a serious book, but Salatin retains his sense of humor.

Salatin suggests, at the end of each chapter, steps that his readers may want to take in their personal quest to limit Big Agriculture and eat better food. It’s a thought-provoking book, and a must-read for anyone who cares about food or farming.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When heirloom tomatoes are perfectly juicy and in season, I eat them with cheese on toast every day. So I am a fan and I wanted to find out from Estabrook why winter tomatoes are so perfectly tasteless, and I did. But the book is about so much more than that. The author quotes U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District, Douglas Molloy, who says that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of America’s tomato industry, is "ground zero for modern-day slavery."

He also says that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption,’ he told me. ‘That is a fact.’

So a lot of the book is about the workers, chosen for their inability to speak English or Spanish (many are Hispanics who speak an Amerindian language) so that they can be more easily exploited by their crew bosses. They are exposed to chemicals and they live in squalid conditions as virtual (and even actual) slaves to their employers, who are conveniently insulated from prosecution by the middlemen in the industry, the crew bosses who hire and pay the workers.

So, we find out that tomato growing in Florida is a weird business all the way around. Florida is too humid to grow tomatoes well and its soil lacks nutrients, and the conditions that are bad for tomatoes are excellent for tomato-loving insects. Florida growers cope by blasting the bugs with pesticides and pumping the soil with fertilizers, neither of which are good for the laborers or the environment.

Estabrook uses both statistics and anecdotal evidence to take the reader through the intricacies of the Florida tomato industry. He interviews immigrant laborers (pretty much the only kind of laborers working on the tomato farms), tomato magnates, tomato researchers. He is the best kind of investigative reporter, and the book is never a diatribe, but a reasoned presentation of the problems, many of them severe, of the tomato industry in Florida.

And he certainly leaves the reader resolved that for the sake of the immigrant workers, she will never purchase another commercial tomato.

Historical Fiction (15)

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr
Burning Bright by Tracy Chevalier
Cinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown
Fall of Giants by Ken Follett
Frida by Barbara Mujica
Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole
Long Live The King by Fay Weldon
Midnight At Marble Arch by Anne Perry
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandeth
Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr
The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau
The House of Special Purpose by John Boyne
The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis
The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guin

 

A Man Without Breath A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What could be more noir than a detective series set in Europe during World War II? How about one set in Berlin with a German police detective during World War II? Anti-Nazi himself, Bernie Gunther is the hero of this series of nine books. His expertise is repeatedly sought out by Nazi higher-ups, and the unfortunate Bernie is faced again and again with finding a way to stay alive and still live with himself.

In 1943, Gunther is working for the Wehrmacht, tasked with investigating war crimes. The irony is not lost on Gunther, but at least the position allows him to proceed honestly, even if prosecuting a German soldier for killing a fellow soldier pales proportionately in light of the atrocities the German high command is busy inflicting on European Jews.

This time Goebbels himself recruits Gunther to investigate whether the Russians indeed massacred and buried 14,500 Polish soldiers and officers in the Katyn Forest. If Gunther can prove it, Germany will be able to embarrass the Russians, make their own war crimes look less heinous and perhaps discredit the Russians in the eyes of the Allies.

This curious investigation is an historical event. Germany asked the neutral countries to send forensics experts to Smolensk to help exhume and identify the corpses over a period of weeks. So it is our fictional Gunther who is leading this investigation for Goebbels, a man whose deeds Gunther detests, even as he is horrified to find that Goebbels is charming in person. In the course of the Katyn investigation, another killer pops up, and Gunther must once again examine his exhausted conscience for direction in a moral dilemma.

Kerr is a master of historical fiction of this era. The interplay between the Germans and Russians – called "Ivans" by the Germans and worse by the Nazis, who considered Slavs on a level with gypsies and Jews – is fascinating. The novel also highlights the number of assassination plots carried out against Hitler – it is amazing that he survived – and the growing disillusionment of the German army after the defeat at Stalingrad.

A Man Without Breath is both an an entertaining detective story and an unflinching examination of this dark period of modern history.

Burning BrightBurning Bright by Tracy Chevalier

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As an admirer of the poet William Blake, I was curious to see how Chevalier might approach his odd life. Her choice was to make him the eccentric neighbor to a Dorsetshire family that has moved to London at the behest of circus entrepreneur Philip Astley, an actual historical figure. Although the viewpoint shifts, the story is told primarily through the eyes of young Jem Kelloway, the son of the Dorsetshire chairmaker, and Maggie Butterfield, the street smart youngster who introduces Jem to the wonders of London.

What I chiefly enjoyed about the book is Chevalier’s evocation of old London, a type of writing at which she excels. The reader learns about London pubs and circuses, cathedrals and printing shops, making mustard in London factories and making buttons in Dorset, and the details are alarming in some cases and enchanting in others, but always credible and well-researched.

The plot is far from compelling and serves mostly as a vehicle to showcase Blake through his interactions with Maggie and Jem. Blake recites his own poetry and plies them with philosophical questions. Still, taken as a slice of everyday life in Georgian England, the book works very well indeed, and the reader can embrace it for its richness of character and setting rather than for its paucity of story.

Cinnamon and GunpowderCinnamon and Gunpowder by Eli Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Pirate Queen Mad Hannah Mabbot murders a lord of the realm at his coastal estate. On a whim, she kidnaps his cook and takes him captive on her ship to cook for her on Sundays on pain of death, if he doesn’t come up with something delicious. It’s a premise that could go either way: silly romance or clever adventure story.

Happily, Cinnamon and Gunpowder sails in the direction of surprisingly good. I could almost believe that the author was himself a pirate, so convincing is his 1819 pirate world in all aspects: political, historical, nautical, culinary.

Chef Owen Wedgwood, a kind, but somewhat rigid man, is the narrator and protagonist. His self-deprecating narrative leaves us in no doubt: he is no romantic hero, but a middle-aged grump whose burning hope is to escape his predicament. But there is more to Owen; despite himself, he is intrigued by the challenge of creating a delicious meal weekly from the meager stores of the Flying Rose.

So part of the fun is to see what Owen can come up with. He is ingenious; for instance, concocting a dough starter so that he can bake bread. Unable to obtain fresh, potable water, he uses coconut water. His captor invites him to eat with her.

I had removed the fillet from the pan while it was still glassy in the middle and it had continued to cook by its own heat to a gentle flake. Between the opaque striations, wisps of fat clung to the crisp potato breading and resolved upon the tongue like the echo of a choir surrendering to silence. The saffron warmed all together as sunlight through stained glass blesses a congregation, while the shrimp save waved its harlot’s handkerchief from the periphery.

So, the chef is a poet in his own way. But even while we enjoy and applaud his efforts to make the best of his situation, we learn much more about the pirate queen and her crew. They take booty and deal out harsh justice, yes. But they are also trying to disable the British opium trade while tracking The Brass Fox (Hannah’s pirate son) and avoiding capture by an English privateer.

Our hero begins to find his black-and-white worldview shifting. Was his former employer, whom he once considered a perfect English gentleman, in reality a worse pirate than Mad Hannah?

Owen creates his weekly repasts between chases and battles and hunts for treasure. This is a lively book, but well-paced and thoughtful. And fun. Bravo to Eli Brown for having come up with the idea and having carried it off so well for his readers.

Fall of Giants (The Century Trilogy #1)Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first Follett book that I ever read, years ago, was Eye of the Needle, a WWII spy thriller that he wrote when he was just twenty-seven, well-plotted, suspenseful, ingenious. A number of other thrillers followed, several made into movies, the earlier ones better than the later, and then – surprise! – several years ago he switched genres with the wonderfully imagined Pillars of the Earth, an epic tome about the construction of a medieval cathedral.

Fall of Giants is another historical epic, the first of the so-called Century Trilogy, which begins in 1911 with a cast of characters designed to take us through the important events of the new century: a Welsh coal miner, an American attached to Wilson’s White House, two Russian brothers, a German diplomat, and an English aristocrat and his family and servants.

As we might expect, the lives of this disparate group become increasingly intertwined. The coal miner becomes a soldier who serves under the aristocratic mine owner who seduced his sister, a housekeeper for the aristocrat. The aristocrat’s sister becomes a suffragette and falls in love with the German diplomat. One of the Russian brothers immigrates to America, only to return to Russia as an American soldier – one of the surprising facts I learned was that the Allies sent troops to Russia to support the White Russians after the 1917 revolution. Indeed, Europe’s unhappy descent into World War I is very well explained, and that is one of the strengths of the book.

The author does not stint on period detail. The opening of the book, with the coal miner’s descent into the mine on his first day of work at age thirteen, is gripping, and the scenes set in Wales are among the most compelling. The reader imagines a horde of researchers working for Follett, so that he can drop lines like "she was wearing a royal blue tea gown over a pale pink lace blouse and a pink felt hat with a blue pompom" with insouciance.

No prose stylist, Follett lets fall some real clunkers: "Fitz stared stony-faced, but both Murray and Evans looked startled. They had not known all this personal stuff." There we are in the trenches of World War I, and suddenly the doughboys are sounding like contemporary teenagers. The reader wishes that Follett’s editor had paid closer attention.

Still, I read all 985 pages, clunkers and all. Follett’s characters may not be rounded as we would like, and his prose may be pedestrian, but he remains a good storyteller, and he carries the reader along.

FridaFrida by Bárbara Mujica

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Frida Kahlo is an important artist in her own right, as well as a tragic figure crippled first by polio, then by a horrific traffic accident, and then by her own pain, both physical and emotional. And if that is not interesting enough, she was also married to painter Diego Rivera, and partied with the famous and infamous – Trotsky was a house guest, and Paulette Goddard was Diego’s lover.

Given all that material and the skill of the author, the book should be more compelling than it is. Its greatest problem is the narrator, Cristina, who is Frida’s sister. If we are to believe author Mujica,Cristina simultaneously loved, hated and was violently jealous of her famous sister. Cristina’s feelings toward Frida, and her claims of memory loss, make her an unreliable narrator, a ploy that works in some novels, but just feels annoying here, possibly because we are dealing with historical figures. We’d like to know whether we’re getting the straight skinny or Cristina’s inventions.

The unhappy result is that neither she nor Frida are likeable characters. Although both sisters have claims on our sympathy, Cristina is always reminding us of Frida’s self-centeredness. This passage is a variation on the theme that Cristina drums into us throughout the novel:

I’ve told you this before: only one thing interested Frida. No, not communism or the plight of the workers. Not art, not muralism as an instrument of education, not creativity or where to buy the best oil colors. And no, not sex, not even sex. The only thing that really fascinated Frida was Frida. People said I was stupid. They said I never really understood what was going on. But I’m smart enough to know this: Frida Kahlo had a lifelong romance with herself, and nobody, not Diego, not me – nobody could ever replace Frida in Frida’s heart.

It may have been the author’s intention to balance these spiels with glimpses of Frida’s charm, and there are passages that conjure vivid scenes of delicious food and beautiful clothing and intelligent conversation with Frida as the lighthearted hostess, the beloved friend, the tender lover. But there are not enough of those scenes. Add Frida’s foul mouth to her selfishness, and the reader can only wonder why she is so loved by the other characters.

Cristina does not fare much better, alternating between remorseful self-flagellation and repetitive tirades against Frida. The author may have given us a keen psychological portrait of these two sisters, but she mostly fails to show us the beating hearts underneath, and as readers, that is what we want.

Letters from Skye: A NovelLetters from Skye: A Novel by Jessica Brockmole

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Epistolary novels have their unique problems, but this story surmounts most of them. It’s an old-fashioned love story that the author manages to set during both world wars. Most of the story takes place between 1912 and 1917. An American college student writes an unlikely fan letter to the author of a volume of poetry – although young, she lives in Skye and is married. Their friendship grows over the years into love, although they don’t meet for some time. Then the poet’s husband goes to war and she becomes understandably conflicted. Then the American goes to war, which at least gives them the opportunity to meet.

We know it’s a love story, and we hope it ends happily (something we don’t find out until the end, so I won’t give it away), but the author had the clever thought of having the poet’s daughter (also the American’s daughter? – we don’t find out right away) discover the letters years later, at the eve of World War II. So it is the daughter who tries to figure out why her mother is behaving so strangely, what the letters mean, and so forth.

The letters are not chronological, which adds to the suspense. And since there was no internet, we can believe that people really bothered to write all these letters back and forth (the daughter writes a number of them, trying to figure out what happened in the past to her mother, who won’t tell her and has also disappeared.) She also writes to her boyfriend, an RAF pilot, who writes back to her, so we have these parallel sets of love letters.

Brockmole has taken a story that might have been trite and made something more of it. The plot goes a bit against our expectations, the characters write interesting enough letters to keep us reading and the far-away setting adds to our pleasure. Are the two lovers doomed to a lifetime of disappointment and separation? You know how to find out!

Long Live the KingLong Live the King by Fay Weldon

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Each winter, Downton Abby gives us a few episodes depicting life among the aristocracy in early 20th century England, and really, we fans need more. Fortunately for us, Fay Weldon provides it with her trilogy (it is referred to as such, but I could not discover a name for it), the second of which is Long Live the King.

Weldon is a serious and much-awarded writer, but her hand is just as sure with this much lighter work. The coronation of King Edward VII (Queen Victoria’s successor in 1901) is the axis around which many subplots swirl. We meet Adela, the repressed sixteen-year-old daughter of Rector Edwin Hedleigh (estranged brother of Lord Robert) and an Austrian princess.

Once it had been a love match – a chance meeting on a cross-Channel steamer in a storm between an Austrian princess and and fourth son of an Earl – but both dedicated to the service of God. The flesh had won over the spirit, the Anglican over the Catholic; they had married impetuously and neither had ever quite forgiven themselves or each other. The proof of their spiritual weakness was the sixteen-year-old Adela. And now she was growing fast, for all her mother could stop it, and worse, turning into a veritable vehicle of concupiscence. It was all her husband, all that any man, could do, and he was the most saintly of men, to keep his eyes away from her changing body. The sooner the girl could be packed off to the Sisters of Bethany the better.

But Adela is orphaned by a fire and thus saved from the convent. Lord Robert takes the news of his estranged brother’s death in stride: "’So poor old Edwin. Gone. The Hedleigh vault at Dilberne will open up again. He’ll be at one with his ancestors and let’s hope he finds someone he can get on with.’" Still angry at his brother, he declines to open his heart or home to Adela, who winds up first in the household of the local Bishop, and then, through a comic turn of affairs, in the comfortable but larcenous clutches of her former maid Ivy and George, her husband, as a spiritualist offering séances to – who else? – the nobility.

In the meantime, Lady Isobel frets about Adela’s welfare and the three invitations to the coronation that she has unaccountably lost. Here she is, spending Christmas with the King and Queen:

Isobel felt reprimanded. She reflected that breakfasting with royalty was even more tiring than dining with them. At breakfast, natural impulses and the remnants of dreams were too close. The very ceremony of dinner imposed a more reasonable formality and a degree of forethought. One so wanted to be liked and approved of by one’s superiors in rank it became impossible just to speak or act naturally.

The Hedleigh household hurtles toward the coronation, beset by quandaries such as Minnie’s pregnancy (she is a Chicago pork heiress and the wife of his Lordship’s eldest son), which prevents her from attending the ceremony, and Isobel’s worry about His Lordship’s possible infatuation with the irresistible Conseulo. And where can Adela have disappeared to?

As I hope you can tell from the excerpts, this is a funny book, and rife with the kind of detail about British nobility so dear to the heart of the American reader.

Midnight at Marble Arch Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read many of Anne Perry’s novels, which are mostly detective novels set in Victorian England (there is another series whose setting is World War I), and I particularly like the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt stories, of which this is one.

Midnight at Marble Arch focuses on the crime of rape – not only a particular rape, which Special Branch head Thomas Pitt and his colleagues must solve (always with the help of wife Charlotte), but on the attitude of society toward rape in that time period. This sort of double focus is a feature of Perry’s novels, and the many philosophical discussions about various sorts of crimes are probably one of the reasons for their popularity.

I had not read far into the book when I happened to see an article elsewhere that revealed Anne Perry to be a convicted murderer. While living in New Zealand with her family, Perry and her friend murdered the friend’s mother when they were 15 years old, was jailed for five years, then released. Perry and her mother moved to England, where she changed her name and later became a successful crime novelist.

This is no secret – Perry even spoke about the murder a few years ago on a British TV program – but one can hardly expect her publishers to focus on this aspect of her history, so I would guess that most readers are unaware of her past.

In terms of her writing, her crime is moot – she is simply a good writer – but in terms of content, it’s clear that Perry has spent the rest of her life wrestling with questions of morality. I happily read her books for years without knowing about her background, but they seem more comprehensible now that I do know, so I pass that knowledge on to other readers.

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading GaolOscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde, compelled by author Gyles Brandreth, has joined the ranks of dead authors turned into detectives (he has fortunately thus far escaped being turned into a zombie or vampire hunter.) While this isn’t my favorite sub-genre, wonderful things can happen in the hands of the right author. I have always loved Wilde the writer and pitied Wilde the man, the genius who was the darling of Victorian society until he was disgraced and died poor and estranged from his family at just forty-one years of age.

Given that not everyone is familiar with Oscar Wilde, this series serves as a gentle introduction. He is best known for his plays, which are for the most part witty comedies that skewer the hypocrisies of British society – The Importance of Being Earnest is my favorite; for his fairy tales like The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant; for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; for his poetry and essays; and for his epigrams: "I can resist anything but temptation" is a famous one. Another: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

This is the sixth of the Oscar Wilde series, and it covers the unhappy years when Wilde, who was married and had a family, became so besotted with the young noble Robert Ross that he abandoned all discretion and let their affair become known to Ross’s father. Victorian society, who had hitherto lauded Wilde, rewarded him with a two year jail sentence for sodomy after Ross’s father brought charges against him.

Victorian prisons were grim places indeed, and this book reflects Wilde’s surroundings; it is altogether darker than the works that precede it. But Wilde is an interesting companion, even when he is despairing, and he is clever enough to solve two murders that take place in Reading Gaol, even though he is confined like all prisoners in a solitary cell and is forbidden to speak to anyone.

One of the strengths of this series is the way Brandreth so convincingly uses the facts of Wilde’s life to create his fiction. For example, Wilde was good friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, so Wilde is able to learn methods of detection from Doyle in a natural way. The narrator of the series is Robert Sherard, a close friend of Wilde and his biographer, so he can admiringly record Wilde’s adventures. And after finishing this book, I read Wilde’s "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" which he did indeed write after leaving prison.

So although this book is more somber than the others, it is still compelling, and as well worth reading.

Prague Fatale Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like fiction set in and around World War II (as long as it’s not mostly about battles) and have long been a fan of novelist Alan Furst. Philip Kerr also sets his novels in that time period, but on the other side of the Maginot Line, as it were; his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is an honest German police detective living in Berlin. The premise is fascinating to me: what reader hasn’t wondered how he would have reacted to Nazism and Hitler? Through Gunther, the reader finds out just how much sacrifice an honest life requires.

In Prague Fatale, Gunther has just returned from an assignment at the Eastern front, so sickened by the mass executions he has witnessed (and, the reader thinks, has either taken part in or assented to, although we don’t have details) that he seriously considers and reconsiders suicide.

While investigating the murder of a foreign worker, he is told to join the new Reichsprotector of Bohemia, General Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed "the Hangman", at a conclave of Nazi higher-ups. Although the stated purpose for Gunther’s presence is to find an assassin targeting Heydrich among the guests, the murder of an adjutant soon convinces Gunther that there is a more sinister motive afoot.

The murder in itself could have fueled a mystery novel, as it is one of those locked-room puzzles, but intrigue and espionage are rampant everywhere. General Heydrich values Gunther’s brutal honesty because most of his staff are sycophants too frightened to speak the truth to him. But speaking the truth in Nazi Germany is a risky business, even when a superior requests it.

Gunther has foolishly (in retrospect) allowed his most recent romantic liaison to accompany him to Prague, where there is an active wartime resistance. He is in love with Arienne, although he does not entirely trust her. I can reveal no more of the plot. But there is also plenty of atmosphere, including wonderfully detailed descriptions of wartime Berlin:

There was very little beer and often none at all. . . The sour, brown, brackish water that we nursed bitterly in our glasses reminded me most of the liquid-filled shell holes and still pools of no-man’s-land in which, sometimes, we had been obliged to take cover. For a Berliner, that really was a misfortune. Spirits were impossible to come by, and all of this meant that it was almost impossible to get drunk and escape from oneself, which, late at night, often left me cleaning my pistol. . .

. . .German munitions were always good; I could testify to the continuing excellence of ammunition and the weapons that fired it. But everything else was broken or second-rate or substitute or closed or unavailable or in short supply. And tempers, like rations, were in the shortest supply of all. The cross-looking black bear on our proud city’s coat of arms began to look like a typical Berliner, growling at a fellow passenger on the S-Bahn, roaring at an indifferent butcher as he gave you only half of the bacon your card said you were entitled to, or threatening a neighbor in your building with some Party big shot who would come and fix him good.

A bonus is that a number of the characters were real people and the situations in the novel are historical events. Heydrich, for instance, was assassinated by a Czech national, as happens in the book (and we learn this on the first page, so I haven’t given away anything.)

The best way to experience a war, I’m sure, is second-hand, and Kerr gives us a means of seeing it through German eyes. It’s a dark vision, but fortunately Gunther has a sense of humor that allows us to read on and experience enough of it to know it’s something we would never want. (However, I do want more of Bernie Gunther, and there are an additional seven novels available.)

The Chalice (Joanna Stafford, #2) The Chalice by Nancy Bilyeau

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Set in 1538, during the reign of Henry VIII, The Chalice is stuffed with elements that should ensnare the reader: a feisty heroine, a mysterious prophecy, court intrigue, adventure, romance. What I liked best, since I am interested in that period of history already, is the author’s broad understanding of the culture of the day, and her ability to weave it believably into the story.

Ex-novice Joanna Stafford, no longer really in holy orders because the king has recently dissolved all the monasteries and convents in England and confiscated their properties, is living in Dartford in the company of a few other ex-nuns and monks. She has already escaped death in the first novel of the series (The Crown) and is pursued by a cadre of true believers who see Joanna as the fulfillment of a prophecy that was uttered over her ten years earlier by a holy woman. These believers wish to restore the Catholic church to its former glory in England, and they do not much care what Joanna thinks about her possible role in all this.

Although Joanna is attempting to pursue a quiet life weaving tapestries in Dartford, she is soon enough dragged back into the intrigue she has been trying to escape. The plot twists are thick and fast, but generally believable, and since some plot points are unresolved at the end of the novel, the reader is left anticipating a third book in the series.

I liked the book well enough to finish it, but where the author intended Joanna as a defiant rebel and independent woman of integrity, I found her a tad annoying. She waffles endlessly about her love life: I love Friar Edmond. No, I love Geoffrey. Nope, Friar Edmond. No, I should just be a nun. She also exhibits an obtuse unconsciousness of her own stunning beauty, despite being assured too many times by male characters that she is indeed the fairest of them all.

I wanted to like Joanna more, but even so, she is certainly a much more three-dimensional character than any of Dan Brown’s protagonists (I see The Chalice as a 16th century Da Vinci Code ) and I’m sure that many readers will find in her a character that they can root for.

The House of Special PurposeThe House of Special Purpose by John Boyne

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I liked this book, although not as much as the reviewers who blurbed it. I had a little trouble swallowing the premise of the protagonist as a peasant turned bodyguard to the Tsarevich Alexei, and the main plot that devolved from it (which I don’t want to give away, although I guessed it pretty early on.) But after I forced myself to accept the two huge coincidences upon which the plot hangs, the book became the proverbial good read.

We know from the beginning that the protagonist Georgy and wife Zoya escape the Russian Revolution, as the novel is a meditation on their lives since that time. Georgy works at the British Museum and Zoya, troubled throughout her life by what she has seen, remains the light of Georgy’s life. I was taken with the way the author chooses to reveal the lives and choices of the main characters; it is far from chronological, but not at all confusing. In the end, the reader understands why Georgy and Zoya make life choices that would seem dull to some.

Boyne has a sure touch with period detail, and the wonders of living life as the ruling family of Russia are well-rendered and nearly as astonishing to the modern day reader as they are to the peasant Georgy. The characters are finely drawn and engaging – and also tragic, as we see clearly that the Tsar, a nice guy who probably would have been good at a number of things, is burdened instead by directing the Russian army, which he does very badly.

Worth reading.

The Ides of April The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new Marcus Didius Falco novel by Lindsey Davis! Quick, grab it off the library shelf! But what’s this? The subtitle: A Flavia Albia Mystery. What?!

Such were my emotions on discovering this novel. A faithful fan of the wisecracking Falco, detective of ancient Rome, through twenty other novels (although I’ve evidently missed the last, Nemesis), I was expecting more of the same. Instead, I find that Flavia Albia, Falco and Helena’s adopted daughter (a plot twist that I remember from an earlier book), has been married and widowed and has decided to strike out on her own in Falco’s old digs in the Surbura (which he has since purchased, now that he is a wealthy man.)

Perhaps Davis decided that Falco has grown too mature and respectable to perform any longer as a credible informer, since part of his charm was always his low upbringing and never-quite-comfortable rise to the top as the husband of the patrician Helena. So Davis has retired Falco and resorted to the younger blood of his (adopted) offspring. Although Flavia’s decision to live in her father’s old apartment building is barely credible (but necessary to plot, I think, as Davis doesn’t want her living in luxury with her dad), I was willing to read on.

The ensuing novel finds Flavia in pursuit of a clue linking a series of sudden deaths among the otherwise healthy in a certain section of Rome. Rumors whisper of a serial killer, or perhaps a copycat. The attractive archivist Andronicus offers aid of the most beguiling sort, while Tiberius, a runner for the magistrates, seems to turn up at inopportune moments, finally offering to team up with Flavia to find the truth.

So, not to give away more of the plot, events proceed as in other Davis novels, with lots of the colorful period details that readers of her novels expect and love. Since this story is told from a woman’s perspective, we have a slightly different view of the ancient world than in the previous books – Flavia at the baths, Flavia choosing jewelry and a sewing kit, Flavia sizing up available men.

It’s impossible not to compare Flavia’s adventures with those of her venerable father, who is banished so thoroughly from this volume that he does not utter a word directly (Helena does), and we hear of him only through Flavia’s mentions of visits to the family. Clearly Davis has decided that Falco needs to be put in the background to let Flavia shine.

And Flavia acquits herself well; she is a scrappy and engaging character (her orphan background makes her actions a bit more understandable) and I would certainly read another novel about her. Still, I miss her father, the scamp. I hope that once Davis becomes more comfortable with her new heroine, Falco is permitted to turn up from time to time and crack some jokes in person.

The Last of the Wine The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel by Mary Renault is one of those stories that make you wonder whether she didn’t somehow actually live in Greece of the fifth century B. C., because she makes that time come so alive to the reader.

The story revolves around Alexias, a noble Athenian youth growing into adulthood during the Peloponnesian War. Although he spends much of his time at the feet of various philosophers, including Plato and Sokrates, he also works out at the gymnasium, argues with his father, and goes to war when his city calls upon him. He meets Lysis, a man somewhat older than he is, and they become lovers.

Lysis confided to me that though he had first known a woman when he was seventeen years old, he had never been in love with a youth at all, until he met me. He said it used to disturb him sometimes, when he read the poets, that he seemed incapable of that love which they praised as the noblest, and the inspirer of so many glorious deeds. ‘I did not know,’ he said, ‘what I was waiting for. But the god knew.’

It was news to me that the custom was for Greek men to have male lovers until – and many times after – they married. But the relationship of Alexias and Lysis is central to the book, and in the author’s capable hands, the reader accepts it as the cultural norm. (I should add that the novel was published in 1956 and contains nothing that could be construed as a sex scene, although of course the sexual relationship is stated.) Although women appear in the book, it is very much about the lives of men. With this book, that did not bother me.

The Last of the Wine has a plot, but the vivid characters and the day-to-day experiencing of ancient Greece with Alexias as our guide are what makes the book so enjoyable and so well worth reading.

The Resurrectionist The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Resurrectionist is chiefly the story of the slave Nemo, purchased by a Southern medical school to secretly "resurrect" the bodies of African-Americans for dissection. In the present day, Dr. Jacob Thacker of the same medical university is on probation for prescription drug abuse and working in the PR department in the interim, when a construction crew finds the bones of these same involuntary cadavers buried in the basement of the original medical building.

While the present day medical administration scrambles to effect a cover-up of this embarrassing revelation, we follow the history of Nemo, who is as good a surgeon as the dean of the medical school (although never recognized as such, of course) and becomes a de facto instructor, staying on even after Reconstruction.

Since we are familiar with spin doctors – pardon the pun – and the knee-jerk reaction to hide any scandal, we are more interested in Nemo’s story, although the reader winces at some of the passages in which the African-American must bow to the ignorance of certain white medical students. But Nemo knows what he knows and who he is and the reader will be cheering him on even as her jaw drops at the surprise ending.

To his credit, the author provides an unexpected ending to the present day story as well, but Nemo is certainly the star of the book.

Given the cover and the title, I was expecting a story more in the vein of The Alienist. But The Resurrectionist holds its own in a different way, and its story of revenge and restitution makes a compelling read

Humor (6)

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
Guy Noir and the Straight Skinny by Garrison Keillor
Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
Lunatics by Dave Berry
Screwed by Eoin Colger

 

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

My rating:4 of 5 stars

Christmas Pudding, set in England in the l930s, is Mitford’s second novel, and the premise is amusing: protagonist Paul Fotheringay is in despair because his newly-published novel, into which he has "poured all the bitterness of a bitter soul" and whose ending is "unbearably tragic" has been hailed by one and all as a stunning success – as a comic novel.

Paul is struggling to regain a more scholarly reputation, and he lights on the idea of writing the biography of one Lady Maria Bobbin, a Victorian poet. Alas, he is denied access to her papers by the present Lady Bobbin, who is interested only in the hunt. Undaunted, Paul schemes to pose as a tutor to her son Bobby, a student at Eton, during the holidays, so that he can secretly study the poet’s papers while staying in the house. Bobby happily agrees to the ruse.

Bobby has an attractive sister, Philadelphia Bobbin, who is bored to death in the country and of a marriageable age. While she and Paul make eyes at each other, a horde of Bobbin relatives descend upon the house for Christmas.

Christmas Day itself was organized by Lady Bobbin with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a general leading his army into battle. Not one moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests; these received on Christmas Eve their marching orders, orders which must be obeyed to the letter on pain of death.

Like all of Mitford’s novels, Christmas Pudding includes witty dialogue, silly situations, and scathing commentary on the vicissitudes of the upper class.

Pigeon Pie is more a novella, set during the early days of World War II. Sophia is the heroine, married to a former diplomat, now a businessman.

Sophia had a happy character and was amused by life; if she was slightly disillusioned she was by no means unhappy in her marriage. Luke was as cold as a fish and a great bore; soon however she began to regard him as a great joke, and as she liked jokes she became quite fond of him when, which happened soon, she fell out of love with him. . . Luke seemed to be getting very rich. About twice a week he obliged her to entertain or be entertained by insufferably boring business people, generally Americans. . .

‘I simply don’t see the point of getting up at six all the time you are young and working eighteen hours a day in order to be a millionaire, and then when you are a millionaire still getting up at six and working eighteen hours a day, like Mr. Holst. And poor Mrs. Holst, who has got up at six all these years, so that now she can’t sleep in the morning, only has the mingiest little diamond clip you ever saw. What does it all mean?’

The story continues with German spies and counter-spies as Sophia tries her best to contribute to the war effort with results that are occasionally heroic and always entertaining.

Guy Noir and the Straight SkinnyGuy Noir and the Straight Skinny by Garrison Keillor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The way I see it, either you like Garrison Keillor or you don’t. If you are a fan, you will like this book, as it is vintage Keillor, or at least vintage Keillor in the guise of alter-ego Guy Noir, a wise-cracking gumshoe from the days of Dragnet and The Shadow, transplanted to contemporary Minneapolis/St. Paul. I liked the book better than I like the Guy Noir radio bits on A Prairie Home Companion; I thought it was funnier. Keillor begins, in Guy’s voice:

"Call me a cynic, but I maintain that nothing can clarify a man’s thinking quite like looking down the barrel of a revolver in the hand of a man who is irked with you and considering homicide as a solution to his problem. This has happened to me from time to time in my so-called career as a private eye in St. Paul, Minnesota, and each occurrence promoted clear thinking, inconvenient though it was at the time. Christians try to find clarity through prayer, but you don’t really know what prayer is until you meet someone who’s prepared to shoot you."

Good opening, I think, especially as the man holding the gun is eighty-two and suffering from mild senile dementia and hemorrhoids. The rest of the story rollicks on from there, with Guy not exactly sprinting (he’s sixty-five) from one adventure to another, but at least moving speedily, always encumbered in his escapes by his attraction to "bombshells" like Naomi Fallopian, ex-stripper and professor of women’s studies (Keillor has great fun with that one) who lead him on (and on) only to drop him with a thud.

Although Keillor gleefully skewers various American institutions – social media, extended adolescence, dieting, celebrity book tours, corporate greed, the courts – in the course of the book, I wouldn’t suggest that the novel is a mere skeleton for fleshing out Keillor’s grievances. It has a plot, silly as it is, and it offers a great opportunity to relish the author’s writing. For instance, his metaphors:

  • "The phone jingled like a Salvation Army Santa Claus."
  • "a voice like corn oil"
  • "As she walked, her golden wool gown undulated on her womanly hips like curtains in a light breeze. I wanted to open the curtains and let the sun shine."
  • "like a prime rib at a piranha picnic"
  • "the elevator’s. . .ancient chains clanking in the shaft above like Marley’s ghost."
  • "He was draped in a blue seersucker suit, like a toad in gift wrap"

In fact, the metaphors are as thick as a carpet of army ants on a wildebeast (coming up with that metaphor reminded me of what a nimble writer Keillor is), and a lot more fun. Fun, fun, fun is what this book is all about, an entertaining read by a wonderful writer – and what’s wrong with that?

Highland Fling Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best-known for her comic novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, set in the upper-crust of England in the 1940s, Nancy Mitford also wrote six other novels, less commonly available, that have now been re-issued by Vintage Books. Highland Fling is her first novel, written when she was just in her twenties. I was thrilled to see it appear in the New Books section of the local library.

Mitford was herself a part of the upper-crust about which she writes so witheringly and so entertainingly, and she moved in exalted literary circles as well as exalted social circles. Based on an unrequited love in Scotland of Mitford’s own, Highland Fling introduces us to the young couple Walter and Sally Monteath, whose lack of money seems no impediment to their lifestyle:

. . . Walter seemed to have a talent for making money disappear. Whenever he was on the point of committing an extravagance of any kind he would excuse himself by explaining: ‘Well, you see, darling, it’s so much cheaper in the end.’ It was his slogan. Sally soon learnt, to her surprise and dismay, that ‘it’s cheaper in the end’ to go to the most expensive tailor, travel first class, stay at the best hotels, and to take taxis everywhere. When asked why it was cheaper, Walter would say airily: ‘Oh, good for our credit, you know!’ of ‘So much better for one’s clothes,’ or, sulkily: ‘Well, it is, that’s all, everybody knows it is.’

Having as a result spent double their income in one year, Walter and Sally are obliged, in order to save money, to accept a relative’s request to host the summer house party for two months at the ancestral manor Dalloch Castle in Scotland while the relatives are posted to Rhodesia. The Monteaths’ friends Jane and Albert (a painter, and the only character with any sort of job) come to keep them company and fall in love despite the other guests, such as Lady Brenda. . .

Jane thought that she had never seen anyone look so much like an overbred horse. She even ate like one, appearing to sniff every mouthful cautiously before she allowed herself to nibble at it, as though she might at any moment shy away from the cable. Her husband behaved to her just like a groom with a nervous mare. Jane felt that he must have had difficulty in accustoming her to being handled.

. . . General Murgatroyd, who nourishes a hatred for all things not English, and expounds relentlessly on the virtues of "Blockade"; Admiral Wenscelaus, who is quite deaf and has a glass eye; and Lady Prague, who advises Albert on his painting: "’There are too many oil paintings in the world already. Watercolors take up much less room. Don’t you agree?" And others!

As I reread the novel for funny passages that I might quote here, I found so many that it was difficult to choose. Choosing nearly at random, here Mitford describes the hunt as Jane experiences it:

In the hall scenes of horrible confusion were going forward; a perfect regiment of men tramped to and fro carrying things and bumping into each other. They all seemed furiously angry. Above the din could be heard the general’s voice:

‘What the – do you think you’re doing? Get out of that! Come here, blast you!’

The moor was about five miles away, and during the whole drive nobody spoke a word except General Murgatroyd, who continually admonished his dog, a broken-looking retriever of the name of Mons.

‘Lie down, will you? No, get off that coat!’ (Kick, kick, kick; howl, howl, howl.) ‘Stop that noise, blast you!’ (Kick, howl.)

And later, in the butt (hunting hut) with the General:

She began to suffer acutely from cold and cramp, and was filled with impotent rage. Eons of time passed over her. She pulled a stone out of the wall and scratched her name on another stone, then Albert’s name, then a heart with an arrow through it (but she soon rubbed that off again). She knew the shape of the general’s plus-fours and the pattern of his stockings by heart, and could have drawn an accurate picture of the inside of the butt blindfold, when suddenly there was an explosion in her ears so tremendous that for an instant she thought she must have been killed.

And so it goes on. When you need a read to help you recover from the latest gloomy headlines, pick up this novel and be restored by laughter.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah, David Sedaris. I first read his work in Esquire magazine, a riff about learning a foreign language that was so funny that I could not even read it to my bemused family without collapsing with laughter and becoming all but unintelligible. I have since read all his books of essays and attended a reading that he gave at The Ohio State University.

So I am a fan already, and he has nothing to prove to me. Humorous writing is even more subjective than regular writing, and he may leave you cold, but I can tell you why I find him so funny.

First, he is abjectly honest. He talks in detail about a high and drunken evening he spent with an alcoholic stranger on a train. He goes to a taxidermist to find a stuffed owl for his partner Hugh, and the taxidermist seems to at once to recognize a kindred spirit.

The taxidermist knew me for less time than it took to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking breezily, Well, it was a long time ago. Worse still I would flaunt it, hoping in the way a Porsche owner does that this would become a part of my identity. ‘They say he has a Pygmy,’ I could imagine my new neighbors whispering as I walked down the street. ‘Hangs him plain as day in the corner of his living room, next to the musket he was shot with.’

How many of us would admit this? He exaggerates for effect, true (another reason that he is so funny), but his confessions have the effect of engaging our sympathies.

He also notices and notes quirky details that the rest of us forget to file away.

There was an issue of the local paper in the backseat of the car, and leafing through it on our way there, I came upon a headline that read, ‘Dangerous Olives Could Be on Sale.’

‘Hmm,’ I said, and I copied it into my little notebook.

Sedaris has a happy gift for description. He speaks of a butchered rooster that provided "a dreary soup with two feet, like inverted salad tongs, sticking out of it." About swimming pools:

Chlorine pits is what they were. Chemical baths. In the deep end, my sisters and I would dive for nickels. Toss one in, and by the time we reached it, half of Jefferson’s face would be eaten away. Come lunchtime, we’d line up at the snack bar, our hair the texture of cotton candy, our small, burning eyes like little cranberries.

Not that his essays are only funny. Although he skewers his family endlessly, he clearly loves them: "Cut off your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured? What could it possibly mean?" So maybe that’s why he’s funny – there is heart behind the humor.

LunaticsLunatics by Dave Barry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

You could think of this novel as a palate cleanser – something light and silly to consume between serious reads. Or you could think about how difficult it actually is to write humor. Or you could just enjoy it.

The theme of the book seems to be: "Top this!" That is also the plot. It is written in alternating voices: Philip Horkman, the virtuous and unintentionally funny pet store owner, and Jeffrey Peckerman, the obscenity-spewing, irritable asshole (a word I don’t use, but it appears frequently in this book) convinced that Horkman, the referee at his daughter’s soccer game, is trying to ruin his life.

Every incident in the novel provokes another incident, each one slightly more frenetic and ridiculous than the last. The original inciting incident occurs when Horkman calls Peckerman’s daughter offside in a soccer game. Within fifty pages, Horkman and Peckerman have become the objects of a low-speed chase, caused the crash of a police helicopter on the George Washington Bridge, and been forced to go on the lam as international terrorists with the national security forces in hot pursuit. (And this is not to mention the canaries, the lemur named Buddy, the two bears, the gang of teenage hooligans, and the middle-aged book club member whose insulin pump has been stolen by Buddy.)

An excerpt (the prologue) will give you the flavor of the book, but the book must be read in full to be believed:

Before we explain how it all happened, we’d like to take this opportunity, from the get-go, to apologize.

What do you mean "we"?

I thought we agreed that we would take responsibility for. . .

Whoa whoa whoa. I agreed that YOU should take responsibility. No way in hell am I apologizing for something I didn’t do. Because none of this, no, let me correct that, NONE of this, would ever have happened if you knew the goddam rules of the game of socc . . .

Okay, let’s not get into that again . . .

I’ll get into whatever I want to get into, you douchebag.

The point is, dear reader, that mistakes were made, and things got out of hand, and we, I should say, I’m, very sorry for any mental anguish, financial loss, destruction of property, or serious physical injury that may have been caused to anyone, including my loving wife and children, my friends, my community, innocent bystanders, the brave and dedicated men and women of the New York Police Department, the staff and patients of the Lenox Hill Hospital, the fine officers, crew and passengers aboard the SS Windsong, the Port-au-Prince Duffel Bag Company, Char, and the U.S. armed forces – in particular the Coast Guard. I also apologize to all three branches of the United States government, Arnie and Sue Kogen, and to both the General Assembly and Security Council of the United Nations for any role we may have played- and I assure you it was completely inadvertent – in exacerbating world tensions. And on a more personal note, let me say that, as a passionate lifelong lover and protector of animals, I deeply regret any of our actions that endangered any of the helpless, vulnerable creatures of the Central Park Zoo.

HELPLESS? Those things had teeth like fucking steak knives.

Finally, on the advice of legal counsel, I want to stress that nothing in the account that you are about to read is meant to suggest or imply that there is now, or has ever been, a connection between any international terrorist organization and the Chuck E. Cheese restaurant chain.

Chuck E. Cheese can bite me.

The reader will never guess where this book is going, and she’ll have a lot of fun getting there.

Screwed (Daniel McEvoy, #2)Screwed by Eoin Colfer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time I read Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books to my youngest son. For children, they were a little edgy, I thought; the author himself described the series as "’Die Hard with fairies.’" I could imagine him writing for adults, and now he has.

Screwed is the second novel (yes, you can read them out of order) starring protagonist Dan McAvoy, an Irish immigrant and former UN peacekeeper who owns a crummy bar in New Jersey and surrounds himself with a quirky group of friends – a shady plastic surgeon (they are linked by the "blood and shrapnel" of combat), a psychotic girlfriend who recognizes him only about half the time – and a scary bunch of enemies.

When I read this book, I thought "Elmore Leonard" because it’s very funny. Then I dipped into it again just now, to look for some funny passages to quote, and noticed how dark and violent it is. And so it is, but I mostly found it funny because the inner dialogue of the protagonist is unrelentingly comical – as his psychologist points out in the novel, McAvoy uses humor as a coping mechanism.

Fabulous. I’m expendable. When have I ever been anything else? They’re gonna scrawl that on my body bag I get buried in. What’s-his-name was expendable.

Or

There’s only one iron left in the fire now. It ain’t my iron and I didn’t light the fire but I gotta put it out before this metaphor gets away from me and no one has a clue what the hell I’m talking about.

Or

Fortz is living proof that evolution goes both ways. He’s got the aforementioned helmet-head look going on, with a skull that shines like a buffed bowling ball. The man is completely hairless as far as I can see and his features seem to belong to a much smaller face. It’s as if his head kept growing but his eyes, nose and mouth said screw it at about age fifteen.

So, although I am not a fan of the dark and violent, I seem to like funny noir, and Screwed is both. Just think of Eoin Colfer as Elmore Leonard’s twisted, younger Irish cousin.

Literary Fiction (24)

A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend
A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
All The Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova
Bertie Plays The Blues by Alexander McCall Smith
Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford
Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter
Flat Water Tuesday by Ron Irwin
Goodbye Without Leaving by Laurie Colwin
Happy All The Time by Laurie Colwin
Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford
How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
Indiscretion by Charles Dubow
King of Cuba by Cristina Garcia
Leon and Louise by Alex Capus
Little Bee by Chris Cleave
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
The Fields by Kevin Maher
The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault
The Mouse-Proof Kitchen by Saira Shah
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

 

A Naked SingularityA Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve wanted to read this novel for a while – it’s one of those novels that everyone rejected, the author self-published, and then critics discovered. It’s now published by the University of Chicago.

And I loved it. Loved it! But a few disclaimers before you plunge in.

  • It’s very long – 674 pages. I like a long book, but this one is a slow starter, and I found the first few pages confusing. But hang in there, dear reader, and you will soon be rewarded.
  • No quotation marks for the first 43 pages, which are primarily dialogue. This is a drawback, although once you get into the rhythm of it, you don’t notice so much.
  • Many digressions. Just go with the flow. De la Pava wrote this book exactly as he wanted, and the reader goes along for the ride.

But what a great ride! The protagonist, Casi, is a public defender in Brooklyn, and one of the first great scenes in the book plays out as Casi meets with each of his clients for the evening prior to their pleading. Here’s the first interview:

The first case I looked at was Darril Thorton, a yellowback charged with Sex Abuse in the First Degree (PL ɠ130.65130.65). I called his name softly, hoping he wouldn’t answer, but he immediately moved in, a let’s-get-this-over-with look on his face. He spoke first, obviously yelling but still creating only a barely audible signal:
-noise background,

My getting out or what?!

My money’s on what, followed by a pause long enough to be uncomfortable.

Oh, c’mon, I didn’t do nothing man! This is bullshit you got to get me up out of here on the double yo, she’s lying on me!

Easy, hold on, let’s start at the top. Here’s my card. My name’s Casi, I’m going to be your attorney. Let’s see, well, you’re charged with Sex Abuse in the First Degree, that’s a Class D violent felony.

Wait let me see this, holding the ivory rectangle up to the bar-streaked light and nodding negatively, un-uh.

What, uh-uh?

I don’t want you man, starting to walk out but not really.

Why? What’s the problem?

Because man, sitting back down, I wanted an l8B, only thing you guys ever did for me is send me upstate man. No offense but that’s just keeping it real on your ass, pointing but not at it.

Well, whatever, you’re sort of stuck with me so let’s just see how it goes for a bit okay?

No.

Who’s Valerie Griffin?

Man you all right. Okay she’s a crackhead. That’s what I’m trying to tell you officer, I mean lawyer. She’s making up some crazy stuff, everybody knows she’s a fabricator and a confabulator. Everybody knows it!

You know that for a fact?

What, that she confabulates?

No, that she’s a crackhead.

Everybody knows!

This goes on for nearly forty pages – not just this defendant, but a parade of them. It’s certainly an effective way to show the reader the sad state of the judicial system, as it’s quickly apparent that the guilty will not be given a fair shake by the system, and even the innocent are doomed.

Casi is trying hard to do what he can – he’s twenty-four and has yet to lose a case, but it’s little enough. And when an unfair judge hands Casi’s client his first-ever guilty verdict, he is so distraught that he agrees to take part in a drug money heist with a colleague, an event whose planning, execution, and outcome occupy the second half of the book.

This bare-bones description of the plot does little to describe the sprawl and scope of the book, which includes the life story of a boxer from the Dominican Republic, a recipe for empanadas,a few scenes that read like hallucinations and endless philosophical discussions with his friends and colleagues which sound nothing like the dialogue he records at the beginning of the book.

In fact, the writing is generally formal and often convoluted.

Except that almost none of those precepts, those truly tried snippets and individually-wrapped datum that I thought I knew because they’d never previously failed to attach to that fact pattern to the extent that they reflexively exited my mouth promising to reassure with routine, would apply here to DeLeon. And this much should’ve been clear to me from jump based on the eyes I saw.

Because the four eyes that then entered the room were not dull and surrounded by the usual jaded masticated skin so endemic to that spent system. That skin that practically beseeched the clock to tick with greater speed, skin that announced a vacancy and slouched in its chair to make evening plans at 2:00 p.m. no, the eyes I saw then had casually shed that skin and instead now pierced the room with brilliant beams of light; and cast in this new light was the story of how the world looks to a twenty-year-old and what it becomes to a thirty-five-year-old.

But somehow the prose all makes sense in context, and I didn’t find it difficult to read. And Casi is a sympathetic character, one that we root for.

This is a difficult book to explain. The reader can find things to quibble about, but the approach I recommend is to sink into the novel, let it carry you away, and savor the experience.

A Nearly Perfect CopyA Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story takes place in the art world in two different lives: one, a woman with a coveted “good eye” for art, who works at a Manhattan auction house, and the other a frustrated Spanish painter in Paris with a talent for copying.

I had to think twice about reading this book, as the woman is a mother grieving the loss of her eight-year-old son, swept away by the tsunami when the family was vacationing in Thailand. I have six children and sometimes these books hit too close to the bone. But Elm, short for Elmira, managed to engage my sympathy.

She’d never known how many different kinds of tears there were until Ronan died. Like a parody of the old saw about all the Eskimo words for snow – tears of frustration, of hurt, pain, anger, angst. And now there were new tears to discover all the time, vast galaxies of hidden stars and satellites of pain that orbited into view.

The painter, Gabriel, feels a different sort of pain. He feels disconnected from his own voice as a painter, although he can channel the painting style of his famous painter grandfather at will. And he is the eternal outsider, a Spaniard in France, who often finds it difficult to express himself in French. When the beautiful Collette, also in the art world, becomes his lover, he knows at once that she is out of his league financially, but he is desperate to keep her.

Gabriel’s and Elm’s different losses lead them down different, but eventually intersecting paths, which is the most I can say without spoiling the plot.

Elmira ultimately makes a decision that is crazy and ruinous – or is it? The reader will have to decide for herself, in this thought-provoking and well-written novel.

A Tale for the Time BeingA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

When I saw this title on the new books shelf in my library, I dashed over and snatched it up, delighted that Ozeki, the author of favorite book My Year of Meats, had finally written another novel. (There is a second one, All Over Creation, that I also liked.)

A Tale for the Time Being opens with the discovery of the diary of a Japanese teenage girl. It is mysteriously housed with a kamikaze watch and a packet of letters in Japanese and French in a Hello Kitty lunchbox that has been encased in plastic and launched into the ocean, where it has washed up on a beach on a desolate island of British Columbia.

The diary’s discoverer is a writer, Ruth, and in the course of the novel, we hear from her in the third person as she tries to unravel the mystery of the diary, and from the diary writer, Nao, in the first person. Nao writes about her dysfunctional family – her mother is troubled and her father is depressed and suicidal, but she does have a supporter in her great-grandmother, a 104-year-old Buddhist nun, Jiko.

The story is many layered. As Nao reveals her story – she is being savagely bullied at her Japanese school – we also learn the stories of her uncle, a kamikaze pilot in World War II; her great-grandmother, an author and feminist, now a nun; her father, who is more than the loser he appears to be; and the stories of Ruth, her artist/activist husband Oliver, and their neighbors on the island.

The mystery of the diary is captivating, but Nao’s story is just one of the mysteries that the novel examines. For example, Nao is a play on words – it sounds like the English word "now" – and Nao and her Buddhist great-granny and Ruth and Oliver raise many questions about the meaning of time. Ruth and Oliver’s cat is named Schroedinger (like the cat in the famous parallel world thought experiment.) Nao’s story seems to take place in the present, as she writes it, but years have passed since the diary was thrown into the sea. Nao points out:

If you’ve ever tried to keep a diary, then you’ll know that the problem of trying to write about the past really starts in the present: No matter how fast you write, you’re always stuck in the then and you can never catch up to what’s happening now, which means that now is pretty much doomed to extinction. It’s hopeless, really.

When I was a little kid in Sunnyvale, I became obsessed with the word now. . . But in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then. Then is the opposite of now. So saying now obliterates its meaning, turning it into exactly what it isn’t. It’s like the word is committing suicide or something. . . Stuff like this can drive you crazy.

But it’s interesting! The characters also think about art, the environment, philosophy, suicide, Buddhism, 9/11, the tsunami, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, national identity, and the link between reader and writer – the names of the characters Ruth and Oliver are the same as the writer and her husband, just to tease us a bit further. And the book is peppered with footnotes in which Ruth the character explains the meaning of various Japanese words and phrases – she is Japanese-American, as is the author Ruth.

I really like this author. Her characters are engaging people who think about big ideas without being pretentious or dull or preachy. Her plots are original. Her prose is snappy. She makes you think, and about things that matter. Read this novel – Nao!

All the Dead Yale MenAll the Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here it is, a book that I really liked, by an author I’d never heard of, who has written 14 other novels, only one of which I am familiar with – The Good Son. the Dead Yale Men is a sequel, so I will be sure to go back and read the original, which is his most acclaimed work. (And how have I not known about this author all these years? I feel cheated.)

What do you do if you are the district prosecutor in Boston and you find yourself "in trouble" and on the way to ask your father for advice, he dies of an aneurysm? And before you can follow him to the hospital, the police call to say that your colleague is poised to jump from Tobin Bridge, and wants to speak to you only? And your brilliant, beautiful only daughter, who should be entering Harvard Law in the fall, is threatening instead to take off with a small time crook and hustler?

If you are Frank Mackinnon, you read Thucydides. You row alone on the Charles River. You visit the family property in the woods near Delaware and you read the journals that your grandmother stashed in the attic. And you consider doing something stupid.

What struck me through the first chapters was the accelerating sense of dread. For example, from Frank’s dad, Chip:

‘I’ll give you a little word of advice, Frank,’ he said. ‘It’s Chip Mackinnon’s third rule. I’ve never mentioned it before. But this is it: the truth is a dangerous substance.’

From Frank:

Sometimes it is all a muddle. Or, maybe it is better to say that I have discovered some rules, too, and one of them is that events, particularly trouble, don’t come with an even distribution, but in clumps, as though one large event has a gravity that attracts others.

From Frank again, upon meeting his daughter’s boyfriend:

So there it was: not the thing I was always afraid of, but a new aspect I had never dreamed of. And it’s at moments like this, when you stand at the abyss, where all the potential is right there, that you realize what it means to love someone. The shock, of course, is that you think you understand this, but you don’t really until that dark tentacle, that change in light, that possibility of a horror that is at once so ordinary and so appalling has made itself apparent. It walks in the door and tries to look like Kurt Cobain.

Nova’s prose knocks me out. "We went downhill in that light just before dawn, which is not the darkest, but the most blue, with the trees emerging like imploring shapes, the limbs black on blue as though that world with all the phantoms gives up its hold on earth grudgingly. . ." and so on. I could spend my whole review quoting.

The characters are flesh and blood. We care about them and their struggles, especially the hapless narrator, who has brought his troubles on himself. (Something we can all identify with, no doubt.) We wish that we could figure out to solve his problems, and we hold our collective breath as we read, hoping that things turn out all right, but afraid they won’t.

Bertie Plays the Blues: A 44 Scotland Street Novel (44 Scotland Street, #7) Bertie Plays the Blues: A 44 Scotland Street Novel by Alexander McCall Smith

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alexander McCall Smith, is, of course, the author of the The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series, which would be enough for most people. Yet he somehow also writes the Isabel Dalhousie series, the Portuguese Irregular Verbs series, the Corduroy Mansions series, and the 44 Scotland Street series, of which Bertie Plays the Blues is the latest offering. Does the man never sleep?

Perhaps he doesn’t, but his books seem uniformly good. The 44 Scotland Street series is set in Edinburgh, where Smith resides (he is pictured on the back cover in a kilt), and the setting functions much as another character – not because it is described at great length, but because the reader feels that the story could not happen elsewhere in just the same way. Where else, for example, would people applaud parents for bestowing the names Rognvald, Tobermory and Fergus on their newborn triplets?

Domenica was interested in the names chosen for the triplets. ‘We can be grateful that they’ve chosen real names,’ she said. ‘You can’t go wrong if you name a child after a prominent geographical feature. Tobermory is very nice.’

So there’s one story going on, that of the young couple with the triplets who desperately need a good night’s sleep. Then there are Angus the painter and Domenica, experiencing a little friction in combining their households into soon-to-be-married bliss. There is seven-year-old Bertie of the title, an engaging prodigy whose overbearing mother has unintentionally made her son’s life so miserable with psychiatric sessions and endless enrichment classes that he decides it would be best for all to steal off to Glasgow and put himself up for adoption at the same agency that found adoptive parents for his friend Ranald.

Although Smith’s books in some sense amble along, the reader is happy to amble along with them, not needing the high drama of a suspense novel. Indeed, the books are so old-fashioned that it would be easy to imagine old-fashioned titles for each chapter: "In Which Bertie and Ranald Abscond to Glasgow and Are Apprehended by a Person of Authority" or "In Which Matthew Defies His Wife and Secretly Becomes a Mason" and so on.

But that’s all okay. The books are wise, the characters are thoughtful, the author has a wonderful sense of humor (one of the classmates at Bertie’s progressive school is named Tofu), and we readers can confidently expect a wonderful time in Edinburgh with the residents of 44 Scotland Street.

Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie Christmas Pudding and Pigeon Pie by Nancy Mitford

My rating:4 of 5 stars

Christmas Pudding, set in England in the l930s, is Mitford’s second novel, and the premise is amusing: protagonist Paul Fotheringay is in despair because his newly-published novel, into which he has "poured all the bitterness of a bitter soul" and whose ending is "unbearably tragic" has been hailed by one and all as a stunning success – as a comic novel.

Paul is struggling to regain a more scholarly reputation, and he lights on the idea of writing the biography of one Lady Maria Bobbin, a Victorian poet. Alas, he is denied access to her papers by the present Lady Bobbin, who is interested only in the hunt. Undaunted, Paul schemes to pose as a tutor to her son Bobby, a student at Eton, during the holidays, so that he can secretly study the poet’s papers while staying in the house. Bobby happily agrees to the ruse.

Bobby has an attractive sister, Philadelphia Bobbin, who is bored to death in the country and of a marriageable age. While she and Paul make eyes at each other, a horde of Bobbin relatives descend upon the house for Christmas.

Christmas Day itself was organized by Lady Bobbin with the thoroughness and attention to detail of a general leading his army into battle. Not one moment of its enjoyment was left to chance or to the ingenuity of her guests; these received on Christmas Eve their marching orders, orders which must be obeyed to the letter on pain of death.

Like all of Mitford’s novels, Christmas Pudding includes witty dialogue, silly situations, and scathing commentary on the vicissitudes of the upper class.

Pigeon Pie is more a novella, set during the early days of World War II. Sophia is the heroine, married to a former diplomat, now a businessman.

Sophia had a happy character and was amused by life; if she was slightly disillusioned she was by no means unhappy in her marriage. Luke was as cold as a fish and a great bore; soon however she began to regard him as a great joke, and as she liked jokes she became quite fond of him when, which happened soon, she fell out of love with him. . . Luke seemed to be getting very rich. About twice a week he obliged her to entertain or be entertained by insufferably boring business people, generally Americans. . .

‘I simply don’t see the point of getting up at six all the time you are young and working eighteen hours a day in order to be a millionaire, and then when you are a millionaire still getting up at six and working eighteen hours a day, like Mr. Holst. And poor Mrs. Holst, who has got up at six all these years, so that now she can’t sleep in the morning, only has the mingiest little diamond clip you ever saw. What does it all mean?’

The story continues with German spies and counter-spies as Sophia tries her best to contribute to the war effort with results that are occasionally heroic and always entertaining.

Eleven Days Eleven Days by Lea Carpenter

My rating:4 of 5 stars

Eleven Days is, as I suspected from the blurb, a harrowing book, but I was curious to read it, because, like every mother, I have wondered what it would be like to have a son in the military in harm’s way. The protagonists of the novel are Sara and her only son Jason, who is a member of the Navy Special Teams, and the eleven days of the title refer to the period of time when her son goes missing during a military operation.

Of course, Sara doesn’t want her only son to join the military at all, but she adjusts to it, as she must.

Her increasing interest in all things military ran parallel to her son’s becoming an officer. With Jason at the Naval Academy, she got back to D. C. – and Virginia – regularly. She would meet friends for lunch. They were all amused to see how she had changed. . . She was proud of her son. . . But that wasn’t really what was changing in her. What was mission-driven and relevant was what had always been: her love for her boy. Had he decided to join the circus, she might have developed an obsession for elephants.

Much of the novel develops the characters in flashbacks, since Jason is in absentia for most of the real time. We learn that Jason’s decision to join the military rather than go to Harvard sprang from his reaction to the 9/11 tragedy, although his relationship with his mostly absent father was another determining factor.

Jason describes his training to his mother in a letter:

I never thought about certain things before . . I never thought about how best to brace myself against a blow. I never thought about how best to make contact with another person, especially is that person is threatening me. And I never thought about what they call our Inner Warrior. . . It is the voice you hear that tells you not just what to do but what not to do, too. . .

Warfare is not like "shoot-’em-ups" as Dad would say. There is a precision to all of our actions. Having the guns and knowing what to do with them is a little like having access to a new language. And there are lots of challenging environments where saying less is more. Restraint might not be the first thing next to Godliness, but it’s close. Restraint is part of the ethos.

Jason and Sara are thoughtful, admirable characters, and it is enlightening to view the war and special operations through the eyes of each. The author includes a hefty bibliography, and she not only has done her research, but she has managed to put the reader into the minds and hearts of a warrior (a term that Jason uses of himself) and his mother.

Flat Water Tuesday: A Novel Flat Water Tuesday: A Novel by Ron Irwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Flat Water Tuesday is a gorgeous book. Austensibly about the senior year of a rowing team as the God For (only God can beat them), the novel is also an examination of teamwork, competition, pain, love and the weight of familial expectations in prose as smooth as the water the team sculls over.

A fifth year scholarship student, Rob Carrey, attends an exclusive Connecticut prep school with the single goal of rowing well enough to attract the attention of an Ivy League university. He has talent and an attitude.

I was mesmerized by the trees exploding out of the valley, the river snaking slow and thoughtful by the buildings. I always regarded this beauty with a sense of awe. And also anger and disbelief. I’d spent four years slugging it out at the Niccalsetti Senior School where a freight train ran right behind the one ragged football field we had. I’d never considered the existence of schools with this immense, unending, perfectly manicured splendor. It seemed to me that the entire season – all the trees and the grass and the perfection of the water – had been created just for us, the four hundred or so Fenton students who knew for sure they’d live forever . . .

I had only nine months of this kind of living and then it would be snatched away again and I’d be sent back to where I came from unless I was very, very fast on the water. Which was just fine by me, because I was dead sure that I was the fastest thing these bastards were ever going to see.

This narrator tells the story in flashbacks from a vantage point fifteen years after his time at Fenton, and we know from the get-go that something terrible occurs – so terrible that none of the team has seen each other for the past fifteen years or ever talked about what happened. But the pleasure of the book derives not from trying to guess the nature of the past tragedy, but in getting to know the characters and what drives them.

Connor Payne, the narrator’s nemesis, is the epitome of Fenton: "quiet and lithe as a panther. . . in the fashionably wilted Brooks Brothers blazer, Fenton School Boat Club tie and pressed trousers he always wore to class . . . Like all predators, he had a nose for weakness and wounds." Although he is Rob’s teammate, Rob cannot help but regard him as an adversary. The two push each other to greater feats of athleticism, which is a good thing, right? Let the reader decide. Here is Rob watching Connor on the erg, a dry boat for rowers to train on indoors in the winter, and pitiless. (My daughter rowed crew, and she can testify to the pain the sport inflicts.)

Let him be weak, I thought. Let him not be equal to his bullshit. . .Connor balled his body, reach and pulled. The machine snarled, whirred, and ticked back. He brought up the pace, and the machine began to hiss, its numbers reacting to every second stroke. His rasping breaths came quicker, the hissing turned into whines and then screeches. A blue vein stood out on his forehead, rose and pulsed into the sweat towel binding his hair. . . Two minutes. . . Then it was five minutes. . . The muscles lacing his forearms were straining, shifting over one another. . .

I sat in the dust of the boathouse, watching, my stomach filled with a black acid of fear. It was horrible to see how good he was. How easy it would be, I thought, to relent, To give up a few strokes. By now Connor’s body was revolting against the pain, his veins were filled with poison, his head was thrumming. What compelled him to seat himself to this feast of agony? Two hundred strokes passed, his blond hair was a wet blur. . .

Connor wins this one by three seconds, and the best that Rob can ever seem to do – in training runs, in rowing, in everything – is to stay even with him without ever passing him. Lots of testosterone in this book, and a very nuanced explanation of the sport of rowing. But clearly this kind of competition among team members is a problem to be solved, since they ultimately have to be willing to work together to win any races.

Just to add a little more tension, the coxswain is a girl, Ruth, who, we realize, becomes a template of the woman with whom Rob falls in love in later life and is barely hanging onto when the book opens. Fenton does not prove to be a good training ground for relationships:

The hardest part of adjusting to this life was dealing with the constant insults, the bantering. Guys said things to your face here you’d kill them for at home. It was all we had in a world where you didn’t ever express affection or friendship, where to be overly committed to anything was considered in poor taste. This was as friendly as these guys could be.

As the book weaves between the two narratives, Rob at eighteen, Rob at thirty-three, we see the race toward tragedy unfold in the past as the the race toward – what? redemption? defeat? we are kept guessing till the end – unfolds in the present.Both thought-provoking and pleasurable,this is a novel to savor.

Goodbye Without LeavingGoodbye Without Leaving by Laurie Colwin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Geraldine Coleshares is a directionless graduate student who can barely stand the thought of writing a dissertation on her chosen topic, Jane Austen and the War of the Sexes. Instead, she leaves school to follow her real passion, rock and roll, becoming the token white backup singer for Vernon and Ruby Shakely and the Shakettes.

"My mother had high hopes for me," Geraldine says. "I disappointed her daily." Her plunge into rock and roll has no backers among her family, but she stays on the road for two years, until Ruby hits the big-time on her own and the group disbands. In the meantime, Johnny Miller, a successful attorney and rock and roll fan, has fallen for Geraldine as a Shakette, and continues to court her when she realizes that she can be a Shakette no longer.

Geraldine is in love with Johnny, but hesitates to marry him because he is all that her family has ever wanted for her. Finally she agrees to marry him after she finds another job. "I wanted a job that made me feel like a Shakette: marginal, hard-edged, and as if I hadn’t given in."

This statement sums up central dilemma of Geraldine’s life, and although I sometimes wanted to shake her for her stubbornness, I also admired her determination not to "give in." And she’s very funny. After she marries Johnny, she worries about their future children.

"What about Steve and Ginger’s children," I said. Steve was a colleague of Johnny’s, and Ginger, his repellent wife, was a city planner. Their two children, Jason and Samantha, were horribly ill behaved. They threw food, whined and had the posture of two almost empty sacks. They were the sort of children I liked least: scrawny and undercooked-looking, with what seemed to be some chronic nasal blockage that caused their mouths to hang open, giving them the aura of those very morons Johnny claimed to know something about. These gruesome children, who their parents claimed had the IQs of geniuses gave me new cause for insomnia. Supposing I produced a child like one of Steve and Ginger’s?

Life goes on, and Geraldine copes in her own way. Little Franklin is born, and she falls newly in love with her baby. She finds a like-minded mother, "a private-looking person sitting alone, wearing leopard-print stretch pants and espadrilles. She was reading a fashion magazine and smoking a cigarette. . . Ann was a poet who lived with her husband, Winston, in what had once been a chic white loft. ‘Now it’s a chic white loft with handprints,’ she said."

Read this book for its funny heroine and her stubborn ways – after all, her dilemma is one that we all share: how to incorporate the idealism of youth into the realities of adult life. If you’re an old rock and roll or twenties blues fan, then you will have the bonus of recognizing oldies like "Hi-Heel Sneakers" and "I’ve Sold My Heart to the Junkman," which Geraldine croons to her baby as lullabies.

Happy All the TimeHappy All the Time by Laurie Colwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I love Laurie Colwin. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that I love her books, but she is one of those authors whom you feel you know through her books, especially as she wrote several books of food essays as well as five novels and two books of short stories. Unhappily, she died in 1992 when she was only in her early forties, and the tributes written by her readers (you can find them on the web) show how greatly she is missed.

Happy All the Time begins like this:

"Guido Morris and Vincent Cardworthy were third cousins. No one remembered which Morris had married which Cardworthy, and no one cared except at large family gatherings when this topic was introduced and subjected to the benign opinions of all. Vincent and Guido had been friends since babyhood. They had been strolled together in the same pram and as boys were often brought together, either at the Cardworthy house in Petrie, Connecticut, or at the Morris’s in Boston to play marbles, climb trees, and set off cherry bombs in trash cans and mailboxes. As teenagers, they drank beer in hiding and practiced smoking Guido’s father’s cigars, which did not make them sick, but happy. As adults, they both loved a good cigar."

Now in their late twenties, Guido and Vincent both find the loves of their lives in the pages of this novel, which is largely what the book is about – the unexpected complexities and delights of love. Perhaps I like these books because love is a marvel to the author and her characters – they are alternately baffled and elevated by their feelings, but they never fall into the clichés of the romance genre.

After making love to his eventual wife, Holly, for the first time, "Guido felt quite wiped out by sensation. Everything seemed uncommonly rich to him: the print on the sheets, the pattern on the quilt, Holly’s gleaming hair and earrings." Holly herself "was an only child, an only grandchild, and she was nearly perfect. She had her own ways, Holly did. She decanted everything into glass and on her own long kitchen shelves were row upon row of jars containing soap, pencils, cookies, salt, tea, paper clips, and dried beans."

Vincent’s love interest is quite different. Misty Berkowitz thinks of herself as a sea urchin: prickly on the outside to hide her soft, mushy interior, but she is unable to resist Vincent. "Now, as she walked slowly back to her office, the world looked askew. Intelligence had nothing to do with this at all. The jig was up. She was in love."

This is such an enjoyable book to read. The characters are intelligent and quirky, they have interesting and unusual jobs and witty conversations, and they still feel like real people. The author loved life and I always finish her novels – and any of her writing – feeling both intellectually stimulated and emotionally mellowed.

Highland Fling Highland Fling by Nancy Mitford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Best-known for her comic novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, set in the upper-crust of England in the 1940s, Nancy Mitford also wrote six other novels, less commonly available, that have now been re-issued by Vintage Books. Highland Fling is her first novel, written when she was just in her twenties. I was thrilled to see it appear in the New Books section of the local library.

Mitford was herself a part of the upper-crust about which she writes so witheringly and so entertainingly, and she moved in exalted literary circles as well as exalted social circles. Based on an unrequited love in Scotland of Mitford’s own, Highland Fling introduces us to the young couple Walter and Sally Monteath, whose lack of money seems no impediment to their lifestyle:

. . . Walter seemed to have a talent for making money disappear. Whenever he was on the point of committing an extravagance of any kind he would excuse himself by explaining: ‘Well, you see, darling, it’s so much cheaper in the end.’ It was his slogan. Sally soon learnt, to her surprise and dismay, that ‘it’s cheaper in the end’ to go to the most expensive tailor, travel first class, stay at the best hotels, and to take taxis everywhere. When asked why it was cheaper, Walter would say airily: ‘Oh, good for our credit, you know!’ of ‘So much better for one’s clothes,’ or, sulkily: ‘Well, it is, that’s all, everybody knows it is.’

Having as a result spent double their income in one year, Walter and Sally are obliged, in order to save money, to accept a relative’s request to host the summer house party for two months at the ancestral manor Dalloch Castle in Scotland while the relatives are posted to Rhodesia. The Monteaths’ friends Jane and Albert (a painter, and the only character with any sort of job) come to keep them company and fall in love despite the other guests, such as Lady Brenda. . .

Jane thought that she had never seen anyone look so much like an overbred horse. She even ate like one, appearing to sniff every mouthful cautiously before she allowed herself to nibble at it, as though she might at any moment shy away from the cable. Her husband behaved to her just like a groom with a nervous mare. Jane felt that he must have had difficulty in accustoming her to being handled.

. . . General Murgatroyd, who nourishes a hatred for all things not English, and expounds relentlessly on the virtues of "Blockade"; Admiral Wenscelaus, who is quite deaf and has a glass eye; and Lady Prague, who advises Albert on his painting: "’There are too many oil paintings in the world already. Watercolors take up much less room. Don’t you agree?" And others!

As I reread the novel for funny passages that I might quote here, I found so many that it was difficult to choose. Choosing nearly at random, here Mitford describes the hunt as Jane experiences it:

In the hall scenes of horrible confusion were going forward; a perfect regiment of men tramped to and fro carrying things and bumping into each other. They all seemed furiously angry. Above the din could be heard the general’s voice:

‘What the – do you think you’re doing? Get out of that! Come here, blast you!’

The moor was about five miles away, and during the whole drive nobody spoke a word except General Murgatroyd, who continually admonished his dog, a broken-looking retriever of the name of Mons.

‘Lie down, will you? No, get off that coat!’ (Kick, kick, kick; howl, howl, howl.) ‘Stop that noise, blast you!’ (Kick, howl.)

And later, in the butt (hunting hut) with the General:

She began to suffer acutely from cold and cramp, and was filled with impotent rage. Eons of time passed over her. She pulled a stone out of the wall and scratched her name on another stone, then Albert’s name, then a heart with an arrow through it (but she soon rubbed that off again). She knew the shape of the general’s plus-fours and the pattern of his stockings by heart, and could have drawn an accurate picture of the inside of the butt blindfold, when suddenly there was an explosion in her ears so tremendous that for an instant she thought she must have been killed.

And so it goes on. When you need a read to help you recover from the latest gloomy headlines, pick up this novel and be restored by laughter.

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The life of the protagonist, unnamed as are all characters, unfolds chronologically with the chapter titles, and we see that he has a family that he loves and who loves him and is prepared to sacrifice to help him. His initial abject poverty and the difficulty of bettering himself honestly help us to understand his sometimes dubious choices as he strives to become the filthy rich of the title.

The novel is rife with social commentary, presented in a matter-of-fact, non-judgmental manner that makes it more shocking. This is life as usual, we learn. From the chapter Befriend a Bureaucrat:

Entrepreneurship in the barbaric wastes furthest from state power is a fraught endeavor, a constant battle, a case of kill or be killed, with little guarantee of success.

No, harnessing the state’s might for personal gain is a much more sensible approach. Two related categories of actors have long understood this. Bureaucrats, who wear state uniforms while secretly backing their private interests. And bankers, who wear private uniforms while secretly being backed by the state. You will need the help of both. But in rising Asia, where bureaucrats lead, bankers tend to follow, and so it is on befriending the right bureaucrat that your continued success critically depends.

The satire is biting, but satire can be heartless, and this book is more than that, because we care for the protagonist and those he loves and tries to love. His son, for example:

You feel a love you know you will never be able to adequately explain or express to him, a love that flows one way, down the generations, not in reverse, and is understood and reciprocated only when time has made of a younger generation an older one.

Gentle passages such as these provide a balance to the harshness of life in rising Asia, and kept me reading. The author continued to surprise and even delight me with his deft narration of the protagonist’s life. Different, and recommended.

IndiscretionIndiscretion by Charles Dubow

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Given the title of Dubow’s debut novel, the reader is not exactly surprised when adultery occurs. Yet the book is still suspenseful – almost a page turner.

Harry Winslow is an award-winning novelist, his wife Maddy is warm, gracious, intelligent and beautiful, also a wonderful hostess and mother. They summer in the Hamptons, entertaining a chosen few, and Claire, who is ten years younger and star-struck by Harry, is admitted to their charmed circle, which includes the narrator, Walter, the best friend of the Winslows. Any reader can imagine the thrill of being included in that way by a writer one admires.

Soon enough, Claire’s desires have moved beyond friendship. By this time, we, the readers, are so involved with and engaged by the characters that we find this turn of events distressing. Don’t do it, we implore the couple in our minds. On the other hand, we are interested in what might be the results of the affair. The narrator, who is in love with Maddy himself, but knows that Harry is perfect for her, offers his thoughts about cause and effect:

Some men, I imagine, would have felt pangs of guilt, or at least some anxiety. They would have been scared of being caught. Their deception exposed, their home life broken upon the rack.

But it was easy for Harry. Maybe he didn’t think life possessed real pain or real tests. Things just came to him. I suppose he was struggling with his new book, but, after all, wasn’t that part of the creative process? Weren’t artists supposed to suffer? In some ways it seemed unfair. He who already had so much and wasn’t satisfied with that.

There are no new stories, but Dubow gives us new ways of looking at an old one.

King of CubaKing of Cuba by Cristina Garcia

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the first time I have read anything by Garcia, already a well-established author whose works focus on Cuba and Cubans. In this novel, the aged Fidel Castro (referred to throughout as El Commandante) slouches around the island wondering where the Revolution, in which he still fiercely believes, has gone astray. His counterpart in Miami, aged Cuban exile Goyo Herrera, blames all the ills of his life on Castro.

There was no one in the world he loathed more, no one for whom he stoked a more bottomless fury, no one else he unwaveringly blamed for invading, oppressing, and misshaping his life than that fearmongering, fatigues-wearing, egotistical brute who continued to call the shots from his deathbed overlooking the sea.

Both men are trapped in an insipid old age. Goyo frets about his two strange adult children, and Castro about the Revolution that is soon to outlive him. Although there are some amusing plot twists, particularly when Castro’s brother turns the reenactment of the Bay of Pigs into a musical, the chief fun of the novel is being in the heads of El Commandante and Goyo. El Commandante is clearly a tyrant and a bully, but he fascinates us with his larger-than-life perspective:

Damn it, how he loved to hear his voice fill a room; nothing was more powerful to him. Nothing sounded more like Cuba than his voice. It was bigger than him somehow. Oceanic. Invincible. He was two people: him and his voice. Fuck them all, he thought.

Of course, both men are in their eighties. El Commandate’s hands "bulged from his wrists like oven mitts." Goyo suffers from heart disease, and walks "at a thirty degree angle to the floor" thanks to crippling arthritis – not to mention irritable bowel syndrome, borderline diabetes, and intermittent impotence.

Somehow the author makes of these two tottery old men a lively, engrossing and funny book, and Cuba itself becomes an engaging third character, as the reminiscences of the two Cubans trace the history and culture of the country – at least as seen by two former strong men in their dotage.

Garcia’s prose is rollicking, and her characters thoroughly believable. Goyo’s and Castro’s thoughts are frequently and hilariously interrupted (although they don’t find it hilarious, of course) by their constant need to attend to various bodily ailments, and they muse at length on their sex lives, for the most part behind them now.

King of Cuba is the best kind of novel to read: entertaining and instructive.

Léon and LouiseLéon and Louise by Alex Capus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Léon and Louise By Alex Capus

A very French love story, albeit written by a Swiss. Léon and Louise of the title are young lovers separated in the aftermath of a terrible air bombardment at the end of World War I, then reunited years later, after Léon, who has been told that Louise is dead, has married and had children. So, one of the central questions of the book: how to live with that?

This is not a fast-paced book, and it opens slowly, so hang in there until the lovers meet, at about page twenty-five. The pace doesn’t quicken, but we have the romance to sustain us. In order not to spoil the plot, a list of the book’s attractions instead of a summary. First, the Frenchness. Here is the author’s explanation of women:

That there could be no question of animal lust on this occasion, Léon bore with fortitude. Having matured into a man with some experience of life, he knew after five years of marriage that a woman’s psyche is connected in some mysterious way with the peregrinations of the stars, the alternation of the tides and the cycles of the female body; possibly, too, with subterranean volcanic flows, the flight paths of migratory birds and the French state railway timetable – even, perhaps, with the output of the Baku oilfields, the heart-rate of the Amazonian humming-birds and the songs of sperm whales beneath the Antarctic pack ice.

So much better than saying that women are hard to understand!

Much of the book is set in Paris, and the author wraps us in the city’s rhythms and helps us understand what it is to be a Parisien. Although the two books are different in nearly every other way, Capus’s descriptions reminded me of Alan Furst’s writing about Paris, particularly The World at Night. This lyrical passage shows us Paris at the beginning of World War II:

It was Friday, fourteenth June, 1940. That first springtime of the war, which had so far passed almost unnoticed in Paris, was unprecedented in its beauty and joie de vivre. Throughout the month of April, when thousands of young men were once more dying in the East, women in short floral dresses had gone around beneath the dark azure skies with their hair cascading down their backs. The pavement cafes were crowded until late at night because the boulevards still glowed with the heat of the sunlight stored up during the day. It was as if some gigantic, warm-blooded creature were hidden beneath the flagstones, breathing gently and imperceptibly.

Radios broadcast Lucienne Delyle’s wistful Serenade sans Espoir, customers in the Galleries Lafayette and the Samairitaine competed for white linen suits and beach pajamas, the air was laden with the beguiling scent of expensive perfumes in miniscule bottles, and at dusk lovers’ shadows blended with those of the plane and chestnut trees blossoming in the parks. To be sure, the Parisienes’ thoughts occasionally turned to the drôle de guerre, the so-called phony war, between two kisses or two glasses of wine, but should they have drunk one glass, bestowed one kiss, or danced one dance fewer? Whom would it have benefitted?

That the book is in translation makes the language even more of an achievement.

The final virtue of the book is its examination of how to live honestly in the midst of corruption. The setting is occupied Paris, but the question is universal, and we grow to admire the determination of Léon to find a way both to resist the regime and to protect his family. Louise and Yvonne (Léon’s wife) are also complex and well-drawn characters who manage to overcome the situations into which fate has thrust them.

Léon and Louise offers many quiet pleasures. Savor its delectations while you sip a glass of merlot or dip a madeleine into a cup of café au lait.

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Little Bee Little Bee by Chris Cleave

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was persuaded to read this book by the wonderful voice of its protagonist, Little Bee, a sixteen-year-old Nigerian refugee in Britain.

Most days I wish I was a British pound coin instead of an African girl. Everyone would be pleased to see me coming. Maybe I would visit with you for the weekend and then suddenly, because I am fickle like that, I would visit with the man from the corner shop instead – but you would not be sad because you would be eating a cinnamon bun, or drinking a cold Coca-Cola from the can, and you would never think of me again. We would be happy, like lovers who met on holiday and forgot each other’s names.

A pound coin can go wherever it thinks it will be safest. It can cross deserts and oceans and leave the sound of gunfire and the bitter smell of burning thatch behind. When it feels warm and secure it will turn around and smile at you. . .Of course, a pound coin can be serious too. It can disguise itself as power, or property, and there is nothing more serious when you are a girl who has neither. You must try to catch the pound, and trap it in your pocket, so that it cannot reach a safe country unless it takes you with it.

The book is all there in the intro; the whimsy, the intelligence, the humor, and the horror lurking underneath.

Little Bee spends an amazing two years (amazing in the sense that anyone could be legally detained for that long) in a British detention center after she flees Nigeria as a stowaway on a tea ship. And because of the way the book is put together, I can’t really say a lot more without spoiling the plot – it is not chronological, and the way the author uses flashbacks is part of the power of the book.

I can say that Little Bee and the British family with whom she is inextricably involved experience the most basic kind of culture clash – it is one of those books that really makes the reader ask herself: "Wow – what would I do in that situation?"

Despite the horror that haunts its pages, Little Bee is an inspiring and life-affirming book.

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #6) Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my unending quest to introduce today’s readers to the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I give you Strong Poison, the book that introduces Wimsey’s eventual mate and fellow amateur detective, Harriet Vane.

Harriet is a an unusual character for the 1930s: she is a woman of independent means, earning her living as a writer of detective novels, and she lives with her lover Philip Boyes, whom she leaves when he later proposes marriage. "She was angry with Boyes because, after persuading her against her will to adopt his principles of conduct, he then renounced those principles, and so, as she says, ‘made a fool of her.’"

We meet Harriet when she is in the dock for having poisoned her former lover. Lord Peter is convinced that she is innocent, confessing to Harriet, when he interviews her in prison, that he has quite fallen in love with her. He sets out to puncture the distressingly watertight alibi of the man whom he suspects.

Sayers has a faultless ear for dialogue, and not only the upper crust banter of the aristocrat. Here, for example, is a conversation between Lord Peter and the reformed burglar Bill.

". . . from time to time, when I need a little help in a righteous cause, Bill gives me the benefit of his great experience."

"And oh! What ‘appiness it is, miss, to turn them talents which I so wickedly abused to the service of the Lord. His ‘oly Name be blessed that bringeth good out of evil."

"That’s right," said Wimsey, with a nod. "Now, Bill, I’ve got my eye on a solicitor’s deed-box, which may or may not contain something which will help me to get an innocent person out of trouble. This young lady can get access to the box, Bill, if you can show her the way inside it."

"If?" grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt. "’Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks. There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing gloves with a stick of boiled macaroni."

Her descriptions are also arresting – here is Miss Murchison, one of Lord Peter’s spinster detectives, as she poses as a secretary to gain information:

Miss Murchison picked up the papers and came out, looking flustered. She dragged the cover off the typewriter with much sound and fury, jerked out the desk-drawers till they slammed against the drawer-stops, shook the stop-sheet, carbons and flimsies together as a terrier shakes a rat, and attacked the machine tempestuously.

And here Lord Peter goes to a Bohemian part of London to question an acquaintance of the murdered man:

Wimsey, entering on her heels, was struck in the face, as by an open hand, by a thick muffling wave of heat, sound, smoke and the smell of frying. It was a very small room, dimly lit by a single electric bulb, smothered in a lantern of painted glass, and it was packed to suffocation with people, whose silk legs, bare arms and pallid faces loomed at him like glow-worms out of the obscurity.

I could go on, as I am an admirer of Sayers’s prose, but suffice it to say that Strong Poison has it all: charming and intelligent hero and heroine; colorful minor characters; snappy dialogue; clever mystery; compelling prose style; fabulous setting. You need only add an armchair.

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December by George Saunders

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tenth of December is a volume of short stories, and, in fact, Saunders writes chiefly short stories and novellas. I’m not a great fan of short stories; I’ll read them if a favorite writer has written some, but I don’t seek them out, largely because they often make me feel as if I didn’t quite get the point. I like to write long fiction, and that’s what I like to read.

But I kept hearing about George Saunders and how fabulous he was, so when I spotted his latest collection at the library, I brought it home. I read the first story, "Victory Lap."

There’s a British expression "gobsmacked", which means, literally, smacked in the mouth (gob) i.e. astonished, amazed. But gobsmacked sounds more emphatic, and that’s what I felt after reading that first Saunders story: gobsmacked.

I felt similarly amazed at the end of each story. I was captivated as a reader – I felt that I was in the heads of these characters, who were, no matter how odd or grotesque, portrayed as deeply human. I understood them; they were dear to me. And the settings were as diverse and imaginative as the characters.

I was also captivated as a writer; so much so that I re-read the stories. How does he do it? I kept wondering. How does he cram so much information into so few words? How does he manage to write in so many distinct voices? How does he offer hope in these dark stories without their seeming mawkish? How does he make dialog that is so funny but still natural? To wit:

"And the Flemings are awfully charming," he said.

"And the good they do!" she said. "They flew a planeload of babies over here."

"Russian babies," he said. "With harelips."

"Soon as the babies arrived, they were whisked into various operating rooms all around the country," she said. "And who paid?"

"The Flemings," he said.

"Didn’t they also set aside some money for college?" she said. "For the Russians?"

"Those kids went from being disabled in a collapsing nation to being set for life in the greatest country in the world," he said. "And who did this? A corporation? The government?"


"One private couple," she said.

"A truly visionary pair of folks," he said.

There was a long, admiring pause.

"Although you’d never know it by how harshly he speaks to her," she said.

"Well, she can be awfully harsh with him as well," he said.

"Sometimes it’s just him being harsh with her and her being harsh right back," she said.

"It’s like the chicken or the egg," he said.

"Only with harshness," she said.

"Still, you can’t help but love the Flemings," he said.

"We should be so wonderful," she said. "When was the last time we rescued a Russian baby?"

"Well, we do all right," he said. "We can’t afford to fly a bunch of Russian babies over here, but I think, in our own limited way, we do just fine."

"We can’t even fly over one Russian," she said. "Even a Canadian baby with a harelip would be beyond our means."

"We could probably drive up there and pick one up," he said. "But then what? We can’t afford the surgery and can’t afford the college. So the baby’s just sitting here, in America instead of Canada, still with the lip issue."

Who can resist that?

I’m still re-reading these stories, and you can bet I’ll be reading his other books as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoThe Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is one of those books I’ve been intending to read forever (it was published in 2007.) What did I love about it?

I loved the characters. The tragic hero of the story is Oscar, who is, to his despair, an eternally obese, pimpled, and nerdy teenager who falls hopelessly in love at every opportunity. As a friend describes him: "Dude wore his nerdiness like a Jedi wore his light saber or a Lensman her lens. Couldn’t have passed for Normal if he’d wanted to." But despite his social cluelessness, Oscar has a fine mind, and a sweet, noble character.

I loved the language, which is a rambunctious Spanglish. This is an often-funny book, but also a sad one, so the liveliness of the language balances the often-tragic subject matter. Here’s a sample, narrated by Oscar’s sister Lola:

A punk chick. That’s what I became. A siouxsie and the Banshees-loving punk chick. The puertorican kids on the block couldn’t stop laughing when they saw my hair, they called me Blacula, and the morenos, they didn’t know what to say: they just called me devil-bitch. Yo, devil-bitch, yo, yo! My tia Rubelka thought it was some kind of mental illness. Hija, she said while frying pastilitos, maybe you need help. . .

My mother was one of the tallest women in Paterson, and her anger was just as tall. . .Things had been bad between us all year. How could they not have been? She was my Old World Dominican mother and I was her only daughter, the one she had raised up herself with the help of nobody, which meant it was her duty to keep me crushed under her heel. . .

If you didn’t grow up like I did then you don’t know and if you don’t know it’s probably better you don’t judge. You don’t know the hold our mothers have on us, even the ones that are never around – especially the ones that are never around. What it’s like to be the perfect Dominican daughter, which is just a nice way of saying a perfect Dominican slave.

I loved the setting. The novel shoots back and forth between the Dominican Republic and the United States as several characters narrate their own stories or someone else’s, not in chronological order. The author incorporates a large amount of disturbing Dominican history in which the U.S. foreign policy does not shine very brightly. Part of the author’s genius is his ability to engage the reader in Dominican history, even when it does not directly relate to the plot – it always relates indirectly.

Characters, language, setting – what’s not to love about this book? (Okay, it’s sometimes not the easiest book to read – the plot is not linear, there’s a lot of untranslated Spanish, and more profanity than I really like – but I didn’t care!) Read it and be entertained, enchanted, and enlightened.

The Fields The Fields by Kevin Maher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fourteen-year-old Jim is the youngest in the boisterous Finnegan family, and the only boy. The story is set in Dublin the l980s, and Jim introduces himself with a story about, Jack, a childhood pet.

Jack’s wheezing, from day one, got louder and louder, and by the end of the first week it had turned into full-on flu. The vet said . . . that Jack might actually die instead of getting better. This scared the girls no end. And that, combined with all the snotty green drippy stuff pouring from his eyes and nose, and the way he’d suddenly sneeze and blast it outwards and right into your face, made them run like mad whenever he appeared in the room. And it made Dad want to kill him even more.

I was the youngest, and I was the one who kept nagging Mam for a pet in the first place, so it was my job to be the cat-nurse. Which meant chasing Jack up the stairs with some cotton buds, wiping all the mucus away, and then bringing him into the bathroom and holding him over a hot bath so that he could breathe in the steam that was supposed to clear away all the hardened snot in his lungs that was causing the trouble in the first place. He hated this bit. And no matter how many times we did it, and no matter how many times I finished it up with a cuddle in a towel and treaty pieces of squashed sardine from my fingertips, he always thought that I was doing it for the hell of it, or because I was mental vicious, and was going to chuck him into the boiling bathwater for a laugh. He’d go scrapey crazy on my hands, driving big gashy cuts into my wrists, often drawing enough blood to make a lone red drip that would plip into the bath while he was taking his last few steamy panicky breaths. But it didn’t matter to me, because I was making him better again.

This passage gives a taste both of Jim’s rollicking language, which is half the fun of the book, and his character – persevering, perverse, soft-hearted. He deals with growing up, which includes his willing involvement with an older girl and his unwilling abuse from a rogue priest, with the best grace he can muster, as his parents are overwhelmed with their large and demanding family.

After finishing the novel, I realized that I had read about a lot of subjects that I don’t necessarily like to read about – at least not all crammed into the same book: abortion, child abuse, binge drinking, underage sex, bullying, depression. But somehow Jim’s disarming voice made it all readable.

The child molestation by the priest is a central and powerful part of the book, and Jim’s reaction to it – he hates it, but doesn’t tell anyone for an unbearably long time – was both heartrending and completely understandable, which I felt was an achievement on the author’s part. Maher makes us feel Jim’s essential helplessness in the face of the priest’s power as an authority figure, especially one totally supported by Jim’s unsuspecting parents.

The ending is unexpected and "a bit daft", as Jim might say, but despite some of the dark subject matter, I enjoyed spending time with Jim, whose buoyant and optimistic nature ultimately offers hope in even the worst situations.

The Last of the Wine The Last of the Wine by Mary Renault

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel by Mary Renault is one of those stories that make you wonder whether she didn’t somehow actually live in Greece of the fifth century B. C., because she makes that time come so alive to the reader.

The story revolves around Alexias, a noble Athenian youth growing into adulthood during the Peloponnesian War. Although he spends much of his time at the feet of various philosophers, including Plato and Sokrates, he also works out at the gymnasium, argues with his father, and goes to war when his city calls upon him. He meets Lysis, a man somewhat older than he is, and they become lovers.

Lysis confided to me that though he had first known a woman when he was seventeen years old, he had never been in love with a youth at all, until he met me. He said it used to disturb him sometimes, when he read the poets, that he seemed incapable of that love which they praised as the noblest, and the inspirer of so many glorious deeds. ‘I did not know,’ he said, ‘what I was waiting for. But the god knew.’

It was news to me that the custom was for Greek men to have male lovers until – and many times after – they married. But the relationship of Alexias and Lysis is central to the book, and in the author’s capable hands, the reader accepts it as the cultural norm. (I should add that the novel was published in 1956 and contains nothing that could be construed as a sex scene, although of course the sexual relationship is stated.) Although women appear in the book, it is very much about the lives of men. With this book, that did not bother me.

The Last of the Wine has a plot, but the vivid characters and the day-to-day experiencing of ancient Greece with Alexias as our guide are what makes the book so enjoyable and so well worth reading.

The Mouse-Proof KitchenThe Mouse-Proof Kitchen by Saira Shah

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel examines every parent’s nightmare (well, one of them – we parents have a lot to worry about): Anna and Tobias’s baby daughter is born with severe disabilities. Anna, a chef, and Tobias, a composer, are ill-prepared – perhaps no one is ever prepared – and conflicted. Although Anna bonds at once with baby Freya, Tobias holds back, afraid to love a child who will only bring them heartbreak.

The couple decides, perhaps not all together maturely, to go forward with their dream of moving to France where Anna can continue her career as a chef. In short order, they find themselves not in Provence, because it turns out to be far too expensive, but in Languedoc, a much wilder and more remote part of France, in an appealing, but tumble-down French farmhouse, complete with several eccentric live-in characters.

While Anna copes by canning produce and beating back rats and mice, Tobias hides behind his headphones, composing. Freya’s seizures become more frequent, her needs more demanding, and the couple feels overwhelmed and isolated. Nevertheless, they love their baby:

She makes exquisite little hand movements, delicate as rare orchids in high cloud forests. Her expressions change like weather fronts. I love the serious way she takes her milk from a bottle, a thousand-mile gaze of concentration in her slate-colored eyes. Afterward, she’s sated, drunken, collapsed. When I tilt her forward to burp her, her arms swing forward reflexively, a baby monkey clinging to its mother. As we drift off to sleep, she swims toward me. I never see or feel her move, but when I wake she’s snuggled under my armpit, the sheet soaked where my breasts have rained down on her.

She’s my own, my baby, and she’s perfect. I’m entirely content.

Then the switch flicks in my head and the doctors’ diagnoses become abruptly real. I hang onto her and cry, for minutes, for hours.

This is an honest book. Being Freya’s parents is tough, and Anna and Tobias frequently are irrational, even hateful. The reader can only wonder how she would cope in the same situation; after all, Freya as a baby is still appealing. But her diagnosis means that she will never sit or stand; how will her parents manage as Freya grows? Should they institutionalize her? Will they ever forgive themselves if they do?

Despite all the angst, this book is not a downer. Although Freya is central to the story, she is not all there is to life, as her parents discover. The author tells us in the "Notes and Acknowledgments" that she is the mother of exactly such a child, and wrote the book "as a parallel world where I escaped to subvert a real-life existence that sometimes seemed unbearable."

Unbearable, yet hopeful. Fictional, yet true-to-life. Don’t be put off by its subject: The Mouse-Proof Kitchen is a worthwhile and uplifting read.

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Nine Tailors is one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey stories. The setting is brooding and mysterious – the fens of East Anglia – but populated by a whole village full of fascinating characters, including the eccentric but gracious Rector Venables and his wife, old Hezekiah Lavender the bellringer, the young heiress Hilary Thorpe, crazy Potty Peake, and many more. A character in itself is the village’s magnificent church, St. Paul’s and its famous bells, the nine tailors of the title.

The art of bell-ringing is called campanology, and Sayers made a study of it for this book, which is part of what makes it an absorbing read. We learn that the church bells have names (Dimity, Batty Thomas, Tailor Paul, Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee in this case) and are rung in courses, or perhaps peals (I don’t claim to have made a study of campanology!) The author uses colorful bell-ringing terminology as a motif throughout the book – I didn’t have to understand it to enjoy it. Some chapter titles, for example: "Lord Peter is Called Into the Hunt"; "Lord Peter Follows His Course Bell to Lead"; "Monsieur Rozier Hunts the Treble Down" and so on.

Lord Peter and his faithful manservant Bunter happen upon the village of Fenchurch St. Paul when Lord Peter drives his Daimler into a ditch in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. Providentially, as it happens, since one of Lord Peter’s many talents turns out to be bell-ringing ("’ I used at one time to pull quite a pretty rope,"’ Lord Peter says modestly) and when the rector entreats him to replace a sick bell-ringer for a positive marathon of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing, Lord Peter’s sense of noblesse oblige kicks in and he insists to his host, "’Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don’t need rest. I would far rather ring bells.’"

After nine hours of bell-ringing, Lord Peter and Bunter leave their hosts and drive home. But Fenchurch St. Paul harbors its secrets: a stolen emerald necklace, a mysterious disappearance, a mistaken identity, and at least one murder. Lord Peter’s investigation stretches over the next year, inextricably entangled with the bells, which are even an occasion for the breaking of a cipher (the British term for a secret code). Fortunately, Sayers never overdoes it, at least not for my sensibilities. Her description of the New Year’s Eve ringing rises to poetry:

"The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. . . every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping countries went the music of the bells . . ."

The following Christmas comes with the solving of the mystery, and a fittingly clever and surprising solution it is. Throughout the novel, Sayers combines humor and pathos and deductive reasoning with fine writing to produce a detective story worthy of the best English mystery writers – in fact, I feel that The Nine Tailors rises above genre all together. It is simply a fine book. Don’t miss it!

The President's Hat The President’s Hat by Antoine Laurain

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A French novel in translation, The President’s Hat is a sweet bit of whimsy. Daniel Mercier, an everyday sort of accountant, inadvertently finds himself seated next to President Francois Mitterand at a brasserie; when Mitterand forgets his hat, Mercier appropriates it as a souvenir of the evening he sat next to the President. But when he dons the black hat, he feels transformed.

He felt as if his brain was bathed in a refreshing dose of sparkling aspirin. Bubbles of oxygen were fizzing through zones that had slumbered for too long.

In short order, the hat extracts his life from the rut in which it was stuck. But alas (or hélas, in French), Daniel, too leaves the black hat behind him on a train, where Fanny, a young woman becalmed in an affair with a married man, picks it up and puts it on to protect her hair from the rain.

The black felt brim acted like a visor, compressing the space around her and marking out a distinct horizon. In Batignolles, a man did a double take as he passed her. What kind of image was she projecting, walking along in the moonlight in her denim mini-skirt, high heels, silver jacket, and black hat? . . .The hat gave her jaw line a new air of distinction; she had put her hair up in a bun to help keep it in place. Perhaps she should always wear it up like this and put on a new black hat every time she went out. Donning the new accessory had made her feel somehow powerful; it had the same effect as the designer clothes she so rarely treated herself to.

The hat changes Fanny’s life, too, but rather than forget it, she generously leaves it on a park bench for the next lucky wearer, a perfumier who has lost his nose . . .

But not to give away any more of the plot. This little book is gracefully done: witty, wry, Gallic, and unpretentious, an enchanting glimpse into the lives of a few Parisian citizens, fortunate beneficiaries of the President’s Hat.

Mystery (22)

A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr
A Presumption Of Death by Jill Paton Walsh
Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers
Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers
Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
I Am Half Sick Of Shadows by Alan Bradley
Midnight At Marble Arch by Anne Perry
Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandeth
Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie
Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Complete Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Double Game by Dan Fesperman
The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis
The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers
The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guin
The Sherlockian by Graham Moore
The Weed That Strings The Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley
Tuesday’s Gone: A Frieda Kline Mystery by Nicci French
Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers
Whose Body? By Dorothy L. Sayers

 

A Man Without Breath A Man Without Breath by Philip Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What could be more noir than a detective series set in Europe during World War II? How about one set in Berlin with a German police detective during World War II? Anti-Nazi himself, Bernie Gunther is the hero of this series of nine books. His expertise is repeatedly sought out by Nazi higher-ups, and the unfortunate Bernie is faced again and again with finding a way to stay alive and still live with himself.

In 1943, Gunther is working for the Wehrmacht, tasked with investigating war crimes. The irony is not lost on Gunther, but at least the position allows him to proceed honestly, even if prosecuting a German soldier for killing a fellow soldier pales proportionately in light of the atrocities the German high command is busy inflicting on European Jews.

This time Goebbels himself recruits Gunther to investigate whether the Russians indeed massacred and buried 14,500 Polish soldiers and officers in the Katyn Forest. If Gunther can prove it, Germany will be able to embarrass the Russians, make their own war crimes look less heinous and perhaps discredit the Russians in the eyes of the Allies.

This curious investigation is an historical event. Germany asked the neutral countries to send forensics experts to Smolensk to help exhume and identify the corpses over a period of weeks. So it is our fictional Gunther who is leading this investigation for Goebbels, a man whose deeds Gunther detests, even as he is horrified to find that Goebbels is charming in person. In the course of the Katyn investigation, another killer pops up, and Gunther must once again examine his exhausted conscience for direction in a moral dilemma.

Kerr is a master of historical fiction of this era. The interplay between the Germans and Russians – called "Ivans" by the Germans and worse by the Nazis, who considered Slavs on a level with gypsies and Jews – is fascinating. The novel also highlights the number of assassination plots carried out against Hitler – it is amazing that he survived – and the growing disillusionment of the German army after the defeat at Stalingrad.

A Man Without Breath is both an an entertaining detective story and an unflinching examination of this dark period of modern history.

A Presumption of Death (Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane #2)A Presumption of Death by Jill Paton Walsh

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of those distressing books written by not the author, but by a presumptuous (forgive the pun) upstart trying to ride the original author’s coattails, the original author being long since dead. Or so I thought, indignantly, until I read it. The book is actually based on The Wimsey Papers, a loose epistolary collection by Lord Peter and various family members written during World War II. (These are all fictional characters, of course.)

So Paton did have a framework to work with in her novel, and in fairness, she is not an upstart, but an accomplished writer. And though I was prepared to be hypercritical (in case you couldn’t tell), I have to say that she created an excellent imitation of a Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane mystery. The voice is spot on, as they say in the mother country. One could almost forget that the book is not an actual Dorothy L. Sayers novel.

So, we open with Harriet at Talboys with the children, and not only her own, but her sister-in-law’s, digging in for the duration of the war. Walsh (and Sayers, I suppose; I have read The Wimsey Papers, but it’s been a while) includes any number of compelling details about life in rural England at the beginning of World War II. We learn about rationing, the RAF, blackouts, and land girls. Lord Peter and trusty manservant Bunter are meanwhile involved in shadowy espionage on the continent – dangerous espionage that in one nail-biting scene puts Lord Peter’s life in Harriet’s hands when he sends a code breakable only by her.

And, of course, there is a murder. We need say no more about that, except that it is an unusual one, solved in an unusual fashion. And I must give Paton her due – although it makes me a bit uncomfortable to resurrect characters with a different author, she does an excellent job and I enjoyed the book.

Busman's Honeymoon (Lord Peter Wimsey, #13) Busman’s Honeymoon by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At long last, after an unconscionable number of books in which we wait for her to make up her mind, mystery writer Harriet Vane has married wealthy and brilliant amateur detective Lord Peter Wimsey. They plan to honeymoon in Talboys, the country house that Harriet has asked Peter to buy for her, but they arrive to an empty, unprepared house. Eventually the seller turns up dead in the cellar, his head bashed in, but not from a fall.

An inauspicious beginning for a honeymoon, perhaps, but the couple soldiers on, investigating the murder and finding out new and surprising things about each other. Harriet, having finally given in to love, is refreshingly gaga about Lord Peter. Here is her reaction when he falls in at once with the vicar’s suggestion that they attend a village concert:

Whatever fantastic pictures she had conjured up from time to time of married life with Peter, none of them had ever included attendance at village concerts. But of course they would go. She understood now why it was that with all his masking attitudes, all his cosmopolitan self-adaptations, all his odd spiritual reticences and escapes, he yet carried about with him that permanent attitude of security. He belonged to an ordered society, and this was it. More than any of her friends in her own world, he spoke the familiar language of her childhood. In London, anybody, at any moment, might do or become anything. But in a village – no matter what village – they were all immutably themselves; parson, organist, sweep, duke’s son and doctor’s daughter, moving like chessmen upon their allotted squares. She felt curiously excited. She thought, "I have married England!" Her fingers tightened on his arm.

One of the things I have always liked about these books is that the author assumes a high degree of erudition on the part of the reader, and drops quotations and allusions liberally. For example, Superintendent Kirk, the investigating policeman, recognizes one of Lord Peter’s quotations, and for the rest of the book, engages in a good-natured competition, even instructing his policemen to include the quotations in his notes so that he can look them up later.

"So," said Peter, "Galahad will sit down in Merlin’s seat."

Mr. Kirk, on the point of lowering his solid fifteen stone into the chair, jerked up abruptly.

"Alfred," he said, "Lord Tennyson."

"Got it in one," Peter said, mildly surprised. A glow of enthusiasm shone softly in the policeman’s ox-like eyes. "You’re a bit of a student, aren’t you, Superintendent?"

"I like to do a bit o’ reading in my off -duty," admitted Mr. Kirk bashfully. "It mellows the mind." He sat down. "I often think as the rowtine of police dooty may tend to narrow a man and make him a bit hard, if you take my meaning. When I find that happening, I say to myself, what you need, Sam Kirk, is contact with a Great Mind or so, after supper. Reading maketh a full man -"

"Conference a ready man," said Harriet.

"And writing an exact man," said the Superintendent.

So there is the murder – and a particularly ingenious method, I thought – but I most enjoy the accoutrements of the story: the eccentric characters, the first view of Harriet and Lord Peter as a married couple, the earnest parsing of clues, the glimpse of bygone English country life.

Clouds of Witness (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #2)Clouds of Witness by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Clouds of Witness is number two in the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series written by Sayers in the 1920s and 30s (see my review of Whose Body? for further biographical detail about the author). The novel introduces us to other members of the Wimsey family when his brother, the Duke of Denver, is accused of murdering a guest at the family lodge. Awkwardly, the Duke declines to produce a believable alibi – "’They can’t hang me; I didn’t kill the man, although I think it’s a jolly good thing he’s dead. It’s no business of theirs what I was doin’ in the garden.’" – and is arrested. Lord Peter’s sister, Lady Mary, reacts with similar recalcitrance, leaving it to our hero to solve the mystery with the aid of his friend Detective-Inspector Parker of Scotland Yard (promoted since book one) and faithful manservant Bunter.

This book ranges further afield than the first book in the series, Whose Body?, as Lord Peter scavenges for clues from the fens of Yorkshire to the jewelers of Paris to the dens of small-time Bolsheviks. Sayers has fun with the Bolsheviks; witness her description of "a thin, eager young woman in a Russian blouse, Venetian beads, a Hungarian shawl, and a Spanish comb, looking like a personification of the United Front of the Internationale. ‘I say,’ said Wimsey apologetically, ‘D’you know you’re dipping those jolly little beads of yours in the soup?’"

There’s also a good, impenetrable English fog to lend atmosphere.

He grasped Bunter’s hand, and they strode gingerly forward into the thick coldness of the fog.

How long that nightmare lasted neither could have said. The world might have died about them. Their own shouts terrified them; when they stopped shouting the dead silence was more terrifying still. They stumbled over tufts of thick heather. It was amazing how, deprived of sight, they exaggerated the inequalities of the ground. It was with very little confidence that they would distinguish uphill from downhill. They were shrammed through with cold, yet the sweat was running from their faces with strain and terror.

Suddenly – from directly before them as it seemed, and only a few yards away – there rose a long, horrible shriek – and another – and another.

Sayers is a good, literary writer who never sacrifices style or character to story – and her stories are arresting. She caps the novel with the murder trial, which, because the Duke is a peer of the realm, is held in the House of Lords so that he can indeed be judged by a jury of his peers (the origin of that expression, no doubt.)

The proceedings were opened by a Proclamation of Silence from the Sergeant-at-Arms, after which the Clerk of the Crown in Chancery, kneeling at the foot of the throne, presented the Commission under the Great Seal to the Lord High Steward, who, finding no use for it, returned it with great solemnity to the Clerk of the Crown. The latter accordingly proceeded to read it at dismal and wearisome length, affording the assembly an opportunity of judging just how bad the acoustics of the chambers were. The Sergeant-at-Arms retorted with great emphasis, ‘God Save the King!’, whereupon Garter King-of-Arms and the Gentleman Usher of the Black Rod, kneeling again, handed the Lord High Steward his staff of office. (‘So picturesque, isn’t it?’ said the Dowager – ‘quite High Church, you know.’)

Funny, but also fascinating. Under Sayers’s able pen, the Wimsey family is noble entertainment for the discerning reader.

Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2)Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought that Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, about a detective in Nazi Germany, were about as noir as noir mystery could get, but now that I have read Countdown City by Ben H. Winters, I have to say that Kerr has been out-noired.

Protagonist Hank Palace is a police detective in Concord, Massachusetts, but his position has recently been abolished – and why? Because Concord’s citizens, like citizens around the world, are waiting for the earth to be struck by an asteroid in less than three months. The police are now operating as adjuncts of the Department of Justice, their role to keep civil order in a world of rapidly increasing incivility.

Countdown City is the second in this series. The first, The Last Policeman, is an Edgar winner, which tells you something about the quality of the writing. The plot revolves around Hank’s efforts to find an old schoolmate’s missing husband, and the irony of his quest is not lost on Hank, as people have been steadily disappearing since the asteroid’s arrival was announced several months earlier. When the earth is about to be destroyed, or at least irredeemably altered, people find better things to do than honor their wedding vows.

Of course, the premise of the novel is what makes it so fascinating. Hank does his detecting against a backdrop of dwindling resources – for example, most people are riding bikes due to the collapse of the supply chain that once provided gas and groceries and nearly everything else – and bizarre and/or criminal behavior. His sister and closest relative is one of those caught up in what seems to Hank to be a doomsday cult, centered on the belief that the government could destroy the asteroid but won’t.

Hank can’t really explain, even to himself, why he puts himself in harm’s way to find a man who clearly does not want to be found. "But an investigation like this has its own force – it pulls you forward, and at a certain point it’s no longer profitable to question your reasons for being so pulled." And it is clearly his way of coping with the coming disaster, described here:

The best scientific evidence suggest that on the day itself, the earth’s atmosphere will be riven by flame, as if by a prodigious nuclear detonation: over most of the planet, a broiling heat, the sky on fire. Tsunamis as tall as skyscrapers slam into coasts and drown everyone within hundreds of miles from impact, while around the globe volcanic eruptions and earthquakes convulse the landscape, splintering the crust of the world at all its hidden junctions. And then photosynthesis, the magic trick undergirding the entire food chain, is snuffed out by a blanket of darkness drawn down across the sun.

But no one knows. No one really knows. They have computer models, based on the Yucatan event, based on Siberia. But it all depends on final velocity, on angle of approach, on the precise makeup of the object and the soil below the impact spot. Probably not everyone will die. But probably most people will. It will definitely be terrible, but it’s impossible to say exactly how. Anyone making promises for afterward is a liar and a thief.

Still, Hank soldiers on, finding out things he’d rather not know, such as what is really happening to the thousands of catastrophe refugees who are fleeing in ships to the U.S. because their countries are in the direct line of the asteroid. As Hank runs his quarry to ground in the ruins of an old fort, he ponders his surroundings:

I linger there in the roofless shelter. This, then will be the shape and feel of the world; an abandoned shell, signs of old life, curious animals wandering in and out of ruins, the wilderness crowding in, overtaking all human structures and human things. In fifty years, everything will look this way, quiet and desolate and overgrown. Not even fifty years – next year – by the end of this one.

Despite such dark musings, the book remains readable, perhaps even hopeful, because the question that Hank is pursuing is not so much why a husband might have left his wife, but rather what it means to be human, and civilized, in the shadow of a collapsing civilization.

Five Red Herrings (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #7)Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

How can the reader not enjoy a mystery whose protagonist is thusly introduced:

It was a marvelous day in late August, and Wimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along. The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton-Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures.

As the victim in this mystery is universally loathed, we can proceed to solving the mystery of his death with a clear conscience. (The drawback of any murder mystery, of course, is that our enjoyment must derive from a murder, albeit a fictitious one.)

The book is set in a Scottish village whose spectacular landscape and fabulous fishing attracts its share of tourists who paint or fish or both. Sayers hits upon the happy inspiration of presenting us with six artists with shaky alibis, five of whom are the red herrings of the title, and one of whom is the murderer, and they are an agreeably eccentric and entertaining lot.

Lord Peter is assisted in his detecting by an array of inspectors and constables, most of whom are Scottish, and whose speech Sayers records in dialect, scorning the warnings of all writer’s guides never to do so. Sayers does as she likes, and the results are stunning, but some readers may not wish to struggle through paragraphs full of sentences like this one: "’The folk at the Borgan seed him pentin’ there shortly after 10 this morning on the wee bit high ground by the brig, and Major Dougal gaed by at 2 o’clock wi’ his rod an’ spied the body liggin’ in the burn.’" These passages lend charm and humor to the story, but they do read more slowly.

The murderer’s trail involves a number of mysterious bicycles and too many train schedules (skim that part, unless you really like working out whether the murderer could have boarded the train at point A or B while still having time to cycle five miles and eat breakfast at another man’s house.) There is also the complete reconstruction of the murderer and getaway by Wimsey and the other detectives. Here the Chief Constable acts as victim:

"Now, corpse," said Wimsey, "it’s time I packed you into the car . . . Come and take up your pose again, and remember you’re supposed to be perfectly rigid by now."

Wimsey seized the Chief Constable’s cramped and reluctant body and swung it into the back seat of the Morris . . . ruthlessly ramming his victim down between the seat and the floor. "I hope you aren’t permanently damaged, sir. Can you stick it?" he added, as he pulled on his gloves.

"Carry on," said the corpse, in a muffled voice.

The murderer is eventually uncovered in the most sporting way possible, reminding us again why British mysteries from the thirties, with Lord Peter leading the way, are so much fun to read.

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows (Flavia De Luce, #4) I Am Half-Sick of Shadows by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luca, prodigy and girl detective, half-orphan scorned by her sisters and nearly forgotten by her father, spends the days before Christmas plotting a means of unmasking Santa Claus, namely by smearing the chimneys he’s reputed to come down with birdlime:

Birdlime, as any practical chemist will tell you, can be easily manufactured by boiling the middle bark of holly for eight or nine hours, burying it under a stone for a fortnight, and then, when it is disinterred, washing and pulverizing it in running river water and leaving it to ferment . . . now, after six months of preparation, my concoction was powerful to stop a Gabon gorilla in its tracks, and Father Christmas – if he existed – wouldn’t stand a chance.

It was a brilliant plan. I wondered why no one had thought of it before.

Not only do we have Christmas and the entrapment of St. Nicholas, we also get to an enjoy a troupe of actors who roll in to film a movie and are persuaded to give a performance of Romeo and Juliet at Flavia’s home. And if the experience of young Flavia at large among the actors isn’t enough to please us, a blizzard arrives to snow in both audience and actors, and when murder occurs – as we know it must – young Flavia is there to give chase.

And did I mention the fireworks? Personally created, of course, by Flavia.

Flavia’s charm and scientific erudition never seem to wind down, nor do the author’s powers of invention falter, so we can happily anticipate the next installment of our girl detective’s redoubtable adventures.

Midnight at Marble Arch Midnight at Marble Arch by Anne Perry

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have read many of Anne Perry’s novels, which are mostly detective novels set in Victorian England (there is another series whose setting is World War I), and I particularly like the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt stories, of which this is one.

Midnight at Marble Arch focuses on the crime of rape – not only a particular rape, which Special Branch head Thomas Pitt and his colleagues must solve (always with the help of wife Charlotte), but on the attitude of society toward rape in that time period. This sort of double focus is a feature of Perry’s novels, and the many philosophical discussions about various sorts of crimes are probably one of the reasons for their popularity.

I had not read far into the book when I happened to see an article elsewhere that revealed Anne Perry to be a convicted murderer. While living in New Zealand with her family, Perry and her friend murdered the friend’s mother when they were 15 years old, was jailed for five years, then released. Perry and her mother moved to England, where she changed her name and later became a successful crime novelist.

This is no secret – Perry even spoke about the murder a few years ago on a British TV program – but one can hardly expect her publishers to focus on this aspect of her history, so I would guess that most readers are unaware of her past.

In terms of her writing, her crime is moot – she is simply a good writer – but in terms of content, it’s clear that Perry has spent the rest of her life wrestling with questions of morality. I happily read her books for years without knowing about her background, but they seem more comprehensible now that I do know, so I pass that knowledge on to other readers.

Oscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading GaolOscar Wilde and the Murders at Reading Gaol by Gyles Brandreth

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oscar Wilde, compelled by author Gyles Brandreth, has joined the ranks of dead authors turned into detectives (he has fortunately thus far escaped being turned into a zombie or vampire hunter.) While this isn’t my favorite sub-genre, wonderful things can happen in the hands of the right author. I have always loved Wilde the writer and pitied Wilde the man, the genius who was the darling of Victorian society until he was disgraced and died poor and estranged from his family at just forty-one years of age.

Given that not everyone is familiar with Oscar Wilde, this series serves as a gentle introduction. He is best known for his plays, which are for the most part witty comedies that skewer the hypocrisies of British society – The Importance of Being Earnest is my favorite; for his fairy tales like The Happy Prince and The Selfish Giant; for his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray; for his poetry and essays; and for his epigrams: "I can resist anything but temptation" is a famous one. Another: "A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

This is the sixth of the Oscar Wilde series, and it covers the unhappy years when Wilde, who was married and had a family, became so besotted with the young noble Robert Ross that he abandoned all discretion and let their affair become known to Ross’s father. Victorian society, who had hitherto lauded Wilde, rewarded him with a two year jail sentence for sodomy after Ross’s father brought charges against him.

Victorian prisons were grim places indeed, and this book reflects Wilde’s surroundings; it is altogether darker than the works that precede it. But Wilde is an interesting companion, even when he is despairing, and he is clever enough to solve two murders that take place in Reading Gaol, even though he is confined like all prisoners in a solitary cell and is forbidden to speak to anyone.

One of the strengths of this series is the way Brandreth so convincingly uses the facts of Wilde’s life to create his fiction. For example, Wilde was good friends with Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, so Wilde is able to learn methods of detection from Doyle in a natural way. The narrator of the series is Robert Sherard, a close friend of Wilde and his biographer, so he can admiringly record Wilde’s adventures. And after finishing this book, I read Wilde’s "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" which he did indeed write after leaving prison.

So although this book is more somber than the others, it is still compelling, and as well worth reading.

Postern of Fate Postern of Fate by Agatha Christie

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought I had read most of Agatha Christie’s work, but an article about a BBC series planned for 2014 to celebrate Christie’s 125th birthday alerted me to Tommy and Tuppence, the married sleuths of four novels and a book of short stories. The books were not that easy to locate, and I ended up first reading The Secret Adversary, the first book, published in 1922, followed by Postern of Fate (dreadful title!), the last book in the series, published in 1973. Tommy and Tuppence are in their twenties in the first book and in their seventies in the last book, so it was an odd way to go about the series. Nevertheless . . .

In Postern of Fate, Tommy and Tuppence have retired to a country house to live a peaceful, country life. But as Tuppence is pottering around (there is a lot of pottering in this book), paging through old children’s books left behind in the house, she discovers a message written by a twelve-year-old boy in code (which she quickly decrypts): Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.

But the message is years old, dating back to World War I days, so even if it is true, it can’t possibly hold any significance for the England of today – or can it? Neither Tommy nor Tuppence can stifle their curiosity, so Tuppence questions the old villagers whose parents might have known Mary Jordan and Tommy goes round to his old friends in London, most of whom have retired, but still seem to know what is going on, to establish the identity of Mary Jordan – and, of course, it turns out that the old murder does have modern day significance.

Enough about the plot, since this is a mystery. I liked Tommy and Tuppence as spirited pensioners, rather more than I liked them as bright young things in the first book, which was mostly dialogue. And of course, Christie’s writing vastly improved in the fifty years between the writing of the first and last novels. However, the writing of her last books, and this was one of them, suffered due to the author’s onset of dementia, which explains the fuzzy plot line.

These are not Christie’s finest works (although N or M? the third book, is more in Christie’s usual vein), but Tommy and Tuppence are appealing characters, and the series is worth reading if you are a Christie fan. And try to read them in order, as Postern of Fate made constant reference to the couple’s exploits in N or M?, giving away the plot of that novel a bit.

Strong Poison (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #6) Strong Poison by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In my unending quest to introduce today’s readers to the Lord Peter Wimsey detective stories of Dorothy L. Sayers, I give you Strong Poison, the book that introduces Wimsey’s eventual mate and fellow amateur detective, Harriet Vane.

Harriet is a an unusual character for the 1930s: she is a woman of independent means, earning her living as a writer of detective novels, and she lives with her lover Philip Boyes, whom she leaves when he later proposes marriage. "She was angry with Boyes because, after persuading her against her will to adopt his principles of conduct, he then renounced those principles, and so, as she says, ‘made a fool of her.’"

We meet Harriet when she is in the dock for having poisoned her former lover. Lord Peter is convinced that she is innocent, confessing to Harriet, when he interviews her in prison, that he has quite fallen in love with her. He sets out to puncture the distressingly watertight alibi of the man whom he suspects.

Sayers has a faultless ear for dialogue, and not only the upper crust banter of the aristocrat. Here, for example, is a conversation between Lord Peter and the reformed burglar Bill.

". . . from time to time, when I need a little help in a righteous cause, Bill gives me the benefit of his great experience."

"And oh! What ‘appiness it is, miss, to turn them talents which I so wickedly abused to the service of the Lord. His ‘oly Name be blessed that bringeth good out of evil."

"That’s right," said Wimsey, with a nod. "Now, Bill, I’ve got my eye on a solicitor’s deed-box, which may or may not contain something which will help me to get an innocent person out of trouble. This young lady can get access to the box, Bill, if you can show her the way inside it."

"If?" grunted Bill, with sovereign contempt. "’Course I can! Deed-box, that’s nuffin’. That ain’t no field for a man’s skill. Robbin’ the kids’ money-box, that’s what it is with they trumpery little locks. There ain’t a deed-box in this ‘ere city wot I couldn’t open blindfold in boxing gloves with a stick of boiled macaroni."

Her descriptions are also arresting – here is Miss Murchison, one of Lord Peter’s spinster detectives, as she poses as a secretary to gain information:

Miss Murchison picked up the papers and came out, looking flustered. She dragged the cover off the typewriter with much sound and fury, jerked out the desk-drawers till they slammed against the drawer-stops, shook the stop-sheet, carbons and flimsies together as a terrier shakes a rat, and attacked the machine tempestuously.

And here Lord Peter goes to a Bohemian part of London to question an acquaintance of the murdered man:

Wimsey, entering on her heels, was struck in the face, as by an open hand, by a thick muffling wave of heat, sound, smoke and the smell of frying. It was a very small room, dimly lit by a single electric bulb, smothered in a lantern of painted glass, and it was packed to suffocation with people, whose silk legs, bare arms and pallid faces loomed at him like glow-worms out of the obscurity.

I could go on, as I am an admirer of Sayers’s prose, but suffice it to say that Strong Poison has it all: charming and intelligent hero and heroine; colorful minor characters; snappy dialogue; clever mystery; compelling prose style; fabulous setting. You need only add an armchair.

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In addition to the Lord Peter Wimsey mystery novels, Sayers wrote two collections of short stories about him, Lord Peter Views the Body and Hangman’s Holiday, which are part of this anthology. They have intriguing titles such as "The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers" and "The Undignified Melodrama of the Bone of Contention" and the stories are as much fun as their titles. Of particular interest are the last two stories, "The Haunted Policeman", which takes place on the occasion of the birth of Lord Peter’s and wife Harriet’s first son, and "Talboys", in which Lord Peter and his eldest son solve a mystery and get into mischief.

Sayers’s other fictional detective, the travelling salesman Montague Egg, appears here in his own set of eleven stories. I admit that Egg’s travels as a wine salesman provide many opportunities for investigating murders, and he is a clever man, but I can’t warm to his character as I have to Lord Peter.

The remaining twelve stories are also well-written and inventive, and well worth reading if you like mystery stories and/or Sayers, but I freely admit that the Lord Peter stories are my favorites.

The Double Game The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For anyone who loves spy novels, this book is too much fun. As a young journalist, Bill Cage, who grew up in Cold War Europe under the tutelage of his father, embarrasses the colleague of his father in a published interview. As a result, Bill’s journalism career hits a wall and he reluctantly turns to PR to make a living.

Twenty years later, Bill begins receiving notes hinting that he should follow up on that embarrassing story – perhaps the family friend was, in fact, a spy. And so the quest begins, enlivened by the series of notes, which offer clues in the form of passages from classic spy novels. So Bill sets off to follow the trail across Europe: Vienna, Prague, Budapest, and eventually to Washington.

As in any spy novel, people are seldom who they seem. Who could possibly care about Cold War incidents that happened so long ago? Why does a childhood friend – now an alluring woman – suddenly reappear in Bill’s life? As Bill remembers his childhood, including mysterious errands engineered by his father, who was incidentally the collector of the very Cold War spy novels from which the clues have been taken, he begins to wonder – could his own father possibly have been a spy – or at least a person who cooperated with spies?

As in the best spy novels, the story is not in the action, but in the plot and counterplot, the double cross and the triple cross, the agent and the double agent. Will Bill get it right? What is he to believe about his father? About his grown son? Who is tricking whom – or is Bill just paranoid? And will Bill figure out everything in time to save himself and those he loves from impending danger?

Fesperman keeps the reader guessing nicely.

The Ides of April The Ides of April by Lindsey Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A new Marcus Didius Falco novel by Lindsey Davis! Quick, grab it off the library shelf! But what’s this? The subtitle: A Flavia Albia Mystery. What?!

Such were my emotions on discovering this novel. A faithful fan of the wisecracking Falco, detective of ancient Rome, through twenty other novels (although I’ve evidently missed the last, Nemesis), I was expecting more of the same. Instead, I find that Flavia Albia, Falco and Helena’s adopted daughter (a plot twist that I remember from an earlier book), has been married and widowed and has decided to strike out on her own in Falco’s old digs in the Surbura (which he has since purchased, now that he is a wealthy man.)

Perhaps Davis decided that Falco has grown too mature and respectable to perform any longer as a credible informer, since part of his charm was always his low upbringing and never-quite-comfortable rise to the top as the husband of the patrician Helena. So Davis has retired Falco and resorted to the younger blood of his (adopted) offspring. Although Flavia’s decision to live in her father’s old apartment building is barely credible (but necessary to plot, I think, as Davis doesn’t want her living in luxury with her dad), I was willing to read on.

The ensuing novel finds Flavia in pursuit of a clue linking a series of sudden deaths among the otherwise healthy in a certain section of Rome. Rumors whisper of a serial killer, or perhaps a copycat. The attractive archivist Andronicus offers aid of the most beguiling sort, while Tiberius, a runner for the magistrates, seems to turn up at inopportune moments, finally offering to team up with Flavia to find the truth.

So, not to give away more of the plot, events proceed as in other Davis novels, with lots of the colorful period details that readers of her novels expect and love. Since this story is told from a woman’s perspective, we have a slightly different view of the ancient world than in the previous books – Flavia at the baths, Flavia choosing jewelry and a sewing kit, Flavia sizing up available men.

It’s impossible not to compare Flavia’s adventures with those of her venerable father, who is banished so thoroughly from this volume that he does not utter a word directly (Helena does), and we hear of him only through Flavia’s mentions of visits to the family. Clearly Davis has decided that Falco needs to be put in the background to let Flavia shine.

And Flavia acquits herself well; she is a scrappy and engaging character (her orphan background makes her actions a bit more understandable) and I would certainly read another novel about her. Still, I miss her father, the scamp. I hope that once Davis becomes more comfortable with her new heroine, Falco is permitted to turn up from time to time and crack some jokes in person.

The Nine Tailors (Lord Peter Wimsey, #11)The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Nine Tailors is one of my favorite Lord Peter Wimsey stories. The setting is brooding and mysterious – the fens of East Anglia – but populated by a whole village full of fascinating characters, including the eccentric but gracious Rector Venables and his wife, old Hezekiah Lavender the bellringer, the young heiress Hilary Thorpe, crazy Potty Peake, and many more. A character in itself is the village’s magnificent church, St. Paul’s and its famous bells, the nine tailors of the title.

The art of bell-ringing is called campanology, and Sayers made a study of it for this book, which is part of what makes it an absorbing read. We learn that the church bells have names (Dimity, Batty Thomas, Tailor Paul, Sabaoth, Gaude, John, Jericho, Jubilee in this case) and are rung in courses, or perhaps peals (I don’t claim to have made a study of campanology!) The author uses colorful bell-ringing terminology as a motif throughout the book – I didn’t have to understand it to enjoy it. Some chapter titles, for example: "Lord Peter is Called Into the Hunt"; "Lord Peter Follows His Course Bell to Lead"; "Monsieur Rozier Hunts the Treble Down" and so on.

Lord Peter and his faithful manservant Bunter happen upon the village of Fenchurch St. Paul when Lord Peter drives his Daimler into a ditch in a snowstorm on New Year’s Eve. Providentially, as it happens, since one of Lord Peter’s many talents turns out to be bell-ringing ("’ I used at one time to pull quite a pretty rope,"’ Lord Peter says modestly) and when the rector entreats him to replace a sick bell-ringer for a positive marathon of New Year’s Eve bell-ringing, Lord Peter’s sense of noblesse oblige kicks in and he insists to his host, "’Nothing would please me more than to ring bells all day and all night. I am not tired at all. I really don’t need rest. I would far rather ring bells.’"

After nine hours of bell-ringing, Lord Peter and Bunter leave their hosts and drive home. But Fenchurch St. Paul harbors its secrets: a stolen emerald necklace, a mysterious disappearance, a mistaken identity, and at least one murder. Lord Peter’s investigation stretches over the next year, inextricably entangled with the bells, which are even an occasion for the breaking of a cipher (the British term for a secret code). Fortunately, Sayers never overdoes it, at least not for my sensibilities. Her description of the New Year’s Eve ringing rises to poetry:

"The bells gave tongue: Gaude, Sabaoth, John, Jericho, Jubilee, Dimity, Batty Thomas and Tailor Paul, rioting and exulting high up in the dark tower, wide mouths rising and falling, brazen tongues clamouring, huge wheels turning to the dance of the leaping ropes. . . every bell in her place striking tuneably, hunting up, hunting down, dodging, snapping, laying her blows behind, making her thirds and fourths, working down to lead the dance again. Over the flat, white wastes of fen, over the spear-straight, steel-dark dykes and the wind-bent, groaning poplar trees, bursting from the snow-choked louvres of the belfry, whirled away southward and westward in gusty blasts of clamour to the sleeping countries went the music of the bells . . ."

The following Christmas comes with the solving of the mystery, and a fittingly clever and surprising solution it is. Throughout the novel, Sayers combines humor and pathos and deductive reasoning with fine writing to produce a detective story worthy of the best English mystery writers – in fact, I feel that The Nine Tailors rises above genre all together. It is simply a fine book. Don’t miss it!

The Resurrectionist The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Resurrectionist is chiefly the story of the slave Nemo, purchased by a Southern medical school to secretly "resurrect" the bodies of African-Americans for dissection. In the present day, Dr. Jacob Thacker of the same medical university is on probation for prescription drug abuse and working in the PR department in the interim, when a construction crew finds the bones of these same involuntary cadavers buried in the basement of the original medical building.

While the present day medical administration scrambles to effect a cover-up of this embarrassing revelation, we follow the history of Nemo, who is as good a surgeon as the dean of the medical school (although never recognized as such, of course) and becomes a de facto instructor, staying on even after Reconstruction.

Since we are familiar with spin doctors – pardon the pun – and the knee-jerk reaction to hide any scandal, we are more interested in Nemo’s story, although the reader winces at some of the passages in which the African-American must bow to the ignorance of certain white medical students. But Nemo knows what he knows and who he is and the reader will be cheering him on even as her jaw drops at the surprise ending.

To his credit, the author provides an unexpected ending to the present day story as well, but Nemo is certainly the star of the book.

Given the cover and the title, I was expecting a story more in the vein of The Alienist. But The Resurrectionist holds its own in a different way, and its story of revenge and restitution makes a compelling read

The Sherlockian [Hardcover] The Sherlockian [Hardcover] by Graham Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Given the number of films, TV series and novels that have followed the original Sherlock Holmes stories, I wondered whether Graham Moore could find anything new to say. And so he did. The novel is cleverly put together, in mostly alternating chapters: one voice is Arthur Conan Doyle’s as he tries to solve an actual crime and deal with his love/hate relationship with the fictional detective he has created and recently killed off, to the dismay of his fans. The other voice is that of Harold White, newly inducted into the contemporary Baker Street Irregulars, the most prominent Sherlock Holmes society, as its youngest member.

Harold, like his name, is nerdy, awkward, a little paunchy – refreshingly unlike the heroes of most suspense novels. At his induction into the Irregulars, a prominent Holmes scholar is mysteriously murdered after announcing the recovery a volume of Doyle’s diary, missing since the author’s death in 1930. Harold stumbles into action, fancying, as do the rest of his fellow Sherlockians, that he will be able to deduce his way into finding the murderer and the missing diary.

Since every budding Sherlock needs his Watson, Harold finds himself quickly joined by an enterprising young reporter, Sarah, who is quite alluring to the socially inept Harold. The two are mysteriously financed in their searches for the murderer by the descendant of Arthur Conan Doyle himself. And – the game being afoot – off they go, Harold on his chase and Doyle, in another century, on his.

The contemporary plot is based on an actual murder of an actual Sherlock Holmes scholar who similarly claimed to have found Doyle’s missing diary, and it has its echoes in the historical part of the plot, which presents a valid reason for the diary to have gone missing in the first place. The author doesn’t claim to have solved the case, but he forges a convincing alternative history, with enough plot twists and Sherlock Holmes quotes and lore to keep the reader happy and an ending that is unexpected, but credible. And, dare I say it, not at all elementary.

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (Flavia de Luce, #2) The Weed That Strings the Hangman’s Bag by Alan Bradley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Flavia de Luce is a brilliant, quirky, chemistry-loving, crime-solving – wait for it – eleven-year-old. The novel happens in rural England in the 1950s. Flavia’s situation is both sad – her mother perished when Flavia was only a year old, her professorial father lives in a permanent fog because of it, and her two older sisters seem determined to torment her – and ideal, since Flavia is left alone to pursue her peculiar interest in poisons with the aid of her great-uncle’s old chemistry lab, conveniently located in a little-used wing of the family manor.

Flavia’s friends are eccentric and her family extremely well-educated, making her an entertaining narrator. Here she describes Gibbet Wood:

Bright cobwebs hung suspended like little portcullises of light between the rotted tree stumps. Beneath the ancient oaks and lichen-coated hornbeams, bluebells peeped out from the deep shadows among the ferns, and there on the far side of the glade I spotted the serrated leaves of the poisonous dog’s mercury that, when steeped in water, produced a gorgeous indigo poison that I had once transformed into the bright red color of arterial blood simply by adding a two-percent solution of hydrochloric acid.

I thought with pleasure of how the ammonia and amides given off by the deep compost on the forest floor provided a perfect feast for omnivorous molds that converted it to nitrogen, which they then stored in their protoplasm, where it would be fed upon by bacteria. It seemed to me a perfect world: a world in which cooperation was a fact of life.

I drew in a deep breath, sucking the sour tang into the lungs and savoring the chemical smell of decay.

But this was no time for pleasant reflections.

Fortunately for the reader, this is a series. In this particular book, a famous puppeteer arrives by chance – or is it? – in the village and agrees to stage a show in the parish hall. Murder ensues and it’s up to Flavia to sort through the suspects: the pupeteer’s pregnant mistress, the mad mother of a murdered child, a pot-growing farmer (in 1950s British parlance, hemp), the vicar’s unpleasant wife. As Flavia muses at the end of the book when she enlightens Inspector Hewitt with the solution to the mystery:

I knew by the sudden closed look on Inspector Hewitt’s face that I had hit the nail on the head. Bravo, Flavia! I thought. Go to the head of the class!

There were times when I surprised even myself.

Tuesday's Gone: A Frieda Klein Novel (Frieda Klein, #2)Tuesday’s Gone: A Frieda Klein Novel by Nicci French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a memorable opening chapter: a London social worker calls upon her psychotic client in one of the city’s slums, and finds her in her apartment entertaining the fly-blown corpse of a young man. Although his present condition makes him difficult to identify, the police are inclined to charge the woman with his murder (whether or not she killed him, she clearly needs to be institutionalized) and let it go at that.

Enter our heroine, psychotherapist Frieda Klein, who has assisted Detective Chief Investigator Karlsson before. After talking with the psychotic woman, Frieda believes that she has not murdered the man (and the physical evidence supports this assertion), and is actually trying in her own way to explain how he came to be there. But how to understand the ramblings of a mad woman?

Frieda has a way of listening to people that makes her a perfect unofficial interrogator, and she is also brilliant (although, the reader suspects, with troubles of her own.) She manages to put the police on the trail of the murdered man, who is identified as a con man whose financial victims seem to love him nonetheless, as the pair finds out in their interviews.

We learn (and the readers of the first book in this series will know already) that Frieda was involved in the apprehension of a serial killer who offed himself before he could be arrested. Or did he? The discerning reader feels a sequel coming on.

I’ll leave out the ending, which you of course don’t want to know anyway, but it is a satisfying one. Frieda is a good foil for Detective Karlsson, who is also likeable, and a satisfying heroine, although the reader does find herself wanting to chide Frieda for her habit of taking long, solitary, nocturnal walks all over London as a means of thinking things out. Fortunately, although she is quirky and brilliant, she does have friends whose presence in the story normalize her.

If you like noir-ish murder mysteries, Tuesday’s Gone will not disappoint. And judging from the title of the first book, Blue Monday, we can look forward to the rest of the week as well.

Unnatural Death (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #3)Unnatural Death by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are a fan of the aristocratic detective Lord Peter Wimsey, or in the process of becoming one, then one of the pleasures of Sayers’s third novel in the series, Unnatural Death, is the biographical note at the beginning of the story. Written by Lord Peter’s uncle, it gives us a chronological summary of Lord Peter’s life since infancy, including such nuggets as "he was a colorless shrimp of a child", but, fortunately also "a brilliant natural cricketer."

The murder of the story is intriguing because it appears in no way to have been a murder – an elderly lady, dying of cancer, dies. And why would anyone trouble to kill her since she was dying anyway? But Lord Peter’s interest is piqued by the puzzle, and his friend Parker of Scotland Yard follows reluctantly in his wake, unconvinced until late in the novel that a crime has been committed at all.

Unnatural Death introduces us to the character of Miss Climpson, a spinster whose "magnificent gossip powers" and "units of inquisitiveness" are put to work for Lord Peter in this and subsequent novels:

"’She asks questions which a young man could not put without a blush. . . Just think. People want questions asked. Who do they send? A man with large, flat feet and a notebook – the sort of man whose private life is conducted in a series of inarticulate grunts. I send a lady with a long woolly jumper on knitting-needles and jingly things round her neck. Of course she asks questions – everyone expects it. Nobody is surprised. Nobody is alarmed . . . One day they will put up a statue to me with this inscription: To the Man who made Thousands of Superfluous Women Happy without Injury to their Modesty or Extertion to Himself.’"

A jolly detective story in the Wimsey manner, what?

Whose Body? (Lord Peter Wimsey Mysteries, #1)Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

At one point in my life I was an expert on Dorothy L. Sayers. Out of interest, I read all her works, and then read all the works about her works. I discovered that it is possible to become an expert in a relatively short time, provided that you choose a relatively narrow subject.

That was twenty years ago, and I no longer claim expert status, but I can tell you that Sayers, born in England in 1893, was one of the first women to receive a degree from Oxford University. She worked as an advertising copywriter for nearly a decade and is credited with the slogan: "It pays to advertise." In the twenties and thirties, she became famous as the author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, and although she was later known as a playwright, essayist, Christian apologist, and translator of Dante’s Inferno, her most lasting fame rests on her foppish, monocled character, Lord Peter.

Whose Body? is Sayers’s first Lord Peter novel, published in 1922. As a titled aristocrat who glories in a well-drawn bath, collects rare manuscripts, and employs the superlative manservant, Bunter, Lord Peter has no financial reasons to dabble in crime – rather, his keen mind enjoys a good puzzle. The body of the title is that of a middle-aged, naked gentleman who turns up unbidden (and deceased) in the bathtub of the timid Mr. Thipps. Lord Peter’s mother, the Dowager Duchess, tells Lord Peter of the crime. He informs Bunter:

"’Her Grace informs me that a respectable Battersea architect has discovered a dead man in his bath.’

‘Indeed, my lord? That’s very gratifying.’

‘Very, Bunter. Your choice of words is unerring. I wish Eton and Balliol had done as much for me.’"

Although Lord Peter is an aristocrat, he is not a snob, and he and his good friend Lieutenant Parker of Scotland Yard are soon interviewing suspects and running down clues. The mystery is ingenious, as Sayers’s murders usually are, but only part of the fun of the book lies in unraveling the mystery. The rest of the enjoyment – the greater part of it, for this reader – lies in Lord Peter and his milieu. What better afternoon’s escape than the drawing rooms and countryside of upper-crust Britain in the 1920s and 30s?

But, as in the best genre fiction, the Lord Peter books offer other treats. Sayers’s novels are awash with literary allusions, humor, and great moral questions, all woven into the fabric of the story, rather being tacked on to advertise the author’s erudition or philosophical bias.

In Lord Peter, Sayers has created an agreeable character who grows in complexity and likeability as the series continues. If Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot, and Father Brown are your cup of tea, then waste no time in making the acquaintance of Lord Peter Wimsey.

Non-fiction (5)

Food

Among the Janeites by Deborah Jaffe
Folks, This Ain’t Normal by Joel Salatin
Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott
Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls by David Sedaris
Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook

 

Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom Among the Janeites: A Journey Through the World of Jane Austen Fandom by Deborah Yaffe

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An attractive cover with a reference to Jane Austen – it was enough to make me pick up this book, although I’d rather read fiction. I thought I was a Jane Austen fan, but reading about these fans made me realize that there are levels and there are levels of fandom, and while I’ve actually read and re-read the books, which puts me on a level above those whose appreciation is based on Colin Firth’s wet shirt appearance in Pride and Prejudice, I have miles to go before I could call myself a Janeite.

Author Deborah Yaffe was an inveterate reader as a child, and she first read Jane Austen as a fifth grader. Like many Janeites, Yaffe then read Austen’s six novels over and over, little realizing that other readers loved Austen’s work as she did. Then as an adult, she found the web site The Republic of Pemberley, whose citizens are all about Jane Austen all the time, and became part of the worldwide community that she explores in this book.

Yaffe interviewed fans; academics; writers of sequels and fan fiction (which range from fiction imagined from Darcy’s point of view to Pride and Prejudice with the zombies); costumers and dressmakers (the annual meeting of the Jane Austen Society of North America would be sadly incomplete without the Regency Ball on its last evening, when members dress in period costume and dance the night away); Jane Austen web site founders; and Jane Austen philanthropists, including Sandy Lerner, the co-founder of Cisco Systems, who used her internet fortune to restore Edward Austen’s home, Chawton House (Jane lived with her parents in Chawton Cottage on the grounds of the manor) to its former glory for use as a research library for the study of early English writing by women.

Yaffe tries to track down the common denominator that makes this diversity of women into Janeites, and finally concludes:

The rich diversity of responses to Austen captures something real about her – the depth and complexity of her writings, which, like diamonds held up to sunlight, reflect something different from every angle. Her stories are not blank canvases onto which we project ourselves; they are complicated, ambiguous pictures of lived reality. We all find ourselves in her because, in a sense, she contains us all.

If you like Jane Austen, this book will entertain you.

Folks, This Ain't Normal: A Farmer's Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World Folks, This Ain’t Normal: A Farmer’s Advice for Happier Hens, Healthier People, and a Better World by Joel Salatin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Despite the folksy title, this book is a manifesto written by a farmer who takes the scholarship of agriculture to places that I hadn’t expected it to go. Clearly there is much more to farming than the little we city folk know of it, and Salatin, both erudite and down-to-earth, is just the man to set us straight, which he does not hesitate to do.

The book’s title is its theme: the way we live on earth is not historically, traditionally, or culturally normal. Salatin has impeccable credentials as the foreword points out:

Personally, I have long thought that Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm was an excellent example of how high-value, direct-marketed farms like his could be an engine for rural economic development. Joel currently has fourteen employees; he buys all of the supplemental feed his pastured chickens and pigs eat locally, and his animals are all processed locally. Using sweat equity, he has built a two-million-dollar-a-year food business without any government loans, assistance, or subsidies. To me that’s a story that should be on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

Salatin has not, to my knowledge, been so far featured, because our culture has accepted Big Agriculture, factory farms, farm subsidies, and many other anomalies as the new normal.

I learned a lot from this book. Salatin is a pioneer of synergistic farming, although he would probably insist that he is only doing what farmers have done for centuries. His chickens, for instance, are pastured in mobile hen houses that protect them while allowing them to range and eat insects, and are moved to a different area of pasture each day, which also fertilizes the pasture.

He talks about the American tendency to anthropomorphize animals, often to their detriment. A visitor to the farm, for example, criticized Salatin for leaving his cows crowded together, when in reality they were only exhibiting their herding instinct. He explains the importance of diversity on a farm, and how the raising of animals and the raising of crops are not only complimentary, but necessary.

Salatin raises many troubling issues. He believes that the function of the USDA and the FDA are to limit market distribution (drive out the small farmer) rather than to protect consumers and farmers, and he has plenty of anecdotal evidence and statistical research to support his belief. His scientific, agricultural, and financial expertise belie the image of the farmer as a hayseed, and helps the reader appreciate the intellectual challenge of farming.

And did I mention, he’s funny? This is a serious book, but Salatin retains his sense of humor.

Salatin suggests, at the end of each chapter, steps that his readers may want to take in their personal quest to limit Big Agriculture and eat better food. It’s a thought-provoking book, and a must-read for anyone who cares about food or farming.

Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential PrayersHelp Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers by Anne Lamott

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have read a lot of Anne Lamott’s work over the years: her novels, her book about writing, her memoir about life with her son, and her encounters with faith. And because she is an honest writer, I can trace the way she’s changed since her first encounter with God to now, twenty-five years later, and I can say she’s gotten better. More relaxed. Kinder. Wiser. Worth reading on important subjects.

Help Thanks Wow is an unassuming little book, just one hundred pages that break prayer down into three components: petition (help), thanksgiving (thanks) and praise (wow). It’s a book that begs to be given to others, and although Anne is a Christian writer, she writes from a broad perspective, so it is the kind of book you could give to practically anyone without offending him theologically.

In the "help" section, Anne writes about her fear of death as a child, and an upbringing that taught her it was wrong to pray:

I was raised to believe that people who prayed were ignorant. It was voodoo, asking an invisible old man to intervene, God as Santa Claus. God was the reason for most of the large-scale suffering in history, like the Crusades and the Inquisition. Therefore to pray was to throw your lot in with Genghis Khan and Torquemada (which was the name of our huge orange cat) and with snake handlers instead of beautiful John Coltrane, William Blake, Billie Holiday. My parents worshipped at the church of the New York Times and we bowed down before our antique hi-fi cabinet, which held the Ark of the Covenant – Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk albums.

So, to recap, my parents, who were too hip and intellectual to pray, worshipped mostly mentally ill junkies.

But most of the book is much less narrative. Anne simply observes that life is tough, and yet people survive. "This is a hard planet, and we’re a vulnerable species. And all I can do is pray: help."

The second section, "thanks", talks about developing the habit of gratitude.

I admit, sometimes this position of gratitude can sometimes be a bit of a stretch. So many bad things happen in each of our lives. Who knew? When my son Sam was seven and discovered that he and I would probably not die at exactly the same moment, he began to weep and said, ‘If I had known that, I wouldn’t have agreed to be born.’

The final section, "wow" is about our response to the universe, both in the small, everyday moments and the titanic ones.

The third great prayer, Wow, is often offered with a gasp, a sharp intake of breath, when we can’t think of another way to capture the sight of shocking beauty or destruction, of a sudden unbidden insight or an unexpected flash of grace. ‘Wow’ means we are not dulled to wonder.

I could go on. These are all quotable passages, and it’s easy to identify with the author. She is us, she has been there, she’s not offering a panacea, she’s talking about real life. I highly recommend this book. And if the subject seems too off-putting at first, read her memoir about having her child as a single mother Operating Instructions, or her novel Rosie, because these, like any good writing, also deal with the big questions of life.

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ah, David Sedaris. I first read his work in Esquire magazine, a riff about learning a foreign language that was so funny that I could not even read it to my bemused family without collapsing with laughter and becoming all but unintelligible. I have since read all his books of essays and attended a reading that he gave at The Ohio State University.

So I am a fan already, and he has nothing to prove to me. Humorous writing is even more subjective than regular writing, and he may leave you cold, but I can tell you why I find him so funny.

First, he is abjectly honest. He talks in detail about a high and drunken evening he spent with an alcoholic stranger on a train. He goes to a taxidermist to find a stuffed owl for his partner Hugh, and the taxidermist seems to at once to recognize a kindred spirit.

The taxidermist knew me for less time than it took to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking breezily, Well, it was a long time ago. Worse still I would flaunt it, hoping in the way a Porsche owner does that this would become a part of my identity. ‘They say he has a Pygmy,’ I could imagine my new neighbors whispering as I walked down the street. ‘Hangs him plain as day in the corner of his living room, next to the musket he was shot with.’

How many of us would admit this? He exaggerates for effect, true (another reason that he is so funny), but his confessions have the effect of engaging our sympathies.

He also notices and notes quirky details that the rest of us forget to file away.

There was an issue of the local paper in the backseat of the car, and leafing through it on our way there, I came upon a headline that read, ‘Dangerous Olives Could Be on Sale.’

‘Hmm,’ I said, and I copied it into my little notebook.

Sedaris has a happy gift for description. He speaks of a butchered rooster that provided "a dreary soup with two feet, like inverted salad tongs, sticking out of it." About swimming pools:

Chlorine pits is what they were. Chemical baths. In the deep end, my sisters and I would dive for nickels. Toss one in, and by the time we reached it, half of Jefferson’s face would be eaten away. Come lunchtime, we’d line up at the snack bar, our hair the texture of cotton candy, our small, burning eyes like little cranberries.

Not that his essays are only funny. Although he skewers his family endlessly, he clearly loves them: "Cut off your family, and how would you know who you are? Cut them off in order to gain success, and how could that success be measured? What could it possibly mean?" So maybe that’s why he’s funny – there is heart behind the humor.

Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit by Barry Estabrook

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When heirloom tomatoes are perfectly juicy and in season, I eat them with cheese on toast every day. So I am a fan and I wanted to find out from Estabrook why winter tomatoes are so perfectly tasteless, and I did. But the book is about so much more than that. The author quotes U.S. attorney for Florida’s Middle District, Douglas Molloy, who says that Immokalee, Florida, the heart of America’s tomato industry, is "ground zero for modern-day slavery."

He also says that any American who has eaten a winter tomato, either purchased at a supermarket or on top of a fast food salad, has eaten a fruit picked by the hand of a slave. ‘That’s not an assumption,’ he told me. ‘That is a fact.’

So a lot of the book is about the workers, chosen for their inability to speak English or Spanish (many are Hispanics who speak an Amerindian language) so that they can be more easily exploited by their crew bosses. They are exposed to chemicals and they live in squalid conditions as virtual (and even actual) slaves to their employers, who are conveniently insulated from prosecution by the middlemen in the industry, the crew bosses who hire and pay the workers.

So, we find out that tomato growing in Florida is a weird business all the way around. Florida is too humid to grow tomatoes well and its soil lacks nutrients, and the conditions that are bad for tomatoes are excellent for tomato-loving insects. Florida growers cope by blasting the bugs with pesticides and pumping the soil with fertilizers, neither of which are good for the laborers or the environment.

Estabrook uses both statistics and anecdotal evidence to take the reader through the intricacies of the Florida tomato industry. He interviews immigrant laborers (pretty much the only kind of laborers working on the tomato farms), tomato magnates, tomato researchers. He is the best kind of investigative reporter, and the book is never a diatribe, but a reasoned presentation of the problems, many of them severe, of the tomato industry in Florida.

And he certainly leaves the reader resolved that for the sake of the immigrant workers, she will never purchase another commercial tomato.

Romance

The Fine Color of Rust by Paddy O’Reilly
The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman

 

The Fine Color of RustThe Fine Color of Rust by Paddy O’Reilly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has many of the ingredients of chick lit, especially its feisty, independent heroine whose feckless husband abandoned her and her two children three years before the story opens. But it transcends its genre and becomes simply a good read.

First, the setting, which is a small, battered town in the Australian outback. The author does an admirable job of transporting the reader to Australia. Who knew that it sometimes gets so hot there that the birds sit on the fence with their beaks open – and then some of them fall off and die? A fascinating detail, and it certainly conveys a sense of the heat and the dust of the outback.

Our heroine Loretta loves her dusty town and is fighting to save it. She has her hands full; first, to convince the Ministry of Education not to close the elementary school, and second, to track down the instigators of a mysterious real estate development in the nearby bush land that threatens the town’s already stingy water supply.

Life is not so easy for this single mother.

When I get to the school gate, the kids are both standing with their hands on their hips. I wonder if they got that from me; old scrag standing with her hands on her hips, pursing her thin lips, squinting into the sun. You could make a statue of that. It would look like half the women in this town. Dust and a few plastic bags swirling around its feet, the taillights of the husband’s car receding into the distance. They should cast it in bronze and put it in the foyer of Social Security.

Idly, Loretta dreams of of rescue.

As I steer the great car down the highway toward home I have a little dream. I’ll pull into the driveway and sitting next to the veranda will be a shiny maroon Harley-Davidson. I won’t dare to look, but out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a boot resting on the step, maybe with spurs on it. Then I’ll slowly lift my head, and he’ll be staring at me the way George Clooney stared into J.Lo’s eyes in Out of Sight and I’ll take a deep breath and say to him, "Can you hang on for five minutes while I drop the kids at the orphanage?

But she actually loves her kids and knows that she has to rescue herself. Warm-hearted,
stubborn and funny, Loretta and her friends will reward the reader who decides to spend a few hours with them.

The Life List The Life List by Lori Nelson Spielman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

To enjoy this book, you have to swallow the premise: that the heroine’s terminally ill mother would base her daughter’s inheritance on the fulfillment (within a year) of a list of life goals that she had written at age fourteen – twenty years previously.

The premise gave me pause, but when I decided to accept it, I managed to enjoy the book. Some of the goals seem quite difficult – have a baby, fall in love, buy a horse (Brett lives in the big city) – and the author deserves kudos for the clever and believable way that her character achieves her long lost dreams.

So, although the premise is a bit much, the author takes the book in some unexpected directions, making it better than I expected.

Science Fiction (2)

Countdown City by Ben H. Winters
Merge/Disciple by Walter Mosley

 

Countdown City (The Last Policeman, #2)Countdown City by Ben H. Winters

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought that Philip Kerr’s Bernie Gunther series, about a detective in Nazi Germany, were about as noir as noir mystery could get, but now that I have read Countdown City by Ben H. Winters, I have to say that Kerr has been out-noired.

Protagonist Hank Palace is a police detective in Concord, Massachusetts, but his position has recently been abolished – and why? Because Concord’s citizens, like citizens around the world, are waiting for the earth to be struck by an asteroid in less than three months. The police are now operating as adjuncts of the Department of Justice, their role to keep civil order in a world of rapidly increasing incivility.

Countdown City is the second in this series. The first, The Last Policeman, is an Edgar winner, which tells you something about the quality of the writing. The plot revolves around Hank’s efforts to find an old schoolmate’s missing husband, and the irony of his quest is not lost on Hank, as people have been steadily disappearing since the asteroid’s arrival was announced several months earlier. When the earth is about to be destroyed, or at least irredeemably altered, people find better things to do than honor their wedding vows.

Of course, the premise of the novel is what makes it so fascinating. Hank does his detecting against a backdrop of dwindling resources – for example, most people are riding bikes due to the collapse of the supply chain that once provided gas and groceries and nearly everything else – and bizarre and/or criminal behavior. His sister and closest relative is one of those caught up in what seems to Hank to be a doomsday cult, centered on the belief that the government could destroy the asteroid but won’t.

Hank can’t really explain, even to himself, why he puts himself in harm’s way to find a man who clearly does not want to be found. "But an investigation like this has its own force – it pulls you forward, and at a certain point it’s no longer profitable to question your reasons for being so pulled." And it is clearly his way of coping with the coming disaster, described here:

The best scientific evidence suggest that on the day itself, the earth’s atmosphere will be riven by flame, as if by a prodigious nuclear detonation: over most of the planet, a broiling heat, the sky on fire. Tsunamis as tall as skyscrapers slam into coasts and drown everyone within hundreds of miles from impact, while around the globe volcanic eruptions and earthquakes convulse the landscape, splintering the crust of the world at all its hidden junctions. And then photosynthesis, the magic trick undergirding the entire food chain, is snuffed out by a blanket of darkness drawn down across the sun.

But no one knows. No one really knows. They have computer models, based on the Yucatan event, based on Siberia. But it all depends on final velocity, on angle of approach, on the precise makeup of the object and the soil below the impact spot. Probably not everyone will die. But probably most people will. It will definitely be terrible, but it’s impossible to say exactly how. Anyone making promises for afterward is a liar and a thief.

Still, Hank soldiers on, finding out things he’d rather not know, such as what is really happening to the thousands of catastrophe refugees who are fleeing in ships to the U.S. because their countries are in the direct line of the asteroid. As Hank runs his quarry to ground in the ruins of an old fort, he ponders his surroundings:

I linger there in the roofless shelter. This, then will be the shape and feel of the world; an abandoned shell, signs of old life, curious animals wandering in and out of ruins, the wilderness crowding in, overtaking all human structures and human things. In fifty years, everything will look this way, quiet and desolate and overgrown. Not even fifty years – next year – by the end of this one.

Despite such dark musings, the book remains readable, perhaps even hopeful, because the question that Hank is pursuing is not so much why a husband might have left his wife, but rather what it means to be human, and civilized, in the shadow of a collapsing civilization.

Merge / Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to OblivionMerge / Disciple: Two Short Novels from Crosstown to Oblivion by Walter Mosley

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I opened this novel expecting a mystery and was amazed to find myself reading about an encounter with an alien. Mosley writes science fiction – who knew! I don’t read so much science fiction any more (my dad belonged to a science fiction book club, and I grew up reading whatever they sent him), but I like Mosley, so I plunged into Merge, about a formerly down and out young man, Rahl, who has won the lottery and quit his minimum wage job to spend his days reading the Popular Educator Library. When aliens land on Earth, only Rahl seems to have the right vibes to connect (quite literally) with one of them, and the merge of the title refers to the desire of the soon-to-be-homeless aliens to merge with mankind and live on Earth.

Disciple, the other novella, follows the journey of a 42-year-old data entry clerk, fat and unloved, who has given up on life until he is unexpectedly contacted on his computer screen by an alien of enormous power and intellect and called upon to become either the Earth’s savior or its destroyer – or perhaps a bit of both.

I enjoyed both novellas. Like most – perhaps all – science fiction, the story is a vehicle for pondering cosmic questions like sentience and love and the place of man in the universe. Mosley’s protagonists are flawed, unassuming antiheroes whose greatness – if that’s what it is – is thrust upon them rather than sought after. The reader may wince at scenes that graphically depict man’s racism and inhumanity, but Mosley also imagines other, higher planes of existence than ours, giving us an intriguing tour through alien minds and worlds.

Mosley has written four other novellas for his Crosstown to Oblivion series. I plan to seek them out.

Short Stories (2)

Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen

 

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December by George Saunders

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Tenth of December is a volume of short stories, and, in fact, Saunders writes chiefly short stories and novellas. I’m not a great fan of short stories; I’ll read them if a favorite writer has written some, but I don’t seek them out, largely because they often make me feel as if I didn’t quite get the point. I like to write long fiction, and that’s what I like to read.

But I kept hearing about George Saunders and how fabulous he was, so when I spotted his latest collection at the library, I brought it home. I read the first story, "Victory Lap."

There’s a British expression "gobsmacked", which means, literally, smacked in the mouth (gob) i.e. astonished, amazed. But gobsmacked sounds more emphatic, and that’s what I felt after reading that first Saunders story: gobsmacked.

I felt similarly amazed at the end of each story. I was captivated as a reader – I felt that I was in the heads of these characters, who were, no matter how odd or grotesque, portrayed as deeply human. I understood them; they were dear to me. And the settings were as diverse and imaginative as the characters.

I was also captivated as a writer; so much so that I re-read the stories. How does he do it? I kept wondering. How does he cram so much information into so few words? How does he manage to write in so many distinct voices? How does he offer hope in these dark stories without their seeming mawkish? How does he make dialog that is so funny but still natural? To wit:

"And the Flemings are awfully charming," he said.

"And the good they do!" she said. "They flew a planeload of babies over here."

"Russian babies," he said. "With harelips."

"Soon as the babies arrived, they were whisked into various operating rooms all around the country," she said. "And who paid?"

"The Flemings," he said.

"Didn’t they also set aside some money for college?" she said. "For the Russians?"

"Those kids went from being disabled in a collapsing nation to being set for life in the greatest country in the world," he said. "And who did this? A corporation? The government?"


"One private couple," she said.

"A truly visionary pair of folks," he said.

There was a long, admiring pause.

"Although you’d never know it by how harshly he speaks to her," she said.

"Well, she can be awfully harsh with him as well," he said.

"Sometimes it’s just him being harsh with her and her being harsh right back," she said.

"It’s like the chicken or the egg," he said.

"Only with harshness," she said.

"Still, you can’t help but love the Flemings," he said.

"We should be so wonderful," she said. "When was the last time we rescued a Russian baby?"

"Well, we do all right," he said. "We can’t afford to fly a bunch of Russian babies over here, but I think, in our own limited way, we do just fine."

"We can’t even fly over one Russian," she said. "Even a Canadian baby with a harelip would be beyond our means."

"We could probably drive up there and pick one up," he said. "But then what? We can’t afford the surgery and can’t afford the college. So the baby’s just sitting here, in America instead of Canada, still with the lip issue."

Who can resist that?

I’m still re-reading these stories, and you can bet I’ll be reading his other books as soon as I can lay my hands on them.

The Hypothetical GirlThe Hypothetical Girl by Elizabeth Cohen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book consists of a series of short stories about online dating, which is a mystery to me, since I’m married and predate it. The first one, "Animal Dancing", is charming – a woman’s fond hopes that this mysterious other with whom she has communicated will prove to be exactly what he seems online. Will an in-person encounter wreck the illusions of both parties?

Other stories are darker, but they bump along like real life – sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. Since online relationships are an unexplored country to me, I found the stories interesting for that alone, but I imagine that those for whom the computer is a necessary component of romance will also find something to like. In "Dog People," the heroine Clarissa confides to her friend that she met an interesting man yesterday in the park.

‘Oh, wow,’ Molly wrote back. ‘A real-world man. You don’t hear much about that anymore.’

‘No,’ Clarissa agreed. ‘You don’t.’

They stopped typing for a moment, each one thinking about what the implications of real world men might be.

‘Flesh and bone could have some pluses,’ Molly said, ‘like none of that awful confusion in e-mails, not getting the tone right.’

‘True, and no chance he would just vanish one day from your inbox. Like if he met someone else and just poof!’

And the author writes well. Listen to the beginning of one of the stories:

It was the time of year when the helicopter seeds twirled down onto the sidewalks like girls showing off at a dance, when the bee balm bushes wore their best purple frocks and the whole world seemed, to Chloe, tricked out for love. Contrary to popular sentiment, Shakespeare and all that, she thought autumn, not spring, was love season. Everything was overripe, lustily clad, luscious beyond luscious, ready to go.

I was ready for love after that paragraph. Still, this is not a squishy and sentimental book, but a thoughtful and funny look at contemporary love.

Suspense (7)

A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn
A Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava
A Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend
All The Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova
Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr
Screwed by Eoin Colger
The Dinosaur Hunter by Homer Hickam

 

A Guide for the Perplexed A Guide for the Perplexed by Dara Horn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Great title, and not what I expected. Judith feels dull and ordinary next to her spectacular younger sister Josie Ashkenazi, a beautiful, vibrant over-the-top genius who has invented a computer program for keeping memories that has made her beloved as well as wealthy. Josie is married to a fellow genius and has a child – has everything, as far as her sister can tell. Judith craves Josie’s life and when her sister is abducted in Egypt, Judith is presented with the opportunity to commandeer it.

Interwoven with Josie and Judith’s story is that of professor Solomon Schlecter, who in 1894 is searching for ancient manuscripts in Egypt, especially those of Moses Maimonides, a medieval physician, writer, and philosopher, whose story we also learn.

This is, surprisingly, is a suspense novel, albeit it an unusual one, so I won’t give away any plot points. But the reader can find a lot to enjoy besides the suspense, mainly the ideas: moral responsibility; the power of words; brother and sister relationships; spirituality, particularly Jewish spirituality; the power and the obligation of forgiveness; the persistence and the deception of memory. It’s also fun to find the parallels between and within the three narratives.

The author creates flawed characters who keep our sympathies even when they are behaving badly – and Judith behaves very badly. But she surprises us, as does each character, and that is one of the pleasures of reading this novel – the surprises are real, but believable. I quite liked this book.

A Naked SingularityA Naked Singularity by Sergio De La Pava

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve wanted to read this novel for a while – it’s one of those novels that everyone rejected, the author self-published, and then critics discovered. It’s now published by the University of Chicago.

And I loved it. Loved it! But a few disclaimers before you plunge in.

  • It’s very long – 674 pages. I like a long book, but this one is a slow starter, and I found the first few pages confusing. But hang in there, dear reader, and you will soon be rewarded.
  • No quotation marks for the first 43 pages, which are primarily dialogue. This is a drawback, although once you get into the rhythm of it, you don’t notice so much.
  • Many digressions. Just go with the flow. De la Pava wrote this book exactly as he wanted, and the reader goes along for the ride.

But what a great ride! The protagonist, Casi, is a public defender in Brooklyn, and one of the first great scenes in the book plays out as Casi meets with each of his clients for the evening prior to their pleading. Here’s the first interview:

The first case I looked at was Darril Thorton, a yellowback charged with Sex Abuse in the First Degree (PL ɠ130.65130.65). I called his name softly, hoping he wouldn’t answer, but he immediately moved in, a let’s-get-this-over-with look on his face. He spoke first, obviously yelling but still creating only a barely audible signal:
-noise background,

My getting out or what?!

My money’s on what, followed by a pause long enough to be uncomfortable.

Oh, c’mon, I didn’t do nothing man! This is bullshit you got to get me up out of here on the double yo, she’s lying on me!

Easy, hold on, let’s start at the top. Here’s my card. My name’s Casi, I’m going to be your attorney. Let’s see, well, you’re charged with Sex Abuse in the First Degree, that’s a Class D violent felony.

Wait let me see this, holding the ivory rectangle up to the bar-streaked light and nodding negatively, un-uh.

What, uh-uh?

I don’t want you man, starting to walk out but not really.

Why? What’s the problem?

Because man, sitting back down, I wanted an l8B, only thing you guys ever did for me is send me upstate man. No offense but that’s just keeping it real on your ass, pointing but not at it.

Well, whatever, you’re sort of stuck with me so let’s just see how it goes for a bit okay?

No.

Who’s Valerie Griffin?

Man you all right. Okay she’s a crackhead. That’s what I’m trying to tell you officer, I mean lawyer. She’s making up some crazy stuff, everybody knows she’s a fabricator and a confabulator. Everybody knows it!

You know that for a fact?

What, that she confabulates?

No, that she’s a crackhead.

Everybody knows!

This goes on for nearly forty pages – not just this defendant, but a parade of them. It’s certainly an effective way to show the reader the sad state of the judicial system, as it’s quickly apparent that the guilty will not be given a fair shake by the system, and even the innocent are doomed.

Casi is trying hard to do what he can – he’s twenty-four and has yet to lose a case, but it’s little enough. And when an unfair judge hands Casi’s client his first-ever guilty verdict, he is so distraught that he agrees to take part in a drug money heist with a colleague, an event whose planning, execution, and outcome occupy the second half of the book.

This bare-bones description of the plot does little to describe the sprawl and scope of the book, which includes the life story of a boxer from the Dominican Republic, a recipe for empanadas,a few scenes that read like hallucinations and endless philosophical discussions with his friends and colleagues which sound nothing like the dialogue he records at the beginning of the book.

In fact, the writing is generally formal and often convoluted.

Except that almost none of those precepts, those truly tried snippets and individually-wrapped datum that I thought I knew because they’d never previously failed to attach to that fact pattern to the extent that they reflexively exited my mouth promising to reassure with routine, would apply here to DeLeon. And this much should’ve been clear to me from jump based on the eyes I saw.

Because the four eyes that then entered the room were not dull and surrounded by the usual jaded masticated skin so endemic to that spent system. That skin that practically beseeched the clock to tick with greater speed, skin that announced a vacancy and slouched in its chair to make evening plans at 2:00 p.m. no, the eyes I saw then had casually shed that skin and instead now pierced the room with brilliant beams of light; and cast in this new light was the story of how the world looks to a twenty-year-old and what it becomes to a thirty-five-year-old.

But somehow the prose all makes sense in context, and I didn’t find it difficult to read. And Casi is a sympathetic character, one that we root for.

This is a difficult book to explain. The reader can find things to quibble about, but the approach I recommend is to sink into the novel, let it carry you away, and savor the experience.

A Nearly Perfect CopyA Nearly Perfect Copy by Allison Amend

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This story takes place in the art world in two different lives: one, a woman with a coveted “good eye” for art, who works at a Manhattan auction house, and the other a frustrated Spanish painter in Paris with a talent for copying.

I had to think twice about reading this book, as the woman is a mother grieving the loss of her eight-year-old son, swept away by the tsunami when the family was vacationing in Thailand. I have six children and sometimes these books hit too close to the bone. But Elm, short for Elmira, managed to engage my sympathy.

She’d never known how many different kinds of tears there were until Ronan died. Like a parody of the old saw about all the Eskimo words for snow – tears of frustration, of hurt, pain, anger, angst. And now there were new tears to discover all the time, vast galaxies of hidden stars and satellites of pain that orbited into view.

The painter, Gabriel, feels a different sort of pain. He feels disconnected from his own voice as a painter, although he can channel the painting style of his famous painter grandfather at will. And he is the eternal outsider, a Spaniard in France, who often finds it difficult to express himself in French. When the beautiful Collette, also in the art world, becomes his lover, he knows at once that she is out of his league financially, but he is desperate to keep her.

Gabriel’s and Elm’s different losses lead them down different, but eventually intersecting paths, which is the most I can say without spoiling the plot.

Elmira ultimately makes a decision that is crazy and ruinous – or is it? The reader will have to decide for herself, in this thought-provoking and well-written novel.

All the Dead Yale MenAll the Dead Yale Men by Craig Nova

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Here it is, a book that I really liked, by an author I’d never heard of, who has written 14 other novels, only one of which I am familiar with – The Good Son. the Dead Yale Men is a sequel, so I will be sure to go back and read the original, which is his most acclaimed work. (And how have I not known about this author all these years? I feel cheated.)

What do you do if you are the district prosecutor in Boston and you find yourself "in trouble" and on the way to ask your father for advice, he dies of an aneurysm? And before you can follow him to the hospital, the police call to say that your colleague is poised to jump from Tobin Bridge, and wants to speak to you only? And your brilliant, beautiful only daughter, who should be entering Harvard Law in the fall, is threatening instead to take off with a small time crook and hustler?

If you are Frank Mackinnon, you read Thucydides. You row alone on the Charles River. You visit the family property in the woods near Delaware and you read the journals that your grandmother stashed in the attic. And you consider doing something stupid.

What struck me through the first chapters was the accelerating sense of dread. For example, from Frank’s dad, Chip:

‘I’ll give you a little word of advice, Frank,’ he said. ‘It’s Chip Mackinnon’s third rule. I’ve never mentioned it before. But this is it: the truth is a dangerous substance.’

From Frank:

Sometimes it is all a muddle. Or, maybe it is better to say that I have discovered some rules, too, and one of them is that events, particularly trouble, don’t come with an even distribution, but in clumps, as though one large event has a gravity that attracts others.

From Frank again, upon meeting his daughter’s boyfriend:

So there it was: not the thing I was always afraid of, but a new aspect I had never dreamed of. And it’s at moments like this, when you stand at the abyss, where all the potential is right there, that you realize what it means to love someone. The shock, of course, is that you think you understand this, but you don’t really until that dark tentacle, that change in light, that possibility of a horror that is at once so ordinary and so appalling has made itself apparent. It walks in the door and tries to look like Kurt Cobain.

Nova’s prose knocks me out. "We went downhill in that light just before dawn, which is not the darkest, but the most blue, with the trees emerging like imploring shapes, the limbs black on blue as though that world with all the phantoms gives up its hold on earth grudgingly. . ." and so on. I could spend my whole review quoting.

The characters are flesh and blood. We care about them and their struggles, especially the hapless narrator, who has brought his troubles on himself. (Something we can all identify with, no doubt.) We wish that we could figure out to solve his problems, and we hold our collective breath as we read, hoping that things turn out all right, but afraid they won’t.

Prague Fatale Prague Fatale by Philip Kerr

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like fiction set in and around World War II (as long as it’s not mostly about battles) and have long been a fan of novelist Alan Furst. Philip Kerr also sets his novels in that time period, but on the other side of the Maginot Line, as it were; his protagonist, Bernie Gunther, is an honest German police detective living in Berlin. The premise is fascinating to me: what reader hasn’t wondered how he would have reacted to Nazism and Hitler? Through Gunther, the reader finds out just how much sacrifice an honest life requires.

In Prague Fatale, Gunther has just returned from an assignment at the Eastern front, so sickened by the mass executions he has witnessed (and, the reader thinks, has either taken part in or assented to, although we don’t have details) that he seriously considers and reconsiders suicide.

While investigating the murder of a foreign worker, he is told to join the new Reichsprotector of Bohemia, General Reinhard Heydrich, nicknamed "the Hangman", at a conclave of Nazi higher-ups. Although the stated purpose for Gunther’s presence is to find an assassin targeting Heydrich among the guests, the murder of an adjutant soon convinces Gunther that there is a more sinister motive afoot.

The murder in itself could have fueled a mystery novel, as it is one of those locked-room puzzles, but intrigue and espionage are rampant everywhere. General Heydrich values Gunther’s brutal honesty because most of his staff are sycophants too frightened to speak the truth to him. But speaking the truth in Nazi Germany is a risky business, even when a superior requests it.

Gunther has foolishly (in retrospect) allowed his most recent romantic liaison to accompany him to Prague, where there is an active wartime resistance. He is in love with Arienne, although he does not entirely trust her. I can reveal no more of the plot. But there is also plenty of atmosphere, including wonderfully detailed descriptions of wartime Berlin:

There was very little beer and often none at all. . . The sour, brown, brackish water that we nursed bitterly in our glasses reminded me most of the liquid-filled shell holes and still pools of no-man’s-land in which, sometimes, we had been obliged to take cover. For a Berliner, that really was a misfortune. Spirits were impossible to come by, and all of this meant that it was almost impossible to get drunk and escape from oneself, which, late at night, often left me cleaning my pistol. . .

. . .German munitions were always good; I could testify to the continuing excellence of ammunition and the weapons that fired it. But everything else was broken or second-rate or substitute or closed or unavailable or in short supply. And tempers, like rations, were in the shortest supply of all. The cross-looking black bear on our proud city’s coat of arms began to look like a typical Berliner, growling at a fellow passenger on the S-Bahn, roaring at an indifferent butcher as he gave you only half of the bacon your card said you were entitled to, or threatening a neighbor in your building with some Party big shot who would come and fix him good.

A bonus is that a number of the characters were real people and the situations in the novel are historical events. Heydrich, for instance, was assassinated by a Czech national, as happens in the book (and we learn this on the first page, so I haven’t given away anything.)

The best way to experience a war, I’m sure, is second-hand, and Kerr gives us a means of seeing it through German eyes. It’s a dark vision, but fortunately Gunther has a sense of humor that allows us to read on and experience enough of it to know it’s something we would never want. (However, I do want more of Bernie Gunther, and there are an additional seven novels available.)

Screwed (Daniel McEvoy, #2)Screwed by Eoin Colfer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Once upon a time I read Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl books to my youngest son. For children, they were a little edgy, I thought; the author himself described the series as "’Die Hard with fairies.’" I could imagine him writing for adults, and now he has.

Screwed is the second novel (yes, you can read them out of order) starring protagonist Dan McAvoy, an Irish immigrant and former UN peacekeeper who owns a crummy bar in New Jersey and surrounds himself with a quirky group of friends – a shady plastic surgeon (they are linked by the "blood and shrapnel" of combat), a psychotic girlfriend who recognizes him only about half the time – and a scary bunch of enemies.

When I read this book, I thought "Elmore Leonard" because it’s very funny. Then I dipped into it again just now, to look for some funny passages to quote, and noticed how dark and violent it is. And so it is, but I mostly found it funny because the inner dialogue of the protagonist is unrelentingly comical – as his psychologist points out in the novel, McAvoy uses humor as a coping mechanism.

Fabulous. I’m expendable. When have I ever been anything else? They’re gonna scrawl that on my body bag I get buried in. What’s-his-name was expendable.

Or

There’s only one iron left in the fire now. It ain’t my iron and I didn’t light the fire but I gotta put it out before this metaphor gets away from me and no one has a clue what the hell I’m talking about.

Or

Fortz is living proof that evolution goes both ways. He’s got the aforementioned helmet-head look going on, with a skull that shines like a buffed bowling ball. The man is completely hairless as far as I can see and his features seem to belong to a much smaller face. It’s as if his head kept growing but his eyes, nose and mouth said screw it at about age fifteen.

So, although I am not a fan of the dark and violent, I seem to like funny noir, and Screwed is both. Just think of Eoin Colfer as Elmore Leonard’s twisted, younger Irish cousin.

The Dinosaur Hunter The Dinosaur Hunter by Homer Hickam

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I always think of Homer Hickam as a writer for men. I enjoyed The Ambassador’s Son, an adventure tale set on a Pacific island in World War II. The main characters were nearly all men in that book. The Dinosaur Hunter is set in Montana, and the narrator is a former California homicide detective turned cowboy. His unrequited love is also his employer, a laconic ranch owner named Jeanne, who surprises Mike (the cowboy) by allowing a dinosaur hunter and his crew on her property to look for fossils.

Western property rights are practically a character in this book. Ranchers are very touchy about anyone setting foot on their property without prior permission, including land leased for grazing from the federal Bureau of Land Management.

The jacket describes this book as a thriller. I wouldn’t go that far. Suspenseful, perhaps. And well-constructed. Slaughtered cattle begin to turn up – as a warning – and to whom? The dinosaur hunters persist in the face of opposition, and the reader learns a lot about fossil hunting, discovery, and uncovering as the paleontologists uncover a significant new find and Mike the cowboy tries to figure out who is trying to double-cross whom.

The weakest part of the book is the author’s depiction of the women in Mike’s life. He is in love with Jeanne, or so he insists, but this doesn’t stop him from sleeping with the mayor, nor from falling for the sexy female Russian fossil hunter who is working for the head dinosaur hunter. I was not convinced, myself.

But the book was otherwise enjoyable, and quite instructive about fossil hunting, which the author himself does as a hobby in the summers.

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