It’s a Mystery: A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Martha Stewart wannabe CC de Poitiers has invaded the tranquility of the picture postcard village of Three Pines, buying up the somewhat creepy mansion in which Inspector Gamache’s last bloody case was brought to a close.  Moving in with her henpecked husband and gifted but unloved daughter, CC manages to cast a pall even over the idyllic Christmas Eve service. She’s also shamelessly purloined the ideas of the villagers  to publish in her new book as her own. So when CC  winds up dead by electrocution during the traditional holiday curling tournament, no one is surprised or sorry. But Gamache must investigate anyway, and has got his work cut out for him. The situation is complicated by the reassignment of agent Yvette Nichol to his squad,  who did her utmost to undermine that last investigation. Then there’s the murder of  a homeless woman in Montreal, a seemingly unrelated crime that turns out to have serious connections to CC’s death.

The charm of this series lies less in its police procedural aspects than in watching Gamache, a serious student of human nature, piece together tiny bits of evidence and intuitions to formulate a coherent theory to pursue. While  occasionally threatening to spill over into the cozy genre, this is avoided by the inclusion of unusual settings and experiences, in this case the curling match and  certain parallels to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  The behavior of seemingly honest and harmless villagers can also be deceiving. There is no such person in Three Pines or in Gamache’s wider sphere of influence, excepting perhaps, his wife Reine Marie. Like Guido Brunetti in Donna Leon’s series, Armand Gamache is a man of intelligence and humanity, someone you’d like to get to know.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Modern Lit: Rooms, by Lauren Oliver

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Already well known as a successful writer of young adult novels, Lauren Oliver ventures into the adult market with  Rooms.  Long estranged from their wealthy husband/ father, the Walkers return to their former home in upstate New York for his funeral. Each of them has brought a parcel of personal struggles along with their baggage, and in the days before the service, long buried memories bubble up to the surface, compounding their distress. Only one of the family, teenaged son Trenton, realizes that they are not alone in the house; two of the former residents, now long dead, have failed to move on.

The stories and circumstances of each of the six main characters are told from their own points of view in a series of alternating vignettes. These play out within a specific room in the house, which accounts for the book’s title. These people are all interesting in his/her own right, and each is emotionally distanced from the others, locked in their own misery. Each is preoccupied with thoughts of their own deaths, and not merely because of the funeral. Their depression is palpable, and it’s easy to see why the ghosts have yet to move on. For me, the most compelling characters are Trenton,  and the shades of Alice and Sandra, who were each in early middle age when they died.  Yes, their capacity for denial and repression is strong, but these three have cracks in their armor into which slices of honesty keep filtering. Perhaps that is why Trenton senses, hears, and sees faint manifestations of the spirits, especially when they comment  between themselves (sometimes humorously) about the Walkers.

One of the most popular songs of 2014 is Let It Go, from Disney’s Frozen.  One of the recurring tropes in Rooms is the phrase, “You’ve got to learn to let go.” This is a lesson that everyone absorbs during the last quarter of the book, in greater or lesser degrees, as they are forced by a series of unexpected shocks that turn what they thought they knew upside down,   to confront the truths that are holding them in misery. Yes, there is reason to hope, even though none of us can entirely know another.

Modern Lit: The Fountain of St. James Court, by Sena Jeter Naslund

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

imageFor the past decade, Sena Jeta Naslund has been writing novels with distinctly literary themes, drawing on material first treated by such giants as Herman Melville (Ahab’s Wife) and A. Conan Doyle (Sherlock in Love). Now she gives a nod to James Joyce and Virginia Woolf in The Fountain at St. James, or The Portrait of An Artist as an Old Woman.

There are two female protagonists in Fountain, one imaginary and the other real. Kathryn Callaghan is a 21st century novelist who has just completed the first draft of a biographical novel. The subject of that novel is famed 18th century portraitist Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, who painted highly acclaimed works of Marie Antoinette and her courtiers. Kathryn’s story takes place within a single day, as she takes stock of her life, now that she’s in her sixties and contemplating how best to spend her final years. In doing so, she learns something about how far she will go to protect those she loves.  Interspersed with Kathryn’s experience is a reading of  her new novel, told in the first person by the artist herself.

Of the two lives presented here, Vigee-Le Brun’s is by far the most momentous. As she dares to become the most pre-eminent female painter of her time, Elisabeth tells about her childhood with a much-loved father, her relationship with the Queen of France, and her flight from the horrors of the French Revolution. Along the way, she will lose the person she most loves, her daughter Julie. But to my mind, Kathryn’s story is the more compelling one, as she comes to terms with love, loss, and age,  and finds the courage to  ward off  a very real threat to the life of her own beloved son. While Elisabeth thinks of her life in visual, artistic terms, Kathryn relates hers to literature and its themes. But both spend considerable energy reflecting on the relationships that defined their work, their lives, and the choices that each made.

As a novel, Fountain is deeply contemplative rather than action-based, and as a result, lags in many places. Still, the novel-within-a novel structure is interesting, and as always, Ms. Naslund’s writing is eloquent and evocative.

Kid-Lit: Mary Poppins, by P. L. Travers

my rating: 3 of 5 stars

Having read Mary Poppins as a kid, and watched the movie version as a teen, I was recently inspired to read the classic again after seeing Saving Mr. Banks. For those who haven’t read this book, a caution before opening it: the literary Mary Poppins is nothing like her movie persona. Well, she does have the carpet bag and the famous umbrella with the parrot head (you can buy one of your own for a mere $40 from the Disney Stores), and she can do magical things. But, or perhaps I should say BUT, Mary Poppins is certainly not all sweetness and light. As for Bert, in the book he sells matches, makes chalk drawings, and appears only in one chapter. And nobody sings. Still charming after all these years,  P. L. Travers’ Mary Poppins, P.L. Travers’ classic children’s novel, is an old-fashioned story that can be considered a sort of early Harry Potter story, in the English tradition. The Banks family is wealthy enough  that Mr. and Mrs. don’t have to do housework or pay much attention to their four young children, and it’s unclear what Mrs. does all day while her husband’s working at the bank, “making money”.   When their umpteenth nanny quits,  Mary Poppins blows in on the east wind, bringing with her a rather acerbic manner characterized by strictness, sarcasm, and never a hint of coddling. Though not pretty, she is vain and enjoys dressing well and admiring her reflection in shop windows. She settles right in, and proceeds to lead Michael and Jane on a series of amazing adventures, where people can sit up in the air, animals talk, and a trip around the world can be made in an hour or so. These adventures are meant to convey lessons about proper behavior and pro-social attitudes, but I think younger readers, unless particularly perspicacious, might need to have this pointed out to them. They might also miss some of the amusing, but subtle and dry humor scattered about. Whimsical and somewhat sophisticated for its place and time. Just as the book Mary Poppins is not the movie Mary Poppins, neither was the writer P. L. Travers the movie P. L. Travers. But that’s a different story indeed.

It’s a Mystery: More Than Meets the Eye, By J.M. Gregson

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My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Sissinghurst,  one of the greatest of English gardens,  is the inspiration for Westbourne, the very interesting setting of  More Than Meets the Eye. Westbourne’s director, Dennis Cooper, loves his job, but possesses many irritating habits, such as collecting dirt on his employees,  that make him less than a favorite among the staff. When Cooper’s lifeless body is found on the grounds, Inspectors Lambert and Hook encounter many likely suspects. Author Gregson provides each of them with chapters of their own, and the mystery unfolds as the chapters alternate.  Rather than planting red herrings, he provides each character with very good reasons for wanting Cooper dead.  The reader never becomes certain about who really did it. So, More Than Meets the Eye works well  as a bona fide whodunnit, but, in this episode at least, the investigators, DSI Lambert and DI Hook, come across as rather flat. I found myself rooting more for the suspects than for the cops, and, no doubt as the author intended, felt considerable sympathy for the murderer. Let’s hope he/she is only charged with manslaughter!

Modern Lit: Survival of the Fittest, by Robin Hawdon

Survival of the Fittest

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books defy classification within a single genre, and that is true of Survival of the Fittest, a new novel by British playwright and actor Robin Hawdon. Part historical fiction, part mystery, and part spiritual/philosophical  journey, it’s based upon the private, unpublished papers of Charles Darwin and his wife, Emma. Following the recent trend of splitting plots into two or three subplots, Survival opens with depressed widower and London book dealer Maurice Aldridge, who after four years has yet to emerge from his grief over the death of his wife. Maurice relies upon his work and frequent dips into the whiskey stash in his desk to get him through the day. His routine is interrupted one morning by a visit from an American collector of rare books, who want Maurice, for a princely sum, to track down copies of the private journal of Emma Darwin, and the addendum in which the great scientist himself spells out his own beliefs about the existence of God. Both of these prizes have been the topic of rumors for 150 years, but to date, no one has managed to locate either. Maurice is in for the adventure of his life.

Interspersed between Maurice’s chapters are segments from the journals of Mrs. Darwin, in which she details her deepest concerns about the spiritual well being of her husband, whom she fears (and many believe today) has imperiled his soul by daring to denying God’s role in creation. She paints a vivid picture of family life, which was full of love, loss, the raising of ten children, and some very odorous scientific research, and these passages vividly portray Darwin as man rather than icon.

The third major character in Survival is writing from prison in 1951. Klaus Fuchs is a physicist who worked at Los Alamos on the development of the atomic bomb that put an end to the Second World War. During that period, he was working as a secret agent, providing the Russians with the project details, and following the war was convicted of treason and espionage. With so much time on his hands, Fuchs sets himself to describing the many reasons, most quite moral, profound and philosophical, which guided his actions.

Judging by this novel, Robin Hawdon is a fine author, his writing intelligent, clear, and engaging. His characters nearly step out of the pages, all three protagonists struggling with serious, life altering questions. Their emotions and experiences become those of the reader, and linger in the mind after the book has been closed. This is a work of fiction that could be taken as biography, and has prompted me to look more deeply into Darwin’s life and work. It’s also a first rate detective story, with its full share of surprises and turnabouts.

Enjoyable, thought provoking, and wholly worthwhile.

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It’s a Mystery: Cemetery Girl, by David J. Bell

Cemetery Girl
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Four years ago, Tom and Abby lost their only child, a daughter who disappeared one day while walking her dog. Abby has given up hope, but Tom clings to the slim chance that Caitlin is still alive. Similarly, Abby has given up on the marriage, but Tom clings to what little they have left. The first part of Cemetery Girl paints a somber, realistic, and compassionate picture of the terrible trauma these events have visited upon both parents, but especially Tom.
Then, out of the blue, Tom is contacted by a young exotic dancer who claims to have seen Caitlin. Tom is overjoyed, almost maniacally thrilled, but Abby is frightened and uncertain. The remainder of the novel follows Tom as he attempts to cope with possibilities and untenable realities. As the plot unfolds, his memories of his own childhood and his abusive stepfather resurface, and Tom loses all ability to think and act rationally. Those to whom he turns for advice and support have little to offer him, and it is only circumstance that will determine what becomes of him.

This story is a dark, distressing one, in which all of the characters struggle with deep psychological disturbance. Some of them are coldly detached, while the others wallow in an emotional morass. Oddly, not one entertains the idea that some competent psychotherapy and judicious use of medication could help them make better decisions. Cemetery Girl is a tragedy in the truest, classical sense of the word.

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Historical Fiction: Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

P.D. James, declared by no less a source than the NY Times to be England’s “most talented practitioner” of British Crime Fiction, makes a departure from her contemporary work to visit the world of Jane Austen. In Death Comes to Pemberley, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Elizabeth Bennett have been Happily Married for several years and are the Parents of two Young Sons (and Heirs). Elizabeth’s impetuous sister, fans will recall, is married to the roguish and ever unfaithful George Wickham, who is Decidedly Not Welcome at Pemberley. In the course of arriving as uninvited guests, Wickham becomes involved in the death of his close friends, which takes place during a stormy night in the Pemberley woodlands. He’s accused of murder, of which even Darcy refuses to consider him capable. Soon Wickham will be on trial for his life.

Ms. James is the consummate author, and she does a more than creditable job of channeling the Regency era among the aristocracy. The plot is simple, and Darcy is no Dalgliesh, but it’s a great pleasure to follow the course of this charming story, which does capture the tenor of Jane Austen’s fictional world. The Darcy marriage is, of course, idyllic, and he never neglects the opportunity to declare his love for his wife. He calls her Elizabeth, but we don’t know what she calls him, as I can’t recollect ever seeing her use a name. Fitzwilliam? Wills? Billyboy? Fitz? Alas, we’ll Never Know. I’m generally Not Fond of books in which authors confiscate the Famous Characters of others, but in the case of the brilliant P.D.J., I’ve made an exception.

Nothing short of Delightful.

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It’s a Mystery: Upon a Dark Night, by Peter Lovesey

Upon A Dark Night (Peter Diamond, #5)
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s a mystery, and a cracking good one. Upon a Dark Night opens with a case of amnesia, a young woman found unconscious in a hospital parking lot. “Rose” is released into the care of Bath Social Services, and is soon reunited with her step-sister. In the meantime, head of murder squad Peter Diamond is bored and listless, in the absence of any murder cases, stuck working on an apparent suicide and a woman who fell off a roof. He won’t be bored for long.

Though his colleagues believe Diamond has set off on a wild goose chase, he’s convinced that more than coincidence lies behind these seemingly unrelated but concurrent events. His thinking is propelled, though he’d never admit it, by the brazen, colorful, tenacious Ada Shaftsbury, the homeless woman with “form” for shoplifting who lived with both Rose and the faller. Ada doesn’t hold with coincidence or accident, and Diamond takes some very flimsy evidence and soon has a puzzler on his hands. Nothing he likes better. And nothing that devoted mysteries like better either. Though plenty of clues are dropped along the way, solving this case is no slam dunk. An intricate plot, a motley cast of lively characters, a brilliant detective, and the setting in Bath make Upon a Dark Night a delightful way to spend your precious reading time.

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Monday Morning Poem: A Something in a Summer’s Day

by Emily Dickinson

A something in a summer’s Day
As slow her flambeaux burn away

Nordic Summer Evening, Richard Bergh (public domain via Wikimedia)

Which solemnizes me.

A something in a summer’s noon –
A depth — an Azure — a perfume –
Transcending ecstasy.

And still within a summer’s night
A something so transporting bright
I clap my hands to see –

Then veil my too inspecting face
Lets such a subtle — shimmering grace
Flutter too far for me –

The wizard fingers never rest –
The purple brook within the breast
Still chafes it narrow bed –

Still rears the East her amber Flag –
Guides still the sun along the Crag
His Caravan of Red –

So looking on — the night — the morn
Conclude the wonder gay –
And I meet, coming thro’ the dews
Another summer’s Day!