Thriller: The Whisperer, by Donato Carrisi

The Whisperer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Italian screen writer Donato Carrisi enters the serial killer genre with his first novel, The Whisperer, which has won multiple, well deserved literary prizes and has been published in multiple languages. The angle in which he presents this case is a fresh one, in which two criminology specialists join local police to track down a killer who has murdered 5 young girls and appears to have abducted an 6th. The perpetrator knows much more about the police than they do about him, and he delights in tormenting them with severed arms, dolled up corpses, and dead end leads. This main theme is surrounded by multiple subplots which involve individual investigators on the team, each as compelling and important as the main plot, and just as surprising. As a result, the reader experiences pretty much what the investigators experience. Furthermore, we are never informed as to where these crimes are taking place, though the atmosphere is more European than American; it’s easy, therefore, to understand the fact that this type of evil is universal. This is a tough book to enjoy, because of its horrific chain of evidence, but the constant cycle of dashed hopes, uncertainty, and psychological discoveries make it impossible to abandon. It could easily be the stuff of nightmares, but the writing is controlled enough to avoid turning it into a slasher movie. I wish I could have read The Whisperer in the original Italian, because while the translation is competent enough, you can tell that the translator is not a native speaker of English, and I suspect that some of Carrisi’s polish is dulled in places.

Recommended for readers interested in mysteries that challenge the intellect as well as grab and hold one’s interest. Not an easy book to forget, on par with The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.

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Fall’s Coming, But Not Just Yet

On this beautiful late August afternoon, during the lull between tour groups at Nathan Hale Homestead in Coventry, CT,  I took a stroll around the museum grounds and noticed quite a few early signs of autumn, which is still three weeks away. Out came my iPhone and I photographed my favorites. Fall is a very evocative season in these parts, actually my favorite, for its warm, dry days and chilly evenings, not to mention the riot of color that surrounds us out here in the country. But that’s still in the future, and today I took much pleasure in the experiencing the last third of our current summer.

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Goldenrod begins to bloom in late July to reach its peak around now, bright and full for a few more days before it begins to turn brown. Contrary to popular opinion, goldenrod is not a plant that causes allergies. Up with goldenrod, down with ragweed!

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The corn is a high as an elephant’s eye….

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Hops! Just about ready for picking, but not enough, alas, to make beer.

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Pokeweed, with its prolific crop of berries about to turn purple. I like to use this with school groups, to make ink for our spy class documents.

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Our junior docents are already hard at work preparing for our haunted corn maze, which takes place on late September, early October weekend evenings. Especially fun when there’s no moon, which makes the maze even darker and spookier. First the props, then the costumes. It’s their favorite event of the year, and possibly our most popular.

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Modern Lit: Flora, by Gail Godwin

Flora

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Helen Anstruther has experienced a lot of loss in her young life. Her mother died when Helen was only three, and she has been raised by Nonie, her paternal grandmother, who dies shortly after the novel opens in the spring of 1945. Helen’s father is an unhappy, acerbic school principal who drinks too much, and when the school year ends, he takes a temporary job in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, doing secret war work. Because Helen needs looking after, he hires a distant cousin, the twenty two year old Flora, to be her nanny for the summer.

Helen is an intelligent, curious girl who has spent most of her time with adults, which is reflected in her speech and attitudes. She misses her grandmother terribly, and imagines hearing her voice when she needs advice. Helen is full of herself, and thinks she is superior, and Flora impresses her as a simple minded hick. Much of the novel centers on Helen’s “managing” Flora so she can have her own way. While Helen is often sarcastic and disdainful, Flora is unwaveringly caring and supportive. In July, Helen loses her two closest friends when one moves away and the other is hospitalized with polio. Though she regrets the situation, she rather cold-heartedly fails to contact either of them. When discharged paratrooper Devlin Finn, now a grocery delivery man, makes an appearance, both Helen and Flora are smitten. Their rivalry will bring about a tragedy.

The novel is narrated by Helen herself, now a successful, aging author. Part dialogue and part internal rumination, with occasional voice-overs from the adult Helen, the story of this fateful summer plays out slowly, as befits the warm, often sultry climate of the south. Just as the tempo seems unbearably stagnant, however, adult Helen drops a hint about things to come, which sharpens interest and causes a low, simmering sort of tension. The young Helen, of course, is mean because she’s bored and scared; abandonment is one of the books major themes. As the book draws to a close, adult Helen meditates on remorse and recovery. There were times “when I felt I had to keep from losing the little I had been left with, including my sense of myself,” she writes. “I thought I knew everything there was to know about her [Flora], but she has since become a profound study for me, more intensely so in recent years. Styles have come and gone in storytelling, psychologizing, theologizing, but Flora keeps providing me with something as enigmatic as it is basic to life, as timeless as it is fresh.”

Simple but tightly managed plot and well fashioned characters (even the house itself functions as a character!) make this novel a memorable one.

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Modern Lit: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Thirteen year old Theo Decker and his beloved mother are visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb explodes, killing her and most of those unfortunate enough to have been in the gallery. Theo finds himself on the debris strewn floor lying next to an elderly man who is obviously dying. As he tries to provide some comfort, the man gives him a signet ring and an address. Next to him on the floor is Fabritius’s tiny masterpiece, “The Goldfinch”, blown out of its frame but otherwise undamaged. The dying man indicates that Theo should take the painting and get out of the building while he still can. From that moment forward, the novel’s central metaphor takes hold, that being that , just as the bird is chained to its perch, Theo will be chained to the painting, his only tangible tie to his mother, for the rest of his life. What follows is the story of Theo’s coming of age.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt’s third novel, is very like her first two. Buried under a plot loaded with fantastic tribulations is an interesting situation, and Theo is a winsome protagonist. But it’s difficult to believe that this book won the Pulitzer. Heavily overwritten, its cliches, its redundancy, and its reliance on outrageous happenstance make it difficult to care what happens to poor Theo. I was willing to slog through all 700+ pages because I wanted to know the fate of the painting, and the final resolution was imaginative and surprising, but it was very tempting to skip to the ending. Good story, way overdone.

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It’s a Mystery: Fearful Symmetry, by Morag Joss

Fearful Symmetry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fearful Symmetry is the second in the Sara Selkirk series by Morag Joss. Before starting on this series, I read Our Picnics in the Sun, which involved quite a bit of psychological tension. The Selkirks are quiet little mysteries, but that’s not to say that they’re overly cozy or lacking in suspense. They draw heavily upon their setting, the unique English city of Bath, which does have an ambiance all its own. In Symmetry, much of the mystery occurs in one of the houses comprising Bath’s famous Circus, where one of the residents, a famous retired opera singer, is attempting to stage an original opera based upon the city’s history. The singer’s adult daughter Adele is autistic, and has the unusual ability of remembering and reproducing symmetrical patterns, be they visual or auditory. The other 7 or 8 members of the company are varied and colorful as well, and their interactions are fun to observe.

Sara Selkirk is unusual in the literary world amateur sleuth-dom. A gifted cellist, she falls into criminal cases by coincidence, much like the Agatha Raisins and Miss Marples do. But although Sara can often discern facts and connections that the police miss, she’s not so good at fashioning a coherent picture from them. This both fascinates and irritates Chief Inspector Andrew Poole, Sara’s cello student and the married man with whom she is developing a passionate love affair.

The mystery opens with the delivery of a letter bomb to a harmless elderly woman who also lives at the crescent. Her stance against animal rights appears to have triggered a revenge killing. But a few days later, a second explosion kills Adele, and while CI Poole doubts that the two deaths are connected, Sara believes otherwise. Music fraud, ego, and unrequited love muddy the waters, and at times, Sara’s obsessions about Andrew obscure the focus on her investigation and his.

The solution of the case is anything but simple, yet all the disparate pieces eventually come together to form the picture that both Sara and Andrew have struggled to construct. And the picture is not pretty. What will become of their romance remains to be seen. The third Selkirk novel, Fruitful Bodies, is on my TBR short list.

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It’s a Mystery: Top Secret Twenty One, by Janet Evanovicz

Top Secret Twenty-One (Stephanie Plum #21)Ranger Danger

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Stephanie Plum, intrepid bounty hunter, forever forty-something (I guess), lands smack in the middle of a secret FBI terrorism probe in Top Secret 21. Janet Evanovich has her formula down pat, and there’s not much new here. There’s always a skip that eludes Stephanie’s best efforts, there’s always sexual tension as she continues to be unable to decide between Morelli and Ranger, and while there are always elements of danger, there’s very little suspense or tension. I keep reading this series for its quirky humor. In this outing, Steph’s feisty Grandma Mazur engages Grandma Morelli in a funeral home-based feud involving cream pies and garden hoses. Steph winds up in charge of a dozen feral chihuahuas (aka minions) while their homeless owner sits in the pokey awaiting bail. Lula is her usual outrageous self; she is in the running for the top of my list of favorite female fiction characters. Grandma Mazur thinks she’s died and gone to heaven after seeing the hunky Ranger in the buff. There’s a lot more craziness here, the kind of stuff that makes me willing to overlook plot deficiencies. (Why would Ranger continue to involve Stephanie in his ultra dangerous work? Why doesn’t Morelli make a stand in this never ending love triangle? Why has her landlord not evicted her by now?)

Sometimes a little silly but reliable fun is just what a reader needs. Try the audio version, entertainingly read by Lorelie King.

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It’s a Mystery: A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon

A Question of Belief (Commissario Brunetti, #19)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s always a pleasure to read a novel featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a goodhearted man for whom all police work is a question of ethics and justice. Like most of us, however, some of the jobs he’s called upon to undertake are more interesting than others. In A Question of Belief (19th in the series), Brunetti is stranded in the stifling Venetian August, his family vacationing in cool, fresh Alto Adige. As always, the case of the moment involves politics, bureaucratic corruption, and a social issue, in this case, homosexuality. As the book opens, crime on the island also appears to be on holiday, so Brunetti and Ispettore Vianello, his equally compassionate assistant, occupy themselves with nonviolent concerns, such as bribery in court cases and fraud on the part of psychic healers. Coincidentally, a brutal murder occurs, its victim a clerk at the very court they’re scrutinizing.

Donna Leon is equally adept at immersing her readers in the ambience of Venice and plotting an intricate, compelling police procedural. In Belief, for some reason, her focus seems to have been diverted from Brunetti’s case work to the dreadful heat of summer smothering the canals and piazzas. It’s easy enough to enjoy this novel for what it is, though it’s far from Leon’s best. A good summer diversion for us!

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