It’s a Mystery: After I’m Gone, by Laura Lippman

After I'm GoneAfter I’m Gone by Laura Lippman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

After I’m Gone is Laura Lippman’s 20th novel, and her experience and finely developed skills sparkle in this seamless family saga that at its heart is a murder mystery. Set in Baltimore, the book opens in the 1960s with the whirlwind courtship of Felix Brewer and Bambi Gottschalk. Felix builds a shady but lucrative business involving strip clubs gambling, and while he loves Bambi and their three daughters, he suffers no guilt over his womanizing on the side. Bambi loves Felix, and is willing to live with his infidelities in order to enjoy the lavish life that he provides for her, which includes hobnobbing with Baltimore’s elite. The pivot point in their story occurs about a third of the way into the novel, when Felix goes on the lam to avoid a prison sentence. The rest of the book focuses on the lives of the five women he left in his wake – wife, daughters, and mistress, an exotic dancer with the professional name Julia Romeo. While the whereabouts of Felix are unknown, the real mystery emerges ten years later, when Julie vanishes, widely assumed to have joined her lover at his hideout. Until, that is, her body is discovered in Leakin Park in 2001.

Talented author Lippman has devised some winning characters, all imperfect, all too human, but all well developed and interesting. She is able to even-handedly make both wife and mistress strong and sympathetic, and even Felix and his complicit friends are not without their redeeming features. She knows the highs, lows, and in-betweens of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, siblings and friends. And she can spin out the intricacies of a murder investigation with nary a red herring.

Beautifully composed, After I’m Gone stands out head and shoulders  in this very crowded genre.

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Great Nonfiction: Rebel Yell, by S. C. Gwynne

Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall JacksonTom Fool to Stonewall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Thomas J. Jackson was an unlikely hero. Though after graduating from West Point he distinguished himself in the Mexican-American War, peace time turned him into a pedantic teacher at Virginia Military Academy. A socially awkward man with tendencies toward hypochondria, Prof. Jackson was baited by his students and called “Tom Fool.” His religious fervency, which he frequently expressed in words, further distanced him from others. (Hindsight is better than foresight, and today, some historians speculate that he may have had a form of autism.) At the start of the Civil War, he was refused a position of command. After his astonishing first campaign in the Shenandoah Valley, people began to view Jackson in a new way. After First Manassas, he and his unit, comprised of many of his former VMI students, became known as the Stonewall Brigade for their refusal to back down under heavy fire. Once Robert E. Lee took command of the Army of Northern Virginia, he was quick to recognize Jackson’s brilliant ability to manage and win battles, even when grossly outnumbered. If Jackson had survived the loss of an arm at Chancellorsville, who knows how the war would have played out. Imagine Stonewall Jackson vs. U. S. Grant. But when Jackson died, it had a profound effect on the South, where many viewed his loss as the beginning of the end.

Author S. C. Gwynne is a professional writer but not a trained historian, though you’d never guess it while reading his lively, often riveting account of Stonewall Jackson’s astonishing transformation and accomplishments. Gwynne covers each of his battles in detail, but it is in the study of the many facets, often contradictory, of Jackson’s personality and character that this book really shines. In battle, one singular trait, that of a ferocious, dauntless determination to win at any cost, utterly obscured the eccentricities and foibles that dogged Jackson at all other times. Many biographical accounts of military careers are factual but very dry in the telling, but in Rebel Yell, one never loses the sense of the presence of General Jackson as a man. His demands took a huge toll on his soldiers, and as is generally true of charisma, it’s difficult to grasp exactly why they bonded so strongly to their leader. But that bond held until the day he died.

P.S. Did you know that it was the Stonewall Brigade that devised the infamous Rebel Yell? “On one occasion during the Valley Campaign, while the Stonewall Brigade was in camp, one of its five regiments began yelling. Soon another regiment took it up, and then another, and another, until every member of the entire brigade was delivering the Yell at the top of his lungs. General Jackson came out of his tent, leaned on a fence, and listened. The cacophony continued for several moments and then began dying away. When the last echo had rebounded from the Blue Ridge, old Blue-Light, universally known to be totally tone deaf, turning toward his tent and said “That was the sweetest music I ever heard.” S. C. Gwynne provides a recorded reproduction of the sound early in the audio version of his book.

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It’s a Mystery: The False Friend, by Myra Goldberg

The False FriendThe False Friend by Myla Goldberg
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few years back a book was published about “mean girls”, the queen bees of junior high who are granted the power to decide who’s cool and who’s decidedly not. When 30 year old Celia Durst, now living and working in Chicago, notices a VW bug on the street, memories of her BFF, Djuna, and her early death, come flooding over her. Accompanying the memories are an acute sense of guilt, for Celia feels responsible for that long ago death. She immediately books a flight home to upstate NY, where she hopes to atone for her actions by confessing to her parents and the friends from her junior high clique. But no one believes her; their memories of the incident don’t match Celia’s.

The False Friend is about a woman’s search for the truth about who she was and who she now is. Narrated from Celia’s point of view, her slow and painful discovery about the child she really was opens questions about the slippery nature of memory and the motives for and the ways in which we wallpaper over the flaws in our own personalities. Celia is the only truly vivid character in the book, though Djuna’s mother comes close. The others, including her too good to be true, all-American boyfriend and her clueless parents, are basically window dressing. Some of the scenes are disturbing, even chilling. Ms. Goldberg is spot on in her portrayal of the social life and behaviors of 11 year old school girls. When the story approaches its close, it comes in the form of an imperfect ending, as imperfect as life itself, and for that reason, it’s very real.

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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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Modern Lit: Flora, by Gail Godwin


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: 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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