It’s a Mystery: Before I Go to Sleep, by S. J. Watson

Before I Go To Sleep

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Before she goes to sleep each night, Christine Wheeler has an inkling about who and where she is. When she awakens next morning, she’ll have no clue. The man who introduces himself as her husband Ben each day tells her that she developed amnesia following a car accident, nearly twenty years ago. He’s pinned some photos to the bathroom mirror as reminders, but Chris is completely dependent upon him, though she’s now well enough to stay home alone while he goes off to his teaching job. But this lack of a sense of self is intolerable to her, and when a psychologist, Dr. Nash, phones to ask her to participate in a memory study, she agrees on condition that he doesn’t inform her husband. By journaling the bits of her past that she agonizingly recovers, Chris begins to form a coherent picture of who she used to be. Soon she realized that, for some reason, she does not totally trust Ben.

Before I Go to Sleep is a harrowing first person account detailing what life is like for a person with no memories. Author S. J. Watson researched the topic by studying the lives of two amnesia victims, and as he follows Christine through her days, the reader experiences pretty much what she does. With the support of only Ben and Dr. Nash, she cannot even trust her own impressions, knowing that paranoia is a side effect of her condition. This brilliantly executed novel is crafted so well that it’s difficult to believe it’s Mr. Watson’s debut novel. Writing with empathy and a surprisingly accurate understanding of the female mind, he takes  what might be a mundane, repetitive narrative and develops it into a first rate thriller. Although the ultimate truth about Christine’s relationship is telegraphed in the text, the other details concerning the story’s resolution are stunning enough to ameliorate that flaw. This is an accomplished and haunting novel, well deserving of the awards it has earned.

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It’s a Mystery: The Silkworm, by Robert Galbraith

The Silkworm (Cormoran Strike, #2)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Cormoran Strike is a most interesting PI. A former investigator for the Royal Military, he lost a leg in Afghanistan and has now set up shop on his own. He’s tough, certainly, but also fair-minded and personable. He’s also the illegitimate son of a famous rock star. His newest case has been brought to his door by the wife of a pretentious but un-prolific author, Owen Quine, who’s disappeared after the rejection of his much anticipated new manuscript, Bombyx Mori , which translates to Silkworm. Strike is not at all sure that Mrs. Quine can pay, but he accepts the case anyway, and soon finds out that there are plenty of people in the world of publishing who might harbor animosity toward the writer. Bombyx, it seems, is a sort of pornographic allegory in which they all all appear as nasty caricatures of themselves.

The Silkworm is a mystery with literary features, the title itself a metaphor for the rat race of writing and publishing. Cormoran is the name of the giant that the famous Jack killed at St. Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. It takes a long time for Strike to discover what happened to Quine, and when he does, life mimics fiction in a very effective fashion. He receives indispensable insights and assistance from his office manager, Robin, who is a PI wanna be who clearly has the right stuff, if only Strike would realize it. Robin’s engagement to the selfish, narrow minded Matthew, serves as a subplot, and leads to speculation about whether Robin and Strike will follow up on the attraction they feel but do not openly acknowledge.
The Silkworm is a suspenseful and engaging, and I read it without knowing that it’s author is actually J. K. Rowling. I’m able, therefore, to review it objectively, and am prompted now to read the prequel, The Cuckoo’s Calling. Rowling clearly did not use up her story-telling abilities on Harry Potter, and she can write for adults quite well.

4 stars because of a bit of a lag in the middle.

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It’s a Mystery: The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penny

The Cruelest Month (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #3)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Canadian village of Three Pines may be idyllic, but it’s not immune from murder. As T.S. Elliott so famously wrote, “April is the cruelest month,” and as Easter approaches, the residents decide to hold a seance to rid their vacant, creepy manor house of the malevolent spirits that have wreaked such havoc among them. It’s a daunting prospect, but something that must be done. One of their number dies of fright, and early the next morning, Inspector Armande Gamache arrives on what has by now become for him a familiar crime scene.

The charm of Louise Penny’s series derives from her eloquent writing style. This woman knows her way around words. She breathes atmosphere into her setting and humanity into her characters, and her plots are always intricate enough to sustain the mystery even after you think you know who did it. Gamache has to be one of the warmest, most ethical and understanding detectives ever invented. His success is due to his principles, one of which is that murder always starts with a secret. Penny doesn’t shrink from illuminating his flaws, however, which makes him all the more human. The murder at the center of The Cruelest Month has him genuinely puzzled, and events during the investigation leave him wondering whom among his team can be trusted. Gamache, of course, eventually prevails, but not without some ingenious plotting of his own. As another famous author, Norman Mailer, once wrote,”In searching for the truth be ready for the unexpected.”

It’s not necessary to read the Three Pines novels in order, but that’s the way to get the most out of everything that Penny does so well.

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Folklore and Fantasy: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Our lives are shaped by our childhood impressions and experiences, and no one knows or expresses that truth better than Neil Gaiman. The protagonist in The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an unnamed, middle aged Englishman, who returns to his rural roots to attend a funeral. On a whim, he drives to the site of his former home, now a housing development where the country roads have been paved over, all except foThe Ocean at the End of the Laner the rustic lane that leads down the hill to the Hempstock farm. Old Mrs. Hempstock sees him arrive, and as they talk, snippets of memory begin to float to the surface. The summer he was seven, he and Hempstock granddaughter Lettie became friends, and he came to realize that there was something timeless about this family. They can see and do things that he can’t quite understand. Perhaps the duck pond, as Lettie insists, really is a sort of ocean. One morning, following a suicide in the neighborhood, a dark power is unleashed, and he and Lettie must embark upon a quest to vanquish something unspeakably evil.

What sounds like a prosaic sort of fairy story when I summarize it is much, much more in the hands of Neil Gaiman, though it does retain the key elements of the classic fairy tale. Mr. Gaiman writes beautifully, making every word count, and he is a master at conveying a genuine sense of the wonders and fears of childhood. His characters, which are few, are memorable and real. The action in Ocean vacillates between idyllic peace and heart stopping terror. Parents cannot always be counted on, and sometimes innocent mistakes bring serious consequences.There are omens (a fish that swallowed a sixpence), symbols (the number 3 is important), archetypes, and magic, but there is also a firm grounding in the ordinary. Emotionally powerful, mesmerizing, and highly recommended.

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It’s a Mystery: A Secret Kept, by Tatiana De Rosnay

A Secret Kept

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Many reviewers have read and reviewed A Secret Kept after having done so with Tatiana De Rosnay’s first novel, The Secret Key, which received critical acclaim. The general consensus seems to that A Secret Kept can’t hold a candle to its predecessor. Not having read The Secret Key, I’m not hampered by expectations. This book is about a pair of middle aged French siblings, Antoine Rey and his sister Melanie. When they were children, their family took a series of vacations at Noirmoutier Island, and to celebrate Melanie’s 40th birthday, Antoine takes her on a surprise holiday there, hoping to rekindle happy memories. The visit does rekindle memories, but some of them are disturbing. On their way back home, Melanie confides to Antoine that she’s remembered something very disturbing about their mother, who died young. Suddenly, however, their car veers off the road. Antoine is not injured, but Melanie must spend several months in recovery, during which he finds himself suspended with all sorts of questions and speculation, wondering when she will be able to recall the momentous news. ,

The trajectory of this book follows the course of Antoine’s struggle to come to terms with an unwanted divorce. He still loves his wife, who has remarried, and his children, whom he sees on bimonthly visits. Desperately unhappy, he meets a free spirited woman who works as the hospital mortician, and he is stunned to realize that he’s falling in love with her. Melanie finally remembers and divulges the secret she’s discovered about their mother, and set out on a search to uncover how she died so many years ago.

A Secret Kept is a sort of family saga, recounted in real time and in a series of flashbacks. The Reys have always been an uncommunicative family, and, in addition to learning how to live his life anew, Antoine must learn to break out of that destructive pattern if he’s going to become the sort of father and lover that he would like to be. His newly found knowledge about his parents’ secret past, initially a shock, proves to be the key to first finding, and then reinventing himself. This well crafted novel is meditative and full of angst, but not overwhelmingly so, and it’s interesting to watch how Antoine handles having to change much what he thought he knew about who he was. In some places, it’s slow going, but generally worth persevering to the open-ended conclusion. The information about Noirmoutier, which can be reached by a road that’s obliterated by the tide twice is day, is fascinating, and the place becomes an apt metaphor for the book’s central theme.

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Historical Fiction: The Glassblower of Murano, by Marina Fiorato

The Glassblower of Murano

My rating:  3 of 5 stars

Historical fiction meets contemporary romance in this tale of two glassblowers. Leonora Manin, an artist with some skill in glassblowing, has been reading about her ancestor, the illustrious Venetian glassmaker Corradino Manin (fictional). Now reeling from her recent divorce, she decides to make a new start in Venice, which is also the city of her own birth. Leonora fortuitously lands a job and a new love interest during her very first week as a native Venetian. Author Marina Fiorato spins out her debut novel by juxtaposing, in alternating chapters, the lives of 18th century Corradino and 21st century Leonora. By far the most effective of the two story lines is that of Corradino, who, during the downfall of his wealthy merchant family, is taken in by the master of one of Murano’s best glassworks. He grows to become one of the greatest glass artists of all time, and while this sounds wonderful to modern readers, the Republic closely guarded those artists with an eye to preventing them from selling secret formulas and techniques to other countries. But to save his illegitimate daughter, Corradino is reluctantly drawn into a plot to do just that, by traveling to Paris to create the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Leonora will learn that she is the direct descendant of that girl.

Leonora’s story is far less compelling, and, because it relies so heavily upon coincidence, less than satisfying. In these sections, Ms. Fiorato resorts to extravagant description, perhaps to dress up a somewhat prosaic plot, in which she is fired when a columnist accuses Corradino of treason. The love match between Leonora and Alessandro Bardolino, descendant of another of Venice’s patrician lines, looks like “someone who stepped out of a painting”, quite literally. So for that matter does Leonora; in her case, it’s the famous Primavera. It takes a while to get started, but things do heat up a bit, and avid romance readers are likely to enjoy their tale more than I did.

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It’s a Mystery: The Secret History, by Donna Tartt


The Secret History
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Papen is chronically depressed, a loser in his own eyes. Penniless, he leaves his native California and his dismissive parents for Hampden College in New Hampshire, where he hopes to reinvent himself. Still very much a fish out of water, his knowledge of the language of ancient Greece eventually comes to the attention of the school’s elite, a group of five wealthy students who study all things Greek under the tutelage of distinguished scholar Julian Delgado. To Richard’s astonishment and delight, he’s invited into this exclusive coterie. Soon, as a result of the mythology and philosophy in which the students become immersed, one of the group will die at the hands of his fellows. This is the secret. As narrator, Richard’s job is to guide readers along on the journey that leads to murder and its inevitable tragic aftermath. This is the history.

The Secret History owes much to such classic forerunners as Crime and Punishment, Brideshead Revisited, and Lord of the Flies, as well as the body of Greek Mythology. To the credit of its author, however, this mystery cum coming of age tale is no mere derivative.

This is an accomplished first novel. Yes, it has its problems. The plot, though certainly compelling, is not complex enough to warrant nearly 600 pages, and it drags in places toward the middle. Readers who expect to “like” the characters will probably not like The Secret History; while they each possess a level of intellectual brilliance, morally they are bankrupt. Self-appointed elitists, the totality of their self absorption will ruin them all. Except for Richard, whose self-contempt paralyzes him to the point that he watches their actions as though watching a game or a movie. But Ms. Tartt is spot on in her portrayal of the 1980’s texture of life at a small town college during a snowy winter, well enough to invoke some nostalgia for my own college days. While revealing the secret in the prologue saps the story of suspense, knowing what will happen evokes a strong sense of dread that grows as the plot plays out, rather like watching a snake from a distance when you know it might strike. Rather like we do whenever any heinous act splashes itself across our television screens.

Fascinating work by a talented writer. Can’t believe I didn’t read it earlier.