Nonfiction Worth Reading: Living in Italy – The Real Deal, by Stef Smulders

Living in Italy: the Real Deal - How to survive the good life

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Italy, one of the world’s most beautiful places, is admired for many things – La Dolce Vita, pasta, wonderful wines, passionate people, and wonderful art. There is one particular institution, however, that is deeply puzzling to most non-Italians – its governmental bureaucracy. In Living in Italy, Stef Smulders relates the story of how he and his husband, Nico, relocated from the Netherlands to Lombardy to start a B&B. The grandfather of books like this is, of course, Peter Mayle’s bestseller A Year in Provence, published in the 70’s, and in 1996, Frances Mayes had similar success with Under the Tuscan Sun. Ex-pat narratives by now form a large genre of their own, and Living in Italy by Stef Smulders is a worthy addition to the category.

In 1998, Stef and his husband Nico moved to Lombardy from their native Netherlands to start a B&B. Being members of a very organized society, they arrived at their new home in Montecalvo with the assumption that the renovation of their new house would proceed efficiently. By the end of their first week, their belief in Murphy’s Law was firmly cemented. Living in Italy is a delightful series of vignettes, written with wry humor and an unpretentious air of befuddlement. How could all these snafus keep happening? It probably takes an Italian to understand. But for a year, Stef and Nico survived within the confines of their kitchen, surrounded by the noise, dirt, and chaos racket being carried out by a crews of artisans whose work ethic is decidedly, shall we say, casual. Forays into the intricacies of obtaining official documents and licenses (coda fiscale) are equally nerve wracking. Read these chapters and you feel as though you’ve personally known estate agent Olito, architectural engineer Cassini, and builder Torti. But Stef also writes engagingly about the local culture, on such topics as wine tasting, using public toilets, cooking lessons, and exploring the hardware store.

All’s well that ends well, and after a harrowing swimming pool installation, Nico and Stef are finally ready open the doors to Villa I Due Patroni. One of the pleasures of reading about their experiences, one that was not available for Provence or Tuscany, is visiting the property’s website to see the results of all their struggles. If I ever travel to Lombardy, that’s where I want to stay.

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It’s a Mystery: X, by Sue Grafton

X (Kinsey Millhone, #24)X by Sue Grafton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

X is for _____? Sue Grafton is famous for her alphabet series, with each letter standing for the particular crime being investigated by intrepid PI Kinsey Milhone. It seems that Ms. Grafton’s failure to choose an x word has disgruntled many of her fans. Actually, trying to figure out what it might be is part of the fun of reading X. It could stand for Xenakis, XLNT, X wife, and various other possibilities.

In Kinsey’s 24th case, she tackles 3 separate issues. The book opens with a phone call from a woman wanting her to track her son, recently released from prison for bank robbery. Kinsey takes the job only to find that the woman is an imposter who stiffed her on her fee. The second part of the case revolves around Pete Wolinsky, a colleague who factored in several earlier novels but was recently shot to death. Pete’s widow requests Kinsey’s assistance in organizing his tax documents in preparation for an audit. Before his death, he had been working on gathering evidence against one of his clients, who had a propensity for abusing women. Being Kinsey, she is compelled to finish this work for him. The third situation involves some new neighbors who raise Kinsey’s ire, and who are not what they seem.

Anyone who has written 24 successful novels featuring the same character must be good a devising plots, and Ms. Grafton certainly has that talent, weaving unrelated people and events into one cohesive tale. But these books, which rely upon continuity, are never redundant. Unlike some others, Kinsey remains true to herself and loyal to friends while growing from her experiences and relationships, and she is one of the most deeply moral characters in the genre. Best of all, ancillary characters are nearly as well developed, particularly those who play recurring roles. Each book has its suspenseful scenes that never go over the top, and in X, Grafton has provided the best stream of consciousness example of the experience of being suffocated that I’ve ever read.

Looking forward to Y, and hoping that Sue Grafton doesn’t retire from writing when this series reaches Z.

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It’s a Mystery: The Durham Deception, by Philip Gooden

The Durham Deception (Tom Ansell, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Victorian fascination with spiritualism and sensationalism provides the fodder for The Durham Deception, the second in Philip Gooden’s cathedral mystery series. Tom and Helen Ansell, introduced in book 1, have been married for only a few months when Helen’s mother asks them to pay a cautionary visit to Aunt Julia, who lives in Durham. Julia, it seems, is involved with a shady medium, Eustace Flask, who has been relying on her for financial assistance, and the hope is that Helen can show her the light, so to speak. To prepare for their journey, Tom and Helen attend a seance, during which one of the participants, a policeman, tries to reveal the medium as a fraud. The next day, the medium commits suicide and the officer and his wife are found dead in their home, apparently from a gas leak. Saddened but not suspicious, the Ansells depart for Durham, never expecting history to repeat itself.

This is a novel full of colorful characters. While the Ansells are rather conventional, most of the others in this tale are anything but. Eustace Flask is suitably tricky and smarmy. Major Sebastian Marmount, a legal client of Tom’s who resides in Durham, has left the army to become a magician. He is suitably pompous. What begins as professional competition between the two escalates to murder, in which a mysterious dagger from India plays a large part. The prime suspect, it seems, has ties to the murder in London. Gooden has gotten period ambience just right in his choices of names, themes, and depiction of class differences, social expectations, and excitement over new “scientific” discoveries and cultures. Comic relief is provided via ancillary characters, including Aunt Julia’s boarder, Flask’s “niece”, and Marmount’s assistants. Though enjoyable, comic relief is not strictly necessary as there is very little suspense, even when Helen falls into the clutches of the villain. Still, this is a well composed, intellectual mystery that saves a twist for the very end.

Incidentally, Durham Cathedral has very little to do with the story…

It’s a Mystery: The Burning Room, by Michael Connelly

The Burning Room (Harry Bosch, #19; Harry Bosch Universe, #22)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The name of Harry Bosch is synonymous in my mind with melancholy. When I first began reading these novels, I did so in the hope that Harry would find some happiness, somewhere, with someone special. Alas, that has not happened as of The Burning Room, number 17 in the series. Harry is an admirable protagonist, moral, compassionate, and willing to take the hard line when it’s called for. He deserves better than he’s gotten so far.

The Burning Room focuses upon two cold cases, one ten years old involving the shooting of a musician who has only now died of his wounds. The second involves Harry’s new partner, Lucy Soto, who is young but has already begun to make her mark in the police force. When Lucy was a child, she was present when her day care center was torched, resulting in the death of several of her teachers and classmates. In fact, Lucy became a cop because of her desire to find out who committed that arson.

Sometimes the Bosch novels are action-laden, and sometimes they’re more internal. The Burning Room is one of the latter. As a result, it’s more of a police procedural than anything else, so don’t look for suspense and drama here. As always, politics in the department and in LA play a major role. But watching Harry as he mentors Lucy, in whom he sees himself as a young detective, and as he ponders the whole of his career, is rewarding in itself. This novel ends in a mild sort of cliff hanger, though if you look at chronology of the series, it’s pretty clear what happens next.

On to the next installment, The Crossing.

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It’s a Mystery: The Lake House, by Kate Morton

The Lake House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Readers who enjoy historical fiction, gothic mystery, and family saga would do well to check out the works of Australian novelist Kate Morton, who knows how to combine these elements into an intriguing tale. The Lake House is set in Cornwall, at the family home of the wealthy Edevanes, who like most families, have their share of secrets. Nevertheless, life has rolled along along quite smoothly until in 1933, at their traditional Midsummer Eve party, two year old Theo Edevane vanishes without a trace. Decades later, disgraced detective Sadie Sparrow, on leave for leaking details about a 2003 missing child case to the press, stumbles upon the abandoned house while walking her grandfather’s dogs. Sadie has a secret of her own that led to her lapse of good judgment. The story leapfrogs between past and present, with Sadie putting her investigative prowess into finding out just what happened to Theo. The reader learns about the back story from chapters narrated by the reclusive Eleanor Edevane, now a successful writer of mysteries.

This is a lengthy novel that could do with some paring down. The descriptions are effectively evocative, but there are a few too many of them. With all the bouncing between time periods, it was easy to lose track of the many threads and to forget who some of the various characters are. But this is a mystery with many strengths as well. The historical sections bring alive the first three decades of the century, particularly those dealing with the First World War and its aftermath. Life among the leisured class is also portrayed, with all that it entailed for women; Alice is a decidedly forward thinking young woman. There are many well devised theories about what happened to Theo, which the Edevanes do not share with one another. Ultimately, the mystery is resolved only when Sadie tracks down the now eighty year old Alice, and the pair pools their talents to uncover the truth. For me, the ending demanded too much credulity, tying up the story in a neat but “Oh, puleeeze!” kind of way. But until that moment, The Lake House was a pleasure in spite of its flaws.

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It’s a Mystery: The Janus Stone, by Elly Griffiths

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ruth Galloway is a skilled forensic archaeologist working in Norfolk, England, the site of many iron age and Roman settlements. Ruth is single, stubborn, and tough, and now, she’s pregnant. The father is Detective Harry Nelson, as stubborn and tough as Ruth, and married. As she’s struggling to decide if and when to tell him, Ruth is called to examine the skeleton of a child found buried under a doorway at a demolition site where Roman ruins have been uncovered. An ancient sacrifice to the god Janus, or the more recent burial of a murder victim? The case gets even more perplexing when a second child skeleton is unearthed, this one without its head, and when the skull is found in an old well, things become downright sinister.
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Elly Griffiths has turned out a complex plot rich with intriguing characters, some recurrent and others case-related. Her Norfolk is a watery, frequently misty county with just the right atmosphere for a murder mystery and she seamlessly works in lots of mythology and folklore. The tension ramps up incrementally for both Ruth and Harry, personally and professionally, and there is no shortage of possible perpetrators with viable motives. The final chase scene is masterful. The book has one major flaw, in that even after being on the receiving end of multiple threats, the usually intelligent and rational Ruth continues to return to the dig site alone at odd hours of the day. But it’s worth overlooking in favor of enjoying a gripping first rate mystery.

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Biography: Insubordinate Spirit, by Missy Wolfe

Insubordinate Spirit: A True Story of Life and Loss in Earliest America 1610-1665
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The title of this study is a bit misleading. Yes, there is information on the life of Elizabeth Fones Winthrop Feake Hallett, but there is much more info on the 17th century Puritan experience in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York (Amsterdam). With respect to Elizabeth, there is a dearth of evidence about her day to day existence, and Missy Wolfe has unearthed a bit more with a few interesting personal letters and diaries written by “Bess” and her family, especially her eldest daughter. Especially elucidating are their exchanges with John Winthrop, Jr. who, as Ms. Wolfe described him, was a true “renaissance man”, scientist, medical specialist, political innovator, and man of reason. There are sections on the founding and development of Greenwich and Stamford, which came about only following lengthy wrangling between the English and Dutch over the borderlands between their respective colonies. In and amongst these sections, Wolfe manages to establish Elizabeth as an independent thinker who had the courage to resist conformity regardless of the personal hardships that the Puritan government visited upon her as a result.

Missy Wolfe is an amateur historian, and as such, she sometimes uses anachronistic language and repeats timeworn myths. Elizabeth, for example, didn’t “date”, and colonial women did not turn into torches because their home fires ignited their clothing as they worked over the flames. Still, there are things to be gleaned from this narrative, particularly in the many details about the Native Americans living in the Greenwich area during Elizabeth’s time there; Ms. Wolfe also provides information about some of the names in the town of today that are directly related to them. Pinpointing the location of her last dwelling site, on a promontory that stood above Hell Gate, is interesting as well. The author also fleshes out the personality of John Underhill, infamous for his part in the Pequot massacre. At the end of the book, she reports what is known about the lives of the descendants of the key figures in her narrative.

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