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: 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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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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Historical Fiction: Written in My Own Heart’s Blood, by Diana Gabaldon

my ranking: 3 of 5 stars

Outlander, the novel which introduced the world to romantic hero Jamie Fraser, was published nearly 25 years ago. I wonder if Diana Gabaldon even dreamed of the kind of success that her very first effort would spawn. I, like millions of other smitten readers, was instantly mesmerized by the story, which blends historical fiction with large doses of sci-fi and explicit love scenes. As the saga developed, it held me in thrall until book 4, The Drums of Autumn, when Jamie and Clair leave the British Isles to settle  in  the American colonies. Somehow, the romance and ambience of Scottish history and  Highland folklore failed to migrate when they did.  And as the Fraser family grew, so did the disorganization of the plots. By the time The Fiery Cross was published, I’d given up. But recently, when the opportunity for a free download of Written in My Own Heart’s Blood  (2013) dropped into my lap, I decided to give it a go.

That said, I’ve enjoyed parts of IMOHB very much. The only problem is that I found other parts so annoying that those are the ones that stick in my mind. There are problems with historical accuracy (few colonists had church weddings) , and too-heavy reliance on wild coincidence (someone tells General Washington what a great guy Jamie is and instantly makes him a General) . During a battle in New Jersey, all of the main characters encounter each other in the smoke and mayhem, and each experiences a miraculous escape from death under the worst possible circumstances. Jamie stumbles onto the scene of Claire’s field hospital just in time to witness her take a bullet. I find the time travel sequences fascinating because I think they are well thought out, but all this crazy adventure stuff has gone too far and for too many pages.  If I could make one of those Scottish noises here, I would!

Now that Outlander has become a mini-series, the popularity of all the books has soared once more, and promises to stretch well into the future. I admire and congratulate Ms. Gabaldon and marvel at the phenomenon she’s created, and I’m happy for all the readers who have loved each and every entry through the years. It’s rare to find a writer who has the skill to transport the reader to another place and time, and she has it in spades. Jamie and Claire rank high on my list of unforgettable characters, my all time favorite characters, and I  thank her for that as well.

Books Within Books: The Nobodies Album, by Carolyn Parkhurst

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Years ago, Olivia Frost’s  daughter and husband died in an accident, and she struggled to bring up her son Milo alone. Now she’s a successful novelist, and Milo’s a world famous rock star. While on her way to deliver her latest manuscript to her New York agent, she’s stunned to see a Times Square headline proclaiming the news that Milo has been charged with murdering his girlfriend  at their home in San Francisco. Any mother would drop everything and fly to her child’s side, but in Olivia’s case, they’ve been estranged for the past four years. She goes anyway, hoping to find some way to help.

Olivia’s about-to-be-published novel is a unique, somewhat radical enterprise. Prompted by criticism that her books always have bleak outcomes, she decided to present the final chapter from each of her seven previous works, along with a newly composed revision that changes the ending and the  meaning of each novel.  The irony is that, having completed this new book, her son’s crisis forces Olivia to review her own past, and find ways to effect changes that will heal the breach with Milo and divert the course of her own life. Many of the chapters about mother and son are followed by one of the revised chapters, which relate metaphorically to Olivia’s current experience. For her, reality and fiction are intimately connected. There is also the mystery surrounding Milo’s guilt or innocence. Early evidence suggests that he is. Fortuitously, Ms. Parkhurst desists from turning her protagonist into a modern Miss Marple.

As with all good novels, The Nobodies Album  presents imperfect but compelling characters who struggle with the sorts of psychological upheavals and emotions that mark every life. What if parent and child are a bad fit? Is it possible to rectify mistakes?When the last page has been turned, the reader is left with much to ponder.

Great Nonfiction: Victory at Yorktown, by Richard M. Ketchum

Victory at Yorktown: The Campaign That Won the RevolutionHow we won the Revolution (and it wasn’t easy)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Ketchum certainly knows the War for Independence, having authored well-received books on Bunker Hill, Saratoga, New York, and Trenton. In Victory at Yorktown, he offers a detailed, well researched, and entertaining account of the events of 1781, when General Washington was required to face that cold, hard truth that, without a decisive victory in the field, the revolution (along with its founders) were doomed. The Continental Army, never large enough to begin with, had dwindled to a mere 3 to 4 thousand hungry, unpaid men. America’s French allies were untrustworthy but indispensable. But the British army was divided, with Clinton in New York and Cornwallis coming north from South Carolina, and with the arrival of the French fleet, there would never be a better chance to strike a decisive blow against them.

Ketchum lays the groundwork for the dramatic climax of the war with factual information enlivened by lesser known details about the personalities and activities of the major players, American, French, and British. The interception of John Andre and exposure of Benedict Arnold’s treachery are described in vivid detail, culminating with the farcical reaction of Arnold’s alluring wife to Washington’s arrival at the house where both were staying. The clandestine motives of the French government (the securing of more American territory for their crown, for instance) are revealed. Naturally, the siege at Yorktown receives considerable attention, but equal importance is granted to the formal surrender ceremonies, which Cornwallis refused to attend, and to the behavior of the French and English toward each other once hostilities has ceased (greeting each other as privileged gentlemen, who understood each other far better than those rustic American commoners ever could.) And who knew that germ warfare was a feature in the war in Virginia?!

If more historical accounts were as readable and interesting as this book, history would be a much more popular subject. Truly, the American victory was close to miraculous, and if you’d like to find out how such a thing could happen, check out Victory at Yorktown.