Historical Fiction: The Light in the Ruins, by Chris Bohjalian

The Light in the Ruins

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

1943, Florence. The Nazis are losing their grip on Italy, and the invasion of the Allies is immanent. The aristocratic Rosati family, led by patriarch Antonio, have two sons in the Italian army, and are hoping that the winds of war will pass peacefully over their estate, the Villa Chimera. But as the Nazis gear up for the invasion, they commandeer the villa and surrounding property, and much to the chagrin of the Rosati sons, their father takes the path of least resistance. No one is pleased when 18 year old Christina falls hard for one of the German lieutenants.

1955, Florence. The brutal murder of Francesca Rosati, a war widow who also lost her children, takes place, during which her throat is cut and her heart torn from her body. Only a few days later, her mother in law becomes a victim, her heart left in a box for the tourists to find on the Ponte Vecchio. The case is assigned to Investigator Serafina Bettine, who served as a partisan in the war and nearly died from severe burns during the final stand at Villa Chimera. From this point forward, The Light in the Ruins alternates between the two time periods, as Serafina attempts to track down and identify the serial killer.

There is much to be admired in this novel, in its evocation of times past, of the idyllic Italian countryside, and in its depiction of the brutality and horrors of wartime. Its characters are finely drawn, especially those of Serafina, Christina, and the German commander, Decher. All of the characters struggle over painful moral dilemmas; should Antonio be accommodating the Nazi occupiers? Should Italian art treasures be shipped off the Germany without resistance? What role should civilians play, or pay, in wartime? It is in the plotting of what is essentially a murder mystery that the book fails to deliver. What ought to be a gripping serial killer investigation falls short in the suspense department, even though it’s difficult to guess who the perpetrator might be.

At its best, the work of Chris Bojalian is mesmerizing, and in sections, The Light in the Ruins lives up to that standard. As a mystery, however, it is far from compelling.

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It’s a Mystery: The Long Way Home, by Louise Penny

The Long Way Home (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #10)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The Long Way Home is Louise Penny’s tenth Chief Inspector Gamache novel. The pace has changed in more than one way, for Armand has retired from heading the homicide unit of Quebec’s Surete, moving with wife Reine-Marie (I always smile at her name; in some sections of the US, she’d probably be called “Queenie”.) from Montreal to Three Pines, the picture-book village in which much of this series is set. Armand is struggling to recover from PTSD, and wants nothing more than peace, good food, and the company of family and friends. But if that were to happen, there would be no tenth novel….

One of the prequels to The Long Way Home, A Trick of the Light, ended with the separation of village artists Clara and Peter Morrow, because of Peter’s intense jealousy of Clara’s professional success. The couple agree to live apart for a year, then reunite to decide whether they have a future together. On the appointed day, however, Peter fails to show up, and after weeks of worry, Clara asks for Gamache’s advice. The good-hearted Armand cannot refuse, and offers to help Clara track her husband’s whereabouts. Peter’s trail, faint at first, turns out to encompass four European and two Canadian cities, before it abruptly ends. The worst is feared. Through a combination of well honed investigative skills and keen intuition, Gamache’s and Jean-Guy Beauvoir (now son-in-law and former second in command), manage to piece together seemingly unrelated details and bring the search to a suspenseful conclusion. No spoilers here.

In what has now become a trend in this series, author Penny takes her readers to some of Quebec’s provincial wonders, in this case the immense Manicouagan Crater, caused eons ago by the impact of an asteroid. The famous art colonies at Baie St. Paul and the mighty St. Laurence River are also given parts to play. As always, her elegant prose, psychological insight, and memorable characters, who by now seem real to me, add a strong literary component which raises her books above mere genre. Who wouldn’t love to know Gamache? And the characters that are specific to each mystery are just as complex and intriguing as the regulars. I’m hoping that in the next entry, we learn whether thirteen year old Bean is a boy or a girl.

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It’s a Mystery: A Trick of the Light, by Louise Penny

A Trick of the Light (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #7)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the  seventh of twelve books in the Arnaud Gamache series (to date). In order to read any of them but the first, which could easily be billed as the Three Pines series, it’s necessary to accept the premise that a remote, off the map village, almost fairy tale-like in its charm, could truly be the site of so many vicious crimes. But this is no cozy mystery series; rather, each entry is a well crafted, elegantly written police procedural featuring complex characters, many of whom appear from book to book and some only in the specific title.

In Trick, the spotlight falls upon Clara and Peter Morrow, a married couple who are fairly prominent members of the Canadian art scene. The mystery originates with Clara’s celebratory party, held at her home in honor of the unmitigated success of her first private gallery show in Montreal. Her joy is destroyed the very next morning, with the discovery of the broken-necked corpse of Lillian Dyson, Clara’s college roommate who became a much reviled art critic. No one saw Lillian at the party. Is her murder, among the flowers in Clara’s garden, just a coincidence?

Gamache’s investigation leads him into the ugly underbelly of the art world, where both creating and dealing are a dog-eat-dog business. It also delves into the ugly secret that Peter Morrow has been keeping from his wife. No, he’s not the killer. But their marriage will be brought to the brink of failure. Finally, the internal struggles of Gamache and Beauvoir, as they try to come to terms with nearly losing their own lives in their last big case, affect the investigation, and their personal lives, as well.

As always, this book is a pleasure to read. If Gamache at times comes across as too perfect, he does have to compete with Three Pines, after all.

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It’s a Mystery: The Book of Speculation, by Erika Swyler

The Book of SpeculationCarnival

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Narrator Simon Watson is a  librarian/curator living alone in his dilapidated family house on the cliffs of Long Island sound. Before his birth, Simon’s mother was a carnival “mermaid”, who drowned in Long Island sound when he was 7. Her death cast an emotional pall over Simon, which he’s never quite shaken off. His younger sister, Enola, left home to join the circus as a fortune teller, following, in a sense, in her mother’s footsteps. As the book opens, Simon is about to be laid off from work. At loose ends, he receives a fragile antique manuscript in the mail, from a distant book dealer who bought the book on speculation. Simon throws himself into reading what turns out to be an intriguing management journal that belonged to the flamboyant owner of an 18th century traveling show, Peabody’s Portable Magic and Miracles. In short order, he begins making disturbing connections between the show’s history and that of his family. Drowning, it seems, was a longstanding tradition among his mother’s female ancestors, who were also show people. Now Enola seems set on the same tragic path, and Simon is desperate to save her.

Erika Swyler deftly mingles past and present in The Book of Speculation, her debut novel. As Simon’s research uncovers new facts, she takes readers back and forth between the modern story and characters and those who worked in Peabody’s show. This is a plot driven book, which is not to say that characterization suffers. The imagery is rich and powerful, built around water, magical symbolism, archetypes, the uses of language, the uses of illusion. Key words are freighted with meaning, some in double or even triple entendre. Names (Enola, Watson, Doyle, Evangeline)  carry their own portents. Past is as important as present. The Tarot structures both stories, in a way that can be viewed as mystical or simply psychological; meaning is left open for the reader to interpret, as is the enigmatic final chapter. It is the sense of impending deadline that drives the reader on; this novel has the power to enchant.

Historical Fiction: The Yanks are Starving, by Glen Craney

The Yanks Are Starving: A Novel of the Bonus Army

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Great Depression. My mother grew up during the hardscrabble 1930’s, and told tales about what life was like. The fears from that decade never left her. I don’t recall her ever telling us about the Bonus Army, however, and reading The Yanks Are Starving was my first exposure to a shameful incident in America’s 20th century history. Many of the “doughboys” who fought in WWI were unemployed during the Depression. They were each entitled to “bonus pay” for their military service, but their certificates would not mature until 1945. Impoverished and desperate, the soldiers banded together to march on Washington to demand immediate payment. The Bonus Army was was lead by former army sergeant Walter W. Waters, who is one of the main characters in Glen Craney’s novel.

The book opens before the first world war, and in alternating chapters, introduces Waters and seven other characters, many of whom became household names. Among them are Black Jack Pershing, Herbert “Bert” Hoover, and Douglas MacArthur. It was fun reading about their lives before they became major players. As America enters the war, these characters converge, their battlefield experiences nothing short of heart-stopping. Similarly, their post-war lives are followed, until the Depression forces them to band together once again. It seems likely that the story of the Bonus Army was suppressed because no one wanted to remember the violence perpetrated upon them by their own government in their own capitol city.

Glen Craney has taken the facts of their lives to shape strong and memorable characters. He relates their story with vivid realism, particularly through dialog, and it is clear that he knows his history. Good historical novels like this one, well composed and founded upon sound research, provide enjoyable but valuable ways of learning about our not-so-distant past.

It’s a Mystery: Takedown Twenty, by Janet Evanovich

Takedown Twenty (Stephanie Plum, #20)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Apparently the Stephanie Plum series does not merit “serious” book reviews from the NY Times et al, so its thousands of fans must make do with amateur ones. Having read entries 1 through 20, I must say that some are better than others. But what keeps me coming back to check in with Steph, aka Cupcake or Babe, is the humorous slapstick approach that never fails to bring at least a few LOLs. In outing twenty, Stephanie is still agonizing over her choice of job ( tired of being shot at, having her cars blown up, etc.), her ongoing attraction to her almost-fiance Morelli and her sometimes employer, sometimes savior Ranger, and her generally disorganized lifestyle. Anyone looking for a modicum of common sense or realism in these books won’t find even an atom of that here, but a rollicking ride through ridiculous situations can be fun too. In Twenty, still set in Trenton, of course, Steph tackles a roaming giraffe whom no one else seems to notice, the mafioso Uncle Sonny whose jumped bail on murder charges, Morelli’s Sicilian grandmother who lays several evil eyes on Stephanie, a series of murders in which elderly women end up in dumpsters, and various and sundry other sources of mayhem. If Stephanie simply invested in a few sessions with a good therapist, she could probably resolve her personal issues, but then, what would there be for author Evanovich to write about?

It’s a Mystery: The Nature of the Beast, by Louise Penny

The Nature of the Beast (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #11)
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, reeling from the traumatic outcomes of his last few cases, has retired and moved to the insulated country village of Three Pines with his wife, Reine Marie. (It makes one wonder why he’d choose a spot where murder happens on a ongoing basis, but there you have it.) Their peace and joy are suddenly marred, however, when a young boy is found murdered in the woods. Gamache takes on a mystery of global proportions as the facts of the death come to light, in his unaccustomed role of consultant to his successor, Chief Inspector Isabelle LaCoste. What they find is a huge rocket launcher, buried in the underbrush, and etched with a horrific image of the Biblical Whore of Babylon. And it’s aimed at the United States.

How do an imaginative child, two secret service clerks, a retired physics professor, a Vietnam era draft dodger, and a serial killer figure into this story? As is usual in a Louise Penny novel, time will reveal all, with a lot of input from Gamache and company. There are some chilling scenes in this novel, as when he interviews the fiendish serial killer, as well as some additional murders. And as usual, the ending is satisfying, leaving no pesky loose ends, but it also leaves some disturbing moral ambiguities. Thought provoking as always and well worth reading, based upon a true situation.

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