Modern Lit: Into the Water, by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The sleepy, remote little town of Beckford, England has a decidedly spooky history. The river that runs through it has what’s known as the drowning pool, which over the centuries has the site of a string of drownings, all women. As Into the Water opens, Jules Abbott is summoned following the death of her older sister Nel, to identify the body and to take care of Lena, her teenaged niece. Nel has been researching the  history of all the local women who died in the pool, starting with a young 17th century woman who drowned during the dunking test for witchcraft. There are many in Beckford who resent that work and who vow to keep the book from publication. The police believe, or say they believe, that Nel committed suicide, but Jules isn’t buying it. One of Nel’s supporters is Nicky, the elderly town mystic. Most view her as barmy, but when she tells Jules that most of the victims, recent and historical, have been wronged by the men in their lives, what she says resonates with Jules, who will come to rely more and more upon Nicky’s insights. Nicky may not have paranormal powers, but she’s certainly a good observer.

Into the Water has multiple narrators, and it is difficult to tell which are reliable. The star of the production is the town with its river; the theme is social justice, misogyny, and the misuse of power. Because there are several victims, there a several subplots, the most vivid being not Nel’s death but that of her daughter’s best friend who drowned only the month before. But all of the women’s stories are compelling in their own right;  the development of Jules’s thorny relationship with her niece is well presented, as is the denouement of her thorny relationship with her sister.  And over everything lies the aura of the strange, secretive town, not threatening, just peculiar. And it’s easy to allow oneself to be drawn into Nel’s conundrums. Into the Water is more psychological drama than suspenseful mystery.

Most of the critical reviews I’ve read compare Water with Girl on a Train, all opining that Water lacks the same brilliance. I prefer to judge books on their own merits, and that’s what I’ve done with my own review.

 

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It’s a Mystery: A Pale Horse, by Charles Todd

A Pale Horse (Inspector Ian Rutledge, #10)A Pale Horse by Charles Todd

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“I looked, and behold, an ashen horse; and he who sat on it had the name Death; and Hades was following with him.” Apocalypse.

Charles Todd continues exploring the hideous ramifications of war in this tenth Ian Rutledge mystery.  Four years after the end of WWI, Rutledge still suffers symptoms of PTSD, which are debilitating even though he manages his flashbacks quite well. The most prominent among his  symptoms is the voice of Hamish, a soldier whom Rutledge unwillingly ordered executed for refusing to follow orders. Hamish functions as a sort of conscience and sounding board , giving readers insight into Rutledge’s thoughts and emotional struggles.

In spite of those struggles, Rutledge is a fine detective, doing  a credible job with Scotland Yard, no thanks to his superior, Chief Superintendent Bowles. Now he’s sent to Berkshire to assist in a War Department search for a missing operative, Gaylord Partridge (really!) Partridge has been residing in a tiny village among eight misfits, who reside in a cluster of cottages originally built for lepers, at the foot of the famous iron age White Horse of Uffington. Though he’s not been briefed, Rutledge strongly suspects that Partridge participated in some top secret mission during the war. Muddying the waters is the discovery, within the ruins of  Yorkshire’s Fountains Abbey, of a corpse wrapped in a hooded cloak, face covered with a gas mask. Though not a part of Rutledge’s assignment, that will prove to be the crucial piece of the puzzle.

Populated with an array of interesting characters, some quite complex and all very real,  and set in one of England’s most mysterious locales, A Pale Horse is a layer cake of secret upon secret, some interrelated and some discrete.  If it weren’t so tightly plotted, following this investigation might have been a bit confusing. As more murders and several arsons occur, Rutledge has an ever increasing abundance of connections to sort through while trying not to tread on the toes of the local police.

The Inspector Rutledge series has a prominent place among the more literary mysteries in the genre, and A Pale Horse definitely fits well into that place; it’s an intelligent, socially relevant novel with resonance in today’s world, where war, business, political secrets, and yes, PTSD,  play such  a large role.

It’s a Mystery: The Lost Book of the Grail, by Charlie Lovett

The Lost Book of the Grail

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve gotta say, rarely have I come across a book so expressly tailored to my own particular interests. Put together a collection of ancient manuscripts,  a medieval English cathedral, the long lost relics of a saint, a sacred spring, a mysterious code, King Arthur, the lore of the Holy Grail, and I’m hooked. Charlie Lovett has produced a cracking good tale set in Barchester, the fictional town invented by Anthony Trollope, with a suitably nerdy protagonist, Arthur Prescott, who teaches for a living but lives for the joys he discovers within the  all-but-deserted  cathedral library. He has his few close friends and an obsession with the Grail myth instilled by his grandfather, who believed the Grail is hidden somewhere within Barchester. Arthur’s existence is predictable and ordinary until an effervescent American scholar, Bethany Davis, breezes into his circumscribed world, charged with digitizing the contents of his beloved retreat. After a somewhat rocky beginning, they find common ground in their love of medieval history. Arthur is heartbroken when the dean announces that the manuscripts will have to be sold off to finance much needed cathedral repairs, and feels driven to find a way to save the beloved collection. Luckily, Bethany, a whiz of a researcher, throws herself into the quest, which plays out with

Although flashbacks can be annoying in a novel, author Lovett seamlessly blends them into the modern tale, via well researched sequences that vivify England’s tumultuous religious struggles while providing  grounding for the facts and legends that Arthur pursues. While some of his adventures contain humorous elements, others are more serious, as he searches not only for a “treasure” to save the library, but for something deeper in which to believe.

Engrossing, delightful, and heartening. And highly recommended.

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It’s A Mystery: The Girls in the Garden, by Lisa Jewell

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My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Lisa Jewell has written quite a few novels, but this was my introduction to her work, enticed by the idea of a contemporary mystery set in an English communal garden. As the book opens , Clare Wild is moving into a flat with her two daughters, all three reeling from losing their home to a fire set by their schizophrenic husband and father, now hospitalized. They are immediately intrigued by the spacious fenced garden set into the center of their neighborhood, and soon Grace and Pip are drawn into a clique of other girls who live nearby and regularly hang out there.

The first half of the novel focuses upon Grace and Pip’s struggles to adapt, and, while laying the groundwork for the second half, author Jewell displays her talent for creating credible characters, even while nothing momentous is occurring. The same skill is evident when the adults start to take center stage, when one of the girls is discovered, unconscious and bloody, in the otherwise deserted garden. Somebody knows something, and now the mystery is the focus. It seems a similar event occurred fifteen years earlier. Most of the residents now must wrestle with suspicions, secrets, and fears that have long been dormant.

The mystery is ultimately resolved, but a few loose ends remain that refuse to be tucked in. The Girls in the Garden is a satisfying mystery filled with fascinating characters, and much of its appeal lies in watching their actions, reactions, and choices. I’ll definitely be reading more of Lisa Jewell.

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Intriguing Nonfiction: The Hermit in the Garden, by Gordon Campbell

 

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Just this very minute, I stumbled upon an article at Smithsonian.com about the town of Saalfelden, Austria, which has one of the last remaining hermitages in Europe. Recently, the resident hermits left to return to their secular careers, and the town is seeking a new hermit. Among the job requirements is a willingness to live without heat, running water, or electronics of any kind, and to serve a listener to strangers who might want to stop by to confide in someone trustworthy. Applications close in March. Click on the link above to read this intriguing story.

Book review:

Sometimes it really is true that fact is stranger than fiction. You know those little men in the pointy hats that we generally refer to as garden gnomes? They now have a history. You know those classical little “folly” buildings that dot the stately English garden landscape? Well, it turns out that some of these were not strictly decorative.  Gordon Campbell, a Professor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Leicester, has published The Hermit in the Garden: From Imperial Rome to Ornamental Gnome , the first book to describe the phenomenon of the ornamental hermit in Georgian England.

Professor Campbell believes that during the Reformation, the ancient custom of religious persons, sometimes called hermits,  choosing to shut themselves away from the world for constant prayer and meditation came to an end with the dissolution of the great religious houses.   During the 18th century, it became fashionable among the educated and the elite to be “melancholy”, devoting time to the admiration of nature and the study of philosophy. Gradually, some began constructing small rustic cottages, to use as retreats for deep thinking, or, in many cases, to impress visitors with their erudition. It wasn’t long before the wealthy began to  hire men to live in their garden “hermitage”, pretending to be a reclusive but romantic part of the landscape. Although this book is a serious and impressive work of research, Professor Campbell injects threads of humor where appropriate, as when he describes the difficulties inherent in finding men willing to don rough robes, go barefooted, allow their hair, beards, and nails to grow, and, perhaps hardest of all, remain silent, for a period of seven years.

Much of the book is a survey of historic and modern “hermitages” in England, Scotland, France, and parts of Europe, many of which are illustrated. There are numerous extant sites that can still be visited, though they’re no longer inhabited; health regulations prohibit! It ends with some speculation about how the ornamental garden hermit morphed slowly into the ornamental garden gnome, helped along by Disney’s Grumpy, Sleepy, et al.

It’s probably safe to say that there is no  more extensive compilation of information on this topic than The Hermit in the Garden. It’s a valuable addition to the field of garden history, and has much to say, or imply, about Western Civ.

Last summer, I acquired  the perfect little  gnome for my own garden.

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 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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