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 Bones of Paris, by Laurie R. King

The Bones of Paris (Harris Stuyvesant, #2)

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Laurie King transports her readers to Jazz Age Paris in the second entry in her Harris Stuyvesant series. Harry is still trying to recover from a long defunct romance, so he accepts a request to look into the disappearance of Philippa Crosby, with whom he had a brief fling on the Riviera. Pip, as she’s known, has been skirting the fringes of the Parisian demi-monde , modeling for artists such as Man Ray and hobnobbing with Hemingway and his cronies. The surreal and macabre nature of some of her belongings disturb Harry initially.  But when he traces Pip’s activities to the Theatre du Grand-Guignol, a venue famous for its depraved and violent presentations, his concerns skyrocket.

Stuyvesant is a morose, rather cynical character, and when his lost love, Sarah,  turns up in the company of Man Ray, it throws him; as a result Harry throws himself into the seamy, often secretive midnight bar scene frequented by artists and writers. Interestingly, he’s developed a real attraction to Pip’s flatmate, but his dark mood and careless habits threaten to wreck the relationship before it begins. During the course of his investigation, he finds himself immersed in a subculture that meets in Paris’ infamous catecombs to celebrate the cult of “death pornography”. Harry begins to receive messages meant to encourage him to quit the search, and when he persists, his casual mistress is shot to death on the streets. Harry connects with a city detective who, because of Harry’s former association with J. Edgar Hoover, is willing to work with him, undercover, bien sur. To their horror, many more young women have disappeared.

The appeal of this novel lies in its ambience, the view it provides into the dark underside of the City of Light. The investigation itself is rather slow, with a shot of real suspense saved for the final chapters. It’s fun to encounter the rich and famous, though the only ones portrayed in any depth are Kiki de Montparnasse and Man Ray. Harry himself, in spite of his self-defeating choices, is likable for his humanity and genuine sense of justice. King’s writing, of course, is good as ever.  Not a “page turner”, but did keep my interest from start to finish.

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It’s a Mystery: The Evening Spider by Emily Arsenault

The Evening Spider

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

One house, two women, two centuries. The Evening Spider opens with a traumatic experience for new mom Abby. She and her husband have recently moved into an antique house with their 5 month old daughter, Lucy. Like many new mothers, Abby feels like the proverbial fish out of water in her new role; having taken leave from teaching history, she finds herself home alone with the baby much of the time. One evening, troubled by some anomalies she’s noticed in Lucy’s room – its noisy, squeaky door that requires muscle to open, and an eerie shushing sound coming over the baby monitor each night- Abby spies a spider on the ceiling, and when she turns her back to kill it, Lucy takes a tumbles onto the floor. She develops a vivid round bruise on her face, one that her mother can’t explain to herself or to her husband. To calm herself, Abby begins researching the history of her new home and discovers a diary penned by one of its previous inhabitants.

Spool back to 1885: Frances Barnett, a would-be biologist feeling stifled by her new role as housewife and mother, experiences a profound sense of disquiet that causes her to question her ability to bond with her child. Her husband, Matthew, though not overtly critical, dismisses Frances’s scientific interests and seems to find her wanting as wife and mother. When Matthew takes on a sensational murder case, Frances becomes obsessed with its details, especially the forensic ones, to the extent that her sanity comes into question.

Part Gaslight-style mystery and part haunted house tale, The Evening Spider traces the struggles of these two women to come to terms with the commonplace but very daunting changes in their lives. Of the two stories, Frances’s is the more compelling, and depictions of the psychiatric practices of the time are quite chilling. Equally chilling, however, are Abby’s fears that she is being haunted by Frances, which are played out in a subtle yet convincing manner. Most intriguing are the ways in which each woman will discover the source of her trauma. Frances’s tale comes to a reasonably satisfying resolution, considering the times in which she lived. Abby’s is less conclusive, and I’m still trying to decide how things will turn out for her. What is most interesting is the way the author has depicted the truly awesome adjustments that all new mothers must make, particularly the emotional ones.

Recommended for readers who enjoy a mystery with a heavy infusion of the gothic and the psychological. Just don’t expect that all the ends will be neatly tied.

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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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Historical Fiction: Friends of the Wigwam, by John William Huelscamp

Friends of the Wigwam: A Civil War Story

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Friends of the Wigwam is the debut novel of Civil War historian John W. Heulskamp, who is particularly interested in forgotten heroes of that conflict. The first section of the book relates the formation the strong friendship of six young men and women, and follows their experience of the social and political friction that leads to the war’s outbreak. The fact that these characters are based upon real people increases the impact of this section, which is further enlivened by the appearance of such soon-to-be icons as Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Ulysses Grant. As the plot moves forward into the heat of battle, poignant in itself, knowing the backstory of the friends makes reading of their struggles even more so. Perhaps my favorite character is Jennie (Allie) Hodges, who fought as fiercely and courageously as any man and whose true gender was never discovered during the war years, and it’s great that her contributions are now being recognized.

Wigwam is a promising debut, but it is clear that Mr. Heulskamp is a novice at writing fiction. Many of the passages are overly descriptive, for instance, and his choice of words (quaint hands, stout uniform) sometimes baffling. But practice makes perfect, and with his skill at research and plotting, those are flaws that can be corrected.

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Historical Fiction: Fates and Traitors, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Fates and Traitors

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Jennifer Chiaverini is making a name for herself as the author of novels about quilts, but I prefer her works about historical characters, among them Mary Todd Lincoln, Elizabeth Keckley, and Julia Grant. My favorite among the historicals is The Spymistress, which told the story of Elizabeth Van Lew, a truly courageous woman who managed to spy for the Union while living in the midst of Confederate Richmond.

Fates and Traitors, which is scheduled for publication in September, caught my interest because it features John Wilkes Booth and some of the important women in his life. The plot traces the trajectory of Booth’s decision to assassinate President Lincoln, from the points of view of his mother and sister, one of his sweethearts, and Mary Surratt, at whose home the conspirators met. Chiaverini makes use of the slender evidence available about Booth’s relationship with these women to flesh out the story line, which was a bit too romance-y for my liking, but she managed to make it interesting and factual enough to sustain my interest. There is nothing really new here, but it was edifying to read about Booth as a real person rather than the demon he is usually portrayed as being. The title, which is a bit clumsy, I think, refers to a vision Booth’s mother experienced when John was born, in which he was fated to become famous. Lucy Hale, thought by many to have been his fiancee, comes across as incredibly naive; while her family thinks Booth is a bounder, she remains blind to many signs that he was up to no good.

Fates and Traitors has not supplanted The Spymistress in my estimation, but it was an interesting and divergent picture of the Booth I’m accustomed to reading about. It left me with the impression that if he had been more respected as an actor, his life might have taken a far different course.

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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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