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.

It’s a Mystery: The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, by Elizabeth Kelly

The Last Summer of the Camperdowns

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

While cruising the opening chapters of The Last Summer of the Camperdowns, the two totally self-obsessed women from BBC’s comedy series, Absolutely Fabulous, sprang to mind. I thought they were the ultimate narcissists, but they have nothing to hold over Greer and Godfrey Camperdown, parents of the novel’s narrator, Riddle, an only child. Greer is a former movie star, Godfrey an aspiring congressman and songwriter who enjoys treating dinner guests with impromptu performances. Just as in AbFab, the child has to play referee when the parents’ egos run amok, something that occurs nearly every day. Riddle is a thoroughly engaging 13 year old, who copes with the madness around her by throwing herself into horseback riding, that age old refuge of young girls. One summer afternoon, when searching for her lost puppy in the stable, Riddle overhears the ominous sounds of someone in pain and distress. To her horror, the stable manager discovers her presence, realizing that Riddle has been an ear-witness to something terrible. He spends the rest of the novel reminding her that she had better keep the secret.

This is the story of how Riddle copes with her guilt over not telling what she knows, which becomes crushing when she figures out who the victim was. At the same time, she develops her first agonizing crush on the older brother of the victim. Riddle is a fairly reliable narrator, and her accounts of the actions of the adults that surround her are perceptive and telling. Ancillary characters are also well drawn. The setting, among the dunes and ponds of Wellfleet, Cape Cod, is idyllic, evocatively described, as are the times, the very early 70’s when memories of WWII are still sharp. The length of this book is excessive, bogging down in the middle of the story, but the ending is a winner; just when you’re sure you know what happened, a series of bombshells in the final dramatic chapters puts paid to that illusion. If you decide to read Last Summer, have patience when the pace slows, because once it picks up, it’s memorable.

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: Bury Your Dead, by Louise Penny

Bury Your Dead (Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, #6)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In this sixth novel in the series, Inspector Armand Gamache has a lot on his emotional plate. Following a harrowing case in which he and assistant Jean-Guy Beauvoir ( who is also Gamache’s son-in-law) nearly lost their lives, they’re both physically and psychologically drained. Gamache, as is his wont when things go wrong, blames himself, and at the urging of his wife, takes refuge with his now-retired mentor, Emile Comeau, in the beautiful city of Quebec. Beauvoir, going stir crazy in recovery, wants some work to do, so Gamache assigns him to do some further investigation into a now-solved murder, in the idyllic village of Three Pines. The book integrates, in alternating chapters, the three storylines, each of which has its own series of jolting discoveries. To my great enjoyment, Armand’s thread incorporates a lot of Quebec’s 18th century history, particularly the still- unsolved mystery of where the city’s founding father, Samuel de Champlain, was buried. Political issues, such as anti-English sentiment and Quebecois separatism, also play an important role.

Author Louise Penny is one of those few gifted writers who can meld plot threads seamlessly, making each relevant to the others. The appeal of her protagonists and her skills at breathing life into each of her settings, are now legendary among her followers. Though murder is at the center of her plots, her books are more character studies than police procedurals, though procedure is certainly given its due. All this is true of Bury Your Dead, a title that has meaning on several levels. This is an intricate, intelligent novel, though-provoking and disturbing on several levels, and surprisingly poetic in places. I won’t offer a plot synopsis, for fear of inadvertently spoiling it. Just read it – you won’t be disappointed.

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