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Posts Tagged ‘mysteries’

My grandmother used to find mysteries soothing. If the news was bad, or she was worried about something, she felt there was nothing like a good mystery. Arguably the news is perpetually bad, but I’m also worried and/or preoccupied by a good many things at work and home. A good friend of mine used to tell me that after work, all she wanted was a book with a body in it. With that advice, and my grandmother’s, in mind, I picked up Ordinary Thunderstorms by William Boyd, which I bought at a small used bookstore in Prescott, Arizona, last fall when I visited family after a conference.

I first found William Boyd’s work at the Five Colleges Book Sale. I picked up Armadillo in part because it was a Penguin Street Art edition and the cover caught my eye (to the Computer Scientist’s continuing amazement, I sometimes buy wine that way, because the label caught my eye). I’ve kept an eye out ever since for his novels when I’m at sales or used bookstores, because I loved Armadillo, which opens with a man coming across a dead body and unspools the impact this has.

Ordinary Thunderstorms starts in a similar fashion. A young man, Adam Kindred,  through sheer chance, chats with a stranger in a restaurant, realizes he left a file behind, tries to return it to him, and ends up interrupting the man’s murder. He tries to help the man, who dies, and even in his shock, realizes that he, Adam, will be taken for the murderer because his prints are now in the man’s apartment and even on the murder weapon.

Boyd imagines what it would take in a modern city, in this case London, to disappear. Those who don’t use services the rest us take for granted like credit cards, ATMs, phones, etc. become “invisible or at least transparent, your anonymity so secure you could move through the city — uncomfortably, yes, enviously, prudently, yes — like an urban ghost.” As Adam becomes a ghost and tries to understand the circumstances that led to his new life, we meet Rita, a police officer called to the murder scene; Mhouse, a prostitute who tries to both fleece and help Adam; Jonjo, former soldier turned assassin whose life is permanently changed by the interrupted murder; and Ingram, CEO of the small pharmaceutical firm that was developing a new asthma drug based on the murdered man’s research.

Boyd brings these disparate lives together as Adam works to return to a fully human life, if not nearly the life he once had. Most of Boyd’s characters are neither fully good nor fully bad. He manages to elicit occasional sympathy for Ingram, the privileged CEO, who is desperate to restore at least one relationship in his mostly shallow life; and occasional contempt for Adam, who can be ruthless even though he knows what it’s like to be utterly lost because of others’ ruthlessness. In my view the ending left room for a sequel, although I couldn’t find any evidence that Boyd plans to write one. Readers are left with Jonjo vowing to exact revenge and Adam unsure of whether to tell Rita his full story. among other loose ends.

Despite this untidy ending — which is probably truer to life than a neat ending would be — Ordinary Thunderstorms is a satisfying “book with a body in it.” It was a page turner but also made me think about lives quite different than my own (in different ways). It was an interesting book, with a lot of insight into contemporary London, the pharmaceutical industry, and human social structures. And, it took my mind off the many things preoccupying me. A good read.

 

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My book club is reading Case Histories. I really enjoyed Atkinson’s Life After LifeA God In Ruins, and Transcription, so I figured I would like this. I did, although this first in the Jackson Brodie detective series is very different than her other books. I always say I’m not much of a mystery person, although if you have been with me here at bookconscious for a long time, you know I dip into them from time to time. It’s not that I don’t enjoy the detective-at-work part — usually that is very interesting, to see how someone would puzzle over the facts, inferences, and hunches until they’ve deduced who committed a crime. But I’m more of a Mrs. Pollifax and Maisie Dobbs sort of mystery fan. I prefer books like those books, that don’t have much description of violent murder.

So I almost stopped reading Case Histories after the first 44 pages, which laid out the three main cases in the book, because there was plenty of description of violent murder. However, right after that, Jackson is introduced, and I liked him. I liked many of the characters, and I really appreciated that Atkinson offers some good hearted folks, like Theo, alongside the really awful ones who do others bodily harm. The imperfect people in Case Histories — like Julia, who although not a psychopath is a bit of a narcissist, or Kim, who appears to be a very kind person but is also dating a gangster — are memorable and multifaceted characters.

I did find it strange that there would be multiple psychopaths in one city of just under 100,000 people, but maybe there are and I am overly optimistic. One of the things I liked is that the three main cases also point to other, less serious but still creepy and/or illegal activities, and the way Atkinson unravels these threads is interesting. When my “to read” pile gets a little shorter I will probably look for the other four Jackson Brodie mysteries. I’ll just have to remember that I’m there for the writing and the characters, and skim over the violent bits.

Because Atkinson’s writing is worth it. Here’s a passage about one of the characters’ lives after her three year old daughter disappeared: “Rosemary had slipped out of her own life very easily. She had shown no tenacity for it at all when she discovered that the baby girl she was carrying when Olivia disappeared had a twin, not Victor’s longed-for son, but a tumorous changeling that grew and swelled inside her unchallenged. By the time anyone realized it signaled a life ending rather than a life beginning, it was too late.”  Has cancer ever sounded so beautiful? There are equally lovely descriptions of a woman’s deep loneliness and a man’s asthma attack — Atkinson’s writing makes even the most unpleasant things lovely to read, in the same way that Ali Smith can manage to transform awful current events with her incredible writing in her Seasonal Quartet books.

Mysteries are good for summer, for tense times, really anytime you want an escape. Case Histories is plenty twisty and chilling, but also a really good read.

 

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I don’t usually write about sequels but I love this series. Maisie Dobbs, “Psychologist & Investigator,” is one of my favorite characters. Journey to Munich seems to be a transitional story — when we last met Maisie, she was trying to escape the pain of losing her husband and child. In this book, she is still mourning but has resolved to make her life in London and Chelstone again. Circumstances at home and abroad lead her to Germany, however, at the behest of her former mentor Maurice’s old friends in the British secret services.

Maisie takes on the assignment somewhat reluctantly, and while in Munich she begins to exercise her former skills as an investigator. In an effort to put the past behind her she agrees to a side project, locating the spoiled Elaine Otterburn and urging her to return home. And she meets an American operative, Mark Scott, whose assistance proves invaluable to her as she locates the man she was sent to bring home, a businessman and “boffin” whose engineering ideas are valuable enough that the British government has negotiated with the Nazis for his release from Dachau, where he is being held for allegedly supporting a subversive underground newspaper.

By the end of Journey to Munich it’s clear that Maisie is ready to re-enter her former profession, one she had been willing to give up when she married James Compton, and even better, it’s clear that her former associates, Billy and Sandra, will be working with her again. Other than Maisie’s old friend Priscilla, and the gentlemen from the secret services, Robert MacFarlane and Brian Huntley, few of the wonderful supporting characters from the previous books appeared in Journey to Munich, although we met a couple new ones, including Mark Scott.  I am hoping very much that Winspear is at work on the thirteenth book in the series, because I look forward to seeing what Maisie gets up to next.

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So a couple of weeks ago I eschewed reviewing sequels but I’m going to tell you today about a sequel. No News Is Bad News is the second Bernie O’Dea mystery by Maureen Milliken. She recalled that I had written about the first book, Cold Hard News,  in The Mindful Reader column, and recently got in touch to let me know about the sequel. As you all know, because I can’t help constantly going on about it, I admire small presses. And as a writer, I know that to sell a book published with a small press, an author has to reach out to everyone she knows, even remotely. So I told her sure, I’d be glad to take a look.

I really like Bernie O’Dea. She’s owner/editor of a small town newspaper in fictional Redimere, Maine.She likes to walk at night, looking at “porch lights or lit windows blinking through the trees.” Her handwriting is a mess and she’s often thinking about too many things at once. She’s been diagnosed with adult ADD, but she isn’t wild about how the medicine makes her feel.

When No News Is Bad News opens Bernie is wondering about that and about her cranky psychiatrist, who seems just a little too anxious to pack her out the door with a new prescription and not terribly interested in how she feels. In fact he suggests more drugs. But Bernie is too busy to question him — she needs to get the paper out and she’s short staffed. She needs to figure out her friendship with Redimere’s police chief, Pete Novotny. And to chase down some leads. What was Tim Shaw so angry with his wife about? Could she do a piece on domestic violence without endangering anyone? Who was brutally murdered, gutted, and ensanguinated in the woods? Who did it? And what was going on with her little brother Sal, who last she knew was a college professor, but has turned up at her house jobless and unannounced? And why are the police interested in him?

Yes, Bernie’s a reporter but her quest for the facts often leads her headlong into investigations. Much to Pete’s bemusement, frustration, and sometimes, annoyance. There are a few other twists to this story — the eviscerated body in the woods seems to be connected to the case that first brought Pete to Redimere, a missing boy who has haunted Pete for some time. Bernie needs help at the paper and she allows “Feckless” Fergus Kelley, a reporter from her former paper, to talk his way into a job. She also hires an intern, Carrie, who I hope will appear in the next book.

I don’t read a lot of mysteries, and I admit that parts of this book did get me down. It’s depressing to think about the kinds of people who commit the crimes Milliken writes about. I avoid real news about crime (which may be good for me, according to this NPR article I heard on the way home from work yesterday). So I found some of the tougher bits hard to read. But I hung in because Milliken is a good storyteller and Bernie O’Dea is a terrific character, as are the other inhabitants of Redimere.

So look for Cold Hard News and No News Is Bad News. Get to know Bernie O’Dea.

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This week, a fellow librarian’s debut novel in The Mindful Reader Column.

Here’s the beginning:

“Concord resident Max Wirestone‘s debut novel, The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss, is a “geek” mystery.  As library director in New Durham, he noticed many geeks (devoted, possibly even immersive fans of gaming, the internet, comics, and/or related topics) also liked mysteries. So he decided to write a book for both geeks and mystery lovers. I don’t know if Wirestone invented the geek mystery sub-genre, but I can say The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss is unlike anything else I’ve ever read.”

Read the rest here.

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The newspaper is still having trouble getting the column name and photo in the online edition, but The Mindful Reader ran today. I reviewed two New Hampshire books: Brendan DuBois’s latest Lewis Cole mystery, Blood Foam, and Aurore Eaton’s history of the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company. You can see the column here. If the link doesn’t work, please let me know; for some reason every time they fix the column title the link changes, and I don’t hear about it.

Thanks for reading!

 

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A library patron handed me Chinese Cooking for Diamond Thieves and said she was returning it and wanted me to have it; she described it as a fun read. That’s exactly right. It’s a humorous whodunnit with frequent, mouth-watering descriptions of Chinese cuisine.

Tucker is a senior in college when some unnamed unfortunate event results in his leaving school. At a rest stop in New Hampshire he meets Corrine Chang, who needs a ride to Buffalo. He takes her by way of his parents’ house in Massachusetts. Over a meal of Dongpo pork, Corrine — and readers — learn that Chinese cooking is Tucker’s passion and that he’s headed to St. Louis. I don’t want to give away too much of the story, but I can say that Corrine ends up in St. Louis too, and readers eventually learn who the diamond thieves are. In between, they learn Tucker’s many rules, such as “Rule #11: Timing is everything,” and “Rule #45: Never pass up the opportunity to have dumplings.”

Tucker is a sweetheart, and an interesting character. Besides being the only non-Chinese Chinese chef everywhere he cooks, he’s a martial artist. He can incapacitate bad guys, but Lowry also lets readers see him muse, holding Corrine, “I thought about the pool of warmth around us that seemed like a space that was at the same time very , very small and simultaneously all the room I would ever need or want.” I wouldn’t call this a cozy mystery since there are Chinese gangsters and kitchen staff trading insults. But it’s a gentle one, sweet in a way, romantic and original.

Just have snack — or a Chinese take-out menu — handy.

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