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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

I’ve had The Buried Giant on my to-read list for a long time, since a volunteer and avid reader at the public library where I worked when it came out recommended it. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve read other novels by Kazuo Ishiguro, and loved them. The Buried Giant was also on the list of Tookie’s recommended books at the end of The Sentence and was available relatively quickly from the library’s eBook app. Yes, this is the same person writing who, pre-COVID, moaned a fair bit about how far superior paper books are. I still prefer them, but have come to appreciate library eBooks during the pandemic.

Anyway, I’m glad I finally got around to reading The Buried Giant. Unlike Ishiguro’s other dystopian books, this one is set far in the past in England, after King Arthur has died and there is a fragile peace between Saxons and Britons. Right from the start of the book, when we meet the elderly protagonists Axl and Beatrice, it’s clear that this peace is not all that peaceful. While there may not be open war, there is suspicion even within individual settlements. Axl and Beatrice live in a “warren” of a village — shelters carved into the earth — and are forbidden a candle because someone has managed to convince the leaders that they might accidentally start a fire. So even neighbors suspect each other. And there is at least an uneasiness about strangers, and in some cases, open hostility towards them.

This makes the old couple’s decision to travel several days’ walk away to visit their son seem quite strange. Although Beatrice has experience with part of the journey because she’s been to a Saxon village with other women to trade, neither of them really knows the way. They, like everyone else, seem to have difficulty remembering the events of their earlier lives. Axl and Beatrice suspect this is because of a mysterious mist that impairs them. Still, they gain permission to travel and set off.

It’s a strange journey right from the start. Early on they come across a boatman who ferries people to an island where every inhabitant thinks they are entirely alone unless a married couple can convince the boatman under separate questioning that their “bond of love” is particularly strong and has been so for their lifetimes, in which case they may be granted an exception (it’s all hearsay) and live on the island together. There’s no mention of younger folks or parents and children or friends or any other kind of love. The boatman Axl and Beatrice meet is being harrassed by an old woman who feels she was deceived and misjudged in this process, whose husband is on the mystery island while she remains on the mainland.

Then they come to the Saxon village Beatrice knows, and learn these folks have been having problems with some kind of super ogres, called fiends. Because he comes home with a nasty bite, they turn on a child who was carried away and later rescued by a warrior, a Saxon trained by Britons. Axl and Beatrice end up continuing their journey with these two strangers, the boy and the warrior. The four agree to travel together at least as far as a monastery in the mountains where Beatrice hopes to get the advice of a monk known as a skillful healer, and the boy is to go on with them to their son’s village.

Let’s just say the trip gets even crazier once they are a party of four. They come across the last of Arthur’s knights, Gawain, now elderly himself, and still on his last quest, to slay a dragon. He becomes entangled in their stories, and at this point none of the other characters are quite what they seemed. Even Axl is not the simple laborer he seemed to be when the book opened. They visit the monastery, which may actually be an old fort, ad find the healer, who is even more wounded himself.

As if all of that isn’t strange enough, as each character’s memories slip in and out and pieces come together, we learn that the mist was something Arthur thought would hold the peace together. The idea was that if people could not remember atrocities, they wouldn’t seek revenge. This was necessary because Arthur’s noble rules of engagement, which required his knights to engage only with other knights and not allow anyone else to be harmed, had not held together. I won’t spoil for you the source of the mist or whether or not it remains. But its hold seems to lessen as they travel, just as when we’re out of our usual element, we may think of things we haven’t in some time. And that reveals enough to help us get to know the characters a little more.

We also learn a little more about Axl and Beatrice and their son, although not enough to really understand entirely where he is, how he came to live there, what their reception will be if they find him, and whether the boy will be welcome wherever he is. The island (or an island — we learn there may be many of them) comes back into play as a possible destination. We revisit the question of whether Axl and Beatrice could meet the boatman’s test. They reassure each other many times on the journey that their love is strong and others observe their “unusual devotion to each other” but we also get hints of past disagreements, even possibly betrayals. Ishiguro keeps us guessing about what their memories might reveal if the mist is lifted and how that might impact their journey.

Is this a fable about collective memory, war, tribalism, xenophobia, and the danger of relying on charismatic leaders? Perhaps. Is it a story about the realities of a long marriage, the way bonds may be tempered rather than broken by challenges? Or is it about about forces — cultural, political, or even simply human nature — that cannot be overcome as we try to direct the paths we’re on? Is it about surviving those forces? It may be any of these. Or it may just be a good story, a little bit unsettling but lovely and mysterious and someone even reassuring?

A good read might keep you wondering what it was about long after you get to the final page, and this is one of those reads. It would be interesting for a book group to wrestle with the many questions that arise.

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I realized when I was writing about The Quiet Boy that I had not read Underground Airlines. I really like Ben Winters‘ writing and if you’re a longtime reader of bookconscious you know I’ve read many of his books. So I looked in my library eBook platforms and checked it out. I loved it and will buy it so the Computer Scientist can read it too. I am guessing that life was hectic when Underground Airlines first came out; I remember seeing it and meaning to read it. Anyway, I’m really glad I read it now!

As with several of Winters’ other books, this novel is partly a mystery, partly speculative fiction, and deeply humane. I’ve said before that readers can learn a thing or two about being human from his books; that is the case with Underground Airlines as well. It’s set in a world where Lincoln was assassinated before becoming president, and Congress subsequently passed a series of compromises and a Constitutional amendment allowing slavery to remain legal and regulated in the South. By the time the novel takes place, only four slave states remain. The main character, who goes by the name Victor, is an escaped slave who works for the U.S. Marshall service, tracking others who have escaped.

When the book opens Victor is in Indianapolis, working a case. He meets a young mother, Martha, and her child at the hotel where he is staying. As he draws closer to finding the person he’s tracking, he finds himself helping Martha, and also revisiting memories he’d rather forget. Just when he thinks he’s solved his case, things fall apart, and now it’s Martha’s turn to help him. Winters uses their friendship to shine a light on the racism pervasive even in the abolitionist north. He seamlessly comments on inequity, “nice white people,” corporate greed, political dysfunction, and violence, but it’s not heavy handed. All of this fits into the story.

Which is compelling — I was nearly late for work one morning because I thought I could just finish a chapter I’d stayed up too late reading and when I looked up, I had ten minutes to feed the cats, get dressed, make coffee, grab a piece of toast, and fly out the door. Winters’ characters are complex people; there is no simple good guys/bad guys divide, and even the ones you root for do some things you wish they wouldn’t and vice versa. Winters gets that people are imperfect and sometimes act in surprising ways. Reading his books, I always get the sense that he is hopeful about humanity.

Underground Airlines is a terrific read, and it would be a great book club pick. There is a lot to unpack. I also think this would make a terrific movie or TV series. When I described it to the Computer Scientist he said it sounded like it has a similar vibe to Philip K. Dick‘s The Man In High Castle. I don’t know as I haven’t read that book or seen the show, but I did read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and I get how the two writers could be compared.

Also, Underground Airlines ends with Victor trying to track down Martha’s partner, Samson. I would love to read that story! The final lines of the book left me wondering about a sequel. Earlier in the story, more than once, Victor or his handler express that “everything happens,” alluding to the fact that slave or free, black Americans are always in danger. At the end of the book, Victor has flipped that narrative and is hopeful about the chances of finding and freeing Samson: “Everything can happen. Everything is possible.” Could there be more in store for Victor and Martha?

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Yep, those are two very different books. This is bookconscious, I’ll manage to find some connection – stay with me.

Let’s start with Audre Lorde. I read Sister Outsider for my class on Social Justice in the Anglican Tradition. The book is a collection of Audre Lorde’s essays, conference papers, and talks, first published in 1984. Lorde considered herself a poet, as the introduction by her editor, Nancy Boreano notes, but she is also a powerful prose writer. Lorde writes about the many facets of her own identity as a Black lesbian feminist and about the failings of movements that advocate narrowly for the liberation of just one segment of society. She was critical of feminism for not also fighting racism and classism, and of womanism for not lending support to gay and lesbian people. Like so much else that I’ve read lately, the parts of Sister, Outsider that spoke most to me were those addressing the institutional root cause of our divisions: capitalism.

As Lorde explains in “Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefinding Difference:”

“In a society where the good is defined in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, there must always be some group of people who, through systematized oppression, can be made to feel surplus, to occupy the place of the dehumanized inferior. . . . Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people.” Ironically, this wastes human capital, as Lorde notes, because the the outsiders are the ones who have to explain themselves to the dominant class: “There is a constant drain of energy which might be better used in redefining ourselves and devising realistic scenarios for altering the present and constructing the future.”

Like Pauli Murray, Lorde was ahead of her time in describing intersectionality, critiquing the reproduction of oppression in marginalized groups that inhibits liberation for everyone, critiquing the lack of racial cultural and socioeconomic diversity in women’s studies and academia, and recognizing the power of creativity in helping people work towards a freer society. In “Poetry Is Not a Luxury” Lorde writes, “It forms the quality of light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams towards survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.”

The essays on Lorde’s visits to the Soviet Union and Grenada are also very interesting and educational (the invasion of Grenada always baffled me, and I see it now in the context of US imperialism in Latin America), and bookend the collection. An interesting, thought provoking read. I wonder what Lorde would have to say about the rifts in human rights movements today? Her critiques unfortunately are still needed today, and it seems to me she would call on people to stop reproducing hierarchies of oppression within the LGBTQ+ and feminist communities as well as other progressive movements. I feel like she would appreciate The Sum of Us. Plus, she was a librarian! I look forward to really thoroughly processing her teaching in class.

Now how on earth am I going to connect Audre Lorde with Ben Winters? Well. The characters in his book, The Quiet Boy, are in one way or another victims of the same profit-over-people economy that Lorde cautions us to resist. That’s as far as I’ll go to push the connection right now.

Still, when I’m reading a book that requires studying — careful attention and thought, followed by processing what I’ve read and considering where it fits into the other reading I’m doing or have done, how it relates to the course, what learning it offers, what work I still need to do — it’s nice to have a mystery to read before sleeping. Like working a puzzle, reading something that swiftly moves your brain from clue to clue can be a great release. But this is no pat mystery (not that there’s anything wrong with reading those). Ben Winters is an author I’ve admired and enjoyed for years, and his books are always intriguing and thoughtful. This one was interesting for me to read as I now work in a hospital, and the plot revolves around a lawyer trying to win a malpractice trial after a boy named Wesley hits his head, is operated on, and is a shell of himself, walking endlessly in his room without speaking or interacting in any discernibly human way with those around him.

The lawyer, Jay Shenk, is hired again by Wesley’s family over a decade later when his father is accused of murdering the scientist who served as an expert witness in the malpractice trial. Throughout the book, Jay’s relationship with his son Ruben, and the impact of the two cases on Ruben’s life, are the focus. A mysterious man and his small band of followers are convinced that because of his condition, Wesley is the key to bringing about a “good and golden world” and this little existentially motivated cult play a key part in both cases. This twist is provocative in the best way, as are the themes Winters treats so well: the nuances of ethical behavior, family relationships, the impact of those who’ve died (or become walking shells of themselves) on the living, what it is that can transform humanity into a better version of itself.

One of the things I love about his books is that people I wouldn’t ordinarily seek out, like a policeman (in his Last Policeman trilogy) or an “ambulance chaser” lawyer like Jay Shenk shine as not only fully human but also deeply empathetic characters. Winters gently challenges readers to look beyond the exterior of the “usual suspects” that appear in his books, and he manages to make the familiar pattern of a mystery (which is comforting for many readers; we like mysteries because they fit into our deeply grooved mental binaries of good and bad) and expands it to something much more complex and thought provoking and even instructive.

You can learn a thing or two about being a better human from Winters’ books. There you go. Another way reading Audre Lorde connects with reading Ben Winters.

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I downloaded The Gate of Angels, by Penelope Fitzgerald, when I went on an unexpected trip recently. I didn’t read it on the trip, but I enjoyed it this week. A short novel, set in 1912, it takes place over a brief time in the lives of Fred Fairly, a fellow of the fictional St. Angelicus College at Cambridge who studies physics, and Daisy Saunders, a young woman whose parents have died who has recently been forced out of nurse training when she tried to help a patient in a way that violated the hospital’s rules. Daisy, trying to make her way to a private mental hospital in Cambridge run by a doctor she knows in hopes he’ll hire her, and Fred are both hit by a farm cart while bicycling, along with another bicyclist who disappears after the accident.

When they each wake from the accident they are in a bed together; the well meaning lady whose house they are in thought they were married. Fred is entranced and sets out to convince Daisy they should be. Fitzgerald tells us a little about each of them, how they grew up, what their families are like, how they’ve tried to make their ways in the world. Daisy’s story illustrates how difficult it was to be a woman in the early 20th century, particularly a woman who is alone. She navigates a dangerous world where she survives by working hard, keeping alert, and staying one step ahead of those (mainly men) who would prey on her.

Fred’s had an easier life, but early in the book he goes home to tell his family he has lost his faith — and his father is a parish priest. When he arrives his mother and sisters are busy making a banner for a suffragette march and no one much cares about this faith. His college, St. Angelicus, doesn’t allow fellows to marry and he spends much of his time following arcane traditions and rules. When he meets Daisy, and more importantly when the truth about the night of the accident comes to light, his questioning takes a different turn, and he realizes, and tells his undergraduate students, that “there is no difference whatever between rational thought and ordinary thought.” He goes on to say that what they are there to study — “energy and matter” — are part of their own selves, too, and that “scientists are not dispassionate. Your judgement and your ability to do good work will be in part dependent on your digestion, your prejudices, and above all, your emotional life.”

In addition to this emotional awakening by a man previously devoted entirely to science, there’s an element of mystery as the pieces of the story come together, there’s a sort of gothic ghost tale told by an elderly don as he considers the strange accident, and there’s a ridiculous scene where Fred, who has accidentally knocked out someone who has done Daisy wrong, carries the unconscious man through the streets of Cambridge with a fellow scholar, who chats away about other things and then suggests they leave him in a pile of grass clippings. And the writing is so delightful — descriptive, pointed, and wise. There’s a passage where Fred has asked for Daisy at the mental hospital, and the receptionist imperiously replies that there is no nurse named Saunders; technically true, since Daisy’s job is to iron linens. The doctor overhears and comes out of his office and scolds:

“Don’t, in your ignorance, amuse yourself by turning away my callers. You are the receptionist. Receive!”

And here’s a description of Daisy, towards the end of the novel, carrying a bag on her way to the station:

“Out in the road, carrying the overfull Jemima, she felt she looked like someone taking kittens out to drown and changing her mind at the last moment. The rain threatened to get worse. At one point, she had had a good, strong umbrella, but not now. She had lent it to one of the two cooks at Dr. Sage’s, and she hated asking for anything back. It took all the good out of it.”

The Gate of Angels is described as a historical novel, but is also very funny, and warm in its way. The ending is ambiguous but hopeful. A really delightful read.

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A friend recommended Summer’s Lease by John Mortimer, the author well known for Rumpole of the Bailey. It’s not available to download from my library but my mother gave me a copy for my birthday. My grandmother used to say that when the news was awful, a mystery was just the thing (and this week, the New York Times affirmed her wisdom by running a piece on Agatha Christie’s books at time when we are certainly up to our ears in bad news). So I pulled Summer’s Lease out of the to read pile and devoured it in a couple of sittings.

Apparently, Mortimer knew the setting of this novel well, having regularly rented houses in an area of Tuscany he facetiously called Chiantishire, because of the presence of so many English tourists and ex-pats. Summer’s Lease is a mystery but it is also quite sharply humorous. The story is about Molly Pargeter, who uses her inheritance from a great aunt to book three weeks in an Italian villa for her family of five, and then unexpectedly ends up hosting her father, Haverford, as well.

Mortimer captures all the little nuances of family life — the power imbalance in Molly’s marriage to Hugh, a divorce lawyer (like Mortimer) who has been having flirtatious lunches with one of his former clients; the triangulation that occurs as children enter adolescence and at once need their mother and want to bring her down a notch; the vulnerability and insecurity behind old Haverford’s raucous and, even in a time when “PC” was not a thing yet, often inappropriate rancountering. For all this human interest, Mortimer also delivers an interesting mystery and does so with great humor, poking fun at both British and Italian society.

As I was telling the friend who recommended it, the ending took me aback, and I’m still not quite sure what to make of it. But It was a good read, entertaining and a delightful if brief escape from the news. And I’m intrigued by Mortimer, who seems like he was quite a character. I have never seen Rumpole, and may look for some episodes. And Summer’s Lease was also a four part series which aired on Masterpiece in the early 90s, with John Gielgud as Haverford, which sounds wonderful.

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I saw a review of The Imperfects, Amy Meyerson‘s second novel sometime since I’ve been working at home and put it on my library eBook holds list. It came up in my account over the weekend, and proved a good summer read (or Coronavirus and bad news all around read). It’s absorbing in the way I hear coworkers talk about certain streaming or TV series about dysfunctional families, because Meyerson’s characters, the Millers, can’t seem to be in the same room without getting into an argument.

But that, in and of itself, would not for me be very entertaining. Fortunately, there is a page-turning mystery at the center of this feuding family. Helen, the matriarch, has died and in her will, she surprises everyone by leaving her house to her daughter, Deborah, a somewhat flaky new-agey grandma who has failed at three dozen business ideas, can’t keep to her vegan diet, and seems to have had a string of equally flaky boyfriends. Helen also surprises them by leaving a brooch to Deborah’s daughter Beck.

The rest of the book is the breathless story of Beck’s realization that the brooch is not only a valuable heirloom, but also includes a diamond that was probably part of the Habsburg crown jewels, lost since the earlier 1900s. Having no idea why on earth her grandma had such a thing in her possession, she gets to work trying to determine its provenance and how it came to be Helen’s. And to determine how to stave off the many legal claims to the diamond once news breaks.

Because the siblings can’t keep their mouths shut. Beck’s brother Jake, a screenwriter whose one hit capitalized on his family’s dysfunction and caused a major rift, spills the story to his stoner friend as soon as he gets back to California. Worse, her sister Ashley, a Greenwhich housewife and former marketing executive, takes a valuation report to an auction house. And some of the people Beck trusts to help the family are less than helpful.

Helen’s story, and the story of the jewels she came to own drive the book. There is some interesting backstory about the end of the Habsburg empire, and then later, an effort to get fifty Jewish children out of Austria before the Nazis ship most of the adults off to concentration camps. Which Meyerson says in her author’s note is based on a real story of a Philadelphia couple who really rescued fifty children. That was all interesting.

Less interesting, to me, were some romantic (or at least lustful) side plots for each of the Miller family, which I think are included to round them out as characters, so they don’t just look like bickering siblings. I could imagine my grandmother suggesting these interludes were not needed, which is why I gave it some thought and tried to imagine why Meyerson included them. There are also some other non-romantic partner minor characters who play small but key roles, like Karen, the kind and honest HR person at Beck’s firm, Rico, the solid stoner friend, and Clara, a librarian who takes an interest in helping Ashley.

If you’re looking for a distraction, this book has mystery, history, and family histrionics. I read it in an afternoon and evening (and admittedly, late into the night to finish, because I wanted to know how it would end.

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A couple of years ago I spied The Comforters at a coffee and book shop in Maine and remembered how much I liked A Far Cry from KensingtonWhen I was looking for a quick read for the holiday season, I saw it on my shelf and decided to give this book, Muriel Spark‘s debut novel, a read. It was just the thing for this busy time, short and satisfying.

It was interesting to read so recently after The Life You Save May Be Your Own because Spark was a Catholic convert and Catholicism features heavily in The Comforters. It’s the story of Caroline, a writer working on book about the novel form. She’s a recent convert and has decided to put her relationship with Laurence, a BBC football commentator and heir to a canned fig company, on hold until he returns to the faith, although they remain friends.

When the novel opens, Laurence writes to Caroline from his grandmother Louisa’s home to tell her he thinks Louisa is in a gang. Caroline is on a retreat and is driven away by the odious Mrs. Hogg, a former servant for Laurence’s family and a very nosy and unpleasant woman. Mrs. Hogg decides to read the letter, rather than just forwarding it on to Caroline. In the mean time, Laurence and Caroline try to get to the bottom of what Louisa is up to, and Caroline is visited by a ghostly narrator whose typewriter only she can hear.

Caroline, crazily enough, feels sure this means they are all in a novel. She comes to view herself as superfluous to the plot — the mystery surrounding Louisa, Mrs. Hogg, Mrs. Hogg’s estranged husband Mr. Hogarth, and their crippled son, Andrew, as well as a friend of Caroline’s and Laurences, known as the Baron, Laurence’s mother Helena, and his Uncle Ernest, who, in good English novel fashion, happens to be in business with Caroline’s college friend Eleanor, who has been involved romantically with both the Baron and Mr. Hogarth. But in the end it turns out, Caroline is really key to the whole story.

Confused? I was from time to time, but it all became clearer as I took more time to read — it’s not a book you can pick up for a few pages a night before bed, unless you want to spend time backtracking to figure out who is doing what and how they know each other again. However, once I gave it proper attention, The Comforters was hilarious in a dry, and pretty dark way — there is a crime at the center of the story, plus some injuries, a death, and at least one of the characters may or may not be involved in diabolism (I had to look it up, too — devil worship). The supernatural aspect worked for me because it seems like a nod to the creative process — why wouldn’t writers possibly be visited by voices, and aren’t they, even if most of the time they don’t literally hear them out loud?

A delightful read, a little wacky and fun but also a novel that talks addresses women’s roles in society, creativity, religious practices, morality, and relationships. A book club could have fun with this one.

 

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I loved the Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters, so I was excited to see that with Golden State he returns to the dystopian mystery genre (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Winters wrote another highly praised book, Underground Airlines, which I have not yet read). Golden State is even more dystopian than The Last Policeman. Golden State is a place sort of like California in a post-disaster world, a society where telling the truth is upheld by law, and lying can land you in jail or even exile. Our hero, Laszlo Ratesic, has been with the Speculative Service, which is tasked with protecting society from lies, for nineteen years. His old friend and mentor, Arlo Vasouvian, asks him to take on a partner, Aysa Paige, a young woman new to the force. They go out on what seems like a routine call, verifying the facts of a death, and from there, Laszlo’s life gets a great deal more complicated.

Laszlo and Aysa end up pursuing an anomaly, and as this fast-paced book unfolds, Laszlo’s certainty that the Golden State is a safe place where laws are upheld and truth is honored begins to unravel. From finding an irresistible “artifact,” a book “from what was” before the Golden State, to asking his ex-wife, who works in the Record (where everything that has happened to everyone who exists is recorded) for help, to uncovering several characters’ closely held secrets, Laszlo and Aysa chase their truth to the very highest levels of the Golden State.

Or do they? This is no formulaic mystery. What happens in the final hundred or so pages of The Golden State will give your book club plenty to discuss. What happens, in the end, with the information Laszlo uncovers? The implications of his discovery for the Golden State is open to interpretation. I’m fascinated by the madwoman/guide character and by Laszlo’s ex-wife, and would love to talk about their roles with someone else who has read the book. I appreciate that Winters leaves room for the reader to think about what happened to Laszlo and decide how it might turn out. Laszlo himself is on a new quest by the end of the book, and I’m hoping this means there may be room for a sequel.

The themes of the book are so timely — what are the consequences of making lies indistinguishable from truth, as we seem to have done? Can society go too far in seeking and upholding the truth? What is the relationship between evidence and truth? How should society deal with people whose truths are outside the mainstream? How does our society do this, even if it’s not as obviously extreme as the Golden State? What makes a person good, or bad, at what they do and how they live? Can a person have serious faults and be a hero? Can a person be a friend and a traitor? Some of these are age old questions, but I can promise you haven’t considered them in quite the same way as The Golden State.

Finally, and those of you who have followed this blog for any time know this is key for me — the writing is beautiful. In the scene where Laszlo tells Arlo about the novel he’s found disguised as a dictionary, and Arlo tells him it’s an artifact, Laszlo muses: “We are silent, then, silent on the steps of the Record, silent at the center of the State. There is a world that used to be and is gone. We live on it and in it, but we don’t know what it was. Its absence surrounds us.”

Truth, beauty, dystopia and the thrill of a page-turner that makes you keep the booklight on under the covers. Perfect. And what a work to pair with The Misinformation Age!

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Last Night In Montreal was on my list of potential reads for my week off between jobs. I got it with a gift card my former coworkers gave me. I loved Emily St. John Mandel‘s Station Eleven, so I decided to give another of her titles a try, and it arrived before The Scapegoat. It was a really good read, one that reminded me a little of a David Lynch film, and a little of a John le Carré novel.

It’s enough of a mystery that I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but the gist is that Eli, whose thesis deadline passed over a year before the book opens, is struggling to find meaning in his work and life when he meets Lilia, a lovely young woman who like Eli, is interested in languages. Although she tells him about her strange life — she was taken from her mother’s house by her father when she was very young and as an adult, she can’t seem to stay in one place very long — Eli is still shocked when Lilia leaves him. He is bereft, and then a strange postcard arrives directing him to Montreal.

St. John Mandel tells the story as Lilia and Eli see it, and as Christopher, the Montreal detective who has searched for years for Lilia, and his daughter, Michaela, see it. It’s a weird story full of rich details about languages, tightrope walking, and travel. It’s a story about what people will do for love, even hurt others. And it’s a very absorbing book that might keep you awake trying to read a few more pages. I’ve never read anything quite like it.

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I picked up Linger Awhile at a favorite used bookstore, Book & Bar in Portsmouth.  I’d been meaning to read Russell Hoban for some time, after reading an article several years ago about how under appreciated he was as a novelist — like many people I knew him as the author of the Frances books for children. When I’m in a used bookstore I like to hunt around for things I can’t find easily in libraries, and his work qualifies.

Linger Awhile is about an octogenarian Londoner (yes, the 2nd book in a row I’ve read with an octogenarian Londoner protagonist) named Irving Goodman who lusts after a Gene Autry cowgirl named Justine Trimble and engages Istvan Fallock, a sound engineer who brings in Chauncey Lim, proprietor of a photographic novelties shop, to help him bring her back to life from nothing but a video clip. On this wild premise, the novel grows and introduces a small circle of people impacted by Irv’s need for Justine.

Add a stoic Detective Inspector, a medical examiner who can’t explain why several saliva samples from different characters match, a parrot named Elijah who quotes spirituals and Hebrew scripture, a Kosher Chinese restaurant proprietress, and a live (as opposed to undead) love interest for Irv and you have a sci -fi vampire cowgirl murder mystery love story that is also quite funny. Linger Awhile is about what happens when men fall under the spell of pretty woman and will do anything to have her, but it’s also about life, love, and the human tendency to feel we are in control.

A rollicking, highly entertaining read, and a cautionary tale of living with the consequences of hubris.

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