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Posts Tagged ‘mystery’

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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I was chatting with a professor at work last week about what we’d each read over the holiday break and he mentioned Slade House. Longtime bookconscious readers know I’ve enjoyed several other titles by David Mitchell, and actually The Computer Scientist had pointed out Slade House to me when it first came out, so I went to the stacks and checked it out.

It’s a trip of a book, from it’s strange little format (in the hardcover edition we have at the library, which is square and has a cut-out cover exposing an Escher-esque maze of stairs) to the idea of the novel itself – that twins Norah and Jonah Grayer have learned the secret of immortality. Both “engifted” with psychic powers, they hone their mystical skills until they have perfected luring other unsuspecting engifteds, usually people who are misfits in the world, and take what they need from them to go on living (I don’t want to give away the whole story). You can guess that doesn’t end well for the victims.

The other premise of the book is that Slade House, where the twins’ strange and nasty work is done, doesn’t exist in the physical plane of the world, but in an “orison” of a house that was bombed in WWII. The door to reach the garden of the great old house appears every nine years in Slade Alley. So the victims are from different decades in each chapter.

It’s a short book (it took me a week because I’m also reading another book), and it feels like an over-grown short story to me. I understand that it’s related to The Bone Clocks, which I haven’t read. I enjoyed Slade House even though it left me wanting to know more about both Jonah and Norah (I would have liked to have read about their growing up, discovering their gifts, and honing them — we get all that as backstory told by another character) and their victims, who we meet only as they are lured into Slade House. Still, Mitchell is a good writer and he tells a compelling tale.

I like the kind of story that makes you look around and think “What if . . . ?” as in “What if there really were engifteds around here somewhere?” Let’s face it even if you’re the kind of person who doesn’t believe in ghosts and never considers metaphysical questions, an awful lot of people do, and an awful lot of people claim to have experienced the presence of someone who is no longer in the physical world. I think as long as there have been stories, and as long as there are stories, people will place their hopes and fears about what happens when we die, whether a part of us (soul, spirit, ghost, or whatever you call it) goes on and if so where it goes, how existence works. So brief as it may be, Slade House, gets to the heart of that and its appeal is in this universal hope or fear (or both).

Back soon with the nonfiction book I’ve nearly finished.

 

 

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The column ran today in The Concord Monitor.  Here it is:

 

The Mindful Reader: ‘Lightkeeper’s Wife’ strays from the ordinary

Cape Cod author Sarah Anne Johnson’s debut novel The Lightkeeper’s Wife begins as an ordinary work of historical fiction. In 1843, Hannah Snow is the lighthouse keeper’s wife on a treacherous stretch of coast. There’s a wreck one night when her husband, John, is away. Hannah makes a risky rescue attempt but manages to save just one passenger.

After he recovers from nearly drowning, Billy Pike stays on, helping Hannah. John’s horse turns up without him, and bucking convention, Hannah chooses to remain at her husband’s post tending the light. She loves her work. “What an exhilarating feeling, knowing that she could help a floundering ship navigate these waters.”

Things get very interesting as Johnson introduces Annie/Blue, a sea captain’s wife who suffers a loss and rebels against the rules and superstitions surrounding a woman’s presence at sea. When pirates raid her husband’s ship, Annie saves herself, proves her mettle and goes on to masquerade as a man, the pirate Blue.

Johnson spins these two stories and Billy’s into a page-turner with a hint of mystery, weaving in details from her considerable research into women’s maritime history. Several minor characters are also female, providing Johnson a broad palette from which to paint women’s roles in a small 19th-century New England community. This interesting angle, along with the story’s twists, nautical details and compelling characters, make The Lightkeeper’s Wife an intriguing read.

Puzzling whodunit

Michael Nethercott’s The Haunting Ballad is an old-fashioned mystery set in 1957 Greenwich Village, featuring a beat coffeehouse and a colorful cast of characters. Private eye Lee Plunkett and his Yeats-quoting sidekick Mr. O’Nelligan encounter, among others, a “ghost chanter” who receives songs from the afterworld, a blues guitarist, a 105-year-old Civil War drummer boy and a trio of Irish brothers as they investigate the death of a cantankerous folk “songcatcher.” “The woman seemed to flourish on conflict,” O’Nelligan notes as the investigation turns up a steady stream of possible perpetrators. Nethercott’s period details enhance the story, as does Plunkett and O’Nelligan’s banter. Although this is the second book in Nethercott’s series, I hadn’t read the first (The Séance Society) but had no trouble catching up with his characters. The Haunting Ballad features strong dialogue and a great deal of charm, as well as a puzzling whodunit.

With grace

Brattleboro, Vt., author Martha M. Moravec’s Magnificent Obesity: My Search for Wellness, Voice and Meaning in the Second Half of Life tells the story of her heart attack at age 55 and subsequent quest to “close the gap between where she is headed in life and the very different place she wants to be.” Moravec reflects on or confronts just about every issue anyone might be facing as they enter their senior years, all at once: childhood trauma, family dysfunction, unrealized dreams, under- or unemployment, health concerns (obesity, debilitating anxiety, diabetes, colitis and heart disease) and struggles with faith (she thinks of God as “The Man at My Elbow”). But this isn’t a “disaster memoir” – she isn’t mopey or maudlin. She repeatedly praises the “Angels We Can See,” who are “People whose desire to help was so genuine as to seem either genetic or divinely inspired.” She sums up her problems: “I was suffering from acute sensitivity to the fact that I had spent the past 30 years of my life circumventing my life. . . .” But by the time you travel with Moravec to the end of this honest self-examination, her “struggle to lose weight, calm down and find God” has led her “to seek a kind of truce and peace in what unalterably is . . .” and to “grow up in time to grow old with grace.”

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Some of you may already know Tom Holt‘s work, but it was new to me when I picked up Life, Liberty, & the Pursuit of Sausages from a pile of books I’d just checked in at the circulation desk in my library. I order fiction, so I like to see what patrons are reading, and this book looked well loved.

The cover calls it a “comedy of transdimensional tomfoolery,” and Holt’s work reminded me of the great Douglas Adams. He’s witty in that sharp English way. This book features a successful businessman, Mr. Huos, whose riches rely on a strange ring, which is part of his even stranger origin story. A pair of sisters who are lawyers with brothers who are musicians and a “weirdness expert” named Mr. Gogerty, along with a flock of clever chickens and some intelligent pigs, all help solve the madcap multidimenional mysteries in the novel. How does Huos build so many housing tracts in bucolic Norton St. Edgar? Who is drinking Polly Mayer’s coffee? Where has the dry cleaners on Clevedon Road gone? Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Polly’s stream of thought towards the end of the book: “She couldn’t be scared, because something like this couldn’t have happened. Fear needs belief. This was just silly, and silliness only made her irritable.”  Holt’s work hits the sweet spot of piquing the reader’s curiosity without being either scary or dumbed down. He’s entertaining in a way that makes readers think, which I enjoy very much.

If you like offbeat humor, urban fantasy, a puzzling mystery, or all things English, you’ll enjoy Tom Holt. He’s written a slew of books, so I look forward to trying more of them.

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The other book I checked out before the holidays because I’d meant to read it for some time is People of the Book. I really enjoyed Caleb’s Crossing and Nichole Bernier recommended People of the Book last fall when she read from The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D. at Gibson’s. Since I loved two other books Nichole recommended that night (Wallace Stegner’s Crossing to Safety and M. L. Stedman’s The Light Between Oceans), I figured I’d like this one too.

And I did, even though it took me awhile to read it between holiday visits, parties, and events and post-holiday chores and errands. Like Caleb’s Crossing, I found People of the Book‘s historical details evocative and fascinating, and also as in that book, I liked Geraldine Brooks’ strong female protagonist, this time an Australian book conservator named Hannah Heath. Brooks takes readers back in time through several periods as Hannah inspects, studies, and prepares for exhibit the rare illuminated manuscript, recounting Jewish history through the Exodus, known as The Sarajevo Haggadah.

When the book opens, it’s 1996, the Bosnian war has just ended, and Hannah begins her work. A few traces people have left behind — a wine stain, an inquisitor’s signature, a cat hair, a bit of salt, an insect’s wing, and the space where clasps once held the binding closed — are the jumping off points for the haggadah’s story. Each character from each place and time was interesting, and Brooks brought them all to life in places she made vivid. Maps with dates on the end papers show readers “The Global Journey of the Sarajevo Haggadah” so you can follow it as you read or preview what’s coming.

People of the Book is in part the stories of people in various centuries who carry out Brooks’ fictional history of the Sarajevo Haggadah. It’s also a novel about a young woman seeking her own place in the world. Hannah’s mother, a famous neurosurgeon, disdains her work, at one point telling her she is nothing but a “tradeswoman” despite the fact that Hannah’s expertise and training sets her apart as one of the best conservators in the world. In the course of the book Hannah learns her father’s identity and meets an extended family she didn’t know she had.  It’s a mystery too, with the clues Hannah tracks about the haggadah’s history and a chapter about the manuscript’s whereabouts. And it’s a lovely recounting of the importance of art and books and the resilience of the human spirit throughout history.

It was also a terrific read in the evenings as a busy year drew to a close and the new one began. Brooks leaves readers feeling hopeful that the long story of human cooperation, tolerance, and friendship is at least as strong as its opposite.

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I read Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Mr. Churchill’s Secretary in two sittings (it could have been one if I’d started earlier the first evening), anticipating an enjoyable read. The book is set at the beginning of Winston Churchill’s first term as Prime Minister. Having visited the Cabinet War Rooms years ago, and the Imperial War Museum and Bletchley Park last May, I was excited to revisit the time period in fiction.

I really admire how the British dealt with the war, a topic that has been covered in many of my favorite books (Andrea Levy’s Small IslandThe 1940’s House book and television show, Lynne Olson‘s Citizens of London, Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time cycle, Robert Harris’s Enigma, just off the top of my head). MacNeal has written a fun, fast-moving spy/mystery/thriller that takes readers into the wartime lives of some young Londoners. It’s the first in a planned series (there is even a preview of the 2nd book at the end of this one).

MacNeal’s heroine, Maggie Hope, is British, but was raised in America by her aunt, a lesbian college professor who left England to escape her judgmental mother. Maggie’s parents were in a car crash when she was an infant. After she’s graduated from college and been accepted into M.I.T.’s PhD program in math, Maggie learns her grandmother has died in London and left her a large Victorian home. According to the will, she herself has to go to London or the house can’t be sold.

We meet her about a year later. The house hasn’t sold, and she’s decided to stay and join the war effort. MacNeal quickly establishes that Maggie is smart, has had an unusual upbringing, is sketchy on her own family history, and prone to strong opinions about equality for women and gays. We also learn that one of Mr. Churchill’s secretaries has been murdered and Maggie is about to get her job through a friend who works at No. 10 Downing Street.

I read some online reviews critical of MacNeal’s plotting; some of the parts fit more (or less) neatly than some readers would like. I’m less inclined to criticize, because although the book may not be perfect, it did what a spy thriller should: kept me on edge, wanting to know what would happen next.  I imagine it’s hard to write historical fiction well, and to plot a thriller, so I am willing to cut MacNeal some slack.

Maggie is a unique and delightful character. She’s outspoken, brilliant, a loyal friend and sensible woman who seems perfectly suited to daring war work. Her friends are interesting characters as well, including a ballerina from working class Liverpool and a gay man who discusses the need to keep a low profile (one reviewer thought it unlikely a gay man could have worked for Churchill in wartime; Alan Turing certainly engaged in top secret war work and was only arrested years later when he mentioned his boyfriend while reporting a theft). I got a kick out of MacNeal’s portrayal of Churchill and his interactions with his staff.

The IRA presence in London plays an important part in Mr. Churchill’s Secretary. I hadn’t read much about IRA/Nazi collaborations. MacNeal draws chilling portraits of an English fascist and two IRA agents, including the atrocities perpetrated on the agents’ families by the British military that led them both to the Republican cause. It was interesting to consider how MI5 had to deal with both domestic espionage and terrorism.

In her afterword, MacNeal talks about her research, including corresponding with one of Churchill’s woman secretaries, and her visit to the Cabinet War Rooms. I enjoyed the way she wove historical fact into her fictional world, and admired her lively and vivid characters. The book has a clever (I’ll concede occasionally far-fetched) plot and was an interesting and fun read. My interest in Maggie Hope is piqued enough that I’ve placed a hold on the Princess Elizabeth’s Spy, the 2nd book, due out later this fall.

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