Recent Reads: One Mystery, one Classic

As I mentioned in yesterday’s Sunday Salon post, I’ve been in a “book review funk.”  But I’ve still been reading, and over on LibraryThing I dashed off a few comments about my two most recent books.  I also finished my June short story collection.  Since I’m off work this week with time on my hands, I might actually write a proper review!

But without further ado, here are my thoughts on a mystery, Revelation, by C.J. Sansom, and a classic, Edith Wharton’s The Mother’s Recompense.

This is the fourth Matthew Shardlake mystery set in Tudor England, and I found it just as good as the others. In this book, Matthew vows to avenge a friend’s murder by finding his killer. He learns of a previous murder, sees a pattern, and realizes he’s on the hunt for a serial killer who is likely to murder several more people. There are plenty of grisly murder scenes in this one. Matthew’s sidekick Jack Barak, and his friend and apothecary Dr. Guy Malton, figure prominently in this story as well, and provide interesting subplots. There’s only one book left in this series, and I’ll be sad when it ends.

In one of Edith Wharton’s later novels, the author explores issues of morality and sexuality in the context of a mother-daughter relationship. Kate Clephane left a loveless marriage and was denied further contact with her young daughter Anne. She escaped to the French Riviera and moved among society there. Kate and Anne are reunited many years later. Anne is now a young adult, and surprisingly welcoming. She introduces Kate to post-World War I New York society, where much has changed from the world Kate once knew. Anne and Kate’s relationship blossoms, but is severely tested when one of Kate’s “old flames” arrives on the scene. For the first time in many years, Kate has to think about someone other than herself, and sort through several moral dilemmas. Wharton is masterful at showing the constraints women faced in those days, and resolves the conflict in what was probably the only way possible. Wharton is one of my favorite authors, and I really enjoyed this book.

Review: In the Woods, by Tana French

This was a thumping good mystery. Well, 3/4 of it anyway, until it fell apart. Here’s the premise: 12-year-old Katy Devlin is found dead, the apparent victim of foul play. Detectives Rob Ryan and Cassie Maddox are assigned to the case. It just so happens that twenty years earlier, two of Rob’s 12-year-old friends disappeared from the very same housing estate. Rob was found, bloody and alone. The others were never found; the case was so notorious Rob changed his name and went to boarding school. Rob remembers nothing from that horrible day, but can’t help wondering if the two cases are linked in some way. He begins a parallel investigation, without revealing his personal interest to his superiors. And there’s one more angle: a land use dispute over a new motorway, with a barely perceptible whiff of corruption.

With three concurrent investigations, the reader meets a myriad of characters and joins Rob and Cassie in poring through forensic evidence. As with any good mystery, we begin making connections and we develop theories. And we come to like Rob and Cassie: they make a great team on the job, and have an unusually deep friendship.

But there are a couple of things that go wrong in this book. I will describe them without spoilers, although it’s difficult to convey their full impact. The first problem is Rob. My husband and I have a recurring and inconclusive conversation about whether authors can write authentically about a character of the opposite sex. I suspect this book is one where most men would say about Rob, “guys aren’t like that.” It’s not that he had a highly developed feminine side, he just did and said things a typical guy wouldn’t do, especially with Cassie (I’m sorry I can’t be more specific). Second, there was a character whose true self was revealed when the case was solved, but their voice wasn’t authentic, and they had improbable traits given some basic facts we already knew about them.

Lots of people would probably disagree with me about this. The mystery was realistic, and the book was a page-turner from start to finish. I enjoyed reading it.  So if you’re intrigued, I say go ahead and read it.  And then let’s talk about it!

I read this as part of a group read hosted by Rebecca @ Love at First Book.  I can’t wait to discuss the ending with the group!

Review: Sovereign, by C.J. Sansom

After my last read, which was bleak and somewhat depressing, Sovereign was just what the doctor ordered: an intelligent, historical mystery.  This is the third in the Matthew Shardlake series set in Tudor England.  Shardlake, a London lawyer, receives orders from Archbishop Cranmer to travel to York with King Henry VIII’s 1541 Progress.  There, he is to watch over the health and well-being of a prisoner, who is part of a conspiracy that threatens Henry’s right to the throne.  Shardlake and his assistant Barak arrive in York ahead of the Progress; the city is alive with preparations for the big event.  When a craftsman dies a grisly death, Shardlake suspects it was no accident.  He takes it upon himself to investigate, and so the tale unfolds.

There is so much to enjoy in these books.  First, there is the historical context.  Shardlake operates on the edges of court.  Well-known figures like Cranmer and the Duke of Norfolk are seldom central to the plot but never far away.  Familiar stories unfold, but as a backdrop instead of the centerpiece — such as, in this book, the events leading to Queen Catherine’s execution.  Second, Sansom fills Shardlake’s world with several interesting characters, and convinces the reader that just about any one of them could be guilty.  Then he weaves several threads into a web of major and minor mysteries.  In Sovereign, not only is there a murder to be solved, but someone is out to get Shardlake too.

My only quibble with these books is that Sansom can run on a bit: why use one word when ten will do?  The dead body didn’t show up until page 75, and it took nearly 600 more pages to solve the crime and tie up the loose ends.  However, I was hooked on the story and found myself sneaking short bursts of reading into my day, just to see what would happen next.  I’m happy to have the next installment already on my shelves.

Review: Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter, by Tom Franklin

One evening Larry Ott returns home from work to find a masked intruder, who shoots him and leaves him for dead.  Fortunately local constable Silas Jones had asked a colleague to stop by Larry’s place, and they got to him just in time.  Larry’s life hung in the balance for several days.  During that time we follow the hunt for his assailant, but more importantly we learn a lot more about Larry, Silas, and their lives in rural Chabot, Mississippi.

Larry has been a recluse all his adult life.  As a teenager he was accused of raping and murdering a girl he took on a date.  She never returned home, her body was never found, and Larry refused to talk about it.  While he was never charged with the crime, he was ostracized by the community.  He took over his father’s auto repair shop, but his only customers were people from out-of-town, just passing through.

Silas spent his boyhood in Chabot with his mother.  They lived in a one-room hut on the Ott’s property.  Quite by happenstance, Larry and Silas became friends.  Secret friends, because Larry was white and Silas, black, and public friendships just weren’t possible.  Larry’s father put a stop to it in a humiliating and abusive way.  Eventually Silas and his mother moved so he could become the star baseball player at a different high school, and the boys lost touch.  Even after Silas returned to Chabot as Constable, their paths didn’t cross.  Until one day when Silas received a voice mail from Larry, just asking him to call.  It was this message that prompted Silas’ visit a few days later, just after Larry was shot.

At the time of the shooting, Silas was also investigating another young girl’s disappearance, some 20 years after the incident that changed Larry’s life forever.  Everyone in town thinks Larry committed a crime again.  That is, everyone but Silas.  Slowly, we learn the basis for Silas’ opinion, as we also uncover clues to Larry’s assailant and the girl’s disappearance.

I was completely caught up in this book, and at first it was because of the crime to be solved.  But Tom Franklin revealed those details very slowly, while painting vivid portraits of Larry and Silas and filling in their back story.  Eventually the shooting and the girl’s disappearance became just secondary mysteries; in fact, both were actually pretty easy to solve.  This book was much more about the mystery of these two men’s lives, and the profound influence of past events.  Again, Franklin revealed details slowly, and I often found myself rereading passages to make sure I was putting the pieces together correctly.  The result was a moving account of friendship, betrayal, and hope.

Review: Gillespie and I, by Jane Harris

I could make this my shortest review ever, just by saying I loved this novel from start to finish, and if you haven’t read it, you should.  I don’t want to tell you too much more about it, because its magic is in the storytelling.

But I’ll give you a little teaser …

Harriet Baxter is writing a memoir, specifically the story of her relationship with the artist Ned Gillespie and his family.  Most of the novel is set in Glasgow from 1888-1890.  Harriet met Ned quite by chance while visiting the first International Exhibition, in 1888.  One thing led to another, and her relationships with Ned, his wife Annie, and their two young daughters grew.  When tragedy struck the family, Harriet was right in the thick of it.  But not necessarily in a good way.

Every so often the story is interrupted with a chapter narrated by Harriet in 1933, when she is 80 years old and living in London.  These segments show us a different Harriet, perhaps the one she became after the tragedy, but more likely the Harriet she’s been all her life.

Which made me wonder: what really happened in 1888?  Then I would read on, looking for the “real Harriet” in her version of events, but still not completely sure who the “real Harriet” really was.  Does that make sense? Of course not — but that’s the fun of reading Gillespie and I.  There are so many twists, turns, and nuances that keep you guessing long after you’ve turned the last page.  And I suspect there are as many interpretations of events as there are readers — just get your hands on a copy and enjoy the magic.

Review: Dark Fire, by C.J. Sansom

Dark Fire is the second in the Matthew Shardlake mystery series.  Shardlake, a lawyer, is capable enough to be occasionally retained by Thomas Cromwell, but his work also takes him to the darker, poorer areas of London.  In this book he’s juggling two such disparate cases.  First, he’s called in to defend Elizabeth Wentworth, a young woman accused of murdering her cousin Ralph by throwing him down a well.  Elizabeth refuses to speak to anyone, behavior which can only lead to a guilty verdict and death.  The court wants to deal with the case quickly — after all, there are hundreds more waiting.  But Cromwell needs Shardlake on another case, and uses his power to buy time for Elizabeth.

Cromwell’s case is by far the more interesting of the two, and concerns a mysterious substance capable of generating intense, destructive fire.  Known as Greek Fire or Dark Fire, the substance could be an important weapon in the King’s quest for power.  Cromwell is under pressure to stage a demonstration for King Henry VIII.  Dark Fire is known to be available in limited quantity, but its properties are not well understood, and the formula has been stolen.  Cromwell offers Jack Barak as an assistant to Shardlake, and the two set off to learn as much as they can about the origins of Dark Fire and the people currently controlling its use in London.  Shardlake finds himself moving in new, influential circles, as a guest at banquets hosted by the aristocratic Lady Honour.  Unlike most people, who see his hunchback as evidence of inferiority, Honour treats him with respect.  The banquets give Shardlake the opportunity to observe others who are influential in the case, including Cromwell’s rival, the Duke of Norfolk.

This being a murder mystery, it’s not too long before bodies start dropping right and left.  The plot is quite tangled, and it’s difficult to tell who’s on the side of good vs. evil.  Meanwhile, Shardlake continues to stay connected to Elizabeth’s case.  There are a few leads to follow up on, and some surprise developments. Thankfully progress is glacial, because he really has his hands full chasing down Dark Fire.  Along the way, C. J. Sansom provides the reader with rich detail that brings 16th-century London to life.  The summer heat exacerbated odors associated with human habitation; women held bouquets of posies close to their faces to mask the smell.  Sanitation techniques were primitive: at one point Lady Honour casually warned an attendant to “watch out for that turd,” and I realized this was probably a fairly common occurrence (ewww…!).  I also enjoyed the book’s historic context (summer of 1540 … Thomas Cromwell … anyone?), and the way everyday murder and mayhem touched the controversies of King Henry VIII’s court.

Review: Dissolution, by C.J. Sansom

Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII disbanded monasteries across England, Ireland, and Wales.  This was not without controversy and resistance.  Dissolution imagines a possible scenario involving murder and corruption.  Matthew Shardlake is sent to investigate the brutal murder of a king’s commissioner at a monastery on the south coast of England.  Shardlake and his assistant, Mark Poer, are invested with the authority to interview anyone they choose, examine the monastery’s financial records, and move pretty much without let or hindrance to identify the murderer.  They soon learn almost everyone has a motive, but at the same time almost everyone has an alibi.

It turns out the commissioner wasn’t the first person to be murdered there, and soon there are still more bodies.  What’s an investigator to do?  Matthew Shardlake is shrewd, with superb analytical skills, and quickly forms a hypothesis.  At this point, the reader can glance at the number of pages remaining and be fairly certain Matthew is not on the right track, but even as one theory is proven wrong another forms.  The situation is more complex than simply knocking off someone sent to shut down the abbey.  A long history of rivalry, corruption and “cooking the books” adds to the intrigue, resulting in a rich, layered mystery.

I enjoyed this novel’s historical setting.  C. J. Sansom brought a dark side of Tudor England to life, especially the environment of fear and control.  Matthew Shardlake and Mark Poer were simply functionaries with a job to do.  But their investigation also challenged them to face the beliefs and systems that made them who they are, and each resolved that conflict in his own way.  This is the first book in a series, and I will definitely be back for more.

Review: Sweet Death, Kind Death, by Amanda Cross

Here’s what I like in a mystery:  well-developed characters, suspense, and a complex plot that requires the sleuth to prove their skill or intellect.

What was missing from this mystery:  all the above.

At first I was encouraged by the English teacher-as-sleuth, the opening quotes in each chapter from woman authors like Stevie Smith, Virginia Woolf, and Toni Morrison, and a the literary discussion around the edges of the plot.  The mystery was pretty standard stuff: a female professor is found dead on the campus of a women’s college, and it’s deemed a suicide until information comes to light making murder a possibility.

Kate Fansler, the aforementioned English teacher, is called in to investigate.  Why?  I’m not sure.  She had a tenuous connection to the victim, Patrice Umphelby, having met her once while waiting for a delayed flight.  Kate is also connected to two men writing Patrice’s biography, who have put their project on hold until the circumstances of her death are known.  The college brings Kate on board, ostensibly to take part in an academic task force, but really to give her free rein to talk to anyone on staff as part of her investigation.

And talk she does.  Most of the “action” involves Kate attending meetings or cocktail parties, and inquiring about Patrice.  People are clearly divided — love her or hate her — and they make their opinions known.  Two camps emerge, Kate tramps around New York and New England consuming Laphroig whiskey, and then, ta da!  With ten pages to go she explains what happened, everyone is very thankful, the end.

This was all way too simple for me.  Yes, it was murder, not suicide.  Surprise, someone who hated Patrice did it.  I could have guessed that early on, but dismissed the notion, expecting the plot to be more complex.  There was no suspense involved in nabbing the perpetrator — there was only Kate, quaffing another whiskey, basking in the admiration of those who should have been able to figure this out for themselves.

This is the seventh book in a series, and maybe I’ve missed something by not reading the back story.  But I’m probably not going to find out.

Review: Started Early, Took my Dog, by Kate Atkinson

Jackson Brodie has made a career out of finding missing people.  This line of work is somewhat of an obsession, brought on by his sister’s disappearance and murder many years before.  In this, the fourth novel in a series, Jackson is searching for a young woman’s biological parents.  Kate Atkinson carefully weaves this thread with several others to create a complex tale full of twists and turns.  Several prostitutes have been found murdered, prompting speculation about a serial killer.  Tracy Waterhouse, recently retired from the police force, impulsively rescues 4-year-old Courtney from an abusive situation, and finds herself taking on significant new responsibility.  Tilly, an aging actress, struggles to cope as dementia begins to affect her work.  And finally, the thirty-year-old unsolved murder of Carol Braithwaite is always lurking in the background.

All these disparate stories are related, and Kate Atkinson is a master at the slow reveal.  She leaves tiny clues as she moves from one thread to the next.  Some are red herrings, of course, which keeps the reader — and Jackson — guessing.  Atkinson also skilfully manipulates her readers, encouraging us to make assumptions based on what hasn’t been said:  Jackson’s breakthrough comes when he realizes he failed to ask the most obvious question.  Each thread also features well-developed characters.  Tilly’s relationship to the crimes was unclear through most of the novel, but her story was an emotional one that could almost stand on its own.  Much of the novel revolved around Tracy and Courtney, and while some of their story seemed far-fetched, it provided action and pacing.

Unfortunately, Jackson’s investigation seemed superfluous and lacked excitement. Inserting Jackson into a larger crime story allowed Atkinson to continue developing his character by playing out the effects of events from earlier novels, and leaving a tiny cliffhanger for possible consideration in a future book.  This was a disappointment, but Atkinson still produced a ripping good mystery that kept me engaged from start to finish.

Midweek @ Musings: Delights from my Virago Secret Santa

One of my favorite holiday traditions is Virago Secret Santa, sponsored by the Virago Modern Classics Group on LibraryThing.  The giving is just as much fun as receiving.  This year my “Santee” was someone I’ve come to know reasonably well, considering she lives all the way across the world in Australia.  But Trish presented me with two gift-giving challenges:  first, she owns so many Virago Modern Classics already that I wanted to do something different, while still remaining focused on woman authors.  Second, I wanted to send a book from my list of all-time favorites, but I quickly learned she’d read them all.  Fortunately, I found a couple of books I thought would interest her.  I noticed she owned nothing from Peirene Press, so she received a copy of Beside the Sea, their first book and a very powerful one, indeed.  I also wanted to send Trish something “very American.”  Inspired by a fabulous profile of Tess Gallagher in Belletrista, I sent a collection of stories, At the Owl Woman Saloon.

I mailed my gifts off just after Thanksgiving, and then came the difficult part: being patient until December 19, the designated gift-opening day.  When my parcel arrived, I gave it a place of honor next to our nativity scene:
Virago Secret Santa 2011 - waiting, Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone AppDecember 19 was my first day off work for the holidays, and what a lovely way to ring in the season! After a nice hot bowl of oatmeal with bananas and brown sugar, and a couple of steaming cups of coffee, I decided it was time to open those lovely parcels. There were two cards: one cleverly designed to protect my Santa’s identity, and the other with a very stern warning. This was indeed she who must be obeyed.

Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone AppBut OH! Such treasures!! My Santa sent four — count ’em — four books.
Uploaded from the Photobucket iPhone App

From left to right: A Glass of Blessings, by Barbara Pym, in a Virago edition. Next, Mandoa! Mandoa!, the one Winifred Holtby I was still searching for, and in absolutely mint condition. Santa also decided my one-volume collection of Persephone Classics needed to be expanded, so she sent Cheerful Weather for the Wedding, and The Far Cry. The latter has gorgeous floral endpaper lurking beneath its unassuming gray cover.  I was speechless, and equally pleased when Trish reported in on her gifts, and had already settled down to read some of the Gallagher stories.

I’m touched by the camaraderie and generosity of people I only know online, through a shared love of literature.  It was a lovely beginning to Christmas week!  Best wishes to you and yours this holiday season.