Monday, January 30, 2012

Let's Have a Nice Cup of Murder

2009 Ig Nobel winner: a brassiere converts to two face masks
I'm sure you've heard of the Nobel Prizes, but have you heard of the Ig Nobel Prizes? If not, you really must check them out. They are designed to honor "achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think." In 1999, the British Standards Institution won the Ig Nobel Prize in Literature for its six-page specification (BS-6008––I did not make up that "BS") of the proper way to make a cup of tea. Yesterday, I followed my own admittedly less specific tea-making instructions to make a cuppa. (Pour boiling water into a cup holding a tea bag, let steep for however many minutes it takes to forget the tea while washing the dog, doing the laundry, and shopping at the grocery store.) Then I sat down with my cold cup of tea to write not six-page descriptions, but thumbnail synopses of some books I've read and enjoyed:

Ted Allbeury, Rules of the Game. This is a traditional British espionage novel, set during the Cold War. The KGB is studying mind reading and, needless to say, the Americans and the British want to kidnap the Soviets' psychic, Ursula Jaeger.  Interesting plot and good characterization; written by a former British intelligence officer.

Milton T. Burton, The Rogues' Game. A man and a blonde set off in a Lincoln Continental convertible in 1947, bound for a West Texas town where a high-stakes poker game has been played in the Weilbach Hotel every weekend for half a century. They find much more than a card game. Very well-crafted noir with nice glints of humor by a man who knows Texas.

Martin Clark, The Legal Limit. The author, a Virginia circuit-court judge, tells the riveting tale of two brothers who covered up a murder, only to have it explode 20 years later. Great characterization in this legal thriller.

Eric Dezenhall, Money Wanders. A New Jersey mafia don can't get a casino license, so he hires public relations rep Jonah Eastman to clean up his image. Clever and cringe-inducing.

Susan Isaacs, Long Time No See. Beautiful Courtney Logan drives to the store and disappears, only to pop up as a corpse when the family swimming pool is uncovered months later. Judith Singer, amateur sleuth of Compromising Positions (which should be read first), champs at the bit to investigate. The mystery isn't compelling, but who reads Susan Isaacs for the mystery? Funny, irreverent.

Bill James, Pay Days. How does one do a thumbnail of a crazy Harpur and Iles plot? Neither British criminals Shale and Ember nor cops Harpur, Iles, and Lane know whether they can trust DCI Richard Nivette. You can't be sure who is in cahoots with whom in this darkly humorous gem.

Ross King, Ex-Libris. If you liked Iain Pears's Instance of the Fingerpost, try this book on for size. In 1660s England, Lady Marchamont asks bookseller Isaac Inchbold to find the only existing copy of the Labyrinthus Mundi, lost when Pontifex Hall was occupied by Cromwell’s soldiers. Excellent literary thriller.

Donna Leon, Blood from a Stone. Commissario Guido Brunetti investigates the murder of an African street vendor in Venice, Italy. This is a fine series set in one of the world's most complex cities, and this book deals with issues involving immigration, corruption and injustice.

John D. MacDonald, The Deep Blue Good-by. I'm re-reading the Travis McGee books for our series reading challenge. Most of the books in this series have similar plots. This is the first one. McGee lives on the Busted Flush, a houseboat in the Fort Lauderdale, Florida, harbor. He is a "salvage expert," meaning he looks for lost things upon request and gets a cut when he finds them. Along the way, he talks about life and gets the girl. Oh, and what was lost is always found. A classic series.

Kate Ross, Cut to the Quick. It's 1820s London, and dandy Julian Kestrel is slated to be best man at a wedding when he finds the dead body of a woman in his bed. First book in the four-book series. Perfectly atmospheric historical mystery, well plotted.

It's just about time to put the kettle back on. I have a book I'm looking forward to reading, Andrew Nugent's The Four Courts Murder, sitting on the table by a comfortable chair. It's supposed to be witty and charming (how could it be otherwise––it's Irish). Apparently, Justice Sidney Piggott of Dublin's center of law, the Four Courts, is "designer-made for being throttled." I certainly hope he is.

Note: After reading 20 pages of Burton's The Rogues' Game, I quickly looked to see what else he'd written. There are two other books published, The Sweet and the Dead and Nights of the Red Moon; The Devil's Odds will be published next month. I was very sorry to learn that this talented writer died last month.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Wanted: One Strong, Smart, Sassy Woman

Be warned. Today's post is just one long complaint. I'm feeling distinctly grumpy about female protagonists in recent mysteries. I've reached the point of throwing the book across the room with three series I used to read regularly. Here is my lineup of female sleuths no longer welcome in my library:

Gemma James. I used to devour Deborah Crombie's series featuring Duncan Kincaid and Gemma James of Scotland Yard. Crombie wrote some terrific mysteries, like Dreaming of the Bones and Kissed a Sad Goodbye.  She has a real talent for plotting and conveying a strong sense of time and place. Eventually, Crombie developed a personal relationship between Duncan and Gemma, and now they're married and sharing their children.

With Duncan and Gemma no longer work partners, Crombie seems to have chosen to depict more of their home life as a way to keep up with them as a pair. But the swap of domestic detail for detective collaboration is a poor exchange. In her most recent book, No Mark Upon Her, Crombie includes such teeth-gritting scenes as kids squabbling in the car, Duncan and Gemma negotiating childcare responsibilities and, in case I wasn't already in complete despair, a birthday party for a three-year-old.  It could only have been worse if she'd added in the children singing. (Yes, W. C. Fields has nothing on me.) When Crombie can spare the time for the actual crime story, the plotting is intriguing, tight and twisty. But for me, the price to be paid for the mystery plot is now way too high. I'm sure there are readers who want to be a fly on the wall observing the details of the couple's domestic life, but I'm not one of them.

Mary Russell. Back when I read Laurie R. King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, the first book in her series featuring bluestocking Mary Russell, I was charmed. The 15-year-old orphan Russell is impatiently waiting out her minority in the care of a disagreeable aunt when she meets Sherlock Holmes, who is engaged in beekeeping while in semi-retirement in Sussex. I loved the relationship struck up between the two, as he trains her in the art of detection. Naturally, I went on to read succeeding books in the series, which are exciting adventures in locations as far-flung as Dartmoor, Palestine and San Francisco. But one constant was always the erudite and entertaining banter between Holmes and Russell, and their close sleuthing partnership.

A few books ago, King began sending Holmes and Russell off in different directions in their investigations. They would still usually have some correspondence and would eventually meet up and work together, but the characters on their own missed the spark they had when together. In the latest book in the series, Pirate King, Holmes is out of the picture almost entirely, until more than three-quarters of the way through the book. The story is told mostly through a first-person narrative by Russell, who comes across as a self-satisfied, humorless prig. I'm thinking this book is meant to set the stage for the series to become entirely Russell-focused. If so, I'm out.

Maisie Dobbs. This is another series that I liked at the outset, but whose protagonist I have come to view as tiresome. She started out being spunky; a largely self-educated working-class girl who, after serving as a nurse in the Great War, sets up her own detective agency. The ninth book in the series is just about to be published, but I gave up with number seven, The Mapping of Love and Death. Life is too short to read books––even well-written books––about a character as mopey as Maisie Dobbs. She is never-endingly sobersided, has virtually no real personal life and I just couldn't take her glumness anymore. In the same vein is Charles Todd's Bess Crawford. I read the first book in that series and that was more than enough. If either one of these women cracked a smile, their faces might break.

So where are the good female protagonists these days?

Back in the 1990s, I used to enjoy Lauren Henderson's Sam Jones series. Sam was a London sculptor with an extremely lively personal life who was always stumbling into bizarre and threatening situations. Sam could never resist poking her nose in, no matter the risk. Book titles like Black Rubber Dress, Freeze My Margarita and Strawberry Tattoo convey the cheeky style of this series. Lauren Henderson also collaborated with Stella Duffy to produce an anthology of bad-girl crime fiction called Tart Noir. (Great title!) Alas, the last Sam Jones mystery was published in 2001 and I have given up hope for more.

Liza Cody was also a favorite in my (relative) youth. She wrote two gritty series, one featuring Anna Lee, a London PI, and another with Eva Wylie, a wrestler and security guard. Cody seems to be done with these series, though she is still writing. Maybe I should check out her latest nonseries book, Ballad of a Dead Nobody, about the mystery of the death of a female founder of a rock-and-roll band.

And I can't forget another old favorite, Sara Paretsky's V. I. Warshawski. Over the years, though, I've gone off her. Or maybe not so much her as the books, which came to feel dominated by social issues. What do you say, should I go back and try again?

I've also enjoyed Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura and Cara Black's Aimée Leduc. Both of these are still good, but it appears that the Rei Shimura series is most likely over, and the Aimée Leduc series has become to seem somewhat formulaic. Kerry Greenwood's 1920s Melbourne, Australia, flapper/sleuth, Phryne Fisher, is a hoot, but the books are just bits of fluff.

I used to like Margaret Maron's Sigrid Harald series, but I could never get into her Deborah Knott books. Her new book, Three-Day Town, puts the two characters together for the first time, but to the detriment of both. The book can only be described as a disappointment to fans of both protagonists.

It's a sad state of affairs when one of the feistiest and most interesting female protagonists is an 11-year-old girl––by whom I mean, of course, Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce. But as lively and amusing as Flavia is, I want to read about a grownup woman who is vibrant, intelligent (like Harriet Vane), has a sense of humor, doesn't moon around about men and children (I'm looking at you, Rebecca Cantrell's Hannah Vogel), and who doesn't make a habit of endangering herself with too-stupid-to-live decisions (that bad trait applies to all-too-many female protagonists).

But it is possible to go too far in the strong female protagonist vein. In Sophie Littlefield's A Bad Day for Sorry, Sara Hardesty is a survivor of domestic abuse who runs a sewing shop in Missouri and, as a sideline, acts as amateur sleuth and a vigilante against abusive men. This book was nominated for several awards, but I was not charmed by a character whose investigative methods consist of beating up and intimidating people. Another strong character––one whose methods don't constitute felonies––is Helene Tursten's Detective Inspector Irene Huss, who is a 40-something police detective in Göteborg, Sweden. Huss is smart and likable, as she navigates through the hazards of a sexist work environment and a sometimes challenging family life. Unfortunately, the novels featuring Huss are of the grimly nordic variety, with too big a helping of disturbingly graphic violence for my taste.

There are several female secondary characters I admire and would like to see more of, like Diane Fry of Stephen Booth's series featuring Ben Cooper, Ellen Destry of Garry Disher's series featuring Hal Challis, and Annie Cabbot of Peter Robinson's Alan Banks series. I'm not a fan of Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley series. Havers is her own worst enemy and it irritates me to see her shoot herself in the foot repeatedly.

So, here we are. I've trashed a bunch of female protagonists––I hope not too many readers' favorites––and bemoaned the disappearance or too-little-appearance of women characters I like. But it can't be hopeless. I'm convinced there must be some female protagonists going strong out there. Two possibilities, and I'd welcome comments on them, are Dana Stabenow's Kate Shugak and Julia Spenser-Fleming's Claire Ferguson.

I hope to find somebody who can restore my faith in the female sleuth. Ruth Rendell, once asked about her choice to have a male protagonist in her Inspector Wexford series, quoted Simone de Beauvoir: "Like most women I am still very caught up in a web that one writes about men because men are the people and we are the others." Reminded of that statement in 2009, Rendell said that times had changed, replying: "I don't think that our sex is the people or the others, we're all the people. Perhaps because women are taken more seriously now, not just by men but by each other." I agree that times have changed and it's high time we had a female protagonist as compelling as some of my male favorites, like Inspector Wexford, Commissaire Adamsberg, Armand Gamache, or even Andy Dalziel. (The last of whom, given the recent sad death of Reginald Hill, is now the late lamented Andy Dalziel, I suppose.)

Note: I received free review copies of Deborah Crombie's No Mark Upon Her and Laurie R. King's Pirate King.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

One is Not Enough

With the post-holiday plethora of free and reduced price ebooks and a generous gift card, I lost my head completely and took fliers on a lot of new authors. As a result, I am now working my way through 18 pages of unread titles, quite a few by first-time novelists. Many of these, unfortunately, are not quite ready for prime time, but I was astonished and gratified at the quality of a few first efforts and hope for many more books from these new voices.

Blood & Ashes: The Debut Oscar Jade Thriller! is a wonderful retro noir set in Miami just days after the beginning of the Second World War. Oscar Jade is a tough wise-cracking PI who has been declined for military service because of a club foot, despite his excellent martial skills and police background. He lives in a rented room over a seedy beachfront bar operated by his friend and sometime sidekick Claude. The period descriptions of Miami and its society, both topside and bilge, contribute quite a bit to the campy charm of this maiden voyage by author Mark Loeffelholz.

When a pretty young wife comes to Oscar for protection after finding a large insurance policy that her increasingly estranged husband has purchased on her life without her knowledge, things start to get ugly fast and he finds himself in the middle of a shooting war between two competing Mafia families. Major mayhem, dirty cops, gorgeous broads, and a fine set of double-crosses keep the story moving at a breathless pace, although Oscar's survival in the face of many bloody roughing-ups strained my credibility a bit––even after rereading Georgette's post on suspension of disbelief last week.

There are a number of interesting hints about Oscar's past that left me quite curious. Fortunately, Loeffelholz has a sequel, tentatively entitled Storm Maker, in the works for release later this year. If you enjoy a good old-fashioned tough-talking thriller, give Blood & Ashes a look. It is available in both paperback and electronic format.

Pygmalion and Galatea. Cinderella and her prince. Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady. Did you ever wonder how "happily ever after" worked out for these completely made-over partners of controlling and perfectionist men? Rachel Abbott addresses one such pairing in Only the Innocent.

When TV documentary producer Laura Kennedy met noted philanthropist Sir Hugo Fletcher at an awards dinner, she was overwhelmed by his sophistication and obvious interest. He carefully groomed and trained her to fit into his upper class lifestyle before marrying her, and scrupulously refused to have sex with her before the wedding. But the book doesn't open here. It opens with the spectacular and carefully staged murder of Sir Hugo in what can only be described as sexually embarrassing circumstances. Emotionally fragile Laura returns from a vacation abroad to find hordes of eager reporters camped on her doorstep, the police having missed meeting her flight at the airport with the news.

This first novel drags a bit in spots, but does a good––if thoroughly creepy––job of describing the complete breakdown of self-confidence that can be achieved at the hands of a subtly manipulative partner. Laura's back story is told through letters that she wrote, but never sent, to her best friend and sister-in-law Imogen, estranged for years through an unconscionable dirty trick on Hugo's part. I got mental whiplash going back and forth so many times deciding which of the several women with excellent motives might have taken justice into their own hands.

As of this date, Only the Innocent is available only in electronic format. I look forward to more of the author's complex, well-written stories.

In Cast the First Stone, author Rebbie MacInyre's Trini Bates is a young widow struggling to survive in depression-era Colorado. She is also a dowser, using rod or pendulum to find water and missing objects or people for her neighbors, several of whom consider her a witch. When her brother Parnell's bootlegging partner goes missing after a very public argument between the partners, Sheriff George Mallis can't wait to arrest Parn, against whom he apparently has quite a grudge. Deputy Roy Eastman, an old friend, persuades Trini to dowse for Merle––or his body––to help clear Parn.

With a map and her antique pendulum, Trini locates Merle's body in an area that had been searched previously. Far from clearing Parn, her discovery of Merle's murdered body and the subsequent discovery of the weapon in Parn's woodpile give the sheriff ample reason to hold her brother for trial.

When Deputy Roy lets Trini visit her baby brother against the Sheriff's specific and illegal instructions, Roy is summarily fired––no light matter during the Depression. Parn is terrified; sure that the venomous Sheriff will manufacture an opportunity to report him "shot while attempting to escape" before the circuit judge arrives for the trial.

Since Merle's delicate adolescent daughter and mentally deficient son are now orphaned and living alone until distant relatives arrive, Trini moves in to take care of them. This also gives her an opportunity to find another reason for, and perpetrator of, Merle's murder. Someone ransacks the house while they are out, making Trini sure there is more to the murder than the sheriff's apparently watertight case indicates.

This first novel manages to give a clear sense of how terrifying life could become in those hardscrabble times and places when the only available authority was corrupt. In the end, Trini and the children must rescue themselves from a determined and vicious murderer. Cast the First Stone is available in hardback and ebook formats. I have downloaded the author's second effort, a modern gothic called A Corner of Universe, but am saving it to snuggle in with some snowy, blowy evening.

After a free-for-all, anything-goes start, the ebook industry is beginning to deliver on its promise to bring fresh new voices and stories to the market. Small publishers with professional editing skills are available to serious aspiring authors, polishing and publishing their work. Print-on-demand, while still relatively expensive, makes these new voices available in any format, without the dreaded remainders and returns that have plagued publishers and authors in the past. For readers, it's all very good indeed.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Is Fiction Stranger than Fact?

My sons often behave in ways that make me want to tear out my hair, but they also perform many acts of random kindness. One of them this morning was to present me with these "facts" they found online: "Ants stretch before they wake up. They also appear to yawn in a very human manner before taking up the tasks of the day." I like thinking that these busy little critters are like us in these ways, although visualizing them with human faces makes me feel guilty about how I greeted them when they last crashed our backyard picnic. I wish I knew whether these "facts" about ants are true or false.

What are the differences between fact and fiction? Truth and falsehood? Beginnings and endings? These are questions Miguel Syjuco poses in Ilustrado, which won the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize while still an unpublished manuscript.

The book begins on a winter morning in 2002 when a fisherman hooks a battered body floating in the Hudson River. The corpse is Crispin Salvador, an exiled Filipino writer, who had been living and teaching in New York City. He was working on a book called The Bridges Ablaze. It is still in manuscript form, "a glacial accretion of research and writing––unknotting and unraveling the generations-long ties of the Filipino elite to cronyism, illegal logging, gambling, kidnapping, corruption, along with their related component sins." The police are unable to find any evidence of foul play, but rumors about whether Salvador was murdered or committed suicide swirl through the Philippines.

Salvador's sister asks his student Miguel, who lives in New York, to sort through Salvador's apartment. The manuscript is gone. Miguel finds himself unable to sleep and begins a biography of his teacher with the idea that examining Salvador's life could help him with his own. He cannot believe that Salvador committed suicide:
"To end his own life, Salvador was neither courageous nor cowardly enough. The only explanation is that the Panther of Philippine Letters was murdered in midpounce. But no bloody candelabrum has been found. Only ambiguous hints in what remains of his manuscript. Among the two pages of notes, these names: the industrialist Dingdong Changco, Jr.; the literary critic Marcel Avellaneda; the first Muslim leader of the opposition, Nuredin Bansamoro; the charismatic preacher Reverend Martin; and a certain Dulcinea."
Miguel decides to hop a plane for Manila.

At this point, the book––I don't know how else to describe it––goes rogue. It becomes not only a story of Salvador, but his entire colorful family in the Philippines over the course of 150 years, through colonization or occupation by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese, and independence. It also picks up the story of Miguel Syjuco's own family and his coming of age as he moves from the Philippines to Canada, back to the Philippines and then on his own to the United States and now back to the Philippines.

All this history appears not in a straightforward fashion but in a patchwork series of excerpts from Salvador's interviews, memoirs, novels and a running joke told in story form; Miguel's biography of Salvador, in progress; Marcel Avellaneda's blog posts and comments to his blog; Miguel's narration of the past and present; and an omniscient narrator's narrative. These excerpts are presented as if different flavored Pez candies have been loaded in one Pez dispenser. Every excerpt is separated by an asterisk. Some of the excerpts faithfully appear in a different typeface. The source of others is given in parentheses but this sourcing happens less often as the story progresses. Familiarity with the excerpts' content makes it clear whether, for example, Miguel is narrating about the present or whether the entry is one of Salvador's fictional "Manila Noir" stories. It makes an exuberant kaleidoscope.

Needless to say, this is NOT an easy read. It is, however, a very rewarding one. The inventive form of the story (a series of excerpts from many sources) provides a jigsaw puzzle for the reader. The disappearance of the excerpts' sources as the book continues is something for the reader to ponder. In the mystery genre, Ilustrado might be classified as historical fiction. The dead body that opens the book provides a good excuse to examine that corpse's life. Miguel and Salvador explore the nature of fiction, truth, identity, honesty, perception and memories, using the history of the Philippines and two families. There are wonderful characters, straightforward storytelling and allegorical writing. The resulting book is witty, moving and surprisingly funny and raunchy at times. The author takes satirical jabs at Filipino politicians, big business and the ruling class. I wish I knew more about the Philippines and I'm glad this author is young, so we can expect more imaginative books from him. Salvador tells his student Miguel, "Just write, and write justly. Ezra Pound be dammed. Poets lie, though beautifully. Don't make things new, make them whole." In this book, Miguel Syjuco does.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Anchors of Disbelief, Aweigh!

Disbelief that didn't maintain suspension
We're anticipating a pretty big storm here tonight and rain through the weekend. Living on California's Central Coast means I don't need to mount snow tires, check a backup boiler or stock the pantry with emergency food. I do need to put our patio bar stools in the garage. During a storm last winter, the wind tossed one of them against a window. That chair took flight much more easily than my disbelief while reading on occasion. Rain at night makes reading in bed mandatory. What books can I read this weekend that will keep my eyes anchored to the pages while my disbelief goes flying?

Disbelief reluctant to take off
Getting disbelief into suspension is a tricky undertaking. Sometimes, my disbelief has its heavy foot glued to the floor, and I need to concentrate harder or put the book aside for awhile to dislodge that foot. Other times, a glass of wine or leaping into the bathtub with the book does it. Occasionally, nothing I do helps. An author I love could have written the book or it could be highly recommended, but it doesn't matter. These days, 50 pages or sometimes 20 pages is enough to tell me my disbelief's flight has been cancelled. Maybe it's an act of God, and the book and I just aren't meant to be.

Surprisingly, disbelief remains suspended
At times, a book will drag me in and keep me there, despite some nagging residual skepticism, until the final page. Such was the case when I read Marcus Sakey's 2011 book of suspense, The Two Deaths of Daniel Hayes. The tale opens on a beach in Maine, deserted but for a man emerging from the water:
"He was naked and cold, stiff with it, his veins ice and frost. Muscles carved hard, skin rippled with goose bumps, tendons drawn tight, body scraped and shivering. Something rolled over his legs, velvet soft and shocking. He gasped and pulled seawater into his lungs, the salt scouring his throat. Gagging, he pushed forward, scrabbling at dark stones. The ocean tugged, but he fought the last ragged feet crawling like a child."
The man spots a lonely BMW in the parking lot. Luckily, it's unlocked, and he can get in. He hits the push-button start and in a minute the heat is roaring. Inside are a map, a Rolex watch, several hundred dollars, and an almost empty bottle of Jack Daniel's. The trunk contains some dirty clothes that fit him. The glove box holds an owner's manual, some keys, and a gun. He knows it's a semiautomatic. He knows that, but he doesn't know his name. He assumes the water is the Atlantic, and by the map, that he's in Maine; yet, he doesn't know how he got there or where he came from. He studies the owner's manual and finds a registration card and proof of insurance. He decides he's Daniel Hayes, resident of 6723 Wandermere Road, Malibu, California.

Hayes drives to the nearest cheap hotel and spends a couple of nights. He watches a TV show with a female character who somehow beckons him, and his nights are filled with disturbing dreams of concrete canyons. When a cop knocks at his door, Hayes knows he must run even though he doesn't know why. Maybe he's Daniel Hayes, and maybe he'll find out more in Malibu, California.

Saying more would be a disservice, because the fun of this book is involved in accompanying Hayes as he discovers who he is and what sent him into the Atlantic. Sakey spins his tale out at a satisfying pace. It's not mentally challenging and is suitable for reading, say, when water is 20 feet away from your beach towel or drumming little drops on your window in the middle of the night.

I haven't read any of Sakey's other books. The Blade Itself, which Publishers Weekly awarded a starred review, is about "a horribly botched pawnshop robbery by childhood friends Evan and Danny." My disbelief's foot is tapping, so maybe I'll take a looksee.

levitating in the woodsLike Marcus Sakey, Charles Frazier is an author new to me. The appearance of his Nightwoods on a Washington Post list of "Notable Fiction of 2011" made me curious. Upon reading the opening paragraph, my foot of disbelief scrabbled to leave the floor:
"Luce's new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent. She learned early that it wasn't smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens. Later she'd find feathers, a scaled yellow foot with its toes clenched. Neither child displayed language at all, but the girl glared murderous expressions at her if she dared ask where the rest of the rooster went."
At its heart, this book is about moving forward despite "whatever trail of ashes are left behind." Life goes one way only: "Nothing changes what already happened. It will always have happened. You either let it break you down or you don't."

Luce has chosen not to let it break her down. When the book begins, it is the 1960s, and she is a beautiful young woman who has taken refuge from life's hard knocks as the caretaker of the Lodge, an abandoned old hotel in the Appalachians of North Carolina. Luce is the daughter of Lola, who had a free-range philosophy about child raising and warned Luce and her sister Lily never ever to cry before she disappeared while they were still in elementary school, and Lit, a bantam-size deputy sheriff who is likened to a mink in a hen house and who has a fondness for substances that make him feel "up."

Luce lives across the lake from town, and her days are rather lonely, but she is content, watching the seasons change, observing the creatures in the woods, and reading the books in the hotel's library. Her isolation is broken by the appearance of her sister Lily's young twins, Delores and Frank. Lily has been murdered by her husband Bud, under the eyes of these children, and Luce is now their guardian. The twins are traumatized and mute; they love setting fires and getting themselves into trouble. But, "[b]eing uncommunicative and taking an interest in fire were neither crimes nor sins, just inconvenient. And Luce didn't have to love them. She just had to take care of them."

Taking care of Frank and Delores, and Luce's life in general, are made more complicated when Bud, whose murder trial stuttered to a halt when two jurors voted not guilty, moves to town so he can look for money he thinks Lily had and keep a nasty eye on the twins. Young Stubblefield, who knew Luce in high school and inherited the Lodge when his grandfather died, shows up, too.  The main cast is now complete, and life will go forward.

Nightwoods is a literary book. It's a compelling narrative told by a southerner with a writing style that makes one think of the words "trance," "molasses," and "baroque." Frazier's characters are all memorable, and what they do is worth watching. Sometimes the prose tends to the purple, but I had no desire to stop reading. If you love the woods, as I do, you'll probably enjoy Frazier's knowledge and feel for those dark and mysterious places. I liked the book, and I'm going to look for his Cold Mountain,  a story about a wounded Confederate deserter who walks for months to return to the love of his life, and Thirteen Moons, set in the mid-19th century and based loosely on the life of William Holland Thomas.

Disbelief well suspended
These are a couple of the books that kept my disbelief suspended during the past few days. On my bedside table for my rainy night reading are The Shadow of the Shadow by Paco Ignacio Taibo II, a historical fantasy that I've been saving for a special treat because a friend raved about it; Michael Kortya's The Ridge, a 2011 thriller set in the woods of eastern Kentucky; Tom Perrotta's 2011 book, The Leftovers, involving a mass disappearance called the Sudden Departure; and Gerontius by James Hamilton-Paterson, who made me laugh out loud with his wonderful satire set in Tuscany, Cooking with Fernet Branca. When I read Gerontius, I'll head up the Amazon with Sir Edward Elgar, a distinguished composer. Other books that took me to Amazon territory are Ann Patchett's State of Wonder and David Grann's The Lost City of Z, and I recommend both of them.

Disbelief is an unpredictable thing. I'd love to hear about the books that are kept your disbelief suspended and those that didn't, and why. 

Disbelief following a moving plot

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Book Review of Simon Brett's Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess

Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess by Simon Brett

In grand old mansions, the treasured volumes in the library were leather bound and, many times, unopened. In my library, the treasured volumes with a place of honor are the Felony & Mayhem books. I can assure you that my collection is close to complete because I like the authors represented and I really enjoy the books themselves, with their excellent covers and the high-quality vellum-like paper.

Recently, I was introduced to Simon Brett’s intrepid duo, Blotto and Twinks. Blotto is the youngest son of the Duke of Tawcester, christened Devereux Lyminster. His nickname is not derived from his drinking habits, since he rarely imbibes. While incredibly handsome, his main expression is usually one of confusion. He is a simple soul, maybe a bit simple-minded, who believes that if one lived by the rules and conduct expected in a cricket game the world would be a better place. His sister, known as Twinks, née Lady Honoria, is the Sherlock of this duo, possessing a very fine deductive mind with exhaustive knowledge of methods of murder. Her inadvertent talent is having men fall in front of her like ninepins. She, seemingly unaware of her beauty, lives for the occasions when she can put her mind to solving crimes.

In Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess, just hot off the Felony & Mayhem Press, Blotto has begun to realize that his mother, the Duchess of Tawcester, had cleverly set a matrimonial trap for him. She has been dangling the daughter of a friend of hers in front of him since she has come out. Blotto just wishes she would go back in. If he can find a female who can provide the companionship and loyalty of a good horse, it might be a different story. As it is, an extended weekend house party has been planned, and Blotto doesn’t think he can deal with the inevitable murder that is bound to be solved by a brilliant amateur sleuth as well as the problems of evading his mother’s plans for matrimony.

As the weekend commences, Laetitia––the girl in question––begins following Blotto with what, in another girl, might be called dog's eyes, but in this case is actually frog’s eyes. Before long, the murder takes place and the victim is Laetitia’s mother. The expert amateur houseguest sleuth has called the members of the party as well as the staff into a large room and immediately pins the evil deed on Corky, the family chauffeur, since there was no foreigner to pin it on.

Blotto and Twinks have already really gotten a handle on the murderer, as Twinks noticed a painted red hand on the victim’s back. They acknowledge the fact that it is no use mentioning their suspicions, because their mother, the Duchess, has ordered the crime be solved immediately and, in the authorities' eyes, amateur detectives at house parties are always right.

Thus begins the affair of the League of the Crimson Hand. The story takes place in the 1920s, during a time of considerable change, but there are still the classic dim aristocrats, loyal retainers, dastardly villains and perils Pauline would cringe at. The first of these is an opium den, which provides the next clue, and the chase is on, in a vintage version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles. Blotto’s vehicle of choice, though, is his classic Lagonda. With this as his steed and his cricket bat as his lance, Blotto leaps into action, rushing in where any intelligent angel would shudder to enter. Twinks’s genius is his perfect balance.

Simon Brett has a deft hand with parody, playfulness and punch lines. He has always been a master at developing a good mystery and he doesn’t fail here. The story is clever, bright and pokes gentle fun at the attitudes of the time. The prose is salted with slang which, authentic or not, made me smile. As a matter of fact, I laughed, chuckled and occasionally guffawed throughout my reading. There is a fine line between smart and silly, and Brett has great intuition about where it is. I had fun reading this book and will keep it on my shelf to read again.

Note: I received Blotto, Twinks and the Dead Dowager Duchess as a free review copy.