Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Winter Preview 2013-2014: Part Four

It seems to me that you have to choose a winter reading list with cool deliberation. For one thing, reading is often an escape from it all and sometimes there is quite a bit to escape from in the months of long nights and short days.

Some of the time, you are fortunate to be able to read with a toasty fire at your feet and a warm libation near at hand, while there may be occasions when paleo reading with a cold snack is the only option. That means huddling under a blanket, reading by candlelight during those always-unwelcome power outages that bless us as a result of arctic blasts from the North Pole.

For those wintry snow days that remind me of eagerly anticipated mini-vacations from school, I kept selecting books that had me falling over 12-year-old girls.

In Alan Bradley's The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches (Delacorte Press, January 14, 2014), Flavia de Luce is hovering at the cusp of 12 years and she is beginning to mature. She is starting to realize that there are various masks that one is required to wear, especially when something as momentous as the return of her mother to Bishop's Lacey after her mysterious disappearance in Tibet many years ago.

It is 1951, and things are in desperate straits at the de Luce family home, since there is little income and Flavia's father meanders in his lonely way trying to find the resources he needs to keep the family together––without getting a job, of course. While the family is waiting at the train station in town, several unusual events put Flavia on her mettle. A mysterious stranger is pushed onto the train tracks after he gives her a cryptic message. She also sees Winston Churchill there, and it appears that he has some connection to her family.

This is one of the most intense books of the series, with a subtle building of suspense as many loose strings from the previous novels in the series are tied up and Flavia is led much closer to harm than she realizes. Bradley does a great job of fleshing out her character as Flavia develops some awareness that she can be a better person. (Okay, as you've probably already guessed, I had a chance to read an advance copy of this one. But I might just read it again.)

Oh, and speaking of upcoming books you should read that I've already had a shot at, I'd include Barbara Mutch's The Housemaid's Daughter (St. Martin's Press, December 10, 2013; see my review here).

Back in the late 1970s, Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City was a serial in the San Francisco Chronicle, featuring the adventures of Mary Ann Singleton, a naïve transplant from Cleveland; her first friend in San Francisco, the sweet, vulnerable gay man Michael Tolliver; their flamboyant, pot-smoking, transgender landlady, Anna Madrigal; and a large cast of other colorful characters.

Tales of the City had everything that boggled the minds of middle America about San Francisco: wild hedonism, wide-open sexual lifestyles across every possible orientation, cults, crackpots, and explorations of every trend, no matter how out there. The stories incorporated much of contemporary events, like People's Temple's Jim Jones and the AIDS epidemic.

Tales of the City became a series of books that came out in rapid succession from 1978-1989, but almost 20 years passed before Armistead Maupin revisited his old characters. Michael Tolliver Lives was published in 2007, then Mary Ann in Autumn came out in 2010. Now it's Mrs. Madrigal's turn, in The Days of Anna Madrigal (Harper, January 21, 2014). In her usual style, Anna is planning for the end of her life. She's 92 now, and while her friends plan a trip to Burning Man, she will make her first visit back to Winnemucca, Nevada, where she, then a male, grew up in one of that gritty town's many whorehouses. Ah, Winnemucca in winter. Who can resist?

Kerry Greenwood, the prolific author of 20 Phryne Fisher and six Corinna Chapman mysteries, also wrote the Delphic Women series back in the 1990s. These thrillers, set in ancient Egypt, weren't published in the US, until now. The Poisoned Pen Press brought us Medea earlier this year, and now (yesterday, in fact) they are publishing Electra. When I'm in the mood for a visit to the ancient lands of myth (and some Egyptian sun), I'll pick up this retelling of Agamemnon's vengeful daughter.

In Picture Me Gone (Putnam, October 3, 2013), Meg Rosoff's main protagonist is Mila, also a 12-year-old girl, who can't believe she was actually named after a dog, one who belonged to her grandfather. Like her namesake, she has some intriguing qualities. She has a keen awareness of where she is and what she is doing at all times. She is a practical girl and is quite determined. She is also very good at solving puzzles.

Mila is leaving with her father, Gil, on a quest to find a friend of his who has disappeared. Mila is the competent one of the pair when it comes to traveling arrangements. Their destination is upstate New York, where Matthew disappeared five days ago, taking nothing with him; not a change of clothing, passport or money. One day he just didn't show up to teach class. Mila and her father follow separate trails, each unaware of what the other is doing. The story is aimed at the YA audience, but it has significance for all readers, showing that in any quest a happy ending may not be the end result.

The Chessmen (published in the UK by Quercus, January 3, 2013; US publication date not set), by Peter May, is definitely on my reading list. I have enjoyed all of Peter May's series, so I am really looking forward to reading the final novel in the Hebrides series. Fin McLeod has finally achieved some balance in his life. He has settled back in his childhood home, the Isle of Lewis. No longer a policeman, he has taken a job as the head of security on a private Lewis estate.

When a freak of nature occurrence called a "bog burst" reveals a downed aircraft with a dead body in it, Fin knows that old mysteries never die and, of course, also secrets of the past do tend to erupt into the present.

The Lewis trilogy may well be the best of May's work.

If I need some help in acclimatizing myself to frigid temperatures, I find it's time grab a book that takes place where people seem to be blasé about frostbite. In Helene Tursten's The Fire Dance (Soho Press, January 7, 2014), Detective Inspector Irene Huss is called to the murder of a young ballerina named Sophie. Irene remembers Sophie from a very similar arson case in which Sophie's stepfather died. Irene had only just joined the police force during that initial death inquiry, and this story serves as sort of a prequel. During those early investigations, the question that had to be asked was whether a young girl of eight could be responsible for the cold-blooded murder of an adult. Irene has other cases to work on as well, and a good police procedural is always satisfying.

When my fingers get too cold to turn the pages, I like to seek refuge in books located in a warmer clime, or at least taking place during a warmer season. Eggs in a Casket, by Laura Childs (Berkley Hardcover, January 7, 2014), takes us to small town Kindred, Tennessee. It is one of those places where everybody knows everybody, and secrets are hard to keep. This is the third in a series featuring a group of three women who have bonded together with the all-for-one-and-one-for-all philosophy after setbacks in their lives. They have a joint venture, a café called the Cackleberry Club, where they spend their time while not sleuthing.

When a local creep named Lester is out of place in someone else's grave, the ladies have a case at hand. It sounds like fun to me and I am saving it for a January day that is nothing but gray.

From the sound of the title of C.C. Benison's Ten Lords A-Leaping (Delacorte, December 3, 2013) you might think that this is a holiday-themed book. Not so! The only Christmas in the story is our hero Father Tom Christmas, who is the recently-widowed vicar adjusting to life in the English Village of Thornford Regis, where he now lives with his 10-year-old daughter, Miranda. Naturally, what he needs most is money for the church roof. (I have not read a clerically-themed mystery yet that had a church equipped with an intact roof.)

The title and the mystery that follows relate to a group of fundraisers who have volunteered to help the church when death gets in the way. The first in the series was Twelve Drummers Drumming, followed by Eleven Pipers Piping. You see where this is going. You never know; there may be a Christmas-themed one yet.

Sometimes, it's only pluck that gets you through a cold, damp day, and one can take a lesson from the two intrepid protagonists of the British TV series Blue Murder. These are two ordinary women of the Manchester police, DC Rachel Bailey and DC Janet Scott. Rachel has dragged herself out of a sub-par childhood and her boss thinks she has talent. Her partner, Janet, has her doubts and is somewhat reluctant to join forces. In Dead to Me (Minotaur Books, January 7, 2014), Cath Staincliffe has written a prequel to the popular television drama series. In this story, a teenage girl is found cruelly murdered. Her mother is devastated, because she lost her once to the childcare system, and now her only hope is to see her killer caught.

Bruno, Chief of Police, is back in action in Martin Walker's The Resistance Man (Knopf, February 25, 2014). I must say he is one man I can't resist reading about. There has been a spate of burglaries in his little town of St. Denis, one of which ends in murder. Bruno's old cher amie, Isobel, comes back to town to help him investigate. Adding spice to the pot is an American woman, new to town, who is researching early US influences in fighting communism.

If I take a break from mayhem and murder, Robin Oliveira's I Always Loved You (Viking Adult, February 4, 2014) looks like my cup of tea. This is a novel telling the story of the grand romance between artists Mary Cassatt and Edgar Degas. Mary Cassatt was one of the very few women who made her mark in the Impressionist art world. After the American Civil War, she moved to Paris and struggled to get her paintings accepted. She was ready to return home to the US, because her sister was ill, but then she suffered a coup de foudre (a lightning bolt from Cupid) in the form of Edgar Degas.

Having read that Degas had less than favorable opinions of most women, including those he painted so beautifully, I think this book will be intriguing. I always enjoy reading about women who had the fortitude to buck the tide and go their own way.

The paleo diet seems to be all the rage, but I am not sure that emulating people who mostly lived about three decades and who might have devoured a book in an entirely different way than we do is a good idea. At least when we have to survive some primitive conditions we have faith that our ordeal will be short-lived. And we have good stories to help pass the time.

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