Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

Murder, cabinetry and amateur sleuthing   Leave a comment

The Grenadillo Box by Janet Gleeson is a fast-paced mystery blending intrigue with humor while providing a glimpse into 18th century British social standings and related expectations.

Nathanial Hopson is apprenticed to renowned master cabinet maker Thomas Chippendale. Although by all accounts, much of the artistry is at the hands of his many apprentices, including Hopson’s dear friend John Partridge, who’s suddenly gone missing.

Chippendale sends Hopson to complete work on an elaborate library in a country estate. Soon after his arrival, the lord of the manor is found dead. The cause of death is ruled suicide, however, Hopson suspects foul play. When another body is found on the property, Hopson believes the two deaths are related. An investigation ensues led by amateur sleuth Hopson. He’s a thoughtful young man but not averse to enjoying good times when they surface.

Among the clues is a small, intricately-carved box, which in itself is a puzzle with no obvious way to determine its contents. Meanwhile, the Lord’s gambling debts, his son ready to lay claim to the estate and its anticipated riches, along with a much younger wife provide plenty of motives.

Adding further intrigue are missing sets of Chippendale’s original drawings, which the celebrated craftsman charges his apprentice to locate.

In the midst of Hopson’s search for answers, Gleeson vividly describes the noises, sights and odors of the seediest parts of London. These images are contrasted with the wealth and comfort of the upper classes.

The Grenadillo Box

Four+ Bookmarks

Bantam Books, 2002

416 pages

Grief Among the Living   Leave a comment

When five-year-old Clara Bynum drowns in the Potomac River, the impact of her death weighs heavily on her parents, her older sister Johnnie Rae and the Black community in Georgetown where they live.

Although Breena Clarke’s novel, River, Cross My Heart could more easily be titled River, Break My Heart, how pre-teen Johnnie Rae processes her sister’s accident is the most interesting aspect. The narrative unfolds in a series of vignettes describing the residents, many who moved to this Washington, D.C., neighborhood from the south seeking a better life. By all accounts, their situations were greatly improved: jobs for the adults and schools for the children.

Johnnie Rae was tasked with caring for Clara, something she both resented and took seriously. She had only taken her eyes off the younger girl for a few minutes, and despite multiple efforts to save Clara from in the fast moving water, Johnnie Rae has no clear memory of what happened. Later, she is certain the new girl in school is Clara incarnate.

Unsurprisingly, though they were better off, the jobs were menial and opportunities were both limited and unequal. The latter is something Johnnie Rae finds especially irksome in the form of a nearby whites-only swimming pool. The Potomac is the only place she and her friends can swim and play in the water. Johnnie Rae is a natural born swimmer; something she does with ease and grace. It’s never clear how she came to be so adept. Nonetheless, being in the water is where she feels she is most herself. Eventually, a new pool opens for Blacks where she joins the swim team.

Clarke’s descriptions of the circa 1925 neighborhood, its residents and the Bynum family’s loss are vivid. However, framing this as a series of short stories rather than a novel would be more effective; there are too many detours to form a clear plot.

River, Cross My Heart

Three-and-a-half Bookmarks

Little, Brown and Co., 1999

245 pages

Never-ending espionage   Leave a comment

Kate Atkinson’s Transcription blends humor, to be more specific it’s dry British wit, with espionage in 1940s London.

Juliet Armstrong is recruited by M15 to transcribe the recordings of conversations among British fascist sympathizers. Juliet is an unlikely candidate for such a role. She’s only 18-years-old, naïve and completely unprepared for the job, which she discovers is a learn-as-you-go experience.

Her role soon evolves from a transcriber to that of a spy – again something for which she has neither experience nor aptitude. She is somewhat successful, however, in inserting herself among the fascists; although she faces a number of close calls and near misses of having her true identify revealed.

Ten years later, Juliet is surprised to be approached by M15 again, long after she was certain her connection with the organization was over. Though older, she retains much of her naiveté and is again thrust into dealing with espionage related to a more subtle war.

Atkinson’s characters are easy to visualize. Their proper British mannerisms and decorum, even when dealing with undercover activities, is amusing. Some conversations and situations take on a near slap-stick style, resulting in some laugh-out-loud moments. Fortunately, it’s far more subtle than pie-in-the-face action.

An element of pathos exists in Juliet’s personality based on her inability to initially recognize the control M15 has on her life.

Transcription

Four Bookmarks

Back Bay Books, 2018

339 pages, including Author’s notes and sources

A fairy tale’s heroine   1 comment

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bear and the Nightingale is Katherine Arden’s debut novel, which
blends a familiar theme in the guise of a Russian folktale.

While this is more fantasy than classic Russian literature, the author does rely                                              on its characteristics, such as the patriarchal society and descriptions of                                                medieval Russia.

Vasya, whose mother died in childbirth, is a rebellious young girl; which
intensifies as she grows older. Yet, she’s sensitive to the world around her,
particularly aspects others either can’t or won’t acknowledge. This includes
woodland apparitions, water nymphs and household spirits.

Vasya’s father remarries and brings his young, extremely religious wife,
Anna, to his home in a remote village near the forest’s edge. Despite her pious
devotion, she is a malicious stepmother. She forbids the family from honoring
or acknowledging their household spirits. This, and the arrival of a priest who
supports Anna, ensures the family and villagers will endure bad luck.

The novel isn’t initially engaging, but gains momentum as Arden’s writing
becomes more vivid and her characters more fully developed. The harsh winter is
a significant element of the narrative.

The title is derived from the combating attributes of the woodland folklore
creatures and Vasya’s ultimate role with them.

It’s necessary to suspend disbelief and remind oneself that fear and joy are
part of fairy tales. This helps in recognizing the absence of nuance: there is
evil or good; magic or reality; but always a surprise.

The Bear and the Nightingale

Almost Four bookmarks

Del Ray, 2017

333 pages (includes glossary of Russian terms, Reader’s Guide and author
interview)

When a detective leaves town   Leave a comment

Even when detectives go on vacation, there’s always a crime scene nearby. What sets Devices and Desires by P.D. James apart from the pack is that Scotland Yard Commander Adam Dalgleish isn’t the one to solve it – at least not overtly.

Dalgleish has inherited his deceased aunt’s house, a converted lighthouse, on England’s Northern coast near a nuclear power plant. He leaves London to work on the house and to consider what to do with it.

A serial killer is on the loose in Norfolk, which keeps tensions taut. Known as “The Whistler”, the killer’s prey are young women. Yet, this is only one of the numerous threads running through the novel. The local authorities acknowledge Dalgliesh’s presence, but are determined to the find the culprit on their own. His eventual involvement is part of the mystery.

Chapters are brief, only one to four pages, and the story covers the period of a few weeks: September 15 to October 6.

The landscape descriptions are vivid, as are the townspeople’s quirks. Dalgliesh figures into many of James’ novels. Here he has just published his second book of poetry, which is less cause for celebration than might be expected. There’s an underlying cynicism regarding this accomplishment by many Dalgliesh comes into contact with.

Other themes include illicit liaisons and the dangers of atomic energy. The large number of characters also weighs down the narrative. Although some are intelligent and interesting, the problem is that there are too many to keep track of.

Devices and Desires

Three bookmarks

Warner Books, 1989

466 pages

Another Kind of American Odyssey   Leave a comment

Of the authors, dead or alive, who’d prompt me to be a groupie is Amor Towles (obviously among the latter category). His newest novel, The Lincoln Highway, is nearly 600 pages and I couldn’t wait to get lost in it. I did have to wait awhile for a copy, but once I held it in hand I felt like a kid on the first day of school: excited and apprehensive about what was to come.

Emmett Watson has just returned to his rural Nebraska home having served time for involuntary manslaughter. He plans to start a new life in Texas with his eight-year-old, wise-beyond-his-years brother, Billy, who has other ideas: to head west. He’s certain they’ll find their estranged mother in San Francisco and insists they travel the Lincoln Highway, a coast-to-coast route.

However, Emmett’s friends, Duchess and Woolly from the work farm, appear having stowed away in the trunk of a car. They have different plans for traveling the Highway, and they steal Emmett’s prized Studebaker to head east.

Emmett and Billy’s story becomes one of reclaiming not only the car but their journey’s purpose; Duchess and Woolly have other goals. All their adventures involve a cast of characters from the sublime to the absurd. What’s initially Emmett’s story soon becomes Duchess’s – his are the first person voice chapters; the others use third person voice.

The Lincoln Highway is an odyssey filled with heroes and monsters. It’s also where friends become family – with some selfish members and some more likeable than others.

The Lincoln Highway

Four-and-a-half Bookmarks

Viking Books, 2021

576 pages

Who’s the Prey and Who’s the Predator?   Leave a comment

The who-dun-it and who-was-it-dun-to formula crafted by Lucy Foley in The Guest List resurfaces in The Hunting Party. Although effective, I hope she doesn’t use the same approach in subsequent works. It’s clever, but enough is, well , enough.

It’s evident from the beginning that the victim and the murderer are among the handful of narrators. There are other characters, but only in supporting roles: spouses, two other couples, two additional guests and a third employee. What’s learned about them is from the narrators’ perspectives. The setting is an upscale lodge in a remote part of the Scottish Highlands in a blinding blizzard, plays a major role in the plot.

A group of old friends gathers on New Year’s Eve as they have since their days together at Oxford. They’re now in the early 30s and have established themselves in the world. Miranda is the spoiled, party girl used to the finer things; Katie, an attorney, is her childhood friend; Emma, is relatively new to the group and is the trip organizer; Heather manages the lodge; and Doug is the gamekeeper.  Through these narratives, their histories and personalities come to light.

Time is also key as it moves back and forth from December 30 to January 2. This pattern is similar not only to The Guest List, but Foley’s other novels.

Despite following the same blueprint, this mystery is engaging. Chapters become shorter the closer the reader gets to the reveal. In the process it becomes a rapid page turner.

The Hunting Party

Three-and-a-half bookmarks

William Morrow, 2019

328 pages, plus reading group guide and more

Turning the Pages of the Past   Leave a comment

People of the Book traverses science, religion and history when rare book conservationist Hannah Heath is tasked with examining the Sarajevo Haggadah, rescued from the Bosnian War. In the process, Hannah unearths clues about its antiquity while restoring it for the future.

Geraldine Brooks has crafted an engaging account that delves not only into Hannah’s life, but the origins of the Haggadah, considered one of the earliest Jewish books created. Its vivid illustrations make it unique.

Thanks to Hannah’s expertise and the accessibility of modern technology, she’s able to take microscopic artifacts from the pages to analyze. The results reveal the book’s journey through Middle Eastern and early European history, with a focus on the persecution of Jews and a realization of the Haggadah’s significance and the need to protect it.

Hannah is introduced in 1996 where she first comes into contact with the book and discovers a miniscule part of an insect wing in the book’s binding. The chapters alternate between Hannah’s narrative and those of the people associated with the elements she uncovers in her analysis. While her life moves forward, the book’s moves backward in time and place. From the initial identification of the insect fragment traced to Sarajevo in 1940. to a feather and a rose to a wine stain, from salt to, finally, a white hair traced to 1480, the stories of those who held the book are told.

Hannah’s background also comes to light. Her own past confirms the unknown is part of everyone and everything.

People of the Book

Four Bookmarks

Penguin Books, 2008

372 pages, plus Reader’s Guide

AIDS, Friendship and Acceptance   Leave a comment

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The Great Believers begins in 1985 Chicago when a group of friends, who’ve been excluded from a funeral, gather to celebrate Nico’s life. He died of AIDS. It’s early days of the epidemic and their friend’s death foretells of what lies ahead for many.

Yale Tishman is among the group, as is Fiona, younger sister of the deceased. Nico’s parents kicked him out of the family home years ago, but Fiona stayed in contact providing him food, money and support as best she could. Consequently, she grew up around Nico’s circle of friends, including Yale.

Time is an element of Rebecca Makkai’s novel which alternates between Chicago 1985/86 and Paris 2015. The earlier period focuses on Yale. He’s a development director for an art gallery, is in a monogamous relationship and comes across as an intelligent, sensitive young man. Through Fiona he’s put in touch with her aunt with an art collection from the 1920s Yale tries to secure for his gallery.

The latter time frame follows Fiona to Paris in her attempt to locate her estranged daughter and granddaughter. The younger Fiona is more interesting than the older version. She took care of Nico, and many of his friends, as they contracted AIDS. She apparently exhausted her caretaking abilities when it came to her immediate family.

Still, the beauty of the novel lies in the power of friendship and acceptance. Yale, and others, faced threats and, initially, medical care for AIDS patients was scattered, at best.

The Great Believers

Four Bookmarks

Viking, 2018

421 pages

Opening Up to the Unknowns   Leave a comment

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Reading The Power of Strangers made me think about how I interact with people I don’t know, which I suspect is among author Joe Keohane’s  goals. He presents  a lot to consider in an entertaining, applicable, albeit often research-heavy, manner.

Through interviews with psychologists, anthropologists,  and average citizens , among others, Keohane identifies the good feelings resulting from an exchange, no matter how brief, with those with whom we share our world. Engaging in such interactions isn’t all about personality type. Innate fears of rejection and lack of trust often inhibit extending ourselves.

Examples of other cultures where the importance of an initial greeting determines the safety of those involved are referenced. Details are shared about individuals in public spaces who encourage strangers to share their stories or simply talk about whatever is on their minds.

The work is split into three sections: “What Happens When we Talk to Strangers;” “Why Don’t We Talk to Strangers;” and “How to Talk to Strangers.”

Admittedly, sometimes I don’t want to talk to someone I don’t know: for example, when on a plane in the middle of a good book. I always acknowledge people and try to establish eye contact. And, when ignored, I am disgruntled. I live in a place where I encounter fellow hikers on beautiful trails. There is usually some exchange of trail talk. Keohane likely would consider this a start, but for a more meaningful connection he offers a lot of interesting ideas worth reading about.

The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World

Four Bookmarks

Random House, 2021

328 pages (includes index)