Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Dark legacies

THE NIGHT BEFORE By: Lisa Jackson ISBN: 0821769367, New York : Kensington, c2003. Savannah GA, one of the 3 cities not destroyed during the Civil War, is an ideal setting for this suspense novel. This city seems to lend itself to tales of suspense, dark, tangled mysteries involving ancient, deadly family secrets or the supernatural. One gets the feeling that no one ever quite walks alone here; that eyes are watching in the darkness, and that, just beneath the beauty of this town of the very old South, there is seething decadence, filled with shadowy surprises. I think this novel could only have taken place here, and it certainly contains all the elements one would expect; an old and aristocratic family, a mansion made more fascinating by its age and disrepair, interlocked, twisted lives and even more twisted minds, intricately plotted unsolved murders, and a whole large closet full of very dark family skeletons. Savannah is, however, also a modern city, and against this dark, decadent, fascinating background, modern people try to live open “normal” lives, and a modern police force attempts to use up to date techniques to unravel the past. That unraveling is part of the satisfaction this book provides, but the real strengths of this novel are the presentation of the environment in which it is set, and in the extremely careful and skillful character development. Many of these characters have very serious issues and pathologies, and the author develops each in such a way that those flaws, and in some cases, those flaws are extremely dangerous, that the internal landscapes of the characters are as much a part of the suspense as is the action described by the plot. In many ways, this is one of those books best read in full sunlight, and following its twists and turns requires the same care one would use in trying to find one’s way out of a labyrinth, but, by the end, all mysteries are resolved, all questions answered, and, like sunlight after a summer storm, the reader closes the book with a feeling of hope for the future of some of the characters who have suffered so much.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Lady of Distinction

A LADY OF DISTINCTION There are some fictional characters who have become so famous in their own rights that they step from the pages of their books and become part of our cultural lexicon. I remember reading a comment made by Harlan Ellison once that Sherlock Holmes and Super Man should be added to Jungian archtypes, because they have become part of our universal consciousness. There are other characters who, though not so universally known, are so well known by those who read the series in which they predominate, that they are often thought of, and are spoken of, not as characters but in the same ways we speak of friends or acquaintances. This is especially true among fans of a particular series, but a few are even more well known than the series in which they were created. It is one of these I’d like to talk about, for a while. David Weber created an excellent SF series, revolving around the life and career of Dame Honor Harrington, and it is she who I’d like to discuss for a bit. I became acquainted with her series some years ago, and I’m allowing myself the self indulgence of re-reading this group of excellent books, which begin with “on Basilisk Station”. The books are well worth reading, and, perhaps when I’ve finished all of them, I’ll discuss them. However, Dame Honor is so well developed that she has, at least for me, acquired many aspects of individuality that make hre feel “real” to me, at least mentally and emotionally, even though I am well aware that she is a figment of the vivid imagination of an extremely skillful author. Yes, I like and admire Honor. She’s the kind of person who I’d love to be able to invite to my home for dinner and an evening of conversation, and she has character traits that I value and admire. In fact, if she existed off the page, she’s the kind of person whose friendship I’d highly value. She is intelligent, decisive, observant, can think logically, and is deeply compassionate. She will perform her duty, always, and she knows, and willingly pays, the price that sometimes involves. For a military commander, that price is measured not only by the lives of her enemies, but by the lives lost of her crew, and sometimes of her friends. She isn’t unbelieveably brave or “perfect”, and therein lies her deep humanity. Sometimes, she questions herself, and her right to do what she does, in the most basic of moral and ethical terms. Sometimes, she’s scared nearly to death, fears that she’s made the wrong decisions, and she knows that, in battle, especially in space, the most hostile of environments, mistakes lead to absolute distruction. Yet, for all that, she forces her way through, does the absolute best she can, and accepts the results … and to my mind, *that* is one of the ultimate tests of an individuals’s strength. Yet, she does not lack humor, nor does she force herself not to care about the people around her. She can laugh, even at herself, and her friends probably outnumber her admirers (and there are many of those). In short, Dame Honor Harrington is such a beautifully created character that the books about her become, unintendedly, (and that is how it must be to work) the backgrounds against which she is painted.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

let me go a-wandering

THE OLD WAYS: A JOURNEY ON FOOT By: Robert Macfarlane and Robin Sachs ISBN: 9781470816919, Reissue of:, [Ashland, OR] : Blackstone Audio,p2012 There, sometimes, books that are so beautiful that they burrow their way into me, and make a nest in my soul. This is such a book. It is, ostensibly, the story of a walk through most of Europe, into the Middle East and into Asia, and it is that. That story is fascinating in its own right, filled with delightful characters and intriguing landscapes, history and folklore. But it is different from most travel journals, because this walk was made not on roads, but on the paths made, step by step, over centuries of use. Some were intended to herd animals, some as shortcuts, but each path, in its own way, was a spontaneous reaction to the needs of the people who lived there, and took little, if any account of Governments or traffic patterns. Along the way, the authors discuss sea lanes (again, not the formal ones, but those made by the sea itself, and the imperatives of those who derived their living from it. We are also given a glimpse of skyways, primarily those used by migrating birds. This is a book of motion, and of deep introspection on a wide range of subjects. It is the story of people, each of whom offers something unique and wonderful to the reader, if not the world, and most important, it is a reverent celebration of the beauty and diversity of the Earth on which we live. The writing is so exquisite that I often felt I was reading a book length poem, and I often had to stop reading for a time to contemplate an image or a sentence. It is a slow read, or should be, with ample time taken for appreciation and thought, because one of the things this book does is encourage the reader to examine and follow his/her internal paths, those made by experience or memory, and the reader is encouraged, by the very nature of this book, to meander far and wide. I found this book so richly dense that I couldn’t just sit down and read it through, as I usually do, but had to read some, think some, read something else for a bit so that I could digest what turned out to be a banquet, then come back to it. As I said, this book will stay with me for a very long time, and I find that, in the way of truly fine books, it has changed my perspective of things in subtle ways.

Friday, November 22, 2013

High School Friends ...

NEVER TELL A LIE By: Hallie Nephron ISBN: 9780061567155, Recorded from:, New York, NY : William Morrow, c2009 This is the first book I’ve read by this author, and, while she hasn’t sailed right on to my personal A list, I’d certainly be willing to read more of her work, although I won’t hunt it down. This is the type of tight little mystery/suspense novel that is perfect for a rainy (or snowy) afternoon, accompanied by appropriate food and drink. Cocoa and gingerbread come to mind, but that is a highly personal consideration. A warm afghan or quilt to burrow into would be appropriate, as would a kitty ensconced in lap. The story is part mystery, part suspense novel, and part psychological study, and all are nicely balanced. The author knows how to build suspense, how to gradually increase it, until the final scenes, which defy interruption by just about anything. The characters are nicely drawn, particularly the main characters, and the writing is brisk, spare but entirely effective. There are some extremely unusual twists, though once they occur, they make perfect sense, and the reader realizes things almost *had* to be the way they were, because one of the problems with living in the town where one grows up is that, eventually, past foolishness can come back to haunt, occasionally in extremely lethal and twisted ways.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

A matter of motivation

BELIEVING THE LIE By: Elizabeth George ISBN: 0525952586, Recorded from:, New York : Dutton, 2012 I have always found that this author and Ruth Rendell have very similar styles, though, of course, they also each have their own distinctive voices. But, in my mental reading shorthand, this is a Rendellesque novel, so I expected, and got, several things. All of the elements of a good mystery are most certainly there; there is the crime, (or … is there?), there are the investigators and the suspects (who keep popping their heads up for inclusion at unlikely times and there is the evidence, both circumstantial and physical. However, George, like Rendell is as interested in human motivations and relationship dynamics as she is in what was don’t, to whom and by who. So, in a story which is as much character driven as plot driven, everyone, including the investigators, come under Ms. George’s microscope. Each person in the story has something to contribute, and something to hide, and in digging around for those hidden things, some of which become crucial, the investigators open all sorts of Pandora’s boxes, some of which belong, not to the suspects, but to the investigators. This is not a fast paced action filled read. Instead, it is a leisurely stroll through the hearts, minds and motivations of several people, and a map of how each person connects and interacts with, each other in what is, to put it mildly, a dysfunctional family. When the dust finally settles, not only do we see each person reflected in a very honest and unflattering mirror, but each person knows far more about themselves. Sometimes this is a positive thing, leading, it would seem to increased wisdom, and sometimes, they are forced to confront their own venality, greed and/or emotional neediness, and no, they aren’t pleased; but I, the reader was. There is the crux of the matter, and the central question. “was a specific death by drowning an accident, or was it murder? Everything else spins off that question, and as the investigators become familiar with each family member, they realize that each had valid motives to hate, if not to murder, the victim, and that, just beneath the wealthy, civilized vaneer that this family presents to the world, there is a whole graveyard of skeletons, some of which are extremely destructive, and all of which, in the end are retrieved and examined. But investigators are people, too …and no investigator can entirely set aside his/her humanity when on the job. In this case, some very hot buttons get pushed about as hard as is possible, and by the end, some of the investigators aren’t sure whether they have done more harm than good, and neither are we. As in any examination of any group of people, we find that they are neither all “good” or all “evil” (altough 2 of them come close to that). As in life, each person is some of both, drivin by their needs and desires, and usually focused on their own imperatives, and that applies to suspects and investigators alike. Ms. George is masterful in handling this, never over or under stating her points, so that, while the portraits she draws are entirely accurate and believable, they are never characatures or cartoons. This is not, as some books are, a gathering of the nasty and malicious, however. There are characters with whom we can unabashedly and wholeheartedly sympathize, not as the lesser of several evils, but as good people in situations that force them to examine themselves and others, and make sometimes difficult choices that will effect themselves and others, and they do …and they do it right, in my opinion. This author’s writing is a joy to read, because it is always meticulous, sometimes evocatively beautiful, and, when appropriate emotionally devastating. She always takes her time, and never glosses over details. For that reason, her characters are well rounded and fully developed, her scenes are lovingly and richly set, and her landscapes are profoundly alive. This book is set in the lake district of England, which can appear lovely and benign, and turn quickly into something as erie and lethal as the best Romantic Gothic novel setting with its deadly, shifting sands and tidal bores. All in all, this book is a reading feast, on all levels.

Monday, November 18, 2013

malicious flames

PYRO By Earl Emerson ISBN: 0345462882, New York : Ballantine Books, c2004. Firefighters and law enforcement officers of any stripe or agency have always had, and always will have, a very special place in my heart. No doubt this stems from the fact that I have both in my family. My Grandfather was a volunteer firefighter for many, many years, and I vaguely remember, as a very little girl, being allowed, (under very *very* close supervision) to crawl over, and climb around on one of the firetrucks his company used. He understood that I “see” by touch, and he always made sure (occasionally by bullying) that I got the chance as often as possible. So, it isn’t surprising that I enjoy books about firefighting, and the people who do it. This book is no exception, especially since the story is actually several stories in one. First, it is the tale of an arsonist, the damage he did, and the methods by which that damage was controlled and conquered. One learns a lot about techniques and even more about the dangers these brave men and women face, sometimes on a daily basis. Some of this is fairly graphic and specific, and, if you have a good imagination as I do, by the time the smoke clears, you are *entirely* glad you are just reading about, and not experiencing what Is described. The book is, however, the story of a family which was destroyed by the actions of an arsonist, and by one man, who had to confront lifelong emotional and psychological issues, before they destroyed him. The 3rd story is about Fire Department politics and bureaucracy, at its very best, and at its very worst, and about the way a firehouse functions, in very human terms. The final story is really a character study of a long time arsonist, and we get to see how he functions, what he feels, how he thinks, and eventually, how he self destructs. All 3 stories are told simultaneously, and are so intertwined that they cannot be entirely sepearated, and the result is a very fast paced, exciting and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying book. The writing is extremely good, with vivid descriptions, and technical detail handled in such a way that it help the reader understand what is happening and why, without bogging the reader down with too much detail. I’m not sure how this is set up in print, but the book is narrated by several people, alternatively. There may be spacing in print that makes this easy to follow, but if you are listening to the book, as I did, it can initially be more than a little confusing; so here’s a hint that I found helpful, and may help other readers to acclimate more quickly. The first thing to remember is that the narrative of the main character is not identified. That is done only when another character is speaking, and until you realize that, it is easy to think there is only 1 person narrating, and since each narration may well involve perspective changes, and contain information that other characters can’t possibly know, it can be disorienting. The clue is that each narration is like a chapter, with a title for the narration, and if not the main character’s is preceeded by “according to …. “. The reader does not make much of a distinction between voices, though once yu get into the book, you do see subtle pace and tonal changes that give good clues, and they are always consistent with each character. More to the point, the author distinguishes each voice using speech patterns, rhythms, and idiom. This makes every character have a unique voice, and once you learn them, the author could omit the identification and the narrator could omit the voice distinctions, and you’d still know who is talking. I enjoyed this book for its plot, its character development, and for its writing skill.

Down an ugly rabbit hole!

ALICE IN JEOPARDY By: Ed McBain ISBN: 0743262506, New York : Simon & Schuster, c2005., Ed McBain has been an icon in the world of mystery fiction for, almost, as long as I have been alive, and I won’t even try to begin to list either his accomplishments or contributions to this genre. I became acquainted with his writing through his 87th Precinct novels, which I have always dearly loved, and while I’m not as well acquainted with his other series or stand alone novels, I do know 2 things. If I find a book written by this author, I will read, and there is a 99.99999% chance that I will love it. This is a standalone novel, and, while it doesn’t have the intensity of the 87th Precinct books, at least not until the breathtaking climax, it has that special McBain touch. The story is told with just a touch of tongue in cheek humor that pokes gentle fun at everybody, law enforcement, the FBI, the villains, and even the victims. I can’t think of another author who can turn a dangerous situation into a comedy of errors without destroying its lethal seriousness, then with what *should* have been an expected plot twist (and never is) untangle what has become the mother of all Gordian knots into a single strand so strong that it supports everything, until he ties it all up with a neat bow. The characters in the book are, as always, quirky enough to be very recognizable and believable. Each of them is complicated enough to be 3 dimensional, and there are no stereotypes, not even among the minor characters. This author also has a grasp of dialog and human speech patterns that are sometimes amazing. He can portray a conversation between multiple participants in such a way that even though it is being read by one person, it reads like the free for all such conversations have. He can do the same when people are talking at cross purposes, not listening, interrupting one another to finish a sentence, and the result is a piece of writing that is layered and multi-dimensional. The best part, of course, is that all of us have been in such conversations, so what at first glimpse might *seem* chaotic and unnatural resolves itself into entirely recognizable speech patterns. This author writes with a “light hand” in that his writing is never pretentious, self conscious or obviously “literary”. It would be a mistake, though, to dismiss it as merely adequate to tell a story. Oh, it does *that* impeccably, but the writing is strong enough and subtle enough, to support what is being written about, on all levels, without overwhelming the subjects under scrutiny. This, to me, is one of the marks of the finest authors, and, to my mind, Ed McBain could hold his own in any writing style or venue. In fact, I have sometimes had the thought that even his grocery lists would make good reading!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Of Dynasties and Kings

WE SPEAK NO TREASON By: Rosemary Hawley Jarman ISBN: 0515085677, Boston, Little, Brown, 1977, c1971. , Many years ago, I happened to read a very sympathetic biography of Richard III, and it changed my view of him, permanently. Unfortunately, I can no longer remember either the title of the book, nor the author. However, it was comprehensive and beautifully written, and, in the introduction, the author presented a case for King Richard’s innocence so well, that it made far more sense to me than the usual perspective most people have of that king, based primarily on the writings of the Tudors (who conquered and destroyed him) and Shakespeare’s play. When I found a recorded copy of We Speak No Treason, I thought this was the book I remembered, and decided to revisit it. I was wrong, however, though it deals with the same subject, the presentation, if not the slant, is entirely different. However, I was certainly not disappointed. This is also a wonderful book, which tells the story of Richard’s life, not directly, but as he, and the events of his life, affected 3 people with whom he interacted closely. It also tells the stories of these people, and so, in the end, we have a vivid, fascinating, and complex picture of a critical time in the history of England, and we see the ending of one dynasty and the founding of the next. Each character (and there are many) is carefully and lovingly drawn, and since sometimes we see pieces of the same event from the perspectives of more than 1 person, we are given a fairly panoramic view of the reign of Edward IV and later the reign and death of Richard. By the end of the book, we have come to care for these people, to understand them, and often to sympathize with them, well, I did, at least. The writing is close to exquisite, presenting Medieval England in such 3 dimensional terms that I could easily lose track of exactly where I was in time and space. For those who find this period of history interesting, I would have to classify this as a “you won’t regret reading” book, but I do suggest that if you haven’t, that you read a good history of the period from the beginning of Edward IV’s reign to the end of Richard’s reign at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485. If you don’t have at least a basic straightforward idea of what happened, this book could become extremely confusing, because, like life, this tale is not always tidy in its presentation; and therein, I think, lies much of its charm. We don’t “see” events, but we live them, as though we were experiencing them in company with the person currently telling his or her story.

Friday, November 15, 2013

murder, drugs, and smuggling

THE BLACK WIDOW’S WARDROBE By: Lucha Copri • ISBN: 1558852883, Houston, Tex. : Arte Público Press, c1999. Have you ever started reading a book which has been classified as being in one genre, to discover that, while the classification may be correct, the real interest of the book has little to do with its specified intent? This is one of those books, and even though the mystery isn’t the most interesting element of the story, I found it worth reading for another, unexpected reason. The story is told by, and set in the environment and culture of, the Mexican-American (or Chicano) community. Even better, it is approached from that point of view. I know far more about other immigrant communities and cultures, and while it is always best to learn from personal interaction, this book gave me a glimpse into the culture, and one bit of insight that I find invaluable. The book is set in California and Mexico, and, even with the mildly supernatural elements, the story, including the mystery is believable. Along the way, we learn some probably less well known Mexican history, get to “visit” a beautiful and moving “Day of the Dead” celebration, and meet some delightful characters. The culture is described so naturally and unpretentiously that it is simply the background setting of the story: yet also because of this naturalness, it is more easy to see, and begin, at least, to try to understand, cultural expectations and assumptions different from those with which a reader deals on an everyday basis. All in all, I’m glad to have found this author, and I expect to find, and read, more of her work.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The duties of a lady of quality

ETIQUETTE AND ESPIONAGE By Gail Carriger ISBN: 9781619693166, New York, N.Y. : Hachette Audio, [2013], p2013., I am just beginning to discover Steam Punk, and, so far, I am finding it delightful. I love the idea of inserting elements of fantasy and unhistorical technological advancement into a familiar historical setting. There is a certain whimsical charm in imagining dirigibles floating over Victorian or Edwardian England, while “ladies of quality” learn the fine points of appropriate mannerly behavior, conduct, and, oh yes, along the way, how to efficiently spy, manipulate, commit espionage and kill …with nothing more lethal than a pair of embroidery scissors or eyebrow tweezers. Throw in some vampires and weir wolves (who have found places in polite society), and what you get is a part fantasy, part spy story, part mystery romp through time and space. This is the first of 2 books, which introduces us to a definitely off kilter but marvelous world, replete with political machinations, evil scientific geniuses, unexpected but believable (mostly) inventions, a flying school, duchesses, heiresses, marriage games, and a climax that has all the exuberance and silliness of the very best slapstick comedy. The characters are sometimes too zany to be real, though by the end of the book, I found myself accepting them, perhaps because the central characters are *very* believable, and often sympathetic. The plot is …well, a cross between a roller coaster and a mostly harmless fun house ride, and the colorful writing holds it all together, making the reader forget some of it makes absolutely no sense until the last page has been turned or the last word heard. This book, and its sequel, Curtseys and Conspiracies, don’t have a serious bone in their decorated petticoated (with horsehair petticoats, thank you very much) bodies. They don’t make the reader contemplate Universal truths (well, not many, though they do raise issues involving the nature of friendship and loyalty), or provide much insight into society. But like the nicest meringue, they melt on the mind, leaving a very satisfyingly sweet taste on the palette.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The War to end all wars ...and murder

A TEST OF WILLS By: Charles Todd, author ISBN: 9780062091611, New York : Harper, 2011., This is the first book in a series that follows the career and life of Inspector Ian Rutledge of Scotland Yard, a recently returned WWI veteran. As often happens, this is a wonderful series to read, and a challenging one to discuss, because of its complexity, its depth and it’s broad and beautifully drawn setting, physically, psychologically and emotionally. First, though, these are traditional mysteries. The case is meticulously developed, usually through interviews and less formal discussions with involved people. We see each puzzle piece as it is discovered, examined and carefully placed in its position, sometimes correctly, sometimes not (at least, not at first). For those of us who are used to the adrenalin rush of fast action thrillers, this book may feel like a “slow” read, and, in a way it is; but its satisfaction comes from the painstaking search for, and final discovery of the truth of what happened. But this book is much, much more. It is also the story of a terrible war, its aftermath, and its lasting effects on all levels. WWI, perhaps more than any previous war, shattered society, culture, nations, and the lives of individuals, soldiers and civilians alike. We become intimately acquainted with one such soldier, Ian Rutledge, who came home shell shocked, and is still haunted, not just by what he experienced, but by the effects of something he had to do. He is deeply wounded, spiritually and psychologically, by nightmares, by terrible claustrophobia, and by what could be either a mental construction, a sort of hallucination, or something else …but he does not live alone in his mind, and the one who shares it is part enemy, part conscience, and, increasingly, part partner. Inspector Rutledge must solve a case whose solution could have serious political consequences, even destroy his career, and at the same time, he must come to terms with his internal “ghost”. He does, as we might expect, and, along the way, we observe the effects of a war in which most of Europe lost a generation of young men in the space of 4 years has had on those who are left. This book is as intricate and as well planned as one of those jigsaw puzzles with thousands of tiny pieces which, when assembled produce a picture. It is that assembly process, with all its differing components that makes it, and the other books in this series fascinating for me. Each incident and each character has an important place, and also connects to other incidents and characters to form the entire piece. While this is not consciously a literary novel, it is so beautifully written that, without overwhelming the reader, it forms very solid foundation and frame into which all the elements come together.