17 November 2016

Hurry up!

As I walked into the Northfield library I discovered a new Jacqueline Winspear novel on a table by the staircase. A little note was taped to the cover, "Lucky You!"

It turns out that this was a recent addition to the collection that no one had reserved. I could check it out, but it wasn't renewable. Well, it was due yesterday and this evening I just finished it. I'm glad I spent the time and will gladly pay the fine when I return it tomorrow.

The book is A Dangerous Place. The dangerous place is Gibraltar in 1937.

Maisie Dobbs retreated to the mountains of India after the death of her husband and the loss of the child they had been expecting. She was overwhelmed with grief and could not face returning to England, her father, her in-laws, and all the familiar places she called home.

Finally on the way home, her ship docks in Gibraltar, and Maisie realizes she's not yet ready to face family and familiar. However, on one of her first evenings in Gibraltar, she stumbles on the body of a recently murdered man.

This Dobbs character that Winspear has created cannot resist asking questions about the death and the survivors. Once an investigator, always an investigator, I guess. However, Winspear does a fairly good, but not (to me)  totally convincing job of portraying this as a further attempt by Dobbs to evade confronting the horror of her sorrow.

Gibraltar is a dangerous place because the civil war is going on in Spain and because the isolated city is full of spies and police of all kinds. Some of the police are serving the interests of Dobbs' father-in-law and others are serving ambiguous masters.

Then there are the photographs taken by the man Dobbs found murdered. One of a German submarine and another of a German double agent. Oh, there's also weapons smuggling by some of the fishing fleet. Of course, Maisie Dobbs is close enough to be aware of all of it, though she's at a loss to put all the pieces together -- until the very end, of course.

Then Maisie meets two English nurses who are headed for a front-line nursing station (much like the one Maisie worked at in France in 1916-17). Guess who goes along. After a hectic day at the station and meeting a nun who practically runs the place herself, Maisie tells here police tail she's headed back to England. But instead she heads for the nun's nursing station in Spain. A couple months there working with the wounded, Maisie feels, will get her out of herself enough that she'll be able to return to England.

I don't know. Want to take bets?

Have you read A Dangerous Place? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reaction.

Now, I have to take this book back to the library. I was lucky.




12 November 2016

Paying attention

If you've been paying attention to the sporadic things I write here, you know I've had a pile of books on my desk to write about. I managed to cut the pile in half and write about my current reading until I uncovered Åsa Larsson's The Second Deadly Sin. Well, you didn't know about that last bit since I haven't written about Larsson's book until now.

I picked up the book and looked at a fierce bear on the cover and tried to remember something about the book and my experience of reading it. Nothing. Had I really read the book? I must have, I told myself, or it wouldn't have gotten to the pile of books already read.

Okay, so I'll skim through the beginning and I'll remember. Nope. Okay, I'll read the first few chapters and it will come back to me. Nope, again. Had I read this book? So, I started over and read the book. It wasn't until I got to about page 350 (out of 375) that I remembered reading some of the book. If I'd paged my way through the book looking at the words, I hadn't read it. But there's a devastatingly awful scene near the end of the book involving a murderous assailant, a five-year-old child, a beloved dog, and a severely injured cop that I'll never forget, even if I forget where I read it. I won't forget again. I was paying attention this time.

Larsson tells at least three stories in this book. One of them is two or three generations back. Others are contemporary, one involving murder and another involving overreach by an overly ambitious detective. When I paid attention to the stories this time, I was able to keep track of the stories and understand most of the complex connections Larsson weaves among them.

The first half of the book seemed a bit slow. Maybe that was getting started and introducing all the characters and scenes (all in Sweden, by the way). The story telling in the second half of the book moved right along. I wondered how I could not have paid attention. Where was I? What was I preoccupied with? I have no clue. I wasn't paying attention.

I liked the book this time. I was paying attention this time. I remember admonishing my students to do more than "look at the words" when reading. I need to remind myself of the same thing.

Have you read The Second Deadly Sin by Åsa Larsson? Were you paying attention enough to tell us what you thought of it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought.



25 October 2016

Struck by stages

I made it to the newly enlarged library in town. It had been all but closed for a year or so. Books for younger readers were available at city hall, but most of the collection was in storage.

The place is very attractive. The entry is welcoming and light filled. There are still a lot of stairs, but if you're unable to climb, there's good elevator service to the top floor.

And there's one whole room for mysteries that used to be strung along several rows of tall shelves. I went in searching for a book to take to the cabin for reading during break times as we closed for the season.

Somewhere in the past, I read or heard about Peter Lovesey's mystery novels. His name and a list of his books made it on to my "to read" list. So I went looking for his books in the new "mysteries" room. Since I had no clues about good/better/best, I grabbed Stagestruck from the shelf.

I took it to the lake cabin and began reading it. I liked Lovesey's language and pacing. The setting is contemporary Bath (UK). Lovesey's featured character is Peter Diamond, chief inspector on the local police force. The plot revolves around a former pop star who was recruited to star in a production of I am a Camera. The nervous songster screams in agony as she makes her Act 1 entrance. Something in her stage make up has burned her skin.

Send in Diamond and crew. Just about the time they are figuring out what happened, the woman in charge of the "star's" make up falls from the backstage rigging. Then the makeup woman's colleague dies under even more mysterious circumstances. Lots for the police to sort out.

About that point in the book, the story telling bogged down. Diamond is distracted by a new assistant assigned to my my his boss. He's also distracted by undefined fears of being in the theater. The personnel of the theater are fearful and trying to help solve the murders while being mostly in the way. The narrative became deadly slow. I almost laid the book down and headed back to the library.

But I soldiered on. It turned out I wouldn't have missed much if I hadn't. It seems that British mysteries (and others?) whether in print or on BBC "Masterpiece Mysteries" end with long winded explanations of how the investigator figured things out and what logic led to the guilty party.

The final chapter of Stagestruck consisted of a strained "conversation" between inspector Diamond (center stage of the theater) and the evil bad guy (sort of hiding in one of the box seats). Diamond says things like "I know what you did and how you did it." The evil bad guy (EBG) says things like, "You're not so smart. You don't have any evidence." Diamond says, "Yes, I do." EBG says, "No you don't." This goes on until Diamond's assistant cop sneaks up behind the EBG and wrestles him into a waiting squad car after the inspector has clearly outlined his case. Next thing I read about is a party for one of the theater's old timers.

The beginning of the book was promising. The ending was deflating. What is the rule? Get to 90% of the story told by describing events and the last 10% told in a turgid way so no one misses how clever the author was in constructing the plot?

I might try reading another Lovesey mystery, but I won't guarantee that I'll finish another.

Have you read Stagestruck? What did you think of it? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.



18 October 2016

Mystery told through events

The last book by Yrsa Sigurdardóttir that I read was ponderous, mostly because the narrator told the story ponderously.

This new one, The Silence of the Sea, hooked me at the beginning and kept me going through the whole plot. It begins when a luxury yacht sails into the harbor in Reykjavik, Iceland. It had come from Spain. It crashes into a jetty in the harbor. No one is aboard the ship.

Well, what happened to the crew? And to the passengers? An Icelandic bank had repossessed the yacht. A banker who had gone to Spain to do the repossession paperwork was bringing his family (wife and two daughters) home on the yacht.

Yrsa tells the story through a series of flashbacks during the cruise. The flashbacks are mostly told from the banker's point of view, but there are other people's flashbacks too.

Meanwhile in Reykjavik, rumors circulate about a curse on the yacht and its owners. Lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir is hired by the banker's father to sort out the legalities and liabilities. The closest thing to a living helper is a sailor who was supposed to be on the crew, but who broke a leg just before the ship sailed. He's actually less help than Thóra hoped for.

Oh, and then there's the problem of the boat's owner who has either gone missing or flown to Brazil to avoid bankruptcy. Well, that's what people thought until her body washes up on an Icelandic shore. And the owner's personal maid, has also disappeared. Then the partial body of one of the yacht's crew comes ashore in Iceland.

The story is nicely complicated and resolution seems as ghostly as the spirit that has been seen on the yacht.

Not to worry, Yrsa wraps the story up in an inventive and surprising way. It was a good book and a great antidote to the previous book (Someone to Watch Over Me).

Have you read The Silence of the Sea? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought.


28 September 2016

Reverberations

Just before running away to the north shore of Lake Superior, I read a glowing review of Louise Penny's new book A Great Reckoning. Then Dale Stahl told me he'd just read it and that it was good.

I was wandering the tourist village of Grand Marais and happened upon a book store. A real book store. It actually had a copy of A Great Reckoning. How could I resist? I had time to sit on the rocky beach, look at the big lake, and read.

In fact, I didn't read the book until I'd returned from the north woods and headed up to the tiny lake called Little Blake. So I watched the geese and a couple swans while reading at place called Sidetrack.

This is a book that has its roots firmly in the earlier books Penny has written. Ostensibly the book is about the continuing crusade of police Commander Armand Gamache to clean up the corruption in the Sûreté of Québec. This time he takes on the task of rooting out evil in the Sûreté Academy. His methodology is obtuse, but marginally understandable.

But then there's a suicide? or was it a murder? And four cadets in the Sûreté Academy. One
of whom stands out as an example of the old order and one as an example of the rejection or the old order. Oh, and there's a century-old map found among the old newspapers and magazines used in the original insulation of an old building that was renovated.

Penny
One of the players in all this is Gamache's old friend and colleague who was caught up in the clean-up regime of the Sûreté. The love/hate and trust/mistrust nature of the relationship fits into all this well.

If you've read The Nature of the Beast, you'll be on track to easily follow the details of this book. If not, you might have to pay attention to things inferred. Or you can read The Nature of the Beast. It's good.

Have you read A Great Reckoning? What did you think of it? Write and tell this little bit of the world.


Telling

I want to reduce the pile of books on my desk. I want to write something about each of them. I just added another book to the pile. I keep thinking I have plenty of time. I keep procrastinating.

The book on the top of the pile if Someone to Watch Over Me by Yrsa Sigurdardottir. It's a long book. Sigurdardottir told me lots of things. Some were interesting. Some were didactic. Buried in the telling is a mystery, but it was difficult to follow in the midst of all the telling. She told me about the suffering of handicapped people living in institutions. The primary mystery revolves around a young man with Down Syndrome who has been convicted of murder. Besides the question of whether or not he murdered people, there are legal and moral questions about his culpability. There are questions about the motivations of the man who hired Sigurdardottir's main character, lawyer Thora Gudmundsdottor to investigate the "crime."

Oh, and there are some supernatural elements in the story too. Are the spirits that appear to one of the characters "real" spirits or figments of her imagination?

Yrsa
And Gudmundsdottor's domestic scene becomes part of the book, though it has little to do with the main plot. It's wonderful that the lawyer has a boyfriend, that she can take in her son and his family, and that she can take in her parents. I'm not sure why those scenes and events are in the book.

It's a long book. Movement through the plot is slow. I had trouble keeping track of everyone and the chain of events. To me, this was not one of Sigurdardottir's best.

Have you read Someone to Watch Over Me? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.



22 September 2016

The reason for the re-read

When I saw Arnaldur Indridason's Into Oblivion at the library, I wanted to read it. A note on the inside flap said it was "a follow-up to the gritty prequel, Reykjavik Nights." It had been several years since I read that prequel and thought I'd reread it as an introduction to the new book.

The cover of Into Oblivion also calls the book "An Icelandic thriller."

Well, the two book are not thrillers by my account. They're Icelandic quizzicals. The last few chapters of Into Oblivion include some suspense and a bit of violence, but none of it is thrilling. But the rest of the book, like Reykjavik Nights plods along. They made me wonder if the long Icelandic nights left too much time for detailing minor plot points.

Inspector Erlander, the survivor of a childhood trauma that claimed his brother's life, is still in the irresistible clutches of mysterious disappearances. When a murder grasps his attention, an old case from his first years on the force also pulls him into a search for answers. Luckily, he has time to pursue the ancient case because he has help on the murder from a colleague and an American MP from the nearby US Army base.

NAS Keflavik
Arnaldur tries mixing in some Icelandic nationalism and economic dependence with the aggressive sovereignty of the American authorities in this story, but it's mostly flat background. I never got a real feeling for how big an issue this is in Icelandic politics. And, of course, when it comes to dealing with a tiny country like Iceland, the US can afford to say, "Take our money and leave us alone" (especially after the end of the Cold War).


I don't remember that books by Arnaldur that I read even longer ago (Jar City and The Draining Lake) were so plodding and unexciting. But my memory is faulty and I probably have different standards now. I seem to recall those novels had better and more complex plotting.

So, have you read Into Oblivion? What did you think of it? Was it different from earlier novels?  Write. and tell this little bit of the world what you think.




10 September 2016

The other re-read

The other book I reread recently was Arnaldur Indridason's Reykjavik Nights. I knowingly set out to reread this one. It is a precursor to a new book by Arnaldur, Into Oblivion.

I figured it had been so long, I should read Reykjavik Nights to prepare me for the new book. I hope it was a good choice. I have just begun the new book and I'll let you know what I think of it soon.

Reykjavik Nights is about Erlander, a new policeman in Reykjavik. He gets to know (professionally) Hannibal, an alcoholic street person. When Hannibal is found dead, Erlander is curious about how the old man drowned. A respectable, middle class woman disappeared about the same time and her earring was found in Hannibal's crib.

Erlander, the book notes was rescued as a child from a blizzard. His brother was lost. This is Arnaldur's explanation for Erlander's fascination with missing people.

Erlander pursues, on his own time and initiative explanations for Hannibal's death and the disappearance of the  woman. As his boss says at one point, "You've broken almost all the rules for this investigation. Would you like to be a detective?"

He finds out what happened to the two unfortunates. Justice and harmony are restored to Reykjavik. And, if it wasn't for human failings, all would be right with Iceland. But more bad things happen.

Arnaldur
During this read, the story telling was pretty ponderous. Interesting characters and intriguing story. The new book has begun much like this one did. I'm looking forward to it. Iceland is an intriguing place, though most of the place and street names are not translated. I found myself trying to sound out unfamiliar letter combinations (and unfamiliar letters like the "eth" in Arnaldur's last name that gets published in English as a "d.")

It seems I never wrote about my first experience with this book. But I can't really think of more to write.

Have you read Reykjavik Nights? Write. Tell this tiny bit of the world what you thought of it.




Embarrassing

So I have this pile of book on the corner of my desk. I've read them all, but not written about them. That's not the embarrassing part. The embarrassing part is that the one of the top of the pile might need rereading before I write about it.

I look at the title, Invisible Murder and the authors Lene Kaaberbøl and Agnete Friis and I nearly draw blanks. I'm pretty sure that Kaaberbøl and Friis are names on my "to read" list. But the title??

The blurb on the back of the book rings some bells. Hungarian Roma squatting  in an abandoned Copenhagen garage. They're getting sick and dying. (That sounds like invisible death, but murder?)

The main "investigator" in this mystery is nurse Nina Borg, working for the Red Cross in a refugee program. There are Roma connections across Europe. There's a young Roma man who wants nothing more than his law degree, which a university professor won't approve because the man is a Roma. But there are people who want a buried canister and its
Kaaberbøl and Friis
radioactive contents that have been buried in the abandoned garage. Oh, and there is an active and violent anti-Muslim terrorist group.

This one will keep you fascinated and wondering; wondering especially about the motivations of nurse Borg and student Sandor. And if you wait a few months before thinking about it, you might be wondering why you don't remember details about the plot and action.

Have you read Invisible Murder. Write. Tell this little bit of the world how much you remember and what you thought of it.


Re-reading time

I don't reread books often. There are too many unread books. Well, I just reread a couple.

I was in a hurry at the library and pulled Qiu Xiaolong's Enigma of China off the shelf. The author, a poet and mystery writer, lives in St. Louis, Missouri. His name was familiar, but the title didn't ring a bell. His mysteries feature Chief Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai police. Not only is Chen a rising star in the police force, he's also (at the time of this story) in line to become Communist Party chief in the police department.

After about 50 pages I realized I'd read the book. I looked it up. It was 3 years ago. I should have grabbed another of his dozen mysteries. Well, maybe.

It turns out this novel was a refresher on the power of guanxi. Simply translated as "connections," guanxi is a crucial element that makes government and politics work in China. Chen is in a job that brings him into contact with lots of people. He's a humanitarian who often gives people breaks or does favors for them. That creates guanxi connections (people own him). He also relies on guanxi connections he's made or people who remember his father (a scholar who was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution) for information (he owes them). There's hardly a chapter in this book that doesn't illustrate one of Chen's relationships. Guanxi helps him learn how to slip by the censors on the Chinese Internet, get his mother into a hospital usually reserved for high party officials, learn what plans someone has for his career, and how to reserve a private room in a very high class restaurant. It also helps him resolve a particularly messy case.

Qiu
The novel is also a refresher course in poetry -- especially Chinese poetry. Qiu drops in references to or quotations of classic poetry or his own to help set the moods in scenes. It's good to remind me about the roles of poetry in communication.

The story seemed unreel very slowly. I don't recall feeling that when I first read it. My experiences with rereading things suggest that that kind of reaction is more a function of me as a reader than some quality of the book.

A good mystery. A good cultural introduction. It's worth reading at least once.

Have you read Enigma of China? Write. Tell this little bit of the world what you think.