31 October 2007

Recorded Maisie Dobbs mystery

A couple weeks ago, I was headed up to the little cabin called Sidetrack for some end of season work. I stopped by the library and checked out the audiobook for Birds of a Feather, a Maisie Dobbs mystery by Jacqueline Winspear.

Back in August I'd read a couple of Winspear's books and was engrossed in the recreation of 1930 London. I said at that time that Winspear "tells the stories in a plodding, detail-filled way," but the enchanting detail of life over 70 years ago made up for the mundane story telling.

Well, the drives to Sidetrack and back only got me through the first 4 of the 9 CDs in the novel. So, when Nancy and I went back the following weekend to finish closing up the cabin for winter, I listened to the CDs between yard work, window washing, vacuuming, and napping.

The story was interesting. The murders of 3 women who had been friends in a Swiss bording school is central. There are about as many suspects as victims. Winspear does a good job of laying out the clues and allowing red herrings to distract me.

The reading is very well done by Kim Hicks, a radio, stage, and screen actress who personalizes the voices without histrionics.

However, the "plodding, detail-filled" writing is deadly when read. When I was reading, I could easily skip over the fashions of the women characters. But as a listener, it was hard to ignore things without missing something at the beginning of the next paragraph. I also think some things stood out more when recited than when silently read. Maisie Dobbs finally got to the convent where one of the characters was hiding, but I think it was a CD and a half after I'd figured out that's where the missing person was.

I wish I'd read the book. I might go back and read another of Winspear's mysteries. Then I'll be in control of which details to attend to.

Dirty cops international

Awhile back, I wrote about the Gnod web site that illustrates what authors are being read by people who are reading an author you're interested in.

One of the names that showed up when I typed in a couple of the Scandinavian authors from last spring was Henning Mankell. I'd never heard of this Swedish writer, but he's well known. The Northfield Library has half a dozen of his books on its shelves. Several of his "Kurt Wallander Mystery" novels have been produced for Swedish television.

I picked The Dogs of Riga from the library collection. It was the earliest of Mankell's books available, published in Sweden as Hundarna I Riga in 1992 and published in English in 2001.

Kurt Wallander is a middle-aged police detective in Ystad, a city of over 17,000 on the southern Swedish coast. The town promotes itself as a tourist destination ("considered one of the best preserved cities in the Scania province") and as the home of the fictional detective.

At the time of this story, Wallander's mentor had recently died. But the old guy's wisdom plays through Wallander's mind throughout the book. I thought several times that it was too bad that Wallander hadn't asked about that wisdom more often. The detective's daring-do may make good adventure and good film, but his decisions make me question his basic sanity. Well, that's me.

Wallander ends up in Latvia investigating the murder of two men whose bodies come ashore in Sweden. Why Wallander goes there is never well explained. After all, a Latvian cop came to Ystad to retreive the bodies and gather police reports.

Then, even more inexplicably, Wallander returns surreptitiously to Riga with a phoney passport supplied by an underground Latvian nationalist group. Did I mention that the story is set in the early 1990s as the Soviet Union was falling apart? Riga and its police force was full of nationalists, Soviet supporters, smugglers, and organized criminals. And into this mess steps a curiously naive, foolhardy, and hardboiled Swedish detective.

The plot and its twists are intriguing. The action is well done. The setting is exotic. But it wasn't a great book.

It's not a total bust. I read the whole thing without complaint. I've even checked out two more Mankell mysteries from the library. I guess I think there's potential for entertaining stories.

If you know about Mankell's books or if you read one in the future, write and let us know what you think. If or when I read the Kurt Wallander mystery and the Linda Wallander mystery that I've checked out from the library, I'll let you know what I think.

18 October 2007

Cruise Alaskan waters

I was searching the Northfield Public Library for a book to read and came across John Straley's name on the spine of a book.

I recall reading a book or two of his a few years ago. I didn't remember much about them besides that they were set in Alaska.

So, I checked out The Angles Will Not Care, published in 1998, and now I've read it.

I thought it was pretty good. There are gaps in the characters and in the narrative, but those faults can be overlooked, I think, if you're just in this book for lightweight entertainment. This is the literary equivalent of episodic television.

The story is interestingly complex and full of action, even though I didn't understand it all. Remember, I'm an unimaginative literalist, so my complaints might not be the same as yours.

The main character, Cecil Younger, is a real mystery to me. Then again, he was, in this book dealing with his own PTSD, so maybe his behavior wasn't supposed to make sense. However, the behaviors of a whole lot of people in this book don't make a lot of sense, so I don't think my lack of imagination, Younger's PTSD, or the foreign culture of an Alaskan cruise ship are to blame the problems I had with the story. His long-time lover is the most complete character in the book, but that doesn't say much.

I read it quickly, but without joy. Maybe that's why I don't remember much about the earlier Straley books.

According to the Fantastic Fiction web site, Straley wrote 6 books. The last one was in 2001. Maybe he found other things to do.

13 October 2007

Murder, bees, Vietnam, buddies, fiance

I grabbed another Faye Kellerman mystery off the shelf at the Northfield Public Library. This time the book was Milk and Honey.

It's really two books: one about a grisly murder committed by crazy people and another about male boding and PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

The second one is more interesting and potentially better. It almost stands on its own. It's not really part of the murder and the process the cops went through to solve it. (The resolution of the murder seemed anti-climatic to me.)

Because the male bonding/PTSD story is intertwined with the other, it's not really fleshed out, and Kellerman's take on male bonding seems superficial. In addition, the role of Rina Lazarus in this book could have been much more central if her own PTSD had been explored as much as that of her lover Peter Decker and that of Decker's Vietnam vet "buddy," Able Atwater.

I didn't like this one as much as The Burnt House. Maybe I enjoyed the novelty of my first Kellerman mystery. I'm not anxious to go seeking another. Enough's enough. Unless one of you has a specific recommendation.

01 October 2007

It's one LONG monologue

It was a quiet week in Lake Wobegon...

Like his other Lake Wobegon books, Pontoon, Garrison Keillor's latest one, is an expanded and complex version of his Saturday afternoon monlogues. I recall hearing the radio version of the last chapter on a Saturday afternoon awhile back. I wouldn't be surprised if other chapters were once complex stories told to a microphone on the stage of the Fitzgerald (or some other) Theater.

This book revolves around a woman who dies in the book's first paragraph.

Of course, Keillor has to tell the back stories and the stories of the dear departed and all the people connected to her. And for a small town, Lake Wobegon has a wide range of individualistic and truly wierd characters.

Some of the stories and characters ring true for their nïavité. Others are clearly just Keillor's imagination or childhood dreams. Just like in the little tales he weaves on the air.

If you enjoy the "News from Lake Wobegon," you'll probably enjoy reading an extended version of several of those episodes.

It's Barbara, the dead woman's daughter, who quits drinking and grows up in the end of the book. She reads an old letter from her mother before she sells her house and goes off for her life's adventure. The message is, "I miss you when I'm away... I miss you listening to me... You get old and you realize there are no answers, just stories. And how we love them...

"But then other people get hold of [our stories] and they kill [them]... I need to get away from the killers. Righteous people can be so cruel when they go after sinners and infidels, I just don't want to be around to see it...

"And then it's time to get in the car and go..."

And Barbara goes. The last sentence in the book is, "Night fell and Wisconsin passed in the dark, Chicago a distant glow in the sky, and the white stripes raced by, and the radio played one great song after another."

(If you didn't realize it sooner, that last phrase proves the book is fiction.)