26 September 2011

Surprise! Surprise!

My expectations for a good book are probably pretty low. I don't demand big truths like Barbara Kingsolver. I like a story well told. I want to read about characters who are more than marionettes or caricatures. I like realistic stories to remain realistic and for fantasy stories to make me wonder.

As I finished Case Histories while sitting in front of the little lake named Blake, I realized I'd gotten more than I expected from a good book. Kate Atkinson's book took me by surprise because I expected just another mystery novel. This one was more.

The story is well told, but it's told in little episodes from different points of view. Sometimes the episodes were only a paragraph long. Sometimes the voice telling the story switches from one character to another with little warning. As a reader I had to constantly be "on my toes" -- no groggy reading or skimming through this one.

The book begins with three tragic and horrific short stories set in 1970, 1979, and 1994. A child disappears, a young woman is murdered, and a girl runs away from neglectful grandparents after her father is killed by her mother. Gradually these disparate events begin to come together in the files and investigations of a private investigator in Cambridge (UK). Former police investigator Jackson Brodie is approached in the course of a few days by people involved in these three "cold cases" for help in resolving them.

There are two or three principals involved in each of the stories, and Brodie is an experienced investigator who asks good questions and has good instincts for evaluating the answers he gets. Most of the people he meets and talks to are interesting and complicated, and, as the story progresses, so is Brodie. Atkinson sends him off into very personal internal daydreams in the middle of interviews sometimes, and they are very revealing. As distracting as those were to me as a reader, they didn't seem to distract Brodie from his quest for more information. However, Brodie's past includes a couple horror stories as tragic as the ones he's investigating.

I thought that Atkinson's writing was so evocative of the characters' emotions that often I could only read short bits at a time. It's realism without improbabilities. Well, there's one big and one smaller improbability, but I can always let a remote coincidence or two slip by. Neither the story nor the characters depended upon the improbabilities.

Case Histories is the best book I read this summer. Since summer is officially over, that's a wrap.

So, who recommended Kate Atkinson? Come on, out with it. You deserve some credit somewhere in karma. Have you read Case Histories or another of Atkinson's novels? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it (them).

Jason Isaacs (actor who plays Jackson Brodie) interviews Kate Atkinson about the BBC adaptation of Case Histories

Trailer for the BBC series Case Histories

Teaser for the BBC series Case Histories

18 September 2011

Little Canadian treasure

I'm pretty sure I know how Still Life got on my "to read" list. It was one of those innocent-sounding questions that Dale Stahl asked at the end of one of his e-mails, "Have you ever read anything by Louise Penny?"

My answer was, "No," but based on his recommendation, I put her name on the list.

I'm really glad I did. Tana French probably puts extra efforts into the beginnings of her books and Louise Penny must put extra effort into dialogue that reveals characters. And she creates characters that are more than names and titles.

For example, her Inspector Gamache has to tell his wife that he can't attend his grand-niece's christening because there's been a murder.

The scene unfolds: "'Did you murder this person?' Reine-Marie asked her husband when [he] told her he wouldn't be at the two-hour service on hard benches in a strange church.

'If I did, I'll find out...'

'"I'll just tell them you're drunk, again,' she said when he asked whether her family would be disappointed he wasn't there.

'"Didn't you tell them I was in a treatment center last time I missed a family gathering?'

'Well, I guess it didn't work.'

'Very sad for you.'

'I'm a martyr to my husband,' said Reine-Marie, getting into the driver's seat. 'Be safe, dear heart,' she said..."

Penny doesn't have to say much more about that relationship later in the book. Similar exchanges illuminate other characters and relationships.

And there's a story -- a complicated plot. For a story set in a small Quebec town near the U.S. border, there are quite a few reasonable suspects for the murder of a beloved, retired school teacher. There's even that chance that the death was a hunting accident, which caused a frightened outsider to run away. If Penny's later books take place in the same little town, I'll begin to suspect the Cabot Cove ("Murder She Wrote") syndrome, and I'll be very disappointed.

Right now I'm very happy to have read Still Life. It seems obvious to me that Penny loves the place and characters she created. If she keeps Inspector Gamache and his assisstant Jean Guy Beauvior and sends them around Quebec, she can avoid creating a death trap village like the one Richard Levinson and William Link created for Angela Lansbury.

I highly recommend this one. Good characters, good story telling, no great gore, no sex (not even a kiss), few improbabilities, and no super heroism. Oh, and there are some literary references (Auden, Davidson, and Plessner) that are not out of place.

Have you read Still Life by Louise Penny or another of Penny's books? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of them.

15 September 2011

More on "cozies"

After disagreeing with Dan about Rhys Bowen and Molly Murphy mysteries, I discovered that the discussion group at Once Upon a Crime, a Minneapolis bookstore, was talking about Rhys Bowen last night.

I couldn't go because Nancy and I had made plans to go hear Laurie R. King at a Barnes and Noble near St. Paul. So I suggested to Dan that he might want to go.

Turns out he couldn't go either because he had tickets to hear Maria Muldaur. That turned into a digression about Muldaur (whose performances we both like) and about Pandora, which has become my primary music source.

This morning, after enjoying the presentation and reading by King, I found Laurie R. King's blog's hosting a guest blogger, Rhys Bowen!

Bowen and King, it turns out are good friends. And, as Bowen points out in the blog, they both write about women doing unusual things.

I pointed out the blog post to Dan, who wrote back,
Loved the blog--surprising connections.

What Rhys Bowen writes, about women doing things that people thought they couldn't or shouldn't, is exactly what the last two things I've written are really about: the Cokato [MN] girls playing basketball in the 1920s [the PDF version], and Amelia Earhart flying -- and consciously using her fame as a flyer to push for more opportunities for women and girls and to inspire them to grasp them.

On top of that, she makes reference to Amy Johnson (Britain's Amelia Earhart) whose biography I am currently reading. Almost weird. Thanks.

By the way, as I wrote earlier, if you didn't like Molly Murphy you would absolutely abhor Lady Georgiana. It is like going from Classic Comics to Archie and Jughead! But I love 'em. Unlucky you! 

Here are my clarifications:
  • I have no problem with women doing unconventional things. I have a problem with people doing the improbable and unlikely in fictional venues where most things seem realistic. (I like Lewis Carroll and Jasper Fforde.) My example: Bowen's Molly Murphy flees Ireland and arrives penny-less in Liverpool, where the police are looking for her. As she flees down an alley, she's pulled into an unmarked door. What greets her there? Murderous attackers? Dangerous delinquents? No. She is greeted by a woman who gives her a ticket to America so Molly can deliver two children to their father in New York. And the scheme, right out of an I Love Lucy episode, works.

  • It's not just improbabilities. Laurie R. King, who, by the way, called her Mary Russell books "cozies" last night, writes well and creates pretty believable characters. Once you get beyond the conceit of a recent Oxford grad becoming an investigatory partner to Sherlock Holmes, the rest works pretty well. It works because King describes fairly realistic characters, tells good stories, and invents good dialogue. Bowen often relies on the old standby, "and then a miracle happens" to her handsome and daring cutouts of characters. I think an author ought to offer something besides, "It'll all turn out right in the end."

  • An author ought to do more than write grammatically correct sentences and put events in chronological order. Laurie R. King might write "cozies," but she's only able to write one a year. Bowen writes 10-15 books a year. And no, she's not that more talented.
In a few days I'll finish another book and write about it here. It probably fits into the "cozy" category, but the author has a way with words and manages to create more than cardboard cutouts of characters. Just wait. You can join this discussion. Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

13 September 2011

Dan Conrad disagrees

This deserves more than relegation to a comment on my Rhys Bowen review. Dan wrote,

Hey, c'mon! You just trashed my favorite "sleuth!"

I've read 'em all and can hardly wait for the next! And if you think Molly Murphy is light, just try Rhys Bowen's "Royal Pain," etc. series featuring the 37th in line to the English throne--in the 1930s. They make the Molly Murphy stories seem positively Bergmanesque!

Here in this vale of tears. I like, from time to time, to turn to something lighter where you KNOW everything will turn out just "peachy-keen" in the end. Maybe it reflects the fact that I first learned to love reading by devouring comic books.

And, seeing the others on your "don't read" list I think now that I better check out M.C. Beaton and Ngaio Marsh as well. If I want something dark and heavy and thought-provoking I can always reread Hardy, Eliot, Woolfe or Brookner -- or go back to something profound like Elegance of the Hedgehog (also among those you have trashed).

We've been agreeing on too much--so about time we could argue a little!

I'll have to gather my thoughts for arguing. And I'll have to go back and see what I said about Elegance of the Hedgehog. Did I really trash it?

And I can hardly wait for your reactions to Beaton and Marsh.

I didn't know you were a closet "cozy" fan. Never had a hint.

12 September 2011


I ventured back to the Northfield library, "to read" list in hand. Well, actually, it was in my pocket.

I began near the top of the list. The name Rhys Bowen was near the top and incredibly handy on the library shelf. There were a number of books there by Bowen, and I pulled the first Molly Murphy mystery, Murphy's Law, off the shelf.

It's a lightweight. There are just barely over 200 pages, it's not much more than a paperback in size and weight. Unfortunately, it's a literary lightweight too.

It's set in turn of the 20th century New York, and the book jacket advertises Molly Murphy as a female detective. I was hoping for something akin to the better Maisie Dobbs stories. The story is akin to a comic book plot -- not even a graphic novel. It gets a whole slew of Heart of Gold improbability "awards." I couldn't begin to describe the improbabilities here.

I get impatient with Margaret Coel for writing so much romance novel into her mysteries. Murphy's Law seems to include a minor mystery as a framework for a THE BIG KISS scene. Not a sex scene, a kiss scene!

Give me a break!

On reading the St. Paul Pioneer Press on Sunday, I learned what I'd found in Bowen's book: a "cozy." Mary Ann Grossmann was writing about a self-published book she thought was wonderful and hoped it would help the author find a publisher. The author didn't know it, but with Grossmann's help learned he'd written a cozy. I didn't know what a cozy was, but I read one.

Too late, I read the back cover. The selected press blurbs (carefully chosen and edited, as we know, to present the book and the author in some desired light) would have warned me if I'd read them while standing in the library. Kirkus Reviews compares Rhys Bowen to M. C. Beaton. A Denver Post reviewer compares her to Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Beaton, Christie, and Marsh are all on my "don't read anymore" list. To top it off, someone at Publisher's Weekly says, "This mystery is sure to appeal to those who prefer old-fashioned , heartwarming stories to tawdry tales full of graphic sex and violence." That was written about a book published in 2001. Hey, I like my tawdry tales (to a degree).

So Bowen goes from my "to read" list to my "don't read anymore" list. Have you read any of Rhys Bowen's "mysteries?" How did you react to them? Write and tell this little bit of the world what you think.

08 September 2011

Betrayal of the reader

Dan Conrad also wrote about another gripe he has about some writers.
While I'm at it, I wish to raise another gripe of mine -- besides series of novels going on longer than they merit. That is when authors break a kind of pact I think they (should) have with readers.

The pact is that as readers we will more or less suspend disbelief and go along with the story, even enjoy being led astray as we go, but NOT be suddenly tricked in a kind of "Ha, Ha, I sure made an ass out of you" revelation in the last two pages.

I don't mean a solution to the mystery that you never suspected, but being told at the end that the whole thing was actually someone's nightmare, or the ravings of an inmate in an asylum, or the last thoughts (before the killer returns) of a murder victim who you have been continually led to believe was going to escape, etc.  

Two such that come to mind are Shutter Island by Dennis LeHane (& movie w/ Leaonard Decaprio) and the more recent Sister by first time author Rosamund Lupton. Both novels are exceptionally well written page turners which makes it doubly irritating to get to the ending which is a: "WHAM! Ha! Ha! Fooled Ya! -- Did you really believe that story? -- Well, maybe it happened as I told it--or maybe some of it, or maybe none. Now I can tell you that ya got all worked up over absolutely nothing. HA! HA! The jokes on you!"

Perhaps they think such an ending moves them out of the mystery genre (with its pact?) into something more Shakespearian in level of tragedy -- or something. 

Does this bother you? I know lots of people loved the two mentioned novels, so maybe I shouldn't be upset.

[Well, I'm the one going around giving negative awards for improbabilities and refusing to read books where I expect to see too many of them.

[I agree that an author who betrays readers is a jerk. I don't want to read about angels, miracles, protective spirits, and sprites unless I'm reading something that's obviously fantasy.

[What do you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world.]

Dan Conrad on Jacqueline Winspear

Dan wrote and I thought his comments deserved a couple posts rather than just a Comment on the blog entry.
My reaction to A Lesson In Secrets [Winspear's previous book] was that Jacqueline Winspear had finally run out of things for Maisie Dobbs to do that would last longer than a short story and filled in the rest with countless side stories that were neither very interesting nor in any way relevant to the main plot.

I wouldn't blame Sidetrack [the cabin] for making you doze off. You suggest the story lines are put in to be taken up in later novels. I hope not. When an author begins to write more about the personal lives of the characters -- main and otherwise -- than they do about the core story line I fear they are "running dry"on that series and should move on to something/someone else. Or quit trying to market the books as "mysteries."

Like The Help is, I think, a really great book to read with no mystery in there to move it along, just fascinating characters with interesting stories to tell.

07 September 2011

ála Stephen King

If Stephen King can make a classic car into an evil symbol, why not a snowman? Bill Watterson did just the opposite with snowmen in his comic strips. Jo Nesbø followed the Stephen King model in his 2010 book, The Snowman.
When I saw Nesbø's name on the shelf of new books, I recognized it. (That's the other reason I didn't need my "to read" list when I last went to the library.) Once again, I don't remember how Nesbø's fiction was recommended. Should I be keeping track of that too? Well, if you recommended this Norwegian writer, thank you.
The Snowman is a murder mystery focused on the search for "Norway's fist serial killer." According to a creepy Wikipedia article, there was one Norwegian serial killer, but nothing like the one in Nesbø's book.
The good guy in Nesbø's fiction is "antihero police investigator, Harry Hole," according to the book jacket. He gets a partner in this book who is a stunningly attractive young woman from across the Norwegian mountains (and cultural divide, evidently). There are several comments in the book about how the natives of Bergen are so different from the people of Oslo. Who knew that some Bergensians don't really think of Oslo as a capital city. Or that Oslo natives look down on people from Bergen. In spite of the prejudices in the Oslo cop shop, every male cop in the book except Hole drools over (and sometimes on) Katrine Bratt.
The killer the unlikely pair pursue seems to kill on the day of the first snowfall and builds a decidedly non-Watterson snowman at the site of the murder. As things progress, parts of the victims' bodies become parts of the nasty snowmen. (Maybe they were really snowwomen, since all but one victim was female. But Nesbø doesn't go there.)
The red herrings in the plot are good. At least twice I was tempted to think that Hole and Bratt had found the killer. But I could tell from the number of pages I hadn't read yet, that the story wasn't over. And the last line of the book suggests that the story isn't over yet. Look for a sequel.
I generally liked the book. Most of the story telling is good. The characters are interesting, although not as well-defined as I'd like them. But, there's too much story telling. I skimmed through the end of the book as Nesbø went on and on about the background of the killer. It was as though he'd gone to all the work of creating a back story and he couldn't leave it out of the book. I think he could have left it out.
Nesbø, who is described on the book jacket as "a musician, songwriter, economist, and author" has had three other books published in the USA. I think I'll keep his name on my "to read" list and look for another of his books someday. There's also a film based on his novel, Headhunters, that premiered in Norway and Germany this summer.
Have you read The Snowman or another of Nesbø's books? What did you think? Write and tell this little bit of the world about your reactions.
BTW: Does anybody know what the Scandinavian "ø" does to pronunciation? Or what it's purpose is? It's a pain to type on an English keyboard. Rather like the little circle above some vowels (å). That's a mystery to me as well.

06 September 2011

What's good?

While at the cabin called Sidetrack, I read both of the library books that I'd brought with me. There's an interesting library there of books we've finished at the cabin and left behind as reminders, but I wasn't interested in starting a major reading project. So I picked up Small Wonder by Barbara Kingsolver. It was (and still is) on the bedside stack of potential reading.

I only read a couple of the essays, but one of them addressed a topic that I've wondered about here, why do I like some books more than others. I do know that my state of mind has a lot to do with my affection for a book. But there are other reasons. For instance, I really do like a well-told story.

Here are a couple of Kingsolver's comments that had me shaking my head in agreement. They are from "What is a good story?" that she wrote about her experience editing a collection of short stories.

Her first answer sounds like a textbook declaration: "What makes writing good? That's easy: the lyrical description, the arresting metaphor, the dialogue that falls so true on the ear it breaks the heart, the plot that winds up exactly where it should."

A couple pages she later, she is more personal: Good writing, she says, "should pull off the successful execution of large truths delivered in tight spaces... It will tell me something remarkable, it will be beautifully executed, and it will be nested in truth..."

I'm not sure I demand "large truths," but the rest of what Kingsolver says sounds to me like a good beginning definition of good writing.

By the way, her praise for short stories, tempts me to look up the volume she edited and read some short stories. She wonders in her essay why people don't read much short fiction. I usually avoid it. I wonder why?

Do you read or avoid short stories? Why? Write and tell this little bit of the world.

It's Maisie again

I went back to the library, "to read" list in hand, but Ididn't really need it this time.

On the cart of recently returned books by the front desk was Jacqueline Winspear's A Lesson in Secrets. I don't know how Dan Conrad's request for this book from the Minneapolis Public Library is working its way up the waiting list, but Northfield's copy was just sitting on the cart waiting for me. I picked it up, checked it out, and never got 20 feet from the entrance. It was a satisfying and efficient trip to the library.

Sir Oswald Moseley, infamous for leading the British Union Of Fascists before
the second world war, figures indirectly in this story.

Reading A Lesson in Secrets was not as satisfying or as efficient. The book is once again full of fascinating details about fashion and technology of everyday life in London of 1932. There is a theme concerning the Crown's secret intelligence bureau and its focus on Bosheviks in Cambridge's colleges, while ignoring the growing influence of fascists and Nazis on campus. There's also a story about organized crime and a protection racket in London. In fact, there are many stories in this book. Too many by my lights.

Because there are so many stories here, none of them (not even the primary one) really get told well. There's the young widow that Maisie takes under her wing. There's Maisie's assistant Billy and his family. There's a story about Maisie's father, a widower for 20 years, and his new "girlfriend." There's Maisie's romance. And then there's Maisie's undercover job for Crown. Oh, and you might add that there's a story of Maisie's cover as a philosophy lecturer in a Cambridge college. (She's supposed to report on anything untoward she finds on campus.) There's also some of Maisie's reminiscences about her own student days in Cambridge. Well, you see the problem: how to tell all those stories in 321 pages. Winspear tries to do that and ends with, "Yes, time would give up her secrets. She just had to wait." Not great.

Those last lines affirm what I felt throughout the book. These are transitional stories. Most of them lead to future stories. The young widow, like Maisie, makes her way in the world. Billy and his family have a new baby and a brand new house with "an indoor lav." Maisie's father finds a boon companion for retirement. Maisie and her titled lover, in a romance novel, sort out how to merge their strong individual lives and compromise with the expectations of post-Victorian English high society. Maisie finds such satisfaction in teaching philosophy that she turns her detective agency over to Billy and the young widow while she commutes between her lover's London mansion, his family's estate in Kent, and her classrooms in Cambridge. And she probably takes on a few more undercover jobs for the crown while accompanying her lover (husband?) on his business trips around the world.

There are also some things missing. I just can't believe that Maisie's little MG roadster starts everytime she turns the key and it never breaks down or gets a flat tire. (MGs were not modern Toyotas.)

1930 MG like the one Maisie Dobbs drove.

How is it that Maisie and her friends never come in contact with the destitute and unemployed of 1932 England? I'm pretty certain that Winspear did the research, but were developers really building new, semi-detatched homes on the edge of London in '32? And then there's her lover's international business (and another character's global trading company). How was it that these companies were prosperous as the world's economies were falling apart?

So, I wasn't completely satisfied with the book. I wasn't efficient either. I kept falling asleep between chapters yesterday. There's something about being at the cabin called Sidetrack, looking at the lake, and doing bits and pieces of maintenance that are relaxing. And the relaxation led to several naps that interruupted my reading.

Check out A Lesson in Secrets for yourself. Then (or if you've already read it) write and tell this little bit of the world what you thought of it.