Best mysteries 2016 part three: historical and hard to classify

January 19, 2017 at 9:33 pm (Best of 2016, Book review, books, Mystery fiction)

229d422a39fe588415a0ca5a5243b64d  51pwjlzbmgl-_sy346_ How is it  that I read only one historical mystery this year? I’m a great fan of historical fiction, so I can’t quite figure this out. Anyway, the book in question is The Lady Chapel by Candace Robb, Marge’s choice for our November Suspects discussion. This novel is the second in Robb’s Owen Archer series. I’d read the first, The Apothecary Rose, several years ago, when I needed a Middle Ages “fix.” It did the job admirably. I therefore had high hopes for The Lady Chapel and I”m glad to say those hopes were fulfilled. I’ve already downloaded the next book in the series, The Nun’s Tale. I look forward to reading it.
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Elizabeth Edmondson’s two entries in the series A Very English Mystery are a delight, tailor made for the Anglophiles among us. With their setting in the quintessential village of Selchester in the postwar years, the milieu is rife with rumor, scheming and gossip,  readily inviting comparison to the world of Miss Marple’s St. Mary Mead.

5128jcelhkl-_sy346_ 25686558  A Man of Some Repute combines the classic murder mystery formula with the intrigue of intelligence work. Thus there are twice as many secrets and intrigues for the varied cast of characters to contend with. What  fun! I’m still in the midst of reading A Question of Inheritance, but similar plot elements are already in play.

On the occasion of the 2014 Oxford Literary Festival, Elizabeth Edmondson penned a spirited defense of genre fiction.  Unfortunately, we’ve lost this gifted author: she passed away early last year.
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I continue to be a one-person Alexander McCall Smith Fan Club. This year I reread The Sunday Philosophy Club, Chris’s pick for the Usual Suspects. Once again, Once again, I reveled in this narrative. Isabel Dalhousie, with her love of art and music, and of the city of Edinburgh, and of deep thought and ethical conundrums – both fascinates and attracts me.

As always, McCall Smith’s writing is beautiful.

Although it was a pleasant spring evening, a stiff breeze had arisen and the clouds were scudding energetically across the sky, towards Norway. This was a northern light, the light of a city that belonged as much to the great, steely plains of the North Sea as it did to the soft hills of its hinterland. This was not Glasgow, with its soft, western light, and its proximity to Ireland and to the Gaeldom of the Highlands. This was a townscape raised in the teeth of cold winds from the east; a city of winding cobbled streets and haughty pillars; a city of dark nights and candlelight, and intellect.

Similar pleasures are to be found in The Novel Habit of Happiness, the latest full length entry in this series:

She looked at Jamie. “It may well be right to say that God doesn’t care. But…” She was not sure what she wanted to say about God. She thought that he might be there— embodied somehow in the perfection of the world, or in the sublime harmonies of a great work of music. Of course, if he was anywhere in music, she felt he was in the grave beauty of the motets of John Tavener, or in the more sublime passages of Bach. The architecture of such music was incompatible, Isabel thought, with a world that was meaningless.

Admittedly, the element of mystery tends to be at best tangential in these novels, but if you wish to spend time in the company of a woman whose restless personality is made up of equal parts intellect and passion – both, I would venture to say in prodigious amounts – then these books are for you.
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I started Mick Herron’s Slough House series with the second entry, Dead Lions. Would that I had started at the beginning. Stylishly crafted and hugely entertaining, these novels are part murder mystery, part espionage, and feature fiendishly ingenious plots. Moreover, the cast of characters is…well, read them and find out for yourself. Here are the first three: 51gwvmcgh-l-_sx328_bo120420300_  51j18zww78l-_sx327_bo104203200_ 2935845. The fourth is due out here late next month. Oh, do hurry up; I’m no end impatient! 30282181
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dacallsit candle  Finally, there’s my recent quirky predilection for Erle Stanley Gardners’s legal thrillers from the thirties. No, I don’t mean  the Perry Mason novels but rather a series featuring District Attorney Doug Selby. As the series commences, Selby has recently been swept into office on the promise of cleansing the office of a recently acquired taint of corruption. He’s young and green, but he’s got fire in the belly. I’m rooting for him – and for his friend, reporter Sylvia Martin.

So far, I’ve read the above two novels in the series. I look forward to reading more. From what I can tell, they’re out of print and not available as ebooks. However, the Bertha Cool and Donald Lam books, written by Gardner under the pseudonym A.A. Fair, have begun to appear courtesy of Hard Case Crime. I’ve already downloaded this one: cover_big

Erle Stanley Gardner eventually had to shutter his law practice in order to make room in his life for his writing compulsion. Have a look at his bibliography and you’ll understand why.

 

 

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This week

January 17, 2017 at 5:48 pm (Horses)

This week, I find that I am yearning for a manifestation of true greatness, untainted by…well, untainted by anything. I realized that I knew where to find it. It is here, in my favorite YouTube video:

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Best mysteries 2016 part two: psychological/domestic suspense and police procedurals

January 5, 2017 at 2:39 am (Best of 2016, books, Mystery fiction)

I wrote about the newly hot domestic suspense subgenre in a recent post. Admittedly I did not write at great length, the reason being that this is not my favorite area of crime fiction. That said, I really do want to single out these two titles to praise:

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What Was Mine seems to have come and gone in obscurity; You Will Know Me, on the other hand, has made quite a few Best of 2016 lists (such as this one from the Washington Post). In my view, both are excellent and provocative novels, good for book discussions – and possible film adaptation.

I had other good reading this year that more or less belongs in this category. Learning To Swim by Sara J. Henry, a book I’d never heard of, was Louise’s selection for the Suspects. Wilde Lake by Laura Lippman was a must-read for all of us who live in this area; it was filled with local references, including one to a street that I myself lived on for several years in the seventies. (Oh good grief; where has the time gone?) I have three – count ’em, three! – book discussions of Wilde Lake coming up this year. Unfortunately, as regards plotting and character development, this novel was not Lippman at her best. At least, that’s how it struck me. (You can read my review here.)

dark-corners-978150111422_hr  This was the year of saying farewell to the brilliant Ruth Rendell. Dark Corners, her last book, did not feature the now-retired Detective Inspector Reginald Wexford. I found it very satisfying, though not in the same league as A Fatal Inversion and A Judgement on Stone, two of the most devastating works of psychological suspense that I’ve ever read, or probably ever will read.

Some works of crime fiction combine elements of two subgenres in their narratives. I’m thinking in particular of psychological/domestic suspense and police procedural. Clare Macintosh’s I Let You Go is a good example of this. The book begins with an exceptionally tragic hit-and-run accident. The search for the perpetrator uncovers a whole host of secrets that the reader has had scant reason to suspect. And just a bit more than half way though this fairly long (384 pages in hardback) novel, there’s an completely unexpected plot twist that’s nothing short of mind-boggling – or at least, I found it so. 9781101987490

Most readers of I Let You Go were blown away by it. It received numerous rave reviews and won the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year Award, edging out some pretty stiff competition in the process.

Now, you are probably sensing the approach of a dissenting view. And here it is. Let me say first that after a false start, I found I Let You Go to be very nearly unputdownable. For such a plot-driven novel, the characters were well drawn. I cared what happened to them. This is especially true of Jenna Gray, the woman whose turbulent life is at the center of the narrative. And yet…

It seems to me that the problem with a book like this is that if word gets out prematurely about the plot twists – there were actually several – the element of suspense is compromised. An even more serious concern, for me at least, is that when I finished it, I felt that I’d been manipulated in a way that wasn’t entirely pleasant. Also, I found that in the aftermath of that completion, I was not left with very much. The Kirkus review of I Let You Go – a starred review –  concludes with the statement that “Mackintosh has written the kind of book that sticks in the reader’s mind well after the final sentence.” I’m afraid I did not share in that sensation. On the contrary, I felt as though I’d just gorged myself on a large helping of empty calories.

A really good police procedural, on the other hand, rarely leaves me feeling that way. And Peter Lovesey has never left me feeling that way. Instead, I devour his books with a mixture of delight, admiration, and total absorption. The 2016 entry in the Peter Diamond series, Another One Goes Tonight, was no exception. Lovesey was recently honored by his admiring colleagues with anthology produced in honor of his eightieth birthday. The collection was undertaken by the Detection Club and edited by Martin Edwards:  51tqvesvixl-_sx330_bo1204203200_

I finally caught up with Peter Robinson’s Children of the Revolution. 51pzwxh1abl-_sx331_bo1204203200_  It was a highly enjoyable read for procedural fans like myself. DCI Alan Banks is up to his old tricks, playing fast and loose with procedure, not to mention the repeated warnings from his superior officer,  in order to solve a mystery with roots – as is often the case with this series – in the past. What a pleasure it is to see the Banks novels going from strength to strength, starting with the first, Gallows View, from 1987. After we’d both read it, Marge (my “partner in crime” on the library staff) and I predicted a great future for this series. And we were right.

Up until now, I’ve had a lot of trouble figuring out what it was that people liked so much about Tana French’s Murder Squad series. I read Broken Harbor for the Suspects, and I would never have gotten through it without the aid of the recorded book. But the reviews for French’s latest, The Trespasser, lured me back. I decided to give it another shot. It worked! I loved the feisty protagonist Antoinette Conway, the depiction of her colleagues and her work environment, and above all her dogged determination in following a case in the opposite direction from where everyone else was headed and all the evidence seemed to lead. I also really appreciated the flashes of humor, which were at times rather acidic but welcome nonetheless.

I think I get it now.  29430013

Not done yet but must pause. Part three will cover historical mysteries (in lamentably short supply on my reading list), hard to classify titles, and my picks for the best of the best.

 

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Two videos of possible interest

December 31, 2016 at 9:54 pm (books, Mystery fiction)

I meant to embed these along with the comments on international crime novels in the post I just finished. From what I can  gather, Time Shift is a BBC series that covers a variety of topics. The first one is “Italian Noir;” the second is “Nordic Noir:”

 

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Best reading in 2016: Mysteries, part one: international and classic

December 31, 2016 at 8:42 pm (Best of 2016, Mystery fiction)

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Oh, boy,,,

Where crime fiction is concerned, it was a field of amazing richness this year, that is for sure. I decided that it would be easier if I begin by mentioning my favorites according to subgenre, wherever possible. So here goes:

International

I wrote about this group in a recent post, but somehow managed to cover only Nordic and French titles. And regarding the latter, I managed to omit one of my favorites in this category from this past year: The Bookseller by Mark Pryor.   This was Ann’s choice for the Usual Suspects – a very enjoyable novel, redolent of the sights and sounds of present day Paris. Also the protagonist takes a trip to Pau, a town in the Basque region. I’d never heard of it, but I immediately wanted to go there!

Here are five additional titles set outside the U.S. and the U.K. that I recommend:

The Unexpected Inheritance of Inspector Chopra by Vaseem Khan (India)

Hell Fire by Karin Fossum (Norway)

Too Close to the Edge by Pascal Garnier (France)

I Am Your Judge by Niele Neuhaus (Germany)

The Waters of Eternal Youth by Donna Leon (Venice, Italy)

Fatal Pursuit by Martin Walker (France)

Classics

The unexpected and welcome success of the British Library Crime Classics series has spurred an increased interest in Golden Age mysteries in general – at least, it has for This Reader. I wrote about this phenomenon in a recent post in a series on current trends in  crime fiction.

These are the three British Library Crime Classics that I read this year:

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The Secret of High Eldersham was a classic English village mystery, with more than a soupcon of the supernatural thrown in, plus a charming love story to sweeten the pot a bit more. Sergeant Cluff Stands Firm takes place in an even more insular community, with a stolid village policeman refusing to accept the prevailing view of a crime borne of a terrible transgression of trust.

In his introduction to this novel, Martin Edwards notes that Cluff  “…possesses a deep understanding of human nature, born of years of observing life in a small community at close quarters; in this respect, if in no others, he resembles Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple.” Edwards then points out that there’s yet another discernible influence at work in this  novel:

The storyline is strong, but this is not a whodunnit; Gil North’s focus is not on mystification for the sake of game-playing, but on the human condition. His work shows the influence of Georges Simenon, and his most famous character, Inspector Jules Maigret.

As much as I enjoyed these two novels, the third, The Murder of a Lady, is probably my favorite. It takes place in the Highlands of Scotland, and is both beautifully written and atmospheric in the extreme.

 51umejxh7el-_sx331_bo120403200_     The Beast in View was Frank’s choice for the Usual Suspects discussion. I’d long wanted to read Margaret Millar’s Edgar Award winner (1956). It proved to be a claustrophobic nightmare of suspense. And for those of you who love “a twist at the end,” this one’s got it – and it’s a corker!

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I wrote about the above two in the Book list for a Friend series of posts.   Do seek them out; both are excellent. And I don’t remember who first recommended Patricia Wentworth to me, but thank you, whoever you are. Wentworth is probably best remembered for her series featuring Maud Silver. As she sits placidly knitting a garment for a nephew while asking probing questions, Miss Silver is something of a dead ringer for Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple. The Clock Strikes Twelve is swiftly moving domestic suspense with bite. I’ve downloaded several more titles by Wentworth and look forward to reading them. 9780446349055-us-300

And finally, once more with feeling: thanks go to the Usual Suspects in general and to my friend Mary Michael in particular. Mike loves the classics, especially those written by the redoubtable Dorothy L. Sayers. Her choice this year was a title that many consider to be Sayers’s masterpiece: the-nine-tailors  This was my third encounter with this novel; I admire it more at each reading. This time I was especially struck by the insularity of Fenchurch St. Paul, and by the endearing presence of the Reverend Theodore Venables. His simple, albeit absentminded goodness acts as a powerful counterweight to the evil lurking just below the surface in this seemingly quiet village.

Reverend Venables is purportedly an homage to Sayers’s father Rev. Henry Sayers, who served as Rector of the Church of St. Mary, Bluntisham. Like Fenchurch St. Paul, Bluntisham is located  at the edge of fens whose flooding serves so memorably as the high dramatic climax of The Nine Tailors.

I strongly recommend the BBC’s 1974 dramatization of The Nine Tailors starring Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey.

Ian Carmichael, center, as Lord Peter, with Donald Eccles, left, as the Reverend Venables

Ian Carmichael, center, as Lord Peter, with Donald Eccles, left, as the Reverend Venables

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Sounds and images of the season

December 25, 2016 at 8:38 pm (Art, Christmas, Music)

Christmas music to accompany your viewing:

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Annnunciation, Domenico Beccafumi

 

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Ecce Ancilla Domini, Dante Gabriel Rosetti

 

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Annunciation, Bartolome Esteban Perez Murillo

 

Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli

Annunciation, Sandro Botticelli

 

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

The Annunciation, Henry Ossawa Tanner

 

Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli

Madonna of the Magnificat, Botticelli

 

Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgione

Adoration of the Shepherds, Giorgione

 

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, by Guido Reni

St. Joseph and the Christ Child, by Guido Reni

 

The Alba Madonna, Raphael

The Alba Madonna, Raphael

 

Kwanzaa

Kwanzaa

 

 

People Celebrating Kwanzaa

People Celebrating Kwanzaa

 

Child Lighting Hanukkah candles

Child Lighting Hanukkah candles

 

 

Rabbi with a Torah, Marc Chagall

Rabbi with a Torah, Marc Chagall

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa – Happy Everything, and Everyone.

 

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Best reading in 2016: Fiction, part one

December 24, 2016 at 2:13 am (Best of 2016, books)

As has been the case for This Reader for the past few years, the pickings in fiction were slim. I picked up several highly touted new titles, only to put them down, with a sigh of frustration. Nonetheless, there were several that made the grade.

41c7jxifffl-_sx336_bo1204203200_  The Swans of Fifth Avenue was a pleasant surprise. I wrote about it in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part One: Fiction.   As I recounted therein, I expected to dislike this book and wouldn’t even have picked it up were it not book club ‘assigned reading.’ At any rate, I was glad to have read it. It has a narrow focus: the female elite, or “swans,” as their friend and acolyte Truman Capote dubbed them, who dominated the social scene in mid-twentieth century Manhattan. But give author Melanie Benjamin her due: she really nailed the zeitgeist and its principle agents.

I was living in Manhattan with my family at this time – though mostly away at college – so I actually have some memory of the comings and goings and general notoriety generated by this wealthy and idle cohort. There was copious news coverage, never more so than for Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball. (Interestingly enough, on its fiftieth anniversary, this famous occasion has once again been deemed news worthy.)

The Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 28, 1966

The Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 28, 1966

Oh, and the discussion was excellent.

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With Dictator, Robert Harris concludes his trilogy based on the life of Cicero. As with Imperium and Conspirata, Harris has given us a riveting account of a complex, fascinating human being navigating his way through turbulent times.

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Where historical fiction is concerned, he has risen to the top of my list of favorite novelists. Hail Robert Harris!

41zo3etzpml-_sx336_bo1204203200_  I loved Ian McEwan’s wickedly witty Nutshell. Leave it to this inventive, amazingly gifted writer to turn an outrageous conceit like the premise of this novel into high art!

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Two short story collections won me over completely this year. The first, Tongues of Flame by Mary Ward Brown – known to her friends and neighbors in Alabama as “Mary T’ – was published in 1986. I first heard of this author from Paul Theroux in his superb book Deep South. Theroux himself had never heard of her until his travels in Alabama led him to  a meeting with her. Shortly before that meeting, he read  Brown’s stories for  the first time.

I told Mary T how pleased I was to meet her. As a short story writer she was the real thing, with a perceptive view of the South today. She wrote about the new tensions, her neighbors and her town, without affectation, in the clearest prose….

Her writing was direct, unaffected, unsentimental, and powerful for its simplicity and for its revealing the inner life of rural Alabama, the day-to-day, the provincial manners and pretensions, the conflicts racial and economic. No gothic, no dwarfs, no twelve-year-old wives, no idiots, no picturesque monstrosities, nothing that could be described as phantasmagoric.

(That last bit, an allusion to Faulkner, among others.)

In “The Amaryllis,” a retired judge, newly widowed, has been given this flower as a gift. Alone in the house, he is increasingly taken with the amaryllis’s showy, assertive beauty. As its blossoms strive toward full maturity, he finds himself yearning to share the sight with others.

He didn’t look at the amaryllis again until after supper, when he went up and turned on all the lights in the front of the house. He turned on crystal chandeliers, table lamps, all. In his mind’s eye he could see the house as it looked from the street, an 1850 colonial cottage in its original setting of trees and boxwoods, all lit up as though guests were expected….

In the handsome room, in artificial light, the amaryllis seemed to have taken on glamour, like a beautiful girl all dressed up for the evening. All dressed up and no place to go, he thought.

The strange thing was, he’d never “felt” anything for a plant before. On the contrary, he’d dismissed them all as more or less inanimate like potatoes and turnips, not animate in the way of cats and birds. He had bought dozen of hospital chrysanthemums, often delivering them himself in their foil wrapping and big bows, but they had seemed more artificial than real. The amaryllis was different, entirely. He liked just being with it. Because of its size, he supposed, it seemed to have individuality, and then he had watched it grow daily, with his naked eye. Looking at the blooms, he thought of words like pure and noble, and old lines of poetry like “Euclid alone has looked on Beauty bare.”

The other  collection is by Constance Fenimore Woolson. Written in the latter half of the 1800s, these stories have  been gathered together in a single volume entitled Miss Grief and Other Stories, edited by Anne Boyd Rioux, who has also penned a biography of this inexplicably forgotten author. I’ve written about Woolson and her immaculately crafted tales in a recent post. I’ll probably write about her again. I’ll certainly be reading the stories again.

In part two of Best Fiction Reads 2016, I’ll be discussing yet another gem by Alexander McCall Smith, and a highly original and immensely powerful novel by Argentine writer César Aira.

 

 

 

 

 

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Best Reading in 2016: Nonfiction, part two

December 18, 2016 at 8:36 pm (Best of 2016, Book review, books, Short stories)

[Click here for part one.]

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I always return to books about the classical world. This year I read three: Searching for Sappho: the lost songs and world of the first woman poet, by Philip Freeman; The Classical World: the foundations of the West and the enduring legacy of antiquity, by Nigel Spivey; and Dynasty: the rise and  fall of the House of Caesar, by Tom Holland. All excellent, highly readable, and recommended.
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978110947470  I must say, I found some fabulous images for the post I wrote  on A.S. Byatt’s Peacock & Vine. Have a look!
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Pursuits of both an intellectual and an amorous nature are gracefully intertwined in John Kaag’s American Philosophy: A Love Story.   51ek3onp4tl-_sy344_bo1204203200_    And in The Vanishing Velasquez, author Laura Cumming, motivated by the need to escape  the pain of a deep personal loss, embarks on an investigation into a fascinating mystery of the art world. vveljpg
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A Thousand Hills To Heaven by Josh Ruxin is a book I’d planned to read out of a sense of duty. But it turned out to be a joy and an inspiration. From the horrors of genocide, Rwanda is emerging as a country ready and eager to enter the modern world. Help from committed individuals like Josh and Alissa Ruxin combined with the resilience and resourcefulness of the native population is creating a wondrous new reality.  (Be sure to watch the video embedded in this post – it is heart-lifting.)hillstoheaven

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Finally, two biographies and one travel book – all three absolutely super.

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Andrea Wulf

516qbir3sul-_sx333_bo124203200_ It’s been a while since I read Andrea Wulf’s revelatory life of Alexander Von Humboldt. I can only say that while reading this book – mesmerized by it – the ‘new world’ of this brilliant scientist became my new world as well. I feel deeply grateful to Andrea Wulf for this gift. (Calling this work a “thrilling new biography,” the write-up in The New York Review of Books pretty much says it all.)
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“Erased from history: Too many women writers — like Constance Fenimore Woolson — are left to languish in moldy archives. What will it take to bring them back?”

Thus did Anne Boyd Rioux title an article she wrote for Salon earlier this year. Rioux herself has done yeoman work in restoring a worthy author to her rightful place in the history of American literature.

I began this particular reading adventure with the short stories featured in Miss Grief. Woolson was writing about post-Civil War American, in particular the Great Lakes Region and then the South. It seems to me that she was writing about people and places that had been overlooked by others. And having lived in both regions,  she wrote about them knowledgeably and beautifully.

The word “marsh” does not bring up a beautiful picture to the mind, and yet the reality was as beautiful as anything I have ever seen,— an enchanted land, whose memory haunts me as an idea unwritten, a melody unsung, a picture unpainted, haunts the artist, and will not away. On each side and in front, as far as the eye could reach, stretched the low green land which was yet no land, intersected by hundreds of channels, narrow and broad, whose waters were green as their shores. In and out, now running into each other for a moment, now setting off each for himself again, these many channels flowed along with a rippling current; zigzag as they were, they never seemed to loiter, but, as if knowing just where they were going and what they had to do, they found time to take their own pleasant roundabout way, visiting the secluded households of their friends the flags, who, poor souls, must always stay at home. These currents were as clear as crystal, and green as the water-grasses that fringed their miniature shores. The bristling reeds, like companies of free-lances, rode boldly out here and
there into the deeps, trying to conquer more territory for the grasses, but the currents were hard to conquer; they dismounted the free-lances, and flowed over their submerged heads; they beat them down with assaulting ripples; they broke their backs so effectually that the bravest had no spirit left, but trailed along, limp and bedraggled. And, if by chance the lances succeeded in stretching their forces across from one little shore to another, then the unconquered currents forced their way between the closely serried ranks of the enemy, and flowed on as gayly as ever, leaving the grasses sitting hopeless on the bank; for they needed solid ground for their delicate feet, these graceful ladies in green.

From “St. Clair Flats” in Castle Nowhere:Lake Country Sketches, 1875

At first, I thought Anne Boyd Rioux’s introduction to this volume would satisfy my curiosity about Constance Fenimore Woolson. Informative as it was, however, it proved inadequate, for this reader, at least. I decided to read Rioux’s full length biography of this unaccountably neglected writer. It proved fascinating. As with most really good biographies, it opened a window onto a whole period of history; namely, post-Civil War America and the European expatriate scene of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Born in New Hampshire in 1840, Woolson grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, where her family moved after the death of three of her sisters. Her father died in 1869, at which point she began publishing stories and essays in various magazines. She felt called to be a writer but money was also a very present problem.

As her story unfolds, Woolson’s life seems more  and more  poignant. Despite her obvious literary gifts, she had to struggle for recognition. She was befriended and aided by many, most notably Henry James. In fact, I ‘d heard of her previously through my reading about James. Her relationship with him is a very intriguing subject, one not easily resolved. I believe she was rather overshadowed by him; his attitude toward her authorial endeavors was distinctly ambivalent.

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Henry James and Constance Fenimore Woolson

Woolson endured a lifelong struggle with encroaching deafness. She never married, and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 53.

Reading these two books in tandem provided yet another example of the enriching experience of paired reading. Highly recommended, both for solitary readers and for book groups.
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Finally, there is Deep South. jacket-artwork-deepsouthThere are simply not enough superlatives in the language for me to summon up in praise of Paul Theroux’s marvelous travelogue. He himself did not indulge in such language, describing his experiences with the places and people of South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, and Arkansas in prose at once artless and powerful.

I just finished rereading Deep South in preparation for presenting it for a book group next month. At that time, I’ll write about it in more detail. Meanwhile I have already spoken of it, albeit briefly, in a post entitled Book list for a Friend, Part Two: Nonfiction.

In that same post, I wrote about some of the gorgeous art books that I’ve recently either acquired or obtained through interlibrary loan.  These have been a big part of my nonfiction immersion this year. This trend continues, with these two titles from the library:

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And finally, there’s this gift to myself, the Mother of All Art Books!

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If you happen to be in the market for a gift for an art lover, this weighty tome is brand new and really quite sensational.
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Meanwhile, I shall return, before too long, to Paul Theroux. In my opinion, with Deep South, he has written his masterwork.

 

 

 

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Best Reading in 2016: Nonfiction, part one: true crime

December 12, 2016 at 1:55 pm (Best of 2016, books, True crime)

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Okay, here goes:

I had a great reading year in nonfiction; in fact, it’s probably accurate to say that this is where most of my 2016 reading joy resided.

The true crime subgenre came through for me  as it almost always  does. In The Midnight Assassin, Skip Hollandsworth tells the harrowing story of a serial killer, all the while bringing late nineteenth Texas history vividly to life. Hollandsworth writes for Texas Monthly Magazine, which has for some time featured exceptional true crime reportage.

True Crime Addict differs from most books in this genre that I’ve heretofore read in that journalist James Renner’s obsession with the case of  young woman’s baffling disappearance results in his personal life becoming hopelessly entangled in the investigation.

In The Wicked Boy, Kate Summerscale once again proves herself a master of the true crime narrative. As with the award-winning Suspicions of Mr Whicher (2008), meticulous research combined with a compelling story results in yet another outstanding book. There are more questions than answers in The Wicked Boy, and there is one questions that, when all is said and done,  hangs over this whole affair of a misbegotten son and his fatally impulsive act: one of the profoundest questions we humans can ask of ourselves, or of one another.

In 2009, I chose The Suspicions of Mr Whicher to present to the Usual Suspects. In April of next year, I’ll be doing the same with The Wicked Boy. (I recommend Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, also by Kate Summerscale. Not exactly true crime, but the book provides a fascinating window onto the mores of Victorian Britain.) mrs-robinsonsdisgrace1

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Kate Summerscale

James Renner

James Renner

Skip Hollandsworth

Skip Hollandsworth

 

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Trends in crime fiction, part three: international, mainly Nordic and French

December 4, 2016 at 5:44 pm (Book review, books, Mystery fiction, Trends in crime fiction)

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This particular trend may not be as hot as it was in the heyday of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson (published posthumously in 2005), but it’s still with us. For one thing, we continue to be fairly inundated by the Scandinavians. My long running favorites among them are Karin Fossum of Norway and Kjell Eriksson of Sweden. Jo Nesbo, also of Norway, is a perennial favorite of many crime fiction readers.

Jo Nesbo

Jo Nesbo

Arnaldur Indridason

Arnaldur Indridason

Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Yrsa Sigurdardottir

Ragnar Jonasson

Ragnar Jonasson

Harri Nykanen

Harri Nykanen

Icelandic authors have been receiving favorable notices: Yrsa Sigurdardottir and Arnaldur Indridason.  And I’ve just learned of yet another from the  Summer/Fall 2016 issue of Deadly Pleasures Mystery Magazine: Ragnar Jonasson. Author of the Dark Iceland series – consisting so far of Snowblind and Nightblind – Mr. Jonasson is the recipient of the 2016 Mörda Dead Good Reader Award.

Currently I’m intrigued by a new (or newly translated) series written by Harri Nykänen. It’s set in Finland and features Inspector Ariel Kafka of the Violent Crime Unit; he’s identified by StopYoureKillingMe.com as “one of only two Jewish cops in the country.” Thus far, the first two series entries, Nights of Awe and Behind God’s Back, have been translated into English. I’ve just started Nights of Awe and it looks promising. Right off the bat it provides a vivid illustration of the challenges to English-speaking readers that can be posed by novels such as this:

Around eight I headed into town. I always took the same route: Fredrikinkatu to Iso Roobertinkatu, and once I hit Erottaja I headed past  the Swedish Theatre down Keskuskatu to Aleksi, where I jumped on a tram.

Well, I’m glad he caught that tram; the spell checker was about to have a breakdown!

Last year, the Usual Suspects Mystery Book Discussion Group focused mainly on international titles. As a result, we had some exceptionally good reading. My favorites were The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (Japan), Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson (Sweden), and A Possibility of Violence by D. A. Mishani. I’m especially eager to read Mishani’s next entry in the Avraham Avraham series. The title in the States is The Man Who Wanted To Know Everything; it was released in this countryr on November 8 of this year.

The international crime fiction scene can be roughly divided into two categories: novels in translation and novels written in English and set in a foreign land. With regard to this latter category, the author is often one who over the years has acquired a deep knowledge of the locale in which his or her stories unfold. My favorite example of this scenario is Martin Walker’s series, Bruno, Chief of Police. As each of these novels unfolds, the reader is transported to the beautiful Perigord region in the south of of France. france_map Indeed, while immersed in these delicious entertainments, I often give myself over to transports of delight: the scenery, the history – starting with the prehistory, the intriguing characters – oh, and the food!

The latest in the series is entitled Fatal Pursuit. As always, the communal life of the village is vividly depicted; it make one envious of what these people possess.

“Crepuscule, one of the loveliest words in our language, for one of the loveliest times of the day just as it gives way to night,” the baron said softly, gazing at the shifting planes of red and crimson light on the river. “Sitting here with wine and food and surrounded by friends as generations must have done before us in this very place, makes all the world’s troubles seem very far away.”

Immersed in the rich history of the region, the baron adds:

“Sometimes I imagine the prehistoric people sitting here on the riverbank, sharing their roast mammoth or whatever it was and watching the sun go down just like us.”

Concluding his reverie, the baron raises his glass in a toast: “‘I drink to them, whoever they were’.”

The baron has been conversing with Bruno, who knows hinself to be lucky to work and live in this caring and vibrant community. Among his many tasks, he’s in the process of training up  his basset puppy, the wonderfully named Balzac, to hunt for black truffles, the diamonds of the Perigord.

Young as he was, Balzac seemed fearless, ready to chase away even a big fox. Feeling a sudden burst of affection, Bruno knelt down to stroke him and tell him what a fine hunting dog he would be.

A scene that encapsulated in a nutshell why I love both Bruno and Balzac.

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Martin Walker

Martin Walker

With regard to French crime fiction: on the other hand…

Pascal Garnier’s Too Close to the Edge opens with a sympathetic portrait of a recently widowed woman in her sixties. Eliette Velard finds herself unexpectedly alone in the country house in which she and her husband had planned to live for the duration of his retirement years. She is melancholy but determined to make something meaningful of the years remaining to her. The pace of novel’s plot is at first quite leisurely, with Eliette meticulously preparing a jardiniere, a dish of thickly cut fresh vegetables. Cooking is followed by eating, which in turn is  followed by a nap. Meanwhile, the nature of the countryside exerts its beneficent influence:

By the time she woke up, the rain had stopped. A baby-blue sky extended as far as the eye could see. There was a smell of washing powder in the air, of sheets drying on the breeze. In the garden the bay leaves were fringed with water, each droplet holding a ray of sunshine within it. All around, the mountains were steaming, streaked ochre and purple and foaming minty green to freshen the wind’s breath.

Oh, good, I thought: a slow-paced, reflective character study with, as Dorothy L. Sayers would say, ‘detective interruptions.’

Boy, was I wrong! First, there’s the apparition of sudden passion, followed by a neighbor gone inexplicably rogue, and…well, I invite you to read it and find out for yourself (available as a Kindle download for $8.99).

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Pascal Garnier 1949-2010

Pascal Garnier  1949-2010

Of course, we cannot leave the subject of crime fiction in La Belle France without a nod and a salute to Georges Simenon. I’ve read and liked several of the so-called romans durs – Monsieur Monde Vanishes, Act of Passion – but the go-to books for me are the Maigret titles. I find it oddly consoling to spend time with L’Inspecteur and his team, all steady workers not prone to hysterics or high drama. And then there’s Madame Maigret, so low key she is almost no key, cooking and cleaning in their apartment on Boulevard Richard le Noir, cosseting her husband as if he were the child they never had.

Penguin’s reissues of these treasures, with newly commissioned translations, continue to appear with gratifying regularity. The latest one I’ve read is Maigret Gets Angry (Maigret Se Fâche), translated by Roz Schwartz. 51zl2cs3lnl-_sx323_bo1204203200_ Somewhat to my surprise, I found myself in Meung-sur-Loire, at the Maigret’s country house, where they’ve begun spending summers since his recent retirement.

It was cool inside the house, where there was a pleasant smell of wax polish, cut hay, ripening fruit and food simmering on the stove. It had taken Maigret fifty years to rediscover that smell, the smell of his childhood, of his parents’ house.

Inevitably, as with so many fictional detectives, retirement proves temporary. Maigret is soon summoned back into the thick of things, this time with a troubled family where death has paid a highly suspicious call.

I’ve only skimmed the surface of this subject in this post. The most comprehensive list of international crime fiction that I know of can be found on the StopYoureKillingMe site. Similar information can be found on Eurocrime. For several years now I’ve enjoyed G.J. Demko’s Landscapes in Crime. Demko, Emeritus Professor of Geography at Dartmouth, passed away in 2014; nevertheless, his site is still accessible online and is well worth visiting.

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