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After Arthur

buriedCamelot, it’s not. The Dark Ages shadow the setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s curious new novel, The Buried Giant (Knopf, digital galley), a fable of sixth-century Britain and of myth and memory. The Romans are long gone, King Arthur is dead, and Britons and Saxons share a gloomy land of forest and fens where ogres roam and pixies lurk. A mysterious mist acts like a collective amnesia, shrouding the countryside and whispering rumors of the she-dragon Querig.

Out of this fog emerge a long-married, elderly couple, Axl and Beatrice, tender with one another and their frailties. They have vague memories of a long-lost son, and after their hill-warren neighbors take away their single candle, they decide to visit him in his village several days away. Beatrice also seeks help for a nagging pain in her side and wants to learn more of the mist that melts memories good and bad. She has heard of a ferryman who won’t let them cross a river together without questioning their mutual devotion. What if she cannot remember all the intimacies of their life and they are separated?

But Axl, who sometimes recalls flashes of a time when he was perhaps a soldier in the bloody wars against the Saxons, is wary. “Promise, princess, you’ll not forget what you feel in your heart for me at this moment. For what good’s a memory returning from the mist if it’s only to push away another?”

This being a quest tale of sorts, Axl and Beatrice face challenges, be it crossing a bridge or staying overnight in an isolated monastery. They also take on traveling companions — Wistan, a tall Saxon warrior; Edward, an outcast orphan who carries the scar of a creature’s bite; and ancient Sir Gawain, nephew of Arthur, clad in rusted armor and riding an aged, swaybacked steed. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain guard secrets from the past and are concerned with the whereabouts of Quering. A showdown is inevitable.

Ishiguro adopts a mannered, controlled narrative style to suit his subject, but the first part of the book is slowed by tedious, repetitive dialogue as the characters search their memories. Both Wistan and Sir Gawain find Axl’s face familiar from a distant past. Beatrice frets about the future and the ferryman. Too often, explication substitutes for drama, the action happening offstage, as when Wistan escapes from a burning tower that traps the sword-wielding soldiers intent on his death. Ishiguro describes an attack by the grasping pixies in the same even tone as he depicts a grass-munching goat tethered on a hillside as dragon bait. Symbols abound, drawn from history and legend, and allegory is implicit.

Still, the writing can be exquisite. Sir Gawain’s wistful reveries echo with yearning. Taken as a whole, the story is artful, and the ending, although expected, still devastates.

The Buried Giant may be a departure in genre for Ishiguro, but the themes of memory, identity, guilt and forgiveness are familiar from such past works as Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans. For what are we if not our memories, our stories?

 

Murder in mind

hushPrivate investigator Tess Monaghan was once dubbed “an accidental detective” by the Baltimore paper where she had worked as a reporter. Now, in Laura Lippman’s 12th book in the award-winning series, Hush Hush (Morrow, digital galley and ARC), Tess is a seasoned pro at the detective stuff but worries she’s “an accidental mother.” She adores her willful three-year-old Carla Scout but thinks her parenting skills aren’t as good as her boyfriend Crow’s. She’s also still figuring out the balancing act between family and work.

Both Tess’s vulnerabilities and strengths as a mom are integral to Hush Hush as she reluctantly takes on Melisandre Harris Dawes as a client. More than a decade ago, Melisandre left her infant daughter to die in a locked car but was eventually found not guilty by reason of insanity, specifically postpartum psychosis. She then gave up custody of her two other daughters to her ex-husband and moved  to Europe. Now, however, the wealthy Melisandre is back in Baltimore with a documentary filmmaker and plans to reunite with her estranged teenagers, 17-year-old Alanna and 15-year-old Ruby. Tess and her new partner, Sandy Sanchez, are hired to assess her security. Death threats, a poisoning incident and a murder further involve Tess in the case of the manipulative mother, as does a stalker who knows way too much about Tess and Carla Scout.

Lippman cleverly shifts perspectives among the major players and includes revealing transcripts from interviews for the documentary. And as in previous Tess books (The Sugar House) and stand-alones (Every Secret Thing), she proves once again how well she knows the wiles and worries of teenage girls. Alanna and Ruby, living with their father and his  new wife and baby son, are a tangle of mixed emotions as they react to the prospect of  their mother’s return. Lippman also portrays the relationship between Tess and Carla Scout with a sure hand, as when the toddler throws a tantrum in the supermarket or berates her mother for saying a bad word. These interactions don’t distract from the story but enhance it, and it’s no accident that clues to its serious puzzles are found in the color of crayons, worn children’s books and the trans fat content of certain name-brand cookies.

carrierSophie Hannah’s domestic suspense procedurals feature married British cops Charlie Zailer and Simon Waterhouse. But the duo is almost lost in the byzantine plots of The Carrier (Putnam/Penguin, digital galley), and they’re overshadowed by the unpleasantness of the other characters, all of whom are caught up in dysfunctional relationships of one kind or another.

Where to begin? Hannah starts off with smart, sophisticated tech developer Gaby having to endure the company of provincial, grammar-deficient Lauren after their flight from Germany to England is canceled by bad weather. But when Lauren lets slip something about an innocent man in prison for murder and then flees their grimy airport hotel, Gaby begins to suspect that meeting Lauren is no accident. The innocent man turns out to be Gaby’s lost love Tim, who has confessed to killing his invalid wife Francine but won’t say why. Gaby, who has been living with another man, is so certain Tim is lying that she walks out on her current lover and inserts herself into the investigation. Simon and Charlie are also perplexed by the “Don’t Know Why Killer,” even though Tim’s confession is backed up by his best friends, as well as by Lauren, who is Francine’s caregiver, and her thuggish husband.

Complicated enough for you? Now consider that victim Francine was a thoroughly despicable woman who separated poetry-loving Tim from Gaby and trapped him in a loveless marriage. Why he stayed with her is a puzzle to everyone. Several kinds of crazy are apparently at work here because supposedly brilliant people like Gaby and Tim behave stupidly.

Hannah is relentless in mining everyone’s motives and mindsets, and fans who stick with the story will be rewarded with a conclusion that makes sense in retrospect. I think.

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A blizzard of books

firstfrostMy friends in Massachusetts and Maine are snowed in this Valentine’s Day. I hope they have lots of good books to keep them company. Here in Florida, I’m snowed under with books — library books, review copies, digital galleys, recent gifts, new purchases. Call it book love in a warm climate.

The only problem is finding enough time to read and write. So I’m going to let the writing part go for a few more days, but here’s a  glimpse of what I’ve read and what I’m reading in the meantime. Let it snow . . . books, that is.

 

 

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In this house

spoolThe Whitshank home on Baltimore’s Bouton Road is a clapboard family house, “plain-faced and comfortable .  . . Tall sash windows, a fieldstone chimney, a fanlight over the door. But best of all, that porch: that wonderful full-length porch.”

This house is at the heart of Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread (Knopf, e-galley), a novel as comfortable and welcoming as that gigantic porch. With characteristic ease, Tyler draws readers in to meet the Whitshank clan, which like all families, thinks itself special, spinning its own mythology out of shared history and stories. One story is how Junior, a self-made contractor out of the West Virginia mountains, built the house for another family in the mid-1930s but eventually moved into it with wife Linnie Mae, daughter Merrick and son Red. Another concerns how Merrick schemed to get away from the house by stealing another girl’s rich boyfriend.

Tyler assures us the Whitshanks are ordinary folk. Their talent for pretending everything is fine isn’t just a quirk. “Maybe it was just further proof that the Whitshanks were not remarkable in any way whatsoever.”

Methinks Tyler doth protest too much. Tyler has made a career — this is her 20th novel — of illuminating the ordinary so it becomes extraordinary. Her characters both charm and exasperate with their mild eccentricities as they negotiate domestic life, which Tyler depicts as both rich and interesting. Readers will recognize the familiar territory, relish the generous details. Here is Breathing Lessons grown old.

The book is divided into four parts. The first introduces the present-day Whitshanks. Laconic Red and effusive Abby are in their 70s, and their four grown children can no longer pretend that everything is fine at the house on Bouton Road. Red has slowed down significantly since a recent heart attack, and Abby has memory slips. Daughters Amanda and Jeannie, both married to men named Hugh, concur with youngest son Stem that he and his family will move in to look after Red and Abby. Then prodigal slacker son Denny, who has dropped in and out of family life for years, moves home, announcing that he will take care of things and why does everyone think he is unreliable, anyway? The list is so long as to afford chuckles if not for the long-held rivalries and secrets bubbling to the surface. An accident changes everything, and the Whitshanks begin to unravel.

Tyler abruptly time-shifts to July of 1959 and “the beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green morning” when teens Abby and Red begin their courtship at the Whitshank house. The family is preparing for Merrick’s wedding, and as Abby helps usually quiet Linnie Mae in the kitchen, she learns a surprising fact about her future in-laws. It’s a hint of what’s to come in part three, another extended flashback, this time to Junior and Linnie Mae’s early days in Baltimore. Fascinating stuff, and it goes a long way toward explaining Junior’s attachment to the house.

In the end, Tyler returns to present-day, tying up loose ends at the Whitshank house. It’s almost Halloween so the porch is decorated, as always, with a row of six ghosts made of rubber balls tied up in gauzy white cheesecloth that wafts in the breeze. “The whole front of the house took on a misty, floating look.”

It’s one of those indelible images that Tyler is so good with. Another finds the Whitshanks on their annual trip to the beach, where they observe the next-door neighbors year after year and how they change as time marches on. Abby has yet to venture into the water this vacation. “In her skirted pink swimsuit, her plump shoulders glistening with suntan lotion and her legs lightly dusted with sand, she looked something like a cupcake.”

And then there’s Junior, who, after he finally gets the house of his dreams, starts beginning every sentence with “In this house.”

“In this house they never went barefoot, in this house they wore their good clothes to ride the streetcar downtown, in this house they attended St. David’s Episcopal Church every Sunday rain or shine, even though the Whitshanks could not have possibly started out Episcopalian. So ‘this house’ really meant ‘this family,’ it seemed. The two were one and the same.”

 

 

 

Reading party

readingwomanWhen I first read in British novels about Oxbridge students’ reading parties, I was disappointed that they were really talking about study groups. “Reading party” sounds much more elegant, with everyone sitting around comfortably, inside or out, sipping an appropriate beverage, communing with their book of choice. My vision is no doubt influenced by the beautiful paintings reproduced in The Reading Woman calendar, which I gave my mother for Christmas.

I thought about reading parties when I heard that that this Saturday has been designated National Readathon Day by the National Book Foundation, with fundraising activities going on at bookstores, libraries, schools and universities across the country. The hosts are providing quiet areas where participants are asked to read from noon to 4 p.m. Oh my — what punishment! Please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch!

Still, four hours of non-interrupted reading time seems quite lovely, even for people like me who read like we breathe. A readathon sounds too much like work, though, or that you have to read while walking on a treadmill. So I’m planning my own reading party for Saturday afternoon, when I hope to make a dent in my towering TBR stack. Maybe I’ll invite some friends to join me. I have comfy chairs and, goodness knows, I have books, including these two involving novels.

traingirlThe hype regarding Paula Hawkins’  The Girl on the Train (Riverhead/Penguin, purchased e-book) is mostly well-deserved. It’s fast-paced, well-written psychological suspense with three unreliable narrators — hence the comparisons to Gone Girl — but I saw its twists coming, and you will, too, if you know your Hitchcock films and Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine books.

The titular narrator, Rachel Watson, is a mess: lonely, alcoholic, divorced, still in love with her ex, Tom. Although she was fired from her London job months ago, she still travels back and forth from the suburbs to London on the train, passing her old home where she sometimes sees her husband’s new wife Anna and baby. Just down the street are a golden couple that she imagines are everything she has lost, but her fantasies are shattered when she sees the pretty blonde wife kissing a dark, handsome stranger. Rachel’s drink-fortified decision to see what’s going on results in her waking the next morning with no memory of the night before, only to hear the news that the blonde woman, Megan, has gone missing. Megan is the book’s second narrator, and Anna is the third. Hawkins neatly splices their stories together, time-shifting so as to increase the suspense, piecing out what everyone is up to before and after Megan’s disappearance. Rachel, in hopes of recovering her memory, inserts herself into the investigation, which brings her into contact with the police, Megan’s husband Scott, a mysterious man who keeps showing up on the train, as well as Tom and Anna, who want no part of her. Rachel is undeterred.

“I feel like I’m part of this mystery, I’m connected,” she thinks to herself. “I am no longer just a girl on the train, going back and forth without point or purpose. I want Megan to turn up safe and sound. I do. Just not quite yet.”

pariswinterUnlike Hawkins’ tale, which hooks you from the first page, Imogen Robertson’s historical thriller The Paris Winter (St. Martin’s Press, paperback ARC) takes awhile to build up a head of steam. Young Englishwoman Maud Heighton is having a tough time in 1909 Paris as she struggles to pay the fees at a school for women artists. Her paintings won’t feed or clothe her during the coming winter, but she is befriended by the model Yvette and fellow student, Tanya, a Russian heiress. They direct her to a charity that helps her find a job with a French gentleman, Christian Morel, who needs a companion for his fragile sister, Sylvie. All is more than well, even after Maud discovers that Sylvie is addicted to opium, and she vows to keep the Morels’ secret while Sylvie tries to wean herself from the drug. But the Morels are playing a long game, and Maud becomes a pawn in a plot involving stolen jewels, secret identities and murder.

If the book’s first half is a leisurely stroll through belle epoque Paris, the second half is an action-packed adventure when Tanya and Yvette again come to Maud’s aid. As floods threaten to engulf the city, the three friends seek revenge in a fight for their futures. Hawkins is very good at evoking both the romance and squalor of the City of Light’s dark side.

 

Funny peculiar

bleedingheartArthur Bryant and John May of London’s Peculiar Crimes Unit are Golden Age detectives untarnished by the modern era. Irascible Bryant, who looks like an ancient tortoise, is especially disdainful of modern technology; voodoo makes more sense to him than cell phones. Wily John May is somewhat younger and less fusty but knows his partner’s instincts and esoteric knowledge are invaluable. Still, the elderly duo are under pressure again from the higher-ups to prove their relevance or risk defunding. But, seriously, who else are you going to call when a star-gazing teen in a cemetery swears a corpse has arisen from its grave and started a conversation? Or when seven ravens vanish from the Tower of London, and mythology has it that their departure signals Britain’s downfall?

These two cases surprisingly intersect in Christopher Fowler’s Bryant and May and the Bleeding Heart (Bantam/Random House, library hardcover), the delightful 11th installment in the entertaining series. A murder and a presumed suicide lead the detectives to St. Georges Gardens, a small park with ancient graves and a few spaces reserved for new residents. From there it’s a hop and skip to the local undertaker, rumors of black magic, a secret society and the reappearance of the Victorian-era body-snatchers known as the resurrection men. One of the series’ ongoing pleasures, in addition to its endearingly eccentric protagonists, is the way in which Fowler incorporates arcane bits of London history into his clever, convoluted plots. Here we get the chilling legend of Bleeding Heart Yard. Shiver. . .

chimneyA mummified body falling out of a bedroom chimney heralds 12-year-old Flavia de Luce’s arrival at a Canadian boarding school — Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy — in 1951. The precocious sleuth could hardly ask for more from her late mother Harriet’s alma mater after being “banished” from her beloved Buckshaw home in England. “Banished!” Flavia intones at the beginning of Alan Bradley’s As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust (Delacorte Press, digital galley). “There is no sadder word in the English language. The very sound of it — like echoing iron gates crashing closed behind you; like steel  bolts being shot shut — makes your hair stand on end, doesn’t it?”

It takes a lot to unnerve the irrepressible Flavia, as readers of the six previous mysteries well know, so even the dislodging of the aforementioned corpse and the subsequent detachment of its skull only serve to intrigue her, as do the presence of an an acquitted murderess on the faculty and the mysterious disappearance of several fellow students. Is Miss Bodycote’s haunted? Is the stern headmistress friend or foe? Is the locked chemistry lab hiding dark secrets? Flavia is on the case in one of her most appealing adventures yet.

foxgloveBen Aaronovitch is a former screenwriter for Doctor Who, which helps explain his wild and witty paranormal police procedurals featuring detective Peter Grant.  The matter-of-fact manifestation of magic in everyday life came as a surprise to the young police constable in the first book in the series, Midnight Riot. But by now, in the fifth book, Foxglove Summer (DAW, purchased e-book), Grant is a semi-experienced junior wizard, dispatched by his mentor Nightingale to check out a missing persons case in rural Hertfordshire.

Two girls — best friends Nicole and Hannah — have vanished on a moonlit night, and Grant’s supposed to make sure nothing supernatural is involved. Purely routine, until it isn’t, with a mention that one of the girls had an “imaginary friend.” Before long, Grant is researching local folklore as to fairies, while the locals hone in on alien abductions. A retired wizard turns out to live in the vicinity, and there’s certainly something odd about his beekeeper daughter, who reports her bees are avoiding a certain part of the river. The foxgloves — source of digitalis — are blooming profusely. It’s a mash-up midsummer night’s dream of a mystery, and I couldn’t stop reading. Or grinning.

Downton time

summersdayCousin Gail and I are prepping for the fifth season of Downton Abbey, which begins its American run tonight on PBS’s Masterpiece Classic. We’re planning to watch the last episode of season four first and have a cup of official Downton Abbey tea, which I ordered from PBS as a holiday gift. As we all know, the popular series has created a cottage — or better yet, castle — industry of related products, including jewelry, books and even a board game. (I’ll let you know how the latter plays out.)

I generally write a post about the new or re-released books evoking the Downton era, but I haven’t read anything recently not previously mentioned. It being a century now since the Great War, there are a lot of World War I books to read and savor, new and old. My favorite nonfiction chronicles are Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August and Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory. Favorite novels include Philip Rock’s The Passing Bells, Robert Goddard’s In Pale Battalions and Charles Todd’s Bess Crawford series about a British nurse.

Before Todd — a mother-and-son writing team — came up with Bess, they introduced Inspector Ian Rutledge, a Scotland Yard detective literally haunted by his World War I experiences. Through 17 books, Rutledge, with the ghost of the soldier Hamish whispering in his ear, has investigated murders in England and Scotland, many of which are rooted in wartime. A Test of Wills begins the series, and the second, Wings of Fire, is even better, as Rutledge confronts the sudden deaths of three members of a prominent Cornwall family with a tragic history.

Now comes a treat for Rutledge fans, A Fine Summer’s Day (Morrow, digital galley and ARC), a prequel to the series set in the golden summer of 1914. Rutledge is planning to propose to his sweetheart Jean even as an assassin’s bullet kills the Archduke in faraway Sarajevo. As rumors of war begin to swirl, Rutledge is called on to investigate a series of seemingly disconnected murders. Knowing what lies ahead for Rutledge — and England — gives the twisty plot a special poignancy. Everything changed on that one day, and the reverberations are still being felt a decade later as Downton Abbey’s characters carry on, a new world in the making.

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