Sunday, January 5, 2020

The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence

I really enjoyed this atmospheric novel from the forties. Regan, whose mother has died only a month before, decides to visit her Uncle Hurst at his request, as both remember the simpatico relationship they had when she was a small child. But by the time Regan arrives at the Herald family mansion, Hurst is already dead and she is left to fend for herself among his family, his in-laws, and some household servants. At the same time, Regan gradually becomes aware that there is an event in her own past here that she's so far managed to suppress.

The creepy old house has an equally creepy bunch of inhabitants and I enjoyed Lawrence's skill at bringing them to life. Although Lawrence was an American writer and this story is set in a small town on the Eastern seaboard (I think), her characters remind me of certain eccentrics that spring up in British crime fiction--I'm thinking particularly of the earlier work of Margery Allingham.

Cousin May was old, Regan knew that. Older than Hurst, nearly seventy, she thought. But the white hair curled youthfully about her soft face , and foamed and frothed into curls around her jeweled ears. Her round cheeks quivered as she held out her hand.

Regan advanced, full of pity when she saw how each step forward robbed Cousin May without mercy. When she reached the outstretched hand she saw an old, old woman, hiding under a shell of pink powder.

Regan teams up with her considerably older cousin Fray, who does most of the real detective work in the story. But Regan's gradual and intuitive understanding of the situation felt convincing to me and I admired the way Lawrence was able to pull this off.

My copy of this book is an old Penguin Crime series book with the distinctive green spine. I was surprised that GoodReads doesn't offer that particular cover as a choice, as it must have been fairly common at one point.  And Lawrence herself seems a little hard to track down. She wrote other crime fiction, though not a lot, and you would think there would be more reviews and interviews from her day. In fact, the only Wikipedia article I found on her is in French.

I have to admit a particular pleasure in discovering a writer I like who is not currently much remembered. More than with such perennially popular writers as Christie or Sayers, I feel that, against all the odds, a talented author has managed to breach the chasm of time and speak to me directly.

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely FineEleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Perhaps because I entirely missed the epigraph, I mistook the tone of this book for awhile, thinking it was something along the lines of Bridget Jones or some of the other better written books in the genre that I still think of as Chick Lit. I found it engaging and funny, but I still wasn't sure why it had been recommended to our book group. However, once I realized that it had unsuspected depths, and was willing to treat openly of subjects like loneliness and shame, I was hooked. Its two main characters are each engaging in unique ways, and it highlights the importance of simple kindness in our lives in a way that makes us see this virtue with fresh eyes. Some of Eleanor's back story seemed a little obvious, but I'm not sure that the author was all that focused on some big reveal as much as just telling Eleanor's story.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2019

The ChainThe Chain by Adrian McKinty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McKinty's fans will notice that this book shares something in common with many of his other titles. He likes to figure out both plans of attack and plans of escape. He likes to think up situations that seem impossible to solve, and then solve them. In this story however, the villain seems to have come up with the perfect crime. How do you get someone to do the unthinkable? Get someone else to do the unthinkable to them first. In this case, the unthinkable is the kidnapping of a child. If your own child is abducted, how far will you go to get that child safely back?

"The Chain" as this fiendish strategem is called, seems to be unbreakable, and Rachel, our protagonist, is resourceful, but she's not a superhero. She goes to work to save her child, and in the process becomes part of the dark side herself. Although in the screenwriting world, this story is what would be called a 'high concept' work (and it does have 'movie' written all over it), it also takes some passing glances at the deeper sides of human nature and human meaning. What can it really mean to call oneself a good person when in reality we are all vulnerable and thus easily compromised?

In an afterword, McKinty refers back to the dark power chain letters had in the small northern Irish community of his childhood, where the danger of breaking the chain was taken more seriously than it was in, say, my youth. The author witnessed someone take it upon herself to break the chain and it made a lasting impression on him. I have no doubt that the power Rachel ultimately finds in herself derives in no small part from that woman.

One thing I miss in this novel is McKinty's trademark humor, as there is very little to laugh about here. But never fear. Word is that there's a new Sean Duffy coming out in the fall. Good time now then, to catch up on or reread that series.

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Sunday, January 20, 2019

From Cold War to Hot Peace: The Inside Story of Russia and AmericaFrom Cold War to Hot Peace: The Inside Story of Russia and America by Michael McFaul

I bought this book originally because at the time of its publication, Vladimir Putin had just suggested that Trump send McFaul over to Russia to be interrogated and Trump didn't immediately denounce this outrageous and frightening idea. I thought buying the book would be a good way to express solidarity with McFaul, but I didn't necessarily think I'd read a lot of it. I did read it through, though. It held my interest because McFaul writes from a unique viewpoint, having worked both in Washington DC as Obama's Russia expert, and then going on to become the U.S. ambassador to Russia. He worked with both the more moderate Medvedev and the autocratic Putin in their positions as Russian president. I have rarely been given such a clear glimpse into the way people inside government think about issues and how many factors come into play in trying to steer the right course, not always successfully.

Monday, January 7, 2019

The Indian Bride (Konrad Sejer, #5)The Indian Bride by Karin Fossum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A friend who always pointed reliably to good mysteries recommended this author and I believe even this book to me a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, I snagged a used copy of it, and it has been sitting on my shelf ever since. I threw it into my backpack as I headed out to the airport, but didn't manage to get too far into it on my holiday trip. Initially, I found its premise mildly interesting if somewhat unlikely--a reclusive middle-aged Norwegian man gets it into his head to go to India and find a wife. Surprisingly, he does.

In most cases, I think, this would continue as a cautionary tale about foolish schemes. It is a mystery novel, after all. But that is not where Fossum takes it. Instead she uses what happens to this particular marriage to paint a portrait of a small Norwegian village caught in its wake. My mild initial interest slowly turned into real absorption. I will definitely be reading more of Fossum.

Reposted from GoodReads. I'll add here that there was a nice coincidence while I was reading this book that I also happened upon Geoff Dyer's reflection on reading books that have been sitting on his shelf for too long--or so some might say. You can read it HERE.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Lu's Outing by John Lugo-Trebble

Lu's Outing
(My Good Reads review)

A short, charming coming of age story. Tired of being hassled in his Bronx school for being gay, Lu decides to skip it all for a day and heads downtown. He wanders into some of the well-known gay quarters of the city and gradually begins to find people who welcome him and see the world as he does. I found myself wishing that all lonely, outcast youth could find such a haven just by hopping on a train. And the heady, liberated feeling Lu has reminded me of a similar journey to the Castro that one of my friends described to me about first going to the Castro when he was a young man.

An additional strength of this book is that Lu is short for Luis, who comes from a Puerto Rican American neighborhood, as does the author. The book offers some nice glimpses into that culture and also shows what coming out in that context might be like, in both its strengths and obstacles.

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Saturday, August 4, 2018

Death al Fresco by Leslie Karst

Death al Fresco (A Sally Solari Mystery #3)
(My Good Reads review)

Purely by coincidence, I happened to read the third title in this Santa Cruz based series just after reading and reviewing the darker tinged Santa Cruz Noir anthology from Akashic Press. It makes a nice chaser. As with all good series, readers await each new volume not just for the crimes committed and solved, but to hang out with the characters some more. In this one, Sally Solari is helping her dad with a big sister cities event at his restaurant while trying to keep the head chef happy at the more upscale restaurant she inherited from her aunt. Of course a body turns up and Sally's natural curiosity kicks in, making the juggling act all that much harder.

Long time Santa Cruz resident Karst is great on the vibe of the place, this time especially focusing on the beach and wharf areas. This would be a great beach read for visitors--and locals too, for that matter.

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