reading notes

25 08 2009

I’ve been meaning to review my last three reads for at least a week and a half, and even though it feels like I’m on the computer most of the day, I haven’t got around to blogging at all.  Since the books aren’t fresh in my memory, I’m not going to do them the disservice of reviewing them, but instead just note my overall impressions.

First, The Blue Notebook by James A. Levine.  This is the most difficult book I’ve ever read, I think, the crimes in it so horrific, and even though there is hope in the act of writing, in the act of telling and witnessing, I found it a very difficult book to finish reading.

The next book I finished was The Taste of Sorrow.  I really enjoyed this tale of the Brontës and it confirmed for me that I relate very much to Charlotte (which I’d guessed at many years ago when I read Villette).  I felt very much with the characters and there was an immediacy to the text that really seemed to suit the story and the characters.

Finally, I finally read The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.  It had been on the TBR pile much longer than I thought it had.  When I opened up the cover and discovered it had been given to me in 2002, I couldn’t believe how much time had passed.  I remember wanting to read it when it first came out, but not being sure if I was in the right head space for it, and that’s why I kept putting it off.  I found it an interesting read, and the focus different than I expected.  I’m interested to see the film adaptation when it comes out.

Next up: The Electric Michelangelo by Sarah Hall.


reviews: an incomplete revenge and among the mad

26 07 2009

Two more Maisie Dobbs finished: An Incomplete Revenge and Among the Mad.  In An Incomplete Revenge, Maisie is asked by James Compton to investigate some acts of vandalism on an estate in Kent that he is interested in purchasing.  Her assistant, Billy, is already heading to the area for the annual hop picking with his family.  What seems like a simple inquiry becomes more complicated as Maisie learns of yearly fires in the town – incidents that she ties to a family that were killed by a Zepplin raid during the war.  More of Maisie’s history is also brought out in this volume, as Winspear reveals that Maisie’s grandmother was a gypsy and Maisie reconnects with their culture during the course of her investigation.  The central mystery was very powerful, just as it was in Messanger in Truth, though to me, I felt those that were guilty were not punished sufficiently, and that made the ending a bit disappointing for me.

Among the Mad struck me as quite different from the other Maisie Dobbs novels I’ve read.  It begins with Maisie and Billy witnessing a desperate young man take his life just before Christmas.  A couple of days later, Maisie is brought into Scotland Yard because an anonymous letter threatening an attack mentions her name and they suspected that the letter is connected to the young man who took his life.  The letter writer wants something done for the soldiers who fought in WWI, those who are suffering in a society that doesn’t see or acknowledge them, and threatens to bring the type of chemical warfare seen in the trenches to 1930s London.  This volume of Winspear’s series very much focuses on shell shock and the difficulties faced by those trying to adjust after the war.  The dangers posed by those that feel themselves on the fringes of society and the dangers of chemical warfare had strong contemporary parallels.  The political elements of the novel seem more pronounced than in the earlier volumes, and the tone seems darker – fitting with the shift in society at that period and the darkening clouds of WWII.  While I think that a shift is necessary given the period Maisie is now living in, there was also quite a bit of darkness in terms of the personal lives of those close to Maisie (Billy and Doreen Beale and her friend Priscilla), and though Winspear has Maisie say that there is a peace and lightness and freedom in her now, I would have liked to have seen a bit more in the book that showed that to me.

review: messenger of truth

15 07 2009

The Artsy Mama has fallen hook, line and sinker for Maisie Dobbs.  I can’t remember her reading a book so quickly since Harry Potter.  I quite enjoyed the first three books in Jacqueline Winspear’s series when I first read them – though I did read number two before number one and that wasn’t a wise thing to do as I missed much of Maisie’s backstory.  Somehow I left Maisie fall off the reading radar though.

Inspired by the Artsy Mama’s readings, I decided to make the fourth Maisie Dobbs book my next read.  In this volume, Maisie is asked to look into the death of Nick Bassington-Hope.  It has been deemed an accident by the police, but his twin sister, Georgina, has suspicions that it was murder rather than an accident.  Nick was an artist and he fell to his death while preparing for an exhibition of a mysterious work about the war that no one had seen.  Set against the case is the economic struggles of the period – ones that impact on Maisie’s assistant Billy very directly.

I was quite impressed with Messenger of Truth, and it is probably my favourite in the series so far.  I still find myself a bit distracted by descriptions of the way in which Maisie regulates her behaviour, but the central mystery in this one kept me very interested.  I was able to figure out the why and what quite early, though it took me a bit longer to figure out the right who.  I don’t want to give too much away, but the central moment from Nick’s past experiences that Winspear uses is both horrific and quite moving and emphasizes the pure insanity of WWI.

I think the next two in the series will be next in the TBR pile – if I can wrestle them away from the Artsy Mama that is.

reviews: the physick book of deliverance dane and

11 07 2009

I finished Katherine Howe’s The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane several days ago, and I’m still not sure what I think about it.  When I read the description in the book jacket, I couldn’t resist.  It’s another one of those stories about a modern-day academic finding evidence of some historical mystery with narratives that alter between the present and the past.  I seem drawn to these, but I haven’t found many recently that are satisfying as I expect them to be.

In this case, Connie, a graduate student studying history at Harvard, is asked by her new-age mother to spend the summer living and cleaning her grandmother’s long neglected house so it can be sold.  Connie finds a Bible with a hollow key that contains a rolled up bit of parchment that says Deliverance Dane.  Her quest to discover the meaning of those words leads her into a history of witchcraft – one that connects to her own family.

As I’ve already said, Connie’s narrative in the present is interspersed with narratives from the past.  I found that it was the latter that interested me the most.  If anything, I would have preferred more glimpses into the past and less of a focus on Connie’s present.  Her journey didn’t really interest me or surprise me, and I also found the writing in those passages more jarring than the most historical tone used in the passages that narrated moments related to Deliverance Dane and her female descendants.

Next, I turned to the second novel in Andrew Pepper’s Pyke series: The Revenge of Captain Paine.  A few years have passed and former Bow Street runner Pyke has settled into his new role of banker.  A headless body is found and his assistance is requested.  That investigation leads him into the newly developing railway, the fight for workers’ rights, and to the British monarchy.

Pepper did a good job of pacing the book, though the last third had Pyke doing less and just explaining the central mysteries, and the revelation of the true evil-doers came a bit early for me.  In fact – spoiler alert – there weren’t enough characters introduced that didn’t have some role in the crimes Pyke is investigating and that would be my main problem with the narrative.

There were some twists, and I do find Pyke a really intriguing creation.  As in the first book, he is very found of taking matters into his own hands, and while it makes for a thrilling narrative, I am starting to wonder how long he can continue down this path.

review: the birth of venus

5 07 2009

I decided to take a break from my recent diet of mysteries and turn to some historical fiction, but in spite of my good intentions, the opening scene of the novel introduces a mystery that isn’t resolved until the conclusion of the novel.

Durant’s The Birth of Venus is set in Florence during the Renaissance.  Alessandra Cecchi is a young girl, with a mind of her own and a yearning for freedom and a thirst for knowledge and art that conflicts with a woman’s expected role during this period.  Her father brings home a painter to work on the frescoes in her family’s chapels and Alessandra is immediately drawn to him.  Their love story takes place against the backdrop of fundamentalist monk Savonarola’s rise and fall in Florence.

The novel had a few twists and turns, but nothing that was entirely unexpected.  The sense of mystery that was built in the opening scene didn’t carry out throughout the novel, and the horrific murders that are described in the novel and which could have put the story into the thriller category didn’t seem to be as developed or as present as I expected they might be.  The characterization of Alessandra is strong and there are some interesting relationships, though the most interesting to me was the one between Alessandra and her servant, Erila.  The descriptions of religious extremism and suppression were also strong and probably the most interesting element of the novel for me.

Next up: The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane.

reviews: the fourth bear, the last days of newgate and the thief taker

29 06 2009

Three more mysteries read this week.  First, I gave Fforde another try with The Fourth Bear, the second in the Nursery Crimes Division series.  It was a bit hit and miss for me just like the first one.  There was so humour and lots of in-jokes, but I never felt like I had a real shot at figuring out the central mystery, which is fairly key for me when reading a mystery.

The next two mysteries both have to do with a thief-taker character.  The Last Days of Newgate follows Pyke, a bow street runner as he interacts with the underbelly of London in his attempts to bring some of their number to justice.  Thief-takers like Pyke work both sides of the system: helping to punish some while also using the system to benefit their own interests.  In the course of a separate investigation, Pyke becomes involved in the murder investigation of a young couple and their newly born baby.  This investigation involves Protestant and Catholic tensions and leads Pyke into Newgate itself.  I enjoyed Pepper’s novel quite a bit.  It was a page-turner and I read about 3/4 in one sitting.  Pyke is very much an anti-hero, and that creates good tension throughout the novel, though there are some points where he shows less remorse than I really expected. This was just the first in a series, so I’ll certainly be keeping an eye out for the others.

When I went to pick my next book, The Thief-taker caught my eye.  Agnes is a cook for the Blanchard family.  She takes on the role of detective after a valuable wine cooler is stolen from the Blanchard’s showroom the night before it is to be delivered and an apprentice is murdered.  The kitchen maid has also disappeared and Agnes tries to find out where she is and if she had any role in the theft of the wine cooler.  Agnes may seem at first an unlikely detective, but Gleason makes sure to give her the mind of a sleuth and to also provide her with a backstory that makes her a sympathetic character.  There’s some romance and the thief-taker in this novel is much more on the dastardly side than Pyke.  Another interesting aspect of Gleason’s novel is the class dynamics – between the Blanchard family and the servants and the hierarchy within the servants themselves.  It was a fairly enjoyable read, though the resolution scene seemed a bit predictable.

reviews: The Big Over Easy and The Case of the Missing Servant

21 06 2009

There’s several signs that summer is just about here.  The weather isn’t really one of them as it has still been rainy and a bit cool.  No, for me the true signs that summer is here is (multiple) weekly trips to the theatre and a craving for whodunnits.  Even with finishing up my marking, I’ve managed to finish two mysteries this week.

The first was Jasper Fforde’s The Big Over Easy.  I’ve read the first two books in Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  I struggled quite a bit with the first one (starting it three times before I finally got through the first few chapters), but I did enjoy the second a bit more.  The Artsy Mama had read The Big Over Easy and recommended it to me, and despite my sketchy history with Fforde’s work, I decided to try it.

The Big Over Easy begins with Detective Sergeant Mary Mary joining the Nursery Crimes Division run by DI Jack Spratt.  Jack’s been struggling to keep the division going and the loss of his murder case against the three pigs hasn’t helped matters.  Jack and Mary spend most of the book investigating the murder of Humpty Dumpty, while also trying to keep DCI Chymes from stealing the case from them.

There are humourous moments in the book and Fforde plays with many nursery rhyme conventions (including having Jack known as a giant killer and the inclusion of some magic beans).  I did struggle a bit with it, and I think that I have difficultly suspending my disbelief with the worlds Fforde creates, always wondering why he changes certain things, but not others.

The next mystery I picked up was the first in Tarquin Hall’s new series of detective novels featuring Vish Puri, India’s most skilled private investigator.  The story follows the owner of The Most Private Investigators agency as he tries to track down a missing maid servant and also runs a side investigation for a Brigadier who thinks his granddaughter’s financee has something to hide – not to mention having to deal with an attempt on his life.

I really enjoyed Hall’s novel.  It had good pacing throughout and the three key mysteries kept me interested.  There’s something about Poirot in Vish Puri in Hall’s physical description of him, and his mannerism, and his panache when dealing with the outcome of his cases.  There are differences though, particularly in that there is some focus on Puri’s personal life (family and friends) and also the range of employees that assist him in solving the cases.  Hall also seems very focused on capturing modern India and the struggles between progress and materialism and traditional values – the loss of which Puri laments in a few places throughout the novel.

This is definitely a series that I will keeping an eye out for.