Thursday, May 28, 2009

March-April-most-of- May Book Report

Once again, it's time for the semi-annual book report. This edition includes March, April and most of May, and given my Evelyn-Wood-like powers of quick reading, there's a lot to cover. (get it? COVER?)

Somewhere, sometime, someone recommended Nancy Mitford to me. I had picked up a copy of The Pursuit of Love & Love in a Cold Climate, two of her novels in a single volume. After I stopped staring at the cantilevered dress in the cover photo (still can't figure out how that chick didn't show a nipple) I read both, and was charmed. Mitford writes of the British aristocracy in the years between the First and Second World Wars. Her novels are autobiographic, and deliciously but relentlessly skewer the society types she saw all around her -- including in her own family. The first novel describes the efforts of Linda Radlett, a titled debutante, to land a husband, while the second tells of a young married woman who embarks upon an affair with unintended consequences. I very much enjoyed these comedies of manners as they mercilessly yet affectionately describe a way of life about to vanish.

Bad Traffic, by Simon Lewis, was an somewhat unusual detective story. It's set in modern-day Britain, but from the perspective of a Chinese police inspector who doesn't speak English. Inspector Jian receives a terrifying phone call from his daughter, who's been attending school in Britain. She's in trouble, so Jian jumps on a plane and shows up in Britain, ready to rescue her. Jian is an interesting character: middle-aged, corrupt, and completely at sea in a culture that is alien to him. Part of what made this book interesting is seeing Western culture through the eyes of a Chinese cop. Jian ends up with a reluctant sidekick called Ding Ming, who has illegally immigrated to Britain to work in the restaurant industry. A suspenseful modern-day noir, with a cross-cultural twist.

The House at Riverton by Kate Morton,was another book recommended to me. Perhaps this one suffered from too-high expectations. It's a sprawling family saga set in World War I-era England. The narrator is a very old woman looking back and remembering her life: secrets, joys, heartaches, and the plot shifts in time from her present-day old-ladyhood to her youth. It's not as Danielle Steel-ish as it sounds, but it does have the whiff of melodrama about it. The narrator was a housemaid at a country estate when she was a girl, and the story flips back and forth as she tells about life in the manor house during World War I days -- the love affairs, the secrets exposed, the mysteries uncovered. I liked it but it wasn't quite as gripping as I expected it to be. Maybe it seemed a little too screenplayish?

Annie's Ghosts: A Journey Into a Family Secret by Steve Luxenberg, was an interesting if meandering account of a journalist's attempt to uncover a family secret. Luxenberg grew up hearing his mother describe herself as an only child, only to learn, as an adult, that his mother had a sister named Annie. Turns out that Annie was disabled and mentally ill, and when she was quite young, she was institutionalized. Her family then basically wrote Annie out of their lives, pretending she didn't exist, and only occasionally visiting her. After his mother dies, Luxenberg decides to find out more about this aunt he never knew and does his best to trace her life. The book sheds some interesting light on a phenomenon of the 1940s, 50s and 60s: the lifetime institutionalization of a substantial population of individuals who were physically and/or mentally challenged in mental institutions, even though not all of them were what we would consider profoundly disabled or severely mentally ill. Luxenberg is at his best when he laments the lives of people like Annie, who were squirreled away in institutions and virtually ignored by their families. He doesn't write without sympathy for the challenges faced by the families of these individuals, however, and he does strive to put things into historical context (e.g. the discovery of psychotropic drugs revolutionized the treatment of some of these illnesses). His account is a little too stream-of-consciousness at times, and occasionally he seems a bit desperate to fill in the blanks (does he really need to have modern-day orthopedic physicians review the scanty medical files he has, when so little fact-based information was available about his aunt's physical condition?). While his discussion of his grandparents' immigration from eastern Europe is interesting, it also seems a bit tangential to the story he's trying to tell. Overall, though, a fairly quick read and interesting, if heartbreaking at times.

Dark Places: A Novel by Gillian Flynn, is a very dark but compelling mystery/thriller that I got from the Amazon Vine program. The narrator is a woman who, at the tender age of seven, witnessed the brutal murders of her mother and sisters. She always believed her brother committed the murders, and even testified against him at his trial. When her money runs out, she's got to find some way to eke out a living -- and is unwilling or unable to find a regular job. A member of a club devoted to figuring out unsolved murders contacts her, asking for help in learning more about the murders. Libby agrees to contact some of the people from her past and ask questions for him, in exchange for cash. (You can see where this is going, right?) She starts to uncover all sorts of secrets from that night, and calls into question a lot of things she used to believe about the murders. I think what made this book so gripping was the unconventional narrator. Libby Day is not a Lifetime TV Movie victim -- she's living at the margins of society, has a checkered past and is pretty darn dysfunctional. In fact, at times, she's downright unlikeable. Yet you can't help but have sympathy for her; who wouldn't be fucked up if they witnessed the murder of 3 family members and then had to testify against a fourth at his murder trial?

All the Colors of Darkness by Peter Robinson. I really like Robinson's Inspector Banks series, and this is the latest installment. Unfortunately, I think it's probably the weakest of them all. The plot just doesn't hang together well (no pun intended) and the theory that keeps Banks pressing to solve the mystery is so way-out that I had trouble believing he'd go to such great lengths to keep pursuing it. There also seemed to be a lot of loose ends and plot lines that don't really go anywhere (I won't spoil it by telling you what they are.) If you're a fan of the series, you'll want to read it just to keep up with what happens in the characters' lives, but otherwise, I'd pass.

The Family Man by Elinor Lipman. Elinor Lipman is one of my favorites, and this book was a quick and charming read. The main character is Henry, a divorced architect who has, since his divorce, come out. Henry discovers that his former stepdaughter works at the place where he gets his hair cut. He's always regretted letting her out of his life when she was a child, so he uses the opportunity to rekindle a fatherly relationship with her. Hijinks ensue. This is a great bedtime read: lots of humor, good dialogue, amusing plot, likeable and real characters.

So..... there you have it. I always like getting suggestions for books from my readers, so feel free to leave them in the comments.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the reviews. I've ordered a used copy of Bad Traffic from Amazon on my gift card balance.

Our local library has the House at Riverton. I'll keep the reference.

Kim said...

Thanks for the book reviews! School is out next week, and I always try to get caught up on pleasure reading during the summer break.

Have you read any of Lauren Willig's Flower Series books? It starts out with The Secret History of the Pink Carnation, and there are 4 other books in the series. The books are set in England during the late 1700s.

purlewe said...

Have you read any of Colin Cotterill's mysteries with Dr. Siri Paiboun? They are set in Laos with a reluctant coroner and plenty of mysteries.. with the dead coming to talk with him about their troubles. The first is the Coroner's Lunch. Personally I like how the mystery is set against an unfamiliar background. I am prone to read books set in Asia and India.

Anonymous said...

Those Flower Series books are fantastic trashy summer reading. I love them even if they are ridiculous; they go best with a well-chilled rose wine.

I'm recommending Gaiman's The Graveyard Book to everyone in sight. It's brilliant, beautiful, creepy and all together wonderful. Sometimes I think that young adult literature is where most of the real literary exploration is happening because there's not as much pressure to be a Kafka or Kerouac there.

Gwen said...

The Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice is a great book. Not a mystery. Again, England (I think after WW2) and changing times. I'm not describing it well.

I'm going to agree with everything Tikabelle said above.

lamazeteacher said...

You write very interesting reviews. I hope that this comment will convince to read "About Alice" by Lisa Genova. It is a fictionalized story about a very intelligent, accomplished Harvard professor who is diagnosed with Alzheimer's. It is so well-written that early into the book you are totally absorbed in her life and with the changes in the family structure. I haven't been able to get this story out of my mind since I finished it. Not only a great reading experience, but also very informative.

WendyKnits said...

I just finished reading "The House at Riverton" and felt the same way about it -- but it was good airplane reading. currently reading "The Forgotton Garden" by Morton -- so far liking it a bit better than the first book.

I too love Peter Robinson but was mildly disappointed with his latest.

Have you read any of Anne Perry's World War I mystery novels? I think there are 4 of them, and you need to read them in order, as they are connected. I thoroughly enjoyed them. Funny, because I don't like her other work. When I read her description of someone who has been bludgeoned to death in one of her other detective novels, it gave me the fantods.

Laura said...

Another good WWI and after series is the one featuring Maise Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear.

madingley said...

My favorite reading last summer the Mitford letters - what a strange and amazing family! I think that the collection is out of print but still pretty easy to find.

Kris said...

I can't remember if I already left a comment, and if so please forgive my lack of recall, but I think you would enjoy "Mistress of the Art of Death" -- a very unusual detective story.

Jodi said...

The House at Riverton left me with a very similar feeling. I'm glad I'm not alone! Love the Mitford books, and thanks for The Family Man recommendation -- I've only read Lipman's The Inn at Lake Devine.

If you haven't read Brideshead Revisited yet, I highly recommend that for Mitford fans!

Bethany said...

I would recommend the "Mistress of the Art of Death" series too. I went through all 3 in about a week. Her portrayal of Henry II is really different than anything else I have read before.