Having had some vacation time, I read a bunch of stuff in July -- a lot even given my quick-reading pace. Here's what I read; don't forget to post suggestions in the comments or your reactions to these books.
The Taken by Inger Ashe Wolf, is the second installment in a series set in rural Ontario. It features Hazel Micallef, who is a middle-aged divorced police inspector, recovering from serious back surgery. Micallef's sick leave is interrupted when a strange new case intrigues her. I enjoyed this book in part because the characters are well-drawn, but the puzzle that Micallef and her detectives have to untangle was offbeat enough to hold my interest, even if there were times when it was all a bit convoluted.
False Mermaid by Erin Hart, was a Vine book (meaning I got it for free so long as I post a review on Amazon). I mention this because I'm not sure I would have read it otherwise. It's a very soapy detective story in which forensic specialist Nora Gavin returns to her hometown of St. Paul, MN to try to figure out who killed her younger sister, a crime that remains unsolved after five years. Good beach reading; very Lifetime TV movie.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rachel Skloot, is a nonfiction book that combines biomedical history with social history. Medical researchers all over the world use human cells called the "HeLa" line in their work, and this book looks at the woman, Henrietta Lacks, from whose body those cells were originally taken. I liked the way that the book explained the biomedical issues relating to the HeLa cells (how they were taken from a cancerous growth in Lacks' body and cultured in labs due to their astonishingly fast growth rate; use of the HeLa cells is credited with major medical advances including the development of the polio vaccine) and contrasted it with the biography of Lacks herself (Lacks lived a hard life, growing up in a tobacco town in the south, and later moving to Baltimore, where her children grew up with a legacy of poverty, lack of education and other social ills). I found the end of the book a bit less engrossing, as it focused on the survivors of Lacks and their messed-up lives. Definitely worth a read if you are interested in biomedical issues.
Out of the Blackout by Robert Barnard. Sometimes a book benefits from its complete obscurity. I picked this one up for fifty cents at the library book sale and so I felt like I just couldn't go wrong in reading it, with so little at stake, but I ended up enjoying it. The plot is creative: Simon was a child sent from London to the British countryside during WWII to escape the dangers of the Blitz. After the war, Simon remained in the country village to which he was evacuated, and was essentially adopted by his host family. But Simon is vaguely aware that there is something odd about his departure from London; he half-remembers things which make him wonder who his parents were and under what circumstances he was placed on a train heading out of London. The book traces Simon's attempts to remember who he was and why he was sent away. As is often the case, Simon starts to wonder if he really wants to know the truth about his origins, given how much he loves his adopted family.
The Promised World, by Lisa Tucker, was another Vine selection that caught my eye because the main character, Lily, has a twin brother. (Regular readers know that I have boy-girl twins who are eight.) I thought it might be interesting to read a book that touched on the relationship between fraternal twins. In the opening scenes of the book, Lily gets word that her beloved twin brother has committed suicide by cop. Overwhelmed by grief, she tries to figure out what about Billy's current life could have led him to that point, and delves into their shared past, full of secrets, abuse and regrets. Lots of suspense and a quick read.
The Art of Deception by Elizabeth Ironside. Nicholas is a London art historian who runs into a woman being mugged. It turns out that she's a neighbor of his, and the two begin a somewhat unlikely romance. As Nicholas stirs up controversy in the art world by suggesting that a famous Vermeer is a fake, he gets further enmeshed in his neighbor's strange world. Although I really enjoyed a previous book by this author, this one didn't hold my interest as well. I wasn't that interested in the Russian mafia story line, and a good bit of the action seemed a little far-fetched. It did get better toward the end, though; maybe part of the problem was that the middle of the book is devoted to too much exposition.
A Clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill. This series of British police procedurals (currently with over 20 novels in the series) has been repeatedly recommended to me. Being an anal-retentive, I had to wait until I got hold of the very first in the series to try it out. (Because you HAVE to read them all IN ORDER!!!) Set in Yorkshire, the main characters are Inspector Dalziel and his sergeant Pascoe. The two are a sort of "Odd Couple" of detecting: Dalziel is big, sloppy, vulgar, working-class and old school, while Pascoe is young, dapper, college-educated and decidedly in the modern copper camp. The conflict between the two forms a good part of the backdrop to the action. The mystery itself involves the death of a middle-aged woman who is found bludgeoned in her living room chair, still staring vacantly at the TV screen. Her husband is suspect number one but the village in which she lives is full of gossip, intrigue and deceit.
An engaging book but not top-notch compared to some of the other British police procedurals I've read. However, I'm interested enough to try the next couple in the series to see how the author develops over time, especially in light of the excellent reviews his later books have received.
Lucy Gayheart by Willa Cather. A friend who is a college English professor seemed a bit dismayed that I was reading "Lucy Gayheart" so early in my exploration of Willa Cather but I really enjoyed reading it, even though it's a book with a very melancholy feel.
Lucy Gayheart is the main character of the book, a lovely and naive girl who grows up in a small prairie town. Her father teaches music in his spare time and sends Lucy to Chicago to study piano there. Lucy meets an older musician there, a singer who in modern parlance might be having something of a mid-life crisis. Lucy is hired to serve as his accompanist, and falls in love. Without giving too much of the plot away, it's safe to say that Lucy's love does not meet with a happy ending. Book One of the novel tells Lucy's story from her viewpoint; she's portrayed as a happy, innocent, sweet prairie maiden chasing her dream in the big city. Books Two and Three, however, paint a picture of a different Lucy -- spoiled, a bit petulant, narcissistic even beyond what's normal for the young.
While I can understand why it's considered a less important work than, say, "My Antonia," I still enjoyed "Lucy" for many of the qualities it had in common with "My Antonia": strong sense of place, beautiful descriptive passages, a clarity and elegance of style based in simplicity.
One for the Money by Janet Evanovich, is the first in the series of Stephanie Plum mysteries. The series has been recommended to me by so many people and I had the first paperback sitting around, but never read it for no apparent reason. I read this at the beach, and it was perfect for that. Stephanie Plum, laid off from her job, begins working as a bounty hunter tracing Trenton, NJ felons who skip out on their bail. I love the author's voice and her down-to-earth characters. Will definitely be reading more in this series.
Tender Is the Night by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Having read so many beach-type books, I decided to stretch a little and read some Literature-with-a-capital-L. It was interesting reading Fitzgerald so close on the heels of Willa Cather. While I like Fitzgerald, his style seems so compressed and turgid compared to Cather's elegant simplicity.
"Tender is the Night" begins from the perspective of Rosemary Hoyt, an 18-year-old American starlet recovering from a bout of pneumonia at the French Riviera. She encounters a group of witty, wealthy Americans at the resort, but her attention is most drawn by Nicole and Dick Diver. To Rosemary, the Divers are just perfect: good-looking, glamorous and full of charisma. Rosemary declares herself in love with them. The perspective then shifts, mainly to Dick Diver, and although he is intrigued by Rosemary -- the first sign of a crack in his seemingly-wonderful marriage -- he holds back. Rosemary learns that there is something wrong with Nicole Diver, and as the book hits its stride, we find out Nicole battles from some form of mental illness (schizophrenic breaks? bipolar?).
As the rest of the plot unfolds, we are given flashbacks that explain the Divers' backgrounds; it turns out (and this is a pretty well-known piece of the plot, so I don't think it's really a spoiler) that Dick Diver is a psychiatrist and Nicole Diver was a psychiatric patient at a friend's clinic when they first met. The novel tracks the crash and burn of the Divers' marriage, the consummation of Rosemary's infatuation with Dick, and the fates of the small group that the reader first encountered on the beach in the opening scene.
Fitzgerald is a good writer, albeit a dark one, and "Tender is the Night" is said to be his most autobiographical novel. It's hard not to see pieces of Fitzgerald in Diver himself (Fitzgerald struggled with alcoholism, and married a woman who developed severe mental illness) and maybe also Abe North, and Zelda obviously inspired Nicole. Perhaps that is part of what is so moving about the book, that Fitzgerald tried to wring something grander out of the pain and frustration of his own troubled life.
Broken by Karin Fossum. Fossum is one of those brooding Scandinavian mystery writers of which I've become so fond. She is best-known for her Inspecter Sejer series of books. This was a stand-alone book that did not feature Inspector Sejer. I was glad I got it as part of the Vine Program, because I would have been pissed if I had paid for it. It was really rather dreadful. As the book begins, we see a middle-aged author wake in the night to discover a man is standing in her bedroom. It turns out she recognizes the man, and he is a fictional character waiting for her to use him in a book. The rest of the book alternates between the character interacting with the author about what she's written about him, and the chapters that tell the character's story. Feh. No mystery, not very interesting, the characters aren't really likeable. Felt too much like Fossum was mailing this one in, or reworking a short story she'd written years ago just to put out another book.
The Palace Tiger and The Damascened Blade were two more installments in Barbara Cleverly's Joe Sandilands series of mysteries set in the 1920s British empire. These two installments took place in colonial India and were great escapist mystery reading.