Another month rushes by; here's what I read.
The Countess by Rebecca Johns. This was a free review copy from the Amazon Vine program, and I probably wouldn't have read the book if I hadn't come across it that way. The book is a fictionalized biography of an actual historical figure, a 16th century Hungarian countess named Erzebet Bathory. Bathory was the daughter of a prominent and wealthy family who married another Hungarian royal. After she was widowed, she continued to control her husband's property but over time rumors began to swirl that she was systematically abusing and killing young girls -- maids, housekeepers, cooks -- in her employ. There is some question whether she actually did all the horrible things she was accused of, or whether she was the victim of a kind of conspiracy on the part of other nobles to steal her property and wealth. I had mixed feelings about the book. It definitely fell into the historical fiction category rather than the biography category, and because it was written from the perspective of Bathory herself, it didn't do a great job of giving any objective sense of the backstory, so that at the end, I didn't have any feel for whether Bathory really was a kind of serial killer or whether she was the victim of men greedy for her riches.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I had never read this, considered one of the classics of post-war literature, but I'm really glad I finally got to it. I don't gravitate toward dystopian books, maybe because I feel they have the potential for looking like a rejected script of a Twilight Zone episode, and not many authors have the ability to transcend that. But Bradbury does, and his vision of a post-USA North America is chilling -- for me, especially chilling because there are so many parallels with today's mass culture. Bradbury imagines a world where people watch reality shows on huge tee-vee screens, where literature and ideas are outmoded because they are just too hard to think about. (Sound familiar?) His protagonist, Guy Montag, is a bookburner: his job is to respond to reports of books, report to the scene and use a flamethrower to burn up all the books. But one day, Montag has the urge to read what's inside one of the books he's burning. His actions lead to a series of consequences that will change his life forever.
Dark Road to Darjeeling by Deanna Raybourn, was the latest entry in the lightweight but enjoyable Lady Julia Grey mystery series. This installment sees Lady Julia at the end of her honeymoon, traveling to India to take a closer look at the death of an old friend's husband: was it murder? I enjoyed this one, especially after the previous two books I read this month, which were a bit on the grim side.
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff. Another free advance reader's copy from Amazon, this is a biography of the famed Egyptian monarch. Although there were times when the reading got a bit bogged down in detail, Cleopatra's story is fascinating reading. Schiff does a good job mythbusting, too.
Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett. I guess I'm in a noir mood, because this is a mystery from the master of noir detective fiction. I'd never read Hammett before, but I can see why his spare, staccato style is considered groundbreaking. A good mystery, and the slang and culture is so dated (i.e., the detective gets "slugged in the noodle") that it ends up being amusing. I will look for more Hammett.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. It's interesting; of all the "classics" or "great books" I've read this past year, I would guess that I really liked about 80 or 90 percent of them. This, however, was one I wasn't crazy about. The book is, loosely, focused on the life of Billy Pilgrim, travelling back and forth through time as he lives or relives various episodes of his life. The book includes both realistic, gritty memories of Billy's time in Dresden in WW2, but also fantastic ones, like his kidnapping by space aliens who take Billy to their planet and put him in a zoo. I definitely see why this is considered a classic of absurdist fiction, a powerful anti-war book and a satire on American (human?) culture, and it went fast. But it just didn't capture me and draw me in. Which is fine; I'm glad I read it, although I suspect I will not pick up another Vonnegut for quite a while.
Tug of War by Barbara Cleverly. After Vonnegut, I wanted a book I knew I'd probably like, that was easy to read. "Tug of War" is another installment in the Joe Sandilands mystery series that I've been reading. Sandilands is a Scotland Yard commander who, in this episode, is sent to French wine country to help with a curious case of amnesia. A WW1 solder has been repatriated, but has no memory of who is he and is in a kind of catatonic state. Because under French law, the soldier (or more accurately here, his next-of-kin) is entitled to a handsome pension, several different families lay claim to him. Sandilands is sent to assist the French police in determining the soldier's true identity, and uncovers an old murder in the process. It was a good read and hit the spot.
What are you reading? Anything good lately? Chime in on the comments.