Saturday, August 23, 2014

A Summons to Memphis

Written by Peter Taylor in 1986, and awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1987, this is, according to the critics, a quintessentially Southern novel. Like his main character, Phillip Carver, Taylor was born in Nashville, and later lived in Memphis, where his father practiced law; and, like Carver, Taylor attended Vanderbilt, at least for a time. In the novel, Philip is "summoned" home to Memphis by his domineering older sisters to help prevent the marriage of their octogenarian father after the death of their mother. Phillip lives with a younger woman in Manhattan, working as a book editor and rare book dealer-- having escaped the cloistered environment of Memphis with financial help from these same sisters after the second World War. His older brother had been killed in the war. The senior Carver had moved the family from Nashville to Memphis following the financial scandals surrounding a large insurance and finance conglomerate owned by his then best friend and boss, Lewis Shackleford. Phillip was then just a teenager, and his older sisters were in their late teens, with their brother in between. The entire family felt betrayed by their father's decision to move, with Mrs.Carver comparing it to the Cherokee "Trail of Tears." She had come from a moneyed family in Nashville and "married down" somewhat to George Carver, although he came from a family with land and was an aspiring lawyer. Mrs. Carver at first engaged with abandon in the new social scene of Memphis but then retreated into pseudo-invalidism for the rest of her life. Mr. George Carver,however, wasn't through messing up their lives. First he managed to put a stop to Betsy's engagement to a promising young Nashville suitor. Then during WWII, he also bought off the woman that Phillip loved.  Neither of the older sisters ever married and Phillip's older brother was killed in the war. In this book, what becomes increasingly clear to Phillip during the course of the novel is just how manipulative his entire family has become, with revenge apparently the end goal of both the sisters if not also the father. What he does not seem to openly acknowledge is his retreat, not so much geographically, but emotionally from these large dramatic characters of his family into a small and monochromatic life. He calls it serenity.  Perhaps. A much more scholarly review of the book is available from the NYTimes.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Something More Than Night

I must have seen this book reviewed on Powell's book blog because I am unfamiliar with author Ian Tregillis, although he written other books. Everything gets turned on its head in his version of the world. The premise is that there is a coup brewing in the celestial realms; the archangel Gabriel has been murdered, though it's not clear why until the very end. Heaven is not the realm of peace and harmony we stereotypically believe it to be, and the various levels of creatures who reside there are imprisoned in a sense and not at all happy about it. When earthly Bayliss is tapped to find a compliant human replacement to fill Gabriel's spot in the Choir, he accidentally kills the wrong person--a dame instead of the mugg he had targeted. Did I mention that Bayliss fashions himself after Philip Marlowe? You only think you know what is going on in this book, because Tregillis leads us all astray. Bayliss is not who he claims to be, i.e., just a low level angel who has to bend to more powerful forces, but who, like Marlowe, has a code of honor requiring him to protect the dame in distress from those same dark and very dangerous and very weird beings. Molly, said dame, is also quite a bit more than your ordinary "monkey"--er, I mean human. The celestials have a decidedly low opinion of earth's two legged occupants.  Tregillis writes with flair and color and will leave you gasping for breath trying to keep up. This was a totally entertaining and surprising read from start to finish and I will definitely look for more of his books.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Arsenic Labyrinth

Third installment in Martin Edwards' "Lake District" mystery series, this one is set in the former mining district of Coniston. See earlier posts of The Coffin Trail and The Cipher Garden for a more detailed cast of regular characters and previous cases. This time the re-opening of a case by Hannah Scarlett's team is prompted by a story in the local papers about the 10th anniversary of a disappearance. No one has seen or heard from Emma Bestwick for 10 years and journalist Tony DiVenuto is playing the story for all it's worth. Apparently, he has struck a chord because he receives an anonymous call saying that Emma won't ever be heard from again. The call came from con man GuyKoenig, who has returned to the Lake District after a 10 year absence--an absence which coincided with the disappearance of Emma. He in fact didn't mean to kill Emma, but ultimately did. Why Emma agreed to meet him in an out-of-the-way spot on the fells near the ruins of an arsenic mine drives this mystery. Daniel gets involved because he is researching for a possible new book on John Ruskin, who lived out his final years in Coniston, and was known for his antagonism toward industrial development. Once again, a complex plot with lots of twists and turns. Several side stories are developed as well as the main plot lines. Not too surprisingly, Miranda decides to move back to London, and Hannah and Marc's relationship continues to be full of discontents on both sides. Frankly the possible relationship between Hannah and Daniel just fails to arouse my interest. There are several more books in this series, but I don't feel compelled to read any more of them at this point...maybe after we have returned from our trip there.

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Cipher Garden

This is the 2nd of the Martin Edwards "Lake District" mystery series--see my previous post on the first one, The Coffin Trail, for a cast of characters. The cold case team, led by Hannah Scarlett, has received an anonymous letter saying that the wife of murder victim Warren Howe, was the killer, even though the case had never been solved. Hannah's sargent, Nick Lowther, was on the original investigating team, and grew up as friends with one of the potential suspects. He seems reluctant to re-open this particular cold case, so Hannah and one of the team's other detectives begin some initial inquiries.
Daniel is still intrigued by the apparent randomness of the garden layout for Tarn Cottage and has now figured out who the original owners were, so he's hot on the trail, hunting for information that will help him decipher the dead-end paths and odd plantings there. Hannah's partner, Marc, is helping Daniel look for material as he pursues his used book business. Miranda has had offers to write magazine columns but it will require her spending more time in London and Daniel is having doubts about whether she is really going to stick with their decision to leave their former lives mostly behind and stay in the small village of Brack. Daniel is still wanting to spend more time with Hannah, both for the insights she can possibly provide into Daniel's father, and also because he is attracted to her. His endeavors coincide with Hannah's investigation since the murder victim was half of a landscape/ garden design partnership, which is still functioning and is hired by Daniel to help him sort the garden. In the midst of everything, Daniel's sister Louise comes to stay after breaking up with her partner, and things get a little testy between her and Miranda.
Hannah is having some challenges of her own in both her personal and professional relationships. Nick is acting strange, and Marc is clearly annoyed at Hannah's continuing obsession with work. The case they have re-opened is a challenging one, not because of lack of suspects, but because there are too many, although they all seem to have alibis. The remaining Howe family--wife Tina and children Sam and Kirsty--, along with the wife of Howe's business partner, and the clients in whose garden Howe was killed are all in the mix. Again this is a twist you'll never see coming. The prologue as usual sets up expectations, but they will be the wrong ones as new facts come to light only very late in the book.

The Coffin Trail

This is the first in Martin Edwards' "Lake District" mystery series, and I really felt I should read a few of them just to put myself in the right frame of mind for our upcoming visit to that area. The main characters are: Daniel Kind, a rising star in the history faculty at Oxford; Miranda, his new passion and a London based journalist; Ben Kind, Daniel's now deceased father and former supervisor of Hannah Scarlett, one of the youngest DCI's ever to come up through the ranks in the Cumbria constabulary; Nick Lowther, her sargent; Marc, Hannah's live-in partner and a used book dealer.
Not only is Daniel sick of the politicking in academia, but his previous girlfriend, Aimee, committed suicide and so Oxford holds a lot of attendant bad memories. When Daniel and Miranda take a trip to the Lake District on a spur-of-the-moment vacation, Daniel takes them to the village of Brack, nestled in a hidden valley (Brackdale) where his family vacationed one summer before Daniel's father abandoned his family to get involved with another woman. That summer, though, holds fond memories for Daniel and so he is open to the idea when Miranda, spurred on by a "For Sale" sign on a run down cottage, says they should chuck it all and move there. They do indeed buy the cottage, Miranda takes on coordinating a makeover from top to bottom and Daniel tackles the long neglected garden. Daniel had actually befriended the young man who lived in the cottage that long-ago summer. Barrie Gilpin was slightly autistic and so kept at arm's length by most of the villagers, but the two boys had a wonderful time together exploring the valley. Daniel could not believe it possible, when many years later, Barrie was believed to have brutally murdered a visiting tourist and left her body on the Sacrifice Stone, which stands in silhouette as part of the surrounding mountain range. Barrie fell to his death that same night, accidentally or not, and so was never charged, nor was he ever cleared, and his mother lived with the villagers' assumptions about her son for the rest of her life.
Hannah has been put in charge of a new "cold case" team--she believes because of a murder case that went sideways, letting the man she is sure is guilty go free. The murder in Brackdale was one that Hannah helped Ben Kind investigate and so this is the case she chooses to start with. Given that Hannah worked with his dad after Ben had left, Daniel sees her as a potential source of information to help understand why Ben never stayed in touch after leaving. Moreover, Daniel sees historians as detectives of sorts, and he--apparently like his father--just does not think Barrie killed the woman. So Daniel and Hannah's paths will cross and recross as Daniel plays amateur sleuth, and Hannah reopens the case. Both find themselves somewhat intrigued by the other but unwilling to do anything to threaten their primary relationships--for now. Fair amount of local color, pretty complex and well-drawn characters, a twisty plot you cannot see coming. Not the best writer I've ever read, but competent, and I will move on to the next installment, The Cipher Garden.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Notorious Nineteen

I do not know how I could have missed this installment in Janet Evanovich's "Stephanie Plum" number series; I have read every single other one, including Takedown Twenty. Predictable in so many ways, but also predictably entertaining. Evanovich likes to keep the "big question" of who Stephanie will finally end up with going and going--will it be her cop boyfriend, Morelli, or the equally handsome and somewhat darker Ranger. Someone from Ranger's old special forces unit has gone off the beaten path and is threatening both Ranger and his friend and former fellow soldier, Kinsey, who is supposed to be getting married. The threats are scarey and are not limited to just Ranger and Kinsey but extend to Kinsey's fiancee, and now to Stephanie, since she has agreed to be Ranger's "date" and 2nd set of eyes at the various pre/wedding festivities. In the meantime, Stephanie and Lula are trying to bring in a variety of perps who have missed their court dates. The biggest monetary prize would come from Geoffrey Cubbin,  a man who embezzled $5m from the local retirement home, Cranberry Manor, and who Vinnie put up a lot of bail money for. Stephanie is behind on her rent and needs to score, and she just can't figure out how a man could go missing from a hospital floor--unless someone or some ones from the hospital staff are in on the disappearance. Turns out, this is not the first patient to go "missing" from the hospital. Cars blow up, apprehension situations are frequently slapstick (think arresting someone while you are naked), and the heat between Stephanie and Morelli and between Stephanie and Ranger never seems to die down. All the rest of the usual cast are present and making a good accounting of themselves. Good plot line; great light reading.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Summer House with Swimming Pool

I did not read The Dinner, Herman Koch's first novel, which apparently got rave reviews, but based on reading this book, I am not going to seek it out either. I thought about stopping several times but just kept reading more out of morbid curiosity. I did not like any of the characters in this book, not that they weren't well drawn, rather that they are really not likable people. And if you can't identify with any of the characters or at least admire them, what is the point? Set in Holland and maybe France, the protagonist is a Dutch GP, Marc Schlosser, who really detests his patients, as best I can tell. He does not want them to take their clothes off because he thinks they are ugly, and he just listens to them for 20 minutes because he figures that's what it takes to keep them coming back. When a famous actor, Ralph Meier, becomes a patient, and then invites Schlosser, his wife and two daughters to visit him and his family at the summer home the Meiers rent near the coast of ???, life begins to spin out of control. There is something "off" about Meier, the way he looks at women, and on one occasion, his apparent willingness to beat them senseless if they provoke and then deny him sexually. When Schlosser's 14-year-old daughter disappears one evening while everyone is at the beach and is later found raped, suspicions grow, and Schlosser takes an unexpected opportunity to punish Meier, using his knowledge and skill as a physician. Turns out Meier didn't commit the rape, but he's dead now anyway, thanks to Schlosser, and really, he deserved to die. Just checked the NYT Book Review, and was pleasantly surprised to find they shared my assessment!