Category Archives: mystery

It’s a mystery! edition 2

2011, my fellow readers and bloggers, has sucked. Yes, I realize it’s only Day 19, but from Day 1, spent at the ER with my Dad, it has sucked. Then there was Week 1 with Dad in the hospital, and work literally being the most insane. Ugh. Not to say there haven’t been a few good moments. I’m grateful I am employed. I am grateful my Dad is *mostly* ok and on a regimen to strengthen his heart for surgery. All in all, my daily mantra has become “Get glad in the same pants you got mad in” because it can always be worse, and I know it.

How does this relate to mysteries? Mysteries are, to me, like therapy. I hibernate with mysteries. There is some healing property in them, as you may be able to discern looking at the sidebar. Yep, every read in 2011 has been a mystery. So how were they? Let me tell you:

Dead Politician’s Society by Spano*

Funny, quirky, a little bit naughty and not a lot nice. This debut is about a young-ish policewoman, Clare, who is eager to prove herself as an undercover cop. She bristles around her handler and isn’t the most perceptive cop, so she gets in trouble. A lot. Like, murders happen with her in the same room. However, she isn’t grating. Here’s the deal: a politician gets killed, and an organization, The Society for Political Utopia, not only takes responsibility but also writes the local newspaper an obituary, explaining why. As the murders continue, everyone is a suspect, local university students who follow cult-like after their leader; the professor himself, who thinks he’s a maverick but who is, in reality, a stereotype, sleeping with his students; the mayor’s wife who has lived, as a lesbian, separately from him for years. All the while, the killer messages Annabel, a reporter for the local paper who wants to stay close to the story, but the story may come just a little too close. There were a few moments where I had to really suspend my disbelief, but all in all, this was a fun read.

*Read on my mom’s Kindle when Coffee and a Book Chick advertised Robin Spano was offering her ebook for a limited time at $1.99.

Deadly Dance by M.C. Beaton

Love from Hell by M.C. Beaton


The Terrible Tourist by M.C. Beaton


I read this trio quickly and enjoyed every minute. Agatha Raisin is a middle-aged former publicist-turned-detective who is quite a bit vain and helplessly dependent on the idea of love, specifically when it comes to James Lacey, a man who, in all appearances, seems to want nothing to do with her. In The Terrible Tourist, Agatha chases after James to Cyprus, where all sorts of hijinks occur. Agatha meets an odd group of tourists while on a boating trip. She is alone, and there are two other trios, each a married couple and an older gentlemen. One group appears to be old money, while the other is a bit crass. The nouveau riche woman is murdered, and Agatha is in constant danger of being murdered. She is also in danger of leaving Cyprus broken hearted. In Love from Hell, Agatha and James are married, cannot abide one another, and argue constantly. That is, until James disappears, and a woman (with whom he has been sleeping) is found murdered. Agatha must, with the help of her friends, clear James’s name and determine whether or not she has any love left for her husband.

The Deadly Dance is the first novel where Agatha sets up her agency. The local constabulary isn’t happy with her amateurish investigations, but she quickly proves herself with the help of her ever-growing staff. The agency gets its first big “case” and what initially appears to be a horrible mistake, turns into a case bigger than Agatha bargained for. With the help of her friend/lover Charles, she must track down a fiendish, cold-blooded killer.

Death of a Village by M.C. Beaton

If I had to choose, I would most likely pick Hamish Macbeth over Agatha Raisin. The novels still have quite a bit of charm, but the stories don’t jump around like the Agatha Raisin series. In this episode, Hamish Macbeth decides to take a trip to ease his discontent. He drives to the hamlet of Stoyre, but the small village does not restore Macbeth the way he would wish. Instead, he finds a village somewhat different than what he remembers. The villagers are not welcoming; in fact, a fire destroys the home of the only outsider in Stoyre. Macbeth tries to investigate but is stopped at every turn by closemouthed, fearful villagers. Macbeth must make a chink in the village’s armor and figure out what the crime is with the help of reporter Elspeth and an elderly couple – Mrs. Docherty and Mr. Jefferson.

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Each of these is a great read, and I could certainly recommend them for light reading. What about you? Any mysteries lately? What have you been reading?

happy reading – jenn aka picky girl

P.S. If you want to know about the two Winspear’s I read, stay tuned. I plan to write full reviews of each because they were fantastic!

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The Sherlockian by Graham Moore

Judge a book by its cover? Moi? You must be mistaken. I mean, why would I ever look at the cover art and determine a book’s worth… ok, I can’t keep it up. Will you please look at this cover? Is it not just perfection? When I first saw it, I thought: “Genius.” Then I got my hands on a copy at my local library (have I mentioned how much I love my local library?) and thought it all the more. What you can’t see in the photo is that the blood spatter is actually a cut out and that the red paper beyond it is a shiny scarlet red. It’s absolutely brilliant.

But enough of my gushing over the cover. Sadly, this literary thriller just didn’t quite live up to its cover; thus, the old adage.

In The Sherlockian, the book opens with Conan Doyle vowing to kill off Sherlock Holmes. It’s actually quite funny. Doyle is jealous of Holmes’s fame and intends to be done with him, remarking “If I don’t, …he’ll make a death of me.” His friends argue as to what will be the death of Holmes, and Doyle seriously considers how his own life has been intertwined with that of Holmes. This is what Moore has done well. He has made flesh of a man many only see as the man behind Holmes. He injects regret and joy, sorrow and guilt into this writer and his friend, Bram Stoker as they embark on a prideful journey to prove Doyle, the creator, is just as good, if not better, than his creation. I found the scenes with the pair conversing to be the most engaging aspects of the novel.

Abruptly, however, the action switches to present day and a meeting of the Baker Street Irregulars, a group of Holmes devotees. Harold, its newest and youngest member, has been inducted after some preeminent research into Holmes. The meeting takes a sobering turn when a member, Alex Cale, comes into the hotel looking disheveled and claiming he is being followed. Alex supposedly has in his possession the missing diary of Conan Doyle. The next morning, Cale is found dead; the diary is missing, and Harold takes it upon himself to, along with Sarah, a reporter, in true Holmesian fashion, deduce the killer and the whereabouts of the diary.

Unfortunately, though I loved the Doyle/Stoker friendship and the mystery Doyle seeks to solve, Harold was just so incredibly blah. His character was not only uninteresting, but having built him up as an academic and researcher, Moore has simply written a boring, pathetic character. His naivete and clumsiness are not endearing, and at several points, I was irritated with him and Moore’s much-too-blatant hints and winks at the reader. Sarah, a “reporter” whose motives are obviously less than altruistic, pushes her way into the action, and both her relationship with Harold and her identity are simply ridiculous.There is no chemistry between the two, yet the reader is expected to believe Harold is willing to toss away his career for this woman.

I hate to be harsh, but I expected much, much more from this novel. And, to be fair, had Moore stuck with Doyle and Stoker, I would possibly be telling a much different tale. Unfortunately, he didn’t, and my powers of observation tell me this one won’t likely go down in the annals of Sherlockian history. However, I do hope for bigger and better tales from Moore after this somewhat disappointing debut.


Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

Except not really because I would probably be absolutely petrified, have a heart attack, and die. If you are completely lost, the title refers to the first and very well-known line from the eerie Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier. My first experience with Rebecca was as a child when I first watched Hitchcock’s interpretation with Joan Fontaine and Laurence Olivier. I’ve seen it half a dozen times, more recently two months ago. I finally picked up a copy of the book at the library the day before Thanksgiving and devoured it as it rained outside, which, I have to say, is pretty much perfect reading weather but is certainly perfect Du Maurier reading weather.

The unnamed narrator, a young, unworldly woman, meets Maxim de Winter in Monte Carlo while acting as a companion to Mrs. Van Hopper, an older, wealthy, prattling woman. Mrs. Van Hopper refers to some sort of awful tragedy Mr. de Winter has endured (she seems to know everything about everyone), but our narrator doesn’t pry. Mrs. Van Hopper becomes ill, and the narrator finds herself more and more in the company of Mr. de Winter, an inscrutable but fascinating older man.

All too quickly, the holiday in Monte Cristo comes to a close, but Maxim refuses to let the naive young narrator sail off into the sunset. No, there is a much-less-happy-ending in the narrator’s future. The couple goes to Manderley, Maxim’s estate, and the young companion has no idea how to run a household, much less a household as large as Manderley. She meets the household staff and quickly learns Maxim goes about Maxim’s business while she is left to her own devices.

Mrs. Danvers, the housekeeper, conspicuously brings up Rebecca (the first Mrs. De Winter) in conversation, referring to how Mrs. DeWinter did this and how Mrs. DeWinter did that, leaving the narrator feeling more insecure and less able to learn how to adjust to her new home. Mrs. Danvers tempts the narrator with discussions of Rebecca’s rooms, the best in the house. When the narrator walks through the grounds, she looks up and curtains in Rebecca’s old room part to reveal Mrs. Danvers, ever watchful. Let’s stop there. Mrs. Danvers is easily one of the most spooky characters I have ever read about or watched in a film. Her obsession with Rebecca and her obvious distaste for the new Mrs. DeWinter verges on demented. This is one twisted housekeeper, and you should be very, very afraid.

As for Maxim, he is gone quite often and has turned sullen and standoffish inside the walls of Manderley. His moods are inconstant; he treats the narrator like a young girl (which drove me nuts). In the face of near insurmountable evidence, the narrator naturally believes he is still in love with the dead Rebecca. She begs him to host a ball for the neighbors, a costume ball, and Mrs. Danvers suggests what the narrator should wear. The tension mounts until the night of the party, and then there is all sorts of action.  Who was Rebecca, and what happened to her?

I will leave you hanging here because I don’t want to spoil anything. Plus, I think every blogger is owed several “Go read this book right now” statements throughout the year, so I’m calling in my first. Go read this book. Second, watch the movie. Third, come back and thank me, and we can talk. Need some more reasons? Spooky house? Check. Crazy housekeeper? Check. Dead wife? Check. Now go.

If you’ve read it, have you seen the movie? I seriously felt as though it played in my head the entire time. Hitchcock, of course, is a genius, but this film is truly a work of art and an excellent, excellent adaptation. What did you think? Rebecca truly made me want to devour everything DuMaurier has written.


It’s a mystery!

Actually, it’s three mysteries. I did quite a bit of reading last weekend, and I decided to do three short reviews as opposed to individual ones. In fact, I may bring this back regularly since I tend to read them often. If you’ve read any good mysteries lately and want to link up, leave your link in comments, and I’ll include it here.

Every now and again I just get on a kick where all I want to read are mysteries, so bear with me. It usually happens toward the end of a semester when my brain feels fried from grading essay after essay. So, in no particular order, here’s the low down:

Death of a Poison Pen by M.C. Beaton – a Hamish Macbeth mystery

I’ve heard quite a bit about M.C. Beaton, both from bloggers and from my mom, who loves Agatha Raisin. Even though cozy mysteries aren’t usually what I like, I thought it might be a nice switch. What a pleasant surprise, then, to find quite a nice combination of hardened detective and charming Lochdubh in this book. This isn’t the first book in the series, but I definitely didn’t feel as though I was left out in any way. Hamish Macbeth is the underdog. His superiors don’t really like his methods, but his methods seem to solve a lot of cases. In this book, Macbeth is seeking out a writer of petty but poisonous letters. Everyone seems to have gotten one, and Macbeth is afraid pretty soon someone will take matters into her own hands. Of course, he’s right, and pretty soon there are swinging corpses showing up and startling the otherwise quiet village. Throw in an outsider looking for an adventure and following Macbeth in an effort to make her friend (and Macbeth’s former girlfriend) jealous, a nosy reporter, and a vindictive headmistress of a local school, and the writing is on the wall: Murder most foul, as Miss Marple would say (not to totally mix my cozy mysteries).

Mr. Dixon Disappears by Ian Sansom – A Mobile Library Mystery

Ah, I had such high hopes for this book. A mobile librarian who is a bit of a deadbeat? A mobile librarian who is a bit of a deadbeat who also runs into crime? Sign me up. Israel Armstrong is that librarian, and the story opens with him setting up a mobile exhibit about a local legend – Dixon and Pickering’s, a department store. As he is setting up, though, the store is robbed, and the owner, Mr. Dixon, disappears (see! that’s where the title come from). The local police don’t trust Armstrong, who is an outsider in this Irish village and has a very funny name for an Englishman. He is arrested, and mayhem ensues. The setup is all very nice, and the humor is great. My biggest problem with this mystery? It couldn’t decide whether or not it was cozy or hardboiled. One instant, Israel is dressing in disguise and trying to decipher the local dialect, the next, he is dropping the C word (very bad) and pissing me off. Eh. I may try another, and I certainly don’t hope to dissuade you. It just didn’t make me an instant fan.

Agatha Raisin and the Case of the Curious Curate by M.C. Beaton

Don’t be fooled. Beaton may be the same author of this series and the Hamish Macbeth series, but they are definitely distinct series. I enjoyed them both, even though the cozy mystery is not usually my cup of tea. Agatha’s husband has left her for the monastery – except he never makes it to the monastery. Her pride is just a bit hurt until the new curate, a devilishly handsome younger man, asks her to dinner. However, shortly after their dinner (and a goodnight kiss), Tristan the curate, is found murdered. Agatha and her handsome mystery writer friend take on the investigation themselves, traveling to and from London with several near misses, red herrings, all while a cold-blooded murderer is on the loose. The murders are actually quite vicious, which I didn’t expect for a cozy mystery, and the ending was satisfying. What more can you ask for?

I do hope you’ve enjoyed these short reviews. As I mentioned before, if you’ve reviewed any of these or possibly other mysteries, let’s link up! Anyone else feel like winter is perfect cozy mystery weather? If so, what’s on your list?


Texas Book Festival – Part Dos

Saturday night, I was exhausted. Like, too tired to read, and I’m never too tired to read. I guess dancing at The Broken Spoke until midnight Friday night and then traipsing across the capitol ALL day on Saturday was a bit much for this gal. I mapped out Sunday’s events, watched some HGTV in the hotel (I don’t have cable, so this was thrilling) and crashed. Sunday found me refreshed and excited to get to my two panels:

Literature on the Lam

Moderated by Skip Hollinsworth of Texas Monthly and filmed by BookTV, I was really excited about this panel. Criminals fascinate me, and I was practically fused to my seat I was so enthralled. Malcolm Beith, Jonathan Eig, Hampton Sides, and James Swanson were all panelists.

Each has a new book out dealing with infamous criminals. James Swanson, who wrote Manhunt about John Wilkes Booth, has a new book out called Blood Crimes, which is about Jefferson Davis. Patricia Cornwell deemed Manhunt to be one of the top two true crime novels along with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Hampton Sides writes about James Earl Ray in Hellhound. Jonathan Eig’s new book Get Capone posits new theories of the life Al Capone. Finally, Malcolm Beith wrote The Last Narco, a book about El Chapo, organized crime leader in Mexico.

The panel started on a light-hearted note as Hollinsworth asked Eig how he switched from writing about baseball players to Al Capone. Eig said he thought long and hard and asked himself: “Who else used baseball bats?” Eig’s sense of humor was welcome on the panel, and I’m curious how much humor comes across in his book. He says Capone was really “a product of Prohibition” who otherwise may have driven a truck or stocked store shelves. He had a chance to rake in money, though, and he took it. The odd thing about Capone, according to Eig, is how willingly he accepted the infamy. He asked “what kind of person welcomes that sort of attention” and ended by saying, “We’ve all got a little bit of larceny in us.”

Sides and Swanson were much more serious, tackling topics of national sensitivity. When asked how easily they could shake off the people of whom they wrote, all the authors said they could not. Sides and Swanson are left with questions as both John Wilkes Booth and James Earl Ray left many unanswered questions.

I particularly felt for Malcolm Beith, as he seemed genuinely disturbed by El Chapo. He answered he would never shake the man off because of the horror of his crimes, at one time killing 300 people in a vat of acid. El Chapo owns 23,000 square miles in Mexico and has enormous amounts of power. Beith, a former Mexican journalist, now resides in America and relates that at least 45 journalists in Mexico have died trying to bring to light the corruption.

Spanning cultural differences and huge time gaps, all the authors were interesting and obviously passionate about their books. I have added Manhunt, Hellhound, The Last Narco, and Get Capone to my reading list.

I can’t embed the video, but the link is here. It’s long-ish but worth the watch.

Swanson, Sides, Hollinsworth, Eig, and Beith at Literature on the Lam

Wickedly Funny Noir

This was a quirky bunch. Harry Hunsicker moderated a panel of authors including Lou Berney, Jonathan Woods, and Mark Haskell Smith. I haven’t read any of these authors, but the panel itself sounded interesting. Each was laidback and humorous and focused mainly on writing itself and not individual books. Hunsicker asked if there is any pressure to be funny, but each responded in the negative, Burney saying he writes characters “who aren’t funny but have a good sense of humor.”

How do you make sex funny? Woods, Berney, and Smith all agreed sex just is sort of funny. In fact, Berney doesn’t like writing sex scenes: “It embarrasses me; it embarrasses my Golden Retriever.” He relayed a couple of humorous scenes from his book. Smith said sex is just plain awkward, and he starts with that. He, though, apparently doesn’t shy away from these scenes, instead writing every gory detail. (My mom went to another panel the day before and said it was the closest thing to porn she’s ever heard. Apparently people with children there walked out as there was no warning and a children’s author was on the panel. Odd)

All agreed, as Burney said, “You have to learn to love killing things.” There is not a lot of humor in crime, but as Smith said, often the people with the best sense of humor are in law enforcement. The gist was, if we can’t laugh at something, we might as well “put a collective gun to our collective head,” Woods said

The audience here definitely felt more like a bunch of amateur writers. You know the type. They are really there for validation of their own work as opposed to really listening to what the authors have to say. Not all amateurs are like this, but many are. I did ask a question, though, to see if any of these guys knew any other funny noir other than Dashiell Hammett who wrote around the same time. They gave me some more current names, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. It was a fun panel, though, and I will likely pick up Burney’s book Gutshot Straight. Mark Haskell Smith has written several books, Baked, Salty, Delicious, and Moist. Woods has a new collection of short stories Bad Juju and Other Tales of Madness and Mayhem.

Hunsicker, Berney, Woods, and Smith at Wickedly Funny Noir

 

The weekend was fabulous, and I can’t believe I have to wait another year to go back. I will definitely have to find some bookish events in the meantime. I hope you, dear reader, have something fun and bookish to look forward to – any great events happening near you?


Review: In a Dry Season by Peter Robinson

As I sat there remembering, time went by …. Then a full moon rose, scattering its bone-white light, in which I fancied I could see clear through the water to the village that used to be there, like an image preserved in water glass. There it was, spread out below me, darkly glittering and shimmering under the barely perceptible rippling of the surface

As I stared, I began to feel that I could reach out and touch it. It was like the wold beyond the mirror in Cocteau’s Orpheus. When you reach out and touch the glass, it turns to water and you can plunge through it into the Underworld.

Peter Robinson’s In a Dry Season revolves around Hobb’s End, a Yorkshire village flooded and turned into a reservoir in the early 1950s. In a particularly hot summer, the reservoir dries up, and a young boy playing in the detritus discovers a body buried under an outbuilding. DCI Alan Banks is on the outs with his boss Jimmy Riddle and is given the case as punishment. Riddle should know better as Banks sinks his teeth into the decades-old case, determined to find the killer if he or she is still alive.

Robinson interweaves the present with Banks’ marriage and career in tatters with a country in similar plight: 1940s Hobb’s End, complete with blackout curtains, RAF dances, rationing, death, and suffering. Gwen Shackleton, the shopkeeper’s daughter, cares for her ailing mother and minds the shop. One day, Gloria comes into the store, and Gwen the quiet, bookish girl compares Gloria’s eyes to Hardy’s novel A Pair of Blue Eyes. When Gloria asks for cigarettes out of the store’s ration, Gwen tells her no.

I was lying, of course. We did have cigarettes, but what small supply we had we kept under the counter for our registered customers. We certainly didn’t go selling them to strange and beautiful land girls with eyes out of Thomas Hardy novels.

Gloria is enigmatic – loved and hated for her beauty. Gwen’s brother walks in, and their fortuitous meeting forever links Gwen and Gloria, through war, through loss, and through love.

I find Robinson to be at his best when he melds two storylines from different time periods, both inside the minds of the victim/victim’s family and friends as well as the detective seeking justice for these people. The scenes of Yorkshire during World War II were really interesting; the quiet desperation amid a hopeful, fearful people was heartbreaking.

Banks is a quiet detective. If you’ve had no exposure to him before, he likes his Laphroaig, but he likes it with a side of opera. He’s flawed but fascinating with a deep sense of right and wrong, whether right and wrong is inside police procedural or not. In a Dry Season is one of his best, and I’m looking forward to reviewing his newest book for LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer group.

If you have never read any Robinson, I urge you to look him up (as well as Ian Rankin). If you’ve read any Robinson, what are your favorites? Have you read this particular novel? Are you looking forward to his latest?


Review: Affinity by Sarah Waters

I first picked up a Sarah Waters novel as an undergraduate. I was buying books at the campus bookstore, and the book caught my eye because Sarah Waters was my great-grandmother’s name. Plus, the cover was beautiful. Reading the back, I was hooked. When I think about it now, I laugh at my naive self – at the time, buying a book for a class I wasn’t taking seemed illicit and dangerous. Yes, I know. I was a dork. No underage binge drinking or kegstands. Instead, I bought books THAT WERE NOT ON MY COURSE LIST.

After seeing The Little Stranger reviews the last couple months, I decided I needed to find more of her work. My library didn’t have any, but I filled out a handy little card with Affinity, and lo and behold, they called me last week to let me know they had acquired the book and were holding it for me. (I love the library).

A splendid example of Gothic literature, Affinity is an exploration of mental illness, spiritualism, confinement, and sexuality. Margaret Prior is “ill.” Her father has died and with him, any hope she may have of freedom. A spinster, she worked with her father, a writer and researcher of Renaissance art. He has promised Margaret a trip to Italy with her close friend (and, it appears, former lover) Helen. After he dies, though, Margaret sees a long, bleak life, caring for her mother. Her father’s friend Mr. Shillitoe intervenes and convinces Margaret and her mother to allow Margaret to visit Millbank, the local prison, as a Lady Visitor. There, she will show the inmates how to be a lady and, more importantly, will learn how much better she has it than the women she visits.

However, the prison seems to be the last place to heal the depressed young woman:

[Millbank’s] scale is vast, and its lines and angles, when realised in walls and towers of yellow brick and shuttered windows, seem only wrong or perverse. It is as if the prison had been designed by a man in the grip of a nightmare or a madness – or had been made expressly to drive its inmates mad. I think it would certainly drive me mad, if I had to work as a warder there. As it was, I walked flinchingly beside the man who led me, and paused once to glance behind me, then to gaze at the wedge of sky that showed above.

The prison is damp and dark, covered with lime and with women whose eyes

were terribly dull. Their faces were pale, and their necks, and their wrists and fingers, very slender. I thought of Mr. Shillitoe saying that a prisoner’s heart was weak, impressionable, and needed a finer mould to shape it. I thought of it, and became aware again of my own heart beating.

Margaret herself is impressionable, though, and as she follows the matrons on her tour, she stops to compose herself and becomes aware of one cell in particular, a cell closed off except for an inspection flap and the prisoner’s sentence hanging above it.

It was only from this, indeed, that I knew the cell was occupied at all, for there seemed to emanate from it a marvellous stillness – a silence, that seemed deeper yet than all the restless Millbank hush surrounding it. Even as I began to wonder over it, however, the silence was broken. It was broken by a sigh, a single sigh – it seemed to me, a perfect sigh, like a sigh in a story; and the sigh being such a complement to my own mood I found it worked upon me, in that setting, rather strangely.

The woman prisoner, sentenced to four years because of fraud and assault is Selina Dawes, a young spiritualist. The novel switches between Margaret’s written diary and Miss Dawes’ own account of her activities as a spiritualist. Miss Dawes, taken in by Mrs. Brink, a lady obsessed with communicating with her mother’s spirit, holds dark circles (or seances) for Mrs. Brink and her friends. One fateful night, however, she sits with a young woman who is beaten during their session. When Mrs. Brink comes upon the scene, she has a heart attack and dies. Selina explains that her spirit guide Peter Quick hurts the young woman, but to no avail. She is imprisoned.

The two women are drawn to one another. As not quite lady but not quite thief, Selina enjoys the companionship, and Margaret feels bolstered. She is at first skeptical of Selina’s gift, but Selina sees things about Margaret she cannot. The two become close, and Selina calls Margaret by a secret name – Aurora. Selina tells her:

I feel your sorrow as darkness….Oh, what an ache it is! I thought at first that it had emptied you, that you were hollow, quite hollow, like an egg with the meat blown out of it. I think you think that, too. But you are not empty. You are full – only shut quite tight, and fastened like a box. What do you have here that you must keep locked up like that?

Selina hits upon it, and it seems to set Margaret burning. For Margaret has much hidden – she loves or loved Helen, now her brother’s wife; she wants to go to Italy and is jealous of her sister’s honeymoon there; she writes constantly, hiding her diary from her mother and the servants. She begins a sort-of symbiotic relationship with Selina. She strengthens, saying:

I knew my trips to her had made me too much like myself, like my old self, my naked Aurora self. Now, when I tried to be Margaret again, I couldn’t. It seemed to me that she had dwindled, like a suit of clothes.

But instead of the relationship sapping Selina of her strength as the dark circles did – Selina, too, seems emboldened by it. Margaret and Selina begin to make plans for an unbelievable escape, and Margaret stands up to her mother. She is tired of being discussed while her back is turned and wonders, when Stephen discusses her illness with her mother:

Why do gentlemen’s voices carry so clearly, when women’s are so easily stifled?

Affinity was captivating for a lot of reasons, particularly for me because the correlation between much of the book and the story “The  Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. It’s one of my favorites – in fact, part of my graduate thesis focused on it – and the similarities were too blatant to ignore. Knowing it is one of Waters’ favorites sealed the deal. If you have read the story, look back at the first description of the prison: it’s spot-on Gilman. The narrator is convincing, even though she is, on closer examination, unreliable. The story is told through a diary, a forbidden means of expression. “Voice” is also a concern in both – who hears the narrator? There were actually points within the novel where I found myself wondering if Selina was part of Margaret’s psyche; she already has an alternate identity – Aurora – that makes her feel more like herself.

The novel, as most of Waters’ books, has an astounding twist, one that left me both haunted and betrayed. Because other than setting the tone masterfully, Waters has the ability to make me feel like her main character. At first, I was skeptical of Selina, but I, too, was drawn in by her and began to believe the spirits visited her. I believed she could escape through the help of her spirit friends, so at the end, (I won’t go into detail) the twist so startled me, I felt rocked, but not in the sense that it was implausible or not in keeping with the rest of the book. The somewhat unreliable narrator (Margaret is given chloral and laudanum through much of the story) felt believable and sympathetic. The one problem I had with the ending was not knowing the truth of Selina’s story. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could see the full effect of Waters’ writing. Much like Margaret, I was left in confusion. Bothersome though it may be, I wasn’t ever to know the truth of Selina’s story. Dark and oppressive, Affinity is an irresistible read – just think about starting it on a bright, sunny day, not a rain, dreary evening like I did…

Other opinions:

Matt

Nymeth

A Work in Progress


Review: What Came Before He Shot Her by Elizabeth George

It should come as absolutely no surprise to anyone here that I am extremely picky about audiobook narrators. I can’t even remember which book it was now, but a couple weeks ago, I turned one on, and within five minutes, I punched the eject button. The woman was an overachiever when it came to character intonations: her “kid” voice was so grating, I couldn’t stand it a second longer. Charles Keating, on the other hand, is superb. Let me just get that out of the way; he is perfection. I’m already on another audiobook narrated by him, and it is fabulous as well.

What Came Before He Shot Her is written by Elizabeth George. Mystery readers may recognize her name, but do not be fooled: This novel is no mystery. Mysteries do not divulge what happens in the title. Mysteries do not (typically) focus on the perpetrator of the crime. Instead, this book is a sociological, psychological exploration of a cast of characters I won’t soon forget.

The book opens with three children of mixed race – Ness, Joel, and Toby – being shuffled off to the stoop of their Auntie Kendra’s house in South Kensington, London. Their Gran is going back to Jamaica with her boyfriend, George, and the children are not part of the picture. Ness is a teenager, angry and bitter; Joel is kind and compassionate and ever-watchful of his brother; Toby has developmental problems and is totally devoted to his older brother. The three have been shuffled around since the murder of their father, who was shot in the street, and the institutionalization of their mother. Kendra comes home to find the boys waiting for her; Ness has already run off looking for drugs. What follows is a tale so wrenching, I felt my chest tighten at several points throughout the book.

While Kendra deals with this sudden alteration to her life, Ness finds a dealer, Blade, and offers herself to him in exchange for a steady supply of drugs. Naive and foolish, Ness doesn’t understand the full extent of Blade’s enterprise or power. When she finds out Blade has other girlfriends, there is an ugly brawl – and Blade is shown up by Kendra’s boyfriend Dix.

Joel is on the straight and narrow. He knows how best to mollify Toby and watches out for him constantly. A gang of boys, on the lookout for the newbie – the one with the weird brother – quickly target Joel and Toby. Neal Wyatt and his gang are out to get them, and no amount of “sorting” will deter Neal’s determination to get to Toby and through Toby, Joel. As the pranks become more and more deadly, Joel knows what he has to do in order to save his small, patched-together family.

Watching, or rather, listening to this story filled me with dread. I knew exactly what would happen. I knew Blade would not live and let live after being shown up. I knew Joel would go to him for help, and I knew Joel was innocent enough to believe the Blade would help. The buildup was excruciating, but the interplay between the characters hooked me. It is horrific on many levels, no less so because of the outside forces trying to do good but failing miserably. These children don’t live in the type of world where poetry and art can lift them above violence. Adults don’t always equal safety, and sometimes your worst enemy is the only symbol of safety.


Review: The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

Boone Daniels is a surfer, a beach bum, a PI, and probably the most unlikely character to make me sit up and take notice. Working out of a surf shop that doubles as his office, Boone reminds me much of a friend who, in college, called me at 2 a.m. to drive from Texas to California. When I asked him where we would sleep, his answer was “the boards, covered with a blanket in the sand.” I passed. Boone would love this. He’s got a van that doubles as a changing room; instead of one loyal sidekick who drinks a bit too much and says “bloody” an awful lot, Boone is surrounded by The Dawn Patrol: Sunny Day, High Tide, Johnny Banzai, Hang Twelve, and Dave the Love God. This gang surfs together and is always watching the others’ backs. To be honest, my mystery reads trend to British, Irish, and Scottish detectives where the weather often fits the nature of the crime. I’m no California girl. I’ve been to L.A. and didn’t particularly like it. But PCN recommended this book, and after following her the last few months, I take her advice seriously.

The book opens as a wave Winslow describes in surfer lingo as “epic macking crunchy” makes its way toward the California coastline. Surfing careers are made and broken with these waves, and The Dawn Patrol is ready for the action, but even more trouble is looming in the form of attorney Petra, who brings a case to Boone at the most inopportune time. He wants to catch that wave, damn it, but he also needs to eat, as his friend-cum-accountant chides him. He takes the case, and Boone’s assignment is to find Tammy, a stripper who was witness to arson. No biggie, right? Wrong. Petra needs Tammy to testify for the insurance company against a local thug, Dan Silver. There’s just one problem: Tammy doesn’t want to be found. Soon, Boone is chasing after a killer and a missing little girl, still haunted by his time on the force where he messed up big time, and as the story develops, Boone must come face to face with his own past as The Dawn Patrol’s ties thin and each must look out for him or herself.

In the background, the wave builds, and it’s no wading pool:

[This] kind of wave is the subsurface wave, which starts, duh, under the water. If surface waves are your middleweight boxers, dancing and shooting jabs, the subsurface wave is your heavyweight, coming in flatfooted, throwing knockout punches from the (ocean) floor. This wave is the superstar, the genuine badass, the take-your-lunch money, walk-off-with-your-girlfriend, give-me-those-fucking-sneakers, thank you for playing and now what parting gifts do we have for our contestant, Vanna wave…. It’s heavy, my friend; it ain’t your brother.

Normally, I’m turned off by this no-holds-barred, newfangled sort of writing. Charlie Huston’s writing was absolutely unbearable (for me), but Winslow’s good. He’s on top of his game, and the more I read, the more I admired his style. As the action built, the chapters were shorter and shorter, to the point that the last 50 pages had me, literally, breathless. With any good mystery, I want that buildup. I want to have a good idea of what’s going on (which I did), but I loved the way Winslow brought me there. At the end, I was washed up on the shore, tired and breathless, but ready to read more about the adventures of The Dawn Patrol.


Library Haul

Just got back from the ‘brary. Oh wait – you don’t call it that? Ok, guess I won’t either. I had some great recommendations from Pop Culture Nerd, but I also just like to wander through the aisles. I usually have some author’s names in mind, and wandering is half the fun.

What I got:

The Case of the Missing Servant by Tarquin Hall

Despair by Vladimir Nabokov

How Right You Are, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Split Image by Robert B. Parker

The Dawn Patrol by Don Winslow

The Brightest Star in the Sky by Marian Keyes (I really liked the cover of this and just realized who she is. This may be a no go.)

I also got a couple of audiobooks, one Jane Green and one Elizabeth George. I tend to like lighter books for my commute as I can’t really focus that well. The library also has a pretty decent movie selection, and season three of Mad Men just happened to be on the shelf. Don Draper, here I come. This series is excellent, but I don’t have cable and cannot watch it. I’m always just a little behind the curve on current TV, but I honestly don’t mind.

All in all, I’d say that was a successful trip to the ‘brary. (Hey -it’s better than liberry, as I’ve heard some pronounce it.) At the moment, I am finishing up The Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea but should finish that this evening. Now the only problem is which book to begin. Hmmm…