Saturday, November 24, 2012

"The Age of Miracles" by Karen Thompson Walker

Entertainment Weekly made this book sound poignant and intriguing, so I got it from the library.  They were right, but it seems I'm not at all in the mood for poignant these days.  Remember how This Side of Paradise depressed me?  So did The Age of Miracles.  Not as much, but it still planted a big cloud of gloom over my head for the few days it took me to read it.  If that sounds like a non-recommendation, it's not -- this book is original and lovely, it just was not at all what I wanted (or needed) to be reading right now.  Back before it took a lot of prayer, coffee, and chocolate to get me through the day in a cheerful fashion, I bet I'd have liked this book a lot more.

The Age of Miracles begins on the day that middle-schooler Julia and her parents learn, along with the rest of the world, that the earth's rotation is slowing down.  Known as The Slowing, this phenomenon at first doesn't seem to change things much -- days are a few minutes longer, at first.  Before long, though, those extra minutes are extra hours.  The government decides to stick with a twenty-four hour day, so that everyone can be on the same page about when things like school and work should happen.  Only not everyone likes that idea -- the "real timers" follow the sun's schedule instead, staying awake during the daylight and sleeping in the dark, even though those days stretch longer and longer. 

In the midst of all the global upheaval, Julia is also experiencing the ordinary upheaval of adolescence.  She likes a boy.  She doesn't understand her parents.  She wants to need to wear a bra.  She loses her best friend.  She tries to connect with her grandfather.  Life may be slowing down, but for her it is also speeding up.

Walker juggles the balance between global disruption and personal angst pretty deftly.  Neither one ever seems to be more important than the other.  And her concept of what would happen to the world feels very real -- animals and plants can't adapt, humans struggle to find solutions to problems like energy and food sources, and people argue and come to blows over changes they can't control.  In fact, the thing that gloomed me out is how real it felt -- I would sometimes look out my window and remind myself that the world wasn't actually slowing down and my life wasn't being disarranged, that was just in the novel.

If you like end-of-the-world-is-near books, or coming-of-age books, you'd probably dig this.  Me, I'm heading for the solace of yet another cheerful murder mystery.  I have three small children -- there's plenty of angst and strife in my real life, and I don't need more, even if it is fictional.

Particularly Good Bits:

Carlotta's long gray hair swung near her waist, a ghost, I suspected, of its younger and sexier self.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 20, 2012.)

"Too Many Cooks" by Rex Stout

I love Nero Wolfe mysteries.  They are never less than a joy to read.  The dialog sparkles, the plots dazzle, the characters-of-the-day amuse, and the regular characters delight.  In other words, precisely what I needed to bring me out of the everything-is-meaningless-and-grasping-for-the-wind funk I was in after This Side of Paradise

I thought I'd read this one before, as it's in a Nero Wolfe omnibus I found in my parents' basement a couple weeks ago.  Surely I read that omnibus (two novels and a trio of short stories) back when I first discovered Rex Stout?  But I didn't actually remember any of it while reading, so maybe I just never actually cracked this book, always saving it for when I ran out of library books or something?  'Tis a puzzlement.

At any rate, this is a jolly good mystery.  Wolfe is the guest of honor at a meeting of a group of world-renowned chefs at a resort in West Virginia.  Which means he has to not only leave his Manhattan brownstone, he has travel on a train.  Overnight.  Poor Archie Goodwin -- if you've read any of these books or seen the TV series based on them, you know he's not along because he's expecting to have fun. 

But they do get to West Virginia with no actual mishaps, and once settled there, of course the murder and mayhem commence.  One of the chefs is killed, and several of the others had expressed their malice toward him before he died, including Wolfe's particular friend Marko Vukcic, whose ex-wife was married to the deceased.  Fortunately, there's a master sleuth and his trusty aide around to sort everything out. 

As a bonus, the recipes for a lot of the dishes described in this mystery are included in the back!  I've always wanted to try the dishes Fritz Brenner (Wolfe's resident cook) concocts, and The Nero Wolfe Cookbook is on my Christmas list, but until the day I get that, I might just try out one of the recipes included in this book.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 20, 2012.)

"This Side of Paradise" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Oh bother.  I'm afraid I didn't like this book very well at all.  Much of the writing was quite brilliant, of course, but it depressed me a great deal.  Not because it's sad, because it's not sad.  I mean, it's not sad like Old Yeller or Doctor Zhivago.  It's just that the character spends his young adulthood wandering around, trying to figure out who he is and what life is all about.  It's pretty well a perfect picture of the whole Lost Generation, which is what it was intended to be, but it got into my head and started making me wonder if I was doing anything with my own life.  And I know that I am doing worthwhile things, such as raising three children, being a loving wife, and even writing something to amuse other people now and then.  But sometimes I feel like I'm just coasting along, and this book really intensified that feeling.  So I'm glad I'm finished with it, and I've picked up a nice, cheerful murder mystery to wash the ennui out.

Particularly Good Bits:

The invitation to Miss Myra St. Claire's bobbing party spent the morning in his coat pocket, where it had an intense physical affair with a dusty piece of peanut brittle.

The great tapestries of trees had darkened to ghosts back at the last edge of twilight.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 9, 2012.)

"Sweet Dreams, Irene" by Jan Burke

Sweet Dreams, Irene is the second in Jan Burke’s series of mysteries starring intrepid newspaper reporter Irene Kelly. It begins with Irene reporting on the two men running for D.A. One candidate’s political machine accuses the other candidate’s son of being a Satanist. The boy comes to Irene to try to get his side of the story in the paper, insisting that rather than being a Satanist, he’s actually trying to get his best friend to leave a Wiccan coven. Before we know it, there are dead people, there are death threats, and then Irene winds up kidnapped. Even after she escapes (okay, sorry, that was spoily, but since there are a lot more Irene Kelly books after this, you know she didn’t stay kidnapped forever), Irene keeps having nightmares about her captivity. She expects this to put a strain on her relationship with Detective Frank Harriman, but the two of them are too busy finding out who’s behind all the murder and mayhem to stay apart for long.
This book was written in the mid-’90s, when Wicca was a hot new topic that would have raised a lot of eyebrows. Now it feels a little bit like the subject of witchcraft was included for shock value and timeliness, which makes the whole book feel a bit dated. However, the interpersonal relationships and the detective work more than make up for that.
Irene Kelly reminds me of Nancy Drew — she’s intelligent, feisty, loyal, and daring. She can get herself out of most jams, and when she can’t, her wonderful boyfriend can. Like Nancy’s Ned Nickerson, Frank Harriman is strong, handsome, athletic, and sympathetic. I look forward to reading more of this series, and am very glad to know there are almost a dozen of them so far.
(Originally published on Novel Book Ratingson Aug. 3, 2012.)

"Jane and the Unpleasantness at Scargrave Manor" by Stephanie Barron

It seems that my blog has had three themes of late:  The Avengers, mysteries, and Jane Austen.  Perhaps I am stuck in a three-rutted road.  At any rate, I have just finished reading, this very evening, a book that combines two of those themes.  Not, I fear, Jane Austen and The Avengers, which, however diverting, would be an unlikely pairing.  No, this book combines Jane Austen and murder mysteries.  It is, in fact, a mystery starring a fictionalized version of Jane Austen herself.

I know what you're thinking:  Absurd!  Travesty!  Sacrilege!

But it's not.  It is, to be precise, great fun.

Stephanie Barron sets up her story by saying that a family friend was excavating an old building and found a trunk of letters and journals that turned out to have belonged to Jane Austen herself.  (This is very like the way that Laurie R. King sets up her Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes books, only in them, Russell has sent a trunk full of manuscripts and oddments to King.)  This book, then, is pieced together from journal entries and letters to Austen's family members.  It does involve historical parts of Austen's life, and also a treasure trove of details about life in Austen's time.

The story begins with Jane Austen visiting her friend Isobel, the new Countess of Scargrave, who married Frederick, Lord Scargrave, a scant three weeks previous.  Jane welcomes the opportunity to visit them upon their return from a honeymoon abroad, as she has only recently accepted and then rejected the hand of Mr. Harris Bigg-Wither (honestly his real name, silly as it may seem).  But Lord Scargrave falls ill and dies following a fancy ball thrown in Isobel's honor, and Isobel is suspected of his murder.  Convinced of her friend's innocence, Jane throws all her intelligence and knowledge of humankind into discerning the truth.

The beautiful thing is, Barron has caught the cadence of Austen's writing, her phrasing and word choices, the flavor of her dialog.  At times, one can almost believe this to be based on something Austen herself wrote.  There are some similarities in situation, character, or specific lines of writing that reflect Austen's novels, which to follow this imaginary timeline, would have been published a few years later.  

The author also included a number of footnotes that clarify things such as how the British justice system worked, medical practices of the day, and which characters were actual people in Jane Austen's real life.  These are especially useful for readers like myself, who enjoy Austen's work to no end, but aren't keen on researching life during the British Regency.  

I do have to say that I was occasionally frustrated by the fictional Austen's tendency to rehash a character's motives after already contemplating them earlier on, and a few of the character names (a butler named Cobblestone?) stretched disbelief a bit, but overall, I enjoyed this book.  I definitely want to read more of them -- Barron has written nearly a dozen now.  Find out more on her website, where she has some intriguing thoughts on Austen, mysteries, and the art of writing.

Here is my favorite passage, which made me laugh aloud when I first read it:
"Nay, Isobel," I protested, "do not cause yourself the trouble to search further.  I believe Lieutenant Hearst will amply serve my purpose.  He has good looks and charm without the slightest suggestion of better feeling, and he possesses not a penny he may call his own.  he shall do very well for a portionless clergyman's daughter.  We may expect him to ruin me and then depart for a noble death before Buonaparte's cannon, at which point I shall throw myself in the millpond and be renowned in wine and song.  Has Scargrave a millpond, Isobel?"
See?  Great fun :-)  For those who love both Jane Austen and a good mystery, this is a treat not to be missed.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Aug. 2, 2012.)

"The Jane Austen Book Club" by Karen Joy Fowler

I liked this book okay.  I didn't love it.  I didn't dislike it.  While I was reading it, it kept my attention very nicely, and I finished it in just a few days.  Basically, it's precisely what I'd consider a "beach book" -- something to read when you don't want to be distracted from real life too much.

The book club in the title is formed by five women and one man.  Jocelyn breeds dogs, is a bit of a control freak, and starts the club with an ulterior motive:  her best friend Sylvia's marriage is ending, and the other members suspect the club is supposed to distract Sylvia from her problems.  Sylvia's daughter Allegra is also going through a difficult breakup -- her girlfriend is, among other things, a liar -- and has just moved back home to be with her mom now that her dad is gone.  Prudie is a reasonably happily married woman who teaches high school French.  Bernadette is the quirkiest of the bunch -- she loves to talk, has given up looking in the mirror, and is the surest of just who she really is.  And Grigg is the lone male, a sort of lost puppy needing adoption.

The most interesting thing about this book, as far as I'm concerned, is that it's narrated by the group as a whole, which comments on each character in turn.  I can't remember seeing that done before, and it was original and attention-getting.  Each chapter focuses on a different character, tells part of their back story, tells part of what's going on currently in their lives, and then the group gathers to discuss a Jane Austen book.

There are some good insights into Austen's novels sprinkled throughout the book, and those might make this an easy way to get to know Austen's works if you've never read them and are trying to figure out which one you might like to start with.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 27, 2012.)

"Sense and Sensibility" by Jane Austen

This book is considerably different than I'd remembered.  The basic plot was how I recalled, but I didn't remember anything about the middle section where Marianne got sick.  I also thought this book moved a little too slowly when I read it back in high school -- and I was the sort of high school girl who read Austen of her own free will, not because it was required reading.  Then, I got frustrated by Elinor and thought she should speak her mind more and not let others overbear her so much.

Imagine my surprise a few years later, when I took this quiz and came out Elinor Dashwood!  I took it again just now and got the same result, so I guess it's not a fluke.  And this time through, I understood Elinor much better.  She's quiet and thinks things through, but she's not really all that reticent.  She speaks her mind when she judges it is appropriate, and to the people she deems it correct to say such things too.  I especially liked her sympathetic befriending of Colonel Brandon.

In case you're not up on your Austen, this is the one where sisters Elinor and Marianne Dashwood fall in love with Edward Ferrars and John Willoughby.  Edward is described as everything correct and wonderful, but he and Elinor are both so proper that their regard for each other is barely evident.  Marianne, on the other hand, indulges her every emotion and tells everyone exactly what she thinks, and she and Willoughby allow their affections to run away with them.  Then Willoughby leaves, the next thing they know he's marrying another woman, and Marianne winds up in the depths of despair.  Elinor's Edward also turns out to have been previously engaged to another in secret.  And then there's Colonel Brandon, a retiring widower who falls in love with Marianne even though she thinks he's very boring.

You might say it's complicated :-)  My only quibble with it this time is that I wish Edward Ferrars got to be fleshed out more, as he's absent for most of the book, and we have little time to see just why Elinor should love him despite having lots of reasons why she should give up her attachment.  Oh well, not everyone can be Mr. Darcy!

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 21, 2012.)

"The Long Goodbye" by Raymond Chandler

Raymond Chandler is my favorite author, and yet it's been ten years since I read any of his works.  Silly me!

I needed to take a book along on our vacation last month, but never got around to picking one until the morning we were going to leave.  I was in the mood for something a bit spicier than Jane Austen, so grabbed the first Chandler book I couldn't remember the plot to.  It was The Long Goodbye.

I lost count of how many times while reading this I exclaimed, "I love Raymond Chandler!"  Oh, how I love his writing.  But why?  Because it's so unexpected, so full of unusual-yet-perfect descriptions.  I blogged about his writing here many years ago, so I won't go into all that again.

In The Long Goodbye, gumshoe Phillip Marlowe befriends an alcoholic, down-and-out war hero named Terry Lennox.  Terry winds up in big trouble -- his philandering wife is dead, and of course everyone would suspect him.  Marlowe helps Terry across the border to Mexico.  And then he spends the rest of the book trying to figure out who really did kill the wife, why the whole case has been hushed up, and just what being a true friend entails.

Chandler's singing, swinging prose goes down easier than a gimlet with lime juice in a Hollywood bar.  I often have to stop reading to savor a line or phrase, lest they slide past me in my eagerness to find out what happens next.  If you want to add a mystery to your summer reading list, do yourself a favor and make it one of his.

(Originally posted on Hamlette's Soliloquy on Jul. 13, 2012.)