Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Devil's Feather

I enjoy finding authors with backlists, because it means I've got a few years before I have to wait for his or her new books to come out.  I decided to try Minette Walters after seeing an adaptation of The Scold's Bridle on BBC America a few years ago, and wasn't disappointed.  I enjoy her writing style, and particularly like how she inserts police reports, newspaper clippings, and letters or e-mails to handle the exposition, and I'm sorry that I only have two more of her books to read before I'm scouring the new release lists for her name.

The Devil's Feather, unfortunately, is a bit of a disappointment.  Walters often takes two or three apparently separate plot threads and unifies them as she approaches page 300, but this time it felt forced.  She starts with the brutal murder of women in Sierra Leone.  A few years later, Reuters reporter Connie Burns is on assignment in Iraq and sees the man she suspected of the earlier crimes.  Soon after she begins investigating him, she's kidnapped and released after three days.  Suffering from PTSD and still being stalked by her abductor, she rents a small house in Dorset and falls into another mystery - was the elderly, Alzheimer's stricken owner of the house being mistreated by her London-based daughter?  Either plot would have made a thrilling novel, and Walters has expertly  tied disparate threads in the past, but this time it doesn't quite work.  Overall, I'd rate the book "interesting but unsatisfying" and a bit creepier than her usual work.

1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

1599:  A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare never fully captured my attention, but it did make me want to watch and read the four plays mentioned.  I think it was because of Shapiro's writing style - clear but not engrossing.

Shapiro divides his book into four seasons, picks a play for each one, and then puts that play into the context of Shakespeare's world.  Winter focuses on *Henry V* and how it reflects the English campaign in Ireland.  Spring draws parallels between *Julius Caesar* and the highly structured court of the day.  Since Shakespeare traveled to Stratford-on-Avon that summer, *As You Like It* plays out against the backdrop of Shakespeare's attainment of a coat of arms.  Finally, melancholy *Hamlet* plays out against the backdrop of an aging queen, a looming succession crisis, and the first tentative steps into empire building.  Shapiro does a nice job placing Shakespeare in context, but ultimately it's not a particularly memorable book.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The White Garden

Peter Llewellyn would make the perfect Peter Mayle hero, a dashing book expert with a passion for food and a bewitching ex-wife.  Stephanie Barron is not Peter Mayle, but The White Garden could be a Mayle novel written from the female point of view.  The point of view is that of Jo Bellamy, a landscape designer from Delaware sent by her client/lover to visit and copy Vita Sackville-West's White Garden.  While exploring an outbuilding, Jo discovers a notebook apparently owned by her recently deceased grandfather and which appears to contain unpublished writings by Virginia Woolf.  

There's a problem with the notebook - well, more than one if you count Jo's not-quite-authorized trip to Southeby's where Peter is the resident book expert and Jo's boss Gray appearing in London and also developing an interest in the notebook.  Jo is only somewhat familiar with Virginia Woolf and doesn't realize that the diary begins the day after Woolf committed suicide.  Still, she's convinced that it's real, and Peter begins to believe her - Woolf's body wasn't found until several days after her disappearance - but if it's real, how did she die?  At this point, it would have helped if I were more familiar with the Bloomsbury Set than one would be a decade after reading a single book on the group.  Barron explains the background clearly enough that it's not necessary to know more than just the basics, and while Peter's and Jo's trip across England chasing the notebook and Peter's ex-wife, Oxford don and Woolf expert Margaux Strand doesn't quite have the lightness of a Mayle caper, it's well plotted and enjoyable.  In the end, the notebook ends up where it belongs, and Jo resolves a mystery involving her grandfather.

The Prodigal Son

The Prodigal Son is the best mystery I've read in quite a while - maybe two years.  I've read several very good books that happened to be mysteries in that time, but Sedley's 2006 entry in her Roger the Chapman series is probably the best example of the genre (barring re-reads of books by Christie and Sayers, of course) I've read since I started this blog.

Roger is enjoying an ale in his favorite inn when a young man who looks vaguely familiar strikes up a conversation.  A few days later, the young man is identified a fugitive accused of committing a long-ago murder and asks Roger - who, it turns out, is his half-brother, for assistance.  Roger agrees to investigate the decade-old murder of Audra Bellknap's housekeeper, a task complicated by the reappearance of the elder Bellknap son, Anthony, who'd disappeared a few years before the crime.  Anthony insists that Roger be treated as a guest rather than a peddler, and then dies himself under mysterious circumstances.  Using wits and logic, Roger discovers the true murderer, and also some surprising information about his new-found brother.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat

I missed The Girl in the Green Raincoat when it was serialized in the New York Times Sunday Magazine.  I haven't read any of the serials, actually - I never seem to get in on the first chapter and I hate starting in the middle.  If I had read the serial, though, I might have known before reading Life Sentences that Lippman had decided to stop writing about Tess.

The Girl in the Green Raincoat starts with Tess attempting to adjust to bed rest.  When she first discovered she was pregnant, she also discovered that it was a great 'cover' for surveillance.  Who's going to expect a pregnant woman to tail a suspect, and if anyone did notice her, well, they'd just ask baby questions.  That ends when a celebratory lunch with her friend and sometime accomplice Whitney ends with a dash to the emergency room where Tess is diagnosed with preeclampsia.  On bed rest, with little to do but worry about her baby and her business, Tess tries to pass the time by watching the dog walkers pass her house on their way to the path through the woods.  She focuses on the most regular walker, a young woman in a green raincoat walking a greyhound in a matching garment.  

One day, Tess sees the dog running - alone.  What else would an immobilized PI do but investigate the woman's disappearance?  She's hampered, of course, by the fact that she can't leave her sofa, but she does have her laptop and her assistant Mrs. Blossom (little old ladies who knit on park benches are even less likely to be identified as detectives than pregnant women are), and Whitney is always willing to play Nancy Drew.  They discover that the missing woman's husband has been married twice before - and both wives died suspiciously.  Lippman wrote a tightly plotted mystery with an unexpected but well-supported solution, and also fits in several subplots (one per chapter, several involving love stories) in 158 crisply written pages.  It's not the typical Tess Monaghan mystery, but it's a nice way to end the series.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Smokin' Seventeen

I still look forward to the new Stephanie Plum novels, but I wonder if Janet Evanovich does.  She's been in a bit of a lull since about 13 or 14 - they're still fun, but a bit more routine.  I wonder if she's preparing to wind down the series around #20 or so.  That being said, Smokin' Seventeen is a nice diversion for a holiday weekend.

Vinnie Plum is back in business - his father-in-law is once again bankrolling the bail bonds office.  Unfortunately, the actual office was fire bombed at the end of Sizzlin' Sixteen so Vinnie, Connie, Steph, and Lula are now working out of Mooner's RV.  It's a nice plot device which allows for the proper amount of Mooner content - he's amusing, but a little bit goes a long way.  The lack of an actual office is not good for business, but the bodies appearing at the construction site where the office used to be are even worse.  The body of Lou Dugan, owner of a local topless bar and all-around shady character appears one morning, pinky-ringed finger reaching out as if signaling from beyond the grave.  Soon after, the decaying bodies of several of Dugan's business associates and poker bodies turn up - one of them addressed to Stephanie.  

This is not Steph's main problem, though - Morelli's Grandma Bella has put a sex curse on her, she still can't choose between Morelli and Ranger, and her mother has decided to fix her up with an old classmate who's returned to Trenton.  Dave Brewer was the captain of the football team back then, but now he's returned home after serving time for financial shenanigans in Atlanta - perhaps not an ideal mate, but he can cook, so Steph at least considers him until he gets creepy.  

All of this (as usual) is set against a framework of Lula's outfits, minor FTAs (including an alleged vampire and a capture that involves a fight over a bottle of wine), funerals, car death, and family dinners.  The ending seems a bit contrived, and while Smokin' Seventeen is entertaining, it's not particularly memorable.  Maybe Evanovich needs a Bella to put a spell on her - a good one that brings back the right balance of wackiness and tight plotting.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Time and Chance

Trilogies should probably be read in sequence - particularly trilogies where each installment is over 500 pages.  That's a lot easier if all three books have already been published when you discover them than if you pick them up as they come out.  Time And Chance periodically refers to events in While Christ and His Saints Slept, and after 5 years, my memory of some of the details is somewhat hazy.  If I'd read them back-to-back, that wouldn't have been a problem, but since Devil's Brood didn't come out until 2008, I would have just shifted the problem to the third book. 

I read Sharon Kay Penman's Welsh trilogy alongside Alison Weir's biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, and those books started my interest in medieval England.  Eleanor was a supporting character in Here Be Dragons (her granddaughter, John's illegitimate daughter Joan, married Llewellyn  of Wales), and she's the center of one of the plot threads in Time and Chance.  Her marriage to Henry II provides one of the plot threads in this sprawling novel, the compelling and sometimes explosive relationship between two intelligent and strong willed leaders which is eventually destroyed not by Henry's affairs but the fact that he falls in love with one of his mistresses.  Losing Eleanor's affection also means that he loses her shrewd political advice (the one time he goes against her counsel is when he nominates Thomas Becket to be Archbishop of Canterbury), and eventually leaves Henry alone in the political crisis of his own making.

Penman's usual style is to make a minor (or, in this case, fictional) member of the court a major character through whose eyes we see the plot.  In this trilogy, she gave Henry I an extra son (with 20 known illegitimate children, who's going to notice another one) named Ranulf.  Raunulf's mother was Welsh and in While Christ and His Saints Slept, he married his cousin and serves and a bridge between the two countries, as well as being the voice of reason to his nephew, Henry II.  Penman masterfully twines the two plot threads, but Ranulf's story frequently refers back to the prior novel and at times, I felt that I needed to check While Christ and His Saints Slept to fully understand Time and Chance.  Still, I enjoyed the novel and it's evocative descriptions of medieval court life - I just recommend reading the trilogy as more of a unit than three separate entities.