The new French

The Searcher is a departure for Tana French; and yet it possesses all the attributes that make me want to read her books—a leisurely pace with plenty of detail, a compelling protagonist, a mystery to be solved, ethical questions to ponder…just not in the context or, should I say, formula of
her others. She already left the self-created fold of the Dublin Murder Squad with her last, The Witch Elm, and was chastised for that by many readers; in this book, too, she has ignored many of her reliable “go-to”s, and yet it still reads like
one of hers.

I personally enjoyed this book more than I did The Witch Elm, simply because I found that book needlessly convoluted and complex, and with essentially unlikable characters. This one is, by contrast, rather simple in plot and, though furnished with some moral quandaries, still much more straightforward than almost anything else she has written.

Her other books are all told from a first-person perspective; this is the first in which we get to observe her protagonist from the distance of third person. It is still an intimate portrait, in that Cal’s thoughts and processes are revealed for us through both his shared thoughts and his actions, but it’s a little more observational, less self-involved. Cal is also the first protagonist who isn’t Irish, with the result that we get to see life in Ireland from an outsider’s perspective, without the peculiar insights of a native but with great attention to aspects not previously examined. (Her American voice is relatively flawless, and contrasts nicely with those of the Emerald Isle.) In her other books, the protagonist is strongly tied to whatever mystery there is to be solved; in this case, the mystery revolves almost completely around others, with Cal as a rather helpless observer in some instances.

Cal Hooper is 48 years old, retired after a 25-year career as a police officer in Chicago. His daughter is grown, graduated, and in both a career and a relationship; his wife has divorced him, and although he can see individual reasons why she might do so, he can’t quite put together the big picture, and is floundering a bit without her. The divorce, in combination with some troubling realizations about his identity as a policeman in a time when that role is being reviled for racism and corruption, threw Cal’s sense of self out of whack sufficiently that he decided to leave the force and make a big change. He has bought a run-down property in rural Ireland, a house that hasn’t been occupied for perhaps decades, and has moved there with the intention of putting his energies into fixing it up and creating for himself a quiet life away from the stress of the big city. His daily routine will consist of removing wallpaper, pondering how to make friends with the rooks inhabiting the oak tree in his front yard, making a trip to the local general store for a gossip with its proprietor, or getting a drink in the bar with the fellas.

“One of the things that had caught his attention, when he first started looking into Ireland, was the lack of dangers: no handguns, no snakes, no bears or coyotes, no black widows, not even a mosquito. Cal feels like he’s spent most of his life dealing with feral creatures, one way or another, and he liked the thought of passing his retirement without having to take any of them into account. It seemed to him that Irish people were likely to be at ease with the world in ways they didn’t even notice.”

Cal is making notable progress on this plan when the back of his neck starts to itch in the way it did back in his police days; he feels observed. After a period of wondering if someone has it in for the outsider in their midst, he manages to identify his stalker as a young teenager, Trey Reddy, and after some wariness on the kid’s part, finds out that Trey has sought Cal out because his older brother is missing and neither his mother nor the police seem to care that something may have happened to Brendan. Trey wants Cal to look for Brendan, but Cal realizes he is handicapped by the lack of everything to which he would have had access as a police officer in Chicago: files, databases, records, and material assistance from other officers on the job. But the kid tugs at his feelings for all those who slip through the cracks of the system, and there is also a residual excitement at the thought of being back in the investigation game, so Cal decides to help him.

This simple agreement shifts everything in Cal’s fragile idyll. His sleepy retreat, the small village of Ardnakelty where nothing ever happens and everyone has, so far, been “hail fellow well met,” becomes a slightly sinister place where Cal can’t tell if people are looking out for him with their warnings or subtly herding him towards his own destruction. Resistance to his efforts to help Trey discover Brendan’s fate makes him wary but doesn’t deter him, and from this point in Cal’s story things begin to head towards a showdown.

The thing about this book is, it’s not really a crime thriller. It’s more of a literary novel by a writer who chooses to use a mystery as a vehicle to study a character, a community, a locale. It’s atmospheric, well written, and well plotted, but if you go into it expecting French’s usual, you will be disappointed. If you approach it with an open mind, however, you will be gratified by a story that is subtle, lovely, and special.

For BHM

While my belief is that black history is history and should be taught as such, calling it out for a month a year at least gets some attention, since our school curriculum is still not what it should be. Likewise, calling out some black authors, and some non-black authors who have written effectively about black history and culture, is always a good idea, but the prompt is helpful to remind one. So…

Science fiction is one genre that can definitely usher you through time. Octavia Butler‘s Kindred, which some say is the first science fiction written by an African American woman, is a combination of memoir and time travel that transports 26-year-old Dana from 1976 California to antebellum Maryland, where she arrives just in time to save a white boy from drowning, then jumps back just before the shotgun staring her in the face can go off. Like Henry in The Time Traveler’s Wife, Dana’s jumps are inadvertent, but they serve a purpose in her life history. Butler manages to provide both a conversation about serious issues—slavery, human rights, and racial prejudice—and an exciting and complex story about human nature, love, and loss.

For a glimpse into the future instead of the past, try Parable of the Sower, set in that familiar dystopia known as Los Angeles in the year 2025 (not so far off!), and following the fortunes of Lauren Olamina, an 18-year-old pioneer of a new philosophy known as Earthseed. Parable of the Talents is the sequel.

Since Butler died tragically young (in 2006, at age 58), there will be no more of her seminal works featuring female black heroines, but her contributions to the science fiction world won her both the Hugo and Nebula awards multiple times, and she was the first science fiction writer ever to win the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant.

Like a little mystery with your history? Try Barbara Hambly’s mystery series that begins with A Free Man of Color. Set in New Orleans in the 1830s (right after the Louisiana Territory was acquired by America), the characters are a rich mix of French, Spanish, and American, Creole, African slave, and “free people of color.” Benjamin January (or Janvier, depending on the language you’re speaking) is one of the latter, a Paris-trained surgeon who must earn his living in New Orleans as a piano player. Between his two professions he mingles with all levels of society, and inevitably someone turns to him for his appealing mix of compassion and good sense to help them solve a dilemma, a puzzle, or even a murder. There are 18 books, so if you’re hooked by the first one, you can relish Ben January’s world for a sumptuous long time.

Another book set in the same time period and also on the subject of the gens de couleur libre is Anne Rice’s second novel, The Feast of All Saints. If you thought Rice was only about vampires, think again: She researched this while in New Orleans planning out Interview with the Vampire, and in my opinion it’s the best thing she ever wrote (and I’m a fan of the vamps, and the witches too). Rich with the history of pre-Civil War New Orleans, with truly compelling characters, it is beautifully written, poignant, and emotionally overwhelming.

Some other books to which I’d like to draw your attention, that encompass the history of the present and the recent past:

The Rock and the River (about the Black Panther movement), by Kekla Magoon
How It Went Down (an account of a shooting, from 17 different viewpoints), also by Kekla Magoon
Flygirl, by Sherri L. Smith, about a black girl pilot trying to participate in World War II
Tyrell, by Coe Booth, a young adult novel representative of all too many young black men with few alternatives. A compelling voice and an engaging story.
March, by John Lewis, a series of three graphic novels about the Civil Rights Movement, by the senator who was by the side of Martin Luther King

Please note that this is a short, random, partial list of books that in no way represent the richness of writing available out there, but simply reflects some books I read, enjoyed, and appreciated for their topic and their tone. I hope you find something to enjoy.

Halt!

Well, I said I would try one more Jake Lassiter mystery by Paul Levine before calling a halt, and now is the time for that call. I read Night Vision, the second book in the series, and my overall reaction was that it was a hot mess. I still enjoyed the main character, although he seemed much subdued in this book compared to how he was last time, but the author’s bizarre concept of how women think and behave put me off even more in this book than in the first. I know that at least one of them was supposed to behave strangely to cue you in to the fact that she had more to do with the mystery than anyone realized, but the rest of the women in the piece were likewise unbelievable and, frankly, offensive. They were completely confused or confusing, in that they alternated between coming on to Jake like a ten-dollar hooker on a slow night and rejecting his advances with a vehemence totally unjustified by his casual flirtatious approach. And what I’m describing is the same women in subsequent scenes!

Plausibility was another problem. The appointment of Jake as some kind of investigative attorney was thin, the trip to London with the lady psychologist for a meeting with a therapy group of serial killers was completely unrealistic, and the courtroom scenes were odd.

The thing I disliked most about this book, however, was how completely repellent were most of the characters. With the exception of Charlie Riggs (whose role was much smaller in this book), no one except Jake was either likable or engaging, and the contradictory ways in which they behaved made them unbelievable as well. It worked to allow Levine to keep shifting the focus of the story from one red herring to the next, to keep the reader guessing about the ultimate resolution, but in terms of character development it was a big fat fail. They were either mean, psychotic, hysterical (as in over the top emotional, not as in funny), or simply boring. And the ultimate fate of one of the characters was too gruesome to put on paper (this from someone who likes Dexter!).

The winning personality of Jake Lassiter is just not sufficient to carry a book, and Paul Levine will have to do without me as a reader from here on out. A few reviewers commented that this was their least favorite and the least plausible of the series and to take a chance on a later book, but I think I’ll pass.

Back to urban fantasy with another dose of Harry Dresden, who arrived from the library on my Kindle with less than two weeks to be read. And then, I swear I’m going to try something literary!

Series, new to me

I tried a “new” series this week, whose first book came out in 1990. To Speak for the Dead is the first in Paul Levine’s Jake Lassiter novels and there are apparently 11 or 12 more. It was a free Kindle download a few weeks ago, so I added it and let it sit until I was between books and feeling restless for something different.

After trying and failing to read The 7.5 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle for book club (I may return to it later) and also striking out with three of the four books that preceded that, I was in the mood for a straightforward protagonist with a simple agenda. Jake Lassiter, attorney and former linebacker, seemed stable enough to qualify. I have been burned by courtroom dramas often enough that I tend to avoid them now in favor of more direct interactions with the case (i.e., police procedurals, detectives), but this one sounded intriguing.

I liked it pretty well. The main character is well developed and fun, with a bit of a rogue attitude but holding, at heart, a basically sound philosophy; and some of the side character “regulars” are likewise engaging (notably Granny Lassiter and the now-retired medical examiner, Dr. Charles Riggs). And there is quite a bit of leavening humor, which always helps. In this one, at least, the women were a bit one-dimensional (although I got a big kick out of Cindy, Lassiter’s receptionist), but I forgave that to a certain extent, because A. it’s the first book in the series, so we are meant to be focused on Jake Lassiter, and B. Levine wrote this in 1990, so the standards weren’t quite as high (although it would have been much more forgiveable had it been, say, the ’70s!).

There were some things that would flat-out never happen in a legal/court case, but Levine writes his Miami setting as if it is a place like no other, where rules are lax and meant to be stretched, and it’s easy to go along. The plot is a weird one, in that the man Lassiter represents, Dr. Robert Stanton, seems to be innocent of the crime of which he is accused in the civil case being tried when the book opens, but appears to be guilty of much worse as events unfold. It’s hard to be sure, though, with so much conflicting information and so many other dastardly people in the mix, and the whole book is an extended game of what John Lescroart, in his Dismas Hardy series which I have lately abandoned, calls “SODDIT,” or “Some Other Dude Did It.” But who? is the question we are meant to answer.

The book wraps up with an open-ended scene that is among the weirdest I’ve ever experienced in a so-called mystery, but it was just bizarre enough to work. I’m at least going to try the second book in the series before calling a halt.

Surprise heir

Ruth Ware’s novel The Death of Mrs. Westaway incorporates several things I love, and I was drawn to it from the first page. The protagonist, Hal (Harriet) Westaway, is such a vibrant character and her precarious existence is so appealing that it’s hard not to buy in.

Hal has been raised by a single mother in a small but unusual and fulfilling life; her mother was a tarot card reader in a booth on the pier in Brighton Beach and, partly through instruction and partly through absorbing the daily atmosphere of her mother’s tradecraft, Hal has acquired all the skills to follow after her when she is tragically killed by a hit-and-run driver right outside their front door.

Hal stays in their small but known and comforting bed-sit after her mother is gone, and takes up the mantle of tarot card reader, although she always hearkens to her mother’s voice in her ear that tells her not to believe the patter that makes her so successful with her clients. Hal enjoys the combination of the beauty of the tarot and the skillful use of psychological clues to direct the faith of the tourists and drunken hen parties in her “fortunes”; she doesn’t care for those few fanatics who return again and again trying to come at truths that Hal knows better than to promise them.

Hal has made one foolish decision in the aftermath of her mother’s death; between the halting start-up of her takeover of the tarot booth and the slow months of winter that don’t contain the huge number of customers present during the tourist season, Harriet got behind on her bills and resorted to visiting a moneylender. She is stunned to realize how quickly and disastrously the interest on this loan has compounded, and is in imminent danger from the loan shark’s enforcers if she doesn’t come up with the money soon.

Just at the crux of this fraught situation, Hal receives a letter from a law firm, telling her that her grandmother, Hester Westaway, has died and that her presence is required at the funeral and subsequent reading of the will. She knows just enough about her mother’s family to realize that someone has made a mistake; but there are sufficient similarities in her background that cause her to grasp at the idea that she can pull off a deception and perhaps come into some funds that will help her out of her desperate straits. She scrapes together the last of her funds, buys a ticket to Porthleven, and sets out to collect “her” inheritance.

Haven’t we all imagined at some point that a long-lost legacy will arrive in the mail or via a phone call? That we will be pulled back at the last second from the brink of ruin by the generosity of a remote relative who turns out to have doted on us as a precocious three-year-old and has been generous in their bequest? I loved the entire set-up for this story, and Hal’s tentative but determined foray into a strange house filled with family that may or may not be hers.

The tale owes a lot to both Agatha Christie and Daphne du Maurier: First of all, it takes place in Cornwall, scene of the bulk of du Maurier’s storytelling, and the creepy housekeeper definitely gives off an obsessive Mrs. Danvers vibe. The house itself is a gothic nightmare straight out of Christie, of cold, dark, dust-filled rooms reverberating with an unhappy past, and the Westaway family, though cordial on the surface, has obviously been greatly affected (and not in a good way) by their upbringing. It’s no coincidence that Hal feels the greatest affinity for the sole in-law in the bunch!

I have to say that the strong-willed, smart, and likeable character of Hal largely carried this book for me. I loved her back story, her personality, her profession, and her daring. The rest of the characters were, by comparison, made of cardboard, and some were outright cliché. They were okay as a backdrop for Hal, but it would have been nice if the only glimpses into their story had gone farther than a few incomplete and unsatisfying diary entries. None of them is overtly friendly, no one voluntarily supplies family history, and despite being surrounded by all these people, Hal has to solve her mystery through a not always compelling combination of research and subterfuge.

The thing is, The Death of Mrs. Westaway is not exactly a mystery, although there are mysterious elements to solve; it’s not entirely suspense, although it’s suspenseful; and the resolution is a bit telegraphed and not as exciting as it could have been. At several points in the story, it seems like the book doesn’t know whether it’s trying to be gothic horror, an Agatha Christie-style whodunnit, or a psychological thriller. But if you focus on the story as being Hal’s alone, and simply let yourself enjoy the atmospheric vibes, it ends up being a satisfying read. The integration of the tarot into the story made it special for me, as I have always had a fascination with both the artwork and the infused meaning of those cards. This is the second Ruth Ware book I have read, and although the other one was better conceived and executed, I believe I prefer this one based simply on the appeal of character.

Cold cases abound

My first read of 2021 is Shed No Tears, by Caz Frear, third book in a series of police procedurals starring Detective Constable Cat Kinsella. Coincidental to my third-to-last read for 2020, Troubled Blood, it’s also a cold case previously related to a serial killer. I don’t project anything sinister here—they were released at almost the same time, so I doubt there’s any copycat behavior going on—but it’s interesting to me when people come up with virtually the same idea, especially when they are treated and resolved so differently.

The case in Shed No Tears had seemed open-and-shut: A missing woman had been seen by a witness entering the home of a man who later turned out to be the serial killer of several other women, so even though her body wasn’t recovered with the rest, the police and everyone else presumed (largely on the word of this witness) that Holly Kemp was his last—though unclaimed—victim. Christopher Masters never came out and said that he had killed Holly, but he tantalized the public and the police with that possibility for years, until his death in prison.

Six years after her disappearance, however, Holly’s body has turned up, and it’s nowhere near the location where the other bodies were found—in fact, it’s on the other side of London. It’s not buried like they were; the cause of death is different; and if it weren’t for a couple of facts—the rock-solid word of the witness and the fact that Masters had indeed spent some time in a location near the ditch in the abandoned field where Holly was found—one would almost think it was a different killer altogether.

And after exploring and exhausting everything known to them about Masters and his victims, Cat and the team begin to suspect that’s exactly what they have. But the witness still holds to her story, some of the principles in the case have since died or disappeared, and all they really have to go on are a few anomalies and some gut feelings. Since this is a police procedural, these hunches lead after much mind-numbing work to some actual facts that refuse to jibe with their initial view of the crime, and the ultimate solution is far from anyone’s assumptions.

As with previous volumes in this series, Cat is still juggling her public life as a dedicated and honorable police officer with her private life that is peripherally connected, through her father, to organized crime, and is still hiding from her boyfriend, Aiden, the connection between his family and hers that has the potential, should it become known, to utterly ruin their relationship. There’s not a big furtherance of that relationship in this book, although there is some movement in the stalemate between Cat and her dad; but there’s a big surprise at the end (besides the solution to the case) that may lead to a different direction in subsequent books.

Frear has created a great procedural team in DCI Kate Steele, DS Luigi Parnell, and all the minor characters in the “situation room” with them. Their personalities are highly developed, their interactions interesting and fresh, and their results always arrived at by a combination of teamwork and of helping one another share their most outrageous theories as they brainstorm their way to a solution. Although I don’t find it quite on a par with Cormoran Strike, I’m really enjoying this series, and greatly look forward to more.

2020 Faves

I don’t know if anyone is dying for a reprise of my favorite books of 2020. Since I am such an eclectic reader, I don’t always read the new stuff, or the popular stuff. Sometimes I discover something popular three years after everyone else already read it, as I did The Hate U Give this past January (it was released in 2017). Sometimes I find things that no one else has read that are unbelievably good, and I feel vindicated by my weird reading patterns when I am able to share it on my blog. But mostly I just read whatever takes my fancy, whenever it comes up and from whatever source, and readers of the blog have to put up with it.

Anyway, I thought I would do a short summary here of my favorite reads for the year, and since they are somewhat evenly populated between Young Adult and Adult books, I will divvy them up
that way.

YOUNG ADULT DISCOVERIES

Fantasy dominated here, as it commonly does, both because fantasy is big in YA and because I am a big fantasy fan. I discovered a stand-alone and two duologies this year, which was a nice break from the usual trilogy and I think worked better for the authors as well (so often the middle book is weak and the last book is rushed in those cases).

The first was The Hazel Wood and The Night Country, by Melissa Albert, and although I characterized them as fantasy, they are truthfully much closer to fairy tale. I say that advisedly with the caveat that this is not the determinedly nice Disney fairy tale, but a real, slightly horrifying portal story to a place that you may not, in the end, wish to visit! Both the story and the language are fantastic, in all senses of the word.

The stand-alone was Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik. The book borrows a couple of basic concepts from “Rumpelstiltskin,” turns them completely on their heads, and goes on with a story nothing like that mean little tale. There are actual faerie in this book, but they have more to do with the fey creatures of Celtic lore than with any prosaic fairy godmother. It is a beautifully complex, character-driven story about agency, empathy, self-determination, and family that held my attention from beginning to end.

The second duology was The Merciful Crow and The Faithless Hawk, by Margaret Owen, and these were true fantasy, with complex world-building (formal castes in society, each of which has its own magical properties), and a protagonist from the bottom-most caste. It’s a compelling adventure featuring good against evil, hunters and hunted, choices, chance, and character. Don’t let the fact that it’s billed as YA stop you from reading it—anyone who likes a good saga should do so!

I also discovered a bunch of YA mainstream/realistic fiction written by an author I previously knew only for her fantasy. Brigid Kemmerer has published three books based on the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast” (and they are well done), but the books of hers I fell for this year were about typical teenagers with problems that needed to be solved and love lives that needed to be resolved. My favorite of the four was Letters to the Lost, but I also greatly enjoyed More Than We Can Tell, Thicker Than Water, and Call it What You Want.

These were my five-star Young Adult books for 2020.

ADULT FICTION

As YA selections were dominated by a particular genre, so were my books in Adult fiction, almost all of them falling in the mystery section. But before I give you that list, I will finish up with fairy tale by lauding an original adult story that engaged me from the first page and has stuck with me all year: Once Upon A River, by Diane Setterfield. The fairy tale quality is palpable but the archetypal nature of fairy tales doesn’t dominate the story, which is individual and unique. It is the story of three children and the impact of their disappearances (and possible reappearance) on the people close to them, as well as on the inhabitants of one small town beside the river Thames who are caught up by chance in the events that restore a child to life. But the story encompasses more than her fate: It gives extraordinary insight into the issues of life and death—how much they are worth, how they arrive, how they depart, and what is the best way to pursue them.

Another book I encountered in 2020 that didn’t fall into the mystery genre or belong to a series was the fascinating She Rides Shotgun, by Jordan Harper. This was a short, powerful book by a first-time author, a coming of age story set down in the middle of a dark thriller that bowled me over with its contradictory combination of evil deeds and poignant moments.

And the last stand-alone mainstream fiction novel I enjoyed enough to bestow five stars was Just Life, by Neil Abramson. The story showcases the eternal battle between fear and compassion, and involves a deadly virus and a dog shelter in a fast-paced, gripping narrative that takes over the lives of four people. It made me cry, three times.

Most of the mysteries I enjoyed this year came from a “stable” of staple authors I have developed over the decades and upon whom I rely for at least one good read per year. The first is Louise Penny, whose offering All the Devils Are Here in the ongoing Armand Gamache series is nuanced, perplexing, and utterly enjoyable, all the more so for being extracted from the usual Three Pines venue and transported to the magical city of Paris.

Sharon J. Bolton is a reliable source of both mystery and suspense, and she didn’t disappoint with The Split, a quirky story that takes place over the course of six weeks, in stuffy Cambridge, England, and remote Antarctica. Its main character, a glaciologist (she studies glaciers, and yes, it’s a thing) is in peril, and will go to the ends of the earth to escape it…but so, too, will her stalker, it seems. The Split is a twisty thriller abounding in misdirection, and definitely lives up to Bolton’s previous offerings.

Troubled Blood, by “Robert Galbraith,” aka J. K. Rowling, is my most recent favorite read, and is #5 in that author’s series about London private detective Cormoran Strike and his business partner, Robin Ellacott. It’s a police procedural with a lot of detail in service of both the mystery and the protagonists’ private lives, it’s 944 pages long, and I enjoyed every page.

Finally, this year i discovered two series that are new to me, completely different from one another but equally enjoyable.

The first is the Detective Constable Cat Kinsella series by Caz Frear, which currently encompasses three books. I read the first two earlier in the year and promptly put in a reserve at the library on the third (which had yet to be published at the time), and Shed No Tears just hit my Kindle a couple of days ago. They remind me a bit of Tana French, although not with the plethora of detail, and a bit of the abovementioned Sharon Bolton’s mystery series starring Lacey Flint. Cat is a nicely conflicted police officer who comes from a dodgy background and has to work hard to keep her personal and professional lives from impinging one upon the other, particularly when details of a case threaten to overlap the two. I anticipate continuing with this series of novels as quickly as Frear can turn them out.

The second, which is a mash-up of several genres, is Charlaine Harris’s new offering starring the body-guard/assassin Gunnie Rose. I read the first two books—An Easy Death and A Longer Fall—this year, and am eagerly anticipating #3, coming sometime in 2021 but not soon enough. The best description I can make of this series is a dystopian alternate history mystery with magic. If this leads you to want to know more, read my review, here.

These are the adult books I awarded five stars during 2020.

I hope you have enjoyed this survey of my year’s worth of best books. I am always happy to hear from any of you, and would love to know what you found most compelling this year. I think we all did a little extra reading as a result of more isolation than usual, and what better than to share our bounty with others?

Please comment, here or on Facebook, at https://www.facebook.com/thebookadept. Thanks for following my blog this year.

Procedural, no police

I just finished reading Troubled Blood, the new Cormoran Strike novel by Robert Galbraith, aka J. K. Rowling. (I don’t know why she ever bothered to use a pseudonym, since she outs herself right on the first book cover flap, but whatever.) I’d almost like to make that statement (I finished!) twice or three times, because at 944 pages, this was a gargantuan achievement!

At that many pages, I also expected it to be an achievement that cost me some labor, and to be saying afterwards that she needs an editor—but I’m not going to do that. I loved the entire book. I didn’t find anything extraneous I wanted to cut.
I enjoyed reading it 40 or 50 pages at a time at the breakfast table or during my middle-of-the-night intermission from sleep, wherein I wake up and need to separate myself from my dreams, get a glass of water, and redirect my mind with good fiction, and I was reluctant to finish it.

Just to deal with this up front, there is absolutely no transgender character (or scandal) here. If you have heard that, you have been misinformed. In one instance, a killer puts on a wig and trenchcoat to disguise himself. That’s it. If you want to argue about this, go somewhere else. I’m tired of all the ugliness.

This book was such a wonderful adventure or exploration of all the ways two dedicated and stubborn people solve a mystery by following every lead, reading every note, re-interviewing anyone with any potential involvement, however small, and keeping their minds open and churning up ideas and solutions. It’s the first time that Cormoran Strike and Robin Ellacott have tackled a cold case, let alone one more than 40 years old, but their innate curiosity leads them down the path of one of the most fascinating mysteries they have ever encountered—the disappearance of Dr. Margot Bamborough. They are simultaneously tending to three or four other clients’ cases at the same time, aided by their contract hires Barclay and Morris, and organized by new secretary Pat; and their personal lives, both apart and together, are also on display. Robin is hoping that her unexpectedly acrimonious divorce from Matthew will conclude soon, while Strike is still dealing with the fallout from his ex-girlfriend Charlotte, who married someone else and gave birth to twins but still texts him wistful (and manipulative) messages in the middle of the night. And both of them are all too conscious of some significant moments they have shared that could mean more, if either of them chooses to act.

This is the ultimate in police procedurals, without having the police involved. Because of some good contacts, some clever thinking, and some helpful people, the detectives are able to get their hands on a good part of the police record, but the complication is that the original lead detective was suffering a mental breakdown while conducting the case, while his successor was more interested in devaluing everything his predecessor had done than in actually breaking new ground. So in some ways they are looking at the case not only with fresh eyes, but with attention to details that no one previous had seen in the same light.

As usual, Rowling also provides great side characters, who give both darkness and whimsy as their contribution to the main story she is telling. Robin’s relationship with Morris and Strike’s interactions with Pat, as well as the background of Cormoran’s family problems, provided great context and cushioning for the rest.

I don’t know what it was about this book—whether it was the book itself or simply the way I approached reading it, a little at a time rather than an all-out binge-fest—but I never got impatient with any red herring or tired of their continued speculations to one another about the various aspects. Part of it, of course, is the way Rowling writes the interactions between the partners, and the excruciatingly slow build she has given their relationship through multiple volumes that keeps you reading for any hint of a shift. There are some in this book, but I’m neither giving them away nor hinting at how extensive they might be. All I will say is that I felt completely satisfied by the resolution of the case, and that I have no doubt that the next chapter in the Cormoran-and-Robin show will be interesting!

Between the “greats”

I follow a lot of authors and anticipate their books and then, paradoxically, when they come out I take my time about getting around to reading them. I think it is a defense mechanism—equal parts fear that they won’t be as good as I have anticipated, or that they will be as good but that they will take me a lot of time and energy to get through and then think about and analyze. Sometimes, after all, you want a reading experience that is not intense, that is not taxing, that takes you somewhere familiar and allows you to follow along somewhat passively instead of being an active reader.

I have been in that exact place, during the past two weeks. I had a choice between reading Return of the Thief, “the thrilling, 20-years-in-the-making conclusion to the New York Times–bestselling Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner,” which is one of my favorite fantasy series of all time; Troubled Blood, the next in the exciting and engaging Cormoran Strike private detective series by alias J. K. Rowling; or V. E. Schwab’s brand-new book The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue, which is already making waves on all the best-of book lists out there. Thief and Addie are close to 500 pages apiece, while Rowling has done her usual of increasing the page-count of the book with each addition to the series, this one coming in at a whopping 944! So taking on any one of them won’t be a short-term experience, and deciding which to prefer above the others is also all locked up with my feelings towards each. Do I really want my favorite series to end?
Will these books live up to the others? Is the hype bigger than the book?

My response, this past week, was to turn aside from all three of them and pick up an early entry in Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series, The Enemy. After I got about a third of the way into it, some vaguely familiar scenes made me go check Goodreads, whence I discovered that I had actually read this book before; but it was more than five years ago, I have read at least 400 books (maybe more) in the intervening years and, despite certain scenes jiving with my memory, I didn’t remember anything about how it resolved.

As some readers of my blog will remember, I swore off of more Reacher books after reading the latest one, which was dark and ugly and didn’t feature the Reacher we had all come to know and respect for so many years and volumes. But this one is not only early in the series (#8), it’s also a flashback to when Reacher was still in the military working as an active police major (M.P.), solving crimes from within the confines of rules and protocol.

It begins on New Year’s Eve 1989, when Reacher is still in the army and has inexplicably been transferred from Panama to Fort Bird, North Carolina. Everyone else is out celebrating the turn of the decade, but Reacher is on duty when a two-star general is found dead in a sleazy motel 30 miles from the base, and it looks like he wasn’t alone. It’s the classic case of heart attack in the midst of sex but, by the time Reacher arrives, the hooker is no longer on the scene, nor is the general’s briefcase. Reacher’s new boss at Bird tells him to “contain the situation” so that the army won’t be embarrassed, but when Reacher goes to deliver the news of the general’s death to his widow in Virginia, the widow turns up dead too, and speculation about the contents of the briefcase suddenly turns the affair into something more complicated. Reacher recruits a (female) M.P. named Summer to help him run down all the details, and the two of them go ever deeper into danger as they defy the military to dig into this broadening potential scandal.

The book is a convoluted, intriguing puzzle from start to the very last page. There is a quote on the cover of my paperback from the Chicago Sun-Times that calls it “a thriller that gallops at a breakneck pace.” This proves that no one at that newspaper actually read the book; while it is, indeed, thrilling at certain points, and Reacher and Summer travel extensively across the States and into Europe during a 10-day period, spending as little as eight hours at some destinations, the pacing of this book is deliberate and every detail is noted, from what the protagonists are wearing down to how many cups of coffee they consume during breakfast at the Officers’ Club. In order to appreciate Reacher, you have to dwell in the details, because you never know when one will become significant.

This was a good one, and bravo to Lee Child for writing this background story so successfully.

As for making a decision between the three alternatives I mentioned at the top of this blog post, I think the safest is probably the stand-alone book in which I don’t have quite as much invested, so Addie LaRue will be my next read. Unless I put them all off to do some theme reading for the holidays, such as Jenny Colgan’s Christmas at the Cupcake Café? It’s entirely possible…

Farthing

I am a big fan of science/speculative fiction writer Jo Walton, although I have found her offerings to be somewhat uneven between things I love and things I recognize as worthy while not personally caring for them. I was excited to discover that she had written an alternate history in which Great Britain negotiated its way out of World War II in return for a treaty with Hitler, who proceeded to conquer the European continent while sparing England across the Channel.

I thought Farthing was a new work, possibly designed to address the fascism and bigotry that have been revealing themselves these past few years in America; but after I got into it I discovered it had been published in 2006 and was, in fact, the first of a trilogy, the others being Ha’penny and Half a Crown.

I also found the book disappointing in some respects, but only because I had a particular expectation that it didn’t fulfill. I thought it was a full-on alternate history and would deal more specifically with the details of that world; instead, Walton used post-war Britain allied with Germany as a backdrop for a “locked-door” murder mystery novel reminiscent of Agatha Christie, which is not really what I wanted to read.

The details of the alternate history do matter to the story: Eight years after they overthrew Churchill and led Britain into a separate peace with Hitler, the aristocrats of the “Farthing set” are gathered for a weekend retreat at the Eversley’s estate. Lucy, daughter of the house, is one of the invited guests, although her new husband, David Kahn, a Jewish banker, is less welcome. Lucy has “thrown herself away” by marrying him, and is tolerated, rather than welcomed, into her old social circle as a consequence. Neither of them really wished to come to the country that weekend, but Lucy’s mother imperiously summoned them, and David felt perhaps she was holding out an olive branch, although Lucy, being more familiar with her mother’s prejudices, knows that can’t be the case.

Soon the two can only wish they had resisted the invitation and stayed in town; Sir James Thirkie, a friend of her parents who is also the person who engineered the historic agreement with Hitler for peace, has been murdered sometime between Friday night and Saturday morning, and some details of the murder look like they have been specifically engineered so it can be blamed on David Kahn.

Fortunately, the Scotland Yard inspector sent down to solve the case is less gullible than are the local police and sees the nature of the set-up; he doesn’t view Kahn as remotely likely in the role of murderer, but if he can’t see his way clear to accusing someone else, Kahn is likely to go down for it, as Jewish scapegoat on the scene. Inspector Carmichael does his level best to come up with a solution, but new details keep getting thrown at him that twist the mystery further this way and that until no one knows how it will end.

Although I recognized and appreciated both the set-up and the writing in Farthing, I felt somewhat dissatisfied after reading it. The mystery itself was not particularly intriguing, and the alternate history aspect left me wanting more world-building. I also wasn’t a big fan of the alternating point of view between first person (Lucy’s journal of the events) and third person (Inspector Carmichael’s investigation), although I did like both characters quite a bit. Character development is one of Walton’s strong suits, and she didn’t fail here, particularly as regards the inspector, whose ulterior motive for refusing to suspect David Kahn enriches the story.

It was strange to read the book from within the throes of the current political climate. I started the book two days before Election Day, and finished it a couple of days afterwards, and I did appreciate how the author asked the reader to consider the consequences of allowing fascist behavior to continue and grow. There is also a familiarity about the plight of the Jews in this book as compared with the history of black people in America; there are all these little bits of discrimination that each by themselves seem fairly innocuous (especially if you are not the party who is targeted by them) but taken collectively they are seen to intentionally omit, push out, reject, and deny full personhood.

I don’t think I am sufficiently enamored of this book to pursue reading the other two; but if you are a person who enjoys Agatha Christie or Dorothy Sayers mysteries and also appreciates good character development, witty dialogue, and an unexpected background for all of that, you might want to check out this trilogy.

My preference for Walton’s alternate history oeuvre is her three-book series that begins with The Just City. The Thessaly trilogy is based on the idea that the goddess Pallas Athene, curious as to its outcome, creates a society designed to follow the tenets of Plato’s Republic. She extracts 100 caregivers and 10,000 babies from various points in history (past, present, and future), puts them together on an island located in the distant past, and instructs the adults to raise the children strictly according to Plato to be their “best selves.” A few years into the experiment, she kidnaps and throws Sokrates into the mix, and then things get interesting.