Saturday, January 29, 2011

Lempiere's Dictionary

Happy Weekend Flower!

Lucky me I've discovered another new-to-me historical fiction novelist. Reading, It's like a wonderfully bottomless pit of delights. They keep cranking them out and I get to keep reading them. This latest find is Lempiere's Dictionary by Lawrence Norfolk.

In 18th century London, John Lempiere, is furiously researching and writing his dictionary of classical mythology. He is sure that the publication of his definitive study will challenge scholars and make his fortune. His father's brutal murder has made obtaining financial security overwhelmingly important. Papa's death has also brought to light an intriguing and terrifying connection between his family and the all powerful Dutch East India Company. Might John actually be entitled to half of that monopoly's money? Decades old murders, greed, the Dutch East India and the recent deaths of acquaintances in ways that mirror the mythology John is studying are interfering with John's publishing plans. Should he abandon his work and investigate his claim despite the dangers or should he retreat to the safety of silence?

Author Lawrence Norfolk has applied his research on the period (everything from preparing a pen to dog training) to good use. The sights, smells and mindsets of the time engulf you. The light he shines on the 1700's illuminates an irresistible story. The Byzantine plot and rapid introduction of ideas and varied characters demand your complete attention. This is a novel that you commit to, it's not the book to leave in the car and read catch as catch can but if you have the time to dedicate to Lempiere's Dictionary your efforts will be rewarded with well written historical speculation, fact, mythology and conspiracies galore.

When Lempiere's Dictionary was first published in 1991 it was Lawrence Norfolk's debut novel and it won the Somerset Maugham Award that year. He was since written two other novels: The Pope's Rhinoceros and In The Shape of the Boar--both of which I have added to my acquire list and look forward to reading.


Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sex and Stravinsky

Hello Flower.

I'm not generally speaking a big reader of contemporary Women's Fiction. Novels with a modern setting that follow the travails of women looking for love, raising children, saving a marriage, divorcing, caring for elderly parents, dealing with siblings, pursuing a career and learning how to knit. No matter how wonderful the main character is or whatever surprises the plot might hold, I'll take a pass. That's not to say that there are not well written, terrific books out there that I am missing. I'm sure there are. I just don't want to read about the same concerns I face every day. My life is fine but I would rather read about someone else's thank you very much.

There are occasional exceptions. When a friend or colleague whose taste I trust wants to share/force feed me a Women's Fiction novel they loved I'll give it a try. Sometimes it works out (It did quite nicely recently with The Weird Sisters.) but more often than not I find that I can't make it past the next crisis on page 41 and I give up.

There is however a writer I consider to be the antidote to Women's Fiction. It is Barbara Trapido, my friend. Oh Barbara Trapido! ~~sigh~~ Barbara Trapido is my bellwether for novels about modern women. There is nothing out of the ordinary about her storylines. No one is starting a not for proffit to help the urchins of the world, there isn't a killer lurking in the background of the heroine's life and no intrepid reporter eager to tell the world of an upcoming pandemic. Still, she dazzles me. Her plots are what could have happened to you if...or just like what your friend told you about that woman she met on the train. Classic women's fiction stuff but in Trapido's hands there is a left of center reality to the situations that captures me.

Trapido's latest novel is Sex and Stravinsky. This book covers two families and their skeletons over twenty years in Oxford and South Africa. In 1970's Oxford Caroline McCleod is a beautiful, capable, I-can-make-your-mismatched-napkin-rings-into-your-next-kidney force of nature. She is a graduate student, married to Josh, (Oh Josh, Josh, Josh. Josh the little South African---ready?---getting his PhD in mime studies. There's a cross to bare.) mother to Zoe and happy. When cold hearted Mom and mean-spirited younger sister (Mom loves sis best) arrive from Australia demanding to be supported Caroline comes close to abandoning all in favor of doing anything to get her Mother's love and attention.

Josh had a seemingly happier childhood than his wife. He was raised in South Africa by politically active parents whose ideals he replaces with his own vanity. Husband Josh might have married Caroline on the rebound. Back home in South Africa he was in love with ballerina Hattie but she threw him over and Josh scurried off to Oxford. Hattie married successful but emotionally harsh architect Herman. She spends her time squirreled away physically and emotionally from her husband, beefy sons and pouty daughter writing novels about ballet.

Of course the two families will find themselves in the same place at the same time and changes will ensue. There are dramas a plenty in Sex and Stravinsky: misplaced loyalties, hidden paternity, separated twins, career setbacks, unhappy marriages, troubled teenagers, etc. All the staples of Women's Fiction but Trapido handles them with intelligence, candor and unexpected and (actually funny) humor.

No one gets away with anything in a Trapido novel. She makes her characters accountable for their decisions. Caroline has suffered through an unhappy childhood and that's sad but she isn't allowed as an adult to play the blameless victim of a wicked Mother. Caroline's inability to step away from a relationship that will never bring her any satisfaction may cause her and her daughter's downfall. Josh has spent most of his life playing the adolescent and running away when challenged by life. Now as a husband and father he has to grow up or say good-bye to his family.

Trapido moves between her characters skillfully and swiftly. There is an artful precision to the dance (dance is present throughout this novel) of changing partners, identities and misplaced goals that Trapido presents in this book. Caroline, Josh, Hattie and their daughters each discover their purpose but can they stay dedicated to its pursuit? Sex and Stravinsky is a wonderfully enjoyable life lesson in what happens when you let your dreams take a back seat to the desires of others.

There is not another writer of Women's Fiction out there with the vision, style and talent of Barbara Trapido. That's the great news. The really bad news is that none of Barbara Trapido's excellent novels --and I love them all--are in the print in the U.S. I first discovered her years ago when Penguin U.S. did a couple of her novels. This was before I was in a position to handsell the hell out of them and therefore single handsell-ed-ly create a lucrative market for her novels on this side of the Atlantic. I have spent years recommending her to sales reps and other publishing people but to no avail. You may find her in a local library or second hand shop. If you do you are in luck. I don't trust to fate. I buy her books from a U.K. bookshop and gladly pay the shipping. That is real love.

P.S. Have to say it--I love the her covers as well!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Mistress of Nothing Lady's Maid

Hi Flower!

Like many other people I have been watching and loving Downton Abbey on Masterpiece Theater. It's well written, well acted and gorgeous looking, isn't it? The Upstairs Downstairs of it all created a perfect storm in which I read two novels: The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger and Lady's Maid by
Margaret Forster. Both of these books are, like Downton Abbey about strong, entitled women and their devoted maids.

The Mistress of Nothing takes it's start from real life. Lady Lucie Duff Gordon wrote her famous Letters from Egypt in the 1860's after being forced to go there from her home in England because of consumption. Although Gordon was a famous entertainer and trendsetter in England she was not rich. So when she was forced to leave her family and go away for her health she was only able to bring one maid along with her, Sally Naldrett. Once in Egypt both women go native. They abandon their Victorian expectations and the social conventions of their times. For the first time in their lives they experience freedom of mind and body. The two also become friends rather then mistress and servant. They learn Arabic, dress in traditional Egyptian clothing and are accepted and welcomed into the local Egyptian community.

Lady's Maid also takes historical fact and expands it into a novel. It is the story of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning as told through the eyes of Barrett's maid, Lily Wilson. Wilson as Barrett called her, was instrumental in getting Barrett's correspondence to Browning during their romance. When the famous couple eloped to Italy Wilson accompanied them. Wilson lived her life through Barrett's. She was Barrett's maid, companion, confidante, nurse and support through every crisis and success.

The working lives of Sally Naldrett and Lily Wilson put them each in a position to contribute to literature and history and yet they remained far away on the outskirts of both. It was clever of Pullinger and Forster to use peripheral people in the lives of the well known as the conduits for stories of the celebrities and for their hypocrisy.

Sally and Wilson are each lulled into a false intimacy with Gordon and Barrett through their own loyalty and proximity. The maids have spent their adult lives in a servitude of adoration. They are encouraged to see themselves as valued members of the family. Free thinking and modern women that Gordon and Barrett are they pride themselves on the equality and respect they have for their servants. That is until Sally and Wilson both cross a line. In each case they are frightened about their future but confident that Gordon and Barrett whom they have cared for, nurtured and seen through countless hardships will stand by them.

In The Mistress of Nothing, Pullinger does a very good job recreating Egypt in the 1860's. It's a fascinating look at a native culture outside of the colonial system of the time. The novel hums along interestingly covering Egypt, medicine and the relationships between Sally, Gordon and their local dragoman, Omar, until it gets to Sally's crisis. Just when the conflict in this story truly begins, the drama ends. Overall The Mistress of Nothing was a disappointment. The only surprise for me was that the book was the winner of Canada’s Governor General’s Literary Award in 2009.

Lady's Maid is a wholly convincing, absorbing study of the relationship between unequal people who live in each others pockets. Forster's portrait of regimented, cold, Victorian England juxtaposed with warm, languorous Italy is marvelous. It is Forster's intricate dissection of what it is like for a servant, even a treasured one, to live within and yet outside of a family that is the payoff in this novel. There is a powerful subtly to Forster's writing that I was completely astonished by. I would read any of her other novels in a heartbeat.


Saturday, January 22, 2011

Galore Is Galorable

Hello Flower!

Have you heard of the novel, Galore? I hadn't. I hadn't heard of it's author, Michale Crummey either--too bad for me. I was sent a copy of it by a generous Canadian friend. Thank you lovely Canadian. Galore isn't due to be published here in the U.S. until March.

Galore is a swallow you whole kind of novel. Speaking of which when the story begins the townspeople of Paradise Deep pull a man out of a whale. I have to suspect that even in the great whaling times of the early 19th century you just didn't see that every day. The whale has beached itself on the shore of this remote village in Newfoundland. When it dies the citizens come together to butcher the whale and gather the blubber for lamp oil. Then just like Uncle Jed's bubblin' crude out from the whale comes an all white dude. True story or so the folklore of Paradise Deep goes. The next hundred years in Paradise Deep are filled with the flux of public opinion, the curse of Judah (The whale man who unsurprisingly never loses his fish smell.) and the savior Judah, blood feuds, ill-fated love affairs, the moneyed of the town verses the hand to mouth, opera singers, paternity questions, alcoholics, scrimshaw, a witch/healer and the kind of legends and characters that come from a very creative writer building a larger than life history.

Galore is a perfect name for this novel by Michael Crummey. It's a word I associate with the word lavish and Galore is a lavish novel. There is a lavish amount of characters, story lines, fish and Newfoundland brought to you in 100% lavish writing. Many writers strive to create a entire community with it's own natural folklore, but who succeeds? In recent memory I'd have to say We The Drowned and Galore both do one else.

If your favorite novels are slim studies of the interior life of characters who have a crisis the level of a hangnail then by all means skip Galore. Only read Galore if you adore terrific writing, invention, unique characters and lots of storytelling. --Oh yeah and historical fiction that doesn't mention a single Tudor, Borgia or Kennedy.

P.S. Some others have liked Galore as well: Winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Book, Caribbean & Canada and the Canadian Authors Association Literary Award; Finalist for the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, the Thomas Head Raddall Atlantic Book Award, and the Winterset Award.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Quickening


It's been a while since I read a pioneer novel. October I think, The Wake of Forgiveness. It seems like there was a time when every other book I read took place on a prairie or a homestead. I was influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder at an early age. What changed? Are there less novels settling the west these days? I don't know about that. Did I become more interested in reading about hardscrabble lives in India and China? Probably.

The Quickening by Michelle Hoover is a prairie tale. It's 1913 and both Enidina Current and Mary Morrow are farmer's wives. Their places are adjacent and this rather than like minds makes them friends or rather friendly. Enidina and Mary are very different. Enidina is happy in her hard work life while Mary chafes under the yoke of the plow. Years go by, both families grow and more or less remain close. There are small betrayals and conflicts but proximity and loneliness has decreed that the Currents and the Morrows will be in and out of each others lives. When the Great Depression arrives and all of their small worries escalate into daily struggles to survive the relations between the two families come to a breaking point. Long held resentments, secrets and slights take on an importance magnified by dire economic circumstance.

Michelle Hoover is quite a strong writer. This is a finely structured, well defined novel that despite that has spontaneity of situation in the plotting. That coupled with the vivid honesty of Enidina and Mary's uneasy relationship makes The Quickening an unlikely page turner.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Lives Of The Monster Dogs


While I was reading Mr Chartwell I was reminded of another novel about dogs with human characteristics, The Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis. This book was originally published in 1998. It was a strong seller for us in it's day. Sadly, it is currently out of print but it is very much worth the effort of finding a copy at the library or a used bookstore.

The Lives of the Monster Dogs is about a community of dogs who become celebrities when they arrive in NYC in 2008 dressed to the nines 19th century style. They were the brainchild of Augustus Rank a mad Prussian scientist. In the late 1800's Rank established a secret town in the wilds of Canada. His own evil Brigadoon. There he set to work creating his Monster Dogs. Rank's plan was to create an independent yet completely loyal dog-soldier. He used his surgery skills to give them human hands and voice boxes and breed them to be super-intelligent. After Rank died his work was refined and completed by his disciples. At some point the dogs turned against their creators and they made their way to NYC.

The media is enchanted by these up scale refugees. They are the new big thing. They are courted by high society. It makes no difference whether anyone believes in the dogs or sees them as a hoax they still fascinate the public. They are elegant and sophisticated but they have a hard time adjusting to this new, modern world. Once in New York City they construct an amazing castle for themselves and then barricade themselves inside.

The narrator of the story is a young woman named Cleo Pira. She is one of the few, human friends the dogs have in their new homeland. Cleo is lonely and sees her own isolation mirrored in the dogs. She becomes the dog's press agent and liaison between them and the world, but she cannot protect them.

The Lives of the Monster Dogs was an engaging, stimulating science fiction novel about humanity, loneliness and celebrity culture. There are a few flaws there. The characterization of the dogs isn't as well defined as you would like and occasionally the dialog is a bit flat. However, Bakis puts her own voice to the Frankenstein story in an intriguing and inventive way. She is a strong storyteller and when book number two shows up I'll be very excited.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Mr Chartwell

Hello Flower, my friend.

Going into Mr Chartwell you should know that Winston Churchill suffered with depression throughout his adult life and referred to depression as "the black dog". Got it? Now you are ready to read one of the more original novels I've read in a long time.

The title character in Mr Chartwell is that black dog. Or something very like a dog. Mr Chartwell is 6' 7", smelly, and resembles a black Labrador. He has quite a few human characteristics: he speaks English, walks on his hind legs, drinks, needs an apartment and is employed. His job is persecuting Winston Churchill. Chartwell has been hounding Churchill for years. In 1964 when the novel opens Churchill is retiring from politics after sixty years. The idea of retirement does not sit easily with him and neither does having the black dog as a companion once again.

Chartwell has his teeth in Esther Hammerhans as well. Esther is a young widow with a room to let. She's naturally reluctant to rent it to Chartwell when he shows up but he has a way of not taking no for answer and soon moves in. Chartwell finds the grieving Esther an easy mark and takes over. Like an unloved and persistent stray Chartwell grabs a hold and insinuates himself into Esther's life. It's the old repulsive fascination thing for Esther. She finds Chartwell hideous and obnoxious and yet is seduced into waiting on him and caring for him anyway or maybe it's just that misery loves company, any company. I won't be forgetting Esther or Chartwell anytime soon.

What is Chartwell after? Can Esther and Winston help each other? Will Chartwell ever leave? Can a novel about depression have a happy ending? What does it all mean? Why isn't this novel a gigantic mess? Questions, questions, questions---most of which I'm not going to answer. Discovery is a big part of the oddball charm of this novel.

I will tell you that the boldness of Mr Chartwell is astounding. This is unique, metaphorical, very humorous novel by a first time author. Don't think that this is all pretentious, experimental, is-anything-ever-going-to-happen writing. There is as much storytelling in Mr Chartwell as there is invention. Impressive. The author, Rebecca Hunt paints vivid word pictures in this excellent debut. She has a clever, winning way with description. Hunt is successful as well in making a depressing subject, Depression, funny. You feel the weight of this debilitating disease and you can empathize but you are smiling while you do it and you have to wonder what for goodness sake is Rebecca Hunt going to write about next?

P.S. Love the cover!!

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Devotion of Suspect X

Flower, hi.

I've got a problem. It's The Devotion of Suspect X. I adore that title. Why? Not sure. It's mysterious and comforting at the same time? The problem is that I did not love the book itself.

In some mysteries and suspence novels there is the Oh No Don't Do That Moment. The moment when as an onlooker you know that what a character is doing is a really bad idea. The kind of bad idea that will snowball into a full on police investigation. In these kinds of mysteries if it's the victim that does this thing you can accept that the ball got rolling and move on. When it's the main suspect? That's not so good and that's the beginning of The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino.

Divorced, single Mother Yasuko thinks she has escaped her brutal ex-husband and his nefarious activities. She and her daughter are living a simple, quiet life. She works in a local take away restaurant and is enjoying a peace and independence she never thought she would have again. She is also being stalked by the brilliant but socially awkward mathematics teacher next door, Ishigami. Back into her life one day comes the vicious ex-husband. He's not making any overt demands but his presence alone threatens Yasuko. She is terrified that now that her past has caught up with her, she and her daughter will be victimized all over again. Then.... then comes the Oh No Don't Do That Moment. It defies logic and reason and it sets up the murder mystery/police procedural storyline.

Oh well.

The novel is set in Japan and there is enough local color and slang to satisfy the armchair traveler in you but there is nothing about this story that makes it specific to Japan. The Devotion of Suspect X could be set anywhere. There are a few very interesting characters in Devotion: the evil ex-husband, the primary dectective, the expert the police bring in Dr. Manabu Yukawa and especially the neighbor Ishigami. However Yasuko and her daughter are bland, annoying and ultimately I could not get past Yasuko's plot device misstep and enjoy everything that played out afterward.


Saturday, January 8, 2011


Good Evening Flower!

I didn't come down with last night's rain or just fall off the turnip truck. I have Been Around. I have experienced Life. I have traveled. Hell I've eaten sushi and where I come from that qualifies me for Algonquin Round Table level of sophistication. But. I never thought that in all my born days I would be able to say that I have read not one but two novels about hermaphrodites. Two, my friend, two because I am just that worldly.

Hermaphrodite novel number two is Annabel by Kathleen Winter. Annabel is more commonly known as Wayne. He was born to Treadway and Jacinta in a remote coastal town in Labrador, Canada. The secret of Wayne's birth is known only to his parents, the doctor and the neighbor, Thomasina. It is Treadway and the doctor who decide that the neither fully male or female baby will be raised as his son, Wayne. The doctor physically sews up Wayne's female areas (So it's a craft book too.) and what's done is done as far as Treadway is concerned. Wayne spends his young life confused about many things and unhappy at not being able to live up to his Father's expectations. In his inner life, Wayne acknowledges his more girlish interests and shamefully thinks of that part of himself as Annabel, Thomasina's nickname for him.

Prior to Wayne's birth Treadway and Jacinta's lives were the same as their neighbors and their parents before them. Treadway is gone for long stretches of time hunting and trapping and Jacinta takes care of all things domestic. The couple is as ill suited to one another as Wayne/Annabel is to his body. Treadway and Jacints are intellectually and emotionally unprepared (Would anyone not be?) to raise their unique son but each tries their best to solve the problem of their son's identity. Treadway attempts to immerse Wayne in traditional masculine pursuits and his way of life in hopes of burying anything feminine. Jacinta loves her son but mourns the daughter she lost to Treadway. Jacinta and Thomasina secretly feed Wayne's female side. When Wayne hits adolescence and his body betrays itself he must take control.

Annabel was on the short list for the 2010 Giller Prize and it is easy to see why. Kathleen Winter's extraordinary writing tells a bizarre, almost science fiction like story without melodrama, camp or pity. Her writing has a poet's color and a documentarian's precision. She has made all of the main characters three dimensional. Each of them has a duality of identity that mirrors Wayne's. There are instances when Winter can be a little preachy but overall Winter's novel about identity, acceptance, morality and love is a powerful reading experience.
Can I compare Annabel with hermaphrodite novel #1, Middlesex? Sure why not. They are both extremely well executed and interesting novels, but...I'm giving the win to Middlesex. I liked Calliope/Cal better than Wayne/Annabel. Middlesex has all the novel upholstery that I adore: big families, long histories and storytelling all over the place.

However. The covers? A complete out of the park, grand slam home run for Annabel! The U.S. cover is one of the best I've seen in quite a while. It's alluring and repellent without being over the top or too geared toward appealing to a specific gender. The Canadian cover has a slightly mysterious quality but it's too pretty, too tame. The cover of Middlesex is a horror show. In technical publishing jargon it's Boring.


Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Mulberry Empire


Way, way back a long time ago before the Holidays (Yikes! Remember the Holidays? Now there's some historical fiction, my friend) arrived I read  The Northern Clemency by Philip Hensler and loved it. If I were an energetic enough person to make a Best Of The Year or a Top Ten List, The Northern Clemency would have been on it. Before I even finished reading it I called my local and ordered a copy of an earlier Hensler novel, The Mulberry Empire.

The Mulberry Empire is a historical novel (Surprise, right?) about "The Great Game" in general and the British invasion of Afghanistan in 1839 in particular. Knowing only that, it pushes all my buttons. The Great Game referrers to the rivalry between Great Britain and Russia for control of Central Asia in the 1800's. Rivalry is a very tepid word for wars that killed thousands of soldiers and civilians and destroyed cultures but that's what happened back in the days when it was expected that powerful countries would take over foreign territories or remake the politics of other countries for their own good.

The novel's protagonist, Sir Alexander Burnes was a real person as are many of the other characters in the book. Burns was the Marco Polo/Nathan Hale of his time. As a soldier stationed in India he was sent into Afghanistan with presents for a local ruler and was then allowed to travel within the country. Very little about Afghan's interior was known to the British at the time and his information and subsequent bestselling book about his adventures filled in a lot of gaps.

I don't know enough about Afghan history to tell you how accurate Hensler's retelling of the major events depicted in the novel may or may not be. However if you like this kind of fiction then you know going in that you are not reading a textbook so do not consider yourself a scholar of the period when you turn the final page. I do know that three years after the British Soldiers entered Kabal, deposed the Amir and installed the ruler that the British government wanted to be in charge that 20,000 British Soldiers, citizens and camp followers were forced out of Afghanastan and that of that group only one person made it back to India alive.

The plot of The Mulberry Empire is global. Hensler takes us into the major governments and societies involved in leading up to this war. His best writing in the book is when he is describing these far away, long ago places and their many diverse enclaves of foreigners, soldiers and politicians within. It is then that you really see Afghanistan and empire building as the main characters. Hensler creates the time and mood of the period on an individual level and with a world view and both are fascinating. As with the very best historical fiction you are enlightened and educated when all you feel like is entertained.

What isn't as successful is the cast of thousands. Aside from a small handful of them it's too much and too under developed. They are from every single level of society and they do and say very interesting things but they are rendered more like cameos than characters. Hensler did excellent work with the large list of characters in The Northern Clemency so I have no doubt that if he had paired down the populace in Empire he would have fared better. You are barely given the opportunity to root for anyone, hiss at anyone or enjoy their company before they are hustled off the page to make room for the rest of the empire. That's disappointing given how amazing the events are in this story.

The Mulberry Empire is not for anyone in the mood for stories about Queens you never knew existed or dressmakers from the slums who rise to great heights. It is for anyone who would like to immerse themselves in a complex political situation and a world and a time that can be unfathomable, dense, horrific and exotic.

And now please excuse me while I go order more of Philip Hensler's books.

Flower. Flower. Flower.

I think I may have had a breakthrough or maybe a realization.

Horrible events are the backbone of historical fiction. I guess that makes me a kind of a misery collector. Oh well. I'm sorry that millions have suffered over the centuries so that I can enjoy a story. Yikes. Between that and the trees that have been put down to make the vehicles for these stories there ought to be an international war crimes commission investigating me.

I think I'm going to go put my head down on my desk now for a little bit.

Happy, but at what cost?

Bad Blogger, Bad

Oh Flower.

I forgot!! How does that happen when it's so wonderful? In my post The Anatomy of Ghosts joy I neglected to tell you that not only does the book open with a map but it then has a list of characters.
Complete catnip for me. Those things intrigue me. They build my anticipation. They are novel foreplay.
Happy, really.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Anatomy of Ghosts

Hi Flower!

With 30+ published novels and many awards and honors to his credit you would think that I would have come across or been handed something by Andrew Taylor by now. Where the heck have I been? Or is it that Mr. Taylor's been avoiding me? hmmm....

Anyway. I have started Taylor's books at the end and I will happily work my way backwards through his list. My beginning was his most recent book The Anatomy of Ghosts and why wait three paragraphs to say it? Anatomy it is a page-turning delight from beginning to end. It was fun, interesting, exciting and very engaging.

The Anatomy of Ghosts is a historical murder mystery set at Cambridge University in 1786. The only child of Lady Anne Oldershaw, Frank, is a student at Jerusalem College at the University. For reasons that no one can or will explain, Frank, heretofore a strapping and lively youth (to use the vernacular), has had a breakdown. In fact he's gone mad. Prior to his illness Frank claimed to have seen the ghost of the recently downed Sylvia Whichcote and has been placed by friends under the care of the sinister Dr Jermyn. Desperate to discover what happened and seek a cure for her son, Lady Anne hires a down on his luck bookseller named John Holdsworth under the ruse of ascertaining the condition of the library at Jerusalem but actually to find out what really happened to Frank. The choice of Holdsworth as private investigator for her Ladyship is the result of his treatise, The Anatomy of Ghosts. His literary debunking of apparitions from the afterlife might make him Frank's best chance.

Despite the setting and time period Holdsworth is a classic modern detective. I don't mean to imply that his techniques are not true to the 1780's. Not at all. Taylor has clearly done his research and uses is to wonderful effect. You don't need to be told that the year is 1786 it's there on every page in the details and the speech. I mean that like 99% of the detectives since 1930 Holdsworth is the tortured loner with issues.

Andrew Taylor has striped away the gravitas of Cambridge and reveals the dog eat dog struggle of it's academics, teachers and administrators. In The Anatomy of Ghosts Cambridge is the only game in a company town. This poisonous atmosphere is crawling with suspects. There are creeping servants, dim masters, doctors medical, philosophical and religious with hidden agendas, parasites, secret societies with unsavory leanings, unhappy wives and cunning scholars. With so many choices Holdsworth has his hands full and we have fabulous entertainment.

The Anatomy of Ghosts has it all: terrific writing, a strong mystery, marvelous characters and lots of surprises. Get a copy and when you start it be prepared to carry it with you everywhere. You'll want to use all those odd moments you have during the day to keep reading!


Sunday, January 2, 2011

The Still Point

Happy New Year Flower!

If I knew then what I knew at page 150 I would not have  read  The Still Point and that would have been dumb of me. I would have missed out on a very, very good first novel. Why would I have given Still Point a pass? The story all takes place over the course of one day. One day. To my small and quick to judge mind One Day equals a tiny cast of characters, low page count and (Mrs Dalloway aside) boredom. I was right and I was wrong. I was right that there are few characters in Still Point and I was right that it isn't very long. It's only 320 pages.(Apologies to author Amy Sackville. I'm sure 320 pages seems just right to her.) But Boredom? Not at all, just the opposite. Good thing I didn't read the synopsis carefully before I started reading the book.

The Still Point is the story of two marriages. Julia and Simon have a seemingly enviable life. He goes off to work and she dawdles through the ancestral home. Appearances though... Sometime in the last few years of their ten year marriage Simon and Julia started keeping secrets from one another. Simon is all restless irritation and helpless to close the growing distance between himself and his wife. Julia has Barbara Cartland ideas of love and is operating just this side of depression. She is supposed to be archiving the papers and property of her great-great uncle, Edward Mackley. Uncle Ed was a famous turn of the century explorer. The second marriage of the novel is his and Emily's. Two weeks after their vows Edward left for the North Pole and Emily never saw him again.

Julia was brought up on family stories of Edward's bravery and sacrifice. She does view him as a heroic figure but it is the left behind Emily that really captures Julia's imagination. As Julia begins to catalog Edwards relics and read his journals she romanticizes their marriage all out of proportion. Two weeks after their marriage Edward left on his expedition and Emily went to live in what is now Julia and Simon's home with Edward's brother and his wife. While Edward's short life was filled with possibility and misadventure, Emily's long life was much quieter. She waited to hear from Edward and then waited to hear of his death but both of their lives were a mental struggle to survive.

My outline of the basic events in The Still Point make it seem like a straightforward, contemporary bad marriage story and it is that but it is also more than that. The study of one marriage that may be ending and another one that never got started is juxtaposed against the individuals in each of these relationships. Edwards reckless quest verses Simon's 9 to 5 office life and Emily's unfulfilled hopes verses Julia's squandered opportunities. Sackville is wonderfully inventive in using Julia's girlish ideas of love to unify both couples stories.

Sackville does step outside of the domestic drama in The Still Point. Through Edward's journals she takes us along on his expedition. We know the end of his trip before Julia ever opens the diaries but that doesn't lessen the vigorous reading experience that Sackville creates. This physically puissant part of the story works well as another opposite to the restrained and secretive lives of Simon and Julia and Emily's life after Edward.

I'm thrilled that I did not let my preconceptions about the whole One Day thing get in the way of reading The Still Point. It was a wonderful novel. The kind of novel that carries you along until suddenly insignificant things start to have new meaning. Amy Sackville's writing is a pleasure to read. If you have missed the great Carol Shields you should give The Still Point a try. It would also make an first rate book club choice.

P.S. What do you think of the covers? This is the U.K. edition and above is the U.S. hmmm... I think that are pretty and that they both reference Victoria Shadow boxes is appropriate ---caged relics of the past---but a little boring and predictable I say.