Monday, November 14, 2011

Bring Up the Bodies

Is today my birthday? Is it Christmas? No. Is it the happiest day of the year? Oh yes it is!!!! The pub date for Hilary Mantel's sequel to Wolf Hall was announced today. How wonderful is that? I know it is an un-measurable amount of wonderful.

This truly anticipated novel will be released in Britain in May 2012. The U.S. edition will be published in the fall of 2012. Five months later? What the heck? I'm not waiting that long I'll get it from Britain. Does my girl Hilary's U.S. publisher really think that I would be content to let whole other continents have this book months before I do?

Previously we were told that the title would be The Mirror and the Light but that has been changed. The title will now be Bring Up the Bodies.
It's like I have a new reason to live.

Sunday, November 13, 2011


One of the reasons that I like to mystery novels is their diversity. Not the same old, same old part where someone is killed that’s a given. I mean the settings.  You can pass through menopause and beyond waiting for contemporary, non-American novelists to be translated into English but because of the insatiable appetite of mystery fans, foreign mystery writers get translated into English more frequently than their fiction writing counterparts. And. If that weren’t enough there are always the mystery books written in English but set in faraway lands. Many is the happy day that a good mystery has fulfilled my need to read about Elsewhere.

The same can be said for historical mysteries. Hilary Mantel is not finished with the sequel to Wolf Hall yet (Hurry up!) so I need to keep occupied. A nice tagalong with a detective before there was such a thing or the court dressmaker who cannot help but solve the murder of Madame Le Somesuch because she is just that smart and nosy can really keep a girl steeped in life as it once was. The lovely bonus is that often a historical mystery is also a mystery set across an ocean from me.

So…that leads me to Devil-Devil by Graeme Kent. A first for me this mystery is set in the Solomon Islands. And! It takes place in the early 1960’s. Could this be a win-win for me? Another new place and time to explore via the troubles of a gumshoe.

Ben Kella was born on the island of Malaita but educated in the Western tradition. He attended Catholic schools, was sent to college in Australia and then worked with the both the London and Manhattan police agencies. He is a man who wears two hats within his community. He is a sergeant in the Islands’ police force and an Aofia. That means that he has the hereditary job of peacekeeper of the Lau people. On the surface it would seem that these jobs could nicely dovetail one another but no. He is straddling two different worlds. Neither the British colonials nor the native islanders trust him or accept him as their own.

Author Kent makes the good decision of having Sergeant Kella already involved in a few cases at the start of Devil-Devil. There is no down time to the main mystery. We are going to learn about this country and this detective all at once. Kella is dealing with the cargo cult (Fascinating!), a kidnapping, smuggling, been cursed by a local shaman and failed to find a missing anthropologist…now onto the main event.   

It is the unearthing of a skeleton brings Sergeant Kella and Sister Conchita of the Marist Mission Sisters together. Conchita is an American nun working on the islands. She, like every nun you have ever read about, has trouble with authority. Surprise. This young missionary has a chore list the sight of which could break your back nevertheless she is going to find the time to help solve some crimes. Conchita is a lively and interesting character but I would have liked her personality to be a little less expected.

The chemistry between Kella and Conchita, the dying days of colonialism, the lingering memories of WWII (Guadalcanal was one of the many battles fought on the Islands.), corruption, the political and social tensions of the times, and the culture of the Solomon Islands all combine in Kent’s hands to become an exotic and interesting backdrop for this mystery novel. The real win here though is Kent’s depiction of Kella. The Sergeant is complex but not in the stereotypical loner with issues, bad relationships and maybe an addiction way. Kella reads as a real product of all that goes on around him. He sees all the shades of gray in his two jobs, has a sense of humor and a strong desire to do the best for his country even when it conflicts with justice.
Devil-Devil is a strong and winning start of a new series that looks like it has a lot of room for more great stories. Not to mention thought-provoking information on an area of the world underrepresented in western fiction.

Book two, One Blood will be released in February 2012. I am looking forward to it!

Friday, November 11, 2011

King of the Badgers

The new novel by Philip Hensher, King of the Badgers, is an ambitious state of the nation novel. It is a sometimes entertaining, sometimes horrifying dissection of a community. It satirizes, illuminates and exposes current manners and mindsets in Great Britain.

Taking apart middle class snobbery and pretensions is not a new endeavor for Hensher.  In a terrific earlier novel, The NorthernClemency he did the same thing on a much smaller scale and in a historical context. The distance that history provides gives a writer the luxury of faux hindsight. Hensher doesn’t get that gift in King of the Badgers. His world in this new novel is contemporary and he works hard to keep it relevant.  

Hensher uses a missing child from the wrong side of the tracks as the catalyst to peel away the picture postcard pretty of the seaside town of Hanmouth.  The missing child isn’t from one of the many sanitized into respectability families. Eight year old China O’Connor and her patchwork family are residents of the public housing that the more comfortable citizens of Hanmouth do not acknowledge as part of their town.  China’s mother is a woman with many children, all from different fathers. When your last name is Rockefeller or Vanderbilt in some social circles this method of breeding would be considered acceptable but when you live in Hanmouth and your last name is O’Connor this type of parent makes you trash.
Do not for a minute think that this book is a mystery novel. Despite the kidnapping of China and its effect on all of the characters in the novel this is no detective story. Poor China gets the ball rolling but even a missing child cannot break through the self absorption of these people.

The mighty of Hanmouth see China’s disappearance as a vindication of their desires for more protection from…from everything really. One of the sad truths of the novel is the characters desires to be accepted and at the same time be free to express all the behaviors that they fear will label them as unacceptable.

The bigger canvas of King of the Badgers allows Hensher to impress us with his skills in manipulating a large cast of characters. It also provides a broader menu of pretensions to penetrate.  He is certainly up to the task. Each of the many characters has a complete story and a role to play in this cross section of life lived in the proverbial nice place to live. However the book is not a revelation a minute soap opera. There is a slightly documentary tone to the novel that juxtaposes nicely with the humorous elements of the book as it reinforces the honesty of Hensler’s portrait.
P.S. That cover? What the heck? Who was on crack the day that was selected? Believe it or not it looks even worse in person. It looks like a cover you would find on a local historical society cookbook. Painful.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

I Am Half-Sick of Shadows

Usually my first gesture to Christmas is tuning my kitchen and car radios in to the all Christmas music all the time stationright before Thanksgiving.  This year I have a whole new and exciting holiday herald! I have the new Flavia de Luce mystery I AmHalf-Sick Of Shadows by Alan Bradley.

Ah Flavia. My girl. The eleven year old chemistry queen and whodunit heroine returns for her fourth foray into Miss Marple-ville. Flavia is working on a super glue that will prove the existence of Santa Claus, her sisters are honing their wicked stepsister skills and the Colonel has responded to tough financial times by renting out the family home to a film company. Enter the dead actress ready for her close up.

This is a mystery so good luck thinking I am giving up any more of the plot. Open up I Am Half-Sick of Shadows and discover it for yourself. While you do that you will be sending a hundred silent thank yous to author Alan Bradley for creating Flavia, for keeping her engaging and for her classically cozy mysteries.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Cat's Table Part 2

One more important thing about The Cat's's going to win next year's Man Booker.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Cat's Table

The Cat’sTable was not a book I picked to read. I haven’t always had the best luck with Michael Ondaatje , The Cat’s Table is a coming of age story which is not my favorite kind of tale and the book it is short. Shortness has nothing to do with quality of course but it does have everything to do with what attracts me to a book. Oh yeah and it has an incredibly awful cover.
Why did I read The Cat’s Table? I had gotten sent a copy and set it aside to pass onto someone else. A few days later I was on my way out and needed a book to fit in a small bag…voila. The reading gods smiled on me that day.
The Cat’s Table is superb. It is a graceful and charming look back by a man at a unique experience he had decades ago as a boy. Ondaatje perfectly presents the wispy difference between what children know, what they are told and what they see.  In the 1950’s young Michael is sent alone by boat from his home in what was then called Ceylon to begin a new life in England. He was told that his mother would be there waiting for him. The reasons for this change in his life are unknown to him.
On board the Oronsay Michael is assigned to the Cat’s Table. That is the table furthest away from the height of society on board at the Captain’s Table. At his table Michael meets two other boys his age also traveling without supervision and a group of adults odd ball enough to interest the boys at loose ends: a man who dismantles ships, a botanist, a tailor and a pianist who offers advice via jazz history and experienced enough to offer unique wisdom.  
The boys have the advantage of being of little importance to any authority figure on the ship. They travel between first and third classes exploring every corner of the Oronsay, eating in the covered lifeboats, discovering the prisoner, the millionaire with hydrophobia, finding the mural of the naked woman, etc. They are temporary Huckleberry Finns in a Neverland that is a distinct moment in time for each of them.
The ultimate success of The Cat’s Table is twofold.  First is Ondaatje’s ability to keep his adult narrator from over stepping into the past. He allows his boyhood self to discover and experience the moments of this voyage that will shape his life without the burden of constant adult hindsight.
The second victory is Ondaatje’s writing. Magical. If you are bored by perfect sentences, if lyrical phrasing is too everyday for you to be bothered with then by all means make the mistake I almost did and skip The Cat’s Table. If not read it and be transported.

P.S. The cover? Awful. It looks like a grainy photography from a true crime book. All it needs is an arrow superimposed somewhere on the hull of the ship with a caption that reads, "Body of Henry Robinson discovered here."