"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested." (Francis Bacon)

Tuesday, May 16, 2023

Feral Detective

TITLE:  The Feral Detective
AUTHOR: Jonathan Lethem

While trying to find her friend's missing teen daughter in the Los Angeles area, New Yorker Phoebe Siegler enlists the reluctant assistance of Charles Heist, a loner of few words who seems immune to Phoebe's sarcasm and nearly non-stop talking. I was expecting the story to be told from Heist's point of view; instead, it's told from Phoebe's narration as she continually reconsiders her opinion of Heist and even herself.

The search for the missing Arabella takes Phoebe and Heist up a mountain, then into the desert where Phoebe encounters people living off the grid who challenge her way of thinking. The story is set in the early days of the Trump administration, which provides a backdrop for Phoebe's unraveling. Finding Arabella is the plot point that sets the story in motion, but it's Phoebe's snarky voice that gives the book its soul.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Postmistress of Paris

TITLE:  The Postmistress of Paris
AUTHOR: Meg Waite Clayton

This novel of World War II, set in France after the German invasion, was inspired by real-life American socialite Mary Jayne Gold, who used her charms, smarts, and money to help artist and writers escape European occupation. Clayton reimagines Gold as Nanee, a volunteer known as the Postmistress for her courier work with real-life journalist Varian Fry. Nanee, an adventurist at heart, is always looking for ways to help refugees sought by the Gestopo, which leads her to try to free photographer Edouard Moss, a German Jewish refugee imprisoned in Camp des Milles, a man she'd met only once previously yet is unable to stop thinking about. 

The book is a fast read, with a good sense of time and place, requisites for historical fiction. Along with the action and intrigue, there is also the compelling attraction between widowed Edouard and Nanee, complicated by Edouard's need to find and reunite with his young daughter Luki. And peppered throughout are discussions about art, the need for it and the philosophy of it. The story is straight-forward while the main characters are complex fully formed  They and the story linger in my mind, just the way I love books to end.

Monday, March 20, 2023

Gods of Jade and Shadow

TITLE: Gods of Jade and Shadow
AUTHOR: Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This is a simply told story inspired by Mayan mythology. It begins with a basic Cinderella setup. Eighteen-year-old Casiopea Tun and her mother are forced by circumstances to live with the mother's wealthy family in a small town in Mexico's Yucatan peninsula in the 1920s. Casiopea is forced into servitude, especially to her grandfather and to her cousin Martin. Until the day, acting on overwhelming curiosity, she unlocks a large chest in her grandfather's bedroom. Expecting to find gold or jewels, she's stunned to discover a cache of old bones that reassemble themselves into the deposed god of the Underworld, Hun-Kame. When a shard from one of his bones becomes embedded in Casiopea's hand, she and the god are linked, with her life and his immortality in the balance. Thus begins their quest to find his remaining body parts (including an eye and a hand) and restore him to his throne. 

Moreno-Garcia weaves a fantastic tale of gods, demons, and humans; dreams and nightmares; young love and sacrifice with her simple yet spellbinding prose. I would love to read a sequel.

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

City and the City

TITLE:  The City & the City
AUTHOR: China Mieville

This is pretty much a standard mystery involving the murder of a young woman who was killed in one city and her body dumped in another city. What makes this a fantasy is that both cities, Beszel and Ul Qoman, occupy the same piece of geography. For the cities to safely co-exist, their citizens must master the art of unseeing the other. While this forms the foundation of the story, it's never fully explained how this can be. No mention of phasing or alternate realities are mentioned, hence the fantasy element rather than this being science fiction, I suppose. To see the unseeable, or to cross any of the boundaries separating the cities is to breach, invoking the justice of the Breach, the mysteries beings who oversee the integrity of the two cities. 

As Inspector Borlu of Beszel investigates the murder, he is forced into working with Detective Dhatt of Ul Qoma, an investigation that suggests the victim was killed because she knew too much about the long rumored entities that live between the cities, something scarier than Breach. 

This would have made for a decent mystery without the fantasy element, but the setting does factor into the resolution and provides for intriguing character tensions and suspense. Still, I wish the set-up of the cities had been more scientific. Stronger characters would have gone a long way to flesh this out. Only Borlu seemed fully realized and most of the characters speak in similar patterns, in both cities, in choppy, incomplete sentences. This was good enough for met to wish it were better.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Glassmaker's Wife

TITLE:  The Glassmaker's Wife
AUTHOR: Lee Martin

Inspired by or based on a true crime from 1844, this slim novel (248 pages in a trade paperback with many blank pages between chapters) is either intended to fill in the blanks in the historical record (the last chapter seems lifted from a newspaper account I found by Googling the actual case) or is a story of Martin's imagination hung on the skeleton of the historical record of the crime. I really longed for an afterward where Martin might've explained his intent.

A woman, Betsy Reed, already the source of gossip due to her "witchy" ways, is accused of murdering her glassmaker husband by poisoning him with arsenic. The case against her hinges on the claim of a teenage girl who worked for the Reeds that she saw Mrs. Reed put white powder in her husband's morning coffee.

This is a simple story, simply told. more about secrets and things not said than a whodunit. Slowly, the secrets come out, but the ending seemed inevitable. With straight-forward prose and no clear protagonist (Betsy and the girl, Eveline, seem to share that role), the book was disappointing. Repetition of the known facts and opinions feels like padding, And while this was a fast read and I wanted to know the fate of all the characters, I did find it hard to truly care about any of them. Martin has much to say here about love, imperfections, adolescent yearnings, and a woman's role in society in early-19th Century US, but the message feels flat and left me with the sense that this could have been much better.