ReaderWriterVille

Blog in progress

Tag: mysteries

Mini-reviews of recent reads

I’m still woefully behind on my 20 Books of Summer reading, but I managed another Harlequin TBR review which counted, as well as a mystery from the library which didn’t. They were a nice break from the Booker longlist, which while rewarding can get kind of grim.

A Regency Invitation to the House Party of the Season by Nicola Cornick, Joanna Mailand, and Elizabeth Rolls

I was in the mood for another Regency trad and I pulled this anthology out of the virtual stack. I have at least one Rolls full-length novel there as well, but while I’ve always meant to read her I haven’t done so yet. An anthology with one sure bet (Cornick) and two new authors seemed like a good strategy. Unlike the old holiday anthologies, these stories are all intertwined. The setting is, as the title tells you, a house party at an estate, and each story focuses on a different couple with all the other characters recurring across their individual storylines. Cornick’s opening story features a couple whose marriage is being arranged because the hero needs a fortune and the heroine has one. They don’t expect to like each other but of course they do. I preferred the hero to the heroine (she was a bit ditzy and overly naive at times), but Cornick does a very good job of setting the stage and introducing the cast.

The second story, by Maitland, features a young woman who has disguised herself as an abigail in order to look for her missing brother. She meets the hero, who is himself hiding out to avoid being arrested (for something he didn’t do, naturally). Their story deepens the larger story arc. They’re an enjoyable couple, although the maid-masquerade required massive suspensions of disbelief. We also get more of the great-aunt-Gorgon who was announced in the first story, and she’s the real star of this anthology. She plays a major role in the third installment, by Rolls, which uncovers the mystery of the host’s missing wife. She ran away as a newlywed, right before Waterloo, and society generally believes her husband had a hand in his disappearance. Needless to say, they’re wrong and he’s a more than upstanding hero. All three storylines are wrapped up neatly; I could see the wife coming in Maitland’s novella but that was OK, it was a mystery not a romance. I thoroughly enjoyed all three parts and look forward to the full-length Rolls I have (I don’t think I have any by Maitland in the TBR, but the library may be able to help me out). This counted as Harlequin TBR #466.


Malice by Keigo Higashino

And now for something completely different. I really liked the mystery by Higashino that I read a couple of months ago, so when Liz’s read of this popped up in my GR feed I borrowed it. It features the same detective, Kaga, as Newcomer, but it was written earlier. Luckily you don’t really have to read Kigashino’s series in order. This is more of a whydunit than a whodunit, although there were points at which I wasn’t sure if the murderer was really the murderer. An author is killed in his house and discovered by his wife and his good friend. Kaga quickly deduces who the killer is, but the motive is unclear, and the more Kaga investigates the reasons behind the murder the more confusing the case becomes. At various times it’s difficult to decide who is the good guy and who is the bad guy.

I enjoyed all the twists and turns, although Liz’s comment that she had trouble caring much for the characters is completely understandable to me. It’s not that they are just vehicles for ideas or plot twists, but everything seems to happen at a remove, probably because the story is told in flashback or dialogue, rather than the reader being able to watch the events unfold. It’s an interesting approach, and it creates the distance and suppressed emotional tone that I often find in Japanese novels (both genre and non-genre). The way the story and characters were finally wrapped up wasn’t what I was expecting, and I can see why Higashino is such a bestselling author in Japan. I definitely want to read more of his work.

Case Histories by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson just released her fifth Jackson Brodie novel after a years-long hiatus in which she wrote acclaimed general/literary fiction novels. I started and put aside this one years ago, and then I intended to go back after watching and enjoying Jason Isaacs in the TV adaptation but it has languished on my TBR. Discussion of the latest Brodie piqued my interest again, though, so I picked it up and started over from the beginning. This time I was prepared for the discursive, meandering style and the lack of emphasis on the actual investigative procedure aspect, and I enjoyed it a lot. So much, in fact, that I went straight on to start the next installment, One Good Turn.

Jackson Brodie is a 45-year-old PI. He’s an ex-military policeman and an ex-detective, born in Yorkshire but who has lived in Cambridge for the last decade-plus. He is recently divorced and shares custody of his eight-year-old daughter. His ex-wife, who when married to him neither wore a wedding ring nor changed her name, is now living with a Cambridge lecturer and knits, gardens, and generally does the hausfrau things she scorned with Jackson. Jackson doesn’t drink too much, but he has recently gone back to smoking too much and spends a lot of time musing about his life in internal monologues.

The plot itself comprises three crime threads, all of which we see from the characters’ POVs. The first thread involves the disappearance 35 years ago of a young child, Olivia, who is beloved by her sisters and her mother (the father, a self-described brilliant mathematician academic, is barely involved with his family). Her now middle-aged sisters discover her favorite stuffed animal among her fathers’ things after his death, which leaves them stunned and looking for answers. The second thread is about the senseless, unsolved killing of an 18-year-old young woman named Laura ten years previously and her father’s inability to stop looking for the killer. The third thread concerns a young family in which the wife was convicted of her husband’s brutal murder and their baby daughter Tanya was given to her paternal grandparents, but who as a teenager has disappeared. There is also a fourth character, Binky Rain, a very old woman who has dozens of cats and who calls Jackson every time one of them goes missing.

Read the rest of this entry »

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

I’ve been slowly rereading all the Smiley novels by John le Carré. I first started reading them in college, so decades ago, and I reread them all a couple of times after that, but my more recent le Carré reading has been limited to the post-Smiley books, e.g., The Tailor of Panama, A Perfect Spy, and The Night Manager. When he brought back Smiley in A Legacy of Spies a couple of years ago, I realized that I didn’t want to read it until I had Smiley firmly fixed in my head again. I don’t like glomming authors anymore because it makes me too aware of their tics and lessens my reading pleasure. So Legacy languishes on my bookshelf while I make my way through the decades.

I took a good-sized break between A Small Town in Germany and TTSS, but then once I picked up the latter I read it in less than a week. My memory of reading it is patchy. I remembered the Big Reveal, of course, and Smiley and Ann’s estrangement, and Connie Sachs stuck in my head. But despite having seen the miniseries twice and the recent film, that was about it. In earlier readings, including rereads, I would often get lost in the puzzles. The first time I read it I was speeding through to find out what happened. The next times were slower, but I would still miss things.

This time, though, I had the almost perfect reading experience. I had a sense of familiarity as every character appeared on the stage, and I followed every twist and turn. It’s a fantastic story. Le Carré based it on the Cambridge Five, and his mole, Gerald, very much resembles them. We know from almost the beginning that Gerald is someone high up in the Circus (the spy agency, named that because it’s located at Cambridge Circus in London). The question is, which one of the handful of top men is he? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Beggarman, or someone else?

Read the rest of this entry »

Mini-reviews of recent reads

I just finished two very different translated novels, one a literary novel by a highly acclaimed Chinese writer in exile, the other a police procedural by a bestselling Japanese author of mysteries. I needed the latter to give my brain a rest after the former. I also finished a highly praised novel that didn’t work at all for me. I felt as if I’d read a different book than everyone else.

China Dream by Ma Jian

Ma Jian has been writing novels and nonfiction about Chinese society since the 1980s, and his critical views have led to his books being banned in China and his life in exile in the UK. The title of this book is taken from a speech by the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, who used the term to herald an era of “national rejuvenation” which would lead to China becoming the world’s greatest superpower. Ma Jian explores the costs that this dream imposes on ordinary Chinese people, especially those who are left behind.

Ma Daode is a government official in a regional city who seeks to create a China Dream Device, which will be implanted in all citizens and replace their individual dreams with a collective one of Chinese hegemony. His daily life, however, involves carrying out government policies like the demolition of villages to make way for economic development. Ma Daode is an extreme parody of a corrupt official, one with so many mistresses he can barely keep track of them, who takes bribes from all comers, and who ignores the welfare of the people affected by his actions.

But Ma Daode, who was a young man at the time of the Cultural Revolution, is increasingly bedeviled by nightmares of the violence and destruction of that time, in which he was both victim and perpetrator. As the story progresses, the past and the present become fused together for him, and no amount of sex and alcohol can suppress his torment.

Read the rest of this entry »