A collection? A shelf? A library? How about a discussion or a storytelling or a chapter or a paragraph? Whatever it is, I read a lot of books the past six months. Did I mention this is a (loooong) book post?
Over the years, right around April or May I used to take stock of what I’ve read for the past months. And the list would invariably show up somewhere — back in the day, it was in journals and then more recently in various social media, albeit in a more haphazard fashion. I don’t know why I do it really, maybe because I wanted to have a record of what I read and also because April and May evoked school vacations in the Philippines, a time when I could just curl up with a good book in the middle of a hot afternoon instead of taking a siesta (afternoon nap) as my parents wanted us kids to do (to make us grow tall, they said). Now of course, I am more likely going to choose the siesta than read a book, because I’m old(er). 🙂
But at the start of this year, I told myself I would jot down each book I read as I started it just so I have a record of my reading diet — you are what you eat or read, am I right or am I right? I wrote down the titles in my desk diary — literally, an actual diary on my office desk. I am not so particular that I wrote down the title on the actual day I started reading it. I basically scribbled on those blank spaces allotted for each week/month for the diarist to write down whatever existential thought or musing he or she has. I chose to write down what I read.
The results were interesting:
- 23 books read, 2 unfinished; so 21 books actually read cover to cover.
- 8 = most number of books started in a month (March). Note that I said “started” because I wrote down the titles as I started reading, but did not really write down when I finished the books. But given that I usually — not always though — pick up a book when I’m done with one, it’s safe to assume that I did finish all eight books in March. Even for me — a fast reader (D says I don’t take the time to savor the books and devour them like fast food, a claim I wholeheartedly deny) — this was, er, impressive… and a bit frightening.
- 1, unfinished = least number of books read in a month (April). What was I doing in April?? A quick glance at my diary revealed that I was drowning in work that month, apparently.
- Genres covered: They run the gamut, from historical romance, to thrillers, to a memoir. Was tempted to enumerate the books per genre, but after attempting to classify several of them, I ended up confusing myself and stopped. Let’s just say that many of them can be classified under different categories and I will never be a competent librarian, haha!
So what have I been reading? Here’s a list (as they appeared in my diary) and capsule reviews:
The Secret Mistress by Mary Balogh
“May intelligent, bookish ladies sometimes be reformed?” he asked her.
She thought about it.
“I suppose it may be within the bounds of possibility,” she said, “even if not of probability.”
The gist: Regency romance, third in a trilogy about two aristocratic lords and their half-sister who find love. This is the story of the sister, who of course, ends up marrying a lord, as one does in these kinds of books. Fun book to while away an afternoon with. Serious readers may raise their eyebrows at such frothy fare, but I find Regency romances fun. No judging, OK?
Yes, Please by Amy Poehler
The gist: When I grow up, I want to be Amy Poehler, which is a problem since she’s the same age as me. I love this book because it’s funny and she dishes out truths about women, aging, relationships, family, work, friends, etc that I find really relatable, probably because we’re the same age! For a sample of the wise advice she dishes out, see my birthday post here — or scroll down for the post.
The Rosie Effect, Graeme Simsion
“Rain Man! I had seen the film. I did not identify in any way with Rain Man, who was inarticulate, dependent, and unemployable. A society of Rain Men would be dysfunctional. A society of Don Tillmans would be efficient, safe, and pleasant for all of us.”
The gist: This, along with the first book, The Rosie Project, which I read last year, is one of the best romances I’ve had the pleasure to read. It’s a contemporary rom-com, but packs a lot of laughs and fun and insights into relationships. The protagonist is Don Tillman, who is… let’s just say, different from most guys. The book answers what happens after the guy gets the girl, basically. In the case of Don and his Rosie, it’s a whole madcap whirl of challenges, adventure with a dose of reality as the two deal with their relationship and the changing dynamics within it. I predict I’ll be rereading this and the first one often.
Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield
“Since we are on the topic of ravens, a collective noun for ravens is an unkindness. This is somewhat puzzling to Thought and Memory.”
The gist: I picked up Setterfield’s previous novel, The Thirteenth Tale on a whim and loved it. So when I saw this and read the synopsis in the back, I was sold. I am a sucker for atmospheric ghost stories, and this, like her earlier novel is one. It tells the story of William Bellman, who, at the 11, kills a bird (a rook) with a catapult, as boys with catapults are wont to do. He eventually forgets this — as kids do — but this one act affects everything that happens in his life. He becomes successful but one by one, people around him die. And all his life, he’s shadowed by a smiling stranger in black who, after a devastating death in the family (yet again), propositions him into a new venture — Bellman&Black. I also love it because it told me the different collective nouns for ravens. It got me thinking about the collective nouns for stuff, hence the title of this post. I like going into tangents and this book allowed me to do so.
Broken Monsters by Lauren Beukes (unfinished; not in picture)
The gist: Along with her earlier novel The Shining Girls, this thriller about a serial killer who chops up his victims and sews them back together and the police detective hunting for him was mentioned in many lists for good books to read, which was why I picked it up. I got through about a fourth of it and for some reason could not get into police detective Gabriella Versado’s world. But the book contains enough imagery and good writing that I will probably go back and finish this sometime.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
“There is a pile of clothing on the side of the train tracks. Light-blue cloth — a shirt, perhaps — jumbled up with something dirty white. It’s probably rubbish, part of a load dumped into the scrubby little wood up the bank. It could have been left behind by the engineers who work this part of the track, they’re here often enough. Or it could be something else. My mother used to tell me that I had an overactive imagination; Tom said that, too. I can’t help it, I catch sight of these discarded scraps, a dirty T-shirt or a lonesome shoe, and all I can think of is the other shoe and the feet that fitted into them.”
The gist: Post-Gillian Flynn, any book that has a damaged or flawed heroine has been touted and promoted as the next Gone Girl (in terms of book sales from the publisher’s POV and flawed, possibly murderous heroine, from the POV of readers) and this book fits right into that category. And yet, it’s a different animal. True, there are similarities: Deeply flawed and unlikable heroine, a story that gets murkier as it goes along, fast-paced storytelling (I finished this book in an afternoon in Bali; it’s that thrilling) and a twist of an ending. A sense of the plot: Rachel commutes to London via train every morning and her favorite thing to do is check out the stretch of houses that line the track. In one of the train stops, she has taken to watching out for a couple eating breakfast on their deck. She sees them everyday that she’s started fantasizing about them, making up stories of the fabulous life they lead and what they do everyday; she’s even given them names. And then one day, she sees something that completely overturns the fantasy life she’s concocted for this couple. It’s only a few seconds but it’s enough to send Rachel into a tailspin, especially after she’s learned that the woman has gone missing. She goes to the police to tell them what she knows. Of course, things become more complicated as she inserts herself into the investigation. I can’t say more without giving away the plot, but If you’re a fan of Gone Girl and Gillian Flynn’s novels, then you should definitely pick this up.
The 6th Extinction by James Rollins
“Throughout history, knowledge rises and falls, ebbs and flows. What once was known is forgotten again, lost in time, sometimes for centuries, only to be rediscovered ages later.”
The gist: The first James Rollins book I ever picked up was The Judas Strain, back around 2009. I didn’t know why I picked it up but I do remember that I finished that one in short order and ended up buying an earlier book and a later one in a matter of weeks. This is the 10th novel in what is collectively known as his Sigma Force novels, about a group of scientist-soldier/spies who work for the US government and who go around preventing doomsday scenarios and foiling the evil plans of master villains. What I like about Rollins’s books is that he blends history, science, myths and legends and sci-fi into one thrill of a read. This one deals with the idea of the Sixth Extinction, a term which describes the mass extinction happening now, because of mankind’s increased activity. This novel takes you into a fantastic world that includes creatures below the ice in Antartica, deadly pathogens and incredible animal mutations. It’s one thrill of a ride…. I passed this on to D after I was done with it, thinking that the science and the fact that Darwin’s work is central to the plot would be interesting to him (he loves Darwin). His verdict: Science on point but unrealistic. For instance, results of scientific experiments or tests arrive shortly after the experiment is done, when IRL it would take weeks at least or months usually. Oh, another thing I love about Rollins’ novels is that he has interesting male and female characters. Sometimes the women are even more kickass than the men.
Here’s what Wikipedia has on the Sixth Extinction: “The Holocene extinction, sometimes called the Sixth Extinction is a name proposed to describe the currently ongoing extinction even of species during the present Holocene epoch (since around 10,000 BCE) mainly due to human activity. The large number of extinctions span numerous families of plants and animals, including mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and arthropods. Although 875 extinctions occurring between 1500 and 2009 have been documented by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources, the vast majority are undocumented. According to the species-area theory and based on upper-bound estimating, the present rate of extinction may be up to 14,000 species per year.” Alarming, yes? For those who want to read about this, there’s a nonfiction book called The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert that details the whole phenomena. This will be added to the book debt soon. :p
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
“Marin believes love is better in the chase than caught,” she says. He raises his eyebrows. “That does not surprise me. It is not better. But it is easier. One’s imagination is always more generous. And yet, the chase always tires you out in the end.”
The gist: It’s 1686 in Amsterdam and Nella Oortman has just come to the bustling city to be married to one of its prominent businessmen. Young Nella’s family lost their fortune so she had married for convenience. Her husband Johannes, 20 years older, is kind but distant. Nella dreams of being the perfect wife and hostess but right away she finds out she’s out of her depth with Amsterdam’s glittering sophistication. To top it all off, the household she marries into is full of secrets and doesn’t seem to want her. There’s haughty and enigmatic Marin, Johannes’ sister who’s used to ruling the household, Otto and Cornelia, servants who also seem to be hiding secrets and know what’s going on in the household more than Nella does. Johannes knows that he isn’t paying much attention to his young wife, so to divert her, gifts her with a cabinet house, which is an exact replica of their own house, miniaturized and unfurnished and tells her to decorate it. At first resentful for being given what she considers a child’s plaything, Nella sets about furnishing the house with the finest miniatures that Amsterdam can offer, hang the cost. She contacts a mysterious miniaturist for the exquisite pieces. Soon after, even if she hasn’t ordered them, accurate miniatures of objects in the house start arriving for her, objects that seem to predict what is going on inside their home.
I heard good things about this book and the way it’s written just flows. I wanted to like it, i really did. But ended up not liking it as much as the others on this list. It has much to recommend it, mainly the setting, as it gives the reader a glimpse of Amsterdam’s golden age, when it was one of the premier cities of the world, and the plot was riveting for the most part. But in the end, I was confused, mainly about the title character. i couldn’t understand her motivations and what the whole point of the book was. I don’t know, maybe I misread it?
The Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
“Oh, I love period dramas, especially period dramas starring Colin Firth. I’m like Bridget Jones if she were actually fat.”
“Oh… Colin Firth. He should only do period dramas. And period dramas should only star Colin Firth. (One-star upgrade for Colin Firth. Two stars for Colin Firth in a waistcoat.)”
“Keep typing his name, even his name is handsome.”
The gist: Beth and Jennifer are in media — one is in sales and one is editorial. The BFFs send each other lots of emails everyday about Stuff and stuff — things happening in their lives, problems, love lives, things happening at work etc etc etc — much like we’d chat or tweet or text with each other now. The thing is, IT guy Lincoln had the unenviable job of monitoring the staff’s emails and flagging non-work emails. He, of course, eventually becomes fascinated by the ongoing conversation between the two women. He ends up not reporting them and becomes the unwitting “partyline” (to use an antiquated term) to their lives. He eventually falls in love with one of them, because, of course. I liked this book, but not as much as I thought I would. I can certainly identify with the women — I’ve had trivial, funny, inane and serious conversations with friends over email, chat, text —but I just couldn’t get into the story. Maybe because I feel so much older than the women here? I don’t know. But one thing about Rainbow Rowell, she writes laugh-out-loud funny dialogue! And dialogue that is immediately familiar to me — maybe because I am lucky enough to have such witty and wise friends who can spout off Rowell-worthy dialogue in ordinary conversation.
Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman
The gist: It’s Gaiman’s third collection of short fiction in story and verse. I can’t give excerpts because there are more than 20 stories included in this anthology, not including the introduction, which is quote-worthy in itself. I loved most of the stories, of course. But I especially loved the fact that Shadow (protagonist of American Gods) makes an appearance in “Black Dog,” exclusive to this anthology. Other stories that I loved include “The Case of Death and Honey” (a Sherlock Holmes story), “The Thing About Cassandra” (about a pretend-girlfriend who becomes real), “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountain” (about a dwarf who hires a man to lead him to a cave full of gold), and “Observing the Formalities” (a poem with Maleficent as the narrator). These are just some of the gems in this fabulous book. Go read it!
Nos4A2 by Joe Hill
“Everyone lives in two worlds,” Maggie said, speaking in an absentminded sort of way while she studied her letters. “There’s the real world, with all its annoying facts and rules. In the real world, there are things that are true and things that aren’t. Mostly the real world s-s-s-suh-sucks. But everyone also lives in the world inside their own head. An inscape, a world of thought. In a world made of thought — in an inscape — every idea is a fact. Emotions are as real as gravity. Dreams are as powerful as history. Creative people, like writers, and Henry Rollins, spend a lot of their time hanging out in their thoughtworld. S-s-strong creatives, though, can use a knife to cut the stitches between the two worlds, can bring them together. Your bike. My tiles. Those are our knives.”
The gist: Joe Hill walks the well-trodden path of his father Stephen King in this novel about vampires, childhood worlds and growing up. That’s the pat summary — while reading this I couldn’t help thinking that Joe must’ve been sitting at his dad’s feet when King was maybe ruminating out loud about ideas for books, because this one does seem like it could fit in King’s oeuvre. But though Hill may be cut from the same cloth, he actually does a good job of distinguishing himself from his father, not least because he seems to be a more confident writer than his father was at his age. So what’s it about? It’s about Charles Manx, serial killer and kidnapper of young children, the nosferatu of the story, who has the ability to jump across time in his car (with the titular license plate) and kidnap kids for their essence, and Victoria, who as a kid, almost ended up being one of Manx’s victims, and indeed, is the only child to escape his clutches. She can also jump through time, but in her bike. As she grows up, she manages to forget that she had the ability to move between time and space and ends up being married to the well-meaning Lou, who helped her escape Manx once before. But now, the grown-up Victoria must confront Manx once again because he’s taken her kid.
The World of Ice and Fire: The Untold Story of Westeros by Elio Garcia, George R. R. Martin, and Linda Antonsson
“As the next thousand years unfold — and the thousands beyond that — many more will be born, and live, and die. And history will continue to unfold, as strange and complex and compelling as what my humble pen was able to lay before you.”
The gist: It’s the untold history of Westeros, a compilation of family histories of the noble houses of the Seven Kingdoms as well as that of the lands in the East. This is a companion book to the book series and the TV show for anyone who wants to learn more about the history of the Seven Kingdoms. Lavishly illustrated, it provides vivid accounts of battles, rivalries and rebellions that lead to the events of A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones. I had officially entered major ASOIAF and GoT fandom when I bought this book, but couldn’t resist buying this. The illustrations and the stories are wonderful, even if they’re not the characters we love from the novels and the TV series.
Going Postal by Terry Pratchett
Miss Dearheart gave him a very brief look, and shook her head. There was movement under the table, a small fleshy kind of noise and the drunk suddenly bent forward, colour draining from his face. Probably only he and Moist heard Miss Dearheart purr: “What is sticking in your foot is a Mitzy ‘Pretty Lucretia’ four-inch heel, the most dangerous footwear in the world. Considered as pounds per square inch, it’s like being trodden on by a very pointy elephant. Now, I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking, ‘Could she press it all the way through to the floor?’ And, you know, I’m not sure about that myself. The sole of your boot might give me a bit of trouble, but nothing else will. But that’s not the worrying part. The worrying part is that I was forced practically at knifepoint to take ballet lessons as a child, which means I can kick like a mule; you are sitting in front of me; and I have another shoe. Good, I can see you have worked that out. I’m going to withdraw the heel now.”
There was a small “pop” from under the table. With great care the man stood up, turned and, without a backward glance, lurched unsteadily away.
“Can I bother you?” said Moist. Miss Dearheart nodded, and he sat down, with his legs crossed. “He was only a drunk,” he ventured.
“Yes, men say that sort of thing,” said Miss Dearheart.
The gist: Moist Van Lipwig is a thief and a swindler who is condemned to death by hanging for, well, swindling and thieving, until he’s offered a reprieve by Lord Ventinari, ruler of Ankh-Morpok: Be the postmaster of the practically defunct Postal Service or be hanged for his crimes. Since he has no choice, Moist accepts the job, along with the golem who is tasked to make sure he actually fulfills his duties. But then, getting a moribund Postal Service back in operation is not a job for the fainthearted. But it just might be the perfect job for a master thief. Hijinks, of course, happen. 🙂
I’ve always been a fan of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels ever since buying a second-hand volume of The Colour of Magic from a Booksale (second-hand bookstore chain in the Philippines) years ago but had lost touch of Discworld after about five or six books. When Pratchett died last year, it was like losing a good friend so I picked up the series again. And happy coincidence because D likes Pratchett and Discworld, too! This novel is one of two Discworld novels of his that I filched from his collection (see below for the other one).
This really is the cruelest month — I only picked up one book the entire month and have not finished reading it, a record for me!
The Science of Discworld III: Darwin’s Watch by Ian Stewart, Jack Cohen, and Terry Pratchett
“One of the biggest religions on Roundworld was founded by a carpenter’s son!’ Ponder snarled. “For years, the most powerful person on the planet was an actor! There’s got to be room for Darwin!”
“I am sorry. It is hard to convey five-dimensional ideas in a language evolved to scream defiance at the monkeys in the next tree.”
The gist: The story (and chapters) alternate between a Discworld plotline and the scientific explanations and history of some of our revolutionary scientific and philosophical concepts, among them evolution. The basic plotline: The wizards in Discworld’s Unseen University have Roundworld (that’s us, Earth) in a jar to be studied. However, mystical creatures from Discworld have entered the jar and are changing our scientific history, specifically whether or not Darwin gets to write his groundbreaking On the Origin of the Species, which posits the idea of evolution for the first time and at great length. So the authors alternate between chapters about what is happening at the Unseen University to fix whatever problems Roundworld is having, and chapters detailing the history of the Earth, evolution, physics, even time travel. I haven’t read the first two novels in the Science of Discworld series, but this book was very readable and was clever in its attempt to mix both a Discworld story, science and maths. However, in attempting to combine both, the authors probably failed in giving each story its due. The Discworld story was not that compelling and the science and maths that the authors explored went over my head (admittedly, my fault and not theirs). I could probably be able to appreciate and understand this if I took more time with it. As it is, other books distracted me. Will probably pick this up sometime (maybe when I’m reading another full Discworld novel to leaven out the slew of information given in this one).
MaddAddam and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
“Glenn used to say the reason you can’t really imagine yourself being dead was that as soon as you say, ‘I’ll be dead,’ you’ve said the word I, and so you’re still alive inside the sentence. And that’s how people got the idea of immortality of the soul — it was a consequence of grammar. And so was God, because as soon as there’s a past tense, there has to be a past before the past, and you keep going back in time until you get to I don’t know, and that’s what God is. It’s what you don’t know — the dark, the hidden, the underside of the visible, and all because we have grammar …”
[from Oryx and Crake]
“Jimmy, look at it realistically. You can’t couple a minimum access to food with an expanding population indefinitely. Homo sapiens doesn’t seem to be able to cut himself off at the supply end. He’s one of the few species that doesn’t limit reproduction in the face of dwindling resources. In other words — and up to a point, of course — the less we eat, the more we fuck.”
“How to do you account for that?” said Jimmy.
“Imagination,” said Crake. ““Men can imagine their own deaths, they can see them coming, and the mere thought of impending death acts like an aphrodisiac. A dog or rabbit doesn’t behave like that. Take birds — in a lean season they cut down on the eggs, or they won’t mate at all. They put their energy into staying alive themselves until times get better. But human beings hope they can stick their souls into someone else, some new version of themselves, and live on forever.”
“As a species were doomed by hope, then?”
“You could call it hope. That, or desperation.”
“But we’re doomed without hope, as well,” said Jimmy.
“Only as individuals,” said Crake cheerfully.
The gist: I grouped these two because they’re parts 1 and 3 of Atwood’s brilliant MaddAddam “trilogy”, which details the story of what happens before and after a biological catastrophe sweeps the globe, killing off a lot of people and leaving behind a few survivors and bio-engineered “humans” and animals. It’s a trilogy, because it essentially deals with one storyline but each book tells the story from the POV of different people, so it’s not really necessary to read the books in order. Lucky for me because the first book of this trilogy that I read (a year or so back) was The Year of the Flood, which tells the story of God’s Gardeners, a religion that believes in the preservation of plant and animal life and that science and religion can coexist. The next book I read was the third one, MaddAddam, which chronicles the story of Zeb, an ex-God’s Gardener who eventually founded the more militant MaddAddam faction. The last book I read (and the first in the series), Oryx and Crake is essentially a love triangle between Crake, a brilliant scientist and bioengineer, his friend Jimmy the Snowman and Oryx, the woman they both love.
Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey
Excerpt:“But it’s not true. I forget things—I know that—but I’m not mad. Not yet. And I’m sick of being treated as if I am. I’m tired of the sympathetic smiles and the little pats people give you when you get things confused, and I’m bloody fed up with everyone deferring to Helen rather than listening to what I have to say.”
The gist: I’ve been thinking a lot about growing older and aging lately, because I am getting to that point that I have to think about it and this novel neatly dovetails with my musings: What it’s like to get really old, what happens when you forget things and people, misremember events. What it’s like to be treated patronizingly, the way we treat old people. This is the story of Maud, who is slowly sinking into dementia, but remembers that her friend Elizabeth is missing and may be in terrible danger and that she has to find her. No one believes her though and it’s up to her to find her friend, even as she gets even more muddled and loses her grip on everyday life. Meanwhile, as she searches for her friend, she is also remembering the events that led to the mysterious disappearance of her older sister, Sukey more than 50 years ago. Is there a connection between the two events? Unfortunately, the clues lie in Maud’s rapidly fading memory. This debut novel is dark and heartbreaking and yes, poignantly funny. Healey was able to portray how a person thinks even as she loses her grip on the present.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
“To shut your eyes is to guess nothing of blindness. Beneath your world of skies and faces and buildings exists a rawer and older world, a place where surface planes disintegrate and sounds ribbon in shoals through the air. Marie-Laure can sit in an attic high above the street and hear lilies rustling in marshes two miles away. She hears Americans scurry across farm fields, directing their huge cannons at the smoke of Saint-Malo; she hears families sniffling around hurricane lamps in cellars, crows hopping from pile to pile, flies landing on corpses in ditches; she hears the tamarinds shiver and the jays shriek and the dune grass burn; she feels the great granite fist, sunk deep into the earth’s crust, on which Saint-Malo sits, and the ocean teething at it from all four sides, and the outer islands holding steady against the swirling tides; she hears cows drink from stone troughs and dolphins rise through the green water of the Channel; she hears the bones of dead whales stir five leagues below, their marrow offering a century of food for cities of creatures who will live their whole lives and never once see a photon sent from the sun. She hears her snails in the grotto drag their bodies over the rocks.”
Jutta whispers, “A girl got kicked out of the swimming hole today. Inge Hachmann. They said they wouldn’t let us swim with a half-breed. Unsanitary. A half-breed, Werner. Aren’t we half-breeds too? Aren’t we half our mother, half our father?”
The gist: All the praise and accolades heaped on this novel are well-deserved. Doerr paints a vivid and lyrical portrait of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl and Werner, a German orphan who has an aptitude for electronics, of Europe on the brink of World War II, of the legend of a fabulous gem. How Marie-Laure copes with blindness and how Werner ends up a member of the Hitler Youth and how their paths converge is told in this beautiful and heartbreaking coming-of-age tale. Powerful stuff. Go read!
The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joel Dicker
“Writers who spend all night writing, addicted to caffeine and smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, are a myth, Marcus. You have to be disciplined. It’s exactly the same as training to be a boxer. There are exercises to be repeated, at certain times of day. You have to be persistent, you have to maintain a certain rhythm, and your life has to be perfectly ordered.”
The gist: Literary golden boy Marcus Goldman sets out to prove the innocence of his mentor and idol Harry Quebert who is accused of murdering a 15-year old girl who went missing 30 years ago and whose body was recently found in Quebert’s garden with some damning evidence that points to him as the killer. When I bought this book, I didn’t know that it had won two prestigious literary prizes. i just liked the story; I’m a sucker for “small town with dark secrets” stories — and for awhile, this was engrossing. But I guess you can have too much of a good thing. There were so many twists and turns to the story that it got a bit too much for me. Also, I don’t know if it was the translation (it was originally published in French), but the language was incredibly flat and prosaic. In some parts it was clunky as hell. I finished it though and it did provide some thrills. But it was a disappointment overall.
Finders Keepers by Stephen King
“For readers, one of life’s most electrifying discoveries is that they are readers — not just capable of doing it (which Morris already knew), but in love with it. Hopelessly.”
The gist: The second in a trilogy of thrillers that started with last year’s Mr Mercedes, Finders Keepers deals with readers’ obsession with a writer’s works (particularly apt now considering George R.R. Martin and his unfinished opus and the concerns of fans that he might not be able to finish it) and explores a reader’s relationship with his favorite author (and vice versa). King has touched on this before, with Misery in which Annie Wilkes forces Paul Sheldon to write another book when she didn’t like the ending of his latest book. In Finders Keepers, Morris Bellamy, the villain of the story, shoots his favorite author, the reclusive John Rothstein (think J.D. Salinger levels of reclusiveness and idolatry) in the head because he hated the way Rothstein ended his popular Runner trilogy, starring his recurring character Jimmy Gold. With his two accomplices, he steals the money from Rothstein’s safe as well as his stash of notebooks, a treasure trove of unpublished writing containing two complete Jimmy Gold novels as well as other literary works. He buries the money and the writings in an old chest, but got nabbed for a totally unrelated crime that sends him to prison. Fast forward to more than 30 years later: Young Pete Saubers discovers the chest with the money and the writings. He uses the money to ease his family’s financial problems caused by his father’s disability. His father was one of the victims in Mr Mercedes. Pete also ends up reading Rothstein’s unpublished works and like Morris before him, becomes obsessed with Rothstein’s writing. Here’s where it gets crazy: Now Morris has been paroled and discovers the chest missing. He sets out to reclaim what he thinks are his property and discovers that Pete has them. Pete seeks the help of Finders Keepers, the detective agency formed by retired police detective Bill Hodges (the protagonist of Mr Mercedes) and his two associates. As a B Plot, Hodges is still obsessed with Brady Hartsfield, the villain in Mr Mercedes, who seems catatonic but might not be. Unlike King’s other works, this book is right smack in thriller territory, with nary a hint of the supernatural (although Hartsfield’s condition of being catatonic-yet-aware may veer into creepiness and may prove to be supernatural after all; tune in for the next book). It turns out that King is equally adept at creating fast-paced thrillers as he is terrorizing readers with supernatural clowns and other things that go bump in the night. This, along with Mr Mercedes is one of the best of his recent works.
The last three books happened because I was searching for a novel about London that I could take on my London trip. I wasn’t able to find one in time, but ended up with these three, which are excellent examples of that genre that the Brits do so well: the “genteel mystery” (term I invented, haha!).
An Expert in Murder by Nicola Upson
Josephine’s face was still turned to the window, but he could tell from her voice that any counsel against self-reproach was futile. “You know, just an hour ago I was looking across the theatre, half expecting to see her in the queue already,” she said, sadly. “And I found myself rather looking forward to it. It’s funny, isn’t it, how quickly some people make an impression on you?…”
“And what was she like?”
“She was that quiet sort which always gets overlooked. I don’t mean quiet in the literal sense, but most people would probably have thought her inconsequential. If she were at a party, she was the person you spoke to until you find someone more important. I think she got so used to people looking past her that she didn’t even notice it anymore. She certainly didn’t seem to mind, because there wasn’t an ounce of self-pity about her.”
The gist: I’m always suspicious of books that have real-life people as the detectives/protagonists, but in this case, it works. In Upson’s debut novel, celebrated author and playwright Josephine Tey finds herself traveling to London for the last week’s performance of her hit play Richard of Bordeaux. In the cabin, she meets a young woman who is also traveling to London to deliver some hats to her aunt’s boutique and is coincidentally a big fan of hers and is also planning to watch Tey’s play. The young woman is later found dead at the train station, with commemorative dolls of the characters in Tey’s play included in a grisly tableau. Detective Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, who is Tey’s friend, is convinced that the murder is somehow connected to Tey’s play (duh!) or to Tey herself. They, along with a supporting cast of characters, bring to life London’s West End and an English society still reeling from the Great War. I love this novel. Upson has a light and deft hand with her writing and plot twists. This is the first book in the series and I am looking forward to reading the rest. Curiously, Upson uses Josephine Tey for her fictional heroine, but in real life, Josephine Tey is actually one of three (I think) pseudonyms of Scottish novelist/playwright Elizabeth McIntosh.
The Blood Royal by Barbara Cleverly
“Your father was schoolmaster by trade, I understand. And he has spoken openly to you — a girl — of such matters?”
“He had no son and has always declared himself glad of that. ‘No more sacrifices to the god of war,’ is how he puts it. Like most survivors, he’s silent on his experiences but he conveys them through painting. And if a child approaches and asks questions about what she sees on the canvas, her father will answer and pass on his philosophy through the painted image. It was my father who taught me to use my head and my judgement. To question automatic acceptance of patriotism. And loyalty to the crown.”
The gist: Murder, mystery, espionage plus romance equals this thrilling book set in London in the 1920s with the British Raj and Romanov executions as backdrop. Apparently, it’s the ninth novel starring Cleverly’s CID detective Joe Sandilands and the first appearance of policewoman (back when female police were rare) Lily Wentworth. In this novel, Sandilands is back from his tour of duty in India and is now assigned to the Metropolitan Police where his role has expanded — he’ll be running CID and also heading the Special Irish Branch, an appointment he doesn’t relish given heightened Irish terrorism and high-profile assassination attempts on prominent government officials. Adding to the mix is a Russian princess with her own spy network, the appearance of a long-lost member of the Russian aristocracy who escaped Russia after the Romanovs were executed and a successful assassination that threatens to boil over and create havoc in the city. This book was a cold contact for me. I was at Waterstones on Gower Street waiting for D to finish his meeting. I had just gone around the block taking photos and wasn’t in a hurry to leave the bookstore. Praying that D take his time, I wandered around and ended up in the remainders section. This book was practically the first that caught my eye. I found the premise intriguing and since it was cheap, decided to buy it. I like the book well enough, though I am not sure that I like it well enough to actually buy the other Sandilands novels. Maybe if I spot a few in a remainders bin in the future? Or maybe not. I might give this series another shot.
The Man in the Queue by Josephine Tey
“It was between seven and eight o’clock on a March evening and all over London the bars were being drawn back from pit and gallery doors. Bang, thud, and clank. Grim sounds to preface an evening’s amusement. But no last trump could have so galvanised the weary attendants on Thespis and Terpsichore standing in patient column of four before the gates of promise. Here and there, of course, there was no column. At the Irving, five people spread themselves over the two steps and sacrificed in warmth what they gained in comfort; Greek tragedy was not popular. At the Playbox there was no one; the Playbox was exclusive and ignored the existence of pits. At the Arena, which had a three weeks’ ballet season, there were 10 persons for the gallery and a long queue for the pit. But at the Woffington both human strings tailed away apparently to infinity.”
The gist: This isn’t the first time I’ve read Tey. I first encountered her in The Daughter of Time, her superb detective novel about investigating the murder of the Princes in the Tower, supposedly ordered by Richard III. Scotland Yard inspector Alan Grant, Tey’s detective, was convinced that Richard was innocent of the murders and set about proving it. I loved that book and vowed to read more of Tey’s detective novels, but just haven’t gotten around to it. I am rectifying that lapse with this novel, her first to feature Alan Grant (incidentally, Upson portrays Archie Penrose as Tey’s model for Alan Grant. Literary conceit at its finest!). Again, like Upson’s novel, this is set in the 1920s, during the British Golden Age. A man in a queue to watch a musical gets stabbed to death and the other people in line didn’t see who did it. I like the way Tey writes, and her detective Alan Grant, is relatable because he doesn’t seem to have that omniscient intelligence that characterize a lot of book detectives. But great prose aside, one thing that jarred me about this novel is the casual racism that was prevalent during that time. For instance, Grant refers to the main suspect in this case as “the dago” a term that isn’t even used now, and if someone did use it, would raise a few eyebrows or even earn the user a quick rebuke (or a beating), but was accepted back in the day. Also worthy to note here is that Grant doesn’t even solve the case in the end! He pursues a suspect across the Scottish Highlands only to have doubts about his guilt when he finally managed to talk to him.
Hmmmm… this was a long post! I got carried away, haha! It’s fun revisiting the stories that engrossed me this past six months. I don’t know about you, but I reread my books and writing about them is almost as satisfying as reading them again. Now that I have gotten this post off my chest, which books have preoccupied you lately? Any good recommendations?
[Note: Most excerpts used here were taken from Goodreads]