Sunday, March 28, 2010

Murder in the Sentier by Cara Black

Paris must be one of the most written about cities in literature (alongside New York and London). Who can think of Paris without thinking about romance and fine art and culture? But the famous city of so much literature is not the Paris of Cara Black's books. And I find her lack of idealism about Paris refreshing. She writes stories that explore the seedy underground of Paris. There is still a nostalgic appeal to her descriptions of the historic city, but they are not idealized and utopian.

Murder in the Sentier is the third in the Aimée Leduc mysteries. I enjoyed it - like I have enjoyed all of Black's books so far. But I enjoyed it less than the first two books in the series. I felt like Black had so much description to set the neighborhood that it took over for the plot.

Black's strength is the ability to interweave historically important moments in French history with modern problems. Leduc, a cyber-detective ends up solving crimes involving events from 50 plus years ago. In her first book Murder in the Marais, Black tackled anti-Semitism, collaboration and the Holocaust - amazing and well-written. In Murder in the Sentier Black tackles 1970s reactionary terrorist groups. Historically interesting? Yeah, I suppose. But it didn't grip me the way her other books have.

I also felt like Black worked too hard to incorporate Leduc's tortured past into the novel. The readers know from other books about Leduc's missing mother and now dead policeman-turned-detective father. Yet in this book dad has a black mark for possibly aiding and abetting his wife (Aimée's mother) who collaborated with reactionary terrorist groups. It didn't jive with the other stories in my mind.

The reason I will continue to read all of Black's books? Her descriptions of Parisian neighborhoods. Black has done painstaking research to describe each quarter of Paris as unique and distinct from any other neighborhood. But she also throws in historical bits which demonstrate a strong knowledge of the city's past as well.

An enjoyable read - much heavier than a cozy --> prostitution, drug use, bits of blood and guts. Worth the time if you love books about the City of Lights.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Cassandra and Jane: A Jane Austen Novel by Jill Pitkeathley


I love Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility as much as the next bibliophile. But this book was boring.

Austen has claimed so much pop culture attention lately - from full novels about Mr. Darcy of Pride and Prejudice fame (you can seduce him, turn him into a vampire, or read his diary) to Zombies (twice over) and Sea Monsters to new BBC releases of Emma, Austen remains in the public eye. So the idea of a fictionalized version of the life of Jane and her sister Cassandra seems like a realistic and engaging idea.

Maybe it is because Hollywood has told us too much about Austen. Maybe it is because her novels have long been touted as being semi-autobiographical, but Pitkeathley's novel does not offer anything that an Austen fan does not already know. To suggest that Jane had a short-term affair that turned sour or turned down an offer of marriage because she did not love the prospective groom should not surprise many.

Moreover, Cassandra is sniveling and co-dependent. Anytime Jane gets happiness Cassandra complains because her sister is not at her side day and night. To suggest that Cassandra Austen spent 20+ years after Jane Austen's death sitting around remembering her sister and reading her novels day in and day out is a sad caricature of any individual. I sure hope that Cassandra mourned her sister but moved on and continued to live her life.

I did find the family tree and the expectations of the maiden aunts interesting. The Austens had, if I remember correctly, three different sister-in-laws who had at least eleven children! Although not unusual in past history, it is not something that appears in the Austen novels so I hadn't thought about it concretely. I did think Pitkeathley did a good job portraying how unmarried women felt both distanced from and relieved by the burden of continual childbirth.

The discussions of women not involving themselves in business were also intriguing. Imagine being an author and not even having the rights or expectations to talk to the publisher yourself because it is unseemly?

If you're an Austen lover and you want to learn more about her and her relationships, you might enjoy Cassandra and Jane. But for the most part I would say, don't bother. Go watch Emma instead.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Chrysalids by John Wyndham

A biologist friend recommended this book a number of years ago. She raved about it as one of her favorite sci fi books of all times. I had never heard of it, or of John Wyndham. I am not some huge authority on science fiction but my husband does have a healthy appreciation for classic sci fi works; he brings home new finds semi-regularly and hands them to me to read. So a brand-new author intrigued me.

I finally bought a copy of The Chrysalids with my Christmas money and devoured it in 48 hours (hey, that's quick when you consider I'm also parenting and working). It's every bit as good as my friend promised. And it has that exceedingly rare quality - it has aged well. Too often sci fi resembles the time in which it was written. Although Wyndham's book does reflect the post-World War II crises that dictate his storyline it is equally relevant and in no way dated today. The story revolves around a boy who lives in a small religiously and genetically pure community in Labrador (northern Canada/Greenland?). As he begins to question his father's doctrine he finds problems with the social and cultural norms he has assumed from childhood.

Having just taught the bombing of Hiroshima to my college students a week earlier I enjoyed engaging in Wyndham's dystopic, post-apocalyptic world. He is subtle in his treatment of nuclear fallout. He never names it but his descriptions are vivid and remain cogent 50 years later.

I also found Wyndham's treatment of religious orthodoxy fascinating. In today's world in which religion has begun to play a larger social role it was interesting to see how he envisioned religion, biology, and nuclear war to have interwoven.

In the tradition of 1984, Brave New World, and The Giver, Wyndham writes a story that speaks to a young audience and can be read by a young adult reader. But it is no less powerful to an adult who sees intriguing nuances in personal interplay.

I have since learned that Wyndham is well-known in Britain (and Canada) but has only been recently re-introduced to the American audience. After finishing The Chrysalids I would happily read his other famous novel, The Day of the Triffids. I passed this on to my husband and am eagerly waiting his perceptions so we can discuss certain character points in detail.

If you like The Chrysalids I strongly recommend:

Monday, March 15, 2010

Thai Die by Monica Ferris

I returned to a familiar cozy series after finishing a book I didn't like (see below, if curious). I knew that Monica Ferris would not disappoint - and she didn't. Thai Die is the twelfth! book in the Needlecraft series (I think I may have missed a few in the middle as I can't remember eleven other stories). But for a cozy series to make it that long is a good sign of reader appeal.

One of the appeals of Ferris' books is the theme - needlework. Whether an occasional flurry of activity or a regular weekly hobby there are lots of people who knit, crochet, needlepoint, or cross stitch. Ferris' stories appeal to all of these individuals. And she is good to always acknowledge that needlework is not exclusively a women's hobby.

But I've been pondering more and more what the appeal of the cozy is in general. As odd as it may sound to someone who has never read a cozy:

They're innocent.

Yes, the main plot revolves around murder. However, there is no blood and guts. There is no incest and rape. The good guy always wins. The bad guy always gets caught. And somewhere in the middle of the book, you may actually learn a fact or two.

This particular story revolved around the theft of artistic objects from Bangkok. There were a few holes in the story. I would not describe Ferris' books as fine literature. But I doubt Ferris would either. That's not why she wrote them.

All in all a good escape.

Monday, March 8, 2010

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

My taste is eclectic, of that I have no doubt. But at times I do wonder about my likes and dislikes more than usual. Almost everyone I know who has read The Secret History has raved about it. They have rated it near the top of their book lists. Respecting those friends' suggestions, I picked up Donna Tartt's first novel and expected to be pulled in and blown away. Maybe that was mistake number one - too much information.

I despised this book!

It was 570 pages of navel gazing. How much self-reflection and psychoanalytic analysis of ones friends is necessary? What about the plot?

To give credit - the book is extremely well-written. Donna Tartt has a strong knowledge of literature and linguistics. She creates deep fully-developed characters. The world in which the characters move is believable and well-depicted. But there's still no plot!

The book revolves around five college friends, all studying ancient Greek. There's a murder. There's a need to cover up a murder. There's another murder. There's 200+ pages of guilt, recrimination, blame, and self-doubt.

I skimmed the last 250 pages because I wanted to be done. I hoped there would be some fascinating novel plot twist to change my opinion. There wasn't. The book got even more depressing and I liked the characters even less than when I started - which isn't saying much.

I had one friend ask if I didn't like it because it was too close to the academic world in which I reside. Maybe. But I sincerely hope that I have no students who spend so much time taking drugs, drinking to excess, and stealing prescription drugs when he can't get ahold of any cocaine. And while college is a period of stark self-reflection, self-doubt, and self-growth I sincerely hope none of my students live such an internal life that he can't see past the end of his nose.

I read the Reader's Guide at the end curious to hear Tartt's explanation of her own story. She's pompous. I'll leave it there.

One of the problems with The Secret History for me was that it read like every other boys' school book out there. Ever seen Dead Poets Society? Read A Separate Peace? Read Gentlemen and Players? Then you have no reason to add The Secret History to your list.

And I apologize to those who loved it. There's no accounting for taste ;-p