Monday, November 15, 2010

Sepulchre by Kate Mosse

Bestseller denotes a book that has sold many, many copies. However, does anyone ever track how many books have been read? That is, just because I buy a book and set it on my shelf doesn't mean I ever pick it up and read it. Nor does bestseller acknowledge the books that look good and get lots of hype but just don't live up to expectations. Recently I talked with friends about a memoir that had been heavily touted in the media. Two people separately told me they started the book only to put it down because it was boring and badly written. I wonder if in the future e-readers will allow statistics about how many people actually spend time with every page of a book...

These were my thoughts as I put down Sepulchre by Kate Mosse. A few years back a friend sent me Labyrinth which I read and enjoyed. But I wasn't over the moon about it. I feel very similar about Sepulchre. I liked the book. Mosse writes a compelling, detailed, historically accurate story. But in the end, I was disappointed. I felt like the book was 500 pages of hype for a relatively simplistic and facile ending.

Sepulchre, in the recent tradition of historical suspense stories, tracks the lives of two individuals in different eras whose worlds intersect. Leonie Vernier lives in 1890s Paris. Meredith Martin is a present day historian tracking down both biographical information about Debussy and historical information about her murky past. Needless to say, there is a connection between the two women - at the very least, the fascinating tarot cards they both possess.

Mosse presents a well-researched historical reality. Her knowledge of Languedoc France at the turn of the century create a believable world. But her character of Victor Constant - the bad guy - is remarkably one-dimensional. The present day villain is not well enough fleshed out. For all of the immense detail Mosse includes, she needed to spend more time giving her villain a motivation for his obsessions.

In the story, Mosse's characters talk about Dan Brown and links to the Templars. Needless to say, Mosse is attempting to separate her story from Brown's formulaic pop fiction. Yet, Mosse falls into some of the same traps. All of the drama is easily explained away. The suggestion of more is never really fulfilled.

According to Goodreads, this is the second book in the Languedoc Trilogy. I can't find a link between the stories aside from the geographical location. I am curious whether she intends to write a third book which brings all of the characters together. If so, it seems relatively far fetched.

All in all, I'm glad I read it. I learned a few things. But I would have rather spent the past couple of weeks on something better.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

The Mapping of Love and Death by Jacqueline Winspear

I have loved the Maisie Dobbs series since I read the first book. I was thrilled to realize I had an unread book in the series on my shelf: don’t know how I could have missed that earlier. I have heard people call the series “light” because they are mysteries, but really I think there is an incredibly depth to Winspear’s writing. She takes on topics that are weighty and in no way fluffy. She also has created an incredibly real, detailed world which is eminently believable. Winspear is not cozy mystery machine who churns out a new book every season. There is an analytical depth and research background which undermines the descriptions of a mystery as “light.”

In the latest Maisie Dobbs book, Winspear introduces Americans. The soldier who has been killed is an American cartographer who joined the War because he had unique skills and his father was British. Like all Maisie Dobbs books, the plot is more intricate than first perceived.

This book would be terribly hard to pick up without foreknowledge of the series. By the seventh book in the series, Winspear assumers her readers are up-to-date on Dobb’s friends, relationships, and past. This story brings back Maurice, her mentor who has been a foundation of the series. It also reintroduces James Compton and adds a heretofore untold back story which fleshes out the world of Maisie Dobbs. Winspear does an amazing job of combining the mystery and the personal story in a balanced way. She does not go too far astray on either side, losing track of one plotline of the other.

When all is said and done however, I didn’t like this book quite as well as others in the series. The only problem for me was the way the mystery wrapped up. There were too many moments when Maisie knew information which Winspear did not share with the reader. And the denouement was muddy. One character was “sort of” guilty, but I did not feel it was explained as well as it could have been.

Despite the shortcomings, I would wholeheartedly recommend the series. It is easy to get lost in Jacqueline Winspear’s world. And I always learn something new.

Firefly Lane by Kristin Hannah

Yesterday (well, in October. I wrote this then and am posting now) I had to finish Hannah’s latest book. Everything else could wait; the book came first. My second novel by Kristin Hannah and I’m hooked. I will eagerly be looking for more of her work – she’s amazing. Hannah’s books are character driven plots detailing the intertwined relationships of women as they attempt to chart their own path.

Firefly Lane tells the story of Tully Hart and Kate Ryan, best friends from the age of 14. They remain close throughout high school, college, early career and family. From the outset Hannah lead her readers to know *something* would cause a rupture between the two women and I spent lots of reading time attempting to unearth what would cause the break. There are obvious clues but I am happy to say it was not the one I anticipated. What she did create was a logical trajectory for the climax so when it came it seemed so logical without have been blaringly obvious – so to speak.

I loved how Hannah showed the passage of time. There were no “It was the fall of 1985…” paragraphs. Instead she subtly interjected song titles and fashions to show new eras. At one point the girls sport Farah Fawcett do’s, later Tully gets her hair cut in a “Rachel.” Hannah never falls into the trap of describing what a “Rachel” looks like, she knows her readers will know. The story arches from the height of hippie-era bellbottoms through the sequins, crosses, and shoulder pads of the 1980s to the low-rider jeans and belly-baring 2000s. For anyone aware of women’s fashions for the past 30 years Hannah did a great job of showing the period without having to state it.

I will admit, I sobbed through the last 100 pages. I don’t always like tear-jerker books. Especially when an author makes a concerted effort to tug on emotional chains. I don’t feel that way with Hannah. She is telling an amazing story that comes with heartache and drama. The book is not all about the bad, but there is bad as a reality of life.

Oh, and the two Kristin Hannah books I’ve read both take place in the Pacific Northwest. This one starts in the town where my husband went to high school. I liked reading her perceptions of a town I saw in the late 1990s.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah

Shortly after I started my blog I joined Goodreads. What better way to keep track of the books I read. I love the ability to track my books and I love seeing what my fellow bibliophiles are reading. However, Goodreads has recently added a new dimension to my reading. They send a monthly email with book news and new book suggestions. When something catches my attention it is easy to add it to my future to-read list. Whether I get to the books immediately or not, I have them cached for when I need a suggestion.

A few months ago one of the suggestions was Kristin Hannah’s new novel Winter Garden. Hannah was a brand new author to me; although I have since learned she is quite prolific (which makes me very happy as I love finding good new authors to add to my list). I picked up the book at the school library and read it over the weekend.

What an amazing book. Hannah’s story revolves around a mother and her two daughters upon the death of the father: the glue who holds the family together. The adult daughters are not close to their mother but promise their father they will try to remain close after he dies. Over time the women learn about their mother’s past and what has made her the distant woman she is.

Hannah’s characters are well-rounded: their quirks, foibles, and interests resonate with the childhood she created for them. Both daughters have difficulty with love relationships – albeit in a very different way from one another – because of their upbringing. They are distrustful and shut off, more like their mother than they are willing to admit at the outset. It is easy to believe in the people she has created in her novel.

Moreover, Hannah has done an incredible job researching war torn Leningrad. Her descriptions of Anya’s life in Russia during World War II are amazingly accurate. In the right setting, I would happily use this book in a history class. She brings personality and emotion and horror to an event that is hard to portray accurately in a sterile history setting.

Suffice it to say, I will be looking for more books by Kristin Hannah. Firefly Lane is sitting on my bookshelf and the only reason I didn’t pick it up immediately is I wanted to savor knowing I had such a great book waiting for me. I would strongly recommend Winter Garden to almost anyone!

Death Swatch by Laura Childs

I have read most of Laura Childs’ books in all three of her series. Death Swatch is the sixth book in the scrapbooking series. And as much as I enjoy Childs’ series I am beginning to feel as though she is spread too thin. For the first time I found inconsistencies and problems in this story.

Laura Childs excels at light cozies with strong female characters. She chooses locales with personality and depth. Her themes – scrapbooking, tea, cooking – all offer great opportunities for creativity and useful tips at the back of the book. In Death Swatch Childs combines Mardi Gras and paper stamping techniques.


She is not a historian. Within one chapter she confuses the era of Jean Lafitte badly. She talks about the 18th century, then she says he lived “over 100 years ago” and then she makes some other claim about the Battle of New Orleans in the early nineteenth century. It was more than a slight editing gaffe. For me it was a sign of someone who is over-extended and not reading or researching as carefully. Aside from flummoxing her dates, she clearly was not overly familiar with the timeline she was writing about. This plot just went too far off the scale to be even remote believable. I realize cozies are not about accuracy and believability, but the authors usually fact check and try to keep their plots vaguely realistic.

All in all, not one of Childs best efforts.