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Monday, August 27, 2012

Review: 'The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton'


By Elizabeth Speller
Crime fiction (British traditional historical)
June 2012
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 978-0547547527
Laurence Bartram is getting accustomed to life after WWI, teaching and adjusting to life without his wife and newborn, who both died, and the woman he loves, who is separated from him while her husband, with no hope of recovery, clings to life.

Laurence accepts the invitation of his friend William, a talented architect who lost the use of his legs in the war, to look over the restoration of a church on a country estate. William, his ardent political wife Eleanor, and their young son Nicholas are stayiing with the Eastons, a prototypical country gentry family riddled with tragedy and secrets.

The tragedy that weighs heaviest on the family members is the disappearance of five-year-old Kitty more than 10 years ago. The lord of the manor, Digby, fell deeper into drink and tyrannical ways after the child vanished from her room one night. He was killed in France, while younger brother Julian survived to carry on at home. He pines for Digby's widow, Lydia, who is becoming more frail by the day and who cannot acknowledge her daughter may be dead. Youngest brother Patrick plays the role of ne'er-do-well, but his story, like that of all the Eastons, is deeper than first appearances.

It takes pages and pages for anything to really happen, but the church restoration -- and underground discoveries -- and an ill-fated trip to a London exhibition are trigger events that eventually bring to light most of the Easton secrets.

Speller's second Laurence Bartram novel is leisurely paced, better reflecting an era when people counted time in days and weeks, rather than minutes, and no one multi-tasked. The pacing highlights how events large and small could have lasting effects on the characters. The characters demonstrate qualities that may seem quaint today -- loyalty, thoughtfulness, reluctance to gossip but truthfulness when asked forthright.

The novel does require knowledge of characters from the first Laurence Bartram novel. Like this one, The Return of Captain John Emmett uses the crime fiction genre to explore how a people try to return to a way of life after war nearly destroys it. Laurence's decisions at the end of Kitty Easton portend interesting possibilities for continuing the series, as do the actions of other returning characters.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Review: 'Seating Arrangements'

By Maggie Shipstead
Literary fiction
June 2012
ISBN: 978-0307599469
Although it's not necessary to fall in love with characters while reading a novel, it is an interesting experience to be fascinated by those who represent something the reader disdains. Such was the experience of reading about a well-off WASP family and its circle of friends and family in Maggie Shipstead's debut novel, Seating Arrangements.

Because of Shipstead's talent, it's possible to view the first-world problems of this Manhattan titan of finance with empathy, as his true lot in life is revealed. The more the reader learns about Winn Van Meter and his family, both his children and those who came before him, the more his situation is apparent. He thinks he is the ultimate insider, yet it is revealed that family truths he grew up believing may not be so. He is trying to hold together a view of the world that upholds certain standards, doing his bit as a part of the establishment, yet he doesn't fit in as firmly as he had believed.

The novel takes place during the weekend of the oldest daughter's wedding. She is in her third trimester, but she is not the novel's focus. His youngest daughter could use a little understanding. She's not getting it, mainly because Winn is trying to uphold perceived standards about what is and is not proper. And in trying to uphold those standards, his conduct is far from becoming.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Review: 'Beastly Things'

By Donna Leon
Crime fiction (Commissario Guido Brunetti)
April 2012
Atlantic Monthly Press
ISBN: 978-0-8021-2023-6

The body of a man without identification but with a distinct medical condition is found in a canal. As Commissario Guido Brunetti discovers who the man was, and why he was killed, the well-loved Venetian policeman will have to address personal and professional issues.

Because the man has a condition that makes him stand out, Brunetti is able to identify him. The man was a veterinarian, separated from his wife and beloved son, and moonlighting at a slaughterhouse for financial reasons. So in addition to exploring other investigative avenues, Brunetti must talk to the people at the slaughterhouse. This comes as talk around home centers on unsafe food.

In a remarkable setpiece, Leon describes the tour Brunetti and Vianello take through the slaughterhouse after hours. It is gruesome but not graphic, and a master class in how to write about something utterly horrible without using extremely specific sights and actions.

The mystery of who killed the victim and why does not make a difficult case. But that is not the point of Leon's book. Nor is the point the theme so similar to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.

Rather, it is widespread and so often accepted corruption in personal and private lives that forms the foundation to Beastly Things. Whether it's Brunetti relying on the highly capable Signorina Elettra to discover information he needs or the business of any business -- to make money -- there is little innocence in his world.

Beastly Things is yet another deceptively thoughtful mystery from Leon, who once again also brings to vivid life Brunetti's Venice and the commissario's wonderful family.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reprinted with permission

Monday, August 13, 2012

Review: 'Beneath the Shadows'

By Sara Foster
Gothic fiction
June 2012
Minotaur Books
ISBN: 978-0312643362                                                                    

Grace agrees to go to a remote Yorkshire cottage with her beloved husband and new baby. The home belonged to Adam's late grandparents and he lived with them for a spell. One day, Adam takes the baby out for a stroll. Millie, safely in her stroller, is found on the cottage doorstep hours later. Adam is not seen again.

Nearly a year later, Grace returns to the cottage to pack things up and see if she can find any traces of Adam. Members of the most established family in the dying village have been taking care of the cottage and invite Grace into their circle. A stranger to town overhears her talk about fixing the place up for sale and she hires him on the spot. Grace's city-wise sister, an old platonic friend, a grandfather clock that seems to stop and start at will and a ghostie who only appears to children in the big house also keep Grace from feeling too lonely out on the moor.

Sara Foster has written an atmospheric, old-fashioned Gothic with homage paid to Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, which the heroine is reading. The challenge in writing such a story is to be true to the formula while keeping the heroine from any obvious "Had I but known" moments or from acting TSTL (Too Stupid to Live). Foster has avoided those pitfalls. The atmosphere and secondary characters add to the enjoyment of sinking back into a story in which tradition in the setting and tradition in the way in which the story is told can be enjoyed.

©2012 All Rights Reserved CompuServe Books Reviews and reposted with permission

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Review: 'Gods Without Men'

By Hari Kunzru
Literary fiction
March 2012
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 978-0307957115                                                                                      

"Only connect," as E.M. Forster wrote in Howards End, to "live in fragments no more" is a wish that's appears to be a plea against the fractured, chaotic and constantly in motion life in the 21st century First World. Hari Kunzru's fourth novel, Gods Without Men, is written in fragments of different times and places, but there are slender threads connecting them to each other. Whether the reader makes those connections and feels the fabric of a novel depends on the reader. And we all know we readers are not cut from the same cloth.

The novel is about both the trickster known as Coyote and the world of humans, those foible-filled creatures. In a way, Gods Without Men is as much a myth as novel, in that Coyote has set up and been caught in a trap in which humans are involved. During diferent eras, there is the inference that if one creature escapes, another must take its place (there is a similar story in Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell that ended up being surprisingly poignant).

But that is the underpinning of the various stories contained within Kunzru's book. The main narratives are of a modern New York couple whose autistic son disappears for a few months while they are out West strolling around the Three Pinnacles rock formation out in the midst of the desert, a group in the late 1950s who seek wisdom from an alien race and a commune seeking wisdom from drugs as much as the aliens. There are connections between these stories, and a few others, that are not forced but which give few hints of how it all might tie together.

The main characters in all of these narratives are well-rounded portraits with compelling storylines. Jaz Matharu is a second-generation American who has given up Sikh ways and used his mad math skills to help develop a financial market software program, Walter, that would recognize 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal as kin. His wife, Lisa, is a lapsed Jew who gives up her publishing job after it's apparent their son, Raj, suffers from serious autism. Kunzru is adept at letting the reader see how they both got to the ratty desert motel where they stay just before Raj disappears. Kunzru also does both characters the service of letting the reader see their lives from their individual points of view. Neither is the villian. Neither is without fault. And it would be fascinating to discover what happens to them after the novel closes. The sections where they are in limbo when Raj disappears are haunting.