Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolnick

This book is everywhere. Literally everywhere. It's marketed as a cross between Rebecca and Wuthering Heights. If you loved those books, you'll hate this one.

Wealthy Wisconsin tycoon Ralph Truitt has lived alone after the loss of his first family some twenty years before. For some reason, the loneliness has finally gotten to him and so he has placed an advertisement for "a reliable wife." The book opens as he stands in the cold, waiting for the train to bring the woman who has answered his ad. We quickly learn, however, that the woman traveling to meet him has her own agenda and is not going to be what she appears to be. I guess this is supposed to be the Rebecca part of the book.

In the second chapter, we are privy to Catherine Land's thoughts, and she is not going to be "a reliable wife." There is a scam being perpetrated, and even if we aren't immediately aware of the details, it's pretty clear that she isn't planning on revealing her past as a prostitute and drug addict. So why in the name of advance planning did she get onto the train wearing her elaborate dress and all her jewels?

And it's not just that she got on a train--she was traveling in Truitt's private railroad car. A car that was staffed, presumably by Truitt's employees. Her destination is a tiny town practically in Canada. So, no chance that she'd be noticed or anything--do you think? Goolnick has her wearing her full Chicago-courtesan get-up until the conductor alerts her that they are about half an hour away from her stop. Only then does she change out of her obvious red velvet clothes and put on her simple gray dress. She also waits until then to take off her jewelry and sew it into the hem of the simple gray dress. Then she wads up the velvet and throws it out the window. Because she wants to appear to be a simple, plain woman. The better to fool Truitt into trusting her.

So why didn't she set up her disguise before she got on his train? I don't know. Goolrick doesn't know. Probably because it's much more cinematic to have her tossing expensive clothing out of the window as she approaches than it would have been for her to act sensibly. I'm not seeing this plot working out--I don't think anybody has thought this through very well.

Meanwhile, Truitt is all but sex-crazed. All he thinks about is sex, it seems: even all these people who are miserable and killing their families get to go to bed at night and have sex with each other. At least that's what Truitt thinks. And he spends a lot of pages thinking about it. Oh, and death too. Sex and death. This isn't a theme, this isn't a leitmotif--it's a summary of the whole damn .

The plot becomes increasingly obvious and unbelievable. On first meeting, Truitt immediatly notices that this woman is not the one in the photograph she sent him. (Who knew that was such an old trick?) But he's so lonely, and he can't let anybody see him as anything less than the master of every situation, so he takes her back to his house. On the way, Truitt is injured and Catherine ends up nursing him back to health--because he can't die until AFTER they are married, see, because she plans to kill him for his money and then go live happily ever after with her drug addicted lover.

How many romance novels have this happen? All of them, maybe? She nurses him through a near fatal fever, and the experience leads her to start seeing him as a human being and not just the means to an end. He recovers, and then he sits down and tells her his entire back story. In one sitting.

Rich and withholding father, religious fanatic mother. Dissolute youth spent among the prostitutes of Europe. Love at first sight in Italy, where beautiful daughters are sold into marriage for sizable dowries. Italian wife doesn't like living in frozen Wisconsin--Truitt is surprised! But blinded by love! So he builds her an expensive mansion and imports Italian builders and sculpters and music teachers and OMG she has an affair! With the Italian! And since this is what Italians do, she doesn't understand why he's so surprised and angry! So he banishes her, tells their son she died, and fails to love his son! Who ran away! But now that Truitt is going to be married, he wants his son back and he plans to send Catherine to find him!

This is where I gave up. I knew where this was going, and looking at the last two chapters I found out I was right.


Catherine finds the unloved son, and surprise surprise, he's her drug addict lover! It was all a plot they cooked up between them to get revenge on Truitt and live off his money. So the three of them live together in Wisconsin, Canada, and apparently there is a lot of sex. Badly written sex, judging from the rest of the book. There is divided loyalty and jealousy and then Catherine chooses Truitt. Which upsets Antonio (or whatever his name is) so he rapes her. Which upsets Truitt, who chases him down and beats him up. But then is sorry for it, but it's too late! Because they are standing on a frozen lake and the ice breaks and Antonio falls in and drowns! So then, Catherine and Truitt hare left to make what sense they can out of their lives and there's a hallucinatory scene where Catherine sees the ruined garden restored to glory, which I think is supposed to mean that she's pregnant and the future will be better. Or something.

What are the problems with this book? Well, I've already outlined the obvious and melodramatic plot. I've sketched the irrational behavior of the characters. So let's talk about the bad writing, which is repetitive, overblown, and boring.

Goolrick says he was inspired to write this book after reading Wisconsin Death Trip, which reported on the high death toll among 19th century Wisconsin settlers. Sure, life was hard and winters were long, but simply listing the kinds of things that happened does not make those things emotionally affecting. The first chapter is made up of multiple paragraphs like this: "Children died, babies died, women died, in childbirth, of influenza, diptheria, scarlet fever, exposure, starvation. People killed themselves, killed their children, killed their wives, killed their parents." (I'm not quoting, just mimicking the gist.) The result isn't a mounting of horror, it's numbing. You start to think the people who stayed weren't heroic--they were masochistic.

Goolnick's writing style is such a mind-numbing repetition of the same half-formed ideas and obsessions that I started to root for disaster, just to break up the monotony. I'm guessing that's how the rest of the people who lived in Wisconsin may have felt as well. Sure, tragedy is horrific, but at least it breaks up the boredom of another long winter!

In summary--I give this book a D grade, and most definitely do NOT recommend it to anybody.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Body Movers, by Stephanie Bond

You know, sometimes you get a recommendation about a book and you take it and are delighted to find a book you love.

This is not one of those times.

I picked this one up on a recommendation from, it was the sixth book in the series that was recommended, but the advice was to start from the first one, because the cast kept growing and it was better to get in at the beginning. I will not be picking up the rest of the series.

See, here's the problem. In a world where crime solving has become highly technical, it is increasingly difficult for anyone to write a novel about an amateur detective. There is really not much a non-professional can bring to crime solving. Add to that a writer who comes out of Harlequin romance writing, and you get a weird mix of CSI and moralism.

The main character of this series, Carlotta Wren, is 27 and single, working at Neiman Marcus in Atlanta and living in a townhouse with her 19 year old brother, Wesley. Ten years ago, their father was indicted for fraud, and their parents abandoned Atlanta and their two children. Except for the occasional cryptic post card, there has been no contact since. Carlotta was left to raise her brother, and her then-fiance Peter(who was apparently a sixth year student at Vanderbilt) ended their engagement. Carlotta has not moved on.

The Wren siblings are living in dire financial straits, made worse by Wesley's addiction to Texas Hold 'Em poker and his poor choice of lending sources--two separate loan sharks send various thugs to the townhouse to scare up money the Wrens don't have. Peter's wife enjoys shopping at Neiman Marcus while drunk, the better to flaunt her life to the pitiable, dumped and poor Carlotta. Then Angela turns up dead in her own pool, and Carlotta feels the need to see that justice is done.

So where to begin the catalog of eye-rolling moments? How about this one: Carlotta (despite having been raised to wealth and privilege until her parents bolted) has developed a tacky hobby of crashing "society" parties in order to collect celebrity autographs. Because, yeah, that's just what a 27-year old who was Raised Better Than That would be doing with her free time. And it just so happens that this particular party is where she runs into her ex-fiance after TEN YEARS. And despite having been dumped--over the phone--a decade ago, she's still in luuuuuve with him. And he's still in luuuuuuve with her. So he walks her to her car--humiliating! Because she couldn't afford valet parking!--they kiss. The next night, his wife is dead.

So even if you give a pass to the whole "twue wuv," which I don't because girlfriend should have SOME pride--that kiss is just. . .well, that kiss is blown up into The Motive for Murder. Because no hot-shot society broker types ever get drunk at swanky parties and drunkenly kiss people who are not their wives. Actually, it has been scientifically proven that every time a man kisses a woman, he IMMEDIATELY goes home and kills his wife. I mean, have we learned nothing from Tiger Woods and Jesse James? You can verify that on Snopes.

So Bond drags her heroine (and also the reader) through page after page of endless blathering about the Moral Implications and Legal Ramifications of that kiss! Oh my god, you'd think we were talking about selling state secrets to the Soviets! I shouldn't have kissed him. It was wrong to have kissed him. I wish I hadn't kissed him. What if somebody saw me kiss him? What if the police find out that I kissed him?

Because Atlanta is well-known for their crack team of investigative kissing police.

Barbara Cartland herself couldn't load more significance! to a single kiss than Bond manages to heap on this tired plot device. HESTER PRYNNE couldn't have felt more guilty about a kiss than this character does. Which is the point, here--this Puritan-approved moral code lies uneasily in a book whose plot includes upper income partner swapping parties, sleazy hookers in five-inch stilettos, a gym bag full of unspecified drugs, and a Bored Housewife Prostitution Ring. Former professional football players slipping off their wedding rings while drinking martinis in the middle of the day at a cigar bar, the inept slinging around of designer labels and couture shopping, infidelity and gun fire--all depend on us believing that That Kiss has made Carlotta and Peter the Prime Suspect and Motive for the murder, and thus forcing Carlotta into her amateur sleuthing.

So, there was that. Then, there is the Troubled Teen Brother, Wesley, who dares to lecture his sister on why she shouldn't be in love with Peter. He wants to protect his big sister, you see, so she should stay away from this bad man who dragged her into a murder investigation. As opposed to himself, who is so far in debt to criminal loan sharks that they send thugs to the house weekly to collect on the debts. Who lost all the cash he had to pay those loan sharks by losing in a high stakes game of poker, leading to his sister nearly being raped by one of these thugs. Who is on parole for hacking into courthouse records, drives his motorcycle on a suspended license while on parole, tries to buy an illegal handgun while on parole, actually obtains a handgun and brings it home while on parole, goes to make a drug delivery while on parole--and actually gets caught by his parole officer. . .oh yeah. This is the guy you want to take lifestyle advice from.

Oh, the reason Carlotta is still in love with the rich bum who dumped her ass a decade ago? Because he was the one who took her virginity. Bond literally, actually, has the chutzpah to say "a woman has a special relationship with the man who takes her virginity." Maybe in the Harlequin universe, but oh honey, please! Especially NOT when that man is such a putz that he dumps you. Over. The. Phone.

ANYWAY--did you notice the tiny writing at the bottom of the book cover? "A Sexy Mystery" it says. Well, about as sexy as you can get where any woman who actually has sex ends up dead, the lead character all but wears a chastity belt, and gallons of ink are spilled in the handwringing over That Kiss. There's a detective on the police force who wears bad ties, has big hands, and maybe has a potential thing for Carlotta--if you squint. Wesley gets an off-the-books job as an eponymous body mover, and the Chief Body Mover might also have a thing for Carlotta, except she is so thoroughly squicked out by his career that she can't stand it--yeah, that's pretty sexy right there.

Oh, and that Bored Housewife Prostitution Ring? (That's a spoiler, by the way)--one of the murder victims was a rich, young widow, killed in her own home in the middle of the day, while wearing expensive lingerie--was pregnant! How could that be? She wasn't married!!! Nobody even asks what she was doing in the middle of the day lying around the house in her underwear--for some reason that's not an odd thing for a former debutante to do. But thank god she got killed before she had to be an Unwed Mother!

So, in order to pad the book out to the minimum length, Peter goes and confesses to killing his wife. But one of Wesley's No-Goodnik friends identified her as a hooker he paid $500 to have sex with in her pool house. So Peter's noble sacrifice to protect his hooker wife's reputation after death is all for naught. Everybody already knows that she had sex for money! The shame! Better to confess to murder and be executed than to let people at the country club know your dead wife wasn't happy in her marriage.

Except you totally know that everybody already knew that--for god's sake, they Bored Housewives were recruiting each other and buying each other expensive lingerie to wear for their johns. Strange men were coming into the neighborhood during the day and visiting their houses. This was not a secret, except possibly in Stephanie Bond's strange conception of a sexy Puritan Atlanta.

Oh, wait! I didn't solve the mystery for you yet! Okay, here it is and now you can use those six hours of your life to do something more rewarding: it was one of the johns. Who Peter's bored wife thought she was in love with, so she bought him an expensive suit jacket from Carlotta, and then got mad at him and returned it. Then he killed the other woman too and blah blah blah last minute expositioncakes he was somebody who appeared for about three pages as a tertiary character and then decided to take hostages at gunpoint in Neiman Marcus because that's not obvious. . . .

I've spared you a lot, you know. You might think that this was as lame as it got, but I spared you plenty. Carlotta digging used chewing gum out of a wastebasket in order to send it for DNA testing. The "comic" scene where the six foot python gets out of its cage and slithers up Carlotta's leg in bed, and how she has to be rescued by the Body Mover while standing on her dresser in tiny see-through lingerie. The Judith Lieber breastplate necklace that deflected the bullet. The caterer who is going to start moving dead bodies in her catering van--because nothing says "festive canape" like mortuary services.

Do not pick up this book. Just don't. You're welcome.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Open House, by Elizabeth Berg

I thought I had already blogged this book but I haven't been able to find an entry, so here goes. Another book chosen by my book group. I had read it years ago, and liked it enough that I read several other books by Berg as a result. How does it fare on re-read? Not quite so well.

Samantha starts the book devastated. Her husband has left, asking for a divorce. She is left alone with their eleven-year old son Travis, a house that is too large, and no career. The book follows the incidents of her life as she attempts to carry on after the cataclysmic event.

We learn almost nothing about the marriage, or why it fell apart, or much about David either. He appears in only a handful of short scenes, none of which show us why Sam would ever have loved him. What we do see is what happens to Sam as she attempts to put her life back together. She decides that since life is not going to be the same again, she will make the different be better. So she takes cues from Martha Stewart, showering and dressing as soon as she wakes up, using the good china in the dining room for breakfast, making French toast on a weekday morning, her make-up perfect.

Her son's reaction is perfect. "But I don't want French toast, I want cereal!" he whines, and Sam can't help arguing. "You have cereal every morning." "Because I like cereal. God, Mom!" And so Sam has to manage her son's needs as well as her own. Because nothing can be easy, can it?

She goes off on a spending spree, as a way to get back at David for leaving her. Unlike those of us who would go to Target and buy a new vacuum cleaner, she goes to Tiffany and buys china and silver for twelve. Because she's angry and hurt, and because she can't stand to have the snooty sales clerk see her be indecisive. Of course, this just leads David to cancel the joint accounts, because you can't be on the hood for a grief-crazed ex-wife who splurges at Tiffany's.

Eventually, Sam settles down a bit and looks at her situation rationally. She can't afford the mortgage on their big house, but she doesn't want to make Travis move. The only solution is housemates. She gets a couple of gems: first, the elegant and elderly Lydia, a grandmother figure who fits in and gives Sam some confidence in herself. Lydia moves out to marry her gentleman friend, and the room goes to Sam's gay hairdresser. Because every single woman needs a Sassy Gay Boyfriend, right?

There is another roommate who doesn't really make much of an impression, to the point of wondering why she is even in the book. Travis doesn't like the changes--of course he doesn't--but he's not immune to the charms of the new way of life as well. Sure, he'd rather not have strange people living in his house, and he doesn't trust the changes he's seeing in his mother. On the other hand, his request to live with David goes nowhere, as it is clear that David has no interest in raising a child anymore.

Sam also begins to re-enter the workforce, through the gentle guidance of King, an astrophysicist who prefers to take temporary jobs so he has time to think. Sam begins to find a new way of being in the world, one that is focused less on the shiny surface of a "perfect life"--as illustrated by her fixation on Martha Stewart--and focused more on opening her house and her life to other people. She has a moment of utter clarity about her own mother, who is frankly crazy, but is crazy in a way that allowed her to cope with the unexpected early death of her own husband.

In the end, David tells Sam that he made a mistake, and will be moving back in. After spending much of the book mourning her old life, Sam realizes that she can't go back. She tells David it's too late and he isn't welcome. She continues to move forward, and ends up in love with King--a man who is really a wonderful friend first, and a love interest second.

Would I recommend this book? I would, but with some caveats. Elizabeth Berg writes some beautiful and tender scenes, but the moments don't really all add up to a really good novel. She might even be described as a low toner version of Ann Tyler--who is herself a master of the closely observed and small moments that make up a life.

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

For a book "written" by a dog about NASCAR racing, this book is oddly ubiquitous. Maybe it's just oddly ubiquitous in general. A woman approached my mother at church and insisted she read it so they could talk about it. I've seen it prominently displayed in book stores and at Target (which doesn't carry very many books, so each one you see there is pretty popular). My book club chose it as well. I'm now free to post about it, because we discussed it yesterday.

The story: Dog "Enzo" is owned by a young man who is apparently a talented race car driver, and who works at an auto repair shop for his day job. Their bachelor nights are spent watching video of famous races as Denny Swift studies the tricks of the masters. Then Denny falls in love and so Eve enters their lives, followed soon by their daughter Zoe. Things happen: they buy a house with a yard, Enzo gets accidentally locked indoors over a three day weekend, Denny begins to be noticed in the racing world.

All is not well, however, as Enzo smells Eve's illness that later turns out to be brain cancer. Eve goes home to her parents' home to die, and Zoe goes with her. Denny bears this stoically, spending his days with Eve, coming home to Enzo and an otherwise empty house. When Eve dies, her parents fight for custody of Zoe, claiming that Eve wanted them to do so.

Denny is disadvantaged financially, of course, and the grandparents use every weapon they have, including an alleged sexual assault on a minor--one of Eve's young cousins tried to come onto Denny and got mad when she was rejected. Denny, amazingly, never gets angry--he applies the lessons of racing to life, and those lessons lead him through the morass of family dysfunction and grief.

Lessons like--don't get angry when somebody makes a mistake that knocks you out of the race, because it's your fault you were in the way. Always finish the race, because even if you don't like the outcome you have a better result than if you quit. The car goes where your eyes go, so make certain your eyes are in the right place.

Of course, there is a dog on the cover, and are there any books with a dog on the cover where the dog DOESN'T die? Apparently not. You are well aware this is coming, as the first chapter begins with Enzo ridden with arthritis and planning his own reincarnation. Yes, because Enzo is apparently Buddhist, and he plans to come back to earth as a human being. So at the end, when Enzo does die, it's not too sad because he's the narrator and he's looking forward to being human.

No, that does not qualify as a spoiler. This does:

By the end, Denny has gotten his daughter back, gotten a dream job working and driving for an Italian car manufacturer in Italy. And a racing fan asks to meet the Famous Denny Swift, because he five year old son, Enzo, is a huge racing fan. Oh yeah, they went there.

As a book, it's not terrible, and can be affecting, but is the dog narrator really anything more than a gimmick? Hard to give it any props, since the use of the dog seems to allow Stein to avoid some of the harder parts of writing the book. Complicated human dynamics? Rendered shallowly, because the dog doesn't understand those. Esoteric legal procedings? Evaded, because dogs aren't allowed in courtrooms.

It's hard to point to anything that the dog-narrator does to improve the book, since it's such a convenient way to gloss over any literary weaknesses--which is itself a literary weakness. Had Stein written it as a straight third-person omniscient narration, the characters would have had to stand on their own strengths and weaknesses, whereas with a dog narrator, you get a sort of unconditional acceptance and cheering on of The Owner that isn't necessarily supported by the book itself.

I was impressed with the way Stein handled the dog's death--a lovely bit of writing in which the elderly and infirm dog finds himself able to run through a beautiful field, never tiring, while he hears Denny's voice telling him it's okay to go now. It wasn't maudlin, or manipulative. It was Just Right. To have tacked on the happy-ever-afterlife of the little boy meeting his racing hero wasn't strictly necessary, but wasn't an embarrassment either.

The other two women who read this book for book club liked it a bit less than I did, finding a lot of the racing information boring, even as they recognized its role as metaphor. Yet even I would be unlikely to recommend it to someone looking for good book--unless they were looking for a book about NASCAR, narrated by a dog. Then this is the top of the recommendation list.

Okay, so the video shows what I believe is called Formula One racing. I don't think that is what Denny actually does in the book, but what the heck. If someone is looking for a dog-narrated book about Formula One racing, I'm still recommending this one.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato

I picked this up before vacation because it was the winner of Barnes and Noble's "Discover New Writers" (or whatever they call it), and that's a pretty good recommendation. I picked it up and read the first chapter, and stuck it in the bag for reading on the plane. Or whatever.

But you know what? It suffers from the fact that I had recently finished reading "Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie," a book it resembles a great deal.

Mathilda Savitch is thirteen years old, and her older sister has been dead for a year. The ineffably good, kind, tender-hearted, beautiful Helene was pushed in front of a train, the man who sent her to her death never found. Mathilda's parents are buried in their own grief and don't seem able to notice the child they still have. Mathilda is tired of being ignored, and resolves to be awful. "Being awful" translated into wearing her sister's clothes and sending emails from her sister's email account.

The book hovers uneasily between genre detective novel and mid-list fiction bildungsroman. Mathilda sets out to "solve" her sister's murder, delving into her sister's on-line life to try to understand what she was doing at the train station the day she died. Mathilda is also trying to "wake up" her parents to her needs. About three-quarters of the way through the novel, Mathilda finally confesses her own guilt about her sister's death. That morning, Helene was having what can only be described as a tantrum, screaming "I wish I was dead" before locking herself into her room.

Being the opposite of an angsty teen, Mathilda says, "Why don't you then?" An incident that would have been forgotten if Helene hadn't actually died that day. So Mathilda has her own demons to exorcise around Helene's death and she turns detective to do it. What follows is not particularly memorable or ultimately very surprising.


Helene was having an affair--can you call it that when neither party is married and one of them is underage? Helene had a relationship with a guy that Mathilda finds out about via the old email account. Improbably, this guy doesn't know that Helene died a year ago, and when Mathilda cautiously contacts him pretending to be her sister, she finds herself in the position of deciding which is worse--him believing she dumped him, or learning that she died.

The guy in question--I've forgotten his name, and I don't care enough about the book to go look it up--is a former soldier who lost an arm in the service. He's in his mid-twenties, and Lodato has set up the book so that you see exactly why Helene fell into this relationship. He's like a big injured stray puppy, living on a military pension, in a small house in the garden of his blind mother's house. So it's a bleeding-heart two-fer! Disabled vet and blind, aged mother! No wonder Helene got in over her head; she was thinking with her legendary soft heart.

So, of course, the reality is that Helene was pregnant, hence the emotional storms and misery. She had a train ticket in her pocket, on her way to tell her lover about their predicament. But she never got there, and once she was dead, nobody knew her email password and so "Helene" never answered his messages.

Mathilda finds herself growing into Helene's place, feeling a pity that might someday be mistaken for love (when she's older than 13) for this wounded man. She shows up at his house wearing one of Helene's dresses. There is even some hint that she might actually have sex with the man, but the moment passes--he sees she isn't Helene, even though he probably wants to believe she would come back to him.

In the end, Mathilda decides she can't tell him that Helene is dead. She tells him about the pregnancy, and that the baby died. He believes that's why Helene wouldn't speak to him, and why she would have sent Mathilda to him. Mathilda makes up a plausible story about Helene's current whereabouts and that she is happy. Then she goes home. The end.

And what about that skulking figure who pushed the Tragic Girl in front of the train. Was he real? Did she jump? Does anybody care? Lodato doesn't seem to--we don't hear anything about him and the "mystery" just evaporates. It's not even that it isn't solved, so much as that Lodato doesn't seem to know what happened in his own book. If there WAS a shadowy guy who was seen on the platform and who pushed Helene, he's never identified and there doesn't seem to be any effort to find him. Or, as Mathilda seems to think, Helene jumped, then there is no mystery, but again, Mathilda doesn't seem to feel guilty about it by the end.

So, did Mathilda grow as a result of her investigation? Maybe. Which isn't much of an endorsement for a bildungsroman.

As I think about this book, I keep remembering Harriet the Spy, which I read at least twice as a kid. I kept waiting for Harriet to find something to spy on, for some mystery to appear that she could solve, and it kept not happening. Even at the time, I suspected that I missed the point of that book, but I remain mad enough about it that I won't go back and re-read it. I think much the same of this one: there is potentially a better book contained inside this one that I just missed. But I'm not going to spend any time going back to look for it. The "mystery" remains unsolved, the "secrets" pretty predictable, and the writing didn't make the journey enjoyable for its own sake.

But by all means, tell me why I am wrong. I would love to be wrong! Really! I would love to find out that if I just adjust the lens through which I read this book, I'd see it for the masterpiece it really is. You know, like finishing The Turn of the Screw and having somebody say "But the narrator isn't reliable--she's projecting." And suddenly what was a C+ book turns into an A+ experience.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley

This would be the second of a projected five "Flavia de Luce" mysteries, and is every bit as oddly charming as the first one. Flavia remains passionately interested in chemistry, especially poisons, unhealthily interested in death, ridiculously embattled with her sisters, and as eccentric as ever. This time, however, the mystery doesn't really kick in until a third of the way through the book.

To get us there, however, we meet two strangers in the village, Rupert Porson of "Porson's Puppets" and his lovely assistant Nialla. The Porson's Puppets van has broken down fatally, and there is no way to pay for repairs without holding two puppet shows at the church hall. Flavia happened to be playing corpse in the graveyard when the van arrived, and was quickly dragged into service to make the shows happen.

Rupert Porson is a minor celebrity, and his "Snoddy the Squirrel" is apparently a very popular children's program on BBC--which Flavia didn't know, since there is no television at Buckshaw. Thus there is a built in audience for a show, and Flavia quickly becomes the gofer for Rupert and Nialla. She is also as nosy as before, and after conducting some chemical experiments (delightfully described to the point they would conceivably be replicable), she figures out that Nialla is pregnant, Rupert is a batterer, Gordon Inglesby grows marijuana, and that many of these people have known each other from before.

The vicar casts about the neighborhood for a place for Rupert and Nialla to camp, and the invitation comes from the Inglesbys--Gordon and Grace--who lost their five year old son some six years before. As a result, Grace has become nearly mad with grief, and the farm is mostly run down. Also residing on the farm is a former prisoner of war, Dieter Schratz, and a Land Farm Girl named Sally Straw.

The matinee performance goes well, but at the evening performance there is a problem. As puppet Jack (who looks exactly like the Inglesby's dead son) chops down the bean stalk, there is a rumble and a crash. But it is not the puppet giant who lands on the small stage--it is Rupert Porson, apparently electrocuted and dead.

As Flavia pedals her bicycle (named Gladys) around the town, she learns that Robin Inglesby's death was not usual. In fact, his body was found hanging from the remains of the old gibbet left rotting in the woods outside the village. He had been playing with a rope all that day, and apparently died accidentally while recreating a scene from a Punch and Judy show. Or did he?

The suspects mount up: there is Nialla, Rupert's current paramour; Mutt, the BBC producer who comes down to round up Rupert to face some unspecified mess he's left behind; the vicar and/or his wife; the ex-German Luftwaffe pilot; the scorned Land Farm girl; the ganja growing farmer and his mad wife.

But over all, there is Flavia. Flavia who shows up the police inspector with her solution to the crimes. Flavia who insinuates herself into everyone's business with her sharp eyes and clever way with science. It is she who manufactures an antidote to cyanide from pigeon droppings. It is she who poisons the chocolates sent to her sister by a lovestruck village boy, and then manages to prevent their being eaten by her entire family, plus the vicar. It is she who worms information out of the village postmistress while sucking on horehound candy, who competently bandages the scalded hand of the tea shop proprietress, who breaks into the library archives using her mouth to break the seal around an old window.

The world is a better place for Flavia de Luce.

The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault

This debut novel has a fascinating premise, insight into an esoteric environment, strong thematic resonance and competent characterization. It's an intriguing and engaging read, if not a great one.

The hero of the story is a recent college graduate named Billy Webb. Not highly employable in New York with his philosophy degree, he ends up hired as a writer for Samuelson Company, a mythical publisher of American dictionaries. Thus we, along with Billy, are introduced into the arcane world of citation collecting, research reading, defining, and fielding ridiculous requests for information from a public that could be better informed.

Arsenault was herself a lexicographer, and she deftly reveals the nearly silent and introverted world of intellectuals who cull language rules from publications. One of the more disruptive ideas introduced in the course of the novel is that lexicographers should go out into the world and discover how language is being used in common life, before being ossified into print. But the senior Samuelson is appalled at the idea that lexicographers should listen to radios, or watch television, and so the world Billy enters remains as quiet and remote from the outside world as it would have been in the 18th century.

Billy's assignment on the first day is to read the "front matter" of the dictionary--all the pages most dictionary users skip, which explains rules of pronunciation, the rule for listing spelling variations (alphabetically), what a schwa is (the "uh" sound in English, represented by an upside down letter e). You can practically feel Billy's eyelids sagging as he works his way through these pages, and share his discouragement when he looks at the clock and sees only 26 minutes have passed.

As Billy gets used to the place, however, the dreary atmosphere lightens, and becomes a calm place of intellectual rigor, a condition placed into comic relief by the occasional phone call from the public. The invisible man in the next cubicle fields a question about the difference between a "boil" and a "pimple," and ends up recommending that the caller consult a medical practitioner. After all, he says, speaking to a doctor will not only give the caller the proper word to use, but will also allow for treatment. Arsenault plays up the wry humor of the situation by recording only one side of the conversation.

Once the atmosphere and personalities of the place are well settled, a mystery pops up. Lexicographical queries also arrive by letter, often from bored men in jail who have the time to obsess over arcane oddities. Why does "editrix" have two possible plurals ("editrixes" and "editrices") but "dominatrix" has only one? A review of the sources for "editrix" turns up something odd--a citation from a source that seems to be a book about dictionary editors, called "The Broken Teaglass."

Billy and the slightly more senior Mona Minot turn up quite a few more of these odd citations, that seem to be about this workplace. Each of them is much longer than a typical citation, and the word they ostensibly source is often unusually irrelevant to the text. And since when is a book published with a precise date, 14 October 1985, as "The Broken Teaglass" seems to be? And why are all the page numbers less than 100?

Mona can't locate any book called "The Broken Teaglass," nor can she find any references to the alleged author "Delores Beekman." And one of the cites mentions "a corpse."

The mystery becomes irresistible to Mona, and she drags Billy along with her for quite a while before he becomes interested himself. Are there sinister ties to the apparently kindly head of the editorial department? What about the retired editor who stops by once a month to socialize and deliver doughnuts? Is there way to locate all the "Teaglass" cites short of paging through the millions and millions of paper citations that have yet to be computerized?

There is a method to the madness, and Arsenault is able to use her own esoteric knowledge of words and lexicography to lead us along with Mona and Billy into the solution of the mystery. It turns out that the "Teaglass cites" are all for words that entered the language during the 1950s.

In the end, the journey is more interesting than the destination. The few, disconnected paragraphs hint at a more dramatic and thrilling story than the one that ultimately emerges. Corpses and madness are hinted at, but ultimately a dictionary publisher is not ripe ground for Poe-like gothic tales.


What ultimately emerges, and is reproduced in whole, is the story of a former lexicographer at the company. While walking home one evening, she was grabbed by a scary guy who apparently was attempting to abduct her. She had a bag in her hand, full of broken glass--the tea glass she had shattered while at work, and she was taking it home to dispose of. She shoved the glass into the man's neck and escaped. She was hysterical, but unable to tell her boyfriend what had happened. The man died, and the search was on for "The Glass Girl."

Turns out the guy had recently served time for another botched abduction, and was suspected of at least one murder/dismemberment that couldn't be proved against him. The Glass Girl was now a hero, but the murder remained unsolved and the Glass Girl was never identified.

The citations were her way of writing out her story, but then dismembering it as well; telling and untelling in the same act. The kindly head of the editorial department was her boyfriend at the time, and he knew about the citations all along. In the end, the story was re-scattered among the other citations, there to be discovered again by future editors--perhaps.

A solid B+ of a book--interesting setting, clever jigsaw puzzle of a mystery, gentle characters and a coherent conclusion. If the mystery had been juicier, perhaps, or if there had been some consequences for discovering the story, the book might have been more exciting and satisfying. As it is, the mystery is perfectly consistent with the atmosphere of the company--intellectual, but ultimately a bit boring.

A Word About The Audio--this was one I listened to from, and it was well presented with one quirk. Rather than having a single narrator for this first person novel, there are several, who are used to provide the voices of the other characters in dialogue. This is not necessarily a choice I would have made, as it is a bit jarring to get used to. The woman who voices Mona, for example, seems to have been recorded at different sound levels, and so her dialogue seems to come from a different location--it's rather echo-y and the treble is set higher, and it takes some effort to believe she is actually speaking to the narrator in the same room. On the other hand, having a different voice read the "Teaglass cites" makes them stand out from the the rest of the book effectively--aural indenting, one could call it.

Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley

Everybody loves this book. Everybody. So, of course, since I am invariably disappointed by popular books, I've not leapt onto the bandwagon. It took me months and months of picking it up and putting it back on the shelf to finally just pick up the damn thing and read it.

And I love it too.

I know! Surprised the heck out of me too! (Don't think I didn't hear you saying "But you hate EVERYTHING!")

Flavia de Luce is the eleven-year old antagonist of this novel--I use the word "antagonist" because she is introduced at war with her older sisters. They have ganged up on her, tied her up and locked her in a closet in the attic. She neatly arranges her own escape and appears at dinner before her sisters. By this time she has impressed us with her savvy on having her hands bound (tenting her fingers to keep her wrists apart, she ended up with slack in the rope which she used to escape) and her ability to pick locks. We have also learned that she had the ability to pierce through pretentions--her sisters Ophelia and Daphne are invariably called "Feely and Daffy."

Bradley also paints the status of the family in swift, certain strokes. Mother Harriet is missing, presumed dead after a mountaineering accident shortly after Flavia's birth. Dad is stern but absent-minded, and probably overwhelmed by being left alone with three fierce young females. The house is an old country house, built by generations of variably eccentric de Luces, of which our family are the last. In fact, Harriet was the one who inherited the house, Dad was a shirt-tail relation. Each family member has his or her own passion: Dad is a philatelist, Ophelia loves her own reflection, Daphne always has her head in a book, and Flavia is a chemist.

Charmingly, if improbably, a semi-recent ancestor was also mad about chemistry, and outfitted the top floor of one wing with what was then a state of the art chemistry lab. Flavia has inherited it, and she is especially devoted to poisons.

This, then, is the set up of the family, and only a few more details are necessary to ground the novel: post WWII British countryside, a world where Flavia is free to hop onto her bike and run down to the village to snoop to her heart's content. Also present on the Buckshaw grounds is "Dogger," the jack of all trades who is truly master of none as a result of "shell shock" from the war. He has held most of the jobs around the mansion, and been allowed to sink to his own level, ending up as a sort of gardener/chauffeur. There is also a cook, who comes in mornings and afternoons, making foods the de Luces detest in order to take the leftovers home to her husband.

The novel starts with a bang, in the middle of Flavia's war against her sisters, who torment her by claiming that Harriet adopted her. Flavia exacts a chemical revenge against Feely's pearls, and things have scarcely died down before she finds a dead body in the garden. She literally trips over the body, in fact, while prowling around at night. This scarcely fazes her, of course, nor does the fact that she recognizes the body as that of a man who had been arguing with her father earlier that day.

Could this have something to do with Father's strange behavior when the cook found a dead blackbird with a stamp impaled on its beak?

Flavia is off and detecting, then, running down to the village to do research in the library, chasing down dotty sweetshop proprietors, scaling bell towers at the boys' school, turning out moldy clues and picking locks, while fostering a romance between her sister and a local lad.

To be brutally honest, I have forgotten many of the details of this book, as I finished it while on vacation and immediately picked up the next book on my list. This is not as bad as it might sound, however, because it means that I can go back and re-read it and be charmed anew.

I highly recommend this as a satisfying and charming read, slight, perhaps, but thoroughly delightful. So much so that I have already bought and started the sequel, The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag.

The Opposite of Reader's Block

Not many posts here the last month, but no apologies either. For about the first time in ages, I am Too Busy Reading.

Yup, that's right. Somehow I have fallen into a rich vein of good books that I am excited to read, and that I actually have in my hands! So, rather than finish a book, stew about it for a while, post a loong review and then search for the next thing to read, I am just setting down one book and picking up the next one.

And then doing it again.

Which means that not only has this blog suffered, but I am rapidly forgetting what it is that I have read and what I wanted to remember about it. Which is not ideal, obviously, but is much more fun for me than not knowing what to read next and settling for something that is only okay. You know, books that are the literary equivalent of kissing your sister.

Although, your sister kisses really well.

So here is a list of the reviews I fully intend to get around to writing and posting:

The God of the Hive, by Laurie R. King
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, by Alan Bradley
Still Life, by Louise Penny
The Brutal Telling, by Louise Penny
The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein
The Broken Teaglass, by Emily Arsenault
The Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore (Part 2)
Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger
Open House, by Elizabeth Berg
River in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters
A Reliable Wife, by Robert Goolrick
The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag, by Alan Bradley

So, stuff will be happening. Watch this spot for updates!

EDITED TO ADD: Two other books I had forgotten I have finished:
Mathilda Savitch, by Victor Lodato
Bite Me, by Christopher Moore

I love it that I have been doing so much reading that I can't even remember what all I've finished.