Friday, April 29, 2011

A Lesson in Secrets by Jacqueline Winspear

A Lesson in Secrets (Maisie Dobbs, #8)

Jacqueline Winspear has emphatically mastered the art of a mystery series with this latest addition to her list. Not only does her main character have a wealth of personality traits that are admirable, laudable, even enviable, she is attractive, wealthy (this is critical), and clever. She is as busy as we are, so we don’t feel as though time is passing slowly, or that we are wasting time reading of her adventures. Meetings, letters, investigations, reading, meditation all take time, and she schedules herself very closely. She is the woman we would strive to be. It is interesting to see how she responds to queries, doubts, challenges, though I have to admit it is frustrating to see her push those lovely suitors away one by one, again and again.

But not only do we have Maisie Dobbs herself to consider, we have her constellation of family and friends, who by this time in the series have become our own friends: employees, mentors, her father, her fiancé all have lives and backstories we revel in following. This time I am struck by the success of the formula: with many threads and much driving about, the pace leaves readers breathless. But the comforting commonsense calm of reason brings Alexander McCall Smith to mind, despite the difference in the subject matters of the series produced by each author. It is the tone that is reminiscent, one of the other. And that is high praise indeed.

This latest in the series introduces Maisie to the Secret Service in the years before WWII. She takes on an assignment which requires the utmost secrecy, and I amused to read how many times she told friends and colleagues what she was doing was “hush-hush” for the government. How hush-hush is that? I guess they didn’t really mean it.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Guilt by Association by Marcia Clark

Guilt by Association
Marcia Clark is going to be a big hit in the world of crime novelists. This blazing fast debut novel has the polish and pace one might expect from a seasoned ranconteur crossed with brilliant editor, but it has the layered depth and suprise only an experienced criminal lawyer can provide. Guilt is destined to be an out-of-the-box bestseller.

That fact shouldn’t surprise anyone who is familiar with Marcia Clark and her work: former district attorney and lead prosecutor on the O.J. Simpson murder case, author of Without a Doubt, and contributor to TV and The Daily Beast. Clark, described in her earlier life as "extremely able and hardworking," applied that same attention here, and didn’t rest until she’d nailed the formula for a fast-paced crime novel featuring a body-conscious, justice-driven District Attorney in the L.A. Special Trials Division.

As in all good mysteries, Guilt follows the trail of at least two seemingly divergent cases, but also follows the love interests of friendly, sharing, and chatty folks in the major divisions of city crime detection. D.A. Rachel Knight is the central character and first-person narrator who keeps the wise-cracks coming. It is the realistic details of evidentiary proofs, prosecution and defense that ring so true in Guilt, but it is the food choices and clothing descriptions that make it L.A. In this mystery we are treated to gangs, both Latino and Aryan Brotherhood, pornography and prostitution, rape and murder. If it sounds like a lot, you may not be suited to actually work in the D.A.’s office, but you can still enjoy reading about it. This is a very good one for an indulgent weekend on the couch.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Bee-Loud Glade by Steve Himmer

The Bee-Loud Glade

Even the name Himmer reminds one of a sound one might hear in a bee-loud glen. Himmer the author leads us into a world we vaguely recognize (perhaps we are blind, too) as modern-day America: outside a large city sits a mansion on a hill. Just as in days of yore, when wealthy landowners changed the landscape to suit their tastes, a wealthy capitalist has modified his land holdings to create a lovely locale but bemoans the fact he has no time to enjoy it. So he hires a disaffected young man to live the life of a happy hermit in the environment he has created. Things go remarkably smoothly for a time.

**SPOILERS and Reading Group questions Ahead**

Our hermit describes his daily life in a way that parallels in important ways the life of an author. When one chooses to join the writing life, the author seems to say, one signs off to major portions of the ordinary days lived by the majority. One spends lots of time alone, observing, trying to achieve some level of proficiency in arts (not just writing, but other expressive arts) one has never practiced before. One must become wholly focused and may even waste a lot of time in trying to find a way through the lonely existence of learning to see. But eventually, when our hermit is offered an opportunity to leave his cave and live the life of a wealthy man, he turns it down. By this time he is used to scrabbling in the dirt for his food, and finds the wondrous taste of his own production payment enough.

The fact that our hermit actually became sightless as time wore on made me curious. Could this be the selfishness of authors who abandon other familial or residential duties to focus on their one interest, leaving the heavy-lifting (wage-earning, cooking, cleaning, child-raising) to loved ones? But since our hermit decides to stay where he is despite his blindness, I begin to think that perhaps he has found his inner life more rewarding, in the end, than living in the world. And perhaps in his sightlessness, he can actually see motive and remember beauty more clearly. Though he strains to see, the outlines his vision allows gives him what he needs to go on. Is Old Man River an editor? Is Mr. Crane (the name can't be irrelevant) a large publisher? Is Mrs. Crane the distractions of the flesh? Who, then, are the hikers? Fellow artists that gather to perfect their craft, stealing occasionally, the fruits of another?

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson

Ah, the Midwest. One has notions of the Midwest that the characters in this novel try to disabuse one of all the way through, but in fact, it's pretty much the way I imagined it: overgrown family farms gone to ruin; empty, neglected storefronts on main streets; young kids dying to get out. This novel follows an extended family through the 1960s to the new millenium, and isn't lavish with descriptions of beauty or of success or even of happiness. But the author does treat us to moments of transcendence: Norman and Martha dancing at a wedding, and Martha again, dying, stopping her niece from leaving her side. One gets the sense, as the characters age, that this is pretty much the way it is, for all of us, wherever we are: tension, struggle, outcome. Some outcomes are good; some not so good.

Moments of revelation and consequence are scattered through the novel like a hilly drive. One feels a ratcheting of tension and a concentration in focus, requiring a held breath to get us through. A headstrong young girl, determined to pain her parents, drives carelessly away from a funeral; a graduate student teaching a course invites a student to his house for dinner; a wife attends an AA meeting and brings another co-dependent home; a trip to Italy turns surreal. After, we turn our eyes and our thoughts to another character's life to catch our breath. These hills and valleys seem familiar, and when the book winds down we feel we could have been looking through the album of our lives: "Have you heard from so-and-so lately? I heard (s)he'd..."

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

Started Early, Took My Dog (Jackson Brodie, #4)

Kate Atkinson outdoes herself in this new novel featuring Jackson Brodie, private detective. He's back in England, doing some desultory checking on the parentage of a woman living overseas who had been orphaned in the 1970s. The story is braided with several threads, i.e., an aging actress suffering from dementia, a young child heavy "as a small planet," and several other retired police. Atkinson handles it masterfully, bringing it all to a neat knot in a train station. This is bad news for Brodie, as he has a nasty history with trains.

The trenchant sense of humor for which Atkinson is known is on display and she describes with clear-eyed compassion and humor our ridiculous, and sometimes hideous human condition. Motives and choices, the bobs and weaves of persons doing wrong, all have the ring of truth, as do the intentions and interventions of well-meaning, over-worked coppers on the beat. Set in Leeds, the story gives one a distinct sense of cold, cruel, rough, and distrusting. One wonders how anyone gets out of there with their psyche intact. Perhaps they don't, the author seems to say.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Social Animal by David Brooks

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement

I listen to David Brooks because he has a way looking at the world that adds depth to my perceptions. As a result of hearing his point of view, I can articulate my own positions better. Between the two of us, we do not cover all possible iterations of an argument, but we make a wider circle of opinion. He seems to be a man I could negotiate with, and come up with a better solution than if either he or I made decisions on our own. Well, anyway, he’d have to negotiate if he wanted my participation.

Another thing I like about David Brooks is that he is not despairing, despite knowing what he does about the way Washington works. He just plods along, looking for and picking up little gems along the road that might mean the difference between collapse and success in our post-apocalyptic world. Because he doesn’t make me comfortable that Washington is going to be able to change enough to save us from ourselves. I think he essentially has a dark view of the path our leaders are walking. But, he says, we the populace could change our fate if we took responsibility for learning the lessons science is now teaching us.

In The Social Animal Brooks writes a story meant to illustrate in narrative the results of studies done for the psychology, sociology, neuroscience, and medical fields in recent years. It is a quick and easy read, though I paused several times over the choices the protagonists made, remembering choices in my own life that echoed. I am familiar with many of the studies he used as a structure for the narrative, so could follow his lead, though I did wonder whether this was the best way to explicate the material. It’s not what I would have done, but then, I didn’t write it. It’s his way, and once again I’m willing to negotiate.

Protagonists Erika and Harold grow up in different types of social environments and we follow them through life. Things happen to them, and they also impact and shape their environment. They both end up in the same place, despite getting there by very different means. Brooks has his main character muse about limited government, but with targeted interventions that may help people focus on the hard work that is necessary to build a democratic society with (and here he laments that the term “socialism” has already been taken) a strong social-izing bent. He gives voice to his Hamiltonian bent (from conservative President Alexander Hamilton) and tries to describe ways this successful president might make choices were he alive today. Brooks makes a thoughtful attempt to synthesize disparate fragments of information that has gleaned in the course of his life and work and so adds to the national dialogue.