Marie’s Reading “The Witch Elm” by Tana French

witch elmAfter being beaten nearly to death in a robbery, Toby heads to Ivy House, the old family manse, where his uncle Hugo is dying of brain cancer.  Toby’s always considered himself a very fortunate guy, until the attack and his less than full recovery afterward.  While he’s trying to heal at Ivy House as well as care for his uncle, a human skull is found in an elm tree on the property.

Of course a whole skeleton follows, which brings the detectives calling.  Whose body is it?  How did it get there?  Toby, caring for Hugo and not having the greatest memory after the attack, tries to answer these questions as best he can–both for himself and for the detective who seems to have Toby on the list of suspects.

French’s writing is lavishly detailed and so finely wrought you want to savor every sentence.  The story is atmospheric and compelling, and the characters are all well-developed and authentic.  There’s still an element of crime fiction in this stand-alone, but it takes a backseat to a story of identity and family.  It’s also fun to see the other side of the usual stories French writes, which focus on the detectives of the Dublin Murder Squad and their investigations. Here we’re with Toby the whole time as he tries to piece together his recollections and make sense of the present.

I really enjoyed the relationship between Toby and his cousins, Leon and Susanna.  They grew up together, almost like siblings, and their bond is clear, in all its complexity and history.  A lot of their relationship relies on memory now, and memory is a big theme in the novel–how people experience and thus remember things very differently, including relationships.

If you enjoyed French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, definitely check this one out–it’s not a crime novel, as I said, so you might miss that, but everything else great about French’s work is on display here.  Fans of Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson who haven’t tried French yet certainly should as well.

–Marie

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Marie’s Reading: “The Cuckoo’s Calling” by Robert Galbraith

cuckoo's callingI’m late to the party here, but I’m glad I finally gave the Cormoran Strike books a try!  I just finished the first in the series, The Cuckoo’s Calling.

This novel introduces us to Cormoran Strike, a wounded veteran turned private detective.  He’s just broken up with is girlfriend and is living in his office, which he can already barely afford.  He’s also got a temporary secretary named Robin, whose services he also cannot afford.

Strike takes the case of Lula Landry, a supermodel who fell to her death from her balcony months earlier.  Her brother is convinced it was murder, and wants Strike to prove it.  Soon the detective and Robin are drawn into the world of celebrity and wealth, where digging up the truth turns out to be exceedingly difficult.

I love Galbraith’s use of language.  The names all have an almost Dickensian ring to them, and the descriptions are clever and evocative.  The settings are very richly described, too–the world-building of London and of Strike’s dingy little office are both great.  Given the subjects of fame and celebrity, there’s a lot of social commentary going on here as well, and it works as another level to the investigation.

Strike is a fun character.  He’s very much the damaged PI type, with a difficult childhood, personal trauma, and relationship problems.  Yet he also comes across as a decent, intelligent, and generally kind man who is dogged in  his pursuit of the truth.  Robin, playing a Girl Friday kind of role, is also great–she’s torn between her disapproving fiance and her love of the excitement of solving a crime.  She proves herself very talented at sleuthing, too.  The partnership that builds between Strike and Robin is very nicely portrayed, and they make a great team.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is fun, compelling, and a great crime story filled with multiple layers and entertaining characters.  I’m looking forward to reading the rest!  If you like Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels, you might like these, too.

–Marie

P.S.
Robert Galbraith is J.K. Rowling. Just in case anyone hadn’t heard that yet.

 

Marie’s Reading: “The Various Haunts of Men” by Susan Hill

various hauntsThe first in the Simon Serrailler trilogy, The Various Haunts of Men is about mysterious disappearances on a still more mysterious hill in a small English town.

There’s very little Simon Serrailler for a Simon Serrailler book, but that’s okay–the rest of the cast is dynamic, involving, and interesting.  Freya Graffam, a detective who’s just transferred to the town of Lafferton from London, is a smart and dedicated cop and a wonderful investigator to follow.  You don’t even really miss Serrailler, even though you get intriguing glimpses of him (mostly through a love-struck Freya).

Hill’s writing is elegant.  It’s like watching a very high-brow police procedural.  Dark yet still compelling and appealing, with a building tension.  The narrative switches a lot between characters, giving a sense of the scope of the town and its people, as well as their connections.  It’s a nice mix of small-village story and crime.

One of the many POV’s in the book is a tape being narrated by the killer, and it’s very chilling and crazy.  The killer’s sections make a nice counterpoint to Graffam’s hunt.  And I have to give props to the one of the best killer motivations I’ve seen in a while, and very well-done reveal.  A real sucker-punch dark ending, too.

An engaging and intricately constructed bit of crime fiction, and a promising start to a series.  I’ll look forward to reading others, to see how Serrailler and his town are fleshed out.

If you’re a British mystery fan, and you like P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Kate Atkinson, and/or Elly Griffiths, you might want to give this a try!

–Marie

Marie’s Reading: “Case Histories” by Kate Atkinson

case historiesCase Histories is the first in Kate Atkinson’s crime series starring private investigator Jackson Brodie.  In this first outing, Jackson becomes entangled in three old cases–a little girl who vanished from her yard, a young woman who was murdered while working at her father’s office, and another young woman who allegedly murdered her husband with an axe.  One by one these cases are resurrected, and Jackson finds himself following the interwoven threads of all three.

The plotting is intricate, with lots of characters and several story threads all going at once.  By the end every one of those threads has been tied up neatly, and it’s fun to watch them all fall into place.  The pacing is leisurely, so it never quite reaches the crescendo of a suspense novel or even a mystery, but it’s still compelling all the way through.  With her light touch and sense of humor, Atkinson also manages to make this novel seem like a light one–even though it deals with very heavy crimes, emotions, and dysfunction, nothing ever feels bleak or too dark.

The characters, and the wealth of personality and backstory Atkinson gives them, were all enjoyable.  Jackson is a great PI–an ex-soldier and ex-policeman with a heart of gold.  He’s got a tragic past and a rough present, complete with ex-wife and shared custody of a daughter.  In all, he’s got a very kind and capable sort of vibe–he reminds me a little of a nicer, less manipulative, softer-edged Mackey from the Dublin Murder Squad books.  At one point in the novel another character accuses Jackson of “becoming a woman.”  Which, while not very nice or politically correct, does get the character across.

I’d offer these as a read-alike to those who enjoy the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French.  The first is In The Woods. French’s work is darker and more disturbing, with a lot more of a psychological suspense bent, but the Jackson Brodie books still deliver a nice blend of police procedural, crime, and character-driven story.  You might also enjoy Christine Falls by Benjamin Black, the first in a series about Quirke, a pathologist in 1950’s Dublin, or Deborah Crombie’s mystery series starring Detective Superintendent Duncan Kincaid and Sergeant Gemma James (the first is A Share in Death).

–Marie

A God in Ruins

god in ruinsFans of Atkinson’s mind-blowing Life After Life have been waiting for this latest novel, A God in Ruins, which serves as something of a companion-piece—not a sequel—to the earlier book. While Life After Life recounted the story of Ursula Todd, A God in Ruins examines the life of her brother Teddy.

Edward Todd, known by all as Teddy, was born in 1914 to a good British family. A nice boy who became a nice man, he married the girl next door and served with some distinction as a bomber commander in World War II. He loved nature and his dog, his wife, their daughter, and their daughter’s two children. He lived a long life. That, from the outside, is the sum of his life, what most people would deem an ordinary life.

But nothing is ordinary in Kate Atkinson’s hands. The amount of detail the author gives us about Teddy’s life—especially his post-war years, all shaped by the war—brings us not just into Teddy’s mind but into his heart, and we are reminded that perhaps there is no such thing as an ordinary life.

Atkinson is a master storyteller with a remarkable command of pacing and tone. Despite the seriousness at the heart of the novel, there are elements of playfulness throughout. At one point, for example, we learn of Teddy’s daughter Viola that “She felt a sudden spark of sympathy for him and stamped on it.” And when Teddy’s granddaughter Bertie attends a conference, she reflects on the person on stage: “The man who was speaking had a degree in jargon and a doctorate in nonsense. His words were floating in the air, language devoid of meaning, sucking out the oxygen, making Bertie feel mildly hypoxic.”

A God in Ruins contains no “language devoid of meaning.”

—Diane

P.S.

Click here for my review of:  Life After Life.

 

Marie’s Reading: “In the Woods” by Tana French

In the WoodsActually, I just read that one first.  I couldn’t stop there.   As soon as I was done I needed more Dublin Murder Squad.  So now I’m reading The Likeness.  And then I’ll move on down the line until I’ve read them all!

I’m just sorry I hadn’t read these when I wrote that post about Crime Fiction for the Maine Crime Writers.  In The Woods would most definitely have been on my suggestion list.  The first in the series, it’s about a team of detectives trying to solve the murder of a young girl, even as one of the detectives tries to simultaneously solve a mystery from his own past.

Tana French’s police procedurals are compelling, atmospheric, and stylistically complex.  They’re moody pieces of crime fiction, rather than mysteries–some mysteries never get solved in her books, loose ends are left dangling.  I’d also classify the Dublin Murder Squad books as psychological suspense.  French delivers that delicious blend of mystery and suspense and atmosphere that makes crime fiction the fabulous genre that it is.

I also love French’s unflinching and honest depiction of Ireland and the Irish, of the society and its tensions.  Her Ireland is not sentimental.  It’s an Ireland full of a sense of history (recent and not), and a sense of national identity.  She gives a lot of evocative attention to the beauty of the landscape and the weather, but also pays attention to the undercurrents of society, government, and community.

If you enjoy character-driven fiction with an absorbing sense of place, believable and unique character voices, and well-constructed mysteries, do give the Dublin Murder Squad a try.  You also might like French’s work if you enjoy Kate Atkinson, S.J. Bolton, or Gillian Flynn.  While every Dublin Murder Squad novel features a different narrator and a new situation, the world is steadily built and characters grow as the books go on.  So do start with In The Woods and then go on from there.

When I’m done, though.  Don’t sneak the later ones out from under me. I’m warning you. I’m the librarian.  I’ll know.

–Marie

November Simply Books! Meeting

We had a great meeting this past Saturday!  Lots of laughter, lots of stimulating conversation, and a very passionate 10-minute Downton Abbey derail.   That’s an enjoyable hour and a half right there, it is.

Here’s the booklist for this month.  As ever, a click will take you to Shelfari.  Enjoy!

Darwin's Doubt coverDarwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design
by Stephen C. Meyer

wildWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed

diary of a nobdyDiary of a Nobody by George Grossmith

arrowAn Arrow Through the Heart: One Woman’s Story of Life, Love, and Surviving a Near-Fatal Heart Attack by Deborah Daw Heffernan

case_historiesCase Histories by Kate Atkinson

trainsTrains and Lovers by Alexander McCall Smith

The time of our next meeting has changed!  Due to holiday busy-ness and Christmas by the Sea, we all thought it might be a good idea to have our next meeting on the second Saturday in December.  So, we’ll meet next on Saturday, December 14th at 2pm in the Jean Picker Room.

–Marie