Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Dead Hour by Denise Mina (A Paddy Meehan mystery)

During one scene in Denise Mina’s The Dead Hour, the series protagonist Paddy Meehan struggles to climb a tall gate in order to inspect a property possibly involved in a murder. Paddy is an overweight, insecure but determined Scottish Daily News crime reporter. Paddy eventually scales the door, but not before gracelessly falling into the mud and tearing her stockings. The stockings are more than just an aesthetic inconvenience; Paddy supports her parents and one sister on her meager reporter’s salary and every penny counts. Besides, it’s terribly cold in Scotland and wool stockings help. Still, frustrated but undaunted, Paddy nevertheless makes her way to the house to snoop around.

It’s the kind of scene Denise Mina handles exceptionally well. Her deft touch allows the protagonist to be brave without being invulnerable, intelligent but still prone make to utterly human poor decisions, and always themselves while trudging through the day-to-day indignities that accompany being on the lower rungs of social and economic status.

I’ve whined before in this blog about heroines who come dangerously close to becoming bland, boring Mary Sues – of course they happen to have studied that obscure dialect of a lesser-known language, and of course they have impeccable fashion sense and yes, they’re good at Math and have a perfect sense of direction and handle all social morasses with diplomacy and aplomb – but that is a risk Paddy will likely never run. And thank goodness for that.

This third installment of the Paddy Meehan series focuses on the reporter’s almost inadvertent acceptance of a bribe at the scene of a domestic violence incident that becomes a brutal murder. Less than accepting the bribe, the much-needed, blood-stained money is thrust into Paddy’s hands by the man who answers the door. Before she can react, the door is slammed in her face.

Paddy’s internal vacillations about whether to keep the money or turn it in to the police as evidence, and the consequences of that decision for her both personally and professionally, turn a compelling thriller and mystery into something more literary and rich.

A counternarrative of an addict, from a completely different point of view (Mina’s ability to completely change narrative voice, syntax, perspective and style are comparable to Tana French, who is an absolute master at this) adds an undercurrent of suspense that keeps the reader turning pages.

Although I’m not overly familiar with Scotland’s recession during the 1980s, the dreary ghosts of empty factories and the lingering wounds suffered by the workers' families are an ever-present, sinister whisper throughout the story. Yet the reader is never bludgeoned over the head with it, either.

But all that is signature Mina, of course. One is forced to confront the totally unvarnished, unembellished and only loosely fictionalized realities of poverty, sex trafficking, mental health care, (or the lack thereof) and much more in all of Mina’s novels (brace yourself when reading her phenomenal and gripping Garnett Hill  trilogy), but the reader is never being proselytized, either. Reality simply is what it is, and there’s little use complaining about it.

Lest that deter those of you who are interested in giving Mina a shot, I should also point out her books also have intelligent, complex characters and her heroines all have a wicked, laugh-out-loud sense of humor that helps lighten the aforementioned aspects. The darkness of external environments is often lightened with a quick quip or hilarious internal dialogue.

In short, The Dead Hour is a pretty enjoyable installment in the series, although I concede a character development cliff hanger at the end left me frustrated and annoyed. In keeping with my cardinal rule for this blog, I won’t give spoilers, but suffice it so say I was left thinking, “Oh great, not another one!”, with “one” meaning female protagonists of mystery series.

Leaving that aside, however, I’m going to indulge in a personal note. There is a line in this book in which a new editor from London replaces the bedraggled, grizzled old-school editor. That dismissal is soon followed by the exit of several of the other reporters of a very old generation, one in which writing a story from a bar nearby and drinking at work was not only the norm but damn near expected.

The presses leave the building, and the sales staff and editors all move into cubicles on the floor beneath the comfortably worn and broken-in newsroom, with its scarred tables, clanging typewriters and assorted detritus.

The line observes that now the newspaper could just as well be selling insurance, and no one would be able to tell the difference.

It reminded me, sharply, of when the small press that was housed adjacent to my first paper, The Pahrump Valley Times, was shut down so the paper could be printed in Las Vegas, about 45 minutes away.

Before then, I would sometimes go into the press building and chat with the press guys or just watch the presses whir. More than anything I loved to breathe in the sharp, slightly acidic smell of ink and be wrapped in the thudding rumble of events being churned onto giant rolls of paper. It felt like being right inside the world’s heartbeat.

I often lingered in the press room of my last paper, The Casa Grande Dispatch, too, for the basically the same reason. Both papers had wonderfully broken-in newsroom where reporters filed stories alongside wavering stacks of the newspapers next to their desks and the editor (or in the Dispatch’s case, the publisher) had the only real office. I suppose, in a way, they were the transition between Paddy’s old-school newsroom and today’s slick, cubicle-mazed offices.

At any rate, though I don’t think I’d want a return to the boorish, chauvinist, functioning-alcoholic newsrooms of the past (we had them here in America, too), I deeply appreciated Mina’s nod to the death of a certain era.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Leaving Everthing Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear (A Maisie Dobbs mystery)

Jacqueline Winspear describes murder victims so well through other characters you half-wish they hadn't been killed so you can "meet" the character. But then there wouldn't be a murder to solve so, in the end, this literary taunting is forgivable. 
In Leaving Everything Most Loved, the tenth book in the acclaimed Maisie Dobbs series, Winspear has outdone herself in this regard.

Leaving Everything Most Loved, like all compelling historical fiction, allows the reader to glimpse a small snippet of history that is often overlooked when major events and social shifts are viewed from across an expanse of decades. 

In this case, Winspear focuses on the experiences of Indian maids and nannies brought to England by British families returning from stints in the British Raj. It wasn't uncommon for the Indian help to be summarily dismissed when children went to boarding school or they were simply deemed unnecessary. Consequently, many young, single Indian women were left to fend for themselves in a foreign city without so much as reference or severance pay. 

Churches and charity groups set up boarding homes for these women, often demanding conversion to Christianity in exchange. Some homes would find the women work so the women could eventually earn enough for passage back to India. But every so often a woman might marry an Englishman or choose to stay in London, which contributed to a growing Indian community.

Maisie is asked to consult with Scottland Yard when a particularly striking Indian woman is shot directly between the eyes. Her body is discovered days later by a group of young boys playing near the canal. The victim's brother, who fought for Britain in World War I, correctly assumes the simmering bigotry of London's middle class towards the city's burgeoning Indian community prevented Yard investigators from being as thorough as they might have been. When the brother comes to London and appears at Scottland Yard in his British army uniform, the Yard takes him, and the case, to Maisie's door.

Winspear's ability to illustrate the social tension between the Indian women like the victim and London's middle-class through the words and actions of auxiliary characters is "hidden" research at its best. Conversations and offhand comments feel authentic to the period and no statistics or facts are laboriously inserted into the narrative to make any points. Still, one gets a very clear sense of the social mores of mid- to late-1930s London.

There are far too few glimpses into the riches of Indian culture, but enough of them to bring to mind the way Indian spices wrap around one like a warm, heavy blanket when Indian cuisine is cooked, or to think back on the beautiful, brightly-colored silks from which saris are made.

The mystery of who shot the victim is certainly central to the novel, but once again I found myself thinking Winspear has outgrown the "mystery" genre. Would I read a Maisie Dobbs installment if it wasn't a mystery? Absolutely, though unlike the past two books the mystery itself felt less shoehorned into genre conventions.

Another of Winspear's strengths as a writer lies in her ability to create convincing inner narratives and motivations for her characters, even if the characters themselves lack any gritty flaws that would make them as human as, say, a Denise Mina character. This story seemed particularly well-suited to exploring character motivation and made for enjoyable reading.

As always, Winspear's landscapes are convincing if a bit airbrushed, and although plenty of readers quickly tire of Maisie's "naval gazing," I personally enjoy her introspection. For me, Maisie's indecisiveness is a saving grace; without it, she is far too much of a Mary Sue to be interesting.

Finally, for those who read series because they adore the way characters in book series become like friends (and I certainly fall into this camp), this will be a rich and satisfying read indeed. Characters move on in a variety of ways and Maisie learns a bit more about controlling others and butting in. She also finds herself at a crossroads, or rather hesitant to move on to the path she has really already chosen.

I wouldn't recommend this as an introduction to the series, however. Winspear does what back explaining is necessary, but wisely keeps the rehashing short. If you're an established fan of this series, however, enjoy -- you're in for a treat. 

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Death Comes to Pemberly by P.D. James

Death Comes to Pemberley was my introduction to the world-renown Baroness of Holland Park P.D. James, and so I am crushed to report I did not enjoy this book at all.

I was so excited to read it, too.

First, I would finally be introduced to P.D. James and, given the subject of this blog, I'm well aware of how ridiculous it is I haven't read anything else by her.

Secondly, although not a cosplaying, fanfiction-writing, convention-attending fangirl, I do so love Jane Austen. Aside from the Sherlock Holmes canon, which I re-read when I was younger every November for about six years straight, I am not, as a general rule, one for re-reading books. But I have read Northanger Abbey, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility twice each, and suspect at some point down the road I will certainly revisit Emma.

The premise of the mystery is a wonderful one, too. A dark and stormy night, a carriage carrying Elizabeth's infamous sister Lydia (yes, that Lydia, now Mrs. Wickham) to the Darcys' door, a brutally murdered body found in a moonlit field -- the perfect recipe to stay up cataclysmically late reading. In fact, the book jacket's synopsis made save this book for a weekend because I was certain I'd lose track of time and look up from it to see silver clouds and the sun flirting with the skyline.

Which makes this review all the more difficult to write. So I will start on a positive note, and work my way through from there.

The book does succeed in a few notable ways well worth mentioning.

Undeniably, P.D. James captured the tone, syntax and rhythm of Austen's narrative style masterfully. It is obvious James loved Austen and James certainly treated Austen's sparse but piercing writing style with respect, if not reverence. Achieving that level of authenticity is not easily done and James deserves high praise for it.

There was quite a bit of detail on the British legal system, which was at the advent of some pretty exciting and revolutionary changes at the time, and James does a nice job incorporating these. As a former law student and just a nerd in general, I thought these were some of the most interesting parts of the book, but I wouldn't be shocked if others found it to be a bit too much.

There was, of course, some rehashing of Pride of Prejudice, and even though at times I thought it tedious I can forgive it -- not everyone who picks up this book with be familiar with its basis and they deserve a full story arc, too. So for me, that wasn't the issue.

The problem was the book never seemed to really to gain momentum of any kind until the very end and, even then, one subplot was tied up in a way that I can only describe as deus ex machina at best and lazy at worst.

The dialogue felt forced and wooden, turning all of the characters into beige, blurry splotches of their beloved roots, at times nearly interchangeable.

Now, I understand that this is, after all, a pastiche; I think it's unreasonable to expect the characters in any pastiche to be exactly the same as the ones in an original work. And, given that this story takes place a good length of time after Pride and Prejudice, it can be easily argued that the characters, like real people, will have grown and changed from their experiences.

Yet all of the characters sounded like the same person was speaking, particularly the men.

Granted, there was a tone and style to speech in Regency England that reflected one's class and upbringing, and any writing tackling Austen has to be aware of this because Austen herself used that as a narrative tool so well.

So Wickham would have the same speech pattern as Darcy because it would underscore their common upbringing, and serve as a subtle way to remind the reader that despite speaking the same as Darcy they are not, and never were or will be, in the same class caste.

However, that does not mean characters would give up any and all sense of personality. The fact that Austen's characters are still beloved today proves this. But unfortunately, that is exactly what happens in Death Comes to Pemberley. 

If Lydia was being melodramatic, or Darcy frustrated, or Wickham cagey, the reader never knows this by how they act or what they say but because they are told that is the case. This may come down to personal preference but that level of expository writing in fiction simply bores me to tears.

This made a pretty decent twist ending (those who read mysteries frequently will likely figure it out pretty early on) fall flat.

Even the settings have the two-dimensional feel of a cutout for a stage play, like something James had to get through before she could go back to explaining things. The characters didn't so much interact with the places they are in so much as get put there.

Which I suppose, for me, is the best way to sum up why I couldn't get lost in this story. It felt rushed and mechanical, the fiction equivalent of reading a grocery list.

Of course, every well-plotted story has an attendant checklist -- introduce characters, give full context, describe/incorporate settings, etc. etc., and what is a plot if not map? But the reader should never see that process or even know it is happening.

Whereas while slogging my way through this book I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a detailed basic outline of a proposed story. Had James taken the time to flesh it out a bit more, this could have been a really great pastiche.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

The Devil's Workshop by Alex Grecian (A Scotland Yard Murder Squad mystery)

Every so often, an installment in an ongoing series will engross me so thoroughly it is all I can do not to stand up after closing the back cover and give the author a standing ovation.

The Devil's Workshop, the third installment of Alex Grecian's Socttland Yard's Murder Squad series, is one of those books.

Grecian succeeds on a dazzling array of levels in this installment: dialogue, setting, plot, pacing; basically, writing. 

He flicks between multiple points of view and settings, changing the narrative voice accordingly, without ever allowing the page-turning, suspense-filled plot to flag. All of the events in the book, remarkably, basically take place over the course of a little over a day.

So the plot and pacing are as good a place to being as any in describing what made this such a wonderful read.

Briefly, this installment finds Detective Walter Day and his loyal partner Nevil Hammersmith being woken in the wee small hours of the morning to find several murderers who have been broken out of a prison. (The prison break itself, by the way, is worth the cost of the admission.)

One of the escaped prisoners is the same serial killer from the first novel in the series, one of Grecian's most skin-crawling villains. The other is The Harvest Man, who is just as chills-inducing and disquieting, the kind of character that whispers in your mind long after you've stopped reading for the night.

Normally, I roll my eyes when authors bring back old antagonists, but in this case Grecian has plausibly, and engrossingly, brought back both. It makes sense both in terms of this particular installment in the series and in terms of the larger, overall series plot arc.

Adding to the plot is the existence of a shadow society that kidnaps and tortures men who they believe have gotten away with murder. One of their victims is Saucy Jack himself, which is why, of course, he seems to have inexplicably disappeared.

On the character development side, Day is nervous about an upcoming major life event and his old mentor returns to help hunt down prisoners.

That's a lot of plot, characters and settings (more on the settings in a bit). Yet Grecian writes so efficiently that the story does not become cluttered with characters and side plots.
No dialogue is wasted; it all furthers the plot or sheds insight into a character. Descriptions are just enough to allow the reader's imagination to fill in the blanks, but are deep enough to get the reader started.

The settings are also rich and varied. They include a tiny street tea vendor's stand, a cozy family home, a desolate prison on the outskirts of London and finally the fiendish twists and turns of underground London, with its rivers, catacombs and abandoned, ancient cellars and all.

Finally, once again I am pleasantly surprised by Grecian's Jack the Ripper. So much has been written about Jack the Ripper, both in nonfiction and fiction, I can't help but approach most series centering around Saucy Jack with a bit of trepidation. As a true crime fan, I've read enough about him to spoil most Ripper pastiches, though I don't ever blame a writer for mining such a rich patch of criminal history.

Grecian's Ripper succeeds because first, it evident that Grecian has done his homework, researching both the Ripper and what his mental illness may have been. So although there is, of course, gory violence that gives one goose bumps and, perhaps, a bit of nausea, it is never gratuitous. It is the logical action based on Jack's own twisted internal logic, and that lends it credibility.

Horror is not a genre I generally read, but every time I read a Scottland Yard's Murder Squad installment I am grateful for Grecian's background in that genre. I read this around Halloween for my scary book and was not disappointed in the least.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Collaborator of Bethlehem by Matt Rees (The Palestinian Quartet)

[Warning: The introduction to the review of the book is rather long; I apologize for that but felt it necessary to ensure readers have the complete context from which I base this review. In an era of soundbites, pull quotes, memes and GIFs, I shall plant my lonely flag of exposition. It’s a luxury afforded to those of us who have maybe two people who read our blog.]

It's easy in today’s information-saturated age to believe one understands a place and its people, even never having been there (or spoken to anyone who has). It is so effortless, after all, to binge watch YouTube lectures and read an assortment of blogs, articles and – for the true cyber-anthropologists – all the comments below said videos or articles.

That said, it is equally easy to become so inundated with information, from so many conflicting sources, that one loses all hope of ever understanding other places, cultures and people.

Finally, there are those who moor against the unceasing tidal waves of information by sheltering within unshakable conviction.

Thankfully, fiction allows an alternate avenue to information about cultures, places, nations and, naturally, conflict. If a work a good – and I don’t mean just entertaining, I mean a piece that truly masters a genre – then intertwined with dialogue and people spun from thin air are real, honest facts and truths about the character’s setting, societal norms and culture.[1]

Fiction allows us to learn and absorb information in a way that somewhat cushions against the modern instinct -- not misplaced --  to analyze the source and its motives. We already know that story is the motive and we trust the writer has done the due diligence to make it a story worth being told.

Perhaps that’s why I have found some of the best insights into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in works of fiction such as Joe Sacco’s startling, disorienting and wonderful graphic novel Palestine.

To be sure, I’ve read plenty of nonfiction as well, from Jimmy Carter’s Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid and Sandy Tolan’s The Lemon Tree, but often it was only when I read works of fiction, such as Almost Dead by Assaf Gavron, that any the information I received from nonfiction works metamorphosed into knowledge, or at least the closest thing I can claim to have of knowledge, given that I’ve never set foot anywhere in Israel.

I’m not going to share my opinions on that conflict; this isn’t a political blog and, in any case, in my view any review that allows political bias to influence an assessment of a work of fiction is not to be trusted.

I will, however, disclose that I have had a fascination and admiration for Middle Eastern culture since I was little girl, long before it became distilled down to media buzzwords and conflated with the Muslim religion.

Which is why I saved this book from a friend’s culling pile.

I forgot about it for years until, looking for a quick read prior to my first travel vacation in five years, I found it again on the wrong bookshelf, the one I reserve for “stand alone” mysteries. And I am so glad I did.

First, a reader should understand that the protagonist, Omar Yussef, is a Christian in modern-ish Bethleham (presumably, this around the mid-to-late 1990s), which has become increasingly hostile to Christians.

Yussef is old enough to recall his father’s friendships with Muslims and Jews, and even to have a few Muslim friends of his own, but cynical enough to recognize the Martyrs Brigade for the strong-arm gang of thugs it is, even as it shrouds itself in the Palestinian flag and resistance movement.

His faith is not the only thing that sets Omar Yussef apart, however. Also compelling is the way he internalized what his father told him when the family was forced from their home by Israeli soldiers. Unlike the other refugees, Omar’s father didn’t expect to return. Which isn’t to say the eviction didn’t touch the Yussef family; his mother was so spiritually traumatized and chronically homesick she never settles into Bethlehem and struggled with severe depression for the rest of her life.

But Omar is no martyr to be pitied; indeed he is human to a degree that one rarely finds in fiction protagonists. A recovering alcoholic who squandered much of his youth in the bottle, Omar Yussef has been essentially demoted from teaching history at a respectable school to United Nations Palestinian refugee camp girls’ school. Still, he retains a dignity and honesty in his teaching and takes true pride in helping to form students' minds. 

Omar’s thoughtful, if politically tone-deaf, refusal to allow his students to give into blind hatred and propaganda make him unsurprisingly unpopular with many of his students’ parents and his American boss. The mischievous sense of humor with which he handles this situation is one of several unexpected delights within the book. 

Omar’s drinking has taken a toll on his body, which is aging prematurely, a rather nice change from the typically vigorous, indestructible protagonists so many mystery novels have.

In addition to a complex, rather unlikely hero, Matt Rees also humanizes the ambivalence, weariness, frustration and even hope of everyday people attempting to live ordinary, everyday lives in the midst of a conflict with global repercussions.

Rees shows us families cowering from Israeli tracers and bulldozers that destroy roads in the middle of the night but he also shows, rather mercilessly, the degree to which even Palestinians are not united amongst themselves and their own culpability in perpetuating half of the endless cycle of hate.

The mystery at the heart of this novel, with its mix of foregone conclusions, hope, cynicism and the never ending capacity of our fellow humans to surprise and disappoint us, lives up to complex and absorbing backdrop.

Omar’s motives are messy and a bit selfish – one of his brightest former students has been falsely accused of being an Israeli collaborator and helping Shin Bet to assassinate a resistance leader (or terrorist, depending on your perspective) and Reese pulls no punches in its inevitably bloody conclusion – of the many things this novel is, wish fulfillment it is not. Omar sincerely wants justice but in his core is desperate that one of the best examples of his legacy is not senselessly wrongfully destroyed.

It all makes for surprisingly quick and thought-provoking reading. It is easy to see why Rees was an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Scotsman and Newsweek.

As readers, we can be thankful for that. As people who hope for peace, we can only sigh and accept the truth as it stands.

[1] In no way am I suggesting that reading fiction is an adequate substitution for educating oneself. That is an entirely different process and, by definition, would include credible sources such as newspapers of record, original source notes and transcripts, peer-reviewed academic journal articles and the like at the very least.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Justice Hall by Laurie R. King (A Sherlock Holmes and Mary Russell mystery)

As much as possible, I try to offer fairly objective reviews for this blog.

True, a review is by definition subjective, but what I mean is that I make a conscious effort to focus on a book's writing and narrative style, how well the author folds research into the story (or how well-researched a novel is), setting, the development of characters over time, etc. The more “technical” aspects, I suppose.

It also means I try to keep knee-jerk opinions to a minimum and examine why I like or dislike something. I’m well aware that (especially when it comes to Doyle's Sherlock Holmes or Robert Louis Stevenson or a few other of my sacred cow authors) I can be a harsh, unforgiving, nitpicky, stick-in-the-mud puritanical pedant. 

Hard to believe, I know, but I do in fact try to reign that in.

That said, sometimes I’m just going to enjoy a book precisely because of certain settings, plot elements, time periods or other literary elements. Much to my surprise, Justice Hall is one of those of books.

As I’ve explained in another post, The Moor nearly made me give up this series altogether. O Jerusalem, however, played right into my lifelong love of MiddleEastern culture. [1] So to say King is becoming a bit of a hit-or-miss author for me is an understatement.

Enter Justice Hall, a book that combines two of my favorite Middle Eastern characters from the series with my all-time favorite mystery setting, a grand English manor. Upon first glance, it's not exactly a setting portmanteau I'd think would work, but King manages to make the two diametrically opposed worlds and the tension between them play together wonderfully. It’s a neat trick, and I can’t help but mentally tip my hat to author Laurie R. King for pulling it off.

The plot has all the elements needed to make it a fun, albeit a tad predictable, read for the mystery lover. Secret passages, a traditional English hunt, a huge, grand gala, a war-torn love story, family secrets. Like a traditional dish of comfort food untouched by the gluten free movement that uses real butter, King has crafted a shamelessly indulgent (and satisfying) piece of genre fiction.

There is a panoply of interesting, diverse characters, a well-plotted, complex mystery and several other artfully constructed settings besides Justice Hall as well. I found some of family genealogy aspects yawn-inducing but I know plenty of people simply love that kind of thing. And, in all fairness, it is the focal point upon which the plot turns.

Another compelling element of this installment is how King handles the time period. The struggle of an upper-class society attempting to find its footing in the turbulent wake of social changes brought by World War I is not a focal point of the book but is adequately explored through telling details such as the preparations for a huge party and the more casual dress and demeanor of houseguests. (I tried not to think this installment was not a mercenary attempt by King to capitalize on the Downton Abbey craze).

One aspect of this installment, one that I can’t help but wonder if it contributed to my deep enjoyment of this book, is that Sherlock himself is largely absent for a large part of it.

I have commented before on how unnecessary and pointless I find Mary and Sherlock’s marriage to be. In addition to being fairly far-fetched (and I say this as a woman whose husband is 10 years older than her), it is poorly handled and simply doesn’t do anything to further any of the stories or the characters.

Improbably in this installment, for example, Mary has to be reminded at one point that Sherlock, not being as young as he used to be, may take longer to recover from injuries. Again, as woman with an older husband (I am 34, my husband is 45), believe me – you can’t be in an intimate marital relationship and not pick up on something like that, let alone forget it. I don’t care how fit or healthy Sherlock is; a 20-year-old young man is simply not that easily confused with a man in his forties.

In addition, the relationship is extraordinarily cold and passionless anyway, which means when it does come up it gets in the way.

Russell and Holmes’ relationship feels like an intimate friendship between a girl and a mentor; why not just let it be that? I’m not looking for a romance novel and don’t need any bodice ripping, but for a young woman who is so willing to dive into life-threatening adventures the notion that she is essentially asexual is discordant.

We expect that from Holmes, of course, but for me Mary’s haughty, cold-fish nature only exacerbates the grating Mary Sue aspect of her character (speaking of the Mary Sue tendency, she has an absolutely eye-roll inducing part to play in an otherwise excellently done traditional English hunt).

At this point, I wish Mary would discover she’s a lesbian and fall passionately in love with a woman, or even another, younger man, or at least admit her marriage with Holmes is merely one of convenience so they can stay in the same hotel room or whatever when need be. It is the only thing that demotes these books from a fairly well-done pastiche to borderline adolescent wish fulfillment fan fiction. 

[1] My obsession and love of the Middle East began after reading a special edition of National Geographic from my grandfather. (Oh how I loved his bi-yearly deliveries of that heavy stack of glossy, wonder-filled pages!) 

Specifically, a special edition on the disappearing traditions of the Middle East. I think I was in third or fourth grade, possibly younger. There was one particular photo of a lone, robed Pashtun chief, robes billowing, walking away from the camera amidst gaping-mouthed modern tourists on a paved road that I will never forget. But it was the sidebars that got me – the folklore, the beautiful script I couldn’t read, the explosive colored mountains of spices, intriguing stories of women with "faces like the moon" and treasure that was likely to be coffee or spices as jewels...I was determined to travel the Middle East as a nomadic adventurer when I grew up. 

Obviously, that is a dream deferred for a litany of reasons, but with every report of ISIS destroying Syrian artifacts or other Middle Eastern treasures, my heart simply breaks. 

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Right Attitude to Rain (An Isabel Dalhousie mystery)

This installment breaks my cardinal rule of no spoilers. It is the first, and hopefully the last, time I will ever have to do that in order to adequately explain part of the reasoning behind my review. I have warned when the spoiler is coming and made the text of it white in an attempt to not ruin the book for a cursory reader. 

The Isabel Dalhousie books by Alexander McCall Smith, are my go-to when I need a proper cozy. The serene life of an independently wealthy, cultured Scottish philosopher and her internal musings as she attempts to lead a philosophically moral life (or justify her nosiness) is perfect for when the world seems just a bit too cruel, unforgiving, hostile, garish and uncivilized, as it certainly did last week.

Given that, and the fact that this particular installment resolves a fairly major character plot arc in the way I was hoping, this should've been one of my favorite installments.

And yet, it was my least favorite and left me feeling vaguely frustrated and unsatisfied.

Part of the reason, I suppose, is that Alexander McCall Smith was still trying to cram a mystery into a world in which the characters' lives have simply transcended that genre (as has also happened, for example, with Jacqueline Winspear's Maisie Dobbs series). I don't mind reading future installments as novels, but the purported mystery not only wasn't but didn't make any real type of appearance until the last third of the book! Something about that just feels lazy to me.

Secondly, a subplot that was introduced as a rather major story arc was abandoned entirely and then wrapped up abruptly in a rather unlikely way towards the end of book in a rather shabby way.

Finally,the big twist ending surprise was such a predictable letdown.

[SPOILER FOLLOWS -- Out of sheer necessity, I assure you. I hate reveiws that give spoilers and as a general rule never do, but there is no other way to further explain my feelings about this book.] 

<spoiler> Here you have Isabel Dalhousie, an independent, intelligent 42-year-old woman with a 24-year-old, handsome, "gentle" man who is in love with her. She finds the strength and courage to pursue him and get her man, finding love again. Fantastic! How empowering and refreshing to see a character that isn't sexually dead after thirty! 

And what does McCall Smith do? He impregnates her. Because of course the only thing "missing" from her life has to be a baby, right? Some of my bitterness here is personal, I freely admit that. I'm happily childfree at 35 and one of the reasons I loved Isabel was that it was awesome to have a heroine whose life didn't revolve around a husband and children and the pursuit thereof. 

I'm sure being older and having a child before Cat, her younger niece, will present complications. And a baby is not going to fit well into Isabel's well-ordered, quiet and serene life, surely. But quite frankly, my real life is already surrounded by and inundated with mothers, so it's with no little disappointment I find Isabel is now going to be All About Being A Mom All The Time. </spoiler>

So, I suppose I'm being a curmudgeon about a character's evolution. But it honestly didn't feel natural for either character and feels a bit like a calculated demographics grab, quite frankly. I'll read the next installment to see where it goes, but I have to be honest: I won't be surprised if it's time for Isabel and I to, unfortunately, part ways.