Summer Reading: for remote places

summer readin 1When the cable and satellite fail, what to read?

No it’s not hurricane season or even ice storm season and my bills are being paid on time. To get into this situation, I had to find myself a fairly remote mountain village with no AT&T service and a hotel room with no internet and an analogue television set without even bunny ears. If that sounds like heaven to you, leave a message and I’ll tell you where to find it. But you may have the same problem at a summer cottage.

My packing was sudden and fast, most of it done by others. I did manage to grab 4 books from the unread pile in my den. When they ran out, I found myself momentarily in Los Angeles where I bought 3 more from the mystery section at Barnes and Noble. Then I discovered the Kern County Library in Frazier Park just down the mountain, which has lots of hard cover Elizabeth George and P.D. James mysteries. A friend sent me 2 books from iTunes and this led me to go down to Santa Clarita to buy a mini iPad.

Here’s what desperation has led me to read.

Two books by Gillian Flynn who wrote the best seller Gone Girl and which I will eventually buy for the iPad. I read Sharp Objects first. Camille Preaker, girl reporter, is sent by her boss at a minor Chicago paper to investigate the murders of two preteen girls in her home town, Wind Gap, Missouri. The boss thinks this is just the ticket to get her back on her feet after a stay in a psych hospital. Camille is not so sure since budget limits mean she has to stay with her mother whose first question is ‘When are you leaving?’ Flynn’s female protagonists tend to be strange. Camille is not encouraged to have sharp objects in her possession. Momma locks the knives up at night. Camille is given to long sleeved tops and pants. If that seems strange, the condition of the young girl’s bodies is odder still.

In Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places, the protagonist is Libby Day, 4ft 8in., one of two survivors of her family’s massacre. The other one, her older brother has been in prison for years for the murders of his mother and two sisters. Libby is non-functional, but she has survived for years on the outpouring of sympathy and cash from the public. Now she’s older, other younger pathetic victims are getting the cash and Libby is reduced to having to earn something. She does so by answering a request from a murder club that wants to have the brother exonerated. Since 7 yr-old Libby was the chief witness against him, it is a hard if necessary job to accept. It is doubtful that you will be able to guess who is to blame or why the brother is content to be in jail. But maybe you’re more observant than me.

Nicci French’s (Nicci Gerrrard and Sean French) novel Blue Monday is A Frieda Klein mystery, Frieda being a psychologist working in London. She finds herself treating a man who longs for a red-headed son, he himself being of that colouring. Then a child like that is kidnapped. Should she report this to the police? The kidnapping has striking similarities to the kidnapping of a 5 yr-old girl 20 years ago. But why would the kidnapper wait so long to strike again. And is the patient living two lives, unable in either to remember the other. Frieda teams up with DCI Karlsson in an attempt to rescue both victims.

The last of the 4 books, I brought from home was a Christmas gift, Denise Mina’s Field of Blood. Hinging on the murder of a 3 yr-old by a couple of 11 yr-olds, this was not a book I would have chosen to read, but it was all I had. Paddy Meehan really is a girl reporter, barely 18, from an Irish Catholic family settled in Glasgow. There’s enough ethnic strife to make an interesting book all by itself. Really Paddy, who bears the name of a notorious traitor, is a copy ‘boy” in the early 1980’s, not an easy role in a newsroom full of leering, hardened, alcoholic, male journalists. She sets out to the prove that the children are not solely responsible, and this leads her into the investigation of a much older child murder as well. Young as she is, Paddy has her own idea  of how she wants to live. Her family is strict Catholic, but Paddy can’t see the point. After being shunned by her family, she skips one Sunday. The next Sunday, she gives in to her mother’s pleas: the adult children go to please mother, mother goes to please father and father goes as a role model for his children.

In Los Angeles two weeks after I arrived, I bought Donna Leon’s Willful Behavior, Lee Child’s Tripwire and Elizabeth George’s In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner.

Donna Leon is an American writer living in Venice and writing short mystery novels set there primarily and featuring Commissario Guido Brunetti, a man who is very fond of his professor wife’s cooking three times a day and possibly a glass of something after his mid-morning espresso. In Willful Behavior, his wife who teaches 19th century English literature, especially Henry James, to a roomful of uncomprehending louts, asks him to help a student clear her deceased grandfather’s name. Next thing, the poor girl is dead and Brunetti is caught up in historical crimes: trafficking in Jewish-owned art during the war. A friend of mine had a great idea, write a cook book featuring recipes for the meals Brunetti eats. Too late. Someone already did.

I thought I had read all the Lee Child books, featuring tough guy Jack Reacher, but I was wrong. Tripwire is the second Reacher thriller. The retired army major has earned commendations and medals in the Military Police, but he spends his retirement travelling by bus or hitch-hiking across the U.S., sleeping in cheap motels, his only possession the clothes on his back and a folding toothbrush. Trouble finds him easily. This time he is digging swimming pools in the Florida keys when a private investigator comes to find him and ends up murdered. Reacher travels to NYC to find out why. There Hook Hobie, a disfigured vet with a hook for a hand, waits warily for his tripwires, one in Hawaii and one in Vietnam to warn him to shut down his scam and leave town. But there’s this one last score….. This adventure takes Reacher back to a woman that he first fell in love with 15 years when she was 15. Now he can finally admit that to her. Or can he?

Elizabeth’s George’s In Search of a Proper Sinner was well underway when I left it in my grandson’s home. I frantically texted -using a borrowed Verizon phone. The reply was, “Is there anything unusual you want me to do with it?” It arrived back up the mountain a few days ago, but since I haven’t finished it, I will write about it and George’s novel Deception on His Mind in a 2nd summer reading post. Coming soon. I will also describe another early Lee Child novel, Running Blind.

Here we are my reading companion and I in yesteryear. (Not.)  Just when I think the Lee Child books is too hardcore, I discover she can’t put it down. That was no lady. That was a reader.

summer reading 2

Just One Evil Act: Elizabeth George’s latest

I searched in vain for newspaper reviews of Elizabeth George’s most recent novel, Just One Evil Act. There are plenty of reviews by readers on Goodreads, but the New York Times, the L.A. Times, the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail not so much. And readers were less than kind.

Their main beef was the novel’s length – 719 pages, but they also go on at length about beloved characters, Lynley and Barbara Havers, acting uncharacteristically. Many of them recommended better editing, particularly with regard to the “excessive” detail of the Italian setting where the major crimes occur. In short, they felt the same irritation I did as I read it.

I began with gratitude. There was another Lynley mystery to occupy my imagination during a particularly cold and wintry season and I got it from my sister for Christmas. So thank you, Elizabeth George and Georgia, the latter of whom confessed that she had actually ready my copy, but she is such a tidy reader I couldn’t tell.

Now, it’s true that, of late, both Georgia and I have complained that George’s books are getting too long. It seems as if she actually enjoys -how to say this politely?- fooling with the reader’s brain. As she is reported to have said, she doesn’t take the reader’s feelings into account. She is capable  of killing off a beloved character even while said character is pregnant. She can then go on to devote her next book to a sympathetic examination of the murderer and then drag us through the husband’s resulting breakdown. Clearly, we do not own the characters. She does and as their creator, she is capable of dispassionate distance.

What are we to make of the fact that Inspector Thomas Lynley, 8th Earl of Asherton, opens the novel, as part of a shouting crowd of 200 in Brompton Hall, he and his man Denton, cheering on Kickarse Electra, one of Bristol’s Boedicia Broads, a roller derby team? Totally out of character, a chorus of reviewing readers say. Not so fast, say I. People fall in love unpredictably. Frankly, I can’t even remember Daidre Trahair, large animal vet and, evidently, the owner of a seaside cottage that Lynley broke into in the previous novel. Lynley can, and is willing to pass Denton off as a pal so as not to intimidate Daidre. Daidre who is tall, athletic and given to plain-speaking as well as roller-skating violence, is the antithesis of the well-bred, beautifully turned-out, shopaholic, Helen, Lynley’s late wife.

Which brings to mind Barbara Havers, Lynley’s partner in crime solving. Never well turned-out, given to wearing t-shirts with printed slogans such as “No Toads Need to Pucker Up’ and red, high-topped training shoes with white socks, Barbara lives in Chalk Farm. a district in London, in a converted carriage house behind an Edwardian Villa done into flats. In the first floor flat lives Taymullah Azar, a microbiologist, whom Barbara has loved from a distance for many years and many George novels. That love has been sublimated into his daughter, Haddiyah, now 9 years-old, who has been kidnapped by her mother, Angelina. Initially, Barbara is determined to find the child and return her to Azar, even though Azar was not married to Angelina, was not named as her father on her birth certificate and has no legal claim to her. To do this, Barbara enlists the help of a shady private detective, Dwayne Doughty and his side-kick, Em Cass.

At a certain point, Azar tells Barbara that Doughty has hit a dead end and that seems to be that. Suddenly, Angelina arrives back at the flat, a passionate Italian lover in tow, demanding that Azar return their daughter – who has been kidnapped in the Italian town of Lucca. Time for key characters to fly there, including Lynley, who falls victim to Barbara’s machinations and is assigned as a liaison officer. These machinations involve a tabloid reporter, Bryan Smythe, to whom Barbara feeds the story.

Is it believable that Barbara, who is a good detective but obviously a bit of a loose canon, would go so completely off the rails? The implication by several other characters is that she does it out of her love for Azar. I find it easier to believe initially that it was more out of concern for the child, but as things progress, it is harder to rationalize that. Whatever the motivation, the thing that bothered me was her profound stupidity. Reporters can’t be managed. Blatant disregard of police protocol is bound to come back to bite badly. Still, it is clear that she has weighed the loss of her career against the happiness of Haddiyah and her father and decided to risk all.

The initial kidnapping mystery is resolved in the first half of the book. More or less. This is thanks to a lovely new character, Chief Inspector Salvatore Lo Bianco, of the Lucca police department. Salvatore is separated from his wife and daughters and back living in a tower with his mother, where he escapes to the roof at sunset. His superior, Piero Fanucci, il Pubblico Ministero is stupid and corrupt and removes Salvatore, from the kidnapping case as soon as possible. But Salvatore is one of those detectives that doesn’t let a little thing like an official order stop him.

A second mystery develops in the latter half of the book while the details of the kidnapping are being wrapped up. By then, Lynley has returned to London, but Barbara jets off without authorization, the sleazy reporter in tow. While Lynley was fluent in Italian, having spent time there in his youth, Barbara is not and her interactions with Salvatore are puzzling to both of them. Irritating or amusing depending on your point of view. I was more amused and, for the most part, I enjoyed the local colour, detailed descriptions of the walled city of Lucca and the farm where Haddiyah and her mother live. I did get sick of the constant comments about Barbara’s lack of professionalism. Okay, I get it and now she’s doing something even worse. I can see that. You don’t have to tell me. Yet, she is instrumental in solving the second mystery, handicapped by language and attitude though she is.

The end of the book is a real surprise and has lead some to question its feasibility, but it’s just weird enough to appeal to me.

I hope that Barbara and I have seen the last of Taymullah Azar, frankly. I’m not sure how much more of Daidre I want to see either, although I reserve judgement there. I do know that, like most reader/reviewers I want to see Barbara and Lynley working as a team again and I would like more than the glimpse of Simon St James and his wife Deborah.

Doesn’t matter. Elizabeth George is not about to write to order. Given her ability to create well-rounded characters like Salvatore and genuinely mysterious plots, I will probably forget how she annoys me and buy the next book hot off the press.