thrillers / mysteries

Margaret Lawrence (Hearts and Bones) 1945-2011

Hearts and Bones

Hearts and Bones, first in the series

I was thinking of sending somebody Margaret Lawrence’s three Hannah Trevor novels (and The Iceweaver, which isn’t technically part of the trilogy but is, kinda), which are out of print but (I hoped) might have been released in ebook format. So I went to see and found instead that the author died four years ago. 

This article about Margaret Lawrence (a pen name)  appeared in her hometown paper at the time of her death.

It makes me melancholy to think of all the interesting women novelists of my generation (so to speak) who are gone, women I would like to have had the chance to talk to. Ariana Franklin aka Diana Norman (I actually did have an email correspondence with her, but I would have loved to sit down with her over tea), Jetta Carleton, Margaret Lawrence are just a few of them.

And unfortunately the Hannah Trevor trilogy is not available for Kindle or any other ebook format. Seems like some savvy publisher would jump on that.  

what I’m reading

Quick takes on books I’ve read recently.

[asa book]0061351504[/asa] There are a couple authors who I read automatically, even though I have not loved every book, and in fact, have really disliked some of them. Jodi Picoult is one example, and so is Ann Tyler. I can name two books of Tyler’s I really disliked, and far more that I think are wonderful.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes contemporary romance that usually works for me, and sometimes REALLY works for me. I think I like her Ain’t She Sweet best of all her novels (but stay away from the audio; there are some real issues with the way the reader handles the main male character). What I Did for Love was a good read, quick, amusing, with an interesting hero and a lot of good secondary characters.

[asa book]0981608728[/asa] A World I Never Made is Lepore’s first novel, and he’s off to a great start. This story centers around Pat Nolan, who comes to Paris to identify the body of his daughter, who committed suicide. Except the dead woman is not his daughter, and despite their rocky relationship, he recognizes immediately that his real daughter is in trouble somewhere, and he has got to find her. He teams up with a French detective, and off they go. This novel is tightly plotted with tension that rises steadily, interesting settings and really creepy bad guys. The one problem I could identify was a sense that sdome developments happened too quickly and raise doubts that undermine the willing suspension of disbelief. Another twenty five pages would have given him time and space to explore some of the personal relationships in more depth, which would have solved the problem. But then maybe you’ll disagree.  The story moves back and forth between France and Morocco.
[asa book]0821777777[/asa] Jo Goodman is a well established writer of historical romance, some set in the old west and this one,  If His Kiss is Wicked, set in Regency England. Emmalyn Hathaway lost her parents at a young age and came to live with her uncle, a famous painter, and her cousin Marisol, who is very pretty and very given to indulging her whims, especially when it comes to men. In trying to help Marisol out of a bad situation, Emma is attacked, abducted, and badly beaten.  Thie trauma of this has made her afraid to leave the house and worse still, she believes it was her cousin who was the target, and she is still in danger.  Emmalyn goes to Restell Gardner, who comes from money but choses to live a different life as a solver of problems. An early Sherlock Holmes type, idiosyncratic but very self-aware and intuitive both. Restell isn’t so sure that Emmalyn wasn’t the target.

I liked this novel for its lovely twisty characterization of Emmalyn, who lives a kind of intellectual double life that is slowly revealed.  The fact that the mystery sometimes overshadows the romance might be a problem for some, but it seemed to me that the narrative benefitted.  Restell and Emmalyn do have a lot of chemistry and very engaging conversations (one of my favorite things in a good romance), but if you’re looking for mindless entertainment, this book is not for you.

[asa book]0385342373[/asa] I have been waiting a long time for Margaret Lawrence to come out with a new historical.  Her earlier series set in post-revolutionary Maine  (beginning with Hearts and Bones and ending with The Ice Weaver) are books I still return to. Strong, engaging female characters are at the heart of the Hannah Trevor novels, and the story is told in many voices, by means of court testimony, witness statements, Hannah’s notes and writings, and the narrator. So I wanted to love Roanoke, but I had some problems with it.

By no means do I expect an author to always write the same book, and in theory I had no problem with the idea that this novel was set in an earlier period (the Elizabethan) and had men as its central characters.  But there’s something out of balance. The plot swings back and forth between England and the new colony of Roanoke, which establishes a choppy rhythm that might have worked better if the narrator hadn’t been one step removed from the main character, Gabriel North.

If I can come up with a more cohesive essay on the issues I see in this novel, I will write a full length review.

[asa book]0061128899[/asa] This is what I’m currently reading, and so far I’m very caughtu p in the story.

Ariana Franklin’s newest

I have posted quite a lot about Ariana Franklin‘s (aka Diana Norman’s) historical fiction, because I like her work so much. In fact, I interviewed her (you can read that interview here) after the release of the second book in the Mistress of the Art of Death series. We talked about all her fiction, her writing and research habits, and how she came to be a historical novelist.

[asa book]0399155449[/asa] Diana’s work is set primarily in England, but there’s also a series that begins in the American Colonies at the time of the Revolution, and then her masterful City of Shadows set in post WWII Berlin. Grave Goods, the third novel in her Adelia Aguilar series has just been published in the U.S. I read it without 48 hours of it showing up in my Kindle queue, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.

One of the biggest challenges in writing a series of novels is capturing the interest of new readers without boring those who have been following the story from the beginning. There’s a delicate balance that has to be achieved.  If you can pull off just the right amount of backstory, new readers will stay with the book, and if you’ve done it really well, they’ll go look up the earlier books in the series. But it’s tricky. This is something Diana does with apparent ease (which means, of course, that she had to work at it very hard). She also has a deft touch for bringing the right details to the fore to make the time and place come alive without sounding like an academic treatise.

And she loves her material. Adelia’s story is set in late 12th century England, when Henry II was in power. If you’re one of those people who avoid history because you have found it dry and boring, you will think differently after you see Henry II in action through Diana’s eyes. He is one of those pivotal historical characters whose story sounds like fiction, but isn’t.

Henry II is presented as a vibrant, devious, far-sighted, brilliant man, and he’s not even a major character. Adelia Aguilar is the central character, someone you get to know so well she feels as if she shouldn’t be fictional. Raised and educated in 12th century Italy (where women were not barred from medical education) she first comes to England in her capacity as a reader of bones, or, in more current terms, a coroner. She is part of a party that is summoned to solve a series of murders that are tragic in and of themselves, and also threaten to trigger a larger political crisis.  Adelia  finds herself sparring with Henry (who enjoys it more than she does), with the religious leaders (who do not enjoy their encounters very much at all), with just about everyone, including Rowley, who will eventually become more to her than an obstacle.

In the beginning of Grave Goods, Adelia and her household have to abandon their home in Cambridgeshire because the local priests have had enough of her and are cooking up an excuse to accuse her of witchcraft and get rid of her. At the same time, Henry II summons her to fix something for him, this time to Glastonbury Abbey, which is reputed to be the burying ground of the original King Arthur.

This is, in the first line, a historical mystery, but in her usual fashion Franklin lets Adelia lead the way. While she’s delving deeper into the fire that destroyed the Abbey and the rumors having to do with a particular grave, she is also struggling with  challenges to her understanding of herself and her wants and needs. She begins to question some of the decisions she has made, with repercussions readers of the earlier books may not have seen coming.

And that’s an excellent thing for the story and for Adelia, as well. I highly recommend all of Diana/Ariana’s work, and I’m really looking forward to the next installation of Ariana’s story.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Review

[asa book]0307269752[/asa] Stieg Larsson  wrote a three-novel series in his spare time, and didn’t think much about getting them published until just before he died of a heart attack at age 50. The series (this is the first) was published posthumously. Larsson led an interesting life. One bit from his wikipedia entry which is relevant to the novels:

In 1981 Larsson went to work for the largest Swedish news agency, Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå (TT). His political convictions, as well as his journalistic experiences, led him to found the Swedish Expo Foundation, similar to the British Searchlight Foundation, established to expose racist and totalitarian organisations and tendencies; he also became the editor of the foundation’s magazine Expo. Larsson quickly became instrumental in documenting and exposing Swedish extreme right and racist organisations; he was an influential debater, lecturer and leading expert on the subject, living for years in the shadow of death threats from his political enemies.

First, the story: The opening chapter had me worried, because it was heavy on issues of banking and economics in Sweden. My patience was rewarded though, because this is a great story. The primary characters are Mikael Blomkvist, a middle aged journalist (co-founder of a small magazine that exists to expose injustice and financial fraud glossed over by the traditional media), and Lisbeth Salander, a young woman with tattoos, a horrific family and personal background, some Aspergerish-symptoms, and a photographic memory. They are both interesting, but Salander (she is rarely referred to as Lisbeth) is one of those characters that sticks with you.

The story resolves around a thirty-year-old mystery. Henrik Vanger, an elderly former indulstrialist with lots of money and time, hires Mikael to find out once and for all who was responsible for the death of his brother’s daughter Harriet. Salander comes into this investigation through some backdoors, and finds that Mikael is one of the few people in the world who are neither intimidated nor infuriated by her. And so they set off to sort through what turns out to be a very complex story involving almost all of the viperous Vanger clan.

I’m somewhat jaded when it comes to thrillers and crime novels, but Larsson kept me interested. More than interested. It doesn’t happen very often that my mind keeps turning back to a book in progress, so that I find excuses to read for another hour. I did that with this story.

Another aspect to this novel that intrigued and surprised me was the social and political setting of modern Sweden. I should know better, but I’ve always romanticized the place. Not in terms of its looks; I could never live anywhere with a winter darker and bleaker than the one I’ve got already. But I have thought of Sweden as a kind of perfect place in terms of social justice. Most people hate the idea of living someplace with such high tax rates, but I would pay that much and more to know that everybody was fed and warm and had access to health care. So call me a socialist, I don’t consider it an insult.

What I never thought about (but should have) is that Sweden has its fair share of greedy bankers and unscrupulous industrialists and predatory authority figures. Even worse, I wasn’t aware that women are not treated well. To put it mildly. Every section options with a factoid about the lot of Swedish women, who are abused and assaulted at levels that shocked me. Violence against women, the failure of the media to do its job, the greed and corruption of big industry, and a narrow but persistent streak of racism, anti-semitism,  of fascism and Nazi-worship.

All of these less-than-savory aspects of modern Swedish culture are relevant to this story, though that won’t seem obvious at first.

The novel is (of course) translated into English from the original Swedish, and there are some passages that border on the clumsy. Nevertheless, the story is well plotted and intriguing. If you like meaty mysteries in the style of Dennis Lehane, you’ll probably like this.