Sunday, November 28, 2010

Nobodies Album

Carolyn Parkhurst's The Nobodies Album, reviewed in the NYT Review of Books:  is not really a mystery.Well, actually, it is about a murder that gets solved during the course of the story. So it is a mystery? A crime novel? There is a crime after all. Carolyn Parkhurst ( is a gifted writer. Her previous novel, The Dogs of Babel, is about communication with dogs and also is about a death that may be a murder.   

Octavia Frost, a best-selling novelist and estranged mother of a rockstar, Milo, is planning to re-write the ends of some of her novels and publish the new endings. The story is told in first person perspective by Octavia,  who is cold and distant and just not too likable. Note that Octavia has her own website: and even a blog. Excerpts from her novels and their new endings are included. Her novels are rather funny and since seem to have been pretty bad. Germs of her sad, lonely autobiography as it unfolds are part of these stories. Can you re-write the end of a novel once it is published? Does that destroy the relationship that readers have with a novel?  I can only imagine Anna Karenina having second thoughts or Holden Caulfield deciding to improve his attitude. Anyway, How much of a writer's life is reflected in her writing? How much is therapy and how much is petty self-justification? It is an intriguingly post-modern idea in a time when fans are given the opportunity to pick their own endings - when a novel and its ending could be  evolving, flawed, and temporary and not the final perfect creation the reader in their passive way comes to rely on. What are novels anyway? However, in this case, it doesn't seem so important.

Octavia's son, Milo, is arrested for the murder of his girlfriend and Octavia, to whom Milo has not spoken for 4 years (although she has followed his career in the distant, stalker-like way that social networks and youtube allow), tries to overcome his antipathy toward her,  and helps him with pretty unpredictable results. I am intrigued by the incompetent (or is she?) self-serving narrator and I really enjoyed the dialogue, the characters - particularly Octavia - the others are a little thin, and the novels within the novel. The rock world seems a little incomplete; Parkhurst clearly knows more about the creative acts that result in novel-writing than in rock songs. The older rock star that Milo befriends - a sort of Jimmy Page or Steve Tyler type -  is a pretty weak character but overall it was a fun read that seemed to have a lot going on.


Friday, November 26, 2010

Saturday, November 13, 2010

A sampler of mystery reads

This mixed bag includes some books I've read over the last year and have been meaning to blog about...An assortment of historical, cozy, contemporary, and atypical detective novels. All are worth reading and well written.

Abigail Adams Mysteries: Barbara Hamilton Ninth Daughter, Marked Man

Abigail Adams
The Adamses are taking over  our house! We have been watching John Adams the HBO bio-pic based on the David McCullough biography and starring Paul Giamatti as Adams and Laura Linney as Abigail. Never would have thought Adams was such a whiner! Laura Linney's Abigail is almost exactly what you might guess: a steely New England beauty who was John Adams best supporter, critic, and dear friend - a very intelligent woman and perfect housekeeper at a time when people used sand for cleaning, shopped everyday, and had to boil their laundry in lye in giant washtubs. The early episodes are better, well more lively.  Anyway by coincidence, also just finished Ninth Daughter, the first of the series, having first read Marked Man. A fun series set in  pre-revolutionary Boston when the Boston Tea Party, Massacre and all kinds of mayhem leaving to the Rev. are taking place. They are well researched and characters well-drawn; Abigail is an interesting heroine.

Hank Phillippi Ryan Prime Time

I wanted to like this - HPR sent me a nice note and said she would read my blog when I signed up for the 4mysteryreaders listserv, which was really nice.  I read HPR's  prize winning short story On the House and it was excellent. Just not buying Charlotte McNalley, her on camera news reporter for a big city TV station - the plot was taut and the dialogue not un-witty but it didn't grab me. I may read some of the others though, just to see if it gets better.  

Randall Peffer Listen to the Dead 

Set in New Bedford and the cape islands, this is an interesting mix of contemporary and 1960s Carribean drug smuggling. It has a kind of haunting background full of the resonance of the past including the 1980s New Bedford serial killings and other violence. The interaction between quiet low-key harbormaster Corby Church who finds bones on a lighthouse island and Puerto Rican detective Yemanjá Colón, who channels the dead and whose grandmother is a Santeria priestess, is fun and interesting. I have to admit the scenes with the grandmother were not very convincing and seemed an odd kind of comic relief. The mood did swing back forth from kind of haunting to a sort of out of control comedy. It's pretty good. Even so despite all these positive qualities I kind of lost interest half way through and  did not finish but it was so full of good things I may read more of the series. Peffer's a talented writer.


Elly Griffiths The Crossing Places: A Ruth Galloway Mystery  

Set in the UK in a Norfolk salt marsh full of stone circles and bog bodies and with its main character an overweight archaeologist loner, this would seem so perfect for me that  I had to read it but once I started reading it I found it hard-going. It has a fabulous atmosphere and the characters, notably Ruth Galloway,  are human and flawed, and therefore kind of  interesting but the human interactions, institutional settings, don't ring true.  In one part because it focuses on the  kidnapping and murder of young girls and that is very hard for me to read (I can get past it at times like the recent Nevada Barr but it has to be very well done). Another problem was summed up on another blog, a commenter said that it is very hard for non-archaeologists to write about archaeology  in a way that seems credible and that is true here. Although Elly's husband is an archaeologist, she makes too many mistakes (archaeology done by one person, no description of archaeological techniques that make sense, instant C14 dating, no continuity on the descriptions of bodies and artifacts) to be able to buy it.

Jean-François Parot The Nicholas le Floch Affair A Nicolas Le Floch Investigation  

Set in pre-revolutionary France (sense a theme?), this was really, really good.  Gallic books sent me a copy and my husband and I both read it and loved it. A popular TV series in France, this really well researched novel has some interesting and rather eccentric characters, and pre-revolutionary jitters.


 Betty Kerr Orlemann Mission: Murder 

Set in horrifying murder central Bucks County ;-), this geriatric cozy is pretty sweet.I liked the main character 80-year old Hattie Farwell. My main problem with it is the made up political candidate that involves some ridiculously unbelievable dialogue and situations. Dialogue and interior monologues are not too believable in general but it was still an enjoyable read.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Jane and the Madness of Lord Byron

I have been a fan of Jane (Austen that is) since I was in grade school and got Pride and Prejudice from the scholastic book fair thinking it was about racial prejudice - only to find out it was quite a different subject matter and style. Only later did I realize it was supposed to be funny. I've read all of her novels and her letters and some of the other stuff. And have seen a bunch of the movies - and Clueless - as well. The Jane Austen Book Club I found dreadful but the others were pretty good. Of her novels,  Emma is an especial favorite along with P and P and Persuasion.

Earlier this year I read Jane's Fame: How Jane Austen Conquered the World,' by Claire Harman (2010, Henry Holt. 277 pp. $26). Quite an engaging and witty look at Jane's life, ideas, and writing and her ever growing world of fans. The story of how her posthumous  reputation grew and changed and who liked her (Disraeli, Franz Fanon) and who didn't (the odious and over-wrought Charlotte Bronte)  is quite fun to read. I recommend it highly if you are an Austen fan. Here are some interesting  reviews:

Jane was not a dainty innocent village miss  but rather a knowledgeable professional writer who wanted and sought publication and fame, if at least initially, anonymously. Her life may have been rather retired and obscure but she lived during the tumultuous and lively Regency Period (read Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman for a horrifying glimpse into the real life of the Regency ton) and she was involved in the events of her day and knew about high society although she chose not to write about it. Her brother Henry was married to a French countess whose first husband died on the guillotine, another brother was adopted by rich people, and two other brothers were admirals in the Royal Navy and fought in the Napoleonic Wars.

In her book, Harman  is rather shocked (and apparently rather horrified) to find out that Stephanie Barron writes a crime novel series in which Jane Austen is the detective. As if it's almost as bad as Pride and Prejudice and Zombies! (a topic for another bog- not!).

I don't think that Harmon had read Stephanie Barron's Jane Austen series.   I have read  Barron's series at first with skepticism and then utter enjoyment. These are well researched, well-written, tightly plotted and historically interesting crime novels and the Jane Austen references, history, biography and wit are dead on. The dialogue is witty and quick and there are few false notes. Barron has done her homework; she's read all of the novels and letters and a great deal more besides that she references on her website. There is a certain element of fantasy that many Austen fans share - they want her to have a kicking romance worthy of her charm and wit but there is no evidence that she ever did. To that end Barron invented the wicked, ingenuous, and noble Lord Harold Trowbridge as Jane's mentor and rather slow-moving suitor. Of course this secret romance is doomed. We all know Jane never married, may have had brief romance or two,  and was only briefly engaged. It is also rather sad as she died young, at 41.

In the latest novel, she meets the poet Lord Byron in Brighton (and Barron freely admits there is no evidence she ever went to Brighton or met Byron). The novel is well plotted and full of well-developed fictionalized real characters (Byron, Lady Caro Lamb, Lady Oxford, the Prince Regent, Jane and Henry Austen) and fictional ones (the Earl and Countess Swithen). The setting is sparkling and vividly described. Well worth reading for the historical, literary, atypical detective crime novel sub-genre fans.