Thursday, April 28, 2011

Vienna Twilight

Vienna Twilight
Frank Tallis
Random House,  $15.00
ISBN 9780812981001

The Frank Tallis Vienna/Dr. Max Lieberman psychological crime novel series are wonderful and magical - and almost fairy tale like in their sensuous pleasures and depraved and disturbing horrors. In a way they are more about the backstory than the mystery. I think it would not be out of place to suggest Tallis is using the psychological nature of the crimes as a metaphor for the rise of something dark and evil in the subconscious of early twentieth century Vienna. The crimes, often brutal murders of the innocent, offend against all sensibilities. These horrors are juxtaposed against the rise of psychoanalysis and the triumph of the intellect.

At the same time, almost the same mouthful, are the luscious delights of the cafes and concert halls where the Viennese gather to enjoy authentic sounding chocolate cream or apricot jam filled confections and rich and exotic coffee drinks along with transporting music of Strauss, Mozart, Bach, and Viennese musicians of all types. There was so much music in the air that laws were passed to outlaw music making after 11 pm.

Cafe Central in Vienna

Another view of Cafe Central
 I must confess part of my own family was part of the life of early twentieth century Jewish Vienna. And when I was young my great aunts told me stories about the charm and glamour of their native city. We were related to nobility and went to balls and parties, they told me. Yet despite the beauty and wonder, they and their sister, my great grandmother Anna, left before World War I, to come to the U.S. And I'm profoundly grateful that they did! Or I might not be here at all. Our relatives who left Vienna in the 30s barely escaped with their lives. This series helps me to understand the ambiguity of the pre-WWI era for Jews and for others filling the city like Russians, Slavs, and gypsies.But Vienna is incredibly beautiful as you can see from some of these pictures and I hope to visit one day.

The latest, Vienna Twilight, does not disappoint. The murders are indeed gruesome and the motive psychologically obscure and dark. Clothes and couture, the lives of poor laundresses, musicians, and whores, and aspects of the dark underpinnings of Viennese society are explored. It seems well-researched and authentic and there is great deal of rich detail. One pleasure is how the odd relationship between Max and the English medical student Amelia Lydgate continues to evolve and it is both amusing and touching. But Tallis is not rushing into anything; it seems clear he has more ground to cover with these characters and this series.

Natural History Museum in Vienna

I am looking forward to the next one.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Agatha Christie

I recently bought an IPad, in part as an e-reader. My local library has a limited supply of e-books and I began to re-read some of the hoary Agatha Christies I read years ago to try it out. The IPad is a great tool for reading and for updating this blog - although I have trouble adding pix and will have to learn more about that. As I mentioned in my first blog in January 2010,, Agatha Christie's A Mirror Cracked... was the first adult mystery novel I ever read (I did read Nancy Drew with my  pals), in the 1970s at age 12 or 13. I found them soothing and a balm to the day's troubles.

Old fashioned reads  for a young girl, but I read them all. And loved them. Having read a lot more over the years, I get their shortcomings but they still are incredibly charming. And sometimes Agatha had a thing or two going on in her head.  I read Bertram's Hotel and While the Light Lasts, a neat collection of her short stories. I will re-read a bunch more especially some of my favorites: Man in a Brown Suit, Murder In Mesopotamia, Toward Zero, Death on the Blue TrainPassenger to Frankfurt, Death Comes as the End, the Tommy and Tuppence stories, and many other old friends. They are still a sweet read.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Mad, bad, and...

...Dangerous to Know. Lady Caroline Lamb's famous characterization of Lord Byron has been used a number of times for previous novels and movies like the classic potboiler depicted to the left, a recent novel by Barbara Taylor Bradford, quotes about various people, an album by Hillary Duff, a memorable song in an episode of Angelina Ballerina, biographies of Byron, and so on.... I really foresee Byron will be reborn as a detective soon if he hasn't been already. He did figure large in a recent Stephanie Barron- Jane Austin novel.

Anyway... that is the title of the latest Tasha Alexander Lady Emily mystery. I loved this series when it started. Alexander is doing something wonderful and fresh with this series in dealing with the mores and lives of Victorian woman intellectuals or those who crave the intellectual life. The first few:  Only to Deceive, A Poisoned Season were brilliant and wonderfully exciting in a lot of ways but I didn't much care for the last one,Tears of Pearl, as I detailed in a previous blog:
But I had high hopes for this one.

I did like it, mostly, but did think that it dragged. And once again was light on charm. Emily is again divorced from her English society milieu and friends like Ivy, even her judgmental mother. A bunch of stuff didn't make much sense and Emily does seem both whiny and self-righteous. Her husband Colin keeps saying she's brilliant, which is good, since that's the only way you'd know. That's before he cracks down and doesn't want her to do anything. And his mother, an imperious suffragette shows up and hates Emily. Nobody is very understanding of poor post-Pearl injured Emily and it seemed to take a long time to slog through it all.

One annoying things is the frequent use of the word "beyond" - as in "beyond terrifying," "beyond boring," and so on. It's set in France but little seems French or like France. I guess they all speak so fluently that there is no problem with going back and forth between languages without any acknowledgment. Monet shows up as character to move along the plot but he and his wife don't really come alive as characters not does their famous garden get much attention. Sebastian the thief (the apparant inspiration for Arsene Lupin) and Cecile are a bit amusing but their devotion to Emily seems unwarranted - even strained. The food sounds good (a pear wrapped in pastry sounds really divine) but the setting really lacks the feeling, flavor, and sense of being in France in the late nineteenth century or any other time.

Monet's house in Giverny that Emily visits

I was glad to finally finish it - it seemed take forever but I have to admit the unraveling of whodunit was clever and I never guessed who - at least partly 'cause I didn't care!

It's hard to keep a series fresh and Tasha Alexander is doing a good job of scouting out new locations and there are hints of gender politics and maybe domestic trials to come. I'm sure to read the next one.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Girl in a Green Raincoat

I read Girl... as a galley from the publisher downloaded to my new IPad. There is something insubstantial about an ebook. No weight or heft or smell of the pages. No sense of closure when you close the book - and no trip back to the library or space to find on our crowded book shelves! As a devotee of books and libraries full of books I wasn't sure how I would feel about ebooks but reading on the iPad is a very pleasant experience. I still have regular books to read including the latest Tasha Alexander but the iPad is cool for reading in bed with the lights out, when the power goes out, traveling, spur of the moment reads, and for updating this blog. 

Girl, originally serialized in the New York Times, is a really enjoyable read. I usually enjoy Laura Lippman's moody but amusing books:

In this one, the redoubtable Tess Monaghan is on bed rest while pregnant. And I don't have to tell you what a bad patient she is. It has a Rear Window, Nero Wolfe, or Lincoln Rhyme kind of feeling -the shut in who sits and thinks (while longing for the weekly shower) and people come to her. The title character, the "girl" is, of course, not at all the person she seems to be or that Tess' fevered cogitation conjures. Crow and Whitney are along but no appearance by gorgeous Aunt Kitty or Uncle Spike or other eccentric friends we've come to appreciate. The plot was fun and moved along, the dialogue pretty snappy - I especially enjoyed the scene when Whitney was purse shopping - and Tess and Crow have a baby in the end. Fun book and I'm glad to have a new way to read. I'm on board for the next Laura Lippmann as Tess and Crow have all the fun of a new baby.

"Where Tess rows", according to Laura Lippman's blog:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Discovery of witches

Witches and vampires and daemons, oh my!

I will freely admit to just not feeling it when it comes to the undead. After Buffy is there really anything left to say?

That said, I thought Deborah Harkness' Discovery of Witches started off really well with mysterious books in the Bodleian, atmosphere of Oxford, spooky, medieval, and delightfully musty. I could practically smell the old leather bindings. The first few chapters are great, appealing heroine Diana Bishop- a hereditary witch descended from Salem witches but with attitude, who is trying not to use magic (well it's true she seems a bit smug), a mysterious, spooky back story, cool old manuscript with magical properties, gathering gloom. The atmosphere is pretty nice. Then in my opinion it goes all to hell.

A 1500 year old vampire shows up And the story starts to become so ridiculous I had to stop reading. I don't know if it was the idiot arty "daemons," Diana's irresponsibility for all supernatural creatures (and Oxford is lousy with them -who knew?), the vampire-witch yoga class (yes really!), or the way that ancient vampires can get tenure, academic funding,  and be scientists "since scientists work alone" -(they do? No they don't!) Or that he can still look 30 after a career that spans about 40 years and no one notices. I left before the love story really got going. Frankly I don't get the appeal of the vampire as a love interest ... Just imagine his breath! but that's just me. I've read it gets better as you go along but I'm afraid this one lost me. I'm too ready for the vamp craze to end.