A Murder of Magpies — A Highly Entertaining Mystery Set in London’s Publishing World

I loved Janet Flanders’ A Murder of Magpies, a clever mystery set up London’s publishing world.  Samantha (“Sam”) Clair is a marvelous protagonist.  Sam is an established, somewhat jaded middle-aged editor with few illusions about her authors.  Because she is a woman, middle-aged, competent and unflashy…..  Well you can imagine how she is frequently treated and ignored.  When a friend goes missing, Sam she proceeds with curiosity and the help of her equally accomplished and exasperating mother and a rumpled detective.   Sam’s reactions feel so very human and she looks at things just a little differently because of her own experiences and intellect.  The London setting and the politics of the publishing and fashion worlds supply additional substance to this fun mystery.  Janet Flanders is clever, funny and charming, and deftly inserts sly feminist touches.

This is the kind of mystery I particularly like.  It has great characters with unexpected depth, courage and talents.  The settings are interesting, as is the plot.  As it happens, the fact that A Murder of Magpies is a mystery  is less inportant than the characters and how they interact with each other and their environments.  This is a fun, decidedly non-noir story, and I recommend it.

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Crimes of the Father — Thomas Keneally at his Best

Thomas Keneally’s Crimes of the Father is a masterful novel about child abuse committed by Catholic priests in Australia in the 1970’s.  Abuse is the central focus of this very moving novel, which looks at the problem from the perspective of the 1990’s, when more and more people, including the clergy, were coming to terms with the details and extent of this longstanding nightmare.  The perpetual suffering of the victims and their families is heart-breaking and numbing all at the same time.  The cynical response of the Catholic Church is all too familiar — it concedes nothing unless caught dead to rights.

Several things stand out.  From the the perspective of the victims and their families, there is a tremendous amount of anger — anger at the perpetrators and anger at the Church.  And then there is the reaction of the Catholic Church.  The Church establishment engages in willful denial and an aggressive defense designed to take advantage of the victims at every turn.   Unless it gets caught in situations where denial is impossible.

Fortunately all clerics are not villains.  In fact the point of entry for this novel is the return of a middle-aged priest for a visit back home to Australia after years of exile abroad.  This priest is fully aware of the problem; he’s studied it; he’s even lectures on it.  He thinks the Church needs to change.  Although he hadn’t planned it, once back in Australia the priest gets swept up in the discovery of yet another very powerful, abusive priest.  One of the important issues studied by this novel is the cost to this priest of taking action.  It’s never good for one’s career to be the whistleblower in a powerful organization that can crush dissidents like bugs.   And it’s also hard when you know that innocent people will be hurt by the disclosure.

One of Thomas Keneally’s greatest strengths as a novelist is his ability to study character.  Why do people act as they do in the face of adversity?  Why do some people act with courage and against self interest?  These compelling, universal themes are explored with empathetic depth in Crimes of the Father, which I highly recommend.

And by the way, if you haven’t read Keneally’s Schindler’s List, you really should.  This amazing novel brilliantly zeroes in on why Oskar Schindler decides to risk his own life and save Jews.  There was nothing obvious about this altruistic decision.  In its own way, the novel Schindler’s List is more interesting than the movie.  Why people are or choose to be courageous is an eternally fascinating subject and well worth studying in these challenging times.

Why Not Say What Happened, a Memoir by Ivana Lowell, is an Interesting Read

This was a strange book.  It was a gift that had been sitting on my shelf for a few years, and I finally decided to read it.  It was both repelling and fascinating.  It was also super timely!

Let’s just say that Ivana Lowell, in this book published in 2010, may have been one of the very first women to complain of and describe Harvey Weinstein’s sexually abusive behavior.  That alone makes the book memorable, but wait, there’s more!

There is really no excuse for my fascination with royalty and the aristocracy, particularly the English aristocracy.  Ivana Lowell is an aristocrat.  She was born in New York 1966, to Caroline Blackwood, who was a writer and also the daughter of Maureen, the Marchioness of Dufferin and Ava (as well as an heiress to the Guinesss fortune).  Ivana’s father was less certain as her mother either didn’t care to know or, more likely, chose to mislead her daughter about who exactly her father was.  Who does that?   That lone fact creates an absolutely appalling image of a self-absorbed, alcoholic mother who preferred her own dramas to the demands of mothering.  Ivana’s mother actually died (and had plenty of warning that she was dying) without telling her daughter who her father was.  

As an interesting literary note, one of Blackwood’s husbands was the American poet Robert Lowell, who seems to have been a loving, if distracted and unreliable, stepfather.  Ivana Lowell bears his name, but not his genes.

Ivana’s mother is a central character in this book, but this is no Mommy, Dearest.  Caroline Blackwood suffered through her own tough yet pampered childhood with a terribly self-absorbed mother and a social millieau tht wasn’t exactly child-friendly.  One wouldn’t have expected her to become mother of the year, but still!  She was intelligent; she had resources.  Sadly she seldom applied those gifts to parenting.  There was an utterly self-absorbed, twisted side to her, but the main thing that stands out is that she took no ongoing responsibility for her children.  That said, Ivana has a remarkable amount of affection for her mother.  She is apparently quite amused by her and has fond recollections of the most outrageous acting out, even as she now seems to understand how inappropriate and cruel some of it was.

Now that I’ve established that I’m not judgmental…….  Ivana seems more easily understood.  Not only did she have some spectacularly appalling parenting, but she was sexually abused and also terribly burned as a child.  (At least her mother seems to have been supportive in helping her daughter with her burns and scarring.)  It’s no surprise Ivana became an alcoholic, given her family and her circumstances.  Ivana didn’t exactly major in responsibility for much of her life.  Yet this wonderful book shows someone trying to come to terms with what she has experienced and what she hopes to be.  She acknowledges her scars and is resolved to move on.  She sees her setbacks as understandable, but remains curiously optimistic and determined to be there for her own daughter.  I ended up with a lot of respect for Ivana’s sense of humor, her humility, her painful honesty and her ultimate hopefulness that things could work out for her and her daughter.

This is an odd book, with lots of peculiar segues.  It is certainly entertaining, but it has unsuspected depth.   I’m glad I read it, and I keep thinking about it.

Wonderstruck is a movie you really need to see!

We just saw the amazing movie Wonderstruck, which is based on a novel of the same name by Brian Selznick, who also wrote the film’s screenplay.  This is a marvelously New York movie starring Julianne Moore and three amazing child actors.  Millicent Simmons, who is deaf, gives a strong and compelling performance as a deaf girl who refuses to settle for a constricted life.  It is such a pleasure to watch a strong, young actress who doesn’t play a “sweet child” or a “conniving temptress.”  A number of other deaf actors were incorporated in the cast.  I was so caught up in the story that I only occasionally noticed that much of the movie has no dialogue.  The action is enough, and by foregoing dialogue, the movie draws you into the world of the deaf.  Oakes Fegley, who plays an orphan on the run, and Jordan Michael, the local boy who befriends him, also given strong and unaffected performances.  

And then there is New York  —  a very realistic bustling city that can seem overwhelming.  The Museum of Natural History figures strongly as does a real-life used and rare bookstore on the Upper West Side and the Queens Museum of all places.  Wonderstruck is a period piece with two periods —  the time of silent movies and then fifty years later.  It all works, and New York shown off to perfection.

This movie’s reviews were mixed, but I thought it was one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year.

The Wonder Garden — A Wry Look at a Small Connecticut Town Through Loosely Connected Short Stories

I generally avoid short stories, but Lauren Acampora’s The Wonder Garden offers a compelling collection of connected stories featuring the inhabitants of a Old Cranbury, a small Connecticut town with historical pretensions.  Old Cranbury’s citizens take themselves pretty seriously, but frequently come across as silly and obtuse.  To round things out, some characters reveal odd anarchic tendencies, while other characters are just plain cruel.  For all the apparent homogeneity and small town congeniality, there is a lot going on here.  Generally The Wonder Garden is more humorous and insightful than tragic, but whatever Acampora’s take on her characters, this is an entertaining book that provides a deft take on certain mainstay characters of small town life.  

It is almost as if Acampora has gotten behind the scenes and dug up the dirt on some of the stock characters featured in Hollywood movies about small town life.   (Frank Capra would have loved this.)  Happily, The Wonder Garden also bears some similarities to EE Benson’s Lucia series (see Queen Lucia, etc.), which is set in a small English town, although The Wonder Garden offers a more twisted and sobering view of small town life, than Lucia‘s sillier madcap approach.  Since these are short stories, very little gets resolves — just like life in a small town where the same people keep interacting again and again.

So, I recommend this book.  

Smaller and Smaller Circles — a Terrific Mystery Set in the Philippines

Felisa Batacan has written a stunning murder mystery set in the Philippines.  Smaller and Smaller Circles has it all — a strong emotional plot involving serial killing, political corruption and child abuse.  The protagonists are two academic priests with a specialty in forensics.  Their relationship has a history and is warm, humorous and oddly endearing.  Together they face enormous hostility from powerful political and religious power brokers who prefer to bury the unpleasant “problem” as quickly as possible.  The victims are all poor young boys who would be forgotten, but for these two remarkable forensic priests who are determined to honor the victims by solving their murders.  They also need to find the murderer fast, before more deaths occur.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a mystery featuring forensic priests before, but Felisa Batacan is clearly on to something.  The combination of the decent, clever priests with brutal murder and the stench of political and religious corruption makes for a truly fascinating story. The interplay of relationships is a strong component — everyone seems to be linked to someone else, for better or worse.  This excellent mystery also offers the intriguing possibility of redemption.  Some of the bad guys may not stay so bad.  

The writing is strong and clear, and this books has deservedly won a number of awards in the Philippines.   Apparently Smaller and Smaller Circles  is one of the first Philippine murder mysteries, and I hope Ms Batacan makes her excellent debut novel the first in a series.  

I really recommend this book!

The Song and the Silence — A Strong Account of Looking for Roots and Belonging — by Yvette Johnson

Yvette Johnson has written a brave and vivid account of her own personal struggles growing up as the African-American daughter of a professional football player and a fierce mother.  In The Song and the Silence —  A Story about Family, Race, and What Was Revealed in a Small Town in the Mississippi Delta While Searching for Booker Writght, Johnson analyzes her own substantial problems and conflicts.  She didn’t get what she wanted or thought she needed from her parents and found herself adrift.  She also struggles with mental illness.  But fortunately, curiosity and a great deal of personal strength prevail.  Johnson starts to dig into the remarkable story of her maternal grandfather, Booker Wright, who was the subject of a short but epic television documentary filmed in Greenwood, Mississippi, in the 1960’s.  Understanding what her grandfather’s world was like in the Jim Crow South leads Johnson to keep investigating.  Booker Wright may have been an icon, but he also led a very complicated personal life.  He did some fine things for the community and he spoke out bravely on television, but he also inspired alot of resentment within his community.

Johnson has written a great story in and of itself.  The writing is clear and compelling.  What makes this a great book is the author’s determination to keep working at unraveling the past and acquiring a better understanding of what happened and how the tragic effects have never completely gone away.  She forces herself to dig into the past, even when it tells her things she would rather not know.  She develops and shares a profound appreciation for just how horribly, horribly hard it was to grow up in the Jim Crow South and how those scars shaped people such as her emotionally remote mother.  This information is not obtained in one fell swoop.  Johnson’s patience in visiting repeatedly and lingering in Greenwood during some hot summer months yields a far greater understanding than a more sharply focused investigation might have done.

Determined not to settle for the hand she has been dealt, Johnson ends her book with some sound and encouraging recommendations for people struggling with mental illness.  I’m inevitably inspired by people who are candidly struggling with their own problems and still reaching back to help and inspire others.

I strongly recommend this book.  It goes beyond what I’d expected.

Live from Cairo — Ian Bassingthwaighte’s Juxtaposes the Middle East’s Refugee Crisis with Egypt’s 2011 Revolution

Live from Cairo features sharply drawn youngish adults confronting the Middle East’s refugee crisis in the midst of Egypt’s revolution in 2011.  Each of Ian Bassingthwaighte’s characters tries to pursue and protect her or his own agenda in the face of utter confusion and inescapable misery.  Charlie and Aos, the legal aid workers, together with Hana, the Iraqi-American resettlement officer, combine romantic idealism and a sense of purpose with jaded exhaustion and an overarching hopelessness.   They also share some personal spark impelling them to go rogue.  Dahlia, Omran and the other refugees suffer from terrible past trauma and find themselves trapped in a bleak and inhuman refugee crisis.  Desperate as their situations are, the refugees persist in their struggle to maintain personal relationships and care for each other.  Red tape, violence and mind-numbing uncertainty are the enemies.  

Live from Cairo‘s premise is reminiscent of the film Casablanca in that an interesting assortment of desperate individuals find itself trapped in a corrupt, dangerous place rocked by trauma and violence.  The tense mix of fear and personal desire in an unforgiving environment where everything keeps changing is not quite as horrific as it sounds, because, like Casablanca, there are some deft comic aspects to the characters and the situations.  I found myself so invested in these characters that I really needed to now what would happen to them and how they would react.

I particularly admired the way in which Bassingthwaite managed to provide so much information about a significant number of characters in his brief and highly active narrative.  The reader’s situation mirrors that of the novel’s characters, who have to pick up information about each other through short bursts of information and relatively brief encounters.  Like the characters, the reader also has to decide quickly who is trustworthy.  The dialog between characters is particularly sharp and advances the narrative brilliantly.

I recommend this novel as highly informative and entertaining all at the same time.

Not Just Jane — Shelley DeWees Identifies Seven British Women Writers Who Are Probably New to You

Shelley DeWees’s Not Just JaneRediscovering Seven Amazing Women Writers Who Transformed British Literature provides a fascinating look into seven successful, yet relatively unknown, British women writers of the 18th and 19th centuries.  Born of her love of Austen and Bronte, in this book DeWees sets out to discover other women writers who were pioneers of their times.  I had never heard of any of the writers featured in this book.  Charlotte Turner Smith, Helen Maria Williams, Mary Robinson, Catherine Crowe, Sara Coleridge, Dinah Mulock Craig and Mary Elizabeth Braddon all enjoyed some success in their day.  Their stories tell us a lot about what was going on in England during their life times.  Many of them faced poverty and had few honorable options for earning a living.  They might become a governess or they might become prostitutes.  Faced with these options, one way or another these women became writers, and some of them became expert networkers as well.  Sara Coleridge’s story is a bit different.  She was well educated and didn’t suffer poverty, but her father, the famous poet Samuel Coleridge basically ignored her existence.  Under those circumstances it seems a shame that so much of her work was devoted to organizing her father’s work posthumously.

I have yet to read one of their books, but I certainly enjoyed reading about their lives and their environments. 

A Mystery Centered in Shanghai by the Skillful Qui Xiaolong

Shanghai Redemption, a Chinese mystery featuring Chen Cao, the recently demoted chief inspector of the Shanghai Police Department.  Chen, who has hitherto maintained an enviable reputation as an honest and resourceful detective, is now inexplicably in jeopardy.  Trying to figure out where he went wrong or which of his investigations proved too hot for his enemies compels Chen to navigate the treacherous waters of modern day China.  A rat’s nest of party politics, corruption and disgraced cadres proves difficult to unravel and exceedingly dangerous.  The author does a stellar job of revealing Chen’s personality, perceptions and strategies.   Seeing events from Chen’s perspective, as well as the perspective of some of his old allies, makes for a great narrative.  This novel also provides a wealth of interesting characters with all kinds of connections to Chen and his enemies.   I did find it difficult to keep track of the names of so many characters who drop in and out of the narrative in no particular order.  If I had it to do over again, I would keep a list of who the characters were and when they first appeared, because many of the names sounded very similar me.

I’m increasingly interested in mysteries from the Far East, and Shanghai Redemption is a stellar entry in the genre.  This is the first Inspector Chen novel I have read, but it’s not the first in the series.  I plan to go back in time and read some of the earlier novels, because this is a very intelligent and compelling series with a unique detective.