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coroners-lunch1If you’re looking for your next mysteries series, you might want to give this one a trial. It’s more Alexander McCall Smith than Jo Nesbø, but I’m reluctant to call it cozy. Just as the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, it’s main attraction is the different setting, this time Laos at the beginning of the communist rule, in 1976. I knew very little about this time and place and the book got me to cruise Wikipedia, which is a good sign in itself.

The “detective” is a 72 year-old doctor who’s reluctantly nominated as the county’s only coroner. He’s a “communist for convenience” and old enough not to care much about using his biting humor to point out the often comic surrealism of the system. He’s awesome!

The other characters and the plot are also interesting, but it’s definitely the setting that steals the show. Imagine the challenge of crime-solving in a bureaucratic dictatorship with very little resources.

There’s an element of the supernatural that I’m carefully apprehensive about, as I usually like my mysteries very much based on hard-core evidence and logic. I’d be able to accept it better if it didn’t actually contribute to solving the crime. It didn’t disturb me too much, I suspect because I was just focusing on the great setting-relate details, but I wonder what’ll happen in the next books once the novelty wears off.

I’m surprised this was first published in 2004 because it has everything to make it an instant favorite and I hadn’t hear about it until very recently.

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Other thoughts: Boston Bibliophile, Letters from a Hill Farm, Crime Scraps, Books and Quilts, Olduvai Reads, Book Lust, Crime Scraps Review (yours?)

(Fear not, spoilers are duly marked, although this post is mostly for people who’ve read the book)

93575Oh book – How did I love thee? Let me count the ways.

Gaudy Night is a mystery novel that’s unapologetically intellectual and I love it when authors let their more brainy side show. It can be read in different ways, but I think it’s mostly about the struggle between the heart and mind, about academia vs the ‘real world’, the risks of being an intelligent woman, about mistakes, growth, self-knowledge and love. It’s that rarest of books that makes you think hard and yet still feel light.

It may sound like the story is all about these Important Topics (which it may be), but they definitely fit naturally within the overall mystery. Also, there’s a good dose of smart humor, dynamic writing and it all goes nicely with the Oxford background.

It was especially interesting to see the characters’ different positions on the central topic of women balancing their personal and professional/intellectual lives. Sayers doesn’t pretend that all women are in favour of equal rights, haughty ice-queens, or repressed virgin spinsters. She gives us a great (and refreshing) variety of female characters don’t come out as caricatures: the single middle-aged don fully committed to her career, the working mom who loves her career and is trying to balance it all, the working mom that thinks it shouldn’t be a woman’s role to provide for her family, the student whose biggest ambition is a happy marriage.

(Women getting stuck between professional achievement and relationships: 80 years after Gaudy Night is written, it still resonates… sigh)

On another note, don’t think me sadistic, but it was a pleasure to see Harriet struggling with her past and her growing affection for Peter Wimsey. I mean, it’s always a pleasure to see a well written character arc, but this one goes to my top list. Because of the events in Strong Poison, Harriet feels she tried to live following her heart and lost part of her identity (and almost her life) because of it. Five years later, she’s learning to trust her emotions again, but in a way that does not completely eclipses her rational and analytic mind.

Just a small note on Peter: in Gaudy Night he’s particularly flawless – but in a way I find impossible to fault! I’m convinced Sayers ruined Mary Sues for me because I’ll never be able to turn my nose up at them again.

Two final comments – SPOILERS AHEAD!

I wish it was Harriet who identified the criminal. That being said I don’t think that the way the solution came about is either demeaning to Harriet or out of character for either her or Peter.

I also wish the criminal had been one of the dons. The occasional classism (or intellectual snobbery?) made me a bit uncomfortable. And I’m still horrified that they locked the “scouts” at night, I don’t care how much it’s for their own safety!

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Other thoughts: things mean a lot, Vulpes Libris, Notes from the North, The Indextrious ReaderStella MatutinaSteph & Tony Investigate!Jenny’s Books (yours?)

aisforalibiHad this on the TBR for ages, waiting for one of my inevitable cravings for an old-fashion detective story. It delivered, it was ok, but not great. Everyone that enjoys crime novels and their dog knows this series, so I imagine they improve with the following books?

As it’s not unusual in the first in the series, it felt a little clunky, with little action and even less character development. It read like a report of Kinsey’s (the 30-something, no-nonsense, cop-turned-private-investigator and main character) moves: she talked to this person, then she talk to this other person, she drove to this place to talk to yet another person, she jogged 5 miles and ate a burger, she stayed at this motel and then followed this route to yet another interview, etc, etc.

So. Don’t have much more to say about it…

Have the feeling the series would improve by adding a regular side-kick to spark tension and interesting conversations – a secretary, a partner, a snitch. Does this happen, by any chance?

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Other thoughts: Stacy’s Books, Mervi’s Book Reviews, Mysteries in Paradise, My Two Blessings, The Book Frog, Follow the Thread, Geeky Blogger’s Book Blog (yours?)

ImageI’ve been increasingly enjoying each book in the series, except for #7, which went to my “I quit” list when I was already half-way through: too many train schedules, too little Harriet. So it was with fingers crossed that I picked up Have His Carcase.

I actually think this book is a milestone for Sayers’ writing. I guess that by making it a Harriet-centered book, she put as much energy (or more) in the character/relationship development as in the crime-solving part.

Every interaction between Harriet and Peter is exquisite and full of subtext. I’ve come to realize I’m a huge fan of subtext and really admire authors to use it well – thank you Dorothy Dunnett!

In the end I kept reading mostly for the sake of those sips of dialogue and interaction, which made me even more impatience to reach the renowned Gaudy Night.

One thing I appreciated in Have His Carcase is the fact that, although there’s angst, it doesn’t feel out of character, it’s not just there to force drama (looking at you Veronica Roth!) and it doesn’t make me resent one of the parties for lack of honest or fairness. Harriet is great in this respect because while her past justifies her reticence, her personality validates her progressive understanding and acceptance of her feelings.

It’s maybe strange for a crime novel, especially one from the Golden Age, but the actually detective-ing parts became very secondary. The plot even felt a bit convulsed and the resolution forced. Also, Sayers has my admiration from creating a complex code that works, but reading the pages-long detail on how to decode it was beyond me.

I’m sure that if I looked hard enough I’d discover some wholes in the plot, but I was too busy reading things like this:

Peter! Were you looking for a horse-shoe?”

“No; I was expecting the horse, but the shoe is a piece of pure, gorgeous luck.”

“And observation. I found it.”

“You did. And I could kiss you for it. You need not shrink and tremble. I am not going to do it. When I kiss you, it will be an important event — one of those things which stand out among their surroundings like the first time you tasted li-chee. It will not be an unimportant sideshow attached to a detective investigation.”

“I think you are a little intoxicated by the excitement of the discovery,’ said Harriet, coldly. ‘You say you came here looking for a horse?”

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Other thoughts: Jenny’s Books, things mean a lot, Ela’s Book Blog, Notes from the North, Stella Matutina (yours?)

One of my favorite moments as a reader is when a book out-wits me; when I think I know what’s going on and then a twist catches me off-guard. I’m usually pretty good at spotting a twist (my boyfriend makes fun – “wish we could make some money out of it!”) so it’s always a thrill to be surprised.

With Gillespie and I it helped that I went into it without knowing anything about the plot. It helped, but it also made me *this close* to giving up half-way. For a long time the pace felt slow and without direction, but I later realized that was just Harris preparing the ground very carefully.

So no summary from me – it’s up to you how much you’d like to know.

I didn’t completely love Gillespie and I as much as a lot of you out there did. I thought it was very clever and well done. I’m glad I read it and spent some happy hours discussing all the details with friends – it’s the kind of book that demands a post-reading deconstruction. But I wish Harris had been able to pull it off with 100 pages less.

It would also help if the Victorian-speak didn’t feel forced at times, as if the author applied Word’s “Replace All” tool to exchange “house” with “habitation” or “happiness” with “felicity“. Some expressions were really on the border of the ridiculous and I’m now sorry I didn’t write them down. One of then, however, stuck in my mind: someone asks the main character if she’d like something else to eat and she replies “no thank you, I’ve had ample sufficiency“…

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Other thoughts: Savidge Reads, Reading Matters, Iris on Books, Reviews by Lola, nomadreader, BookNRound, Sam Still Reading,  She Reads Novels, BooksPlease, Vulpes Libris, Buried in PrintCapricious Reader, Secluded Charm, an adventure in reading, A Musing Reviews, The House of the Seven Tails, Cornflower Books, Wordsmithonia Yours?)

Bellfield Hall first came to my attention through a post by Eva, and now that Summer is in full swing a cozy Georgian mystery felt just the thing.

It’s a locked-room mystery (or in this case a locked-country house), set during a hunting party in the English countryside. The “detectiving” is done by the most inconspicuous of guests, Miss Dido Kent, the spinster aunt of the fiancée of Bellfield Hall’s heir.

Dido knows it’s often useful to be underestimated and she puts this to good use when several mysterious events threaten her niece’s happiness, not the least of them the discovery of an unknown young women’s body on the Hall’s grounds.

The plot is all coziness, but the language feels right for the period and Dido’s sharp intelligence and ironic sense of humor brings in a welcome zest and saves her from Mary Sueness.

Bellfield Hall’s target audience is clearly all the Jane Austen fans out there. It’s unavoidable to make connections, but the ones I made were less with her books and more with Austen’s own life: Dido’s close relationship with another single sister, a handicapped brother who’s raised away from the family, other who’s in the Navy, etc.

I’d also like to thank Anna Dean for producing a mystery that the reader, if observant enough, can solve. I love when this happens and feel incredibly cheated if at the end the detective presents a clue he/she got off-line. I appreciate the challenge of creating a transparent story and at the same time guaranteeing a progressive unraveling and a conclusion that’s not given away too soon.

A book to carry around next to your beach or picnic towel.

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Other thoughts: S. Krishna’s Books, Book Magic, Book Lust, Becky’s Book Reviews, Citizen Reader, An Evening at Almack’s (yours?)

Lately, life hasn’t been easy for 11-year old Pia. First her grandmother explodes during Christmas dinner, then young girls start vanishing is her small village. To top it all, her classmates irrationally connect the two and Pia is branded as unlucky. Only Stinky Stevan has the courage to commit social suicide and talk to her.

In search for justice, they decided to investigate the disappearances, amidst a community traumatized by the realization that evil might be living next door.

This was a good Halloween read, a mix of psychological suspense and horror. The first part of the book subtly builds up tension, and the rest is more action-based, with a dose of gruesomeness that could compete with the likes of Stephen King.

But what makes this book stand out is that it’s so hard to categorize (take that as a compliment, Ms Grant!). It’s a mystery involving a child sleuth, so it includes comic moments and quirky observations. The writing is fluid and mistakenly makes readers assume the story is all breezy, but then you get hit with pretty sinister moments and topics. Even guessing the solution half-way through didn’t soften the climax.

Setting the book in 1999 in a small German town was also surprisingly refreshing. Helen Grant is British, but you can tell by her descriptions of German life that she lived there, not only through the national celebrations and food, but more importantly through details like the way children address grown-ups or people’s reaction to anything connected to WW2.

Grant also lived here for a while, so I’m hoping she’ll release a book about la vie Bruxelloise. Also: how great is that cover?!

Ishiguro has written one the best and definitely the scariest book I’ve ever read. The best was Never Let Me Go and although it’s also pretty scary, that prize goes to The Unconsoled. Has anyone out there read this one? It’s not blood-and-gore-scary, it’s nightmare-scary. Like those dreams where you run away from something and don’t leave the same place. It’s a piece of genius, but I get a bit anguished just thinking about it.

It’s because of those two books that I’ve decided to read everything that Ishiguro has ever written, even if the rest are disappointments. The Remains of the Day was amazing, but When We Were Orphans is the first that didn’t quite do it for me. I’m afraid I let myself be influenced by what Ishiguro himself though of it. He said it was not his “best book” and how can you disagree with the source?

The book is about Christopher Banks, an Englishman born in Shanghai in the early 1900s. When he was still a child, his father (an opium businessman), mysteriously disappears, followed within a few weeks by his mother. Christopher was sent away to live with his aunt in England, but that moment in his life leads him to eventually become a detective, one of the best of his time. In the late 1930s, he starts having flash memories of events he’s been blocking, so right at the brink of the Battle of Shanghai he decides to go back to China to deal with the still unsolved case of his missing parents.

When We Were Orphans was written after The Unconsoled and in both the borders between reality and a dream-like state blur. For instance, at some point Christoph becomes convinced that his parents are still being held captive at a certain house. Although this is highly unlikely, everyone accepts it as a fact. The way characters act is also positively surreal at times, like the Embassy officer who keeps telling Christopher about the details of the party he’s organizing to celebrate his parents’ return.

It’s hard to explain the feeling if you haven’t read it, except to say that it’s similar to what happens in dreams, where impossible things happen and everyone just accepts it as a given. It’s a very intellectual (and Freudian) approach to story-telling, but Ishiguro masters it.

Christopher tells the story in the first person and is very like Stevens from The Remains of the Day. They both have a certain mental image of themselves and sometimes we realize that the people around them see them differently. During those moments you see a weaker man, which inspires pity in others and the reader. It’s fascinating to follow a story inside the head of a character with such distorted views of the world, to see him deal with isolation and the possibility of happiness. Despite its surreal qualities, the resolution of the story, was (satisfyingly) grounded on reality.

When We Were Orphans is not original, but it’s still an enticing piece of work. The plot doesn’t matter, don’t let yourself be fooled by the detective and the mystery waiting to be solved. It’s all about Ishiguro’s smooth, elegant and subtle writing.

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Other thoughts: A Striped Armchair (yours?)

Two more Peter Wimseys, both a quick fix, especially good if you’re in a book slump.

At first I wanted to read The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club as fast as possible so I could (finally!) be introduced to Harriet Vane in Strong Poison.

Despite this shamefully attitude, The Unpleasantness became my favorite of the series so far. I liked the plot, the elaborate crime and twists, but above all I liked the portrait of post-war England, in particular the experiences of the soldiers who returned. Together with the first decade of the 20th century, my favorite historical period is the Interwar. The Innocence and the end of it.

The Unpleasantness was not only written but it’s set in 1928, ten years after the end of WWI. When the curtain opens it’s Armistice Day and the Bellona Club, an old-fashioned establishment for military officers, is celebrating it with pomp. As usual, ninety-year-old General Fentiman is reading in his favorite chair since morning… or has he? It turns out he’s actually been dead for many hours without anyone noticing. Exactly how many hours is an uncertain but extremely important detail, since it determines who inherits a large fortune.

The impact of the Great War, which is never absent from the Sayers’ I’ve read so far, is especially noticeable here. It might have had something to do with Sayers’ own recent marriage to a veteran. I don’t know if she was supporting him financially, but the bitter scene where Wimsey witnesses firsthand the pressures that shell-shock puts on a marriage, looked pretty realistic…

And here’s a great book quote:

Books…are like lobster shells, we surround ourselves with ’em, then we grow out of ’em and leave ’em behind, as evidence of our earlier stages of development.

On to Strong Poison.

No woman was good enough for Peter Wimsey… apart from Dorothy Sayers herself, fictionally incarnated into Harriet Vane. Someone out there should write a Psychology thesis about this. It’s fascinating!

It’s 1930 and crime novelist Harriet Vane is accused of poisoning her ex-lover, Philip Boyes. Philip’s anti-bourgeois morals making anti-marriage as well, so Harriet agrees to simply live with him. When some time afterwards he proposes, Harriet decides (very wisely) that their domestic arrangements – for which she was willing to face censure from society – had just been Boyes’ test to see if she was good enough for him. They fight and go their separate ways, but shortly afterwards Boyes is killed by a strong dose of arsenic.

As a mystery, Strong Poison is not Sayers best, but who cares? We get the chance to see rational Wimsey fall in love at first sight and clumsily try to persuade Harriet or his merits as a potential husband. The first conversation they had, in prison, made me go “You what?… wait a sec… excuse me?… jeeez”. It has to be one of the most awkwardly sweet proposals in the history of literature.

I’m usually a bit cynical about love at first sight, but here Wimsey gets extra brownie points for the reasons why he fell in love with Harriet. Just by looking at her, reading her books and knowing her recent history, he felt he found the perfect partner. He’s looking for someone who can intellectually stimulate him and Harriet is clearly intelligent, unconventional and (the cherry at the top of the cake), she also likes mysteries!

It was also in this book more than the others that I clearly noticed the similarities between Wimsey and Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond. It was actually this connection that made me read this series in the first place. This passage in particular brought Francis Lymond back with a vengeance:

He played the Concerto through, and then, after a few seconds’ pause, went on to one of the ‘Forty-eight’. He played well, and gave a curious impression of controlled power, which, in a man so slight and so fantastical in manner, was unexpected and even a little disquieting.

That is the description of one sexy man!

I was actually considering just having one word in this review: “Meh”…

In Victorian London, Sally Lockhart becomes an orphan at 16. Shortly after she receives a mysterious letter which kick-starts an adventure in pursuit of the truth about her past and family.

I’ve read it in audiobook and it might be the reason I didn’t feel strongly about anything in the book, either in a good or bad way. I’ve been building the theory that with audio, the existence of a reader between me and the story somehow detaches me from it.

The story was interesting enough, and I was surprised at how Philip Pullman approached opium addiction and organized crime in a YA book, but Sally was just to perfect.

She’s “uncommonly pretty” and although not familiar with the more feminine arts of languages and music, she’s an expert in military tactics, accountancy, business management and a great shot and rider (sounds cool doesn’t it? I thought so too!). Pullman went for the unconventional heroine, but Sally is just too aloof, never directly affected by dangerous situations (unlike the secondary characters, who are kidnapped and beaten bloody because of her) and smoothly solving the problems of everyone around her.

Secondary characters are all very Dickensian as suits the Victorian setting, but the wonderful world building and brilliant atmosphere he created for “His Dark Materials” was missing here. Descriptions, plot twists and characters, they all felt a bit hurried and lacking depth (no excuse that it’s YA!).

Has anyone seen the TV adaptation with Billie Piper? What did you think? Haven’t see it yet, she fell in my consideration after staring in the worst Jane Austen adaptation ever made to date 😉