Day 1072: The Cornish Coast Murder

Cover for The Cornish Coast MurderI have to admit, I’ve been picking out these British Library Crime Classics by their beautiful covers. The last couple I’ve read have been based on vintage travel posters.

The Reverend Dodd is the vicar of the village of Boseawen. Each Monday he and Doctor Pendrill have dinner and exchange library books, mostly mysteries. But this evening is interrupted by a terrific storm off the coast. Then the doctor is summoned to the house of Julius Tregarthan.

When the doctor arrives, he sees there is nothing he can do. Tregarthan has been shot from outside the window. Reverend Dodd notices that there were three shots at different heights through three different windows.

When Inspector Bigswell arrives to investigate, he quickly surmises that the shots must have come from the cliff path. This idea makes things look bad for the victim’s niece, Ruth Tregarthan, who was one of only two people whose footprints were found on the path and who argued with her uncle that night. More suspiciously, her lover, Ronald Hardy, has gone missing.

This novel shares the Golden Age fascination with puzzles and doesn’t focus much on characterization. Unfortunately, I was about 100 pages ahead of Dodd on one of the biggest puzzles. I would also say that there is a cheat in the murderer’s identity, but I don’t want to say what it is.

So, not the best of the classic mysteries I’ve read recently, but certainly one for those who like puzzles.

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Day 1071: Anything Is Possible

Cover for Anything Is PossibleLike Olive Kitteridge, which this book reminds me strongly of, Anything Is Possible is a series of linked short stories. What links these stories is Lucy Barton, the main character of Elizabeth Strout’s previous novel. Each story is about a family relation of Lucy or a resident of her home town in rural Illinois, and Lucy appears as a character in one story.

In “The Sign,” Tommy Guptill, who was the janitor at Lucy’s school when she was a girl, goes to visit Lucy’s brother Pete. There he learns that Pete has long believed a terrible thing about the night long ago when Tommy’s dairy farm burned down.

In “Windmills,” Patty Nicely, a school mate of Lucy’s, is able to overcome an insult from Lucy’s niece and help her make her own escape from town. Patty also reviews her life with her gentle husband Sebastian, who has died.

“Cracked” explores the strange marital life of Linda Peterson-Cornell, Patty Nicely’s niece. Although Linda has married a wealthy man and escaped poverty, her husband has some disturbing pastimes.

link to NetgalleyIn “The Hit-Thumb Theory,” Charlie Macauley, to whom Patty Nicely is attracted, is devastated to find out the truth behind his relationship with a woman. In an attempt to recover before going home, he goes to stay at a B&B. Later, we hear from the B&B’s owner, another relative of the Nicelys.

And so on. These stories are beautifully and perceptively told, evoking sympathy for even the most unlikable characters. As I was for My Name is Lucy Barton, I was caught up in the gentleness and empathy of these stories.

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Day 1070: Burntown

Cover for BurntownThe previous two books I’ve read by Jennifer McMahon were a weird combination of unusual but realistic life and the supernatural. Burntown features the supernatural less, but in some ways is more bizarre and in others verges on the precious.

When Miles Sandeski is a little boy, he sees a man wearing a chicken mask murder his mother. Despite his assurances to the police that the man was not his father, the police think his father did it. Later, his father takes his own life.

Miles’s father handed down an invention taken from Edison’s lab that allows people to talk to the dead. Miles uses it to talk to his mother and find out who killed her. Then he goes off to do something about it.

Years later, something dreadful happens at Miles’s house. His daughter Eve, now calling herself Necco, ends up living on the streets in their industrial home town of Ashford, Vermont. She doesn’t remember what happened, but her mother has told her that a flood washed away their home and killed her father. Her mother became a Fire Eater, ingesting a drug that brings visions of the future. But her mother has died, apparently jumping off a bridge.

Necco is camping out in a car with her boyfriend when her boyfriend is murdered. He has been looking into her past and promised to show her something the next day. The police think she murdered her boyfriend and are trying to find her. However, they don’t know who she is.

Theo is also running from someone. Her girlfriend Hannah talked her into selling drugs to the high school students. Theo did a big deal and then left her sachel at Necco’s place when some kids took her there to watch Necco breathe fire. The drug dealer is after her for his money, but in going back for her sachel, Theo may have seen the murderer.

link to NetgalleyAs Necco and Theo try to figure out what’s happening, they get help from unexpected places and make new friends. Although there is a certain amount of danger in this novel, it is far less eerie than the previous two novels. It depends more on strange characters and desolate urban settings than on its supernatural elements. I liked it well enough but felt it verged oddly toward being a feel-good novel full of eccentric characters at the conclusion.

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Day 1069: The Twisted Sword

Cover for The Twisted SwordA short side note before starting my review for today. The shortlist for the 2017 Man Booker prize was recently announced. You can see the shortlist on my Man Booker Prize Project page. I am getting behind on that project, having read hardly any of the books for the most recent years. I have one excuse besides too many books, too little time, and that is that some of them have been hard to locate.

* * *

It was a nice change to have most of this penultimate novel of the Poldark Saga be more about Ross and Demelza than their children. It is 1815, more than 30 years since the start of the series. At the beginning of the novel, Ross is summoned to London.

The Napoleonic Wars have been a backdrop to most of the series and come to the fore in this one. Although Napoleon is exiled to Elba, the British government is getting conflicting reports about the loyalty of the French army toward the Bourbon government. England is depending upon the stability of France, so the Prime Minister wants Ross to travel with his family to Paris as an independent observer and make visits to various army regiments.

Ross and Demelza take their two youngest children and ask Dwight and Caroline to join them later. The family enjoys Paris despite Demelza’s fears about her social skills and lack of French. Ross finds that one of the sore points in the French army is the return of the aristocrats, who demand their old positions from men who have been fighting for years. Of course, no one knows that Napoleon is shortly due to escape from Elba.

I enjoyed this novel, with its focus on well-known characters, more than I have the last two or three. I think this enjoyment is mostly because I don’t find the Poldark’s children very interesting, and they certainly don’t make good decisions. We spend time with some of them, though, particularly Clowance and her husband Stephen, as Stephen finds that George Warleggan’s help isn’t what it appears to be.

All in all, I am happy to be nearly finished with this series. It started out very good, but now I am just determined to finish it.

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Day 1068: Cloud Atlas

Cover for Cloud AtlasCloud Atlas is a reread for me, and I think when I first read it, it was my first postmodern fiction. I found it, and still find it, astonishingly inventive and compelling.

Like its namesake, “Cloud Atlas Sextext,” the musical composition that recurs throughout the book, Cloud Atlas is composed of six stories, but with various themes and motifs linking them. Each story is set farther into the future. A story begins and is cut off at a climactic moment until we get to the sixth, which is complete. Then, going back toward the past, the stories are completed.

“The Pacific Journal of Adam Ewing” is the journal of a man traveling in the Pacific in the 19th century. On his travels he observes the shameful treatment of the natives by missionaries, rescues a native from slavery, and encounters a series of scalawags. A quack befriends him and begins treating him for a supposed worm.

In “Letters from Zedelghem,” Robert Frobisher writes his dear friend Rufus Sixsmith about his adventures. Frobisher is a gifted composer but impoverished and a bit of a scalawag himself. In 1931 Belgium, he talks his way into a position of amanuensis for a great composer. While there, he begins writing the haunting “Cloud Atlas Sextet.” But he finds he is not the only con artist in the house.

“Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery” is a manuscript mystery novel about a reporter who finds out about safety hazards in a nearby nuclear power facility. Her informant is Rufus Sixsmith, now in his sixties, a Nobel winning scientist. After Sixsmith is murdered by the corporation that employs him, Luisa begins trying to get a copy of the report he wrote, which is being suppressed.

“The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish” is a movie set in the present or near future. In it, a publisher in debt is being threatened by thuggish clients. When he goes for his brother’s help, he is tricked into committing himself to a home for the aged.

“An Orison of Sonmi-451” is an oral history dictated by a fabricant from prison, some time in the future. She relates how she became enlightened and got involved with a revolutionary movement against the corprocacy  that controls the 12 cities still habitable on the planet.

“Sloosha’s Croosin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After” is a story told to listeners in the far future. By now, most of the world is living as primitive tribes, and Zachry’s tribe lives in Hawaii as farmers and goat herders. But a Prescient named Meronym comes to live in the village. These people are the only ones who have kept the scientific knowledge of the time before. Zachry suspects her of motives for being there that she has not told them.

Each of these stories is written in a different style reflecting its time period and with language evolving in the future. The stories share thematic threads and invoke each other’s characters, mixing together the “fictional” characters with the “real” ones. Luisa meets Sixsmith, Robert Frobisher finds Adam Ewing’s journal, Zachry’s tribe worships Sonmi as a god, Sonmi watches the movie about Cavendish. Intricately plotted and fitted together like puzzles, these stories comprise an amazing novel.

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Day 1067: The Boston Girl

Cover for The Boston GirlI keep trying Anita Diamant, hoping to encounter something as good as The Red Tent. So far, however, I have not read anything by her that comes close.

The Boston Girl is about the life of Addie Baum, the child of Jewish immigrants, from her young womanhood in 1915 until she is an old woman in 1985. It is written in the first person, as if Addie is speaking to her granddaughter.

This narrative styles is probably the biggest weakness of the novel. It is not a traditional narrative but one person’s side of a conversation. Although Addie does all the talking, occasionally she addresses her granddaughter directly, and that has a false, jarring effect.

In addition, although the narrative does tell a story, it is broken up more like a series of anecdotes. This style removes most of the tension from the novel, and there is no sense of a narrative arc. There is no climax.

The story deals mostly with Addie’s thirst for knowledge and her desire to accomplish more in her life than working in a factory. She also strives to earn a word of approval from her mother. She could have been an interesting and compelling character, but none of the characters in this novel feel fully formed.

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