Review 1528: The Janus Stone

In the second Ruth Galloway mystery, Ruth is called to a dig at a site of a mansion being converted to luxury flats, because bones are discovered under a doorway. The bones are a child’s, and Ruth is inclined to believe that the grave is more recent than otherwise.

DCI Harry Nelson begins looking at the building’s past as a children’s home. During that time, a teenage boy and his five-year-old sister disappeared. But the teeth put the death a little earlier, when the original family resided there.

This case hits Ruth a little more personally because she is pregnant. The child is Harry’s, the result of an emotional night during the last case, but Harry is married. Then someone begins leaving unpleasant surprises for Ruth.

Like with the first book, I easily guessed who the culprit was, in fact, almost as soon as the character appeared. It is hard for me to tell whether this would be obvious to most readers. I am interested in the characters, though, so I enjoyed the novel and look forward to reading more of the series.

I do want to say something about my Quercus paperback edition, which was not impressive. About halfway through the book, I came across a sticker that was printed over by the text of the book. Later, a half page cut zigzag fell out of the book. When I turned to that page, I found that half of the text was on the zigzag page and half was on the page fastened into the book, which was whole, leaving a zigzagged half-blank page. If the loose half page had fallen out of the book before I got it, I would not have been able to read that page.

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Review 1527: They Were Counted

They Were Counted is the first volume in Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvanian Trilogy, about the decline of Hungary leading up to World War I. This book follows the events in the lives of two cousins, Balint Abady and Laszlo Gyeroffy. Both are noblemen who feel like outsiders in Hungarian society, Balint because he is Transylvanian and Laszlo because his prospects are not so good.

Balint has been working in the diplomatic service, but he decides to run for Parliament, never suspecting after he wins that votes have been bought on his behalf. He is dismayed to find that the Hungarian Parliament’s two parties are more concerned with scoring off each other than with getting anything done. Early on, too, there are hints that Parliament’s independence is threatened by the Austrian King Franz Joseph.

Likewise, when Balint decides to take more interest in running his estate, he has no idea that the lawyer Azbej, who has been helping his mother run the estate, has been making so much money off it. When he goes to Translyvania for forest management and with ideas about improvements for the peasant villages, he is unable to make much progress as he is seen as a Hungarian interloper.

Finally, Balint has discovered that he is in love with his old friend, Adrienne. Unfortunately, she has married since he was working abroad. Moreover, she has been sexually mistreated by her husband.

Lazslo is a musician who has withdrawn from law school and devoted himself to catching up on his musical studies. He is also in love with his cousin Klara but has no idea that her stepmother will not accept him as Klara’s suitor. Laszlo’s plans to become a composer are derailed when he gets involved with gambling.

This novel paints a picture of Transylvanian and Hungarian society of the time, with descriptions so vivid that I felt as if Bánffy was describing people, rooms, and landscapes that he knew, as he probably was. There are lots of characters, and it is sometimes difficult to remember who all of them are. I also found it a little difficult to understand the politics. Still, I found the novel very interesting.

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Review 1526: Olive, Again

Reading Olive Kitteridge years ago was a revelation to me, first about structure—how Strout could create a novel of a bunch of loosely connected stories—and second about her empathy for her characters, ordinary people in a small Maine town. Finally, there was that force of nature, Olive herself.

Olive, Again is no disappointment. This novel is structured much the same as Olive Kitteridge, stories about Olive and stories in which she is a secondary character or is simply mentioned or thought of. Olive herself is an old woman, who nevertheless toward the beginning of the novel embarks on her second marriage. The novel revisits her difficult relationship with her son, who brings his family for a disastrous visit that gives Olive insight into their relationship as well as that between herself and her first husband, Henry.

Olive is still her straightforward, brusque self, but many of the stories are about troubled people who feel better after encounters with her. Because they live in a small town, people who are the focus of one story appear or are mentioned in the others. For example, in “Helped,” Suzanne Larkin, from a disturbed family, has a heartfelt talk with her father’s lawyer, Bernie, whom Olive meets when she is living in an assisted living facility later in life.

Characters from some of Strout’s other books appear here, too, perhaps more characters than I remembered. Certainly, there are Jim and Bob Burgess from The Burgess Boys, a story about Jim and his wife visiting from New York, as well as Isabelle from Amy and Isabelle, whom Olive befriends in assisted living.

This is another warm and empathetic novel about complex but ordinary people. Strout is a master crafter of a tale.

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Review 1525: Manga Classics Les Misérables

I never wanted to read Les Misérables after seeing an old movie that started out with Jean Valjean bashing in the head of a kindly priest who had taken him in, all during an attempt to steal the church silver. That made me turn it off. However, just for grins, I decided to give the Manga Classics version a try.

This, of course, is the story of the redemption of the escaped prisoner Jean Valjean and his pursuit by the policeman Javert, set against the background of the Paris Uprising.

Obviously, I can’t tell how faithful it is to the original even though I have also seen the musical, but there are a lot of characters, so I’m guessing they made a good attempt. The art is not as beautiful as I’ve found in a few graphic novels (although it’s classic Manga style), but the characters are well drawn and easy to tell apart, and the story is easy to follow. I haven’t read any other Manga, so I can only compare it to other types of graphic novels, and it is definitely more dependent upon text than some that I have read (but not all).

As to the quality of the edition, there were some pages in which the tops of the letters were chopped off, although you could still read them.

Did I enjoy it? It was okay. The story seems full of schmaltz, but it was interesting enough for me to consider putting the original on my next Classics Club list.

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Review 1524: Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Mrs. Dusczejko lives in a tiny Polish village near the Czech Republic, so remote that they get Polish or Czech police depending upon where in town they call from. In the early morning, her neighbor, whom she calls Oddball, comes to get her, telling her he has found their other neighbor’s body. Although she hates this other neighbor, whom she calls Big Foot, because he’s a hunter and she believes it’s a crime to kill animals, she helps him make the body decent before the police arrive. Later, it’s determined that he died from choking on a deer bone.

Mrs. Duszejko is an eccentric old lady who spends her time doing astrological charts, helping an ex-student translate William Blake’s writings into Polish, and writing letters to the police complaining about poaching. After a few months, though, her life is disturbed when men in the area begin dying in a series of bizarre killings.

This is an unusual crime story that’s not so concerned about the criminal case as it is about the activities of its characters. It is sometimes funny and always atmospheric. I really enjoyed it.

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Review 1523: Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant leads a life of routine. She’s worked at the same company for years, doing the same job. She stops at the same stores on the same days and buys the same things. She has no friends, and her only human contact besides work and shopkeepers is her Wednesday phone call from her abusive mother. She doesn’t quite understand many interactions and often offends people. She also has a scar on one side of her face.

At a rock concert, she decides she has seen the man for her, the lead singer. She begins preparing a systematic approach to attract him. Around the same time, she meets the new corporate IT guy, Raymond, who is kind to her.

I have commented before about how much I dislike the custom of comparing a book to another book in its publicity. I understand that publicists are trying to build on the other book’s popularity, but if I loved the other book, I am always skeptical that I will find any resemblance. In this case, the comparison kept me from reading this book because I felt that the book it was compared to, A Man Called Ove, was cheap and manipulative. I finally read Eleanor Oliphant because a friend recommended it.

I have to say that I found this novel endearing and touching. At first, I was afraid that all of its humor would be around Eleanor’s eccentricities, but the depiction of her is more nuanced than that. You grow to care about Eleanor and the other characters as her friendship with Raymond opens her up to other people. There are hints of a horrific past, and you eventually come to admire Eleanor’s courage and resilience.

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Review 1522: A Single Thread

Violet Speedwell’s fiancé was killed during the First World War, and twenty years later she’s one of the many single women in Winchester. Even though there are so many, they haven’t gained any respect, it seems. Violet has managed to free herself from her difficult mother by arranging a work transfer from Southampton to Winchester, but so far she hasn’t made much of a life for herself.

When she stumbles upon a private ceremony in Winchester Cathedral, she gets interested in the work of the broderers, a group of women who embroider kneelers and seat cushions for the cathedral. She joins the group and soon has made friends with an office worker because of it. Although Violet is at first hyper aware of other people’s attitudes, through her new friendships she begins to become more accepting and take more risks.

I was reasonably interested in Violet’s journey, but this novel seemed unfocused to me. For example, although people are inconsistent, Violet’s extreme awareness of what other people think does not seem to mesh well with a woman who occasionally goes out to pick up men for sex. This characteristic seems much too modern for the woman Violet was at the beginning of the book, although the affair at the end is more plausible. Also, as to the two preoccupations of the novel, embroidery and bell ringing, it was as though Chevalier couldn’t decide which to write about. She did a better job at bell ringing than did Dorothy Sayers in The Nine Tailors, which I found incomprehensible (not the mystery, just the information about the bells), but I think that perhaps two focuses is one too many.

Maybe to Chevalier the cathedral said cushions and bells to her, but she wasn’t really writing about the cathedral. In any case, I’m trying to poorly express that I found this novel mildly interesting but also unsatisfying.

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Review 1521: The Yellow House

The Yellow House is not just a memoir. It’s more an excavation of self and belonging. Sarah M. Broom centers her explorations around her childhood home in New Orleans East. She begins with what she knows of her grandparents’ lives and her parents’ before marrying. Then she tells how her mother, Ivory Mae, purchased the yellow house when she was 19, the first house owned by the family.

At the time of the purchase, 1961, New Orleans East was touted as a promising area for expansion of the city. However, this promise never unfolded. The story of the slow crumbling of the neighborhood and house, culminating in Hurricane Katrina, is a symbol of the disenfranchising of all the poor inhabitants of the city, particularly those of color.

Although Broom was living in New York at the time of the hurricane, many of her family members had to be evacuated, and two of her brothers chose to ride the storm out. The storm destroyed the house, but it also rendered the family physically and metaphorically homeless. Almost more excruciating is the catalog of incompetence and obliviousness to the needs of its citizens by the city of New Orleans after the storm.

This is an interesting and eye-opening memoir about the population of the city that is usually ignored, and of course, it has ramifications for all such populations in all such cities.

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Review 1520: I’ll Never Be Young Again

Richard is a young man who has always felt his famous poet father disdained him. He is about to throw himself into the Thames when he is stopped by an older man named Jake. With Jake, he sets out as a common seaman on a Norwegian barque.

Richard is a very changeable, touchy, and selfish young man, but Jake says he will be all right, he’s just young. The pair go off traveling among the fjords and see Stockholm, with Richard changing how he feels about their experiences almost minute by minute. Ultimately, an accident sends Richard on alone to Paris, where he begins writing and meets a girl, Hesta.

I thought I had read just about everything by du Maurier, but I hadn’t come across this novel before. It is her second, and it certainly shows immaturity. Although du Maurier is good at description, this novel depends upon it too much, so that it is slow moving. In addition, the dialogue is quite crude. Du Maurier believed she had a male side that eventually led to an ability to write effectively from a male point of view, but I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She overdoes it.

Finally, Richard is so self-centered that its hard to find any sympathy for him, which made it difficult for me to finish the book. When he meets Hesta, for example, she is an independent young woman studying music. He manages to strip everything away from her so that she is totally dependent upon him. Then he takes her for granted.

So, I didn’t really enjoy this novel, although the ending lessened my dislike of it. I have to say, though, that Richard as a character is all too believable.

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