Day 1214: When They Lay Bare

Cover for When They Lay BareA mysterious woman moves into the empty cottage on property belonging to Simon Elliot. She has with her a set of old plates depicting the verses of a ballad, and she spends a lot of time immersing herself in the story told by the plates. The thing is, this cottage was last occupied by Jinny Lauder, and the plates were hers. And Jinny Lauder was Sim Eliot’s lover, the woman he was tried for murdering.

So, who is this woman? Could she be Jinny’s daughter? Whoever she is, she seems half off her head, and she is clearly plotting revenge against Sim Elliot.

But the person she meets is Sim’s son, home in the Borderlands to introduce his father to his fiancée, Jo. David finds this wild girl, who first identifies herself as Mary, fascinating, and he is just as interested in his father’s guilt or innocence as Mary is. In fact, he despises his father for betraying his mother.

Greig used the conceit of retelling an ancient ballad in Fair Helen, an idea I really admired. Here again, he brings in an old ballad and the feuding families of the Borderlands, but I don’t think it works as well. In particular, the focus on the plates becomes tedious. After a while, each time the girl went back to look at the plates, I sighed.

Still, Greig’s writing is gorgeous, and his settings are evocative. Greig examines the concept of fate in this novel. Are the Elliots and Lauders doomed to pursue their feud?

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Day 710: The Kept

Cover for The KeptBest Book of the Week!
The Kept is a mysterious and darkly moody novel that I found compelling from the first sentences. Elspeth Howell arrives home on a snowy winter day in upstate New York near the turn of the 19th century. She has been away for months working as a midwife. But when she reaches home, she finds that her husband and all of her children that live in the house have been murdered. Only her 12-year-old son Caleb, who has taken to living in the barn, is alive, but he has been hiding in the pantry for days, and when she opens the pantry door, he shoots her in terror.

Caleb spends the next few days alternately trying to take care of his mother and dispose of the bodies of the rest of his family. He cannot bury them in the frozen earth, but in his attempt to burn them, he accidentally burns down the house. He ends up caring for his mother in the barn.

The Howell’s home is isolated and difficult to find. As a young girl, Espeth was driven from her home for having spoken to Jorah, the man she later married, because he was Native American. But there are other reasons for the family’s isolation. In any case, Elspeth thinks the murderers must have sought for their house.

When Elspeth is barely healed, she and Caleb set forth to find the three men who murdered their family, men whom Caleb watched from the barn. They stay briefly with an old couple who have been terrorized by the same three men and who point them in the direction of a town on Lake Erie with a terrible reputation. There, with Elspeth disguised as a man, they go to search for the men.

Beginning as a straightforward revenge novel, the book goes on to explore deeper themes. One of them is that of unintended consequences, as Caleb finds that their troubles result from Elspeth’s own actions years before.

This novel is well written and packed with atmosphere. It is vivid and brutal and beautiful.

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Day 705: The Spinning Heart

Cover for The Spinning HeartDonal Ryan achieves a remarkable feat in The Spinning Heart. In this very short novel, he manages to depict the effects of the recent Irish financial collapse from the viewpoints of 21 different small town residents. (My caveat: I didn’t actually count them. I am relying for the number on an article about the novel.)

First we hear from Bobby Mahon, who is absorbed in his contempt for his father Frank and his betrayal by his employer. Frank drank away his own inheritance, his father’s farm, and as soon as it was gone, stopped drinking. This all because Bobby’s grandfather said that at least Frank, at that time a teetotaler, wouldn’t drink away the farm. Frank himself was so verbally abusive that Bobby and his beloved mother stopped talking to each other to avert his wrath. That pretense eventually grew into an actual estrangement.

Bobby was the foreman of a crew for a successful construction company until the downturn, when the company folded and the boss, Pokey, disappeared. Now, Bobby and the other men have found out that Pokey did not pay in for their government benefits, instead pocketing the money, so none of them will get unemployment or their pensions.

Josie, Pokey’s father, laments his decision to turn his company over to Pokey and feels sorry for the men left without an income. He blames himself for loving Pokey’s other brother more than Pokey.

Vasya, a contract construction worker from the Caucasus, has even fewer options than Bobby and his men. He relates how Pokey gave him a ride and lied to him about work the last time he saw him, on Pokey’s way out of town.

And so the novel goes, written in many different voices in Irish slang. As the novel moves forward, tensions rise, finally ending in violence. A well-regarded young man is accused of murder. A small child is kidnapped.

Using an unusual technique, this novel conveys the perspective of an entire small community and the impact the economic calamity has had on all their lives. Surprisingly, considering the subject matter, the book is rough and funny, as well as poignant.

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Day 676: The She-Wolf

Cover for The She-WolfThe fifth novel in Maurice Druon’s wonderful Accursed Kings series begins where the first one did, with the problems of Isabella of France, unhappy queen of England and sister to Charles IV of France. While Charles IV’s administration is being ably handled by his uncle Charles of Valois, the same cannot be said for that of Isabella’s husband, Edward II. He is completely under the sway of Hugh Despenser the Younger, his rapacious lover. At the beginning of the novel, Despenser has taken everything from Isabella’s dowry for himself and forces her to give him the valuable book she is reading.

Roger Mortimer is the only person to have ever escaped from the Tower of London, and he soon arrives in France. He too has been a victim of the greedy Despensers. He has a fateful meeting with Isabella when she arrives to broker a treaty. Soon their actions will cause the overthrow of a king.

The powerful Countess Mahaut of Artois still remembers Isabella’s testimony, which condemned her daughter and cousin to prison in the first book. She will make it her business to cause trouble for Isabella. And we know what trouble can mean, for in The Poisoned Crown, Mahaut had Charles’ oldest brother murdered so that her daughter could be queen of France.

Druon’s knowledge of medieval history, customs, and architecture is especially noticeable in this book, with its extensive historical notes. This fantastic series continues, with Druon specializing in snark.

The sixth book in this series will soon be available in paperback while the last is soon to be published in hardcover. Years ago, I read all but the last book, which I was unable to find, so I am looking forward to finally being able to read the entire series.

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Day 675: Amsterdam

Cover for AmsterdamThe Booker Prize people liked Amsterdam a bit more than I did. Although the shattering last page of McEwan’s Atonement absolutely upended that novel, the same technique did not work as well for this one. Perhaps the problem lies with my having seen McEwan do this several times already.

The novel begins with the death of Molly Lane. Two old friends, both former lovers of Molly, meet at the funeral. Clive Linley is a world-famous composer, and Vernon Halliday is an editor trying to save a floundering newspaper. At the funeral is another of Molly’s former lovers, foreign secretary Julian Garmony, a right-wing bigot whom both men dislike. They all pay stiff respects to Molly’s possessive husband George.

The brush with mortality makes both Clive and Vernon a tad hypochondriac, and they end up exchanging a pledge. But various stresses will soon interfere with their friendship. Clive is struggling to complete what he thinks will be his masterpiece in time for a performance in Amsterdam. And George has offered to sell Vernon some compromising photos of Julian that he found in Molly’s papers. Vernon has to decide whether publication of these photos will result in increased sales or backlash.

This novel is darkly humorous. None of these men is a sterling individual. In fact, they are all morally bankrupt. Clive seems the least at fault for quite some time, but then he does something unforgivable and justifies it as being for his art.

It’s difficult to explain my main criticism without revealing the ending. I can only say that the implications of the final page do not make sense, that there is no way that the character could have known how things would work out. So, I do not think the surprise ending works as well in this case as in other McEwan novels.

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Day 642: The Silkworm

Cover for The SilkwormThe Silkworm is Robert Galbraith’s second Cormoran Strike mystery. It picks up about a year after private investigator Strike solved the murder of the famous supermodel Lula Landry. Since then, he has gained a lot of business, mostly from wealthy or famous clients. So, he does something unexpected when he kicks an entitled client out of his office to take on an apparently simple job of finding the wandering husband of the downtrodden Leonora Quine.

Owen Quine, Cormoran learns quickly, is prone to drama and disputes and is not very likable. He long ago wrote one notable novel but since then has been considered second rate. He is known for his attention-seeking disappearances, but this time Leonora thinks he’s been gone too long, ten days.

Strike finds that Quine disappeared after a loud, public fight with his agent, Elisabeth Tassel. Quine has just finished a book that he considers his masterpiece, Bombyx Mori, named after the silkworm. Leonora reports that Tassel was encouraging Owen and telling him it was his best. But Tassel says that when she read it, she was appalled. It grotesquely defames almost everyone Quine knows in the publishing world, including Tassel herself, Quine’s editor Jerry Waldgreave, a famous writer and ex-friend Michael Fancourt, Quine’s publisher Daniel Chard, Quine’s girlfriend and writer of erotic romances Kathryn Kent, and Quine’s student from a creating writing class, a transgender woman named Pippa Midgely. Although Quine’s manuscript was suppressed, all of these people had an opportunity to read it. Leonora, also ridiculed in the book, is the only one who claims not to have read it.

Cormoran is unable to find a trace of Quine, and he begins to feel odd about the situation. When he learns that Quine co-owns a house with Michael Fancourt that neither of them ever visit, he goes there immediately. He finds the house marred by acid and Quine’s body, tied up and disemboweled.

Strike’s old friend Richard Anstis is head of the investigation, but the police are not happy to have Strike involved since he made them look bad when he solved Lula Landry’s death as a homicide after they declared it a suicide. In any case, Anstis is inclined to suspect Leonora.

Meanwhile, the date of Strike’s assistant Robin Ellacot’s wedding is approaching, and she has still not managed to reconcile her fiancé’s dislike of her job with Strike. She is hoping Strike will train her to be a detective, but she is worried he has relegated her to being a secretary.

In my review of Galbraith’s first novel I complained of a dirty trick. I’m happy to report that there were none in this novel and the murderer was difficult to guess. I haven’t figured out yet how much I like Cormoran Strike, though, and I hope that his yearning after his bitch of an ex-fiancée is not going to continue in every novel. Whether she would follow through with her own wedding was a minor plot point of this novel, but I’m already tired of her and wish she would go away. Ditto with Robin’s tiresomely jealous fiancé.

Rowling as Galbraith continues to be a very good writer who keeps the story moving, but she has not quite engaged me on Strike’s behalf as yet.

Day 626: River Thieves

Cover for River ThievesReading River Thieves did not leave me with the same impression of wild originality as did Galore, the other Michael Crummey novel I read. Still, it is an interesting historical novel about the interactions between Europeans and the Beothuk Indians in early 19th century Newfoundland.

This novel is based on a true incident. It concerns an investigation into the killing of a Beothuk man by trappers after they went looking for redress for some thefts. This expedition brought back a Beothuk woman, later called Mary, who is captured at the beginning of the novel. But the narration of this story is far from straightforward, and we do not learn exactly what happened until the end of the novel.

Further, the characters’ actions are affected by a long history of their personal interactions. John Peyton is a young man at the beginning of the novel. He is in love with Cassie, his tutor and his father’s housekeeper, but she is somewhat mysterious and keeps aloof from him. John Sr. hired Cassie thinking that she and John Peyton might marry, but a misunderstanding interferes.

Lieutenant David Buchan encounters most of those figuring in the incident when he makes an earlier attempt to establish more cordial relations with the Beothuk than the violent ones currently existing. This expedition, which includes John Peyton, John Sr., and some of John Sr.’s employees, ends in disaster. It is the seemingly upright Buchan, later a captain, who is put in charge of the subsequent investigation.

This story is told at a remove from the characters. Although we learn the thoughts of several of them, Crummey never reveals everything, forcing us to view his characters more as an ensemble rather than to consider one a central character. In Galore, Crummey used this technique to depict the occupants of an entire village. Here, it is not quite as satisfying.

Day 597: Neverhome

Cover for NeverhomeBest Book of the Week!
After some personal tragedies, Ash Thompson leaves the farm in Indiana to join the Union army and fight in the Civil War. Although the truth about Ash is not immediately apparent, I feel little hesitation in revealing that Ash is a woman, because the publicity for this novel makes that clear. Why she has chosen to leave her husband Bartholomew and go off to war is another matter.

Ash, who is tall and strong, shows herself to be a brave and obedient soldier, resourceful and a good shot. No one knows her for what she really is except a few women she sees in passing and her colonel.

This story is told by Ash herself in a very understated way. In fact, it is the voice of this novel, so distinctive, that makes it stand out. It is not until the end of the novel that we learn that Ash is not always a reliable narrator.

http://www.netgalley.comThis novel is beautifully spare and compelling, a wonderful portrait of a person who is more disturbed by violence and her personal tragedies than she appears to be.

Day 595: Turn of the Tide

Cover for Turn of the TideTurn of the Tide is a historical novel set in the 16th century that centers around a long-running feud between two Scottish families, the Cunninghames and the Montgomeries. The feud and some of the events are factual, although the main character and his family are not.

The novel begins when the Cunninghames summon Munro. Not a Cunninghame himself, he is a minor laird who owes them allegiance. But he is not happy when he finds the plan is to massacre a bunch of Montgomeries on their way to meet with the king.

Although Munro’s wife Kate is angry when she finds he took part, she is even more angry when she finds out later that he has befriended some of the Montgomeries. This apparent change of loyalties could cause even more problems for their small family. King James has forced the two families to make peace, but it is an awkward one, with both families jockeying for position in court.

Munro is most wary of his uneasy relationship with William Cunninghame, the Earl of Glencairn’s heir and a brute. As Munro becomes closer to the Montgomeries and William’s eye alights on Sybilla Boyd, the fiancée of Munro’s brother Archie, the relationship between Munro and William becomes dangerous.

This novel never quite gets off the ground for me. Although I don’t demand action from every book, this one has very little going on for much of the time. Skea does so little to differentiate some of the characters that I kept getting confused about who they were. The novel begins with the massacre and ends with some action that is not really satisfactory. In between it concerns itself with grown men literally jostling for position with King James, the form of which seems silly, although probably exactly what went on.

The novel is also about Munro’s family life, mildly interesting but not compelling. It is nicely written with some Scots dialect. It just isn’t very tightly plotted.

Day 587: Harvest

Cover for HarvestBest Book of the Week!
Harvest seems to be concerned with exploring the dark side of human nature. Set in an unspecified time in the past, it focuses on unusual events in a small, remote village.

The villagers are celebrating the harvest. They are so busy drinking and eating that they forget to appoint their harvest queen. Groggily awakening the next morning, they spot two fires. One is green wood burning in the distance, a signal that some new family is establishing itself. The other is the master’s resented dovecote and the stables. Someone has set fire to the dovecote, and the fire has spread.

The novel’s narrator, Walter, noticed three young men return the night before with a load of hallucinogenic mushrooms and a dried puffball. He knows there is no use for the puffball except to spread a fire. Still, he decides to say nothing.

After the fire is out, Walter notices how the men he believes guilty behave over-helpfully to Master Kent and insist that the newcomers must have set it. So, the master and some of the villagers go off to see them.

Walter has injured his hand in the fire, so he stays home. But he soon hears how the villagers caved in the roof of the hovel so that it injured the young woman inside and how the master sentenced her two companions to a week in the stocks.

For some reason I felt dread from the onset of this novel, and this feeling was not wrong. Although the villagers have already started trouble by not confessing their actions, much worse is to come. For kind Master Kent has lost his property through an entailment to his wife’s cousin, a ruthless and cruel young man who is only interested in enclosing the common land and putting it to sheep. Now that he is master, it is up to him to mete out justice when the next incident happens.

Although Walt’s main fault is inaction, he soon finds himself being treated like a stranger again, for he came to the village long ago as a servant to Master Kent. Soon the village he loved is unrecognizable.

This novel is masterfully written, about how greed and ignorance can destroy a community. It is a dark and twisty tale.