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Archive for the ‘Mystery’ Category

In which an author who previously wowed me leaves me wanting

Title: The Distant Hours

Author: Kate Morton

What it’s about: When Edie’s mother receives a letter from Juniper Blythe, it arrives almost fifty years too late. Juniper’s letter is one of a few that got lost in the mail during World War II, and only now have the letters been delivered through a quirk in the postal service. But Edie is surprised to see her mother’s strong reaction when she opens the letter, and even more surprised to learn who Juniper is. Edie discovers that her mother spent part of the war in the countryside, taken into Milderhurst Castle by the three Sisters Blythe. Glimpsing this hidden chapter of her mother’s life, Edie becomes obsessed with learning more about the castle and the sisters, especially when she discovers who their father is—Raymond Blythe, author of the children’s classic The Mud Man, the story that first got Edie interested in writing and set her on the path to becoming an editor. As Edie meets the sisters, she begins to discover secrets long buried, about her mother, the sisters, the castle, and the origins of The Mud Man.

About a year ago I picked up Kate Morton’s The Forgotten Garden and found myself lost in a gothic mystery that was both delightful and surprising. I say surprising because I hadn’t expected much from the book—I picked it up at an airport bookstore in an hour of need—so the payoff was all the sweeter. I noticed two books of equal girth that also carried Ms. Morton’s name and mentally filed them away (or added them to my Goodreads queue) for a future read.

I’m sorry to say that my second encounter with Ms. Morton left me more than a little disappointed. In fact, though The Distant Hours seemed like it would have many of the same characteristics as Morton’s earlier work, they were almost entirely absent from this book. The Distant Hours felt under-crafted and under-thought, with paper-thin characters and a heavy-handed delivery. It’s all the more surprising because I described The Forgotten Garden as finely crafted, with a light touch of symbolism. The Distant Hours is the opposite. Edie is a clunky narrator with no apparent personality and her voice often drew me out of the narrative with references to “what she’d learn later” or things she “wished she could have known then.” She has no personality of her own and her mother’s connection to the castle is never properly exploited.

Instead of developing the ostensible main character, the book focuses on the three sisters and Edie becomes just a set of eyes, an outsider stand-in for the reader who does a lot of telling instead of showing. Morton wants to deliver a mystery, to make us wonder about how these three women came to spend their entire lives in a decaying castle. But the “mystery” of it all is laid on so thick that we learn next to nothing about the characters until the final act. By then, I cared little for Saffy and Percy Blythe or the origins of the mysterious Mud Man. These people even edit their own thoughts to keep us from discovering their secrets (which, by the way, are not even that scandalous or surprising). The only one with any semblance of depth was Juniper Blythe, who had some vivacity in her early appearances in the novel as a young girl, but is rendered into a Jane Eyre Bertha-esque specter in Edie’s present-day interactions with her. As Morton keeps us from the secrets, whole chapters end up feeling like treading water. I kept telling myself there’d be some kind of shocking payoff, but there wasn’t. t can hardly believe the same person wrote both these books.

Would I recommend?  The Distant Hours was a real disappointment to me. I’d certainly recommend The Forgotten Garden (I even consulted some others who had read that book to be sure it was as good as I remembered. I started to doubt myself after reading this one. They assured me I had not lost my mind or taste in books.) But my advice is to skip The Distant Hours. It’s not a good reflection of Ms. Morton’s talent.

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In which we never grow too old for a fairy tale, especially the kind full of dark, dangerous secrets

Title: The Forgotten Garden

Author: Kate Morton

What it’s about: Once upon a time, a little girl found herself all alone on a dock in Australia, unable to remember even her own name. Her one clue to her former life was a book of fairy tales written by the woman known only to her as the Authoress. Once upon another time, the Authoress was a little girl, too, but an outcast in the English manor of her formidable aunt and reclusive uncle. Her only light was her cousin, Rose, for whom she would do anything in the world. Once upon a third time, a young woman lost everyone in her world and so she traveled across the sea to unravel the a past that connected herself, her grandmother, and the Authoress.

The Forgotten Garden weaves together the stories of these three women, in chapters that skip from the the Authoress’s life in the early 1900s to Nell’s search for her identity in the 1970s to her granddaughter Cassandra’s mission to finish what Nell began thirty years ago. This story works on so many levels, but at heart it is a fairy tale. Morton is a master of this language and her story bears a lot of unpacking. Not only do we have the haunting and beautiful original fairy tales penned by the Authoress, we also see them subtly referenced in the unfolding “real” story. I think what I appreciated most was how this was done with such a light touch. If you want to delve into the symbolism in The Forgotten Garden, it’s there in spades. But if you just want a gothic mystery set in a haunted cottage on the edge of an English manor’s garden maze, this book can be that for you, too.

It reminds me a bit of Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, another fabulous book that proves you can still combine fairy tales, English manors, and little girls and create something striking and fresh. Some of the strength of this genre is found in its familiarity. These tales evoke the ones we heard as children and there’s a natural, emotional response to the earliest stories we knew.

Would I recommend? Definitely. The Forgotten Garden is beautifully written, a compelling mystery, a misty grown-up fairy tale, and quite a satisfying read.

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In which poison, high-stakes stamp collecting, and murders at British mansions are not nearly as interesting as they may sound

Title: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Author: Alan Bradley

What it’s about: Alan Bradley’s first book in what will be a series of mysteries features the precocious 11-year-old Flavia, an amateur chemist living in a British manor house and trying to clear her father’s name after an old school chum of his is found dead in the cucumber patch. Unfortunately, this description is far more exciting than the delivery in the book, and maybe that’s how we got suckered into choosing it for our April book club. I’d seen Sweetness in a lot of table promotions at B&N and the story sounded engaging, what I hoped would be a sort of Girl with the Dragon Tattoo lite. The reality is more Nancy Drew. Flavia de Luce (pretentious names much?) is not nearly as clever as I hoped she’d be and the mystery isn’t very interesting. It was honestly a struggle for me to get through this book. Normally, I abandon books if I can’t get into them, but I have trudged through the dull and insipid narration just so I could come out on the other side and deliver this message to you, dear reader: Don’t pick up this book.

Two things annoyed me. The first was brought up by my insightful book club, who pointed out that this book could have easily been a children’s novel. The story was very simplistic and none of the major plot points would have been above the understanding of the 11-year-old narrator. So why was this an adult book? Normally if a story is about a child but written for adults, there is some element in the story that elevates it. But if I were to evaluate where this book belongs, I’d place it firmly in juvenalia. The other thing that bothers me about the book is the writer’s style, which seems to be striving to be poetic and thoughtful, but came off as clunky and cliche. Flavia often muses on life and offers the reader bon mots that are meant to show her wisdom beyond her years, but to me the prose offered nothing original or beautiful. I also found myself putting on my editor’s hat as I read and calling out inconsistencies in the text, which is never a good sign. If I start editing a book while I read it, you know you’ve lost me.

Would I recommend? Nope. How this book has ended up in so many promotions I really don’t know. And after two bad reviews in a row, I really need to get on track and read something wonderful. This may account for why I’ve posted more infrequently. Books I don’t love take me a lot longer to read than the ones I do.

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In which I remember why I love the South and make sweet potato biscuits

Title: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Author: John Berendt

What it’s about: A New York writer comes to Savannah on holiday and is seduced by the Southern charm and surprising characters he meets. He befriends a piano-playing charlatan, a drag queen, a witch doctor, an inventor threatening to poison the town’s water supply, and a murderer. Oh, and did I mention this is non-fiction? The focus of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil is a murder trial, but it’s really only a backdrop for extended character profiles of some of the most eccentric yet real characters I’ve ever encountered. Savannah is not too far away from my home town (which is referenced several times in the book), so I found myself smiling with familiarity and nodding when the Florida-Georgia game was called a national holiday, although I object to being referred to as the “Florida barbarians.” For those not from the South, I promise you that this really is an accurate portrayal of the lunatics (a term I use lovingly) that you’ll find down there. Warm, friendly, drunk, and crazy, the characters in this book are the real stars, along with the city itself. You really get lost in the fairy tale quality of Savannah.

Book v. Film: So, by the way, I’m in a book club (hi guys!). This was our pick for February and we decided to compare the movie and book at a pot luck dinner. This was really just an excuse for us to drink lots of wine and eat delicious food. Here’s our menu, in case you’d like to replicate our Southern-influenced evening: vegetable lasagna, cheese grits, sweet potato biscuits, salad, blueberry pie, and three bottles of $3 Trader Joe’s wine. Our thoughts on the movie? Well, like most book-to-film adaptations, we were disappointed. The main problem was that the movie was just … boring!

The charm of the book was completely lost in the film version. (more…)

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In which I ponder the pitfalls of posthumous publication (Oh, and read a murder mystery!)

Title: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Author: Stieg Larsson

What it’s about: Mikael Blomkvist is a journalist who has just been convicted of libeling one of the most powerful businessmen in Sweden. Lisbeth Salander is a private investigator (with a dragon tattoo) who is considered seriously unstable by the state. The two are thrown together in this fast-paced murder mystery as an aged tycoon hires them to solve the muder of his granddaughter Harriet Vanger, who disappeared from their family estate almost forty years ago. Her bereft grandfather Henrik has searched for her killer ever since, convinced that a member of his own family murdered Harriet in cold blood.

The book sounds kind of ridiculous when you explain it. I mean, the story includes sadists, serial killers, Biblically allusive murders, sexual exploitation, and a couple Nazis. But it’s a great read. I think it targets a Da Vinci Code demographic: it’s a commercially appealing, fast-paced thriller with plenty of intrigue thrown in. It’s even pretty smart. A word of warning: it took me a couple chapters to get into it. The story is set in Sweden, so the names are foreign and hard to remember for an American reader. And the beginning of the story is kind of confusing as Larsson tries to weave together the many different characters. It takes at least five chapters before it starts to get good.

Editorial quandaries: So, Larsson’s manuscripts were actually found in his home after his death and are being published posthumously. Also interesting is that Larsson had started to write a fourth book and had actually planned for a total of 10 books in the series. As someone who works in publishing, this presents a lot of interesting problems. (more…)

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