A mystery within a mystery to watch for!

  • Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Harper, US release June 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: A London editor receives a mystery manuscript just as the author falls to his death. Despite her antipathy towards the author, Susan Ryeland is committed to finding the missing chapters and the real cause of Alan Conway’s death. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy.
  • Genre: Mystery
  • Locale: London and environs
  • Time: Contemporary
  • I’m a sucker for British whodunits. Horowitz is known to PBS viewers for his teleplays, Midsomer Murders and Foyle’s War. Magpie Murders pays homage to the great mystery writers and detectives with more than a little tongue-in-cheek. Horowitz’s literary allusions and adroit wordplay make this a true joy and a great choice to take anywhere this summer.

For some reason, British murder mysteries seemed so much more civilized than their American counterparts. Even when one victim’s head is removed by the sword from the suit of armor in the manor hall – rather hard to believe. It’s the air of gentility, found more often in those who have suffered reverses than those on the rise, and generations of community connections despite differing social strata. Villages are traversed by walking or biking, and city dwellers live in lovely row houses or quaint flats. All of these elements, plus the necessary school ties, are present in Magpie Murders. Rather than feeling trite, it is entertaining to see how Horowitz manages to bring all these elements together, stringing out the clues bit by bit.

It’s not a great surprise that Alan Conway, author and murder victim, is disliked by many who know him. He is the ticket to his small publishing house’s success as both his publisher and editor realize. Just as his latest manuscript in about to be delivered, Conway comes to London for a dinner with the publisher at a private club. Unfortunately, all does not go smoothly. So after the incomplete manuscript appears and Conway dies, his editor is highly motivated to find the missing conclusion and the answers. She soon learns that Conway’s final mystery has far too many parallels with the leads she is following.

Dan, my very supportive husband, often wonders how there can still be people in Britain given the number of poisonings, falls, stabbings and hunting accidents that occur under suspicious circumstances. Somehow the bucolic settings make crime seem oh, so different, from the flashing lights and screaming sirens of American crime stories. Crime is intensely personal and localized, motives deep-seated and clear.

For fans of classic British mysteries, there is so much to like. Horowitz is reveling in each allusion he scores and inside publishing barb he plants. If you are intrigued, this is your June read.  It is coming out next week, just in time to take along wherever you go this summer.

Wandering NYC and life with Lillian Boxfish

  •  Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk by Kathleen Rooney (St. Martin’s Press, 2017)
  • In 40 words or less: Lillian was a woman before her time. On New Year’s Eve, at 85 years old, she sets out to walk the important landmarks of her life in New York and revisit decisions, good and bad.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Primarily NYC
  • Time: New Year’s Eve 1984 and flashbacks
  • This book was pure pleasure. Lillian is based on a woman copywriter for Macy’s beginning in the 1930s. Kathleen Rooney captures both the bon vivant and the troubles that make a story worth reading. As a dedicated walker and child of New York, I was with Lillian every step of the way.

New York City has long been the destination for writers, actors and other aspirants with dreams beyond Main Street at home. Kathleen Rooney creates in Lillian Boxfish a woman pushing the envelope of the 20th century. Conveniently, Lillian is born in 1900 and comes of age with the new freedoms of the 1920s. This affords her the opportunity to seek a career in New York after graduating Goucher College, of course, living in a women’s residence, suitable for unaccompanied young ladies of the era. She eventually secures a position as an assistant copywriter for R.H. Macy, writing copy for the clever ads popular until widespread television advertising changed the field.

Lillian loves New York as much as she loves her independence. As a career woman of that era, her evenings and weekends were devoted to enjoying all the city had to offer and her growing expertise as a poet. Her colleagues were her core friends and occasional frenemy. While always very social, Lillian was disinclined to marry, move to the suburbs or give up her career.

All these stories are recounted in the course of New Year’s Eve, 1984, as Lillian walks across Manhattan, visiting many of the places that have defined her life. Although setting out alone, she isn’t particularly lonely, confidently stopping in fashionable restaurants for a cocktail and continuing on. At 85, she is still fit and interested in engaging with the city and all it offers, including bodega owners and young photographers she happens to befriend.

Lillian’s life has its share of missteps along with the successes. She marries and has a child late in life for someone of that era while continuing to work. Changing societal attitudes run throughout, and her beloved career at Macy’s eventually comes to an end.  As a trailblazing woman in advertising, she is held as an icon and then abandoned as the feminist movement begins to take hold.

Rooney’s novel is a welcome change of pace. Adding to the attraction of Lillian’s character is the knowledge that she is inspired by the real life of Margaret Fishback, who did hold an assistant copywriter’s position with Macy’s and had her poetry published. While the story is pure fiction, I’d certainly like to be Lillian when I grow up!

 

 

Howard Jacobson’s ‘Shylock’ is contemporary and biting

  • Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson (Hogarth Shakespeare, 2016)
  • In 40 words or less: Commissioned as one in a series of Shakespeare’s plays reconceived as contemporary novels, Jacobson skewers the “reality TV”  rich while Strulovitch, a wealthy Jewish philanthropist, questions his Jewish identity and worries about his daughter, all under the eyes of Shylock.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: England
  • Time: now
  • This book showcases the timelessness of Shakespeare’s characters and themes with Jacobson’s keen language and sardonic wit.

Simon Strulovitch lives in the countryside near Manchester, England. On a winter’s evening, he visits the grave of his mother, Leah, only to meet Shylock, still in mourning and speaking to his wife, Leah. Strulovitch invites him home and thus begins a contemporary recasting of The Merchant of Venice. Howard Jacobson is well-known for his biting assessments of his characters and their social standing.

Venice plays a major role in the story. On his honeymoon with his first wife, Strulovitch quickly realizes her idealized vision of him doesn’t mesh with his conflicted Eastern European roots. Strulovitch was angry and saddened at his father’s disownment of him for marrying outside of the faith. Upon his second marriage, there was a reconciliation and Strulovitch became a great collector of Jewish artists though his ambivalence about his Jewish identity remained.

Tragically, Kay, Simon’s second wife was felled by a stroke when their daughter Beatrice was young. Kay was left a wordless invalid and Strulevich effectively became a single parent. Shylock and Strulovitch have much in common in dealing with their daughters and as outsiders in the communities in which they live.

A mash-up of reality television elements – food and advice tv – along with a Kardashian-like figure and her acolytes are satirical devices that draw Beatrice, an aspiring performance artist, to her rupture with her father.

Woven throughout the novel is overt anti-Semitism in the community and among those Beatrice has chosen as her associates. When Beatrice, just turning 16, runs off with a football player suspended for his Nazi hand motion, Strulovitch wants him to pay.

Shylock is the classic foil to Strulovitch as he wrestles with his values and where he draws the line on taking action. It does take a leap to accept Shylock’s presence in 21st century England. However, the essential issues that these men, both as fathers and as Jews, face have changed little over the centuries. For this reason and because Jacobson can turn a phrase, that this reimagining of The Merchant of Venice is well worth reading.

This is the second of these novel riffs on Shakespeare I have read. I may give another a try.

(My earlier read was Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl based on The Taming of the Shrew and here is my write-up. My take on recent theatrical riffs on The Merchant of Venice is here.)

Making amends, making friends

  • My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman (Atria Books, 2015)
  • In 40 words or less: Seven-year-old Elsa and Granny are best friends. Precocious and a misfit among her peers, Elsa gains strength from the magical stories Granny weaves. After Granny’s death, Elsa is sent on a quest connecting people Granny met throughout her life.
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Locale: Non-specific Sweden
  • Time: 2012
  • This book is for you if you enjoy quest literature. Some characters are reminiscent of those in the Harry Potter books. Be aware that suspending belief about the sophistication of a seven-year-old is necessary. It is definitely NOT like A Man Called Ove.

Fredrik Backman made a splash on the literary scene when A Man Called Ove was first published in the U.S. in 2014. His third title, Britt-Marie Was Here, was released last summer. When I had the chance to speak with Backman at Book Expo America last May, I asked which of his books he’d suggest for some book groups I facilitate. His recommendation was My Grandmother… precisely because people seemed to either love or hate it. And he was right.

I am a sucker for a quest. I recommend Markus Zusak’s I Am the Messenger at every chance I get. Backman does an admirable job of connecting the reader to Granny and Elsa. While it is very hard to imagine that seven-year-old Elsa really has read all the Harry Potter books multiple times, it is no stretch to understand why her eccentric, anti-establishment Granny is her anchor in her confusing family. Elsa’s mother works constantly and is pregnant with Halfsie, soon to be Elsa’s half brother. Everyone seems to adore her stepfather but they have no special connection.  And her father and his new family are not very involved in her life. When Granny isn’t getting into scrapes with the local police and businesspeople she devotes all her attention and imagination to Elsa.

Granny’s unexpected death leaves Elsa bereft and adrift. The small apartment building that Granny and Elsa lived in is filled with characters. Some are a part of daily life, whether Elsa likes it or not. Others are disconnected and often far from view. Delivering an envelope written by Granny to a neighbor sends Elsa on a journey to learn about them all.

My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry is alternately humorous and touching. The imaginary world Granny created to ease Elsa’s night fears is complex with memorable elements. Some of Backman’s descriptions of Elsa’s neighbors are reminiscent of people met in the pages of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

As Fredrik Bachman told me, some love the book, others really not. Having Elsa be a seven-year-old is a real sticking point for many. Backman used the timing of the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia to bring Granny back home to care for her granddaughter, a choice that created unnecessary hurdles. For those who can buy into the intellectually precocious Elsa, Granny’s imaginary world, and the quest to find Elsa’s true family, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry may be a worthy undertaking.

My visit to ‘Station Eleven’

  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel (Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) Audiobook – Kirsten Potter, narrator (Random House Audio)
  • In 40 words or less: A famed actor collapses on stage as a worldwide flu pandemic that destroys civilization begins.  Twenty years later, the survivors struggle. Despite desperate conditions, they cherish fragments of life before and seek family and community connections in their new world.
  • Genre: Post-apocalyptic Science Fiction
  • Locale: Toronto, Great Lakes region
  • Time: Near future
  • Read this if you think post-apocalyptic fiction is not your thing. A beautifully crafted story with compelling characters that will likely surprise you.

I admit it. I steer way clear of classic science fiction and dystopic literature. There are so many books I’ll never have the chance to read in my preferred genres so why bother. Last month we took a road trip to visit family in South Carolina. As usual, we explored out of the way places (good material for another post) and avoided radio roulette by downloading audiobooks. I’d been hearing about Station Eleven for two years and thought it might bridge the differences in our reading tastes. It turned out to be a great decision.

Emily St. John Mandel uses the stage to open Station Eleven. Arthur Leander, a noted actor, is starring in an unusual production of King Lear which includes a few child actors. During the performance, he collapses in full view of the audience and one of the young girls. Despite the best efforts of an EMT in attendance, he dies. The lives of these three characters – Arthur, Kirsten, and Jeevan- are inexorably linked across more than three decades, from the earliest days of Arthur’s film career to twenty years after the earth’s population was virtually destroyed in a flu pandemic.

Jeevan, the EMT, leaves the theater into a Toronto snowstorm and learns of the virulent flu from a doctor watching patients sicken and die in the emergency room. With great descriptive detail, Mandel follows Jeevan as he stockpiles cart after cart of supplies from a closing store and then drags them to his brother’s high-rise apartment where they seal themselves in, hoping to escape unscathed.

Almost twenty years later, Kirsten is traveling the Great Lakes Region with a group of musicians and actors that perform concerts and Shakespeare when they encounter other small groups of survivors. Without electricity or other measures of modernity, daily life requires foraging and scavenging through buildings and cars abandoned as the owners died. Kirsten has blocked out the early years after the pandemic but continues to seek out information about Arthur, who showed her great kindness and gave her a book that’s her constant companion.

Also traveling the region is a young cult leader known as the Prophet, controlling his followers by force and intimidation. The encounters between the groups are classic good vs evil, with some twists. And it all began with Arthur.

Station Eleven is filled with comfortable individuals. Fully-drawn, they are far from perfect beings. Heroic actions come from innate humanity and personal growth, not superpowers. This combination of story and character makes this a genre-busting winner. The audiobook version, narrated by Kirsten Potter, seamlessly shifted from character to character allowing the story to shine brightly.