Such good reading this summer, so far. In other respects, perhaps mine has not been the most productive summer. But it all depends what one puts on a to-do list, doesn’t it! What if your to-do list was all about the books in your stacks?
For coming-of-age devotees:
- Accompany Lawrence Nolan on his journey to be a concert pianist in 1930s Montreal
The burdens which Lawrence must carry necessarily distance him from readers; he is extraordinarily controlled and reserved.
“He couldn’t keep up with the changes: his brother John, Patricia, and now Mother Raynaldo. All of them had slipped out of their groove, and were rolling around like marbles on a glass table.”
Compelled to achieve for his mother’s happiness, his stress increases as her sorrows increase.
“‘I am quite my old self today. I feel genuine happiness. You can’t imagine what it’s like when it’s not there.’ She tucked a clean strand of hair behind her ear. ‘Muttney insists I take John to the doctor, says he’s whiter than a snowdrift. I heard him upstairs. He was having such fun with Patricia. She’s awfully good to him. It’s just our Irish heritage, we’re so pale in the winter.’”
His mother is not presented as a villain, but ironically she demands a primacy of place in readers’ hearts, just as she overwhelms her son. Nonetheless, all characters remain sympathetic to a degree.
Almost as important as the characters in this debut novel is the setting; Depression-era Montreal provides a vivid backdrop, and music permeates the tale, offering an old-fashioned, seemingly timeless feel.
Similarly, New York City in 1939 is captured in a handful of details: ads for the World’s Fair, Doublemint Gum, Roosevelt, Camels and “Gone With the Wind” transport readers effortlessly to another time and place.
This kind of detail is never extraneous, but at times there is a sense of over-explaining, when it comes to the psychological content of the story.
“Could he ever be his mother’s priority as he once was? It was a careless question that went around and around his head leaving him exhausted, until finally he had given up wanting her to be present in his life. How could she, when she hadn’t been present in her own?”
Careful readers could likely understand Lawrence’s questioning without having it so clearly identified. Perhaps more interior scenes with symbolic elements could have relayed the same realization without the need for such direct exposition.
Susan Doherty Hannaford’s characterization is solid, the scenic detail is deftly handled, and the themes are relevant and compelling to comtemporary readers; I look forward to her next novel.
For thriller gulpers:
- Turn the pages of John Colapinto’s Undone
“Let’s face it, the bad guys are always more interesting – at least in fiction. Give me Iago over Othello any day.”
So says Jasper: quintessential good guy.
His boyhood love of Sherlock Holmes led him to create a moderately successful series of detective novels, but it is his recently published memoir which has sold astonishingly well. America can’t get enough of the story of a man who has appeared on Tovah to discuss his mid-life vow of celibacy following his wife Pauline’s debilitating stroke.
Fame and celebrity do offer rewards, but Jasper’s sudden notoriety increases his vulnerability as well. His Pure Tovah moment displays mendacity and sentimentality and it embodies self-congratulation and self-promotion. Viewers take notice.
One of those is Dez, who has hatched a plan, which he considers an act of pure creativity. The novel’s epigraphs, speaking of evil and devilish deals, warn readers that an “interesting” bad guy is at the heart of this novel.
Indeed, without Dez, Undone would be a dull tale. Jasper’s marriage to Pauline is rooted in openness, honestly and transparency. There’s no immediate incentive to turn pages there. But Dez is an ephebophile (one whose sexual preference is limited to partners in mid- to late-adolescence) and he comes with an elaborate and disturbing backstory.
John Colapinto introduces his characters thoroughly and deliberately. Readers need not use their imaginations: every detail is supplied. The story has such a cinematic feel that readers might wonder if the screen-play wasn’t written first. So it is unsurprising that there is not a lot of complexity to either the characterization or the resoluton.
Nonetheless, not everything is quite as it seems. Even in the context of Jasper’s relationship to Pauline, the situation is not ideal. “He realized that, for the first time since the stroke, they had run up against the limits of their means of communication.”
This is where the devil can catch hold of those idle hands and make deals, in the gaps. When people can no longer communicate, when their needs evolve and shift over time, when the “things we loathed become the things we loved”.
For armchair sleuths:
- Solve crime with Mark Tataglia in Elena Forbes’ fourth volume, Jigsaw Man
Elena Forbes’ series begins with Die With Me. Even if you are not the sort of reader who must methodically move through a series of books, in proper publication (or author-sanctioned) order, it is important to make Mark Tataglia’s acquaintance with the series’ debut volume.
If the thought of reading three volumes before embarking on Jigsaw Man distresses you, don’t worry: the novels are tightly paced and bolstered by relationships which grow increasingly complex as the series develops, so you are likely to enjoy each of the earlier volumes incrementally more.
‘We’re trying to find out. His body was found in the back of a burnt-out car. He was already dead when the car was set on fire.’
Chapman looked puzzled. ‘What, you mean this has only just happened?’
‘Yes. Just over a week ago.’
‘So where’s he been since May?’
Probably cut up in pieces in someone’s freezer, Tartaglia wanted to say. Instead he replied, ‘We’re still trying to put it all together. Thank you for your time, Mr Chapman. You’ve been a great help. If you think of anything else, please give me a call.’
Piecing it all together is what detectives do best. Jigsaw Man is perhaps the most aptly titled volume of the series. This is a particularly complex crime, which Mark Tataglia is assembling, and it is most engaging for the reader.
Although the bulk of the novel is presented from the series’ hero’s perspective, the perpetrator is also directly represented for the reader, although in succinct chapters, so that the reader does not have quite enough information to reach an understanding before Mark Tataglia does.
The details of setting are spare but selectively chosen, which allows readers who do not know the city to feel just as home there as the characters who inhabit it.
“London seemed just a grey, filthy, sprawling, unfriendly mass and he wondered whether he had made a mistake leaving home. Gradually, as he got to know the city better, he started to realise that most areas had their own distinct personality and community, which made life more tolerable. Nowhere was this more true than in Barnes, picture-postcard pretty and so rural that it could almost be in the country, even though it was only a few miles from the centre of town.” (Die With Me)
As suits the genre, the author uses language in a straight-forward and matter-of-fact way. When her prose takes a figurative turn, it is usually to add to the emotion of a particular scene or relationship. The following passage illuminates this quality, but is even more significant for the fact that it reveals the novels’ primary focus: relationships.
“Although they both went out of their way to be polite, each deferring almost unnecessarily to the other, they reminded her of a pair of dogs, hackles up, skirting warily around each other, spoiling for a fight.”
In this case (also drawn from Die With Me), it is a relationship between co-workers which is being discussed. And, indeed, therein lies much of the appeal for this reader: theebb and flow of workplace collaborations and friendships. Elena Forbes’ mysteries recall the early Tana French books and the more recent Robert Galbraith stories in this sense.
Unravelling the mysteries is one kind of satisfying, but the ultimate satisfaction lies in unravelling the relationships between characters; I’m looking forward to more from Elena Forbes.
For armchair riders:
- Saddle up in outlaw territory in Clifford Jackman’s The Winter Family
From the opening pages, this debut novel yanks readers back in time to a volatile and gritty setting, peopled with sharply defined characters.
“It is often observed that murderers do not look like murderers. No one said that of Augustus Winter.”
In Oklahoma, Georgia, Chicago, Phoenix and California: readers travel from 1864 to 1900 with a man who looks like a murderer.
“Until the day he died Bill would remember their lack of expression. No betrayal, anger, fear, surprise. Nothing. Just bright, alert, and empty. Like the eyes of a mountain lion that glances with magnificent disinterest at the hunter before it plunges away into the underbrush, back into the profound wilderness, unaffected by a brief intercession with the world of men.”
The wilderness of the territories plays a significant role in the story, and even in the settlements there is a sense of vulnerability.
Consider this scene, in 1864 Georgia:
“The cornfield was desolate, shorn of its crop, the stalks rustling in the gentle wind. The house was tall and painted white, with an expansive porch and wide pillars, but as they drew closer they could see the paint was flaking, the steps were green with moss, and grass was growing up between the boards.”
The setting in this novel is striking and an inherent part of building the novel’s atmosphere and reflecting the archetypal themes.
Some of the men who do not look like murderers have hidden depths. Characters in The Winter Family have “learned early on that gentle pressure from figures in authority could compel ordinary men to evil as easily as those of depraved character”.
Violence infiltrates every aspect of the story, whether sanctioned or lawless. “To you, this war is nothing more than a license for criminality. I know that, and so does the lieutenant,” observes one character.
The Winter Family scratches the thick skin of worn and injured individuals, exposes for readers the bloody and visceral fight to survive and dominate.
“Civilization changes where it abuts the wilderness.”
But as much as it is a novel about the wilderness, it is most revealing in its observations about civilization. Many of its characters inhabit the margins and amorphous borders of society, but The Winter Family leaves readers to question whether the definition of civilization is more complicated that it seems.
For armchair pirates:
- Plunder Robert Hough’s The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan
The stand-out quality of Robert Hough’s writing is his ability to capture the voice of a storyteller. Sometimes this is a more removed and formal voice, as in his memorable novel, Dr. Brinkley’s Tower. In The Man Who Saved Henry Morgan, it is a casual and personable voice: that of Benny Wand.
When readers meet Benny, he has been suddenly and dramatically displaced; arrested in London for illegal gaming, he now resides in Port Royal, Jamaica.
He presents his story in language more contemporary than historical (though the epilogue reveals sources which interested readers can consult), language designed to entertain, the language of a tale-spinner.
“The funny thing was, a lot of those lives resembled my own, hard circumstances leading to harder choices. Maybe it was the grog talking or maybe it was feeling like I’d escaped all of the things that can hold back a man forever, top among them being the country you were born in and the family that raised you and the neighbourhoods that knew you best.”
In some ways, Benny does represent an escapee, for his decision to leave England undoubtedly saves his life (the alternative having been incarceration in Newgate for a dozen years). But in other ways, he remains imprisoned. In order to survive, he engages in activities which put his life immediately and profoundly at risk.
“We headed toward the hill. Our hearts thundered and our breath came in great heaving storms and we were all of us wondering if they were just going to let us walk in like unruly house guests. A few hundred feet from that hill, the enemy still hadn’t moved – and that’s when it happened, one of those things you don’t believe is possible, so you test your eyes by waving a hand in front of them and when both eyes pass, you’re forced to figure they’re giving you the real story.”
What Benny survives makes for a fantastic tale, and indeed the plot of the novel is terrifically satisfying, but the crux of the story is ostensibly Benny’s relationship with Henry Morgan, who has been tasked with raiding Spanish strongholds and subsidized by the great coffers of colonialism.
“I’d never met a posh bugger who like the game more than the idea of winning. It’s the reason none of them are any good at it – it’s just the win they want, their self-regard stoked.”
Henry Morgan is arguably most important for introducing a worthy opponent, not on the plunder-field but at the games table. He, like Benny, enjoys chess: both men are strategizers, constantly evaluating odds and calculating risks.
Although a noteable character in the historical record, Henry Morgan illuminates the board in Robert Hough’s novel. He reminds readers that just as Henry Morgan’s power has complex roots (the lines between the personal and political inherently intertwined), Benny’s does too.
Just as these two men are angling and sussing out advantages, constructing an arc designed to deliver a victory, so, too, is the author.
Pieces move across a board and characters move through a narrative: both games are equally elaborate and complex, and Robert Hough has a winning strategy.
Are any of these already on your stacks (whether or not it’s summer, where you are reading)? Or, are you adding them to your TBR now?
Every day this week, more items on the Summer Reading To-Do List. More for stormy days tomorrow!