Time for the June book review -- a bit late this time! There were some good ones -- a mix of mystery, fiction, bio-fiction and history! From England, Sweden, and Paris to Berlin and Italy, pre-WWII to the present, there should be something in this list to appeal to any reader!
"The Sable Messenger" by Francis Vivian
Francis Vivian wrote mysteries from 1937-1959, most of which feature Scotland Yard Inspector Knollis. In this, the second entry in his series (1947), Knollis and his sergeant, Ellis, are called into the small town where he used to live to investigate a murder. The victim opened the door to someone he apparently recognized (according to witnesses) and was stabbed.
The suspects are plentiful: The man's wife, the neighbors living next door, the town vicar and his cousin (who also was in love with the widow). They all had some reason to possibly want him dead -- or at least out of the way. But who stabbed him and what happened to the weapon after?
Vivian weaves a good tale in this brief (159 pages) mystery, wrapping up all the ends and surprising the reader. Yes, you know it is most likely one of the above-mentioned suspects? But which one? And why! Definitely a fun read.
"The Venice Sketchbook" by Rhys Bowen
First off, if you picked up this book because you thought it might be a Rhys Bowen mystery, you will be disappointed and find that it is a novel -- one of those novels that takes place in two time periods, past and present. I enjoy her mysteries and rarely figure out the end before the last pages. This one? I knew the plot hook, line and sinker by page 198 of 399 pages. She can do better than that.
That said, the book is pleasant enough in sort of a romantic World War II way. The book begins with a prologue as Juliet, who is living in Venice, when she is asked to radio observations of ship activity in the Venice's port. (That was a mistake -- they should have held that till later and let it unfold in the book. It just made everything else to come too predictable.) Then it flashes back to Juliet's first visit to Venice as an 18-year-old with her aunt and her chance encounter with the handsome Leo, son of a count. Ten years later she returns as a school teacher with her art students and finds Leo is to be married. And ten years after that -- shortly before the war -- she returns as an art student where -- wait for it -- she connects with Leo, now in his loveless, pre-arranged marriage -- again. Of course we know she will be stuck in Italy for the war (thanks to the spoiler prologue).
Meanwhile, the contemporary plot (interspersed with Juliet's visits) follows her great-niece, Caroline, in 2001. Caroline is recently divorced from her husband who left her and currently has their son in New York as he is afraid to return to England by plane following the 9/11 tragedy. When Juliet dies, leaving her ashes to Caroline to spread in Venice, the young woman takes off to Italy with her aunt's sketchbooks and finds she has been left an apartment overlooking the sea. Gee. Wonder who owns it?
You can probably guess the plot turns from here but if you can't, you will before you are half though the book. It's well written enough, just terribly disappointing because of it being so predictable. (That said, between this book and Donna Leon's Brunetti books, I'm getting to know Venice pretty well!)
"The Bitter Taste of Murder" by Camilla Trinchieri
So, while I'm on an Italy roll, why not keep with it? You know how I love the Brunetti mysteries, partly because Paola's cooking sounds divine? Well, she's a piker, compared to Nico Doyle and his family who live in a quiet town in Tuscany. Nico was a homicide detective in New York but after the death of his wife, he decided to move to her home town in Italy, where he helps out at the family restaurant and, on occasion, helps the local police solve a murder or two.
This time, a wine blogger, known for making or breaking careers (and with a very bad temper on top of it) is seen arguing with Nico's landlord, Aldo, who threatens to kill him. So, when he ends up dead, Aldo is the prime suspect. But there are others as well -- the victim's ex-wife, his girlfriend, the housekeeper and gardener, another wine merchant, among others. It's up to carabinieri marachello Perillo and Brigadier Donanti (with Nico's help) to find out who actually was responsible.
This is Trenchiari's second Nico Doyle book and I just love the characters, the setting and the wonderful descriptions of the delicious Italian dishes prepared. The characters are beautifully drawn -- the crime-solving trio (along with Nico's dog, OneWag), the aging Gogol, who speaks almost totally in verse from Dante, the artist Nelli, Enzo and Tilde (Nico's relatives), Alba (who works in the restaurant, and Nelli, a local painter.You may want to settle in Gravigna -- at least while you are enjoying this book!
"The Bridal Chair" by Gloria Goldreich
I have always loved the work of Marc Chagall. After reading "The Bridal Chair," I remain a fan of his works. And as a person, I really don't like him at all. (This is a slightly more expanded book review of one I shared in conjunction with the art of Chagall in this year's Paris In July event.)
The artist is actually a secondary character (though a big one) in this bio-fiction by Gloria Goldereich. As readers of my book reviews know, I'm not a fan of bio-fiction and I often find I'm mad at myself for wasting my time with one. At over 400 pages, I wasn't too sure about this one to begin with but I enjoyed it tremendously. Art. Paris. Chagall. World War II and post war. What's not to love?
The central character is Chagall's daughter, Ida, the only child of his marriage to his beloved Bella. Ida often served as his model and later as his artist's representative. After Bella's death, she took over the role as his wife in many ways, catering to his every need, keeping the artist's compulsively narcissistic inflated yet fragile ego intact, serving as his hostess at salons, and basically controlling all areas of his life but his art. She chose his his homes and housekeepers, knowing they would become his lovers -- and then becoming jealous and passive aggressively undermining them when they did.
It was Ida who got Marc and Bella out of France as Jews were being rounded up and sent to concentration camps in World War II. And, it was Ida and first husband, Michael Rapaport Gordey, were responsible for getting a significant portion of his art out of the country during the war as well, as they barely escaped themselves. Beautiful, intelligent, bold and assertive, her dedication to her father destroyed her first marriage and very nearly did the same to her second.
Ida and Marc are cut from the same cloth and are fascinating and really quite unlikable characters, although not without their redeeming characteristics. In Marc's case, it was his art; in Ida's, her determination. I found the best drawn and most interesting to be her first husband, Michael, and Virginia, the woman who became his housekeeper, then lover, after Bella's death. Both were used by the Chagalls -- and underestimated and underappreciated.
This is a bio-fiction I would recommend. It's long. It was worth it.
(There is more about Chagall's art in one of this year's "Paris In July" posts. This is an annual blogging event focusing on the art, literature, film and more of France.)
An Elderly Lady Must Never Be Crossed by Helene Tursten
It's not really a detective story, although there is a murder. More than one, to be specific. Oh, the police make a few appearances, but we know from page one that they don't catch the killer, no matter which murder it is.
So, what is so darned delightful about "An Elderly Lady Must Never Be Crossed"? The elderly lady, of course! In this delightful Swedish not-so-mysterious crime book, the protagonist, Maud, is eighty-nine. By and large, she is a defender of justice -- as she sees it. So, when two boys are picking on her mentally challenged sister, she was simply giving them a little of their own back. And when her temporary teaching job was cut back due to the return of the regular teacher, well -- that just wasn't fair!
Maud operates by her own principles -- a wonderful and dear friend (perhaps a little too dear and meddling at times), but with fine intentions. And even the most righteous of readers might find themselves rooting for her!
Friends of author Tursten would do well to treat her well and justly. She has a few tricks up her sleeve and they're pretty darned close to undetectable!
"In the Garden of Beasts" by Erik Larson
Erik Larson makes history fascinating. History is fascinating in general, but it takes the right storyteller to bring it to life and Larson again does not disappoint. "In the Garden of Beasts" he follows the brief ambassadorial career of William Dodd, Ambassador to Germany for several years, beginning in 1933, primarily through his experience as well as that of his 18 year-old daughter, Martha.
Dodd is not the typical ambassador. He resolves to live and entertain within his salary, much to the chagrin of the many others in the State Department who find the former college professor dull, academic and not nearly so flashy as they felt an ambassador should be. But he was Roosevelt's pick to deal with the early days of Nazi Germany. In the years Dodd was ambassador, Hindenberg was still alive and president of Germany but Adolf Hitler was his second in command and the Nazi party was building its reputation, beating those who did not return the "Heil Hitler" salute, persecuting Jews and gearing up its military and armaments for war.
Dodd is, by nature, a pacifist, and for a period of time believes that all will be well. He sees his job as protecting Americans in Germany (in particular Jews who are receiving much of the brutal treatment and beatings as the German Jews, despite rules that they be exempt from such things as returning the "Heil Hitler" salute.) But as more terrors become evident, Dodd finds himself battling the diplomats at home who think he is making far too big a deal of the situation in Germany and Roosevelt, who both believes him but also faces an electorate that wants to remain isolationist.
Meanwhile, his young, adventurous and beautiful daughter, Martha, is exploring her new life and freedom in Berlin, making intimate acquaintance of Nazi officials and Soviet diplomats, reveling in parties and a slightly decadent lifestyle.
Larson does his research well and any quotes are "conversations" as reported in Dodd's and Martha's diaries or memoirs, along with a host of other official documents. To make the history as alive as he does is indeed a gift and when it comes to writing history he does it well. Heavy reading, but it moves quickly. Happily recommended.
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