I can't help it. I write long book reviews. But I want you to have a feel for the book. I may love something you don't or hate something you'd love. But at least when you go into it, you'll have an idea about the story and at least what one reader thinks!
This month I had the usual selection of mysteries, including several classics by Agatha Christie, but my reading list included one fascinating but disturbing show-biz biography, a solid police procedural, a simply beautiful novel that will resonate with anyone who has loved books, and an intriguing biography about one of my favorite writers!
Without further ado...
"One Singular Sensation: The Michael Bennett Story" by Kevin Kelly
Let's start out by saying I love the Broadway musical and with three of my favorites -- "Company," "Follies," and "A Chorus Line" -- Michael Bennett played a significant role as choreographer, director, producer or some combo of the above. I've seen two of his other musicals in roadshows as well -- "Promises, Promises" and "Dreamgirls." I admire the work. He was a talent for his time (the late 1960s-70s-early 80s) and his legacy lives on as a key player in that period.
That said, let's get to the book because this is the weirdest, meanest, sleaziest biography I've ever read and -- if the interviews from the book are any indication -- Bennett himself was one of the meanest, sleaziest, most manipulative theatre people I've read about. And that's a cutthroat business and I've read more than a few theatre biographies.
Author Kevin Kelly was a longtime theatre critic of the Boston Globe and he has plenty of contacts, many well-known in the theatre industry, who were happy to spill their guts about Bennett. Almost without exception it seemed like most of them -- even his family -- had big huge axes to grind and were glad of the opportunity. They spoke of him stealing their work (that came up with several writers and the actors whose stories help build "A Chorus Line"), cheating them of money, using people and then dropping them, hurts old and new and Bennett's penchant for emotionally abusing more than a few.
Now, I can certainly see how one can value the work and have issues with the one who creates it on a personal and/or professional level. But what this book came off as was a parallel to the repeatedly battered and abused person who continually returns to the abuser and then keeps trying to justify why. By the time I turned the last page I thought every person who contributed needed therapy. And we are talking some of the biggest names in the Broadway musical business from that period, on stage and off.
Despite the abuse, they all enabled him. Almost all came back to him, praising him as brilliant, a game-changer in the theatre world and a creative genius. (And to be fair, he was.) They cut him slack beyond slack. They'd blame it on his cocaine addiction, his creative temperament, his childhood, just about everything except the fact that he was just not a nice man. And it all comes out in this book (which was published in the 1980s, after Bennett's death from AIDS) , probably giving them more latitude to speak honestly without recrimination in the industry -- or by Bennett.
That's a lot of meanness to deal with for 450 pages and while much of the behind-the-scenes info is fascinating for a theatre fan, it was also very wearing and ultimately, redundant and not even that well written. I almost put it down multiple times. Which makes me wonder if I'm not that unlike the people in the book who kept coming back.
"Curtain" by Agatha Christie
Given that I had just finished "The Mysterious Affair at Styles," Hercule Poirot's last case, Erika suggested I should next read "Curtain," his last case. Fortunately, I had it at the lake and dug in.
Christie wrote "Curtain" back in the 1940s but, like her Marple "finale," "Sleeping Murder," it wasn't published until the 1970s. It takes Poirot and Hastings back to Styles and their first case, again staying at the manor house with others, all of whom might be a seasoned murderer. Was it the arrogant Major? The hypochondriac wife of a dedicated research doctor whose assistant was Hastings' daughter? The couple who now owned the guest house? A well-to-do neighbor staying at Styles while renovations are completed on his home? The quiet bird watcher? The 35-year-old spinster with a sad past? The hypochondriac's nurse? Poirot knows -- and he's not telling, but on alert, hoping to stop the next murder.
Of course he doesn't -- and that gives the detective, now aging and infirm with crippling arthritis and a heart condition -- an even more urgent need to stop him, before he kills again.
Christie reminds readers of the first case at Styles so having read it more recently made this one all the more fun. Poirot neatly lays out most of his clues but I confess, I didn't call it until very close to the end. As always, she brings her surprise twists to the foreground and makes for a fun classic mystery read.
"Murder at the Vicarage" by Agatha Christie
Poirot may be Agatha Christie's classic detective but I tend to like Miss Marple better. So, while being on a Christie kick I pulled out a double volume of her first and last Marple tomes, the latter ("Sleeping Murder") having been written, like "Curtain," 30 years before it was published.
"Murder at the Vicarage" finds us with a likeable narrator, the vicar himself, who finds the body of his neighbor, the wealthy and not-particularly liked, Colonel Protheroe, dead at the vicar's writing desk in his study. As always, there are many suspects, including the Colonel's wife (who is having an affair with the local artist); his daughter; the mysterious Mrs. Lestrange, and a number of other locals, all of whom had a grudge against the victim.
The neighborhood gossip mill is running full tilt, but one who is more likely to keep her counsel and share it with only a few is Miss Jane Marple, an elderly spinster with a knack for gardening and an eye for human nature. As the local inspector and the vicar investigate the death, Miss Marple adds her two cents in now and then -- and as you might expect, she's right on track.
The book is a wonderful introduction to an endearing character. It reads quickly and holds up well these many moons later.
"Sleeping Murder" by Agatha Christie
Christie's last "Marple" book is equally delightful. The murder in this one is not grizzly or even current, but a "sleeping murder," one that happened long ago. Young bride Gwenda and her husband Giles settle into their first home in the village of Dillworth. But Gwenda has disturbing and recurring experiences of having lived there before -- and witnessing a murder.
It turns out that she did indeed live in the home they have purchased as a child and the murder was that of her stepmother, Helen, which Gwenda saw when she was only two. Gwenda's father was convinced that he had murdered Helen in a hallucination and had sent his daughter off to live with relatives before he was admitted to an asylum.
Gwenda is determined to find out if her childhood memories are correct and she and Giles begin a quest to learn more about Helen. Working with Helen's brother, and a woman they meet when invited to a dinner at the home of Raymond West, an author who happens to be the nephew of Jane Marple, they begin to question Helen's past. Her gentlemen friends and servants from those early days are all on the list. And the couple, gently advised by Miss Marple, narrow down the list. But do they have the right suspects? And will Gwenda's late father be cleared of the murder? Or will the murderer get on to them and add another victim to his list?
I loved the characters in this one. Miss Marple almost takes a supporting role but her character is as clearly defined as in any mystery. One finds oneself rooting for Gwenda and Giles -- and worrying a bit, too. It was a great farewell to one of Dame Agatha's greatest characters.
"The Reading List" by Sara Nisha Adams
Aleisha is a 17-year old girl, working at the local branch of her London library and neither liking her job nor, for the matter, the books themselves. Mukesh is an 80-year old widower and somewhat of a recluse who finds himself making his first visit to the library and encountering the sullen librarian. Can these two ever find common ground?
Of course they can in a wonderful and affirming book by Sara Nisha Adams. Aleisha discovers a list of books in a copy of "To Kill a Mockingbird" which a client returns with a high recommendation. She, in turn, recommends it to Mukesh and decides she should read it herself. In doing so, she is, for a bit, taken out of her distressing home situation with her (probably) bi-polar and greatly depressed mother, for whom Aleisha and her older brother, Aiden, care and support. She finds strength in Atticus Finch and thoughtful reminiscences in the relationship between Jem and Scout. Mukesh finds his own strength in the book and when he returns it, he and Aleisha begin a dialogue that turns into a friendship.
And she recommends the next book on the list, Daphne duMaurier's "Rebecca."
As the two work through the books on the list, they find they draw strength and understanding through the words on the pages. For Mukesh, whose daughters overprotect him, he discovers greater independence and a stronger relationship with his granddaughter, Priya. And, he also finds the spirit of his reader wife, Naina, close beside him as he works through each book, helping him along as he moves through his healing toward a new life.
But "The Reading List," while focusing on these characters, is not without others who have -- in a variety of unique places (the back of a book, hidden in a fruit stand or a locker, among others). How they mesh together with the central characters is full and enriching and with a lovely twist at the end.
So, you might ask, what are these eight life-changing books that make such a difference in the lives of the characters? Sorry! I'm not going to tell you -- but I'll bet you've read a few and if you are like me, they may be among your favorites. If you want to find out, you'll have to pick up the book -- and I don't think you'll be disappointed. If you have ever loved libraries, reading or had some of the life challenges of our characters, I think you won't be disappointed.
"Not Dark Yet" by Peter Robinson
In a book exchange, I receive "Not Dark Yet," the late author Peter Robinson's penultimate D.S. Banks mystery. And it's a good one!
This is the first Banks novel I've read (there are 26, I believe), nor have I seen the television series, so I had no preconceptions of the characters or their previous relationships. While it didn't affect the basic mystery plot as such, I think it would have helped amplify the characters had I read others in the series from the beginning.
Banks lives and works in the Yorkshire town of Eastvale. His character is a rich one -- he loves good wine and whiskey and is music aficionado (especially classical). There are numerous references to the pieces he is listening to. (It's clear that music must have played a major role in author Robinson's life). This particular novel finds him dealing with two cases, possibly related, or perhaps not.
In the first, we meet Zelda, the significant other of his artist friend Raymond, and learn of her past as a sex trafficked woman, abducted from the orphanage where she was raised when she was released at the age of 17. Many years later Zelda has settled with Ray in the Eastvale. She is still troubled by her past and has many secrets -- and, because of her vengeance on those who abducted her, also has enemies who want revenge. (I'm wondering if readers might not have met Zelda in a previous book and this is what I mean about reading out of sequence.)
In the second plot, Charlotte Westlake is an "event planner" for the wealthy and rather shady Conner Blaydon, (think Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell). Blaydon's parties for the rich and famous include plenty of cocaine and hired young women who service the guests. Blaydon is now dead, as is a young woman who was raped at one of his events. Who killed Blaydon, who is the young woman and what does Charlotte know?
The plots are complicated but not hard to follow as they blend together. I'd write more but not only it might get confusing and I don't want to offer spoilers. Let me just say that if you are interested in a police procedural -- and a gritty one at that with material that is sensitive -- you will find "Not Dark Yet" a good read. It's sad that Robinson, who died in early October of this year, has only one more book (to be published in 2023) to share. However, he has a huge library of past books and I'd suggest starting there.
"Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman" by Lucy Worsley
The thing to remember about Lucy Worsley is that she in not only an engaging and delightful presenter of historic material, as those who watch her specials on PBS know. She can tell a story that some might find "dry old history" and they find themselves captivated by her enthusiasm and style. But above that, she is a historian and the joint chief curator of Britain's Historic Royal Palaces. She knows how to tell a story and she knows how to dig in for the information -- and that is what makes "Agatha Christie: An Elusive Woman," a new biography of the Queen of Crime, such a compelling book -- one that is both thought provoking and a good read.
Worsley begins at the beginning with a long look at Agatha's Victorian childhood -- one of privilege (until the family lost its fortune) and her close family relationships, particularly with her mother, Clara. She possessed a shyness that she maintained throughout her life, often desperate for privacy, even during the height of her fame. She may have been shy -- but she learned to observe and her observations often made it into her work.
Many books about Christie focus on the eleven days she disappeared, leaving her husband and his mistress and causing a nationwide search. She was later discovered in a hotel in the spa town of Harrowgate, claiming to have lost her memory but having registered using the last name of her husband's mistress. Certainly her fame played a major role in the public interest in the case -- she was, by that time, already a best-selling novelist.
While many have taken the stance that her disappearance was revenge on her husband or a publicity ploy, Worsley writes with the benefit of many more years of science, focusing on her depression and cases of short-term amnesia. While no one can be sure, she makes a thoughtful and compelling case.
One might think that to study Agatha's life, the best resource would be letters and diary entries. Worsley uses those as well, but also digs deeper, looking at her various novels, when they were written and her state at the time. She points out numerous places where Agatha tells her own story through her characters, something that will have me looking through my personal Christie library to read some of those long-forgotten friends.
We don't think of the plump, elderly woman author as a beautiful, sexy being but indeed, Agatha had a great deal of sex appeal. She was also constant as her long marriage to archaeologist Max Mallowan demonstrated. Theirs was truly a love story; she even financed the archaeological expeditions of her much younger husband. But she was far from perfect.
She was often caught up more with her writing than with her daughter, Rosalind. She had an addiction for buying houses and shopping, collecting items with a passion. She often used racial stereotypes, some of which make one cringe reading the books in the light of today's times. More to the point, she seemed very comfortable in doing so, which can make for an uncomfortable read. But again, times were different then, as were the takes on race. It doesn't make them right, nor excuse them, but perhaps explain a bit.
Like many of her characters, Christie, too, was often contradictory and enigmatic. The biography not only points out these character traits but offers insight into how and why they may have emerged. Her characters often had a darkness to their personalities and she was not without that herself.
Through Worsley's book we get to know Poirot and Jane Marple better as well and how Christie expressed herself through their stories. It is clear she has read every book the author has written (including her two autobiographies) and done her homework.
Whether one is a fan of Christie's mysteries or not, "Agatha Christie" is a biography worth reading. Book lovers will enjoy stepping behind the scenes to see a master at work and yes, even learn something. Highly recommended!
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