I don't know how I managed to get in five books in October. They include a novel I loved, a travel book I didn't like at all, and three mysteries, including a marvelous "outing" with those divinely odd detectives, Bryan and May.
"Tom Lake" by Ann Patchett
If ever there was a book written about things I love, it would be "Tom Lake." In her most recent novel, Ann Patchett visits the world of theatre, Thornton Wilder and yes, Michigan sweet cherries, the kind I buy and devour gluttonously every summer.
Set in the summer of 2020, the Nelsons -- Lara and Joe -- own a cherry farm in the Traverse City area where each year they grow and pick sweet and tart cherries, and later, apples. But in 2020, their seasonal workers, feeling the effects of Covid quarantines, are fewer. Their two college-age daughters are home, helping in the orchard, while the third is also present, planning one day to take over when her parents retire.
It is as they pick the cherries that the girls ask their mother to tell them about how she once played Emily in Thornton Wilder's "Our Town," first in high school, then college, and then (after a brief stint in Hollywood) at a Michigan summer stock company in the (fictional) town of Tom Lake. But what they really want to hear is about her relationship with Peter Duke, an actor in the company who later became an Oscar-winning actor and one of their favorites.
Lara weaves the story from her high school days and accidental casting as "Emily" in a community theatre production and through the Tom Lake days, when she and Duke had a brief but passionate love affair. But one day it all goes wrong, changing Lara's life trajectory in ways that could only be described as fortuitous.
Patchett builds strong characters -- the three girls, now young women and yearning to know more about their mother and her life before the family; Lara's loving husband Joe, who adds his own stories about Peter Duke; Duke himself, cocky, handsome, and talented; and Lara -- who shares the past with her daughters -- but not all of it.
And with those characters, this book is about relationships -- Lara's with her family as well as Duke and another company member, Pallace; Duke and his older brother, Sebastian; Joe's relationship with his aunt and uncle, from whom he eventually takes over the farm; and the relationship we have with the past. We edit our own stories as we tell them. Some things are for public consumption; others remain private, for one soul only.
I love that this book was set during the pandemic. It's not often mentioned -- Lara makes masks for their fruit stand; a farm family nigh finds families watching a movie on a screen outdoors, sitting on blankets well spaced; daughter Maisie is eager to return to her classes at Michigan State, tired of her online classes; and of course the worker shortage means more work for the family. It is in deep contrast to the life at Tom Lake, decades before, where audiences crowded the theatre and between rehearsals, the company, which shared communal housing, would gather at the beach for swims.
I love Patchett's writing -- I always have. But this might be my favorite of her books. Maybe it's because of the play. Or the cherries. Or that sense of identification. Or maybe because it's just a darned good book.
"Final Acts" edited by Martin Edwards
I'm not normally a fan of short stories but how could I resist a collection of short stories from the British Library Crime Classics series? With writers like Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy L. Sayers, Bernard J. Farmer and Julian Symons, I knew at least four of the stories would be good ones -- and, as it turned out, most of them were well worth the time.
All the stories are set in the theatrical world where often (at least in these cases) the offstage drama was more exciting than that onstage. A clown with magic tricks makes his wife disappear -- for good. An understudy finds a way to take over the leading role. Spurned suitors and glamorous actors, all can have murder in mind
If you enjoy short stories, mysteries and the theatre, this might be an enjoyable book for you!
"Neither Here Nor There" by Bill Bryson
I have rarely, if ever, found a travel book I didn't like. Until now.
I had high hopes for this book that follows the author on his travels through Europe in the 1990s. It sounded great-- he would visit Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Italy, France, Spain and more and I might be reminded of places I'd love and those I'd like to learn about. I'd heard he was a humor writer as well, so surely this would be delightful.
During the first few chapters I realized something important. I really didn't like Bill Bryson. I don't mean Bill Bryson the author (although I do actually mean that, too.) I mean I didn't like Bill Bryson, the person. He is snarky, mean spirited, brutally sarcastic and continually finding fault with everything. And if he's not, then he's doing a fine job of disguising it. I'm sure he must have redeeming qualities but he certainly doesn't show them in this book. (Maybe he's just trying to be funny, but this technique failed for me.)
As I pondered this, debating whether or not to put it down (and yet, there were only 70 pages to go) I realized that the reason he appeared to be having such a bad time on his journey was due in large part to himself. If he'd actually planned his trip -- even a little -- he might have been able to find a hotel room instead of wandering from place to place in the wee hours. He may have realized that certain attractions aren't open on Sunday. He would have learned a few food names in the various languages he might need to know so he wouldn't end up ordering bad food. For that matter, he might have packed a snack in his bag before getting on a train, hungry, with no dining car and a long trip.
Granted, he was trying to recreate a trip made long ago, with his friend Katz. But things change, and travel definitely changes. And he wasn't a young man anymore.
The only thing this guy had to complain apart, for the most part, was himself. But of course, that never happened. In addition, he peppered his story with his infantile reminiscences of his trip with the obnoxious Katz. Every time he launched into a Katz story, which was often, or yet another puerile fantasy, I skipped over paragraphs. Or a page. Or two. (Which is probably how I got to only 70 pages left.)
Don't get me wrong. There were moments in the book where I chuckled. After all, I like somewhat sarcastic, exaggerated, overplayed, deadpan humor. It can be a great way of making a point or telling a story. Defamation by exaggeration can be fun, funny and useful. In fact, one of my favorite bloggers does it so well, I look forward to every post that Mike of A Bit About Britain writes. This is because Mike is not mean-spirited, he's funny. Most of all, he provides plenty of valuable information about interesting places in an entertaining way. Whenever I read Mike's blog, my list of places in England I'd like to visit gets a little longer.
And there were segments in Bryson's book that were particularly interesting. He clearly loves museums and his comments are quite thoughtful, as are his observations of the people in the various countries he visits, particularly in Yugoslavia and Bulgaria
This book was just too much.complaining and not enough information. "Neither Here Nor There" could have just as been easily titled "Neither Good Nor Bad." It all depends on what you want in a book. I got it from a Little Free Library. It should go back there.
"The Memory of Blood" by Christopher Fowler
It has been far too long since I read one of the fun and fascinating "Bryant and May" books by Christopher Fowler. But I picked a wonderful one to reacquaint myself with two of my favorite detectives!
For those unfamiliar with Fowler's series about these two eccentric detectives (and I recommend you become familiar with them!) Arthur Bryant and John May are two senior citizen detectives who work for London's Peculiar Crime Unit, which tends to pick up cases where someone of prominence or cases where public safety is severely endangered. This time they return to the world of theatre when the child of a producer whose West End play has just opened, was thrown from the window of their high-rise apartment. Oddly enough, the perpetrator appears to be the pupped Punch, from the Punch and Judy puppet shows.
Because a government official's daughter is a potential suspect, having been present at the cast party where the event happened, the PCU is called in. It's right up Arthur Bryant's alley -- a fan of all things historical and theatrical (among other idiosyncracies) he sees a relationship to the Punch character and the way the child died. His suspicions seem confirmed when the plays director is found dead with a doll of another Punch character close at hand.
Fowler presents a clever mystery with engaging characters (in addition to Bryant and May, readers become acquainted with their equally offbeat colleagues), a clever setting and loads of history about the Punch and Judy tradition as well as other aspects of Victoriana.
You don't need to read the Bryant and May series in order to fully enjoy the books. The first chapter, written as a 'memo' describing the PCU and its employees tells you all you need to know to instantly fall into the books.
"Fatal Pursuit," by Martin Walker
In the next book of the "Bruno Chief of Police" series, our local policeman in the village of St. Denis is on the trail of two cases that may be related. Set during the town's car festival, which includes a classic car parade and a race, one case involves the murder of a researcher; the other, a racing car enthusiast who may be involved in a money laundering scheme feeding the profits to terrorism.
Bruno is suspicious when what appears to be a heart attack of a man doing research about a missing Bugatti auto is more than it seems when he realizes certain things have been stolen from his office, despite his wallet being full. Two of the persons of interest are the wealthy Sylvestre who has been searching for the Bugatti, which has roots going back to WWII. Also of interest is Sylvestre's friend, Freddy, a slightly shady character and a whiz of a race car driver.
Meanwhile, Bruno takes a teenager accused of shoplifting under his wing, finding him a job with his former romantic interest, Pamela, at her riding school. Felix has a passion for both horses and cars and could be a clue to the Bugatti's fate.
Without Pamela or Isabelle, his former colleague and soul mate who now works in the Hague, Bruno is available for a new relationship and may find it with Sylvestre's cousin, Martine. Or, could she be a suspect in either the first murder or the second? And,when Freddy and Sylvestre come under the investigative eye of Isabelle for funneling money for terrorism, could Bruno find his heart divided?
As always, the charm of the French village and the wonderful essence of French country cooking, as demonstrated by Bruno, is reason enough to enjoy these books. The fact that the mysteries are good ones is almost secondary!