Thursday, November 24, 2011

Review: We Have Always Lived in the Castle

This is a delightfully creepy story, in which Jackson reminds us that the most frightening tales need not rely on graphic violence, spilling blood, or similar. This is the story of Merricat Blackwood, who lives in the family home with her sister and uncle. The rest of the family is dead, having been poisoned at dinner years ago. The Blackwoods have become pariahs in town; Merricat is the only one who ventures out beyond the old, Gothic manse they call home. How the family came to be poisoned, and how the sisters have come to exist on the fringes of society are revealed as the book develops.

This book is pure weird, psychological suspense. I loved it for that very reason, and stayed up half the night so that I could read this in one sitting. I was shocked to discover that Merricat is supposed to be eighteen. She behaves more like a stunted child than an adult. As unique as the characters are, it's the house that remains seared in my memory. When I think of this book, I think of the house, the castle, such as it is. The castle is a character in this book. It has a life, presence, and personality of its own. I would definitely recommend this book, especially as a classic for those who generally don't care for classics.

Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle (Penguin, 2006, orig. 1962) ISBN: 0143039970

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: The Case of the Late Pig

Albert Campion is a gentleman inspector in the style of Dorothy Sayers's Lord Peter Wimsey. Here Campion finds himself investigating the death of a former classmate. Pig Peters was a nasty child who grew into a nasty adult. Few people are sorry to see him die, even if he does appear to die twice. Campion attends Peters's funeral after reading a notice in the newspaper. Months later he happens upon a second funeral, also purported to be that of Pig Peters. The second time around Campion views the body in the morgue. It is unmistakably Peters. Who was buried at the first funeral? How did one or two people meet their death? These are the questions Campion sets out to answer.

While reading this I was struck by the many similarities between Campion and Lord Peter Wimsey. Both are sons of minor gentry waiting to inherit. Both are dilettantes assisted by faithful valets. I found Campion's valet, Lugg, somewhat difficult to
comprehend. He is presented as a large, hulking, almost ogre-like man who dons aprons and makes tea. I was unable to figure out how and why he is with Campion. Presumably this is explained earlier in the series. Jumping into the middle of the series made it somewhat difficult to understand all of the characters' quirks.

This book is notable among recent mysteries I've read in that its ending is wholly satisfying. Generally when I read mysteries I enjoy the build-up and then find the ending to be a disappointment. With this book I had the opposite reaction. There were points where I got bored with the build-up, but the ending was full of suspense and intrigue.

Margery Allingham, The Case of the Late Pig (Felony & Mayhem, 2008, orig. 1937) ISBN: 1934609145

Friday, November 18, 2011

Review: The Buddha in the Attic

This book consists of the stories of Japanese brides sent to California to marry the men who immigrated to the United States in the early-20th century. On the boat crossing the Pacific the women share stories and photos, hearing about the careers and wealth of one another's husbands while also expressing their anxieties about marriage.

Arrival in California presents a world most of the women never expected. Most find themselves working to exhaustion in fields with little to show for their labor. They are subjected to racism in all of its forms. Much of what they were promised was a myth. The book follows the experiences of these women, from their time on the boat, through marriage and family life, work, and finally through the hysteria of World War II that led to internment.

Otsuka has written this book in the first person plural, a decidedly interesting choice. This has the benefit of allowing Otsuka to explore the varieties and commonalities of these women's experiences. The most interesting and most haunting chapter was the final one, in which white Californians expressed their surprise and wonder at the disappearance of Japanese Americans from their communities. It was astounding how white Americans managed to simply ignore all of the notices that were regularly being addressed to the Japanese community.

This book offers a familiar narrative of immigration, resettlement, and racism. What makes this a fresh and interesting story are the unique writing choices Otsuka has made. This is a rather short book, but it seems to be the right length for the manner in which the story is told.

Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic (Knopf, 2011) ISBN: 0307700003

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Review: Maisie Dobbs

This is a rags-to-riches and detective story wrapped into one. Maisie Dobbs is a plucky but poor young woman. When she enters servitude her employers become her benefactors, leading her to a career as a detective. Wen Maisie sets up her own agency an infidelity case leads her to something far more curious- a commune for former soldiers where residents seem to die under mysterious circumstances.

The specter of the First World War looms large in this book. Though set in 1929 memories and experiences of war infuse everyone and everything. Maisie is shaped by her experiences as a battlefield nurse, and we learn that wartime experiences have shaped her personal life as much as her professional life. Ten years after Versailles the wounds of war, both physical and emotional, have far from healed. As Maisie investigates the soldiers' commune, the war is at the center of the experience.

This is a well-done historical mystery, both engaging and well-written.

Jacqueline Winspear, Maisie Dobbs (Penguin, 2004) ISBN: 0142004332

Review: Whose Body?

Lord Peter Wimsey, sometimes sleuth, and constant man-about-town, began his sleuthing career here. Lord Peter is called in when an unassuming man finds an unidentified dead body in his bathtub. Police suspect that the body might be that of a missing businessman, but Lord Peter is not so sure. The body's attributes don't seem to match those of the missing. According to police the prime suspect is the owner of the bath. Again, Lord Peter is not convinced, and it becomes his job to clear the innocent man's name.

Lord Peter's aristocratic eccentricity is on full display in this novel, more so that in some of the later books in the series. There were definitely times when I started to get annoyed at the preponderance of "What Hos," and similar. Still, Lord Peter solves the mystery quite admirably.

Dorothy Sayers, Whose Body (Harper Collins, 2007, orig. 1923) ISBN: 0739405292

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Review: Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance

Miss Zukas has stumbled onto another mystery, this one at a Native American Cultural Center. When the librarian at the cultural center is found dead, Helma is sent to catalog the center's collection. Frightening stunts seem to be happening all over the building, and it becomes clear that Helma, the new cataloger, may be in danger too.

The plot of this mystery is solid, and it's a good addition to the series. This is the fourth book in the series, and I'm finding that after four books Helma is starting to wear on me. She seems to be rather unkind to her friends; I'm honestly not sure how it is that she has any friends. Her prim and proper demeanor was charming in the first book, but it's becoming extreme, and Helma now is treating people badly.

Probably the most egregious victim in the book is Boy Cat Zukas, the stray cat that Helma has sort of taken in, but who she leaves out at night and to whom she refuses to show affection. These irritations aside, I am enjoying the series, and will surely continue to read it.

Jo Dereske, Miss Zukas and the Raven's Dance (Avon, 1996) ISBN: 038078243X

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Review: The Aquariums of Pyongyang

Hwan's purpose in writing this book is to expose to the world the horrors of North Korea's gulags. Hwan spent ten years, from age nine to nineteen, as a political prisoner in the concentration camp Yodok, deep in the North Korean mountains. At Yodok Hwan and other prisoners like him were nearly starved, worked to death, and indoctrinated in the cult of the great leader, Kim Il-Sung. What did Hwan do to deserve all of this? He happened to be the grandson of a man who might have spoken out against North Korea's corrupt regime.

Hwan's account of his life in the camp is undeniably horrifying. He draws connections between North Korea's camps and those of the Nazi and Stalinist regimes. His memoir certainly offers insight into how such a corrupt dictatorship manages to sustain itself. In North Korea transgressors are not the only ones punished; their relatives are punished too.

North Korea clearly thrives on secrecy, and shining a light on the dreadful human rights abuses perpetuated there is undeniably an important part of trying to end them. That said, this memoir is less literary and more political in outlook. It is sometimes less concerned with nuance, and more concerned with making a political point. Still, for those unfamiliar with how North Korea operates, this is important reading.

Kang Chol-Hwan, The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag (Basic Books, 2005) ISBN: 0465011047

Monday, November 14, 2011

Review: The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Flavia de Luce is a chemistry prodigy with a special interest in poisons. At age eleven she can craft a variety of poisons in her attic laboratory. As the child of a distracted single father, Flavia is frequently left to her own devices, as are her two self-obsessed sisters. One day a dead bird with a stamp on its beak, and a dead man, turn up at the De Luce estate. What follows is a bizarre trip into the past, stamp collecting, and chemistry. Flavia quickly proves that she can out-investigate the local police.

This book is nothing if not original. I've never met a character quite like Flavia. I did find the book to be a bit on the long side. An eleven year-old protagonist, no matter how unique, cannot necessarily sustain 300+ pages of interest. I found that to be the case here. If the book was reduced by a third it would have been cleaner, tighter, and more enjoyable. Overall an entertaining and unique read, and I will likely look for more books in this series.

Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bantam, 2010) ISBN: 0385343493

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Review: Death of a Travelling Man

A surly man in a caravan and his equally surly female companion arrive and park themselves in Lochdubh. Hamish is annoyed and presumes that the new arrival is up to no good. The rest of Lochdubh's villagers seem to disagree. Many are charmed by the newcomer, Sean Gourlay. The vicar even allows Sean to park his caravan on the property. To add to Hamish's annoyance, he has been assigned an associate constable who prefers cleaning and chasing the daughter of the local restaurateur to any actual police work.

Then Gourlay winds up dead. The investigation reveals that he harbored some dark secrets about the locals. Hamish is desperately afraid that the killer is a Lochdubh resident. He begins desperately searching for an answer outside the village, but it begins to look more and more like Hamish might simply be ignoring an uncomfortable truth- that someone he knows and likes is the killer.

This is another entertaining episode in the Hamish Macbeth series. It is a fast and fun read, perhaps most notable for the entertaining character of Hamish's associate officer, a great fan of cleaning products, and definitely an original.

M.C. Beaton, Death of a Travelling Man (St. Martins, 1993) ISBN: 0312097832

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Review: Hoopi Shoopi Donna

Set in a Polish-American community in western Massachusetts, this novel follows Milewski as she tries to come to terms with her father. As a child Donna was the apple of her father's eye. When her parents adopt a young cousin from Poland Donna's place in the family is eclipsed by younger, more Polish Betty. An unfortunate car accident cements this. Donna is blamed for the accident, and her new sister Betty becomes everyone's favorite. While Betty prospers Donna fades, and stews about her broken family.

Adulthood finds Betty in medical school and Donna working in a tampon factory, unable to create any kind of lasting relationship with a man. To find her way out Donna has to return to one of her childhood loves: polka music.

Parts of this book seemed overdone. By the end of the narrative Betty's accomplishments start to seem ridiculous. She doesn't quite cure cancer or create world peace, but she comes close. Donna has a tendency to get annoying at times. In fact, there were times I wanted to smack her. The book's strength is definitely in its vibrant description of a Polish-American community. I had no idea that polka music was still so prominent anywhere. The tensions between those born in Poland and those born in the US was were intriguing. Read this book for the setting, not necessarily for the characters.

Suzanne Strempek Shea, Hoopi Shoopi Donna (Washington Square, 1997) ISBN: 0671535455

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: The Butterfly Cabinet

Told in two voices, this novel explores life in a wealthy and secretive Northern Irish family. The two voices are those of Harriet Ormond, mistress of Ormond Castle, and Maddie, one of her young servants. Harriet's portion of the book is a diary, written while its author was incarcerated for the murder of her daughter, Charlotte. Maddie's portion is told decades later, in old age, as she narrates her story to Harriet's great-niece Anna, who visits Maddie in the nursing home. Through the interwoven stories we learn what role each woman played in Charlotte's death. The picture that emerges of Harriet is one of a cold and misguided woman, more at home in nature, with the butterflies she collects, than she is at home with her family.

This is certainly an atmospheric noel, and the cold and draughty castle serves as a fine backdrop for this rather Gothic tale. McGill makes the reader feel the dankness of the prison and the shadowy alcoves of the castle. I did not much care for the format of Maddie's narrative. She tells her story to someone who is not really a character, and I found that Harriet's portion flowed much more smoothly. The ending offered some exciting twists and turns, but I still would like to be rid of the unseen Anna.

Bernie McGill, The Butterfly Cabinet (Free Press, 2011) ISBN: 1451611595