Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe

by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books     2014
227 pages     Mystery

Sometimes you just want comfort reading!

I was reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me on my vacation in Florida last week, but it was so rich and dense that I didn't want to be challenged on the airplane trip home. What to read?

AAH! The Number One Ladies Detective series is comfort reading! It is comfortable because it makes you smile, because the cases to be solved are solveable, and because everything gets settled in the end. Also, if you have a small stretch of available time, you can read a Ladies Detective series book in one sitting. I had The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe on my Kindle. I sighed and delved right in.

Precious Ramotswe warms your heart. Her philosophical musings are so dear and so practical. Here's an example "There was not all that much that one person could do; it was not possible for one woman to hold back the tide of greed and self-centredness that seemed to be sweeping across the world, but she would do whatever lay within her powers to do."

Another great quote: "There was no point in thinking of the bottom when one wanted to get to the top." I do so love Precious!

In book #15 of the series, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe, Mme Ramotswe and Mme Makutsi, the lady detectives, are working on a rather difficult case (as difficult as their cases are) and Mme Makutsi is also opening a diner-style restaurant, The Handsome Man's De Luxe Cafe. Things are not going well on the case or at the cafe, and the problems are compounded because Charlie, the former apprentice mechanic, has come to work for them as an assistant secretary.  It isn't necessary to say any more about the plot—or the non-plot as the case may be. Suffice it to say that nothing much happens and that is perfectly fine with the reader.

Alexander McCall Smith is a unique voice in the world of cozy mysteries. Botswana is an unlikely setting, but it is one Smith knows very well. He lived there for many years and understands the culture. Along with comfort reading, philosophical lessons, and minor character development, we learn a bit about the culture of this unique African country with every reading. 

I have read several books in the series, and I can recommend them for when you need something comfortable.  Here are my postings for  Tea Time for the Traditionally Built and The Saturday Big Tent Wedding Party.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

A Covenant with Death

by Stephen Becker
Kindle Reissue Open Road Media    2016
Originally published 1964
240 pages     Literary Fiction   

I had no idea what I was getting into when I began reading the copy of A Covenant with Death, provided by the publishers, except to note that it was a reissue of a novel by a popular 20th century author, Stephen Becker. Imagine my surprise when I found it to be a profound meditation on the nature of justice and of capital punishment in the guise of a courtroom procedural.

It is summer 1923, and a small town in New Mexico is rocked by the murder of a young housewife, Louise Talbot. She lives in the same block as Ben Lewis, a 28-year-old, who has just been chosen by the governor of New Mexico to be a circuit court judge. The governor owed his life to Ben's father, and out of respect, gives the honor of a judgeship to his son, a recent law school graduate.

Of course, Louise's husband is suspected immediately of her death and is arraigned for the murder. An older circuit court judge takes the case, and Ben attends the court sessions to learn what he can about courtroom routines. However, Ben has a lot of things on his mind. He is living with his widowed mother, which for the most part goes well, but he also has a lot of romance problems that his mother keeps trying to solve. We only know the case and the trial from Ben's point of  view, and his view is clouded by his worries that he is not worthy of being a judge and his ability to dispense justice, when he is so young and untried. 

A shocking event occurs just when the older judge is going on vacation, and Ben is now faced with a life or death situation on which he must rule. As we read his actions and his musings, we see him mature into a fine judge who is able to understand the nature of justice and dispense a decision that is awe inspiring.

One reviewer says that  A Covenant with Death is "one of the finest fictional explorations of the nature of justice in the history of American literature." Others compare it to Anatomy of a Murder and To Kill a Mockingbird as an outstanding courtroom drama. On the other hand, it is much more than a courtroom drama. It is also the depiction life in a small New Mexico town, which adds greatly to the storytelling. Most tellingly, it relates a young man's journey into maturity and responsibility. That, to me, was one of the most magnificent parts of the novel—how Ben's understanding of justice matures when he is faced with dispensing life-or-death justice. 

Stephen Becker died in 1999 after a long career as an author, translator, and professor of English. He concentrated on the "moral and social complexities of law and justice. In his books, the rigidity and absoluteness of law collides with human values—especially the need for expiation, mercy and compassion." (in Gale Contemporary Authors). Frankly, I was so pleased to happen upon this book. It is definitely one of the best books I have read in a long time. A Covenant with Death is only available for download. There will be no hard copy in this reissue.

There is a movie version that was released in 1967. Many of the movie reviews, however, say that the book was much better than the movie. I think that I just want to savor the memory of this outstanding novel, and not bother my brain with an inferior movie.

The publisher has shared an excerpt of the novel. This passage sets up the initial mystery of who killed Louise Talbot.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

After the Crash

by Michael Bussi
Hachette    2015
376 pages     Mystery

After the Crash by Michael Bussi is pure mystery-lovers' escapism—implausible but intriguing at the same time. The events of the book occur in the 1980s and 1990s, and the story is all woven together by a report written by a private investigator, Credule Grand-Duc,  eighteen years after the crash of an airliner in the Jural mountains in 1980. 

The plane had been on a trip from Istanbul to Paris. On the plane were two families with infant daughters, Emilie and Lyse-Rose; one returning to a rich family and the other returning to a working class family. Only one infant survives and captures the media's attention as "the miracle baby", but it is impossible to deduce which of the two babies has survived. The de Carville family (the rich grandparents, of course) hire Grand-Duc to use whatever means possible to solve the mystery within 18 years. Much of the novel evolves in 1998 as the eighteen years end. Lyse-Rose's sister, Malvina de Carville, and Emilie's brother, Marc Vitral, have spent much of their lives also trying to solve the mystery. The surviving girl is now affectionately called Lylie, a combination of both babies' names, and she is the first to to receive Grand-Duc's report. She then promptly disappears, and the reader doesn't know until the end of the book where she has gone.

You ask, "Why didn't they just use DNA testing to prove which girl survived?" Well, Grand-Duc did conduct the test, after the test was developed, but much of the plot takes place before the DNA test was invented. The mystery is perplexing, which is what makes this novel so attractive; the reader is completely caught  up in trying to figure things out, and the author leaves little clues that worry the reader's brain until the mystery is solved. It is the story of class, family ties, love, and obsession.

Bussi is a French writer and professor.After the Crash is his first international success and the first of his novels to be translated into English. (The translator is Sam Taylor). This book has sold nearly one million copies and appeared in American book stores this week. 
He is quite well known in France but

The headline in the Boston Globe review says "it's best to just enjoy the ride," and I would agree. There is much that is implausible. "Parts of “After the Crash” have elements of over-the-top Gothic melodrama, evoking everything from V.C. Andrews’s “Flowers in the Attic” to cheesy horror movies, but Bussi’s tucked a lot of enjoyable — and enjoyably surprising — pieces into his puzzle as well, making the novel a drawn-out, page-turning tease." I do have to mention that I was disappointed in the ending. I felt that Bussi rushed the conclusion. The ride had left me completely drained, and as I closed the book, I sighed and felt totally let down. Was it still a fun ride? Absolutely.

 Early on in my reading of After the Crash, I was reminded of a plane crash novel that I read several years ago, The Three, by Sarah Lotz. Although a bit more apocalyptic, The Three is chilling reading and equally as interesting. Check it out as well. 

 The review in the Boston Globe.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Slade House

by David Mitchell
Random House    2015
256 pages     Horror

Slade House is a novel I would not have read—horror is not a genre I generally choose,--but  it was short; it came with a cute little box; and the reviews were great. In actuality, it isn't really a horror story, but more of a ghost story,  although there is a haunted house, soul-eating vampires, and plenty of suspense. 

Every nine years, an estate called Slade House appears behind a high wall in an alley off a London street. The estate is approached only by a small door in the wall.  A pair of twins live in that house, and when the house appears, they find ingenious ways to eat the soul of an unsuspecting but appropriately lured trespasser. The fun begins in 1979 and continues over five chapters, each chapter nine years later. The reader knows something bad is going to happen in each chapter as do many of the victims. One character is heard to say, "Something bad's happening in this house, Sal. We need to get out!" 

This is one of the touches of humor that creeps into the plot at opportune times. For instance, one character says, "This is all sounding a bit 'DaVinci Code' for me." The humor lightens the perspective of the book, and the reader soon realizes that Mitchell has written the book in good fun. It might be called "horror light."  
Reviewers say that it is a sequel to The Bone Clocks, and that while Slade House is Mitchell's most "accessible" novel, it doesn't show off the depth of his talent. The Huffington Post reviewer concludes: "Tightly crafted and suspenseful yet warmly human, Slade House is the ultimate spooky nursery tale for adults." For my part, I enjoyed Slade House immensely, and that is enough for me. 

The Review in the New York Times.
The review in the Huffington Post.

The Read Harder Challenge, 2016

I am going to attempt the Read Harder Challenge for 2016. I think that it looks like a lot of fun. Anyone want to join me?

You will find the challenge below. A larger version of the challenge can be downloaded from the Book Riot Website. The article on the Book Riot website links to the New York Public Library which has some suggestions of books for us, and there is also a Goodreads Read Harder Challenge Discussion Board, which I am also joining. 

Don't be put off by the first challenge—to read a horror book. While I was on vacation, I read Slade House by David Mitchell, which is short and not too horrifying, although it does have a couple of soul-sucking vampires in it! I'll post a short review of it today or tomorrow. By the way, I don't intend to read the books in order. 

Expand your reading horizons. Read harder!