THE MURDER MYSTERY JANE AUSTEN COULD HAVE WRITTEN

I suppose nobody but the most devoted Jane Austen fan would think, “Hey, you know what would be a really good idea?  If Jane Austen turned her attention to a murder mystery, set in a big country house where only a limited number of characters could have committed the crime!”  However, obviously Claudia Gray, the author of The Murder of Mr. Wickham, is such a devoted Jane Austen fan, and the literary world wins as a result.  The book is a great fun read, especially if you are a Jane Austenite, both as a continuation of the lives of the characters in her books and even as a murder mystery.  It’s more a cozy mystery than a gory one, so if you’re one of those people who steers away from mysteries because of the gore and violence, this is a good safe read.  And if you’re at all curious about what might have happened after the happily ever afters of Austen’s books, this is the book for you. 

The setup is that Emma Knightley, formerly Emma Woodhouse (protagonist, of course, of the book Emma), sets up a house party along with her husband, inviting several couples to come and stay with them for a weekend.  The guests are not only the main characters from Austen’s other books (the Darcys, the Wentworths, the Brandons, the Bertrams) but also the offspring of those families, in the persons of Jonathan Darcy (a young man who’s probably on the autism spectrum) and Juliet Tilney, daughter of the protagonists in Northanger Abbey and a young woman with energy and imagination.  Mr. Knightley, less social than his wife, thinks it’s a bad idea from the outset, and he’s proven right when, among all the other welcome guests, an unwelcome guest shows up: Mr. Wickham.

Anyone who’s read or seen Pride and Prejudice knows what kind of a man Wickham was there: a plausible scoundrel who had no principles to speak of and who was willing to take advantage of any woman who might take his fancy.  His marriage to Lydia Bennet, Elizabeth’s youngest and flightiest sister, has not made much of an improvement on him since the end of Pride and Prejudice, and now he’s rich through his promotion of some kind of investment scheme that has drawn in and potentially ruined a number of the other guests in the house party.  If he hasn’t actually snared them in his scheme, he’s in the process of blackmailing them and taking advantage of their family members.  He is, in short, the kind of person almost everyone at the house has reason to want to see dead, but when his dead body is found, everyone is shocked and appalled, and Jonathan and Juliet, regardless of proprieties and without the consent of the adults around them, start investigating to find out who the murderer is, even if it turns out to be Elizabeth or Fitzwilliam Darcy.

As a reader of Jane Austen and a reader of mysteries, I had particular pleasure in this book.  Gray does a great job of imagining how these various characters would have continued in their lives, giving each couple a stress point and letting them respond to the unusual circumstances of this story.  The tensions between Elizabeth and Darcy, and those between Anne and Captain Wentworth, are especially well done, because those two couples seemed, at the ends of their respective books, to be the most destined for happiness, and I didn’t want to see either couple break up, no matter how serious the issues between them. 

Jonathan Darcy is well-drawn, too.  In this era, he would have been seen as “peculiar” rather than neurologically atypical, and people tend to react to him as if there’s something wrong with his quirks, which probably would have been the case (his parents’ wealth has shielded him somewhat from the effects of his behaviors), and Juliet’s first reaction to him is as reasonable as her later warming to him and seeing past his tics and oddities to his intelligence and heart.  While Gray doesn’t go as far as Austen would have in the circumstances (there’s no engagement at the end of the book), it seems pretty likely these two, who are well matched, will end up together and that hope is more than sufficient to make this a happy ending for them.

The solution to the mystery makes sense, and the author gives enough of the characters good motives and suspicious behaviors during the period when Wickham was killed that I wasn’t quite sure who could have done it, and the characters were lovable enough that I didn’t want any of them to be hanged for killing someone as odious as Wickham.  

Do you have to be a Jane Austen aficionado to enjoy this book?  No.  The characters and their current circumstances are so clearly drawn here that you can enjoy the story without having read any of the books in which they were first introduced.  Of course, it’s more fun if you do have a prior acquaintance with the characters, but it’s not necessary, and this book may spur you to read their origin stories if you haven’t.

A charming, fun read with excellent characters, a great sense of atmosphere and a mystery that has a few surprises in store: The Murder of Mr. Wickham is a great way to spend a few summer evenings.

So You Didn’t Read the Book Group Book . . .

One of the things that really disappoints me as a leader of book groups is when people don’t show up for a meeting at all because they didn’t read or didn’t finish the book for the month.  Now, obviously I can’t speak for every book group leader, but speaking for myself, I would prefer to have people come to the meeting even if they didn’t finish (or didn’t get close to finishing) the book for that month.  

Why?

Well, from my perspective, when someone just doesn’t show up at all, I have no idea why. Sometimes there are scheduling conflicts and I get that, but if someone’s not showing up because they couldn’t bring themselves to finish the book, I have no way of knowing that.  I’m left to wonder if they’re dropping out of the group entirely or if they had a scheduling conflict this month or if they really hated the book.  I’d rather know than wonder about things like that.

And from the perspective of the member of the group, it’s perfectly all right to come to a meeting if you haven’t been able to read the book.  There are all kinds of reasons for that, after all: maybe it was a bad month and you couldn’t get the time to read it. Maybe you really hated everything about the book. Maybe you started it and then got distracted by other priorities and you still want to read the book eventually.  

Come to the book group meeting!  You’ll get to hear what other people thought of the book, which might help you decide if you want to struggle through it (you might be encouraged to discover that other people had trouble with the beginning but that the book got better as you went along) or ditch it altogether.  If you weren’t thrilled with the book but you really wanted to find out who did it or what the secret was the characters kept dancing around, you can find that out at the meeting without having to go all the way through the book.  If you really hated the book, you might find out that your fellow book group members felt the same way, so you can reassure yourself that it wasn’t you, it was the book.  And if the others in the group didn’t hate the book as much as you did, you can inject some excitement into the discussion by explaining what bothered you the most about the book (of course you’ll do so by talking about the qualities, or lack thereof, of the book, and not by attacking your fellow group members no matter how deluded you might think they are for liking the book).  Sometimes it’s kind of fun to be the one person who has a completely different perspective on something the rest of the group is pretty uniform about. 

Now, obviously if you NEVER read the book for the book group, you probably want to think long and hard about whether you really should be in this particular group, since clearly there’s something that’s not working there. But if you’re a more average book group person, and every so often you hit a book that just doesn’t do it for you (or that enrages you), come to the meeting and share your opinion, or just listen to what other people have to say. If you’re in one of my groups, I promise I won’t give you a hard time for not finishing, as long as you’re there to be a part of the experience. 

HISTORICAL SPLIT SCREEN, DONE RIGHT: THE LIGHT IN THE RUINS

In the past, I’ve expressed my dislike of the current cliche in historical fiction where you have two stories, one set in the present and one in the past, and they both continue through the book until the end when the author reveals the connection between the present story and the one in the past. Aside from the inherent lack of respect for readers this cliche demonstrates, it usually defeats the purpose of making the book more interesting or relatable, because one of those two stories is almost always more interesting than the other, and you’re rushing through the less interesting one to get to the other one.

It is, however, possible to use this kind of technique well, and for an example of how that can work, may I suggest The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian.  I read this recently in connection with my senior citizens’ book group (and the major criticism on their part was the goriness of the murder part of the book; remind me never to suggest anything by Jo Nesbo for this bunch), and was struck by how in this case the two timelines were equally interesting and played into each other fluidly.

One timeline takes place in Italy during the later days of World War II, where the Rosati family is dealing with the effects of the Nazi occupation on their villa and the surrounding areas, especially the Etruscan tombs which were discovered on the family’s lands.  Various Nazis and Mussolini supporters come to the family to look at the ruins (due to a high level Nazi’s absurd concept that the Etruscans were forebears of the pure Aryans), and the younger daughter of the family, Christina, falls in love with a damaged German Officer, Friederich, to the disapproval of her family (and his superior officers). 

The other timeline takes place in 1955, when Francesca, daughter in law of the Rosati family, is horribly murdered in Florence, and the local police, including Serafina, a woman officer who was a partisan fighting against the fascists during the war, are investigating the murder and, necessarily, digging into the family’s past.  Serafina in particular believes that Francesca was murdered in this gory way because of some grudge held from the time of the war, and not just because of her own involvement in the war.  

Bohjalian knows how to create suspense.  Early on in the book we learn that the patriarch of the family is dead and that Francesca’s husband and young children were killed during the war, but it’s a long time before we actually see how those things happened. It’s the old HItchcock technique of showing you the bomb under the table and having people sit at the table talking about something innocent; you’re watching this conversation and screaming to the people that there’s a bomb they should deal with.  Here, every time we see those children, we tense, knowing the fate that’s coming for them but not knowing when it’s going to hit.

Parts of the book are narrated in the first person by the murderer, who is careful not to disclose their identity but drops hints here and there.  This also builds suspense, knowing what the murderer is planning and then seeing everyone else going about their lives and possibly walking into the murderer’s traps.

I personally could have done without the false alarms when you’re convinced a character is about to be killed and it turns out that something else entirely was going on.  The first time that happens, it’s well done. The second time, I was annoyed.  

But these are small complaints.  Serafina is the most interesting character by far, and her memory lapse about the exact circumstances in which she was nearly killed during the war feel reasonable and not just the effort of a writer to play games with his readers.  She’s a believable partisan and a believable police officer in a time and place when women police officers were still a rarity.  The solution to the mystery makes sense, is surprising without being gimmicky, and works on an emotional level.  More, when you discover what sparked the murderer’s fury at the family, you understand the killer’s point of view but you also find yourself wondering about the family’s choices and how much choice they really had when things reached the nadir. 

A mystery that gives you some good historical perspective, some intriguing characters, and a deeper moral question to ponder, The Light in the Ruins demonstrates that even a cliche structure, in the hands of the right author, can be a good read.

SMALL THINGS LIKE THESE FOR JULY

The Field Notes Book Group met on Saturday to discuss our June book, South to America, and while few members were really crazy about the style of the book, our discussion was wide ranging and interesting, and we were almost reluctant to turn to the question of choosing our book for July.  Still, when we did, the voting was overwhelmingly in favor of one selection: Small Things Like These by Claire Keegan, and not just because it was the shortest book of the bunch (though, after a fairly long and dense book like our June selection, length did have an effect).

Small Things Like These is a deceptively simple story, which packs an emotional and moral punch.  Bill Furlong is an ordinary man who owns a small business in a small town in rural Ireland in 1985.  It’s Christmas time and he’s focused on the holiday festivities and his two daughters and their preparations for the holiday, but in the course of his work, he comes across something that upends his sense of how the world works, what’s good and what’s evil. He begins to consider his own past as a bastard brought up in the household of a relatively wealthy woman as he realizes that most of the people he knows and cares about are complicit in something morally wrong, and he needs to make a decision about where he stands, a decision shaped by his knowledge of his past and shadowed by the potential consequences to him and his family of deciding in one direction rather than the other.

We’ll be meeting on July 16 at the library, and copies of the book will be available at the circulation desk in advance.  Please come and join us for coffee, refreshments and what promises to be a deep and interesting discussion of this beautifully written book.

A MULTIVERSE OF FAIRY TALES: A SPINDLE SPLINTERED AND A MIRROR MENDED

The intersection of revised fairy tales and novellas is a sweet spot for me, as you could guess from reading this blog over the years, so I want to share a pair of novellas by Alix E. Harrow that fall right into that sweet spot, and are a lot of fun to read.  They share a main character and a couple of secondary characters and a plot device (though the second one twists it around a little), while giving satisfying twists and turns on the whole idea of fairy tales.

Zinnia Gray, our protagonist, starts out with a life-threatening disease that has killed all the other sufferers by their 21st birthday.  Other than that shadow of doom hanging over her life, Zinnia is a normal young modern woman, with a loving family, a cell phone she’s practically physically connected to, a best friend who’s wildly supportive of her, and an interest in fairy tales, especially Sleeping Beauty, with whose story she feels she has a certain connection.

Then, in A Spindle Splintered, at her 21st birthday party, Zinnia pricks her finger on a spinning wheel and finds herself traversing the multiverse of Sleeping Beauties, from the ones who seem like Disney princesses to ones whose stories are so much darker and more fraught.  Zinnia comes to realize that she can help some of those other Sleeping Beauties, bringing them together in one of the worlds to help each other.  In the course of her story-jumping, Zinnia discovers she might be able to avoid her own fated early death, her disease responding to the weirdness of her adventures as it didn’t respond to normal modern medicine.

This would have been enough to make me happy: a smart alec heroine, a wildly imaginative collection of different versions of a well known fairy tale, a happy ending, and some fun supporting characters.  It would have been fine with me if Alix Harrow had stopped at the first book, but she didn’t, and I’m delighted that she returned to Zinnia and her world in A Mirror Mended, the more recent book, which is every bit as much fun as the first one.

Once again Zinnia is zipping between versions of her story, helping different Sleeping Beauties avoid the worst parts of their stories and acting as a heroine, but this time she finds herself being dragged into another world entirely and a very different story, by a very different character: the evil queen from Snow White.  The evil queen (whom Zinnia irreverently name Eva) has somehow found out how her story is supposed to end (dancing to her death in red hot shoes, for those who don’t remember that part of the story), and wants to get out of it, not necessarily by changing her behavior (and indeed, she can’t change what she’s already done), but by using whatever Zinnia’s been using to travel between worlds.  

The different worlds are starting to leak into each other already, and those of us who have read enough time travel stories are starting to guess that it’s Zinnia’s behavior that’s damaging the multiverse (which turns out to be the case).  Between Zinnia’s splinter (which she uses to jump worlds) and the queen’s magic mirror (which has similar properties), the two of them escape the main story and fall into another, darker version of Snow White involving the sacrifice of village children to keep the queen there alive and beautiful, endangering themselves in the process of trying to rescue the children.

There’s adventure, there’s warped retellings of classic stories, there are great characters and there’s a satisfying ending, all in less than 130 pages.  

If Harrow wants to leave the series there, I’m perfectly content, but if she comes out with another set of adventures for Zinnia and company, I’m definitely going to check them out.  You should, too.

THE GREAT DRAGONING: WHEN WOMEN WERE DRAGONS

There’s something delightful about reading a quirky book, one that has an intriguing premise and then surprises you even more when you read it.  Such a book is When Women Were Dragons, by Kelly Barnhill, and I heartily recommend it.

It’s fantasy, sort of, magical realism, sort of, set in a slightly different America in the 1950’s and thereafter.  The high concept (intriguing premise) is that on a particular day in 1955, all over America, hundreds of thousands of women turned spontaneously into dragons.  A number of them exacted revenge on those who’d done them wrong: abusive spouses, abusive bosses, etc. But all of them disappeared, leaving holes in their families and their communities.  Which, and this is the part that’s really fun and intriguing, everyone left behind conspired to forget, or to pretend never happened. 

So you start with this premise and you assume that this is going to be a book in the category of “Good for Her”, as our Local History Librarian, Sarah, would put it, and if that were all the book was, a series of vignettes of women-turned-dragons getting their deserved revenge and then flying off to have adventures of their own, it would be a fun read.  But it’s actually much more than that, which is what really made me love the book.

Alexandra, who starts calling herself Alex, is the narrator (though her first person chapters are interspersed with excerpts from a supposedly scientific study of dragoning, with examples of the phenomenon occurring in different places long before 1950s America).  She’s a seemingly ordinary girl (though she’s discovering, even as a child, that she’s more attracted to girls than to boys, which she doesn’t know how to think about, let alone act on), with a somewhat distant father, a brilliant mathematician mother who gave up her career to be a wife and mother (remember, we’re in the1950’s), and her mother’s unconventional sister, who never wears dresses and works on cars and was in the Air Force during World War II.   There are hints from the outset that more’s going on under the surface, though Alex is too young to understand exactly what that is.  Her aunt gets married to a drunk and has a child, Beatrice, and then the Great Dragoning comes and – to no one’s surprise who’s been paying attention – the aunt, Marla, turns into a dragon, destroys her husband and leaves her daughter with her sister. 

The gaslighting begins immediately: everyone pretends the aunt never existed and that Beatrice is Alex’s sister and not her cousin, and Alex herself gets confused sometimes about what really happened.  Over time, Alex comes to discover her own prowess in mathematics, despite the efforts of the educational establishment to repress her abilities because of her sex, and she becomes more like a mother than a sister to Beatrice (Alex’s father is very close to a stereotype of a jerk husband and father, and his new wife is even worse).  

Alex is saved, ultimately, by the love and attention of one of my favorite characters in a book brimming with great characters: Mrs. Gyzinska, an extraordinary librarian who has more power and influence than most people around her realize.  She supports Alex’s yearning for education, helps her get into college when Alex’s father has no interest in doing so, and even manages to set things up so that Beatrice is also supported and taken care of.

Beatrice, the cousin/sister/daughter Alex loves fiercely, is a wonderful character in her own right: a force of nature, funny and sweet and also obviously a difficult child to attempt to control.  Alex has to come to terms with Beatrice’s own growing inclinations toward dragoning (there’s a scene with Alex and the school principal’s office about Beatrice’s frequent drawings of the forbidden dragons that’s both funny and disturbingly realistic), and in so doing, she has to come to terms with her aunt, and the new world the dragons start to make when they return, years after the original dragoning.

When the dragons come back, they do not act the way you might be expecting.  Their return is funny and touching and opens up new possibilities for the world in which they’re living, going way beyond revenge and seeking justice for women.  I personally want to live in the world where these dragons live.

If this were just a book about repressed women expressing their rage by turning into destructive dragons, it would be pretty straightforward, but Barnhill goes way beyond that and raises questions about mothers and daughters, about memory and repression of memory,  about the pull between freedom and responsibility, and about accepting yourself and others for what they are.  

This is a great read, playful and moving, much more than you would expect from the brief description on the cover.  If you have a taste for the quirky, check this out.  You’ll love it.

THE LONG CALL: JULY SELECTION FOR FIELD OF MYSTERY

After an invigorating discussion of our June selection, My Sweet Girl, which many of the members of the group didn’t particularly like, the Field of Mystery Group had little trouble selecting our book for July, which is The Long Call, by Ann Cleeves.

Ann Cleeves is a name familiar to mystery readers; she already has two excellent series, the Vera Stanhope series and the Shetland series, both of which have already been made into television programs.  The Long Call marks the beginning of a third series, this one based on the Two Rivers area of Devon, England.

Detective Matthew Venn grew up in a tightly knit, closed minded strict evangelical community in North Devon, and left it when he became an adult, losing his family as well as his community.  When he returns to his former home for his father’s funeral, he feels decidedly unwelcome,   While he’s leaving the funeral, he gets a call from his team that a body has washed up on the shore, a man with an albatross tattoo, clearly murdered.  

To solve the case, Matthew has to dig deeply into the home he left behind and the lives and secrets of the people he thought he knew.  His former life and his present life collide in painful, revealing, ways.

Copies of the book will be available at the Circulation Desk.  Come and join us on July 9 at 10:30 for what should be an interesting discussion (they’re always interesting discussions, whether we like the book or not), and coffee and refreshments.

A PRICKLY FAIRY TALE: NETTLE & BONE

Nettle & Bone, by T. Kingfisher, is clearly built on fairy tale tropes.  We have Marra, our protagonist, a princess and the youngest child in the family (yes, usually it’s the youngest son in fairy tales, but go with it), who goes on a quest, helped by a witch and the witch’s familiar, a godmother, and a man who was formerly enchanted.  She has to perform three impossible tasks, she encounters the Goblin Market, and she faces both curses and magical protections.  Pretty standard stuff, right?

Well, not entirely.  Marra’s quest is for a way to kill her brother-in-law, a prince who’s married both of her sisters in succession, killing one and abusing the other.  Marra is sent to a convent (not exactly like Catholic convents) to hold her in reserve in case her second sister dies and the prince is willing to marry her next.  Her impossible tasks involve sewing a cloak of nettles and creating a dog out of bones, and the witch she’s asking for help is a dust witch who has power to speak to the dead.  Neither of the two godmothers we encounter in this book fits the category of the fairy godmother from the likes of Cinderella, though there are echoes of the bad fairy godmother in Sleeping Beauty, and the problem of a powerful abusive husband who’s protected by magic isn’t something you usually see in fairy tales, at least not directly.

The book is enthralling from the first pages, where Marra creates her bone dog and it immediately runs away from her (giving us a sense from the outset that this is not going to be an easy road for Marra), through the satisfying, if not entirely predictable, conclusion.

Marra is not the classic heroine; she’s afraid a lot of the time, she berates herself for having hidden in the convent when her second sister was being sent out to marry the prince of the neighboring kingdom.  Her skills aren’t exactly heroic: she’s good at embroidery and weaving, but she has no experience with weapons or anything that might deal death.  Still, she perseveres through some pretty harrowing experiences, including time in a burning land (which feels rather like a place in the aftermath of a nuclear bomb), the creation of the nettle cloak (my hands hurt when I read about it), and her sojourn in the Goblin Market (which is wonderfully creepy), not to mention the dangers and difficulties she encounters in her brother-in-law’s castle.

She’s as brave as she needs to be, while still being extremely human and relatable.

The supporting characters are great, from the dust witch, who doesn’t have a name but does have an acerbic personality and a demon-possessed chicken, through Fenris, the warrior they rescued from the Goblin Market, through Agnes, the not so ordinary godmother (and her rooster chick).  The prince is a recognizable person, someone who knows he can get away with anything he wants because of his power and prestige, and his godmother is an amazingly dark and disturbing character as well.  Marra’s sister, Kania, who tries to stay pregnant as a way of staying alive (her husband won’t kill her if there’s a possibility of her giving him a son), is prickly and far from your classic damsel in distress, and Marra’s mother, who’s responsible for putting two of her three daughters in immediate danger, comes across as a complicated person who’s playing political games for the survival of her kingdom even though she knows what she’s risking.

This is a novella, and you can read it in one sitting (maybe two).  It’s full of charm and adventure and suspense, and it’s a great read.  I highly recommend it to all fans of fairy tales, as well as all people who think classic fairy tales are too sexist and limited.

I also want to give a shout out to Laura Burk, a great librarian and a friend, who recommended that I move this book to the top of my TBR list.  Thanks, Laura!  I would have gotten to this eventually but I’m glad I let it jump the queue.