Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey

the daughter of time by josephine teyPublication year: 1951
Genre: Mystery
Time and place: a detective in the ’50s UK reads about Richard III’s times
Narrated in: third-person omniscient
First sentence: Grant lay on his high white cot and stared at the ceiling.
Verdict: I learned some history and I love that.

Summary
Scotland Yard Inspector Alan Grant is in the hospital, stuck in bed after an accident. He’s bored, as he has nothing to do, so he decides he will try to solve one of the history’s unsolved mysteries, to pass the time. Captivated by a portrait of Richard III, and the way his physiognomy did not match the awful things that people believed about him, Grant wants to find out all about the man, and perhaps find out who killed the princes in the tower in the process. He sets to work, with the aid of Brent Carradine, a young American who works at the British Museum. Bit by bit, Grant’s theory takes shape, a confirmation of his first impression, as in his version of events Richard is a loved and just king, a victim, not a perpetrator.

General impression
I started reading this book around the time Richard III’s remains were found. People here and there were promoting the idea that Richard may not have been a villain after all, and cited this book as support. My curiosity was then aroused, and I picked up the book with no idea what to expect (I had a vague idea that it must be something with a female time traveler, because of the title). To my (slight) disappointment, there was no time travel at all involved, just a modern-day inquest in things that have happened centuries ago.

A lot of the book is tell, not show, as very little happens in modern times — the bulk of the book consists in the information Alan Grant and his research assistant dig up and interpret. It reads like a non-fiction book seen through the conversation of fictional characters, characters that are there only as a means to present the results of the author’s research to the reader. An interesting approach, though it did feel at times like something was missing. I did however love the novelty of having a detective solve a crime that has been committed many centuries ago :)

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History-wise I found the book very interesting, although I am not sure how much of it is actually non-fiction and how much of the information Brent digs up has been simply created by the author — let’s not forget that the book is marketed as fiction. The conclusion Grant arrives at is not shared by many historians today (Alison Weir for example heartily opposes it), so the chain of events must have been less clear in reality than Ms. Tey wants her readers to think1.

Be that as it may, I have found very interesting the arguments that the author brings forth to support her case. The three that had me almost convinced were:
a) Richard had no political reason to want his nephews dead, as he was already a legitimate king, so they were no threat (plus there were other people with similar claims to the throne as the two princes, and nothing happened to anyone else);
b) Henry had a lot to gain from exposing Richard’s crime, but he never did;
c) Henry’s claim to the throne was lesser than the princes’, plus it is his modus operandi to have his rivals killed.

Sure, none of these is ironclad, but together with others they do make quite a bit of sense. There was at least one moment when the book had me wondering how come this is still a mystery, since the author has gathered up so many proofs to support her theory :)

What I liked most
The “Tonypandy” bits — during the course of their research Alan and Brent come across various pieces of history that were widely believed to be true, but in fact were anything but. Such as the Tonypandy Riots:

“If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!”

Carradine had dropped his flippant air.

“And it wasn’t a bit like that?”

“The actual facts are these. The rougher section of the Rhondda valley crowd had got quite out of hand. Shops were being looted and property destroyed. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan sent a request to the House Office for troops to protect the lieges. If a Chief Constable thinks a situation serious enough to ask for the help of the military a Home Secretary has very little choice in the matter. But Churchill was so horrified at the possibility of the troops coming face to face with a crowd of rioters and having to fire on them, that he stopped the movement of the troops and sent instead a body of plain, solid Metropolitan Police, armed with nothing but their rolled-up mackintoshes. The troops were kept in reserve, and all contact with the rioters was made by unarmed London police. The only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two. The Home Secretary was severely criticised in the House of Commons incidentally for his ‘unprecedented intervention.’ That was Tonypandy. That is the shooting down by troops that Wales will never forget.”

Or this story:

Scotland has large monuments to two women martyrs drowned for their faith, in spite of the fact that they weren’t drowned at all and neither was a martyr anyway. They were convicted of treason—fifth column work for the projected invasion from Holland, I think. Anyhow on a purely civil charge. They were reprieved on their own petition by the Privy Council, and the reprieve is in the Privy Council Register to this day. This, of course, hasn’t daunted the Scottish collectors of martyrs, and the tale of their sad end, complete with heart-rending dialogue, is to be found in every Scottish bookcase. Entirely different dialogue in each collection. And the gravestone of one of the women, in Wigtown churchyard, reads:

Murdered for owning Christ supreme Head of his Church, and no more crime But her not owning Prelacy And not abjuring Presbytry Within the sea tied to a stake She suffered for Christ Jesus sake.

They are even a subject for fine Presbyterian sermons, I understand—though on that point I speak from hearsay. And tourists come and shake their heads over the monuments with their moving inscriptions, and a very profitable time is had by all.

I find it terribly fascinating how flimsy history (and by extension, what we take as truth) actually is.

What I liked least
There’s nothing that has truly bothered me (although admittedly I was a bit confused about Martha’s place in the story at first, and I would have liked a bit more details about her and her relationship with Grant; I get that this is book 5 in a series so many people already know this, but a few words allowing me, the newcomer, to catch up wouldn’t have hurt).

Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :) But also very much the opposite of obvious. I had no idea what it referred to until I read about it on Wikipedia: it comes from a quotation of Sir Francis Bacon: “Truth is the daughter of time, not of authority.“. Which, as I said, I happen to find it brilliantly relates to the idea behind the book — that the truth has been found now, after all these centuries, despite what the then-authorities (the Tudors) have tried to pass on as facts. Put in another way, time has brought on the discovery of truth, not the authorities. A perfect match between the book and the quote the title is from.

Thoughts on the ending
It would have been a silly murder, that murder of the boy Princes; and Richard was a remarkably able man. It was base beyond description; and he was a man of great integrity. It was callous; and he was noted for his warmheartedness.

Predictably enough, shortly before he gets discharged from the hospital Grant reaches the conclusion that Richard is in fact innocent of the crime everyone thinks he committed. I liked that Brent plans to even write a book about it, to clean up the dead king’s name; all the book would have seemed futile otherwise, if Grant and Brent had spent all that time doing research and then had kept the solution for themselves.

Recommend it to?
Everyone with a penchant for medieval history or classic detective novels :)

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  1. It is worth noting, however, that there is at least one fact that Ms. Tey got right in the book — “According to Sir Cuthbert, the hunchback is a myth. So is the withered arm. It appears that he had no visible deformity. At least none that mattered. His left shoulder was lower than his right, that was all.“. While everyone knows this now, after the remains were found, keep in mind that the book was written more than half a century ago. []
murder is binding by lorna barrett Publication year: 2008
Genre: Mystery
Time and place: contemporary Stoneham, New Hampshire
Narrated in: third-person limited
First sentence: “I tell you, Trish, we’re all victims.”
Verdict: It was okay.

Summary
Five months ago Tricia Miles, newly divorced, finally had the money and the means to open her own business. She has moved to a small town and she opened a small mystery bookstore, and business goes well. Her next door neighbor, Doris, the owner of a cooking book store, cannot say the same: money is tight and the owner wants to increase the rent. Doris is trying to rally the town people against the rate change, and she arranges a meeting with the owner to discuss it. That very evening she is found dead, with a knife sticking out her back and one of her most expensive books stolen.

Tricia is the one that found her, and, as she is new in town, the sheriff considers her the main suspect. Since all the locals are considered above blame, and no one in the police force moves a finger to prove the opposite, it’s up to Tricia to discover the real culprit and clear out her name.

General impression
This would have been a nice little book, and I would have quite enjoyed it, if it weren’t for the main character. Tricia and I just didn’t click, as I found her annoying above all else, and as such I wasn’t able to get lost in the story as I might have done otherwise.

Setting
Stoneham used to be a dying town, until the owner of some of the buildings on the main street had a great idea: he rented out the stores to booksellers, catering to tourist buses passing from and to cities nearby. There is a mystery book store, a cooking book store, a history book store, and so on :)

As the book opens, Stoneham has been considered the safest town in New Hampshire for the last ten years — but of course that will change after Doris’ murder. The townspeople are a bit upset about losing the title, as its PR value was good for the business; there’s even a mention of a crew having to take down the Safest Town banners from the north and the south ends of the street, and I found that (their pride in their title, the fact that they even had banners about it) quite endearing1.

Characters
Ah, Tricia. I spent quite a few pages wondering what it is that I can’t stand about her. Among other things, she’s a snob. She is repeatedly described as a passionate bookworm, and books are supposed to be her life and all — but she cares more about the form than she does about the content. Sure, she is said to love the classics of the genre — her little store is fashioned after Sherlock Holmes’ address and her cat is named Miss Marple — but she is also the type that judges a book by its cover. She makes her living selling (mostly) rare books, and she despises cheap editions (in her defense, the editions she was referring to were also abridged). I may be wrong about her, but this is the feeling I’ve had.

She also thinks herself smarter than she is. Not that she’s not smart, she is a business woman perfectly capable to take care of herself, and I admired that about her. But there is at least one moment when something was obviously amiss and, although her sister pointed it out to her repeatedly, she just wouldn’t consider it. Eh.

I think that the idea was to have Tricia as the sympathetic sister, while Angelica was supposed to be the tiresome, unlikable one. Perhaps we were even supposed to commiserate with Tricia, shaking our heads at just how tough her lot in life is with such a sister. But in my case it was the other way around, as Angelica I have really liked. Sure, she’s not perfect, and her outlook on life is more fit to a big city than a small town, particularly at first, but on the whole she felt more real. Her passion for cooking is obvious and makes her endearing, unlike Trish’s passion for books, that felt anything but authentic.

Relationships
There is another reason why I liked Angelica more. The author has apparently wanted to add depth to Trish by hinting at a less than happy childhood, having been wronged repeatedly by her parents and/or sister. The trouble is that we are not told exactly what her issues are — we just see Trish disliking Angelica with all her might, even when the latter makes amends. For me, the reader, they are both blank slates, and I cannot stand behind a resentment that I have no reason to support; which meant that I kept feeling that Angelica is being unjustly treated, so of course I sided with the wronged party, and disliked the other one. If only the author had been a bit more specific about the bad blood between the two I think what she had tried to do would have worked a lot better.

I liked the fact that there was no love story introduced for Trish. I like the fact that she can stand on her own as a character, solving her own problems and not needing a man to rescue her. There is a certain guy that she rather dislikes but I think sounds promising for the future, but I am glad it wasn’t all neatly packaged in a single 200-something pages book.

Plot
The actual plot is not that bad. Sure, the sheriff’s insistence to pin the murder on Trish requires some vast suspension of disbelief — especially when Angelica finds the stolen book in Trish’s store and the call the cops to declare that and the sheriff considers this a sign of Trish’s guilt2. Speaking of the sheriff, the one moment I really did not like Angelica was when she suggested that the reason why her sister is considered a suspect is because Trish is thin and the sheriff is fat and jealous of her good looks. A low blow, even if (perhaps) true.

Back to the plot, it was satisfactory enough (at least for me, others say it employed an overused trope), with other misdeeds uncovered along the way and more than one culprit. There weren’t any major surprises, but it would have been hard to since we only get to encounter a handful of people, and I thought the “whodunnit” bit was pretty nicely done (the reason behind it and all).

What I liked most
The idea of having a bookish-themed town :)

What I liked least
The book would have benefited from tighter editing. Starting with the mention of a “meatloaf-shaped loaf of bread” (which I read as “a loaf of bread shaped like a meat dish shaped like a loaf of bread”) from the fact that one sentence almost appears twice (Angelica and Trish find themselves twice “exploring” other people’s houses at night, and in both cases as they climb up the stairs we are told that Angelica is so close to Trish that the latter can feel her breath on her neck; I find the imagery a bit confusing — how can they climb up the stairs if they’re almost touching? — which is why I noticed that the same thing is mentioned twice, and in almost the same words).

Thoughts on the title
I have yet to discover the connection between the title and the content of the book. It is obvious that it wanted to hint to something bookish, since our main character is a bookstore-owner booklover, but I would have liked it better if it had had an actual connection with the events, other than the “murder” bit.

Thoughts on the ending
Okay, I guess. Everyone’s happy, the perpetrators punished, all’s well when it ends well, that sort of thing.

show spoiler

Recommend it to?
People who like cozy mysteries. It’s rating on goodreads.com is above average (3.70) so I guess people usually like it more than I did (I gave it two stars).

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  1. On the other hand I also find sort of amusing just how much down the drain their title is heading to: since there is a whole series of murder mysteries taking place in Stoneham I imagine that eventually the town will be a good candidate for “the small town with the most murders” in New Hampshire []
  2. “I contend that you stole that valuable book and killed Doris Gleason for financial gain.”, she insists. Leaving aside the fact that there was actually no financial gain in it for Trish, since she and Doris were just neighbors. []

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Genre: Mystery (of sorts)
Main characters: John Gabriel Utterson; it is through him that we get to know Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde
Time and place: 19th century London

First sentence:Mr. Utterson the lawyer was a man of a rugged countenance, that was never lighted by a smile; cold, scanty and embarrassed in discourse; backward in sentiment; lean, long, dusty, dreary, and yet somehow lovable.

Verdict: Wow. Loved it, despite the fact that is started out rather slow and I already knew what the big twist at the end was going to be.

Summary
Mr. Utterson just knows there is something wrong with his friend Jekyll. Not only he’s been acting withdrawn lately, but he also changed his will with an unusually worded one. The new version states that were something to happen to Jekyll, were he to suddenly disappear, a certain Mr. Hyde is to inherit all of his fortune. Now, Utterson has only a passing acquaintance with this Hyde, but he agrees with everyone else who’s ever met him: there’s something about him that sends shivers down people’s spines; he feels… evil. Utterson suspects that the man is somehow forcing Jekyll’s hand, perhaps even scheming to kill him, to get his hands on his fortune; he feels compelled to solve the mystery of the man, and rescue his friend from his clutches.

“If he be Mr. Hyde,” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”

But then a murder happens; Hyde kills someone in cold blood, and there has been a witness. Wanted by the police, Hyde disappears. In his absence, Jekyll flourishes again, becoming the man he once was.

But then…

General impression
First of all, I was surprised to see that this is a very short book. Until now my sole acquaintance to the story has been via the musical, and the plot there has a bunch of characters, including not one but two romantic interests. As such, discovering that the book has little to no plot at all, and very few characters was… quite unexpected, to say the least. It is obvious while reading that the author intended it to be a novella centered around a mystery, no more.

We’re first introduced to Hyde, via a secondary character. The peculiar way he makes people around him feel does not go unnoticed. A connection between him and Jekyll is mentioned in passing — he has a check with the latter’s name on it — and it is the first time their association makes Mr. Utterson uncomfortable. He has some suspicions, and it is obvious that the reader is supposed to share them, and is supposed to wonder, together with him, about this Mr. Hyde — who might he be, what does he have on Jekyll for the latter to act so strangely whenever the former is mentioned? A web of misdirection is woven around the reader, and I was sorry that I already knew the key to the mystery, because otherwise I am certain I would have found the big reveal simply stunning.

THERE WILL BE SPOILERS FROM HERE ON
(although since there’s an expression that has entered the vernacular you too probably know who Hyde was and how he related to Jekyll; however, in case you don’t, you definitely want to stop reading here)

Since nothing much other than the big reveal happens in the book, and the said big reveal was anything but a mystery to me, my expectations rapidly lowered towards the ending. For a while the book seemed flat and I didn’t expect to enjoy the remaining pages — and I was surprised to see I did. I thought the ending was handled very, very well: I knew who Hyde was, of course, but I didn’t know how he came to be, or how he came to stay, and I loved the missing pieces I have only now discovered. For example, I loved the theory Jekyll had about man’s dual’s nature:

I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both; and from an early date, even before the course of my scientific discoveries had begun to suggest the most naked possibility of such a miracle, I had learned to dwell with pleasure, as a beloved daydream, on the thought of the separation of these elements. If each, I told myself, could be housed in separate identities, life would be relieved of all that was unbearable; the unjust might go his way, delivered from the aspirations and remorse of his more upright twin; and the just could walk steadfastly and securely on his upward path, doing the good things in which he found his pleasure, and no longer exposed to disgrace and penitence by the hands of this extraneous evil.

I loved how Hyde was at first a smaller man, as Jekyll mostly led a noble life until then, a life that did not allow the evil side of him the chance to grow:

The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue, and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter, and younger than Henry Jekyll.

It’s interesting to notice that in time, as Hyde got to satisfy his every pleasure, this is reflected in his physical appearance too: his size actually increases. And then, I loved how the discovery of the drug that alternately let Hyde free and imprisoned him back in Jekyll’s skin was nothing but a fluke — Jekyll seems to have bought a certain medicine that was (unbeknownst to him) impure, one way or another; when his initial supply is depleted there is nothing he can do to recreate his potion again. I also loved the description of Jekyll’s feelings in his first moments as Hyde:

There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a mill-race in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.

A thing that I did not love as much was the ending: show spoiler

Although of course I do realize this is the only way things could have been satisfactorily ending. Ah, but still.

Nitpick: something that has somewhat disappointed me in the story is that the initial theory was that Jekyll was searching for a way to separate the evil side of a person from his good side. And he did manage to isolate the evil in him, in the person of Hyde. Thing is, he explains at one point that this is the way the drug works:

The drug had no discriminating action; it was neither diabolical nor divine; it but shook the doors of the prison-house of my disposition; and like the captives of Philippi, that which stood within ran forth. At that time my virtue slumbered; my evil, kept awake by ambition, was alert and swift to seize the occasion; and the thing that was projected was Edward Hyde.

(this very idea is another one of the things I loved about the book)

Thing is, by this description I would have expected him to be alternately good and evil — under the incarnation of Hyde I figure that the good, angelic side of Jekyll is the one that’s imprisoned (since all evil was Hyde, only the good parts remained). Which makes me think that taking the drug again should have imprisoned Hyde (and all the evil with him) and set free everything that was good in Jekyll (probably in the guise of a third character). Yet this is not how it happens — the evil side is alternately set free (Hyde), or mixed back in with the good (Jekyll), a thing that I think directly contradicts the aforementioned quote.

Not that I am complaining all that much. But still, my nitpicky nature felt the need to comment on it :)

Recommend it to?
I expect everyone and their mother has read this (teensy, tiny) book by now. However, I heartily recommend it, as long as you know not to expect anything sensational: it’s a simple, straightforward story, that hinges on one big twist at the end. Of course, the contemporary reader knows what the twist is, but I thought the book enjoyable nonetheless.

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Interred With Their Bones by Jennifer Lee Carrell

Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Katharine J. Stanley, Benjamin Pearl
Time and place: 2004 — England, US and Spain
First sentence:From the river, it looked as if two suns were setting over London.
Verdict: Like The Da Vinci Code, only with Shakespeare :)

Summary
A former Shakespearian scholar, Kate Stanley has recently discovered her love for the theater. A chain of lucky events helped her land a position as the director of Hamlet at the Globe, and she couldn’t be happier. When her former mentor, Roz Howard, pays her a visit and hints at a mystery she has uncovered and needs Kate’s help with, Kate is less than thrilled, as her current job is more important to her than chasing shadows with/for Roz.

But then the Globe is set on fire (on the very anniversary of the day the original Globe theatre’s fire), and Roz is found dead. Which makes the mystery she mentioned earlier Kate’s number one priority: she feels she must do everything in her power to find out who killed Roz, and why. It all starts with a brooch, and the mention of a book…

General impression
This is a classical case of book that I start with very low expectations and ends up surpassing them. I have had this book at the top of my to-read list for years now, and, as I considered reading it, I browsed through a few of its reviews, just to remember what it was supposed to be about. To my disappointment, its latest ratings on Goodreads were all 1- and 2-stars, and so I braced myself for quite a bad book. Which is probably why I ended up liking it :) While it is not one of my all time favorites, some things in it worked well for me (and others didn’t), so on the whole I am not sorry I gave it a try.

Setting
The book is the classical ‘travel around the world searching for clues’ type, and so our characters get to visit many interesting places, such as Valladolid, Stratford-Upon-Avon, and even the Old West. The author has a Ph. D. in English from Harvard, and I was happy to see that a part of the story takes place in Harvard’s buildings. Another interesting place was a ghost town somewhere in the US called Shakespeare (a place that actually exists)1, where an eccentric millionaire has built a copy of the castle that was the inspiration for Hamlet’s Elsinore :)

Characters
The characters are not the forte of the book, they felt to me more like vehicles that moved the story along. I quite liked Kate (“Not yet thirty, American, and trained first and foremost as a scholar“), but her resourcefulness, albeit usual in such books, was a bit too much at times — she’s never jet-lagged, never truly afraid, although people were dying right and left. And she doesn’t know about Cardenio, despite specializing in Shakespeare(?) (my reaction when the name was mentioned was something like “OMG! Shakespeare’s missing novel!”, whereas Kate’s was more along the lines of “where oh where have I heard the name before?”).

The rest of the cast is more or less glossed over — Benjamin for example does not talk too much about himself, so we know little to nothing about his previous life. He runs a security firm with lots of resources that apparently he affords to spend scouring the world with Kate (I doubt that Roz, the one who technically hired him as Kate’s bodyguard, has paid him enough money for all his and Kate’s arrangements). In a way I liked having him around, as every time something serious was needed (such as passports, or clothes) the solution was simple, “Ben will get it”. A thing that admittedly made matters too simple for our characters to feel truly real, but also allowed me, as a reader, to focus more on the mystery/Shakespeare-related parts, rather than having to bother with the more mundane ones.

show spoiler

Relationships
I don’t have anything to say about this, as I felt the characters were not well formed enough to have meaningful relationships. There is one notable exception actually, the state of the matters between Roz and Kate (as remembered by the latter throughout the book). Roz was a dedicated scholar, a perfectionist and very rarely offering praise. However, the less than amiable way she treated Kate turned out to have been nothing more than a façade, as apparently Kate was her favorite assistant (and, of course, everyone knew that but Kate).

Plot
Have I mentioned there is a strong similarity to the DaVinci Code? (there’s even a well-meaning policeman that follows the h & H) :)

Which means that you probably know by now that the plot is shaped by solving small mysteries, and each of them leads to a bigger one. The stakes? Solving the two biggest Shakespeare-related mysteries ever: finding out who actually wrote his plays, and discovering a manuscript of Cardenio, one of Shakespeare’s two lost works. This hunt for clues is the central part of the book, and was quite well done (albeit stretching the imagination at times it was never truly implausible), which is probably why I ultimately enjoyed reading it. :)

What I liked most
As previously stated, there were many things that did work for me. First and foremost, the clues were very well set up at times (my favorite being the “Jacobean magnus opus”/1623 thing). Especially as, in her Afterword, the author takes the time to tell us what parts were imagined by her and what is actually true, and it was very interesting to me how much of the story does actually exist. The mystery of Shakespeare’s being involved or not in the translation of the King James Bible for example, complete with a small Easter egg — did you know that the 46th word in the 46th psalm is “shake” and the 46th word counting from the end is “spear”? Some people consider this a hidden message to show that Shakespeare (presumed to be 46 in the year the translation was made) has taken part in the translation. Of course the chances are that we will never know the truth, but it is an interesting tidbit nonetheless.

The whole debate about who actually wrote Shakespeare’s books was quite interesting to me, as I got to find out new things/theories about it. While I do not have an opinion on the matter (if so many scholars could not agree, how could I pretend any certainty about it), I nonetheless find the very existence of such a mystery quite interesting, and I love reading about it.

Having the people being killed thought of as “changing their names” into the Shakespeare’s characters whose fate their shared was also an interesting idea (although I am not convinced that it was worth it for the killer to keep emulating characters’ deaths, not that I’m complaining :) ). I liked the idea of someone “forcing other people into his favorite fictions, and those fictions into life“, even if in this case it involved death.

Another idea that I liked:

“Roz told me that Shakespeare’s language is so thick because his stage was so bare,” he said without looking up. “No scenery. Nothing but costumes and a few props.”

I jumped. I hadn’t realized that he’d noticed me.

“He built his worlds from words.”

What I liked least
There are a few scenes in the book that take place in Shakespeare’s times, having the man himself as a character (and a few others). I started out quite interested in them, of course, but they were so few and far between that they eventually turned boring (I couldn’t get invested in them as there was very little action in them; also, sometimes they mirrored facts that Kate’s present-day investigation has discovered). So yeah, I could definitely have done without them.

My least favorite moment however is this:

Wordlessly, we picked up our pace to something just under a run. A growl rose in the distance, then a humming ran through the pipes, lights flickered through the tunnel, and I realized what was happening. Someone had finally reached the electricity; if it went on before we reached the door, it would lock and we’d be trapped.

(h & H are in a tunnel, and if/when the power comes back on the tunnel door will be sealed — all nice and well, but am I really expected to believe that people can run faster than power travels through lines?)

Thoughts on the title
For some reason the book was renamed in the UK as “The Shakespeare Secret”, which is totally bland compared with the original title. I happen to find the latter quite cool :) (although I was a bit confused at first as I have taken it way too literally, and I thought it referred to people being interred with their bones — making me wonder, could they have been interred without? Silly, I know).

It all starts with a quote from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; the good is oft interred with their bones.“, which constitutes a clue of sorts (one of the characters hides something in a grave at one time, and writes in a letter how she hopes “[t]hat the good that we do might live on after us, while the evil lies interred with their bones.“). Last but not least, the manuscript itself is found somewhere below ground, together with the remains of the people who brought it there — so yeah, “interred with their bones”, and I liked that :)

Thoughts on the ending
As great as the author was when it came to Shakespeare-related stuff, she was less so when it came to suspense/plot-related matters. There are some twists and turns near the end, some of them less plausible than others. But, in Shakespeare’s own words, “all’s well that ends well” :) As I am sure you’ve noticed by now the things that had me excited about the book are unrelated to the actual plot, so I suppose any ending would have been fine with me :)

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Recommend it to?
People who like the kind of stories where one clue leads to another, which in turn leads to another and then another :) Also, I think your interest in Shakespeare (or lack of it thereof) will have a decisive role in whether you enjoy the book or not, as I have seen people complaining there’s too much of an info dump at times — yet I noticed no such thing. Actually, I would have liked to be told more :)

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  1. I had no idea that people in the Old West knew or cared about Shakespeare, but apparently they did []

G Is For Gumshoe by Sue Grafton

Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Kinsey Millhone
Time and place: May 1983; Santa Teresa, California
First sentence:Three things occurred on or about May 5, which is not only Cinco de Mayo in California, but Happy Birthday to me.
Verdict: The second half was better than the first half hinted at :)

Summary
Kinsey’s life is getting back to normal, as her little flat has just been rebuilt (after being blown up in the previous book). She has taken on a new case, to find someone’s elderly mother. Sounds like a cut-and-dried job, and, sure enough, locating the old lady is a breeze. Kinsey is puzzled to see her acting as if she’s frightened of going to Santa Teresa — but then things start happening and the mystery is forgotten.

One of the guys that Kinsey helped put behind bars wants revenge, so he paid a guy to kill her. While Kinsey did take the threat seriously, it wasn’t until an actual attempt was made on her life that she internalized the danger she was in. She hired herself a bodyguard, one Robert Dietz, recommended to her by a common acquaintance. Dietz takes his mission seriously, but will Kinsey’s independent nature allow him to protect her?

General impression
It’s been a while since I last read a book in the alphabet series so I figured I should correct that. This felt a bit different from the other books I read so far (A through F). Up until now every book was centered around an investigation, and the reader got to follow Kinsey around, talking to people, gathering clues, and little by little putting together the big picture. In this book, Kinsey is more preoccupied with preserving her own life, and she only realizes that there may be something worth investigating somewhere in the last third of the pages. The book even felt romance-y at times (what with a hero and a heroine stuck with one another for awhile), and I enjoyed that, especially as Kinsey, jaded about love, marriage and men, is not the classical romance heroine type.

Characters
After six books there’s not much more I can say about Kinsey that I have not said before :) As usually, I love her no-nonsense attitude, her courage, the way she has no patience for weakness (not even for her own), and not in the least her brain, the way the little cogs and wheels whir and theories get born.

A character newly introduced in this book is Robert Dietz, whom I certainly hope I will see again as he was quite interesting to me. An investigator bored with his job, he enthusiastically took up the job of protecting Kinsey, working for free simply because it was a break in his routine. I imagine he is quite well off financially, as he drives a red Porsche (which in theory is a cliche but in this case it just seemed like his kind of car). He is a man of action, restless and fidgety when there is nothing to be done in the immediate period of time. He is the independent kind, the kind that just goes out there and takes what he wants, making Kinsey’s former(?) love interest — the one who keeps running back to his wife whenever she calls, despite the fact that she left him more than once — fade in comparison.

A quote about him, albeit a bit large:

Dietz put a cigarette between his lips and flicked open a Zippo. He hesitated, glancing over at me.

“My smoking going to bother you?”

I thought about being polite, but it didn’t make much sense. What’s communication for if it isn’t to convey the truth?

“Probably,” I said.

He lowered the window on his side and tossed the lighter out, flipped the cigarette out after it, and followed both with the pack of Winstons from his shirt pocket. I stared at him, laughing uncomfortably.

“What are you doing?”

“I quit smoking.”

“Just like that?”

He said, “I can do anything.”

Can one not like someone with such a can-do attitude? :)

What I liked most
I enjoyed seeing a softer side of Kinsey. Up to now she always knew what she was doing, she was always in control. This time however she is scared enough to allow herself a moment of letting another guide her, and I liked that, because it humanized her. She herself is taken by surprise by it, and perhaps a little wistful — in her own words, “I wasn’t famous for letting guys tell me what to do and I was hoping I wouldn’t get used to it.“. She has been on her own for so long that she has almost forgotten how it is to have someone to take care of her, and she is not sure how to deal with the current situation. And, though she realizes their arrangement is only temporary, she falls for him, harder than I thought her capable of (“I didn’t want to see Dietz die, didn’t think I could bear it, didn’t want to live myself if it came down to that.” <--- this doesn't sound like our jaded, distant, emotionally unavailable Kinsey, does it?)

What I liked least
Ah, this is most likely a personal pet peeve, but I could not believe that neither Kinsey nor Dietz knew anything about Anne Bronte and Agnes Grey. I know that neither of them have gone to college and all, but still, the Brontes are such household names, are they not?

Thoughts on the title
While I totally love the idea of the alphabet titles, this particular one is not among my favorites, as it is too generic (a ‘gumshoe’ is a detective — I initially thought is was a sort of rubber-soled shoe, the kind that nurses wear, and I was happy about it because the mystery includes an old lady in a nursing home). I like better the ones where the title references the content at least vaguely (B Is For Burglar had burglary in it, F Is For Fugitive had a fugitive, and so on).

Thoughts on the ending
The last fifth or so of the book flew by quite fast, and I enjoyed that.
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Recommend it to?
Fans of the series, most of all. I thought it was more character-driven than plot-driven, and I am not sure how people who are only interested by the mystery side would see it.

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This book is a sequel to:
A Is For Alibi | B Is For Burglar | C Is For Corpse | D Is For Deadbeat | E Is For Evidence | F Is For Fugitive

The Solitary House by Lynn Shepherd

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Charles Maddox
Time and place: 1850, London
First sentence: London.
Verdict: Cleverly written.

Summary
Charles Maddox is a private detective, following in the footsteps of his uncle, a renowned thief-taker, whose name he shares.

It started like an easy enough case. Charles was hired by a lawyer to find who sent threatening letters to Sir Julius Cremorne, a powerful man of the day. He promptly acquits himself of the task; the very next day the man he found ends up dead. This piques Charles’s interest, and also his sense of justice. It is obvious to him that Sir Julius is hiding something and Charles does not plan to give up until he find out what that is and has the killer facing the justice he deserves.

General impression
Yet another NetGalley book :)

I was drawn in by the writing style, and the POV which I found quite original. It’s third person yet not omniscient, although it’s not fully limited to what Charles sees & knows either. Also, it had a way of breaking the fourth wall now and then, conversing to the reader in such a way that at times the book felt like being a story told to me by a friend. A quote, for you to make an idea:

[Mrs. McLeod introduces the new servant girl to Charles]
There’s something else I have not yet mentioned, and nor, for that matter, has Mrs McLeod. In her defence, the point is so obvious that Charles can see it for himself. I do not have her excuse and you, of course, can only see what I allow you to see. So here it is: The girl is beautiful, and she is black.

Setting
Charles lives with his well-to-do uncle in a good part of London, but other than that his job makes him spend most of the time in the poor, dreary parts of the city. The author is great when it comes to descriptions, and the book’s atmosphere remembered me of the one in Drood (there’s even a mention of dead babies, although in a different context). I know it’s only natural for the two books to share the same atmosphere, as they both deal with 1850 London, but what I consider the nice touch is the way both of them drew me in and made me feel like I was there in a way1.

Characters
I don’t know precisely what I was expecting from Charles, but I do know he took me by surprise. Although he is yet young he has been hardened by his job in the police force, and he is anything but naive. He’s stubborn and well-suited for the life he chose: nothing scares him, no sight’s too gory for him, plus he has a high pain threshold — alas, all these traits will come in handy throughout his adventure in this book. He has a closed personality, perhaps as a result of the guilt he feels over a mistake he made as a child, one that drove his whole family apart. His uncle compares him to “a bright sheet of smooth paper, folded and folded and folded again until it is nothing more than a hard tight knot, closed into a fist“. He’s also a bit of a scientist, he collects curios, and he is owned by a black cat he really cares about. I liked this about him, the fact that the author gave him a background, and hobbies unrelated to his work, thus making him feel like a real person, not just a stock figure.

Also, Charles has a sense of humor:

[Charles is seriously beaten up; when asked what happened he says:]
“I got into a — disagreement.That man I’ve been looking for took quite unreasonable umbrage at discovering me snooping through his things, and decided to make his displeasure known in concrete form. At least that’s what it felt like.”

Relationships
About two thirds of the book follow Charles’ investigations, while a third covers the story of a (mysterious?) girl. While these two will get to meet for a short bit, somewhere near the end, there is otherwise no relationship between them (although one might have expected a hero and a heroine to end up together :) ). I actually like these kinds of books, where there is no romance mentioned, as it’s not easy to build a believable relationship from the fringes (this being a mystery book the mystery is supposed to take center stage, while the romance has to take a back seat), and I’d rather have it missing than badly done.

There is however a relationship worth mentioning: the one between Charles and his now old and ailing uncle. Charles Maddox the elder once had an inquisitive mind (alas, he has Alzheimer now) and a keen intuition. In all his career he only had two cases he could not solve; he is the one who had taught his nephew, our hero, the tricks of the trade. The two were always quite close, and now, as Elder Charles can no longer care for himself and his household, Young Charles has stepped up to the task. There is a certain tenderness in Young Charles’ manner when he sees his uncle reduced to a shell of his former state. One can see he cares for his uncle, and in the latter’s few moments of lucidity it is obvious that despite his gruff manner he cares for his nephew too.

Plot
Ah, the plot. The reason my interest in the book was not as high as it could otherwise have been. I usually like detective novels, especially the ones like the Kinsey Milhone series, where one detective starts following various threads, and eventually manages to unravel them with the mighty power of his logical thinking. Unfortunately there were times when I couldn’t quite follow the thread (some things appeared out of nowhere, or so it seemed to me2), and after a while I gave up even trying to see the logic of it all. I kept reading, of course, but no longer caring for the said investigation — a thing that severely hindered my enjoyment of the book as the investigation plays quite a major part in it.

An example:
Beside the Cremorne case, Charles has another one: he’s been hired by a man called Chadwick to find the daughter he repudiated sixteen years ago, because she was pregnant. Apparently she died after giving birth, but the old man now repents and wants to find his grandchild. Charles’ one lead is one of the women in the staff of the workhouse where the poor girl ended up after her parents threw her out of her home.

Charles: I’m looking for a girl who gave birth there, sixteen years ago.
Lady: Oh, but there were plenty of them.
Charles: Her name is Chadwick.
Lady: I do not remember.
Charles: She died a short while after giving birth.
Lady: Wait, I know a girl like that [More details follow]. Only her name was not Chadwick. And she didn’t die.
Me: ***What???***

Alas, this is a false lead, meaning that the girl the lady was thinking of is not the girl Charles was looking for, but this seemed so very contrived to me at the moment of reading that my interest in following along with the investigation promptly vanished.

What I liked most
Sir Percival Glyde :) :)
I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw him being a part of this book, albeit a minor one. This book takes place a little after Laura has managed to escape the asylum where she was being kept as Anne Catherick, and the nurse who helped her escape is one of the minor characters. I loved this part, especially as earlier on our Charlie is saved from an accident by Wilkie Collins himself, and Charles Dickens too. So very cool :)
(according to the acknowledgements Charles has chance encounters with other book characters too, but I did not recognize them, as I am not familiar with the works in question. My loss.).

A reference I did recognize was the way the first few sentences mirrored the ones in Bleak House (for some reason I’ve known the latter by heart ever since high school). This is how Bleak House begins:

London. Implacable November weather. The Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall.

This is how this book begins:

London. Michaelmas term lately begun, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather.

This makes me very sorry that I have not read Bleak House, because some of the characters of that book (Tulkinghorn, Inspector Bucket) are also present in this one. There are also some parallels between the two plots: Hester and Clara having Mr. Jarvis as their guardian reminded me of Bleak House’s Esther and Ada Clare being the wards of Mr. Jarndyce. There’s also a Rick, in both books, not to mention that they all live in the title house :) Also, the dialogue between Hester and Mr. Jarvis when they first got to the house almost mirrors the one in the same circumstances of Bleak House exactly:

“You are clever enough to be the good little woman of our lives here, my dear,” he returned playfully; “the little old woman of the rhyme, who sweeps the cobwebs of the sky, and you will sweep them out of our sky in the course of your housekeeping, Esther.”

This was the beginning of my being called Old Woman, and Mother Hubbard, and Dame Durden, and so many names of that sort, that my own soon became quite lost.

This idea of Hester/Esther’s that she’s not very clever also appears in both books. Alas, unfortunately the parallels I detected stop here (I never got past the first few pages of Bleak House that I studied in school), but I am sure there are plenty of them from then on too. Again, my loss, as I am sure I would have enjoyed finding those parallels tremendously.

Unrelated, an idea I liked:

Maddox sniffs. “At least [Jane Austen] could write decent prose, which is more than I can say for [Charles Dickens]. [...] Though even she seemed to consider a wedding an ending, rather than a beginning. It is usually quite the opposite way around, in my opinion. And in my experience.”

Thoughts on the title
If I am not mistaken, this is the US title of the book, the UK one being Tom-All-Alone’s (the name of a London cemetery). Both places (Tom All Alone’s and The Solitary House) make brief appearances in the book; however, I find The Solitary House a lot more important in the plot development than TAA’s, and as such I think the US one is the better title. Also, if we were to consider merely the words, regardless of their connection to the book, I’d still like the US version better, as I find it gives away a mysterious and Gothic vibe.

Thoughts on the ending
I really enjoyed the twist at the end, which I seriously did not see coming. I’ve been wondering all throughout the book what Sir Cremorne’s awful deed may be; I was afraid that whatever it was it would not prove serious enough to justify the murders. And, while I have not yet decided whether his secret was worthy of bloodshed, let’s just say it was even more awful than I expected.

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Recommend it to?
I encourage any mystery lover to give it a shot. It may seem slow in parts, yet I for one felt that the twist at the end was worth it :) All the more encouragement if you happen to like Bleak House, or The Woman in White.

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  1. I say “in a way” because I don’t think I, with my nice comfy life, can truly imagine those conditions []
  2. admittedly, there was at least one instance where matters cleared up after re-reading the last few pages, so it may be not entirely the book’s fault []

Midnight in Austenland by Shannon Hale

Genre: Chick-Lit
Main characters: Charlotte Constance Kinder
Time and place: an 1816-like contemporary British retreat
First sentence:No one who knew Charlotte Constance Kinder since her youth would suppose her born to be a heroine.
Verdict: Liked it better than I liked Austenland :)

Summary:
Charlotte Kinder is going through a rough patch: her husband asked for a divorce, turning her nice, ordered world upside down. She feels she needs a vacation, somewhere far away. Perhaps another era entirely. And thus she ends up in Austenland, an estate where female tourists get to live like in one of Jane Austen’s novels (complete with courtship, a ball, and a proposal at the end).

Charlotte knows that the dark, brooding man who acts attracted to her is nothing but an actor following a script. Yet he seems so mysterious… can she, should she join the game?

General impression
I have no idea why I felt it lacked depth. The characters are likable, the heroine gets to grow throughout the book, the mystery is somewhat mysterious (although the author tells us who the guilty part is even before we find out there’s been a crime). However, it felt like the quintessential three stars book: I liked it, I enjoyed reading it, but I didn’t feel there was anything in it truly memorable in any way. Sort of a shame, as I am certain I could LOVE Shannon Hale’s style1.

Setting
One of the most interesting parts in the Austenland books is Austenland itself. A large estate mimicking those of Austen’s time, Pembroke Park tries to be as faithful to the Regency era as possible. Even the served foods respect the theme, including such timeless classics as pickled quail eggs and sheep eyeballs. Nothing modern is allowed anywhere on the estate, so as not to break the illusion. Actors are hired to play maids and valets and visitors, and everyone’s speech is delightfully quaint. I almost think I would love visiting Austenland myself2.

Characters
Charlotte, our heroine, is thusly described on the very first page:

She was a practical girl from infancy, only fussing as much as was necessary and exhibiting no alarming opinions.
[...]
She was… nice. Even her closest friends, many of whom liked her a great deal, couldn’t come up with a more spectacular adjective.

She got married at twenty-three, because that’s what people do, and had two children, thinking that becoming a mother will make her feel an adult, and as such in control of her life. After a while, when she was done with what she thought was expected of her, she also turned out to be a smart business woman: she started a landscaping web site that made her & her family rich.

Unlike the usual heroines in contemporary Austen-related books, Charlotte has never read Jane Austen. She does so after her husband left her for a woman named Justice, and is glad to discover the characters feel like old friends, thawing a little of the cold desert her heart felt like ever since the betrayal. And then taking a vacation to go and live ‘the Austen life’ seemed like a logical next step :)

I have liked Charlotte quite a bit. She is indeed very nice, in an too-much-for-her-own-good kind of way, yet not unbelievably so3. She is also funny, and smart, and although for most of the book she lacks confidence in herself she is nonetheless an interesting character4.

As for the two male characters5, we have light versus darkness: there’s Eddie, a guy that I kept picturing as quite young, and blonde, although IIRC he is described otherwise, and that smiled often, showing off his dimples; and then there’s Thomas Mallery, someone who smiled all of one time throughout the whole book and who, as Charlotte’s mind puts it, has probably smoldered since birth :) (“While the other two gentlemen would look comfortable on a GQ cover, Mr. Mallery didn’t seem likely to feel comfortable anywhere–except maybe a castle on a moor.” — why yes, a sort of Darcy to the extreme :) )

As supporting cast we have the same British-wannabe Miss Charming, an old acquaintance of ours, that in this volume gets to have a back story, and depth (I loved seeing that, although the ending she got did seem a bit far-fetched), plus a down-to-Earth teenage star, that I very much liked despite thinking of her as a sort of Miley Cyrus (and I am so not a fan). And then there’s the landlady that insists on keeping up 1816′s appearances, the awkward-moving valet, and some more.

Relationships
show spoiler

Plot
While seeing how the heroine managed to find a true hero in a make-believe world could have perhaps been interesting enough by itself, the author chose to add another layer to the book: true to the parallel with Northanger Abbey, Charlotte’s overactive mind busies itself with trying to find a mysterious murderer, although no body is to be found and she is not entirely sure a murder has taken place either. It’s been fun watching her explore options, and one of the things I liked about the book.

What I liked
On the topic of ‘details that I have enjoyed’, they are as follows:

1) Charlotte’s favorite Austen character is Catherine Morland from Northanger Abbey, the one with the overactive imagination :) Quite a nice change from the overly-used Elizabeth Bennett, usually nominated for the honor.
2) the actor playing Eddie describes himself at one time as having read every Pratchett novel at least three times *aawwwww* :) :)

The writing feels a bit overly-simplistic at times6, while at others is very nice indeed. My favorite quote:

The kiss had shifted the whole world forty-five degrees, and she was still falling.
[...and then after a while...]
The world kept tipping, and maybe she was upside down now, blood rushing to her head, feet in the stars.

Thoughts on the title
Love it! Especially the way it implies there’s something dark going on :)

Thoughts on the ending
Nice :) :)
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Recommend it to?
Anyone who thinks they’ll enjoy a nice chick-lit book whose action takes place in an 1816-like setting :)
You don’t need to have read Austenland before this one, as the two are but loosely related.

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Companion novel:
Austenland

Written by the same author:
The Book of a Thousand Days

  1. judging from the quotes on Goodreads from her fairy tale books []
  2. although then I’d have to make do without the Internet, oh my []
  3. I am actually curious to see other reviewers’ take on this, as her niceness does go to some extreme lengths at times — however, I myself used to be that kind of people-pleaser so I for one have no trouble believing it []
  4. or at the very least I was rather curious what she will do to find the key to the mystery []
  5. another thing I liked about this book was the same ‘I wonder who will she end up with’ thrill I remember having while reading the first Austenland book, a feeling that one very rarely gets with chick-lit; or at least I have very rarely gotten []
  6. which I think is the reason I did not like the book more []

Drood by Dan Simmons

Genre: Historical Fiction
Main characters: Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, “the Phantom named Drood”
Time and place: London and its surroundings, 1865 – 1870
First sentence:My name is Wilkie Collins, and my guess, since I plan to delay the publication of this document for at least a century and a quarter beyond the date of my demise, is that you do not recognise my name.
Verdict: Four stars out of five.

Book read as part of Charles Dickens month over at Fig and Thistle. The occasion? Charles Dickens’ Bicentennial anniversary! (he was born in February 1812)

Summary:
This true story will be about Charles Dickens’s final five years and about his growing obsession during that time with a man—-if man he was—-—named Drood, as well as with murder, death, corpses, crypts, mesmerism, opium, ghosts, and the streets and alleys of that black-biled lower bowel of London that the writer always called “my Babylon” or “the Great Oven.””

Thus begins Wilkie Collins’ manuscript. These are his memoirs of the strange things happening to him (and his friend Charles Dickens) after an unfortunate event caused an encounter between Oliver Twist’s author and a mysterious character calling himself (or itself) Drood.

General impression
I am not usually fond of the idea of having real people act out an author’s fantasies, especially when the book has paranormal elements mixed in. And yet in this case I have very much enjoyed having two of my favorite authors have “their” adventures brought to life. I loved the way the events in the book mingle with the real ones — the Staplehurst accident for example has actually happened (although at first I was tempted to dismiss it in an “yeah, right, of course Dickens’ carriage was the only one to survive, could this be any more obviously fabricated?” kind of way); Dickens’ infatuation with Ellen Ternan was real, as was Inspector Field; if we take into consideration the fact that Dickens’ last (& unfinished) novel was called The Mystery of Edwin Drood, the book starts to get a sort of an aura of authenticity that makes it very enjoyable to me.
(when I say “authenticity” I do not mean, of course, that the things in the book have/may have actually happened, but that there is no real-life element interfering with my suspension of disbelief when reading the novel; it is one of the things I love most when reading historical fiction novels :) ).

Characters
The characters themselves are part of the illusion, as they behave very much in the way I would have expected them to.
Well, to be fair, I do not know enough of Mr. Collins’ life & personality, but the Wilkie in the book (other than carrying out his personal life just like real life Wilkie, up to and including his “Other Wilkie” doppelganger) acts and thinks in just the way I would have expected from him on seeing his picture:

Not that I usually judge people by the way they look like, nor do I consider myself a great judge of character; however in this particular case the image and the feelings on the inside felt like they matched. Wilkie of the book seems born to be a sidekick (and he himself realizes that) : quite intelligent, and a capable author in his own right, he nevertheless lacks the easy-going confidence that make Dickens one of the most, if not the most  appreciated author of the time. By his own admission, Wilkie does not care a fig about what society makes of him/his living arrangements; and this unwillingness to make some amends to make people like him is very likely one of the reasons for the status quo. In his own words, he’s “small, cherubic, usually pleasant, rarely-taken-seriously“; everything about him seems less impressive than the corresponding traits of his friend’s. In simpler terms, Dickens was born to lead and make people obey his entreats; Wilkie Collins was born to agree to do other, stronger people’s bidding.

It is a pity Dickens (the real one) didn’t dedicate himself to becoming an actor (no, scratch that, I think we — the posterity — are better off having his books rather than not). Thing is, I was always impressed (and am even more so after having read this book) by how much of a performer Dickens was, and how much he enjoyed the spotlight and giving performances. If Wilkie is the type that never stands out — despite his literary successes and his very real talent –, Dickens is pretty much the opposite. People are drawn to him, people admire him, people end up worshiping him; he is a celebrity of his time, and I always was impressed by his managing to achieve that. One hundred years before Michael Jackson, people were fainting at his shows. The Dickens in the book goes on to flesh out these impressions I had. Dickens-the-character is a perfectionist, every performance rehearsed, every book passage rewritten and improved as needed. Even more impressive was his elephantine memory, knowing every one of his novel by heart, being able to recite them at will, while at the same time editing and improving the prose.

Dickens, during one of his readings:

Outside the stage, Dickens was still, in many ways, a child. He loved to laugh, sometimes in the most unfortunate circumstances; he lived to impress people; sometimes he even played pranks. He was not perfect (his pride was perhaps his greatest sin), but his personality shines through the pages in the book. I consider a sign of the author’s skill the fact that, although the narrator (Wilkie) and Dickens grow apart, driven away by their shared Drood experiences and in no small measure by Wilkie’s own jealousy, although by the final chapters the narrator’s feelings for Dickens become less than amiable ones, Dickens-the-character (“a complex, sensitive, and paradoxical man“) is nonetheless a very likable one. Or at least I liked him a lot. So much so that the last part of the book, as the dates approached the day he was going to die in (five years after the Staplehurst accident, to the day), made me grow sadder and sadder, feeling the loss.

Relationships
As the book opens, Wilkie and Dickens are close friends. However, their Drood-related adventures start taking a toll on their easy relationship ever since the night Wilkie found himself, against his better judgment, traversing the city sewers alongside Dickens, hunting Drood. It is the first time that Wilkie feels mistreated by his friend and mentor, and it is by no means the last. Quite the contrary actually; the frustrations pile up and Wilkie’s feelings for Dickens slowly turn into downright hate. I have a theory actually regarding that: perhaps the reason things turn out so is that Dickens and Drood were superimposed into one and the same deep down in Wilkie’s mind (after all, Drood has entered his life via Dickens — people often mistake a cause and an effect); thus his inability to find and destroy the one that ruined his life reflects itself onto the other, affecting W & D’s relationship in the way described. Although of course, pure professional jealousy also has a part in it (as old Wilkie finally manages to acknowledge, his first and foremost problem with Dickens was that in the end, “despite all of his weaknesses and failings (both as a writer and as a man), Charles Dickens was the literary genius and I was not“).

Setting
The London we come to associate with the world of Drood is a side of London I have not noticed being mentioned before: a stinky city with a sewer system that sent all human waste into the Thames. Even the citys cemeteries are overflowing, and it does not improve the atmosphere one bit. And then there is the Undertown, the ‘town’ below London, where people live like rats, or worse. I dont think I can properly imagine the sights there — and yet a human being can get used to anything, as proven by Wilkie himself, whose quest for opium attracts to the area again and again and again.

A very picturesque description:

Twenty thousand tons of horse manure per day were gathered from the reeking streets and dumped in what we politely and euphemistically called “dust heaps”—-huge piles of feces that rose near the mouth of the Thames like an English Himalaya.
The overcrowded cemeteries around London also stank to high heaven. Grave diggers had to leap up and down on new corpses, often sinking to their hips in rotting flesh, just to force the reluctant new residents down into their shallow graves, these new corpses joining the solid humus of festering and overcrowded layers of rotting bodies below. In July, one knew immediately when one was within six city blocks of a cemetery—-the reeking miasma drove people out of surrounding homes and tenements—and there was always a cemetery nearby. The dead were always beneath our feet and in our nostrils.

Plot
For me, the book was character driven, as I loved discovering bits and pieces of the two authors lives. Which is why I did not pay that much attention to the plot itself. What I did find interesting about it was how fluid it was, everchanging. There wasn’t one big arc (or at least it was not an obvious one), but many smaller ones, developing from one another like so many plan Bs.

Example: Dickens sees Drood and takes Wilkie on a hunt for him; the two of them do not discover his lair *but* Dickens does, behind the scenes; enter Inspector Fields and his own quest to discover Drood, getting Wilkie entangled in the story almost without his will; however Wilkie’s spying on Dickens offers no useful results, so the detective rennounces their collaboration *but* about that time Wilkie meets Drood himself, and is irrevocably changed by the encounter; and so on.

What I liked
One of the things I enjoyed the most consists of Wilkie’s ruminations about his future books, and the way he ‘put aside’ in his head all sorts of events and characters, for future use. My favorite such thoughts were the ones regarding The Moonstone (initially The Eye of the Serpent or maybe The Serpents Eye), and the various iterations it went through until reaching the shape it was published in. Alas, Wilkie’s feelings/themes/ideas were probably quite interesting in regards to the other novel he writes in the course of the book too (Man and Wife), but I have not read that one so I couldn’t enjoy comparing the drafts with the finished form, like I did with The Moonstone.

Speaking of which, my reading list has lengthened with no less than three books after reading this one: I added Our Mutual Friend (written at the height of the writer’s infatuation with Ellen Ternan and showing a passionate side of Dickens I never saw of thought of before), Armadale (Wilkie’s pride and joy prior to writing The Moonstone), and Man and Wife (if only to discover what was the way our female hero, a representation of Wilkie himself, was forced by law to marry someone she did not want).

What I did not like
Two things, both more or less spoilers (and both more or less nitpicks) :
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Thoughts on the title
Brilliant :)
Everything that happens in the book can be traced to Drood, one way or another. Which makes the title nothing less than perfect :)

Thoughts on the ending
Ah, the ending. The ending is… sad. The kind of ending that makes me like the book a little less (remember Atonement?), despite the fact that it makes the book better, not worse.
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Recommend it to?
People who like dark, Gothic novels :)
Also, people who enjoy Wilkie Collins’ plots, as the book did remind me about him and his novels now and then, for more reasons than the obvious fact that ‘he’ was the narrator.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | An article about Dickens’ public readings | a site about Wilkie Collins (with details about Dickens and some of the events in the book) | read Dickens’ works online

The Broken Teaglass by Emily Arsenault

Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Billy Webb, Mona Minot
Time and place:2002; Claxton, Massachusetts
First sentence:I lifted my head when I heard her knocking.
Verdict: Interesting but not outstandingly so.

Summary:
Billy, fresh out of college, has landed his first job: he works at Samuelson, a prestigious dictionary editing firm. The office seems such a quiet, quaint place — yet buried in their files lie hints that some of them may have committed murder.

General impression
The whole idea behind it was great in theory. People who little by little find puzzle pieces that they need to put together to discover a big picture is one of my favorite tropes. Unfortunately everything felt too easy in this book, and I ended up a tad disappointed.

Setting
Most of the story takes place in the Samuelson offices (Samuelson being ‘the oldest and most revered name in American dictionaries‘). For a new word to be acknowledged as official (and thus added to the lexicon), it has to have appeared in enough places so that its meaning can be inferred without a doubt. Which is why the people at Samuelson spend their days reading newly written stuff, collecting citations where any new words appear. They have a huge file of these things, going back decades, and is in this trove of wordsmithing that the excerpts from The Broken Teaglass lie innocuously among others.

Characters
To put it bluntly, the characters are one of my sources of disappointment with the book. For starters, I cannot pinpoint exactly why but I didn’t really like Mona. Perhaps because I found her reactions blown out of proportion now and then? Or maybe just because I didn’t like the way she talked sometimes.

As for Billy, he is a very nice guy, the kind that as a child was always assigned with the task of making other children feel at ease. He is intelligent, reliable, likes words well enough to work with them all day, has majored in philosophy, he loves to cook — what’s there not to like, right? And yet there were times I couldn’t quite ‘get’ him, couldn’t understand his motivations (his lonely car rides at night for example) so I wasn’t particularly fond of him either.
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I did like some of the supporting cast though. Billy’s father for example, a former dentist who went to culinary school and now is very much into deserts. Or Dan, the senior editor of the office where Billy and Mona work. He was such a quiet, dignified guy, with an understated sense of humor and never prone to exaggerations (unlike Mona, yuck). He may well be my favorite character, I think.

A thing that I am not sure what to make of is how characters share the same obsessions.
(show spoiler

)
While there’s nothing wrong with the idea of more than one person having thought of an idea, or concept, each doing so independently of the others, I am not sure whether I like it or not in this particular book. It made everyone’s personalities simply overlap, and, since they don’t otherwise have much in common, nor is the similarity relevant, or even noted, I do think the book could have done without it.

Relationships
Interesting. Different than expected, in a good way :)
Although the two main characters happen to be a guy and a gal, both single, they defeat cliches and are not attracted to one another. They’re just friends, that’s all (the girl is attracted to someone else), and I think it was a welcome departure from the usual trope (and yes, I know that now and then Billy contemplates the possibility of his getting together with Mona, but it never gets more serious than that).

Plot
I have very much loved the starting point of the plot, finding a mysterious quote and trying to find some more, in order to piece out a mystery. Thing is, in this type of stories most of the fun isn’t finding out who did it (although or course this matters too), but the hunt for clues in itself. And it is here that the book fails the most: everything is way, way too easy for our characters; they end up knowing exactly where to search for the quotes, and then it all becomes a matter of time. As time is of no consequence (they have all the time in the world, there is nothing rushing their search) there ends up being no suspense at all. The reader knows that if he/she waits patiently the mystery will be revealed. And… it depends whether this is your cup of tea or not (I would have preferred to find it a wilder ride).

Thoughts on the title
The title mirrors the one of the mysterious book that sits at the center of the novel and holds the key to Billy and Mona’s search. Yes, I would say it’s a good one. Especially as the said teaglass (is that even a word? :) ) plays an important role in the events of the mysterious book too :)

Thoughts on the ending
Somewhat disappointing.
show spoiler

What I liked most
Everything related to lexicography, and words, and getting to find out more about dictionaries and people who make them. The author herself has worked at Merriam-Webster, and it shows. I am very glad I read this book because of that, as it showed me the inner workings of an industry I have never actually thought about.

For example, this:

Turns out dictionary editors rarely start with “A.” Who knew? It’s because supposedly reviewers usually just lazily look up “A” words when they’re assessing the quality of a reference book, and you don’t want reviewers looking only at the work produced while your lexicographers are still a little rusty.

What I liked least
I’m having trouble deciding whether it was the lack of suspense or the lack of satisfying ending. Either way, I get that this is the author’s first book so I am not judging her harshly.

A quote I liked

It was pretty naive, this notion of hers—that a disaster needs to announce itself in grand fashion, with a deafening rumble or a crack in the earth. I knew from experience that she was wrong. A disaster can just as easily be a slow, silent rot. A disaster can creep in without much fanfare, and quietly stay.

Recommend it to?
People who like reading stories about words :)
This isn’t a bad book at all, just a rather unsuspenseful one; if you don’t need a dose of suspense in your books, by all means give it a try :)

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Emily Arsenault about the book | Emily Arsenault’s website

F Is For Fugitive by Sue Grafton

Genre: Mystery
Main characters: Kinsey Millhone
Time and place: Fresh Beach, California; 1983
First sentence:The Ocean Street Motel in Floral Beach, California, is located, oddly enough, on Ocean Street, a stone’s throw from the sea wall that slants ten feet down toward the Pacific.

Summary:Every violent death represents the climax of one story and an introduction to its sequel.

Seventeen years before, the body of Jean Timberlake has been found on the beach. At the time, her ex-boyfriend, Bailey, pleaded guilty and went to jail, only to escape one year after and disappear into the world.

Bailey’s luck lasted for almost two decades, only to give way when he was arrested due to a confusion (he happened to use the same name as a wanted criminal!). He was let go then once the mistake was found, but one of the detectives got suspicious and run a search for his fingerprints. His past discovered, Bailey ended up in jail again. However he now denies his initial acceptance of guilt, and his father wants the matter cleared up once and for all.

Thus enters Kinsey Millhone.

I am somewhat of a fan of Kinsey Millhone’s. I really like her no-nonsense persona (I am more of a scaredy mouse type, and it was probably natural for me to be attracted to a type so much different than my own) and her courage in getting involved with all sort of people in all sort of situations. As usual, in this book we get to find out some more details about her, a few more bits of the puzzle that she is. Some of them amusing (such as the discovery that she’s, in her own words, “a bad-ass private eye who swoons in the same room with a needle“), some of them rather touching (more of her feelings regarding the loss of her parents at a tender age).

As for the other characters, we don’t get to know any of them that well, due to their paths crossing Kinsey only when needed, and that for a very short while. However, Kinsey is very observant and a good judge of character, so we do get to know at least some parts of what makes some of them tick. Taking for example Bailey’s mother, Oribelle, a former beauty but now ravaged by diabetes, heroically trying not to complain and yet complaining all day; Bailey’s father, the type used to ordering people around, now trying to get to grips with the fact that he has little more to live and his strength is seeping day by day; the reverend of the Baptist church, acting like a pious person when in fact he isn’t precisely that behind closed doors; and many more. Bailey himself is an interesting character, albeit somewhat mysterious (and very good at fending for himself when needed); overall, the reader ends up rooting for him (a good thing too, as it was kinda obvious he didn’t do it because… well, that’s how it is in this kind of books :P ).

There’s not much I can say about the plot, since the Alphabet books are more or less all similar in that department: Kinsey is on the case, Kinsey starts asking questions, Kinsey is getting closer to solving the case, Kinsey is (usually) threatened by the criminal, Kinsey (sometimes) gets hurt in the altercation, the case is nevertheless solved, the end. The charm is nevertheless in the details, and these, of course, are not to be disclosed so as not to spoil the story.

One of the things I find amusing with the books in these series is that, while the things in the first one happened in about the same year (1982 I think) the book was published, the distance between reality and fiction slowly increases. For example this one was released in 1985 but the things in it happen in 1983. That is of course easily explained by the fact that in real life the author releases about one book per year, whereas in Kinsey’s timeline only a few months pass between cases. I am however looking forward to the more recent books (with an even larger margin), to see whether cellphones or the Internet (or other such novelties) are going to make an impromptu appearance. :)

Speaking of the series, so far I enjoyed all the books, and I am impressed by the fact that so far the author never repeated herself (in terms of characters and their actions). However I did notice a pattern throughout: whenever Kinsey has to investigate something that happened years before, whoever did the deed (that cannot be pinned on him/her, else it would have been so all those years ago) gets nervous and starts killing more people. This I think is in order to satisfy the reader’s sense of justice: as the guilty part cannot be convicted, for various reasons, of the old deed, there are these new deeds so the said guilty part will be convicted nevertheless.

A favorite quote:

I thought about my papa. I was five when he left me . . . five when he went away. [...] When had it dawned on me that he was gone for good? When had it dawned on Ann that Royce was never going to come through? And what of Jean Timberlake? None of us had survived the wounds our fathers inflicted all those years ago. Did he love us? How would we ever know? He was gone and he’d never again be what he was to us in all his haunting perfection. If love is what injures us, how can we heal?

Thoughts on the ending: This was one of those books where everyone comes under suspicion at one time or another, making it impossible (at least for me) to guess who the killer was. To my delight chagrin, the one person who did it was the one person I didn’t suspect at all. Yay! :)

What I liked most: The idea of having it all happen in such a small (eighteen blocks) town. For some reason it made it all seem both more intimate and also more creepy (since everyone knows everyone it means that everyone has talked to and smiled at the killer plenty of times). The part regarding the “Family Crisis Squad” was also quite fun to imagine :)

On the kitchen counter, I could see a tuna casserole with crushed potato chips on top, a ground beef and noodle bake, and two Jell-O molds (one cherry with fruit cocktail, one lime with grated carrots), which Ann asked me to refrigerate. It had only been an hour and a half since [event]. I didn’t think gelatin set up that fast, but these Christian ladies probably knew tricks with ice cubes that would render salads and desserts in record time for just such occasions. I pictured a section in the ladies’ auxiliary church cookbook for Sudden Death Quick Snacks… using ingredients one could keep on the pantry shelf in the event of tragedy

What I liked least: I loved the book up until one of the last paragraphs, where there was something I didn’t quite understand. The real criminal was (of course) apprehended, but no proofs were found regarding Jean’s murder. So the police couldn’t actually prove that the said criminal was the one who killed Jean, yet Bailey was set free — why? How come, since no one has proven him not guilty of the said murder?

Recommend it to? Everyone who loves mysteries :)

This book is a sequel to:
A Is For Alibi
B Is For Burglar
C Is For Corpse
D Is For Deadbeat
E Is For Evidence

Next in the same series:
G Is For Gumshoe