Monday, April 12, 2010

March Books

It's 1954 and U.S. Marshall Teddy Daniels has come to Shutter Island and the Ashecliffe Hospital for the Criminally Insane to find a missing patient. With his partner, Daniels runs into a difficult hospital staff, a doctor who can't be reached, and a storm that's cut off the island from the mainland. This is not the book I thought it would be, and I mean that in the very best sense. Incredibly powerful, incredibly tragic, incredibly moving. Not easy to read, but a fabulous look at the human mind and the secrets it keeps even from itself.

The famous true-crime writer gets another case in her backyard--the vicious murders of prostitutes in Seattle that peaked in the eighties and led to a manhunt that dragged over decades. It wasn't until forensic science caught up with the evidence in the late 90s that Gary Ridgway was finally caught. Rule is good at what she does, including getting into the shoes of the killer, but I read this book for two reasons: one, because I lived near these places for five years and two, I wanted to know about the girls. At the end of troubled and sorrowful lives, they deserved better than the deaths they got and someone besides their families should mourn for them.

When journalist Irene Kelly is accosted by a homeless man, she doesn't realize it's a former professor of hers. But he remembers her, and that sets in motion a string of deaths among the city's elite that lands Irene in a story she wants to break for the man the professor was. An early one in Burke's Irene Kelly series, I was less interested in the city planning/corruption aspect than I was in the backstory of the professor and I was pleased by the way Burke humanized it all at the end.

The second in the Sara Selkirk mystery series, and maybe my last. The setting is strong--contemporary Bath, England. The set-up is promising--the death of a woman by letter-bomb that was not meant for her. The charaters are intriguing--an arrogant composer of modern music, his down-and-out protege, an aging opera star and her autistic daughter with the voice of an angel. The mystery is innovative and believable. The drawback? Sara Selkirk herself. I just can't stand her after two books. And not primarily because she's involved with a married man. Mostly it's because she's such a whiner. I wanted to shake her and tell her to grow up at least once every chapter. I'll stick to Morag Joss's superb stand-alone novels in future.

What if Jane Austen wrote a memoir of a secret love that ended badly? James writes a witty and endearing novel in an Austen-voice that never falters. She covers the first few years after the death of Austen's father, when she and her mother and sister moved from place to place as family and limited circumstances made possible. James is an impeccable scholar who fits the fictional romance into the known facts of Austen's life, though the romance itself is crafted from bits and pieces of Austen's novels. There came a point where I felt it was a little forced and almost too-cute in its references, but overall it was a story I could believe and what more is wanted than that? Recommended for Austen fans.

THE SWAN THIEVES/Elizabeth Kostova/B
Andrew Marlowe is a psychiatrist at a private facility in Washington D.C. As the story begins, he accepts a new patient: Robert Oliver, a talented artist who has just been arrested for trying to destroy a painting in the National Gallery. Marlowe's biggest problem in treating Oliver is that, after that first day, Oliver refuses to speak at all. So Marlowe goes backward, to the women in Oliver's life, and also trying to track down the provenance of a pack of old French letters in Oliver's possession. The novel goes back and forth in time, as THE HISTORIAN did, but less successfully in this case. Where THE HISTORIAN had an urgent, time-sensitive, dangerous race across Europe at its heart, this book has nothing urgent on the line for Marlowe or even Oliver. I got lots (and lots) of information about artists and the way they work and the Impressionists and the restrictions on women artists in the 19th-century and the minutiae of Robert's mental breakdowns and the collapse of his marriage . . . but I just couldn't care that much because there was nothing critical on the line except Marlowe's curiosity. I hope that in her next book Kostova returns to marrying her beautiful storytelling with a powerful and compelling plot.

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