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[802]A Sudden Light – Garth Stein

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The narrator, Trevor Riddell, is the 14-year old scion who visits the crumbling, supposedly haunted Riddell House with his father in a quest to try to convince his senile grandfather to sell the family’s property. Living with Grandpa Samuel is the overbearing, kooky Aunt Serena, who has her own secret agenda. Trevor is trying to repair his parents’ unraveling marriage but it’s obvious that money will not resolve all his father’s issues. Jones Riddell is trying to come to terms with his mother’s death from years ago, which sent his father berserk.

The house is founded on a huge piece of land. The patriarch Samuel thinks he has a moral duty to fulfill the intentions of his ancestors and let the family estate return to the forest as an expiation of the sins of the fathers, who had been money-grubbing timber barons that exploited workers and dissipated the forests. Grandpa Samuel doesn’t want to let go of the property because he thinks his wife’s ghost is there with him.

There are just way too much going on that if the book would have concentrated on one or two things Stein dabbles in, the potential of the story would have been achieved. What irritates me the most is the overuse of easy information dumping: it’s obvious a 14- year old teenager cannot have had the vantage point to describe the whole situation, regardless his being precocious. To get around this problem, Stein supplements Trevor’s knowledge with “timely discovered” letters, diaries, and ghostly speeches when explication is needed.

The novel starts off with an enticing atmosphere: a house deep in the forest with huge carpeted room full of books. The many rooms and secret passages. The supernatural qualities of the house are taken for granted. The overall execution of the plot is a flop. Almost the entire book is devoted to the question whether the house should be sold or not. All the back stories told by ghost and the timely discovery of diaries and letters that shed light on the death of a gay greatuncle’s death are really stretching credulity. Ironically after all the contrived twists and turns the ending is straight as an arrow.

396 pp. Simon & Schuster. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[800] N or M? – Agatha Christie

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“It was so still, so unblinking in its regard, that it seemed to Tuppence as though it was not human. Staring, staring up at the windows of Sans Souci. It was devoid of expression, and yet there was—yes, undoubtedly there was, menace about it.” (Ch.9, 92)

N or M? is all about atmosphere, not so much a whodunit as an espionage mystery set during the Second World War. Tommy and his wife Tuppence follow a dead British agent’s last words to seaside guest house Sans Souci for male N and female M, Hitler’s most trusted to lead Fifth Column. They assume other names to check in to the hotel and maintain secrecy and consistency of their adopted identities. Their antics are hilarious; but they on occasions forget to lie and thus risk blowing their covers.

Other than a German refugee von Deinem, Tommy and Tuppence are looking at a group of ordinary everyday people. Could the German spies be part-Spanish landlady Mrs. Perenna, sulky daughter Sheila, bulky Mrs. O’Rourke, bluff Major Bletchley, elderly Miss Minton, invalid Mr. Cayley or his attentive wife Elizabeth? Surely not Mrs. Sprot with lisping toddler Betty?

A hefty amount of pages devote to Tommy and Tuppence’s secret probing and meeting away from the house. There’s a mysterious woman seen around town. There’s room being searched. The toddler is kidnapped. Kidnapper is killed. The haven of peace and quiet does bode menace, something indescribable, a queer formless dread of something is going to be. Despite the plenty twists and turns, the surprised ending is rushed and weak.

191 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[799] 13 At Dinner – Agatha Christie

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“Hers was not a face to command instant attention or recognition. It was one of those mobile, sensitive faces that pre-eminently lend themselves to the act of mimicry.” (9)

A well-known, beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson approaches Hercule Poirot with an unusual request: to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to divorce her. The actress shamelessly makes no secret about how her husband is in the way of her romantic dreams. She is in love with a Duke to whom she plans to marry. The next day Lord Edgware tells Poirot that he has already agreed to the divorce and had mailed a letter to inform Jane of his agreement. That very evening Lord Edgware is murdered. The police regards Jane the prime suspect based on evidence of two witnesses, Lord Edgware’s butler and secretary, who corroborate seeing her in the house on the night of the murder.

The best of the book is the investigation by Detective Japp as instructed by Hercule Poirot. Solving the mystery means looking at many different options. A plethora of seemingly unrelated evidence baffles them. Jane Wilkinson has the perfect alibi as corroborated by thirteen dinner guests in the party she attended. How could she be in two places at one time? Before the detective can pursue the many questions, another woman is found dead, a reputable American actress-impersonator Carlotta Adams.

Christie gives us a lot of clues—almost too many clues that the book risks of going too long with no resolution and no real breaks in the case. But the solution is obvious except one has to make sense of all the puzzle pieces. Characterization is supple and well done in this book, shining light on the period details (1930s) and women’s roles in society. Majority of the characters are women, and they all have to fend for themselves and improve their social status by marrying above them or having a life made on their own.

213 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[798] My Name is Red – Orhan Pamuk

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“It is Allah who is creative, who brings that which is not into existence, who gives life to the lifeless. No one ought to compete with Him. The greatest of sins is committed by painters who presume to do what He does, who claim to be as creative as He.” (Ch.28, 160)

My Name is Red, set in late 16th century Istanbul of the Ottoman Empire, is rich in details, ambitious in scope, and subtle in philosophical meanings. In the center of this book, far from being a mere historical novel, is the recurring Pamuk’s internal East-West war. The novel is set in the time when the Ottomans’ confidence in the ever-expanding empire had begun to be shaken by the power of the West.

The story in a nutshell tells of two murders among Sultan Murat’s court artists; one of Elegant, a master miniaturist and gilder, the other of Enishte, the cunningly complicated organized commissioned by the sultan to produce a book that desecrates the Islamic religion. By contributing individual style to these art works, Enishte’s artists are accused of heresy, since the deviation of rote perpetual imitation is illustrating away from Allah’s perspective. Allah’s criterion of beauty is the only that which matters. The style the sultan’s artists surreptitiously adopt is that of Italian Renaissance. Figures are individuals, portraits are of specific people, and even trees, dogs, and dervishes are particulars.

Unlike mere decoration of the text, to portray individuals or objects for their own sake is to give them iconic standing. To coin such stature to objects and people is utter disrespect to Allah. The detective is Enishte’s nephew, Black, who has returned to Istanbul after his uncle had rejected his suit for the hand of Enishte’s daughter, Shekure. He has been summoned back to help organize the book for the sultan. When his uncle is slain, Black hastily weds Shekure, whose first husband disappeared in battle four years ago.

The book is itself constructed around the individualizing perspective; each chapter offers the varying first-person truths experienced by the characters. Death, Satan, a coin, a horse, also give their narratives. The irony of the heinous act is the murderer, who is faithful to the older artistic creed, betrays himself by a distinctive and detectable artistic style that proves his undoing. The narrative of Satan is by far the most provocative and profound. It evokes the philosophical duality that evil is as important and necessary as virtue (good). It’s the duality that one cannot exist without the other. Then at the very heart is an aesthetic tradition renewed and glorified without hatred and rancor. Though not always plot-driven, the book is a literary feat delving on how art, religion, and love intersect.

413 pp. Vintage International. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reading My Name is Red (Orhan Pamuk streak)

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I continue my Orhan Pamuk streak with a title more known to the Western readership, My Name is Red, a murder mystery set in 16th century Istanbul. The opening chapter, intriguingly, is narrated by a corpse:

I am nothing but a corpse now, a body at the bottom of a well. Though I drew my last breath long ago and my heart has stopped beating, no one, apart from that vile murderer, knows what’s happened to me. As for that wretch, he felt for my pulse and listened for my breath to be sure I was dead, then kicked me in the midriff, carried me to the edge of the well, raised me up and dropped me below.

The motive of the murder is not monetary, but religious. The premise of the book is relevant of the crisis we fave today. A Sultan commissions a book celebrating the glories of his realm. The artists are to illuminate the work in the European style. But because the figurative art can be deemed an affront to Islam and a deviation from Allah’s perspective, this commission is a dangerous proposition. One of the miniaturists is found dead. This book is ambitious in its scope: part fantasy, part history, and part philosophy. It’s at root a mystery but not exactly plot-driven.

[795] The Clocks – Agatha Christie

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The Clocks begins with a dramatic scene on 19 Wilbraham Crescent, home of a blind school teacher Miss Millicent Pebmarsh. On her floor lies a dead man, stabbed fatally—a respectable-looking elderly man. Nobody knows who he is (or so they say). As the mystery deepens, it seems whoever is behind the murder does not want the man identified. Apparently earlier in the day, a secretarial agency is rung up, a Miss Millicent Pebmarsh asks for a stenographer to be sent to the aforementioned address at 3pm. It’s particularly asked that a Miss Sheila Webb should be sent.

Miss Sheila Webb arrives for the appointment. To her utter shock, she discovers the corpse in the sitting room. She runs outside the house into the arms of a young man Colin Lamb, who delivers most of the narrative of the story. Miss Millicent Pebmarsh denies making the call to the secretary agency; it seems someone has deliberately arranged for the typist to be there at the Pebmarsh house. The profusion of clocks, four in all, that don’t belong to the blind woman, adds to the mystery.

As the gardens of several houses verge on to that of the crime scene, investigator interview all the neighbors, an array of interesting people who are not what they appear to be or that they reveal too much without knowing. Naturally they are all up on guard. But it’s unnatural that nobody has seen anything. There’s a bit of twist and turn, and the usual red herring. But The Clocks is a traditional whodunit in the sense that the simple truth is concealed with a careful and cunning use of words. An ordinary has been killed. Why? Here is someone, an ordinary, pleasant-looking man whose removal is necessary to someone. This is when Hercule Poirot’s bluff is called. He doesn’t appear on the crime scene but only lends his expertise to Lamb. He calls for meticulous examination of every suspect’s background, and encourages Colin Lamb to converse with them. To the keen reader, it is what people let slip that becomes the key to solving the crime.

246 pp. Pocket Books USA. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[787] Deception on His Mind – Elizabeth George

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“We persuade ourselves to believe all manner of falsehood when our self-interest guides us. Then, when the worst befalls us, we’re left to gaze back over our actions. We wonder whether one of them might have been the cause of disaster.” (Ch.17, p.443)

It’s a little too long, but Deception on His Mind is a rich and engrossing novel that portrays a contemporary England that is culturally complex and simmering with tension. It opens with a murder of a man, Haytham Querashi, recently arrived from Pakistan, who is to wed the daughter of a local businessman. His death triggers riot of Pakistanis demanding a thorough investigation on the matter and equal treatment on minority groups in general. Behind the pandemonium is Muhannad, the hot-headed Muslim activist whose sister Shalah is arranged to marry Querashi. But Shalah has her secret too—she is in love with an Englishman Theo Shaw, scion of a wealthy developer, and is pregnant. Since everything about an Asian daughter was to be safeguarded and kept in trust for future husband, from the molding of her mind to protection of her chastity, her being impregnated by a foreigner is a huge disgrace to her family. Even Querashi’s death does not end Shalah’s obligation to her family because she will have to marry whoever her family chooses for her. In the same way, the marriage is an advantage to Querashi, whose homosexuality must be hidden, as he didn’t want to bear the scorn of his people and his religion. If Shalah and Querashi’s secrets are safe with each other, who did Querashi know that could have murdered him?

Although the killing has racial overtones, other motives arise—love, jealousy, sexuality, religion, and greed. Smuggling, burglary, and other crimes also come to light. Everyone involved has the share of secrets. Hidden in the plot are subtle clues to the solution, which hinges on Muslim laws and family tradition, but stems from selfish desire The solution does come as a surprise, and sheds light in how we see ourselves in terms of the relativity of wrong-doing, and how we justify our behavior. Despite being a bit too long, the book is intriguing, as all sorts of secrets and surprises figure into a well-wrought narrative.

713 pp. Bantam. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[782] The Echo – Minette Walters

“We are in terrible trouble as a society if we assume that any man’s life is so worthless that the manner of his death is the only interesting thing about him.” (Ch.21, 330)

The Echo is my second Minette Walters book after The Scold’s Bridle but this book is way more convoluted. A harmless man, Billy Blake, dies of starvation in the garage of a wealthy architect, Amanda Powell, with whom seems to have no connection. But a series of connections manifest as the sinuous plot winds on upon the probing of a journalist named Michael Deacon.

As the investigation thickens, so does the mystery of Billy Blake and the unusual asset of Amanda Powell, formerly Amanda Streeter, whose husband allegedly defrauded the bank and vanished. Billy Blake has a morality that is in conflict with social and legal definitions to right and wrong. His life echoes that of poet William Blake, who was obsessed with God. Blake has lived a life of self-purging, and has mutilated himself to evade identification. What has he done in the past that he has to erase all his traces?

The plot of the book only gets even more complicated, and Amanda is not what she seems. Her in-laws claim she has an affair with another man and together they conspire to defraud the bank and made a scapegoat of her husband by murdering him.

The book can be confusing at certain parts since some characters that are relevant to the plot are not fleshed out. But careful reading would pull you through. The consequence of these “unseen” characters is a sudden drop in dramatic immediacy. The themes of repentance and betrayal are written all over the pages but the course the story takes could stretch credibility.

351 pp. Jove Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[781] Pictures of Perfection – Reginald Hill

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“Haven’t you noticed it’s political parties and the religions with the clearest notions of the perfect society that cause the most harm? Once admit the notion of human perfectibility, and the end can be made to justify any moment of pain and suffering along the way? (Volume III, Ch.6, 199)

Disclaimer: this is an enjoyable enough read but not the one to start with the series. It’s a rather odd installment, very strange tale of a Yorkshire village, some prototypical English village, with its idyllic setting, its architecture, its antiquities, its society, its economy, all combining to offer something like that pastoral perfection; yet a closer examination reveals much about the place which is deceptive if not downright deceitful.

Pictures of Perfection begins with a grisly “murder” scene on the Day of Reckoning in which townfolks come to pay feudal taxes to the Squire. Then the narrative goes back in time to a few days before the crime and gradually deconstructs everything. A policeman constable Bendish has gone missing; and Sergeant Wield and DI Pascoe have been sent out to investigate what has happened to him.

During the course of this investigation, old, dark secrets, family feuds, disputes, break-ins, kleptomania,, clandestine liaisons are revealed. So are the crises of Enscombe, where the school is in deficit, and the village teeters on the brink of cataclysmic change. The key to the cop’s disappearance revolves around a painting and its forgery.

Given the huge cast and the intricate relations, there is very little story, and what there is is told in a strange, unconnected way. The twist at the end does little to save the book. While everything was needed for the ending, there was little sense of motion, of progress toward a resolution. It’s difficult to keep one engrosses and the pages are turning sluggishly.

340 pp. Dell Book. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

Reginald Hill

Minette Walters (previous posts) leads me to Reginald Hill. Hill wrote mountains of prose, and all it was filled with the perfect quotability that only first-water hacks ever achieve. In Dalziel & Pascoe series I find the Hercule Poirot in the stout no-nonsense detective Dalziel. But in my current book, Pictures of Perfection, it’s the young, grim detective Wield that shines.

The book starts slow but it’s riddled with surprises. The small village of Enscombe is under siege as developers eye at the Green, which they want to convert into business centers. The local school is such huge deficit that it might face closure.

The book begins with Wield at the tail end of a very rare vacation, riding his big motorcycle (in full leather riding gear) through the seemingly idyllic village of Enscombe, where he’s briefly interrogated by an attractive young rural constable named Bendish, who learns to his dismay that he’s been laying the heavy hand on his superior on the force, much to Wield’s amusement – if you can discern it as amusement:

Wield barked the sound which friends recognized as his way of expressing amusement – though others often took it as a sign that the interrupted lycanthropic process suggested by his face was about to be resumed.

Wield no sooner reports back for duty at the station than he’s walking in on a complaint being made by one of the high-strung local grandees of Enscombe—a complaint about him, as a suspicious outsider who may or may not be connected with suspicious goings-on about town. The townsman, one Digweed, the bookseller (Tell Tale Bookstore) is astonished to find the mysterious stranger of his complaints actually working at the police station. Like most people who encounter Wieldy’s rather alarming thuggish appearance, Digweed has trouble believing there’s a trained professional underneath the surface, and he’s not diplomatic about saying so.

Needless to say, Reginal Hill paints a very British picture in the idyllic town of Enscombe. The town itself is inheriting a personality. The snobbishness, the class difference, the resistance to change, the skeptics about change. They are all encompassed in the community. There’s the old Guillesmand family that controls over half the property of town and to which townfolks owe annual feudal taxes.