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review 2020-04-13 15:15
Et in Arcadia ego.
Scales of Justice - Ngaio Marsh
Scales of Justice - Ngaio Marsh,Philip Franks

Scales of Justice is a book from the middle segment of Ngaio Marsh's Inspector Alleyn series and a superb example of the "serpent [even] in Paradise" type of Golden Age mysteries.  Marsh goes to great lengths to establish the book's seemingly idyllic rural setting, beginning with its name, Swevenings (which we learn translates as "dream(s)"), and introducing us to it through the eyes of the village nurse, who looks down on the village from a nearby hill and imagines it as a picture map, which she eventually really does persuade someone to draw for her, and which the book's print editions duly supply in turn.

 

Yet, we very soon learn that all is not well in the Garden of Eden, and what superficially only seems like a petty squabble among neighbors, such as they may occur in any village, soon turns out to be a harbinger of much greater evil.  It doesn't take long to emerge that when the local squire -- a retired, formerly high-ranking diplomat -- dies (of natural causes), with what seems like a version of Pascal's wager and the word "Vic" on his lips, he is not, after all, belatedly asking for the local vicar to be called to administer the Last Rites.  And by the time a murder does occur not too much later, the village air is brimming with suspects and motives aplenty.

 

But to me, the book's real significance doesn't lie in its reprisal of one of the Golden Age mystery formulas successfully established in the interwar years as such ("et in Arcadia ego"), complete with rural charms and plenty of quirky characters (and cats!), but, rather, in what it has to say about that Britain in the years immediately prior to WWII -- and when it says so.  Scales of Justice was first published in 1955, just about a decade after the end of WWII; at a time when most of the world, and certainly Britain (and of course Germany) was still reeling from the effects of the war, and people were anything but willing to confront the causes of that war and take a close look at their own societies in the years leading up to it.  (In fact, in Germany the 1950s are now infamous for having produced a whole barrage of overly idyllic, kitsch as kitsch can movies dripping with the cloying, simplistic sweetness of clichéd romance and perfect Alpine scenery straight from the front cover of a high gloss travel brochure -- all in response to the viewing public's desire to blunt out the memory of the war years and evade any reflection on how the Nazi regime and the catastrophe it wrought could ever have happened in the first place.)  And while today we take it as a given that the Blackshirts and their ilk are a proper topic for discussion, in books and otherwise, I don't get the sense that this was a given in 1950s' fiction, particularly not in (ostensibly light) genre fiction such as this.  Yet, here the topic is front and center: kudos to Ms. Marsh for having the guts to give it this sort of exposure at the time when she chose to do so, and also for not falling into the trap of an overly convenient solution to the mystery into the bargain.

 

Linguistically and as far as the characters are concerned, too, this is Marsh at the top of her game: Her (professionally trained) painter's eye makes it easy for her to create the Swevenings setting in the eyes of her readers' minds in turn, and her ear for dialogue and experience as a director on the classical (Shakespearean) stage allows her to establish character with just a few well-crafted strokes of her writer's pen.  The book's imagery, from the setting, names ("Edie Puss" indeed ...), and the titular double-entendre (which is expressly referenced in the book) to the cunning old trout that seems to be at the heart of so much of the village squabble is always spot-on and frequently tongue in cheek.  Alleyn -- for once only accompanied by Inspector ("Br'er") Fox, not also by his wife, painter Agatha Troy -- is in fine form and, thanks to his customary focus on the physical evidence and the timeline of events, quickly able to distinguish the material and the immaterial.  My favorite characters are, of course, the representatives of the local feline element; in particular one Ms. Thomasina Twitchett.  The book is not burdened by any of Marsh's shortcomings (such as anti-gay prejudice and a sorrowful lack of knowledge of organized crime, which didn't stop her from writing about it on occasion).  Instead, it is a superb example of Marsh's writing at its best -- human society and behavior acutely observed and both incisively and empathetically rendered, balancing just the right amounts of humor, scorn and dispassionate analysis, and a crackingly fiendish mystery to go with it all.

 

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review 2019-06-17 17:16
On Trauma and Healing (of Sorts)
The Memory of Love - Aminatta Forna
The Memory of Love - Kobna Holdbrook-Smith,Aminatta Forna

Sierra Leone gained independence from British colonial rule in 1961, but, like so many other African countries, after enjoying a few brief initial years of peace and democracy, it was torn apart by dictatorial rule, military regimes, civil war and corruption in the decades that followed.  As a result, surveys have shown that a staggering 99% of the population exhibit symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

 

This is the background against which the events in Aminatta Forna's novel The Memory of Love unfold.  Don't be fooled by the title: Yes, love in all of its shapes and forms is a driver of people's motivations here, but this book is about so much more -- it's a vast, virtually boundless tapestry of events, emotions, action and reaction, illness and health (mental and otherwise), war and peace, ambition, greed, selflessness, loss, beauty, ugliness ... and again and again, trauma; pathological, emotional and in every other respect you can imagine.

 

Forna unveils the enless layers of the novel's complex tapestry with a painstaking and almost painful slowness and care (as a result, it is virtually impossible to describe the plot without giving away major spoilers): The events, alternating between the late 1960s / early 1970s and the present day, are told from the point of view of three men -- Elias Cole, a former university professor lying on his deathbed in a Freetown hospital and telling his story to Adrian Lockheart, an English psychologist who has come to Sierra Leone with an international aid organization but has decided to stay on and help since he specializes in PTSD, and Kai Mansaray, a surgeon at the hospital where Elias is wheezing his way back through his life for Adrian's benefit (and his own -- or so Adrian hopes).  Though strangers initially, over the course of the novel it becomes clear that the three men not only establish a relationship in the here and now but that what connects them goes deeper and has roots in the past; their own as much as the country's.  At the same time, through the PTSD sufferers that Adrian treats at a nearby mental hospital (not the general clinic that ties him to Elias and Kai but a different place), through his and Kai's friends and colleagues, and through Elias's narrative and the men and women inhabiting it, in turn, Sierra Leone itself and its people collectively become a further main character to the novel -- the one that, ultimately, is the most important one of all and which drives every action and event; a huge, many-limbed, monstrously traumatized and brutalized organism that can't help but swallow its own constituent organs -- its own people -- and those whom it does eventually spit out again after all will be changed forever.

 

It took me a while to get into this book, and this is not the kind of novel that you can race through in a day or two (or at least, I can't).  But this definitely is one of my reading highlights of this year -- and this reaview wouldn't be complete without me giving my due and hartfelt plaudits to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, whose unmatched, deeply empathetic narration lifted an already profound, complex and harrowing reading experience onto yet another level entirely.  Highly, highly recommended.

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2019-03-31 20:51
Sonata in a Minor Key
Quartet in Autumn - Barbara Pym

Wow.  What a depressing read -- particularly so, the first half of the book (or thereabouts).  We're meeting four main characters who thoroughly seem to be passengers, not drivers of their own lives, in a trajectory from nowhere to nowhere (and not necessarily a different part of nowhere, either) -- all set, as I said in my reading status update from a little over the halfway point, against a quintessentially late 1970s backdrop of cheap drabness (with the cityscape and office life mirroring the four protagonists's personal lives), occasionally contrasted with and punctuated by the visceral shocks of the psychedelic age.

 

Like others who participated in the buddy read, I felt by far the most drawn to Lettie; not only because she is the character whom we get to know the best both inside and out (and with whom it is thus easiest to empathize), but also because she is the one who most reflects about her situation and who is the most honest to herself

-- to the point of realizing, at the very end, that even at this comparatively late point of her life she does still have choices, however seemingly minor ones, and it is up to her and nobody else to make those choices.  (Norman, by contrast, is likewise given a choice and though he does realize it for what it is, he ultimately backtracks to the status quo, only a more secure version thereof; and Edwin -- the most financially secure and socially "established" member of the quartet -- never has sufficient incentive to change the status quo to begin with ... whereas Marcia's path is one of utter self-destruction.)

(spoiler show)

 

Throughout the book, I kept finding myself comparing the lives of the four protagonists with those of my grandparents and my mom: The former, selling the house where they had raised their children upon my grandpa's retirement from his job in a federal ministry and moving into a (much smaller, but comfortable) apartment and into a financially secure and, health allowing, active final 2 (or in my grandma's case, 3) decades of their lives.  And my mom, taking advantage of the generous early retirement program offered by the employer where she'd worked the final 2 decades of her working life, and making the most of it, with plenty of travel in Europe and elsewhere as long as her body would play along, and at 80 years of age still my opera-going companion and still in control of arranging her life just as she sees fit. -- And yet, only a few decades earlier (if my mom had not started but ended her professional life in the 1960s or 1970s), she might easily have found herself in Lettie's place, and the poorer for it.

 

This was quite a contrast to our first Pymalong read, and while Pym's fine eye for the workings of British society and of people's behaviour was again on brilliant display, I do hope our next Pymalong book will strike a less somber and subdued note again and leave more room for her particular brand of wry, gentle humour.  For a novel of less than 200 pages in length, it took me quite a long time to finish Quartet in Autumn and quite a substantial effort to return to it time and again -- if it hadn't been for the buddy read, I might quite conceivably have DNF'd it, not because it's not well-written (it is), but because it is simply such a depressing book.

 

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review 2019-02-26 20:08
Reading progress update: I've read 100%.
Murder on the Orient Express: Complete & Unabridged (Audiocd) - Agatha Christie

Still as much fun as ever.  David Suchet obviously is Poirot -- but this is the one audio recording where he is equally obviously having the time of his life with the rest of the cast in an "Alec Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets" manner, and I'm enjoying being along for the ride every single second, every single time.

 

Original review (also of this audio version) HERE.

 

Now onwards and upwards on the Snakes and Ladders board!

 

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review 2017-12-31 16:06
A Cornucopia of Holiday Stories
Murder On Christmas Eve: Classic Mysteries for the Festive Season - Ellis Peters,Margery Allingham,Various Authors,Ian Rankin,Val McDermid

Turns out I already knew five of the ten stories in this anthology:

 

 

Ellis Peters's The Trinity Cat

Julian Symons's The Santa Claus Club

Ian Rankin's No Sanity Clause

G.K. Chesterton's The Dagger With Wings

and Marjorie Bowen's Cambric Tea.

 

So I skipped those (though I do really like the stories by Ellis Peters, Julian Symons and Ian Rankin -- care somewhat less for the other two, though) and just read the remaining five entries:

 

Michael Innes: The Four Seasons

John Dickson Carr: The Footprint in the Sky

Val McDermid: A Wife in a Million

Lawrence Block: As Dark as Christmas Gets

and Marjorie Allingham: On Christmas Day in the Morning

 

Of these, far and away my favorites were the stories by Michael Innes and Lawrence Block (Marjorie Allingham's On Christmas Day in the Morning came somewhat close because of its bittersweet solution): Innes's The Four Seasons is a variation on the country house mystery set in the Fen Country and centering on a painting -- actually, it's a country house story within a country house story, because the actual story is being told by a guest at a country house holiday party in turn --; and Block's As Dark as Christmas Gets is an extremely cleverly conceived hommage to Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe mysteries, in everything from tone to characters, setting, plot, book title name checking, and even solution.

 

Since this book has a(n, umm, mostly) black and white cover, for 16 Festive Tasks purposes I'll be using it as my read for All Saints' Day.

 

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